The Road Back Home

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When I think about the place where I am from, the thought of the Rocky Mountains instantly pops into my mind. Ask anybody who grew up in Colorado, and they will tell you the same thing. There is a purple outline of them always stretching out in the distance any time you look to the west. Even at night, when you cannot see them, their comforting presence is there. It is something that you start to take for granted the longer you live in the state. Even a visit through its winding path and majestic grandeur doesn’t always impress you the way it once did when you first were able to witness them.

But you should never take those stalwart things in your life for granted. You should treasure every minute that you have with them because you don’t know how it will make you feel when they are no longer there. I recently had lost the luxury of staring at these mountains for a whole year, and I was lost because of it. I know Coloradoans will joke that is because I could no longer find west, and there is some truth to that. I have spent my whole life relying on this natural compass to help guide me through the streets of Denver, so now, when I look for west and can no longer see the mountains, it leaves me a little disoriented. But it is something more than that. It was that sense of have something strong and immovable suddenly no longer there; it was that sense of loss; it was that sense of being some place out of my comfort zone that caused this pain in my soul. So when I realized at the end of last school year that I would be heading home again, the longing in my heart grew stronger and I desired to see those mountains again to set it at ease. In my mind’s eye, I could see that purple outline in the distance and I desired to be back among its rocky grandeur.

But the road back home is never short and many adventures needed to happen before I returned.

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My voyage home took me through Japan first. The hills there were beautiful and they reminded me of home, but the tree capped tops of these mountains were not the Rocky Mountains that I longed for. They made the longing for home even larger, but I needed to put that behind me and enjoy the sights of Japan instead. I always talk about how you should enjoy the moment in life and not worry about where you will be tomorrow because you will lose something with the experience, and here I was not listening to my own advice. But when the heart longs for something that advice is hard to follow.

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But whether I wanted to or not, I still had to follow it. I was not alone on my travels. My wife, Christine, and her parents were also along for the ride. Christine felt much the same as I did. She wanted to get back to the states and the thought of returning home excited her, but her parents were in a part of the world that they had never been in before, and they were looking for us to guide them through the experience. We had traveled to Japan eight years earlier and many of the places we were going to were the same places we had traveled to in the past. Though we couldn’t remember everything from that first trip, there was enough there that allowed us to show them some very exciting places.

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Kyoto was our first stop on our trip and it is an amazing place to start on the road through Japan. Every turn you take in this city is a cultural experience. You know you are in a part of the world that has preserved its ancient culture to remain true to its past. The cobblestone roads are clean and lined with shops, and restaurant house themselves in old buuildings. Some might think this is done just to help support the tourism needed in order to keep the city on the map, but that is not necessarily true. image

There are many times when I turned the corner and find myself staring at a Buddhist temple or Shinto shrine. They are all over the place, and they are not just there because they were built years ago and it still brings people to the city to witness its culture. People come to these places to worship and connect with themselves spiritually. The Japanese possess an amazing ability to blend together two ancient religions into one. You see in many Buddhist temples and their surrounding grounds the shrines to nature that is connected to the Shinto belief.

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A great example of this is the Kiyomizu-dera Temple. The grounds for this place is found on the mountainside on the outskirts of Kyoto. It is an extremely popular tourist spot and thousands of people can be found walking around. The grounds have the Buddhist bell, and drum, and there is definitely a place where worshippers can pay their respects to his teachings. But there are many other natural connections that found there as well. A great example of this are the two rocks placed thirty meters away from each other. The story goes that if someone touches one of the rocks and close his or her eyes, they travel across the busy walkway between the two stone. If they find the other one without the help of anybody else, it then that means that they will someday find their true love.

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A spring running behind the grounds is another example. People line up to drink water from one of the three different spouts coming from the stream. Each one holds a certain power behind it that helps a person gain success in a certain part of their lives if they drink from the spout. I can’t remember what exactly the three different aspects of life are, but I believe they are health, wealth, and love. I was told what they were eight years ago when I first visited this place but have since forgotten them. The first time I was here, Christine and I were walking through the entrance to the grounds when we were stopped by a young Japanese girl. She was working on her undergraduate degree in English at one of the local universities and she wanted an opportunity to practice communicating in this language. So she looked for English speaking tourists and asked if she could take them around to explain everything to them. We happily obliged and the experience was great.

