A Day in the Park – Around the World Day 3

Sundays in Europe are different than anywhere else that I know of it the world. Things shut down, forcing people to take it a little slower. It is a time to spend with family and friends and enjoy the outdoors. It is not about work or shopping. In fact, most big stores shut down for the day, and a lot of the smaller tourist places will not peddle their wares. In fact it is the perfect day to spend at a park, and Barcelona has one of the greatest parks to spend the day at, Park Guell, designed by the architect of this great city, Antonio Gaudi.

This park has so many interesting things to look at around every corner. There are strange pillars that force you to stare at them making you wonder how they can withstand the weight of the structures they are designed to hold up. But like everything Gaudi designed, they have a touch of a natural element to them, yet they are still structurally sound. They make the architecture out in Barcelona different than any other place in the world. And if you do make it out here, make sure you take the time to look at them closely because things are carved into them that you would not expect to be there, and the surprise of finding them is part of the fun.

There is also a long park bench that winds itself around a plaza overlooking the city. It is a great place to sit back and relax for a bit and watch the throng of tourists trying to get their pictures at the perfect spot. I could easily spend an hour or two sitting there watching the people and trying to guess from which part of the world they come from. It would also be a nice place to picnic, but they will not allow you to bring in food in this part of the park. I suspect it is to keep the pigeons out of the area so they do not stain the mosaic design that you can find on the bench.

But there are a bunch of benches and tables out in the free part of the park. Christine and I bought a couple of jimon sandwiches with us to enjoy. We were lucky to find a small store open that was selling them before we left and we had many jealous looks from people when they saw our foresight as to make sure we had something to snack on. These sandwiches are really good too. Jimon is a thinly sliced ham that is unique to Spain. They put it on a crispy baguette with a fresh tomato sauce to add just the right amount of flavor. It was the perfect way to spend lunch on this relaxing Sunday.

There is also the views of the city from atop the hill. We were able to watch the ships pulling into the bay and the major city sites scattered among the concrete jungle. If you look closely in the middle of the picture you can see the Sagrada Familia, another Gaudi wonder, and one we will be visiting tomorrow.

The best views are from the Spanish mission on the south end of the park, but it does get packed with people and there are no rails so there were times where I felt like I might fall from this great height.

It was still the best thing to do on this lazy Sunday in Barcelona. It made me feel as if I was getting some culture, yet at the same time I was able to relax a little bit so I didn’t feel like I was trying to suck too much out of my vacation. It also gave me some more insight into one of my favorite architects, Gaudi, and made me excited about going back to the Sagrada Familia tomorrow. It had been almost eleven years since I have been there, and I am interested to see how it has changed during that time.


Fighting Jetlag – Around the World Day 2

Yes, it took a long plane ride through the night, but we finally arrived in Barcelona, Spain, and were able to go and look at the statue of Columbus pointing east over the Mediterranean Sea. (Yeah, I’m just as confused as you are.) I was excited about getting to explore this great city, but I had one big problem, my head still floated in a different time zone. So like so many other travelers who hop from continent to continent, I tried to figure out how to get over my jetlag so I could enjoy my trip with a clear head. I had an even harder time with this time because we arrived at 8 o’clock in the morning and we had the whole day to deal with this feeling before we could go to sleep and try to adjust to the time zone that we were in. So I thought I would share with you how I attacked this problem, and hopefully they will help you if you ever find yourself in a similar situation.

First off, never lie down. That will kill you every time. Even if you think that you are just doing it to rest for a little bit so you can recover from the way your eyelids feel super heavy, it will not help you. You will eventually close your eyes and you will never recover from the mistake. You will find yourself waking up at two o’clock in the morning ready to take on the day. Which if you find yourself in Barcelona, it might not be a big problem because the bars stay open until 4 o’clock in the morning, but what will you do after that?

