A Country of Parentheses: Visiting Myanmar (Burma)

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In front of you is a stranger. Well, not exactly a stranger. It’s someone you briefly met through a friend of a friend two weekends prior. Recent enough to not be erased from your short-term memory. But just drunk enough to let his actual name slip from your mind faster than the grip of that shared introductory handshake.

Pulling up your scarf, you hope he doesn’t notice you. But he does. And COME ON, now he is engaging in conversation. He remembers everything about you. And although you can’t decide if he’s actually being genuine or just acting like a jerk (sometimes they are one in the same), he continues to use your name, at least once, in EVERY SINGLE SENTENCE.

You avoid the paralysis of awkwardness by steering clear of any conversational topics which might involve monikers, surnames, or even my beloved Twitter handles. Fortunately, this is actually quite easy. The English language empathizes with forgetful losers and utilizes pronouns like “he” and “she” in such a casual way.

With the ending of a half-decent conversation, you’re out of there before you have to reprogram his number into your phonebook as something other than “ddude.” And yes, of course a similar incident has happened before. This explains why the correctly spelt ‘dude’ is already occupied in your phone.

You exit the conversation with a sigh of relief.

But you will still never know what to call him.

A situation not at all comparable to this occurs in Myanmar (Burma). 

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A country of mixed curries, currencies, and colloquialism, Myanmar (Burma) is a toughie.

It gets internationally criticized by humanitarian officials. It gets geologically hit by massive earthquakes. It was once the richest country in Southeast Asia. It now has a massive number of people living below the poverty line. And the country’s most famous politician is endearingly referred to as “The Lady.”

But what do we call it?

What do we call a country still searching for its own name?

Burma?

Myanmar?

“Myanmar” (exaggerated by making those absolutely awful air quotation marks with your fingers)?

To be fair, you can’t really toss out any of these names without a little background.

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In 1989, the country officially changed its English name to “Myanmar.” (Probably banning the official use of air quotes, too.)

Good, done. Official is official. Myanmar, it is.

Well, not so fast, Le Monde Sans Italics.

There’s more to these parentheses than a late 80’s name change.

Much like other regions in the area, the Burmese language has clear differences between the spoken and written word. When speaking, the country is pronounced Bama. When written, it is Myanma.

Want to make things even more confusing? The word Bama actually refers to one of the largest ethnic group in the country. Regardless of size, it is really not all that inclusive.

Right.

And let’s just add to the mess.

Phonetically, Bama actually originated from Myanma. But of course, this only really considers nasal sounds and speech pathology. We haven’t even got to the part yet when the military regime changed the English name of the country without really considering the views of the citizens.

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Unlike the hide-and-seek behind my scarf with “ddude,” I seized opportunities to talk to locals in Myanmar (Burma). My impression was this:

People wanted to talk about their country.

Maybe they didn’t want to get into the historical (and political) intricacies of Myanmar (Burma). But they definitely wanted to converse. However they referred to the country, it was almost as if they were also addressing their own political views. It was Morse code…with words.

In press, Aung San Suu Kyi (“The Lady”) calls it Burma. So do the locals. But without any actual attachment to either, would I be a poseur for doing the same?

My passport states, “Republic of the Union of Myanmar.” This, along with the local currency of kyat, was my only way to identify with the country. So does that mean I should be calling it Myanmar? As a visitor, do I even know otherwise?

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Repeatedly, the country was referred to as Burma. It sounded cool. It sounded ancient. It sounded secretive and inviting. It sounded like it was supporting the people, rather than the parliament. It sounded exactly like my experience there.

But in the end, talking about the actual name of the country was actually rather difficult.

So naturally, I avoided it altogether.

Language (and more specifically, labels), can be both encouraging and restrictive. But sometimes, that’s all there really is. You take away the label, and it is like it no longer exists. Burma may be all that is left.

If you remove the name, the people of the country may have nothing to identify with. Myanmar is not where they grew up. Myanmar is not what their passport reads. Myanmar is no longer theirs.

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When I started writing this post, I wasn’t expecting it to end with such uncertainty. I figured by writing out my back-and-forths about Myanmar (Burma), the conclusion on what to call it would become a little more clear. And silly me, I actually thought that after writing this, I would become super motivated to finally ask “ddude” his real name when I inevitably ran into him again without the shield of my scarf.

But that’s actually not the point.

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As I said before, Myanmar (Burma) operates on two different currencies. It offers like, ten different cuisines. It probably has hundreds of communities which even the government, unable to complete a nation-wide Census, doesn’t really know about.