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The same thing happened again on this visit except I was asked for an interview from a local girl in a middle school. She wanted to practice her English as well, and she had a script to help her get with the questions she needed to ask me. I told her all about where I was from, what I did for a living, and what I thought about Japan. It was a fun experience for me, but I believe that it was terrifying for her. The funny thing is I will probably always hold this moment dear to my heart; whereas, she will forget about it soon after and think about it only as something she needed to get done to complete an assignment for school. It is funny how people take for granted all of the things that they see on a daily basis while a different perspective will give it a greater value.

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It would always blow my mind when any of my relatives would visit us from out of town and we would take them up into the mountains. They would gape at them as we drove through. I couldn’t understand why they would be this dumbfounded by something I had grown up with. When I was able to drive myself, I would get mad at the tourists that would slow me down as I drove I-70 into the mountains because they were too busy rubbernecking to see all of the sights around them and did notice the awful job they were doing driving these dangerous roads. But the more I travel on my own road around the world, I start to understand why they did it. My heart may have longed to be back in Colorado, but there were times along the way where I needed to turn my head to see something I missed the first time around.

The first time I went to Japan we took a trip to the edge of Kyoto to see its Imperial Palace. We went there because we were looking specifically for the bamboo forest used in the filming of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. We thought it was held on the grounds of the palace and we did find a small corner of a bamboo grove, but it was not the impressive place I had thought we were going to find. That was because we had actually missed it. We needed to travel down a path outside of the palace and this expansive grove would have spread out before us. I don’t know how we missed it the first time because it was huge and packed with people as they explored it. It took the second time going to Japan to be able to find it. This is when I felt like one of those tourists that annoyed me so much from my home state. But I was able to gain some clarity from the experience.

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When I get out of my comfort zone and see something I have never seen before I can appreciate it for what it is. When I see something on a daily basis, it no longer holds that special quality of something new and exciting. It is not until it is taken away that I will start to appreciate it again with the quality of a child looking at a forest of bamboo trees for the first time. When I had found the bamboo grove, this idea was tickling around in the back of my mind, but I hadn’t formulated a stronger connection with it until I arrived in Nara.

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This smaller town in Japan sits on the edge of the mountains. People flock there for a couple of reasons. One, it holds the largest wooden building in the world, a Buddhist temple, and secondly because of the deer.

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And let me tell you, there are a lot of deer.

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They roam the streets, and they are not afraid of humans. A lot of this is because of the attitude the Japanese take towards the animal. They believe that it is sacred, and should not be hunted, and definitely should not be eaten. With this being the case, there are many generations of these creatures who have never felt the cruel side of the human race, so why should they fear them. It also doesn’t help that there are many carts in the area selling cookies you can buy to feed the deer with. Of course, they will hang out in the area for the free meal. Some of them are big and a little bit of a bully, but for the most part, they are gentle and looking for the handout. It is funny to watch them as they walk around after people because it looks like every individual is out walking their deer. That is until the deer realizes that they have no food and they go off looking for a different person who might feed them.

I had to walk through these herds of deer and people to get to the Todaiji Temple. I started to wonder if people even get there because of the distraction of the deer, but when I finally arrived, I saw that people had put aside playing with the deer to check out this world heritage site. It is an impressive place that is filled with school aged children who are taken there by their schools so they can connect with their heritage. They are a lot like me with my mountains. The interest I would think that they would have at the site is just not there. This is something they have seen on a daily basis and they didn’t find it exciting enough to pay attention to where they were so they could gain a new perspective on their lives. In fact, they were more interested in yelling hello to the English speaking tourists to see if they could get the English speakers to say something back to them. There were many times I obliged them by waving and saying hello. It was kind of fun but I guarantee that their teachers hated the fact it was going on.