Because you shouldn’t lie down, the obvious thing to do is to walk around the neighborhood and check out the sights. It will keep your mind active and it will also allow you to know where the things you really want to see are. I suggest that you do not go into the museums and the cathedrals yet because you will not be able to enjoy them the way that you are hoping to, but there will enough going on around you that will allow you to keep you awake. It is also when your freak radar is on high alert, and you will see some of the greatest moments on your trip, things that will make you laugh, like people dancing to jazz music across Spanish plazas, or strange advertisements pasted on stores to attract you interest.

If though I recommend that you do not go into anything significant, that does not mean that you can’t still get a cultural experience. Hey, that is part of the reason we travel in the first place. The best way to do this is to enjoy the architecture of the city that you find yourself in. Europe has a lot to offer in this department, and I had found a new corner of Barcelona that I did not know existed. I always assumed that it was a more modern city ruled by the art work on Antonio Gaudi,  but I discovered the medieval part of the city that was built on the ruins of Roman buildings. It has amazing gothic buildings and give you the feeling that you are in Europe. Find this part of the city you are in because there is a treasure around every corner that you turn.

Lastly, find the crowds and enjoy the local cuisine. Your mind not be in the right place to have deep conversations with these people, and if you don’t speak the language really well, you are not going to be able to do it anyways. But it is fun to people watch. There are so many stories in a city like Barcelona, and you can exercise your mind by trying to tell them. You will also be able to start to pick out the difference between the locals, and the ones who are out there for vacation. (Don’t worry, they are doing the same thing with you.) It is a great way to exercise your brain without making a big fool out of yourself, and as a writer, it is a great way to collect stories for later use.

The food is really important too. Don’t go big on your first day. You will have an opportunity later to have that relaxing meal that you are looking for. Try to sample the local flavors. If you find yourself in Spain, you can do this by eating tapas. They are small bites that allow you to taste a little here and little there. It also allows you the pleasure of hopping from place to place. You can have a small tapas at one place than you can skip across the street to try a different one over there. It will engage you enough to keep you awake and willing to stay up even though your eyes my burn and your head might float around the stratosphere.

There are many other things that you can do to try to get over jetlag, and people are always willing to offer their advice on the subject, but these are the things that help me. You might still want to go to bed early and that is okay. I went to sleep last night at 8 o’clock which is ridiculous, but I was able to sleep throughout the whole evening and woke up at 6 o’clock to take on the second day in this city. Each night I will stay up later and later and within a couple of days I will be on this time zone, and I won’t be up at weird times wondering what I will do while others are sleeping.

Taking Pictures of People Taking Pictures – Around the World Day 1

It is summertime and for a teacher that means taking a much needed break. For an international teacher that means reconnecting with loved ones, and taking in a little bit of the world in the process. This year, we have gotten really ambitious by taking a trip around the world. It is more exotic than it sounds because in reality I am only stopping at a couple of places, namely Spain, Portugal, Colorado, Oregon, and then back to Seoul for another school year. And even though there are not a lot of stops along the way, it is still literally a trip around the world. We will constantly be traveling west until we reach our original destination.

Of course these means starting some place, and experiencing the wonders of air travel. It is always a weird experience, and there is always something that makes these trips unusual for us. Every day presents us with new stories that we will tell over the years, and those stories came quick this time.

It all started with trying to leave. There is always the fun of making sure that we have cleared out the fridge for the six week trip and that all the appliances are turned off as well as making sure that everything is locked up. This year that job was left up to me because my wife had one more day left before we left. I was to take the car to campus so we could leave it there until school started up again, and then we would grab a cab to the airport bus to our new adventure. Right before I was supposed to leave a moving company came in and parked right in front of our car. It seemed as if fate did not want us to leave, but I had worked hard and I earned this vacation. I went out to the movers and after a strange conversation in broken English/Korean, I was able to get my car out and make my way to the airport.