It’s a country still navigating itself as a whole. And as individuals.

In the end, does it really matter what we call it in our phone book?

Twitter, Dreamboats, and the Sport I Used to Love

Oh, another yawn-inducing year-end reflective post from a self-righteous blogger foolishly believing that the internet world actually cares about their resolution to drink more water in 2013?

Not quite.

As everyone on WordPress, Blogger, and those poor souls still hanging on to their outdated Angelfire account review their year in writing (and due to their consistent scheduling of posts, can rightfully brag about their increase in readership), I regale my plateauing stats and shameful admittance that I could barely (just barely) conjure up a single post approximately every other month.

Relishing in the fact that my mother and perhaps even a second cousin or two still read this site, it becomes all too tempting to ruminate over the last 365 days. And as a matter of consequence, I then search through my catalogue of long-term memories and pinpoint exactly what I was doing for a good 315 of them.

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The answer to which I am certain, includes absolutely nothing about the sport of hockey.

Way back in September 2012, the National Hockey League declared its fourth lockout in 20 years. This was due to financial buzz-words like revenue, salary caps, and peculation. (Yes, I realize this is a generous oversimplification to a rather complex blur of sports and business. But I’m pretty sure both my mom and cousin aren’t much of hockey fans. And it’s all about keeping the audience engaged, right?)

Now even if you don’t really care about the likes of Gary Bettman and Bill Daly (and the reasons to which I believe they’re both selfish jerks), I’m still willing to waste the word count.

Why?

Well, through a stretching analogy which really just involved the discovery of hockey players’ Twitter accounts, the NHL lockout sort of paralleled my last year as an expat.

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Here are a few highlights from the 2012 season:

For starters, way back in the summer, hockey players sort of expected to play hockey. And I, through complete fault of my own, sort of expected to be productive. Writing for Vagabundo Magazine, contributing to a couple of Seoul publications, volunteering with an organization based on the human rights of North Korean defectors. One would assume my output efforts would soar into the realm of implausible.

Instead, a concrete wall inevitably constructed itself. A proverbial partition of repetitive lesson plans, similar bars, and the constant disappointment in myself for failing (yet again) to properly communicate “I don’t eat meat” in Korean. Sure, at times I was industrious (or maybe I mean industrial?), but it hardly felt prolific.

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Disjointedly, this leads into the next topic of management, and the difficulties both myself and the big guns within the NHL experience in this field. A gleaming example of both follows.

At the end of 2011, almost fearless did something pretty ridiculous and spoke nonsense about this site being one of the best new travel blogs on the web. (Reiterating the idea that undeserved recognition is awesome because it acknowledges something you didn’t even think existed in the first place.) The point is, on top of search terms like ‘decisions not to make while hungover’, that mention drove a lot of traffic to this site.

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I could have taken that increase in readership seriously and wrote the most obvious of points about say, that beach in El Nido, Philippines being an all-out stunner. Instead, I talked about what makes a shitty travel partner. (Evidently, I’m extremely qualified for this position.) I didn’t manage this opportunity properly. It became a toothbrush miss.

It’s not so lonely in this realm of mismanagement, though. Gary Bettman, the NHL commissioner, has all kinds of difficulties managing his own personal interests and that of the league, often believing that they are one in the same. His financial irrationality means a continuous stream of missed opportunities for both the league and the players.

When it comes to blunders over mismanagement, Bettman and I have a lot in common. The only difference being a faint Filipino flip-flop tan.

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As the lockout closed in on month three, players started to realize that what they expected to be doing this year, was in fact far different from their actual daily activities. So the boys left town. They went back to their roots in the juniors, declared semi-permanent residency in places like Russia and Switzerland, or participated in small-town charity matches (inert games basically comparable to that of a scrimmage with your Dad’s Sunday afternoon beer league).

Without declaring permanency anywhere, I too left Seoul when results were less than straightforward. I visited six countries in 2012; one of which was new to me. Although still in its newness, I now have a gut-wrenching crush on Burma. I’m only assuming Rick Nash can say the same about Switzerland.

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And just recently, future plans changed for both myself and the NHL. In less than a week, the hockey season will start. In less than two months, the Peace Boat will start.

The Peace Boat is exactly what it sounds like…but better. Travelling to over 20 countries, a massive boat full of participants, volunteers, interpreters, and English teachers (me!) will promote positive social and political change on a worldwide scale. (I’m not exaggerating with the worldwide scale thing. The route literally circles the Earth.)

From Japan to Venezuela, I’ll have the opportunity to learn, teach, change, develop, and take part in a boatload (ha!) of other positive verbs.