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A lot of it had to do with what the students were not taking from the experience. At this place, the children could find huge wooden statues carved centuries ago to guard the entrance to the grounds. It blew my mind that these statues existed. I had no idea where they would have found a tree large enough to carve such a masterpiece in the first place, and there were not only one of these giants to look at, but two. How could these kids miss these behemoths as they walked by? But then I would remember the fact that I would no longer pay attention to my much beloved mountains when I was back in Colorado unless there was a way I could have some sort of fun while I visited them.

The kids of Japan were the same way. It wasn’t until they made it inside the temple that they started to enjoy the place. First off, there is one of the largest Buddha statues inside. There are smaller replications of the building showing how the design process was made and it isn’t until I made it to the back corner of the building that I found the area that help the children’s interest. At the bottom of one of the columns holding up the roof, there was a large hole carved in the middle of it. Legend had it that it was as large as one of the nostrils of the Buddha housed in the building. If you could wiggle your way through the hole to the other side of the column then you would be able to find true enlightenment in your life. It was fun to watch these students line up to have their try at squeezing their way through the hole.

There was an older Buddha on the outside of the building that was not viewed as much though. If the students had paid attention to this, there was magic within its wood they would have appreciated as well. Apparently if you rubbed the part of the Buddha’s body that ailed you and then rubbed that same place on your body you would find relief from the pain. I can sort of see why that many of the children would not pay attention to this Buddha, but it was one appreciated more by the older generations.

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The path through Nara prepared me for the next stop on my road trip back home. It was a place I had been to before, but I was excited to see again because I remembered the profound effect it had on me the last time. In fact, I can’t imagine anybody who would venture to this location without feeling its significance. Hiroshima is one of those places that holds that much power in this modern age.

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Just wandering through the Peace Park is enough to make people feel the event that happened here on August 6th, 1945. You might not be able to see it because of the beautiful modern city that surrounds you, but the quiet respect that surrounds the eternal flame reminds you.

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And if that is not enough there is the shell of the building left behind. It was right under the blast of the atomic bomb that fell on that fateful day, and even though the tiny sun that the explosion created leveled the city, it was not enough to destroy this skeleton. At one time, the people of Hiroshima demanded to tear down this eyesore, but more forward thinking folks won out. The structure remained to remind visitors of what happened that day so we could avoid repeating the same mistake in the future.

Just going to this place, I wondered how people couldn’t help but be affected by what they saw. That was until you looked across the street from the park. Office buildings sit there. There is a hospital just down the road from it. Men and women dressed for business move about their days without ever looking over at this building. Why should they? The impact it had on me loses its effect when you see it every day.

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I guess that is the joy of being a tourist. You get to notice the things that the people who live there take for granted.

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They can range in size from monstrous to minimal.

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They can be displayed proudly.

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Or you may have to wander through the woods to find their special location.

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The point being that these places are in all great cities in every country on the world. They bring thousands of people away from the comfort of their living rooms every day just for the chance to see them. Yet, you might live right next to one and you might have forgotten about its existence or may not have ever noticed in the first place.

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Just by being more aware, these little things become more spectacular every time you take the time to notice them. My trip through Japan became one moment after another that sparked within me awe. And even though I was able to look at my trip through this lens, I still longed for the thing that I had once taken for granted, Colorado.

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I marveled at the mountains that presented themselves wherever I went, and even though their green majesty was a sight that I enjoyed, it wasn’t the same kind of mountain you would find in the Rocky Mountains. Growing up, I always thought that there was only one kind of mountain, and if you had seen one, you had seen them all. But this is not the case. Throughout my travels, I have come to realize that each range of mountains holds their own contours. The science teachers have worked with have explained to me that this is because of the way they are formed. Even though the Rocky Mountains do have some of their formation due to volcanic activity, it is more the pushing together of two plates that has created this rangge. This is completely different from the mountains in Japan. They are definitely on the ring of fire, and because of this, each one of their hills were formed due to some form of volcanic activity. Because of this they look different, and the ecosystem they belong to allows for a different type of flora, and a different kind of animal inhabits the wilderness.