I thought that this would have been the most exciting part of my day, but little did I know that the airport had another mini-adventure in store for us. We got to the airport in a reasonable time, and we had some time to kill, so we went to America’s favorite place, Starbucks, for some coffee. We got in line waiting for our turn to order when things started to get weird.

It started off with one camera, then two, and soon everybody in the airport had stopped to take our picture for some reason. I thought of being nice by waving to people. Christine told me to put my hand down because they weren’t taking pictures of me. We ordered our coffee, and more people gathered around to take pictures. I didn’t know what they were taking pictures of, so while I took pictures of them taking pictures, Christine asked the person at the counter what was making people so excited. The lady got really flustered because the person who they were taking pictures of was actually standing right behind us.

We were in the presence of somebody famous, but I found the crowd more interesting. Some of them thought I was absolutely crazy for missing the opportunity that was right there next to me. But honestly I do not know enough about Kpop stars to care, and I started to realize the truth about celebrity status. It is only important if the people who are around care. If this celebrity showed up in the States she would be anonymous and she would be able to carry on with her life as any of us. But because of her location, she was hounded by the masses. It would have been like if Dave Matthews showed up in Seoul. Nobody would know who he was because Koreans do not listen to Dave Matthews. Celebrity status is the product of the society, not the other way around.

We eventually got our coffee and moved on, asking people if they knew who it was that was getting her picture taken. The foreigners in the back of the crowd had no idea but they stood by to make sure that they got a picture of the event. As we were making our way to our gate, a nice lady stopped by to tell us that we were in the presence of the Kpop group called Twice. I still do not know who that is, but it was fun to experience what it is like to be a celebrity if only it was second hand, and it was an exciting start to our adventure around the world. I hope that the rest of the trip is as much fun and I can’t wait to see what other stories will come out of it.

If you are interested to follow these stories make sure you to return to this blog over the next six weeks to see what will happen next.

Luang Prabang – Day 6

I woke up early on my last day in Laos to the banging of drums moving down my street. I had heard that the Buddhist monks had this procession every day and it was quite the sight to see, but it was at 5:30 in the morning and the thought of finding enlightenment underneath the covers of my comfy bed felt like the more important thing to do, so I did not make it out to witness this. In fact, on my last day I went back to doing the touristy thing.


In fact, I went and did the most touristy thing that the city of Luang Prabang has to offer, Phousi Hill. This hill stands in the middle of town and I could see the temple on the top from many different angles as I traveled the streets of this town. Many visitors try to make it to the top of this hill right at sunset so they can witness the sun dip down over the horizon and look at the whole town at the same time. I have been told that it can be incredibly packed at this time of the day.

So I tried a different option where I would find solitude away from the craziness of the crowds. I went up early in the morning and it was worth going at the off time. There was nobody out there but us and a small tour group from China. I didn’t have to shove my way to find the best views and deal with the uglier side of humanity. I could relax and enjoy the view at my own leisure.

There are two ways to reach the top. One entrance is right in front of the National Museum and this is the way that most people go. It is easy to find and the route is very direct, but there is another path on the other side of the hill that not many people know about.

This would be the side that I would recommend. There is a whole lot more to see on the other side than on the one most traveled on. Numerous tiny shrines to Buddha exist on the other side and a new marvel awaits you with every turn.

And I am glad that I was not urged on by big crowds as I made my way up this side of the hill. I was able to sit and enjoy the sights without having to hear the click of cameras, and the babble of twelve different languages. There were even a couple of hidden spots that I would not have found if I had followed the crowds, the most exciting being the imprint of Buddha’s foot. I had to wind off the path a bit to see it, but it was worth the small detour.

It was also really cool when I finally made it up the 360 steps to see the town. No, I did not count the steps on the way up, but I was told by the cab driver coming into town that there were 360 of them, and I don’t know if he meant both on the way up and the way back down because it did not feel like that much.

The views were really pretty up there. I was able to survey the whole town. I could point out all of the places I had been while I was up there, and I don’t know if I should have left it for the last thing I did before I left town, but it was a nice way to say bye to this town that had enthralled me for so many days.