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As is often the case in hockey, the NHL could not have written a better story, even if they tried.

And I, could not have dreamed of a better opportunity for curious (and contributing) travel, even if I wrote on a more consistent bi-monthly schedule in 2012.

And the players, now returning to hockey rinks across North America within the limitations of 140 characters, could not have tweeted a better ending.

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The Non-Local’s Guide to Drinking Like a Local

(If you’re here after reading that interview with WordPress, then I apologize. You were mislead. Although being complimented for a witty writing style is  uh, a compliment, it’s also an absolute falsehood. If anything, I inconsistently post about camels, and brunches, and make references to bands I hope only a select few with understand. You’ve been warned.) 

It might be Monday. No wait, it’s definitely Thursday. There’s probably no sense in trying to remember. You’re drinking to forget it, anyways.

The area doesn’t matter. Downtown bars, an overworked financial district, that shady alleyway between your favourite barbeque place and your wife’s most recent hair dresser. You’re not going to a “bar district” or really, a place with any sort of atmosphere at all for that matter. You’re choosing a bar based on its proximity between work and home. Halfway is ideal but being particular is not of this time. By now, the only decision you’ll be making is choosing between the blue and red plastic picnic sets which can comfortably seat about four but will inevitably be crowded with the entire accounting department before the night’s end.

You loosen your tie. It has small rhinestones sewn into its diagonal pattern. It was a present from your wife’s mother. The baby pink is a little much but you wear it anyways. You still don’t know if it was a thoughtful gift from the in-laws or a malicious attempt to make you look more feminine in your buddies’ iPhone pictures. Soon, you’ll be too drunk to care.

Given it’s a weeknight/ weekend/ any day at all, drinking is not something that is eased into. But it’s not a race either. It’s a matter of fact activity. And it has to be done.

You’re comfortable with your position at the table. Not nearly the oldest but middle-rung enough that others still (falsely) believe you to have seniority. This works wonders in the office but becomes truly beneficial during these post-work gatherings. Strategically, you have placed yourself next to the company’s newest hire. You know for a fact you’re 5 years his senior. He is a recent microbiology engineering graduate. This is his first benefits included, I’m-already-regretting-this, full-time gig. What this basically means is he’s attentive, goal-driven, and eager to please. He’ll do anything to secure his spot among the thrones of the picnic table seat of state. He foolishly believes that he has a future in middle management. You don’t have to fill your glass once because of this.

Grilled pieces of meat are ordered and cooked. Garlic cloves, red pepper paste, a couple sides of kimchi. Wrapped together in sesame leaves, you pop golf ball-sized portions into your mouth two at a time. Hmm, golf. That doesn’t sound like such a bad idea. You present the option of a round of simulation golf once the meal is finished. With Korea having the largest population of indoor golf centers in the world, you know there has got to be a joint around here somewhere.

The idea quickly becomes fleeting as three green branded bottles are brought to the table. Soju. There’s no point in trying to describe this beverage as “something like vodka but worse.” It translates literally to burnt alcohol, and most who consume it drift into this delayed catatonic state of uselessness and incapability. It will take about 30 minutes for the effects to truly set in but until then, you feel content, rosy, and yearning for another.

There are a group of foreigners at the adjoining table. They’ve chosen this spot because the pretzels are the freshest in the neighbourhood. They haven’t eaten dinner and will probably just continue to snack on these salty twines because the waitress is so damn attentive and refuses to catch glimpse of the bottom of the bowl. The same goes with the pints.

Your English skills are still pretty admirable, considering you’re on your fourth pint. You ask where they’re from and then enthusiastically tell them all about your 2-day visit to Niagara Falls when they reply “Canada.” They nod in politeness. But suddenly they are speaking too fast. Like clockwork, the effects of soju have hit and your brain can no longer conjugate the verb “be.” Your fingers aren’t much help either as you attempt to translate simple conversational questions on your phone.

They become disinterested. You become insufferable.

Time passes and you’re stumbling into the bathroom with three of your buddies. Strength in numbers, right?

Someone has to catch the last subway home. The new hire is too heavily engaged in a fast-paced texting conversation which you believe, judging from the amount of heart emoticons being sent back-and-forth, to be his girlfriend. Your glass is empty.

You search for your own phone and fumble with the attached microchip. The occupation of key-cutter has long been phased out since the introduction of key codes and plastic chips. This serves as a key to your home and the ultimate access to your bed. It slips through your fingers once more. Why did they make these so ridiculously small? You open your Galaxy III or Universe I or whatever phone has now been marketed as the smartest. It does more than just tell the time, but that’s all you really need it for right now. 3:23 AM. Shit.