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The hills are greener. The rivers are wider and deeper.

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The animals we found would be considered more exotic. It is not everyday in the state of Colorado that you can take a short twenty minute hike up to the top of a mountain to feed monkeys peanuts from your hand. While we found this an amazing activity, it was still only something mainly done by the tourists of the region, just as there are people who travel all the way to Colorado to watch the elk at Rocky Mountain National Park. I would never think of an elk as an exotic animal, but then again there are probably a lot of Japanese that don’t find the monkey to be that exotic either.

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If it hasn’t become evidently clear yet, everywhere I went I saw scenery that would have, for most people, been place in their most spectacular vacation ever, but I couldn’t enjoy it the way it was meant to be enjoyed because I had been long away from the place that for so many years had been my home that all my thoughts would drift to that place.

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The next stop on my journey did not help to quell this longing for home. For the casual observer, it should have though. The scenery was dramatically different from anything I could have found in Denver, or even Colorado for that matter.

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And even though herons may be found in the United States, they don’t venture so far inland to be seen in the Rocky Mountains, and when they do, it is not in a place that is as much of a dessert as the landscape that can be found in my home state.

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The artwork that I found on the streets was foreign as well. But for some reason, the vibe I felt here made me feel like I was back in Denver. Of course, I knew why, but for many people who travel here they don’t. The place we had arrived in was Takayama. It is a small mountain town that loves their dogs, and gets cold and snowy during the winter. The good folks of this town know that they are so similar to the city of Denver that they got together with the good people of my home town and all of these good people decided to become sister cities. Sadly, the good people of Takayama celebrate this fact more than the good people of Denver do, but Denverites should start to pay attention more because this is really a wonderful place to visit.

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The streets are fun to wander around, and even though they do not brew as much beer as Denver does, they are one of the major producers of sake in the world. There is an old-town area whose alleys have many buildings with large rice balls hanging from the front of the door. When you find one, you know you are the place where they make the traditional Japanese liquor, sake. After a couple of sips, you start to understand that sake can be just as complex and varied as either beer or wine. It makes for a fun day to go from place to place and sample all that they have to offer.

Many of the sake breweries have these foxes in front of them as well. It is a common accompaniment with many businesses in Japan. The spirit of the fox is believed to bring good luck to the establishment and to protect it from any enemies. The business needs to satisfy the fox with food and in this case a bottle of sake. It also helps the business as well to know that the protector of the establishment also enjoys the product.

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If you are looking for the more traditional kind of Japan landscape, Takayama is also the place. On the outskirts of town there is the Hida Folk Village with its traditional houses and thatched roofs. These structures are the perfect buildings to house the people that inhabited these hills. They would keep them warm in the snowy winter months, and cool in the hot, humid summer days. It is also the perfect place to breed silk worms. Many of the attics of these homes held apparatuses that would house these creatures as they produced the thread that is so coveted by many of the people in the world. The folks who work in the village still take that thread and weave it together by hand into beautiful pieces of cloth. It is one of the reasons that makes Takayama one of the more special towns in the country of Japan.

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But the main reason that this place made me feel like I was at home was the people. They were friendly and took joy out of just being alive. We went to one of the traditional bar-b-q places in town one night. It is a fun experience. They have grills right in the table that they heat with briquettes of hard wood. You then order the vegetables and meat you wish to eat. If you ever go there, I would suggest that you order some of the beef. Hida beef may not be as famous as Kobe beef, but it is just as tender and it melts in your mouth the same way. You will not regret the experience.