I took the more touristy path the way back down the hill, and it was not as exciting. There was a really cool tree on the way down but nothing as notable as the way up. It was the way that most trips end. You whisk yourself off to some airport for some adventure and excitement, and when you make your way back to the airport at the end you are left with a bunch of memories but nothing seems as exciting as when you first made your way to the adventure. It was still an amazing trip that had a lot of memories, and it will be a long time before the memories I create in Laos fade away.

Luang Prabang, Laos – Day 5

I only had one day left with the elephants before I headed back to the comforts that Luang Prabang had to offer, but this was the day that I actually got to contribute to the care of the elephants. After spending a couple of days at the Elephant Conversation Center, I wished that we had planned things a little differently and would have gotten the one week experience at the site rather than the three day stay. If we had opted for that option, we would have helped out a lot more because it involved doing volunteer work at the camp after the three days were over. The only problem would have been that I would have wanted to stay there if we had gone for the longer option, so it was probably for the best that we were there for only two nights.

On my last day there, I got to work in the enrichment area. The idea of this part of the camp is to train the elephants to what it means to look for food in the wild. I know this may surprise many people to think that elephants need to be trained how to forage for food in the forest. Shouldn’t there instincts kick in allowing them to find food for themselves? Well, it is not that easy.

These elephants were trained since the age of three to either work in the logging industry, or perform at the tourist camps. They never had to search for food because it was always given to them by the mahouts. They never learned how to be elephants. I was told that the first time a new elephant was left alone in the enrichment area, they would stand there not knowing what to do because they had never been left alone in their live. And even though the goal of the Elephant Conservation Center is to get elephants ready to love out in the wild again they need to work their way up to that point.

Think of it this way. If somebody came to your house, grabbed you, traveled all the way around the way around the world and dropped you off into the forest so you could return back to your natural habitat, how well would you do out there by yourself? It is the same thing for these elephants. They need the time to learn how to survive on their own.

The two elephants that I got to watch in the environment took a little while to get going. They were able to find the food that was closer to the ground rather quickly, but they had a tendency to ignore the food that was hidden in the higher spot. I watched them walk right under some of the more obvious spots wondering why they couldn’t find the food hidden in these spots. I even asked the owner of the place if they has a weak sense of smell because of this phenomenon, and I was told that elephants have an extraordinary sense of smell which is what I thought in the first place. He told me that they just didn’t think of looking up high and this was the whole reason that they went through the process of training them.

He also told me that the elephants at first would start by struggling the various puzzles that were created for them, but after they figure them out, then the became way too easy for them. It required the center to come up with new and exciting ways to challenge the elephants that also simulated what it would be like for them to find food on their own. The elephants we were watching we just starting to figure out the easier puzzles and they still needed to work on finding and solving the more difficult ones.

Even though it was fun to watch the elephants in action, we had a boat we needed to catch to head back to our last full night in the more comfortable parts of Laos. We headed back to Luang Prabang and got a room closer to the center of town. It made for a very nice evening of enjoying drinks by the Mekong river and enjoying an amazing dinner.

It also meant it was the last chance I would get to travel across that wooden bridge that they build every year during the dry season. The bridge did not look as threatening at night, but as soon as we stepped on it and made our way across it, we could really feel how rickety it actually was. There were a couple of holes along the way that came from the continuous use over the last couple of months, but I also knew that the people of Luang Prabang would not fix these holes due to the fact that the wet season was starting soon and the bridge would have to come down anyway.

It was worth it making it across though because there was a wonderful restaurant on the other side that featured the Laos version fondue. It had many of the same features of Swiss fondue such as a nice broth to cook various kinds of food in over an open flame. But the difference came with the vegetables they used adding such things as cabbage, and scallions, and the addition of noodles. The meat was also cooked on a grill rather than being heated up in the broth. Add some of the spicy peppers to the broth and it made for one of the best meals I had while I was out there.