Your co-workers pile into cabs. Some pausing to release the contents of their stomachs before making the journey home. You dodge piles of red and pink as you cross the street and hail your own.

You lean your head back on the fancy pleather interior of the taxi. You mentally prepare yourself for tomorrow’s work day. You have already justified the purchase of one of those overpriced hangover-cure drinks that leave your teeth coated in sugar and your gut too rotted to remember the fact that you have just spent the last four hours filling it with burnt alcohol.

You crack your eyes open just in time to see your apartment building pass by. Shrieking loudly, the cab driver halts and demands the fare. You’re home.

Guest Post: Four Reasons to Love Hong Kong

Photo Credit: Flickr.com

As the perfect place to explore Asian culture, Hong Kong is the melting pot of East meets West. This duty-free port, located at the Southern tip of China, is known for so many things; from their shopping destinations, enriching culture and history, to the visually stunning views, Hong Kong will appease any type of traveler. Before you travel to Hong Kong…. First, before you worry about the language barrier the majority of residences may speak Cantonese, but because of an international presence, English is widely spoken. One of the best seasons to plan your trip is from September until February. During this season the climate is warm and sunny; flights are also cheaper during non-holidays and weekdays. For overseas travelers, a passport is required; however, certain countries are granted visa-free access or visa-on-arrival. Upon arrival from the airport, renting a car seems atypical for tourists, but plan on taking public transportation to avoid high costs, heavy traffic, and expensive parking; numerous modes of public transportation are available. For easier payment when traversing public transportation use an electronic access card, also known as the Octopus card. Major credit cards (Visa, MasterCard, etc.) are accepted, but it’s probably simpler to exchange your currency for the Hong Kong dollar (HKD. As a safety precaution, look for money exchangers authorized by the Quality Tourism Services Scheme (QTS).

1. Ngong Ping Village

Photo Credit: Gonodoloproject.com

A culturally themed village and one of the top attractions of Hong Kong, Ngong Ping Village is located on Lantau Island, the largest island of Hong Kong. Despite having a commercialized atmosphere, Ngong Ping’s traditional Chinese architecture reminds visitors of the cultural roots of Ngong Ping Village. Upon arrival at this quaint village, visitors are treated to a shopping and dining expedition. After tiring of shopping, travelers can wander over to the several adjacent attractions: The Big Buddha, Po Lin Monastery, the Lantau trails, the Monkey’s Tale Theatre and the Ngong Ping Tea House.

View of the 25 minute cable ride to Lantau Island Photo Credit: malaysianingermany.blogspot.com

To travel here, visitors hire cable cars at Tung Chung for a 25 minute cable ride, which provide a 360 panoramic view of the area. Be warned, the lines can get long during high tourist season and the cable car expense can get costly. Despite this, former visitors to Ngong Ping Village recommend when traveling on the cable cars, hire out the crystal cable car for the added experience and the gorgeous scenic view.

2. Nightly Multimedia Shows

Photo Credit: Flickr.com

Cap off your night with what the Guinness Book of World Record named as the World’s Largest Permanent Light and Sound Show. To make this nightly multimedia show a phenomenon, more than 40 buildings collaborate on both sides of the harbor. If on your honeymoon, this is a perfect excuse for a romantic stroll to impress your new spouse with a delightful experience. The shows are a synchronization of both music and narration made apparent by the use of search and colored lights. Each staccato and breathtaking note moves to 5 major themes: Awakening, Energy, Heritage, Partnership, and Celebration. The best places to viewthis are along the Tsim Sha Tsui waterfront or the promenade outside the Golden Bauhinia Square.

3. Tantalizing Food

Photo Credit: eskimo.com

Follow the locals to their chosen and most frequented restaurants. Here are three different types to choose from when planning your next hearty fare.

Dim-Sum: Steamed

Originating in tea houses, dim-sums are scrumptiously served steamed or fried. Most locals prefer the steamed version, especially in the morning. Translated as “touch your heart,” these snack-sized portion pairs well with delicious tea; also, known as “yum cha.” Usually steamed, these dumplings come in so many varieties and have more than 150 ways of preparation. Find everything from steamed pork spare ribs, shrimp dumplings with translucent skin, or mini spring rolls. Find the best shrimp dumplings at U-Banquet or nibble on delicious shao mai, the concoction that combines pork, shrimp, mushrooms, ginger, and seasoned with rice wine and soy sauce.