The night we went, we were being given a demonstration by the owner of the restaurant who asked us where we were coming from. Of course we told him that we were originally from Denver. It was amazing how much this one word excited the people of this town. The owner started talking about the Nuggets, and the people sitting at the table next to us started to ask us questions about my home town. It turns out that the person at the table next to us was the main coordinator from Takayama who promoted the sister city aspect between the two towns. The conversation that ensued made me feel like I was at home again. There was talk of the Broncos, Michael Hancock, and the Rocky Mountains. If this was to help with my homesickness, it did not. It just made my longing for the place I called home even stronger. And even though the road I was on took me closer to the place my heart desired, I was still a ways from getting there.

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There was still one more stop on my trip through Japan, and that was Osaka. We had not planned to do a lot in this town. In fact, it was just a place to lay over until we were able to catch our flight back home, but I caught enough of the flavor of the city that I wished to learn more about it if I ever found myself here again. There is a vibrant energy running through the people who live here. Whether you are in the numerous shopping districts, walking around the back streets with their punk-rock attitude or watching the tourists as they wander by the waterfront, you can feel this vibe.

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This only problem was, we did not participate in this feeling. Instead, we ventured to the one place that felt the most like home. Osaka is home to one of the world’s Universal Studios. As soon as we heard this, we knew that we had to by tickets to the amusement park, mainly because Harry Potter’s World. I know this is not the cultural experience you look for when you travel to the exotic places of the world, but we had spent over two weeks soaking up the culture of Japan, and it was time to see what their take on this iconic story was like. Of course, it was like any other Universal Studios in the world. You could taste a butterbeer, take a ride on a broom with Harry and Ron, and shop for a wand at Olivander’s. The only difference was these characters that I had fallen in love with both in literature and film now spoke fluent Japanese. I knew I was nowhere near home when I saw the sorting hat tell me important details about the wizarding world in this foreign language. I still did not let this bring me down because there was enough things in this place to distract me from the fact that I wasn’t in my home town that it didn’t really matter. It was the perfect distraction on the last day away from the United States.

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We were so excited about returning back home the next day, that we packed up our bags on rushed to the airport. It was our last leg on the long road back home. This was the longest of the legs, and it ended up being an exhausting day. I won’t even go into details, but just know that it involved a lot of delays on airplanes on tarmacs that made the travel of getting back home that more painful.

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We knew we were close when we landed in Vancouver, and for the first time in a long time we were able to hear English again from the conversations around us. I felt a little bit of a heal  when I would listen in on people’s conversations. I wasn’t doing it to be a jerk, but because it was one of those little things I missed so much. If you have ever lived for a long time away from your native language, you know what it is like. Any opportunity you get to listen to the words you are familiar with, you just soak it up. You will eavesdrop. You will talk to complete strangers. You will read every word you see on a bathroom sign, not because you need to know about the blowers, but because you can the language. It was just a short hop from this airport to the place I longed for the most.20160710_020024

The next morning, I was able to wake up to this site, the Rocky Mountains. I was home again. Over the last year, I have had the opportunity to talk to many people from many different corners of the world. They have told me all about their experiences of living abroad, and talked about how each year they adjust to the changes around them. They have talked about missing their home towns, but they have also told me that this longing for familiar places gets smaller every year they live abroad. It might be true, but I do know that I had a strong desire to see these mountains again because this was the first time in my life I had lived without them for so long. It was one of the most welcoming sights I has ever seen.

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I even started to appreciate the small things I did not notice the first time as much while I was living here. I knew about the wild flowers that grew in the mountains, but I never knew how amazing it was when you were to come across a group of columbines in bloom in Colorado. It made me know that I was home.

There were other things I got to see in those first few days that made me excited about this trip home. Many people who live  in the United States would take these things for granted. I remember walking into a grocery store the first day back and being blown away by all the various types of food I saw on the shelves. If I wanted to I could find all the stuff I needed to make a delicious meal, and I wouldn’t need to travel all over the city to obtain each item. Visiting Target had the same kind of appeal to me. Not only was there food, but I could find music, movies, clothes and games there. It was pure heaven.

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A vibrant, colorful world was all around me. Wherever I turned on my trip back to America, I was greeted by things that I, at one time, had taken for granted, and it was like viewing them for the first time. But there was something I came across on my long road back home and throughout the trails I traveled through while I was there that I discovered was more important than anything else.