The trip had come full circle, but I felt like a completely different person because of it. A lot of the thanks for this has to be delivered to the Elephant Conversation Camp. I almost felt bad for going back to this life of luxury, but I now could use the new knowledge I gained from the journey to use in my life as I moved forward.

If you would like more information about the Elephant Conservation Center please check out the website at http://www.elephantconservationcenter.com

Sayaboury, Laos – Day 4

I woke up early on my fourth day in Laos, and enjoyed a little peace and quiet while reading a book on the patio of my bungalow. Little did I know that one of my past mistakes would come to haunt me on this day.

This is not the only trip that I have been on where I roughed it with the elephants hanging out nearby. About eight years ago I was lucky enough to be able to travel to Tanzania where I was able to experience these majestic animals out on safari.

Of course, there are some differences between African elephants and Asian elephants. First of all, African elephants are a lot bigger, and they have ears that look like the continent of Africa. They also haven’t been domesticated in the same way that the Asian elephants have, so there might have been a time when they resembled each other more, but this is not the case any more. Despite these differences, there are many factors that make them similar.

One of these similarities is threads of hair that can be found on their tails. It is not like the hair that can be found anywhere else on their body because it is a lot coarser. It feels a lot like wire if you ever get the opportunity to ever rub it between your fingers. Elephants use it to clean their genitalia, especially with female elephants, by swatting it with the coarse hair. The thing is that many people think that because it is hair, it will grow back quickly which is not the case. But because of this belief, many of the owners of the elephants will clip off the hair, braid it together, and sell it as a bracelet or a ring. Many people end up buying them as mementos and it encourages the selling of more of these bracelets. Elephants lose the hair that they need in order to keep themselves clean which can eventually lead to painful diseases and in some cases cause elephants to have problems with giving birth. So something that appears innocent at many of these tourists camps where this practice goes on, actually contributes to the depletion of the species.

This is where my past came back to haunt me. When I was out in Tanzania while we were traveling between national parks, we stopped at a gift shop on the side of the road to pick up mementos of our trip out there. One of the things I always look for on my trips is something I can hang on my Christmas tree that helps to remind me of all the places in the world I have been at. This particular time I had found a nice wooden carving of a giraffe’s face, but when I went to check out the man who was selling me the item hounded me about buying one of these elephant hair bracelets. At the time I thought it was just wire because that is what elephant hair looks like. The man claimed that if I wore it, it would make me strong. I still wasn’t interested in it, but he continued to pester me about it, and I considered it an act of charity to buy one off of him even if it was a sham.

My wife and her family has continuously made fun of me for making this purchase. They tell me that I need to be strong and learn how to say no from time to time. It wasn’t until this trip that I learned the truth about my purchase which made me feel even more miserable. If I had known what I was buying was genuinely an elephant hair bracelet and what damage I was doing, I would not have done it, but I had never been educated about it. It takes trips like this to help me learn about these small things in the world. And hopefully by telling the world about my mistake, it will prevent somebody from making the same one in their lifetime.

It is another reason that I really loved the time I got to spend at the Elephant Conservation Center. It wasn’t just about hanging out with the elephants and watching the staff help them become more self-sufficient. It wasn’t knowing that the elephants were well taken care and examined by a veterinarian in large stalls at regular intervals. It wasn’t knowing that this organization was helping to create a forest where man has come in and depleted it without really thinking about the larger consequences of what that could mean about future generations. It was the fact that this place took the time to educate the people who stayed here about what they could do to make sure they weren’t contributing to the problem by the decisions they made half a world away.

This is why travel is so important. If we never go out and take the risk to see what the rest of the world is like, we get set in the mind frame of the place we come from. We don’t see the larger picture. We don’t understand how the buying of palm oil helps to contribute to the depletion of the forest. We don’t understand how the buying of certain products gives money to the people who would continue to abuse animals for their own superstitions or their own wallets. We need to be aware that we live in a global society and each decision we make affects the lives of so many others.