Siu Mei: Chinese barbeque

Slowly cooked, this delicious, flavorful meat is prepared either roasted on a spit over an open fire or in a wood burning rotisserie oven. The meat flavor is glazed with special made rubs: honey, spices, or fermented rice wine. Choose between beef, pork, duck, or goose. This type of dish is indicative to Chinese communities because of how they are presented in the restaurants: visibly hung to entice any passerby both by smell and sight. The perfect pairing to this succulent dish is with rice or noodles. Try goose. Thinly sliced, the crispy skin, and served with an accompanied sauce, usually plum based, make this a popular choice of Siu Mei.

Hotpot: Chinese Fondue

While the name speaks for itself and best eaten during colder months, hotpot is best enjoyed and shared amongst friends. Similar to the alternative of the European version of fondue, a hotpot is cooked inside a metal pot and heated by a portable gas stove. Contained inside the hotpot is a seasoned broth while the main ingredients are placed on dishes for diners to mix into the broth: thinly sliced meat (beef, pork, chicken, fish, lamb, or goat) and vegetables (bok choy, spinach, ginger, shiitake mushrooms, etc.). Dependent on the type of ingredients used, cooking time varies, but the main focus of this fare is to enjoy the company.  Even without a social experience and only for one person to enjoy, the ingredients of this stew showcase the local flavor and preferences: custom dipping sauces, spiciness of the broth, etc.

4. Take a Walk on the Wild Side: Shek O Country Park

Photo Credit: Flickr.com

Located on the southeastern side of Hong Kong and away from the bustle of city life, this country park has three hiking routes ready to challenge even the most outdoor lover.

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Honesty Minute: This was a guest post. 

Thoughts from Three Birthdays Abroad

September 24, 2010: Tokyo, Japan

“By the way, it’s my birthday.”

Unsure of how to bring it up, but knowing it was absolutely necessary to excuse the belligerency which would inevitably occur, I say it in passing as we walk into a discount sushi joint. After unloading such weighty news, I decide not to mention the fact that I don’t even eat fish. I don’t want to overwhelm him.

As I grab small plates from the revolving carousel of Japanese cuisine, I flick off pieces of raw salmon and tuna. I watch him send mass texts from his outdated cellphone.

Birthday celebrations. Shinjuku station. Get here.

We follow him through the streets of Tokyo. I feel relaxed because I no longer need a map. I feel comforted because I trust his local knowledge and know he’ll take us to the grungiest of bars. I feel fortunate to be celebrating my birthday with people I have known for longer than my nine days in this country.

I spent the day record-shopping. I find the Japanese release of Forever and Counting by Hot Water Music. Without even trying to convert the yen, I know I can’t afford it.

I try not to reminisce. Having only left Canada a month earlier, it’s probably too early to be doing that sort of thing. But I’m technically a year older, so I do it anyways.

We sit drinking at the intersections of Lost in Translation. We go to a bar where they yell at me for flash photography. We go somewhere else and allegedly, I try to steal the bartender’s cat. We go to another bar and I scream Pearl Jam lyrics while simultaneously lecturing both old friends and absolute strangers on the pointlessness of relationships. Drops of Asahi hit the group as I flail my arms and sound like a lonely conspiracy theorist when I rant, “Trust no one.” None of them agree with anything I’m saying. But they listen because it’s my birthday.

We never made it back to our hostel that night. They charged us one night’s stay, anyways.

September 24, 2011: Koh Samui, Thailand

There’s a jar of Nutella and a box of granola in front of me. I grab a spoon from the hostel, dig out a scoop of hazelnut chocolate, and swirl it around the mix of raisins, cranberries, and steel-cut oats. I let the chocolate rest in the corners of my mouth for longer than is socially acceptable. I root the bits of almond out of my teeth with my un-brushed tongue.

She hands over a TESCO bag full of other completely un-Thai foods. A baguette. Brie. Another jar of Nutella. I clap my hands and then feel selfish for hoarding all that hazelnut-chocolate spread in the first place. I offer him and his sister a slab for their toast. They both prefer Vegemite. I wince. I don’t bother to offer up the brie.

We hire a long-tail boat to take us fishing and snorkeling. We exchange stories of camping with our dads and learning to hook a lure. I catch something which looks like a  rainbow trout from Southwestern Ontario. It’s obviously not. I’m the only one to even get a bite all day and am convinced that our boat driver was in on it and had set up the whole thing beforehand. But they’re fish, after all. You know how they are. The driver smiles a silver and gold grin and wades his feet in the water.

At night, we walk across the beach. Flip flops in one hand, Chang beers in the other. I plead with a group of Aussies to lend me some of their fireworks. They tell me you can’t lend someone fireworks. I tell them I don’t have time for pragmatics. I ask again nicely for a Roman candle. I let if off too close to her feet. She screams at me predictably.

We scrawl Sharpie messages onto paper lanterns and light them off over the island. We each keep our wishes a secret but when no one’s looking, I peak at what they have written.

My wish?

Travels full of fireworks and free of injuries.

There, now I don’t feel so guilty.

I had cut my ankles on the shallow reef earlier that day. I iced my scrapes with melting cubes but hoped the scars wouldn’t actually fade. They haven’t yet.

September 24, 2012: Seoul, South Korea

I’ve already spilled a beer on myself and its only 8:00pm. She claims it to be typical. Everyone else nods in agreement. Most of these people have known me for less than six months. But when your nights become routine, so does your behavior.

We eat Mexican food outside. I hate the fact that it’s Monday. I had to celebrate a fake-birthday the weekend prior. We sit on the patio of my favourite bar and write song requests on the back of chocolate candy wrappers. People kept leaving to buy chocolate. Consequently, we kept requesting songs.

She needs to catch the last subway home. The others soon follow. With only two of us left, we finish everyone’s lukewarm beer and vow to find somewhere without so many fluorescent lights, or any lights at all. Before leaving, we steal posters for beer we will never be able to afford.

We mix Soju and Powerade on a curb outside 7-11. I clench my teeth a little because it’s harsher than expected. I don’t feel any older. It’s past 4:00 am. We zip our hoodies higher and clutch our paper cups.

A young Korean guy stops to open conversation. Both of us, in the thick of things, try hard not to engage.

He comments on our drink of choice and asks a bit too seriously for this time of day, “Are you joking?”

I’m not sure how to answer.

How Gangnam Style Ruined My Summer

In the past, I have often tried to force a “summer song” upon myself. Be it a well-timed release date or a subliminal-yet-conscious (wait, what?) effort to listen to the same song on repeat while day-drinking in the sun, my summer song (or more generally speaking, my summer record) is of great importance.

Every time I hear Shake the Streets by Ted Leo & the Pharmacists, Cheap Girl’s Find Me a Drink Home, or even anything by The Descendents, I am immediately brought back to a certain summer, a certain somewhere. A time when I couldn’t stop listening to that song, that record, that band.

My calendar has recently reminded me that Autumnal Equinox (which may be the most ridiculously romantic sounding season of them all) begins in a few short days. But because Korea seems to lack any sort of relationship to climate changes, summer could very well go on strong into November. Regardless, my summer in Korea sucked.

And I blame it all on PSY.

Yeah, that guy.

When it came to choosing a summer song or record, it’s like I didn’t even have a fighting chance this time around.

I tried to play Help by Thee Oh Sees at every available gathering. I opted to spend bike rides listening solely to the Japandroids’ newest release. I even tried to get back into The Promise Ring (I know, I know).  But these failed attempts were only mocked further by a man, sporting sunglasses indoors, and transporting himself through the streets of Seoul by means of uh, galloping.

When I didn’t have white headphones plugged into my ears, this song was everywhere. In my newsfeed, in my bakery, even in my favourite kindergarten class.

I mean, come on. Do you know how hard it is to teach ESL kiddies about equal halves and symmetry when they are all repeating “Oppan Gangnam seutail” to themselves?

Well, do you?

What began as a joke in the lunchroom among fellow teachers has morphed into a total game changer for the last four months here in Korea.

As a song, “Gangnam Style” lacks direction.

Consequently, so does my summer.

There’s really no need to get into specifics. No one wants to read about my summer of close calls (and some even bigger falls). (This is a probably an absolute lie. I can think of, like three people, who would totally feel positively affirmed after reading about a struggling Sarah.) But even if I was honest about my aimless summer, you and I both would never be able to discern if I was speaking figuratively or in relatives.

Or maybe that’s a total cop-out. And instead, I just can’t seem to concentrate on completing sentences when a song about a guy taking his coffee in one shot is making it onto CNN.

“Gangnam Style” is an image-heavy, completely unchallenging, disconnected look into one of Seoul’s wealthier districts with the exact same descriptors.

I hate that people appreciate this song.

And I hate that it, by no choice of my own, became the song of this summer.

It’s an uninspiring song which leaves no motivation to trace the rings of condensation on sun-bleached picnic tables. It’s an intolerable tune which I can’t listen to as I ride passenger to the farthest camping spot, the nearest ice cream shop, or the somewhere in-between cottage owned by your friend’s significant other’s dad’s business partner.