So as the sun started to set on my second day at the Elephant Conservation Center, I was able to reflect on my life and my contribution to the problems of the world. I was able to see that I needed to be more conscious of my decisions as I continued down this road of life and make sure that I make the right ones.

If you would like to find out more information or contribute to the work happening at the Elephant Conservation Center, check out their website at http://www.elephantconservationcenter.com.

Sayaboury, Laos – Day 3

My third day out in Laos was the one I was the most excited about. It was the day where I was going to leave Luang Prabang behind and take a two hour trip to the less populated part of the country in the provenance of Soyaboury.

The lifestyle in this part of the country was a little more simple. It wasn’t so much about tourist and café streets where I could sip a drink and watch the crowds mingle in a facsimile of a small town in France. Instead, the people found a way to live off of the land. Mainly this was done through fishing on the lake we ended up on, but there were also plantations around here and small towns to supply the people of this area what they needed to survive comfortably.

The houses weren’t as fancy either. I stayed in a cabin in the middle of the forest on the edge of the lake. There was some electricity to the place but that created only at night and with the use of a generator. And I was forced to get off the grid because there was no internet service or wifi available anywhere. It was great because I was able to return to the simplicity of the wilderness that I had not been able to experience for a long time, and I was reveling in the experience.

But all of these things were not the real reason that I went out to this remote place. It was to visit the Elephant Conservation Center and witness all of the amazing work they are doing with these elephants in this region of the world.

The name Laos use to translate into the land of a million elephants. Now, I am pretty sure that the population of these beasts was never that large in this area of the world, but the idea that elephants were all over the place probably was. These gentle beasts had been domesticated by the people of Laos over a thousand years ago and they were used to help with gathering the wood that people needed in order to build houses, and support themselves. For many centuries this structure maintained a strong economic structure allowing the country to continue peacefully in a symbiotic balance.

But then the logging industry came in and the tree population started to decline and more elephants were needed to help deplete the forest. The people who were trained to handle these creatures could not train enough people to train the animals in the proper way, and soon the animals were abused. Because of this many things happened. The forest grew small and wasn’t able to support the wild population of the elephants. The animals were forced to find food at people’s farms and were executed because of this. Many of the elephants were also sold for great profit to Chinese wealthy individuals who used many parts of the animals for old remedies that they believed still worked. The population of the animals fell in both the wild and domesticated populations leaving the country with an estimated 800 animals that are left today.

This is when the Laos government stepped in. They were trying to save what was left of the forest and what was left of the elephants. They banned the logging industry and the animals who were beasts of burden were forced to move to tourist supported camps. The abuse there got even worse. The mahouts, the trainers of elephants, would train them by using a large hook and tapping the animals in certain places to get them to do what they wanted them to do. Because of the untrained mahouts that were working these tourist camps, they did not know how to use their tools correctly, and would hit the animals way too hard. It would leave areas of scars on the animals similar to what can be seen on the head of the female elephant pictured above. Some of these abuses eventually led to death.

This is where the Elephant Conservation Center came into play. The people that run this center were not looking to use elephants for commercial reasons. They, instead, were trying to save elephants, and then train them to eventually return to the wild. They have also been working on a breeding program to help bring the population back up to where it once used to be. They have hired skilled mahouts to help in this process, and what started off with only three elephants seven years ago has grown into a population of thirty. They have saved a few elephants from the terrible fate of having to work the tourist camps that don’t treat the elephants kindly, and they have even recently been donated 13 elephants that were scheduled to move to a zoo in Dubai.

Their efforts are some truly amazing things to see, and I was glad to have been able to spend two days and three night learning about all of the great things that they were doing at this place. I will tell you more about what they have done in my next couple of posts, but in the meantime, if you would like to find out more or would like to help by contributing to this great organization, you can contact them at http://www.elephantconservationcenter.com.