Both “Gangnam Style,” and the fact that parodies continue to pop up under the Recommended Videos tab on YouTube, has ruined my summer.

But as I mentioned before, Fall Autumnal Equinox is coming up.

And every season has a record.

And, appropriately so, I’ve recently rediscovered Jay Reatard’s Watch Me Fall.

It’s good.

Decisions: Things Not to Make While Hungover in El Nido

Don’t make decisions whilst you’re hungover.

And don’t use words like “whilst” either. You’ll sound like an academia failure. And no one likes a failure. Or academics.

Deciding between blueberry and chocolate chip pancakes is difficult enough whilst (see?) experiencing half-bouts of nausea, clouded short-term memory, and almost debilitating waves of regret. So don’t make it harder on yourself by making actual decisions. Especially those related to travel. No one is that qualified.

But unfortunately, these decisions cannot be avoided. So they happen as such:

  • Get the van from Puerto Princesa to…wait, scratch that. There’s already gaps in this story.
  • Get drunk in Puerto Princesa

Feed off your travel buddies’ giddiness and consume buckets of San Miguel like you’re an aged upper-middle class white male “just here on business.” (This is no doubt said with a sly wink  and an even skeezier nod towards a group of oogling local women one-fifth his age.) Order shots of tequila because it’s the cheapest thing on the menu. Reconsider your niche as a “budget traveller.” Disregard the fact that tequila isn’t really necessary at a time like this. Wake up covered in rice and beans. Try to recall if you ate either.

  • Decide to go to El Nido instead

In a moment of clarity, leave your buddies and the predetermined destination of Sabang. Come to terms with the fact that you will never be able to keep up with these males and their pace of drinking. Hear something. Realize it’s your liver. It just breathed a sigh of relief.

  • Take the van to El Nido

Convince yourself that your kidneys are failing. Realize it’s just some minor San Miguel backlash which thankfully, passes before the first rest stop. Try to stomach a package of chocolate chip cookies. They’re stale and smell like tequila. Oh wait, that’s you.

  • Commit to sleeping on a deserted island

Take an easy boat tour of the archipelago of El Nido. Have an “ah-hah” moment when you realize you’ve been pronouncing “archipelago” wrong all these years. Say it quietly under your breath a couple times to commit it to memory. Spot Seven Commandos beach. Learn that you can sleep there overnight, completely on your own. Agree without a second of hesitation. Start saying “yes” to everything else presented that day. Drive a boat with a small piece of wood for a gas pedal. Book a “free solo climbing” thing with a local. Google it later. Pretend the descriptor “if you fall, you die” wasn’t actually written. Give the bartender a rhetorical look at Balay Tabay when he asks if you want another glass of mango rum. After all, a website tells you that you could possibly die by simply climbing some limestone rocks.

  • Go Free Solo Climbing

Forget breakfast. Congratulate yourself for showing up 15 minutes early. Realize your 30 minutes late. Overestimate your ability as a rock climber. Underestimate your ability to tell time. Enviously watch your 18-year-old guide clamber across these centimetre-wide rocks in knock-off Havanas flip-flops. Debate turning around every time your Adidas cross trainers slip from a natural crevice. Turns out you’re actually kind of afraid of climbing tall rocks. Remain silent on the descent. You’re too busy salivating over an upcoming breakfast at The Alternative. Stop at Midtown Bakery on the way. You deserve it.

  • Get to this deserted island.

Sleep the night in heavy downpours and lightning. Hold your breath for that elongated second between hearing the crack of a palm tree branch and the “thud” of it hitting the ground just meters from your tent. Stay warm by sipping gin. Wake up cold, wet, and fantastically giddy from spending the night completely on your own. Realize you still have to take down your tent. Stumble over pegs and plastic. You’re a spectacle, that’s for sure.

  • Take that awful van AGAIN

Don’t make the mistake of buying stale chocolate chip cookies for the second time. Congratulate yourself for choosing the bag of Cracked Pepper Lays instead. You’re a seasoned veteran, after all.

  • Leave El Nido

Recount the decisions that you made in El Nido. Sober, sort of drunk, and especially, hungover. Agree with yourself that yes, they were all perfectly amazing in that my-heart-is-bursting-because-I’m-so-happy sort of way. Wonder why you ever made the absolutely ridiculous decision to get into a van directed back to Puerto Princesca. Oh that’s right, you’re not hungover for this one.

How to Piss Off your Travel Buddies

I leave for the Philippines this week.

It will be my third time there in less than two years.

Now if it sounds like I’m bragging, that’s definitely not the case.

When I think about my time in the Philippines, I can’t help but just sort of shrug a little and talk about that one time I met a tout with 11 fingers. An occurrence which despite the weather, and the beaches, and the papaya-mango fruit shakes, remains my ultimate highlight of the country.

So, just to be clear, I’m visiting a country for the third time. A country which probably doesn’t even get a notable mention in my Cusack-inspired Top Ten Beaches of All Time. A country in which, when visited for a second time, I spent most days trying to decide how I was going to leave.  

So, why, with my mediocre opinion of the country, did I make the decision to go to the Philippines again?

Well, I guess the fact of the matter is, I didn’t.

If someone were to ask me to describe myself as a traveler (but let’s be real, everyone is too self-involved to do that sort of thing), I would probably say I am incredibly enthusiastic about overnight buses.  But if they prefer something vaguer, I would muster up a descriptor like “easy-going” and then go back to talking about nighttime bus rides.  

I generally go along with things. It’s the easiest thing to do. And as someone who struggles to apply myself in situations which do not require it (see: work, dating, separating my darks from my whites), I’m very eager to do what is easiest. To me, all possibilities seem absolutely fantastic and I never want to miss out on one by committing to another. 

When it comes down to it, I don’t have any real hardcore preferences about most topics. (Besides your standard stuff like say, the depleting ozone layer, The Replacements’ Let it Be album, and the Seoul Metro Subway System.)

Well, as it stands, this is absolutely without a doubt NOT the definition of “easy-going.”

Not even close.

All those carefree thoughts about wanting to try every single possibility before committing to just the god-awful lonely number of one?

Turns out, I’m indecisive.

Discovering and coming to terms with your own personality flaws is one of the most miserable things to do to oneself. 

And do you want to know the shittiest part of being indecisive?

No one likes it.

That’s right. Even your Mom will roll her eyes at you when she asks what you are thinking of doing in the future and you reply, “Not sure, Ma. Just see how this travel stuff goes.Well, either that or something else really really cool.”

And do you want to know what’s even shittier than having vague future goals like “something else really really cool” because of your inability to make a decision?

The indecisiveness is intensified when travelling.

From setting out on one route over another to deciding if you want the Dairy Queen employee in Chiang Mai to dip your cone in either chocolate or caramel sauce.

All of it- it’s so hard.

To avoid the complexity of decisions, I just limit all my choices. But when traveling, this just sort of translates into doing less research.

I’m pretty confident (only because others have blatantly told me) that when you travel with an indecisive floater like me, your patience is consistently tested. There have been countless times when I’ve told a travel buddy I will “look into” something and they find me, one hour later, with about 800 tabs open on my desktop- researching anything from to how to get cheap international flights with JetAbroad to the origin of chocolate milk (FYI: it’s Switzerland).

Travel pals in the past have complained about my unrealistic expectations to do absolutely everything instead of deciding what I would rather do. Consequently, they are left with a lot of the pressure that comes along with choice. The success of a plan becomes your responsibility. (Now I don’t mean you as in YOU specifically. I just mean you know, people other than me.)

I am travelling to the Philippines with two dudes from work. For the most part, they have taken care of destinations, accommodation, and looking up sweet stuff to do in a handful of cities.

But anything I have to decide independently? Well, I still haven’t actually got there yet.

It took me something like two months just to book my return flight to Korea. (Perhaps this isn’t really related to my indecisiveness and instead, speaks volumes about my lack of excitement to return to this country.) 

So if you need a reliable way to piss off your travel mates, refuse to make any decisions. “Hmm” and “haaa” over even the smallest of choices. Refuse to mask the hesitance in both your face and your voice when they ask you to commit to absolutely anything. Believe that flight times/ dates/ anything involving numbers, are all just rough estimates.

But since I’m all about things like personal growth, and you know, not pissing off my travel buddies, I’m going to try making some decisions.

I’m going to order the chocolate-dipped ice cream with confidence. I’m going to stop being utterly terrified in the finality of making a decision. Maybe I will realize that some decisions aren’t THAT big of deal. Maybe I will rid myself of this intense phobia of decisions (yeah. right). 

So I’ve decided to go to the Philippines for a third time.

Hopefully I don’t piss off my travel mates. But it’s okay. Because even if I do? Well, at least it was my decision. 

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Toothbrush Disclosure: This post was brought to you by JetAbroad . But don’t blame them if your travel buddies stop speaking to you. They had nothing to do with that.