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It was always in the background. Sneaking into the photos being taken of me. It was something I missed more than anything else during my year away.

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I would run into it on backwoods trails in the Rocky Mountains. They were always there with a smile, and great conversation.

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It was the greatest part of being back. Its strength is more powerful than the Rocky Mountains, and I will take it in my heart as I travel back to my job in Seoul. It is my family.

I know that a lot of people take their family for granted. They expect them to be on their beckon call at all times, and my family would be willing to do anything for me as I would for them. But you learn as you make your way out into the great big world that distance might make that harder to accomplish on a regular basis. That still doesn’t mean they are still not with me as I travel from country to country. The experiences I have had with them combine together to create who I am now. And as I meet and get to know other people in this vast world, they are really getting to know my family better. It took me a year away from them to figure this out, and more importantly, to figure out what they mean to me. It is this new understanding of the importance of family that I take with me as I go off into my second year of teaching abroad, and I will never take them for granted again. I will treasure every moment I get to spend with them from now on.

(42 pictures were used to tell this story.)

The Challenge

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Books are important. Any educator will tell you that. You might even be able to dig that answer out of the more obstinate P.E. teacher with the help of healthy snacks and lot of hand signals. But those reluctant P.E. teachers would constantly complain that there is also value to their contribution to education that should not be ignored. Not every educator will feel the same when confronted with that idea. That pretentious English teacher with the curly mustache that he always needs to pet will be the first to tell you that anything you need to know can be found in The Complete Works of William Shakespeare. And as much as I would like to agree with the opinion of that stuffy English teacher, I do have to give it to the P.E. teacher in this case. Some times you need to put the book down, and go out to experience life.

I have talked about this type of learning before, and I still believe strongly in the importance of it. The last school I worked in used experiential education to show at-risk students the value of putting their addictions to the side and seeing the world for what it has to offer. The strange thing is that this is the same thing that the Korean students I am teaching now need as well. The addictions are a little different though. One involves a bong; whereas, the other involves a book.

It is obvious to many people that there will be a pot problem in the high schools of Colorado, but nobody thinks that there could be a problem similar to it in South Korea. For many years, South Korea has been on the top of the list for the best educational system in the world. Sometimes it is number one, but sometimes it slips to number two behind Finland. Both countries have great educational systems, but they both take different approaches to education. Finland thinks that less is more, and South Korea doesn’t believe that it can ever get enough. Students are required to work exceptionally hard in school and when they get out for the day, it is traditional for them to go to hagwons, a kind of specialized tutoring center, where they are asked to study even more. Some of my students spend up to sixteen hours a day with their studies. They are constantly tired, and have a hard time keeping awake. From middle school until they graduate high school, these students spend their time in their books. It is their addiction.

Granted, a lot of this is due to their culture and history. Americans can take a lesson from the South Koreans about how to pull themselves up by the bootstraps and get back on their feet. South Korea turned around their economy faster than any other nation in the world. They used to have one of the worst economies in the world, but now have the eleventh biggest one. The craziest thing about this is they accomplished this feat with very limited resources except their greatest one, hard-working people. This is where the notion of needing to work hard comes from and why the Koreans continue to push their children in this effort.

Now as a writer, I am always going to say that books are the greatest thing that has ever been, but like anything else there is a danger to them. Besides the obvious danger of introducing new ideas into the world, and pushing people’s thinking, there is another danger, getting addicted to them. The desire for learning is great, but when it comes at the expense of a person’s health, and takes away from them the chance to actually live their life, then education has gone too far. You can only get so much out of books. You get a lot more out of experience. A book will tell you how to do something. An adventure will require you to do it. That is where these trips come into play. We take our students out of their comfort zone, the safe world of stuffy books, and out into the world where they don’t know exactly what is going to happen.

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It is amazing to see these kids take to the challenges presented to them. They climb mountains, traverse rope bridges, ride on mountain bikes, and paddle on makeshift rafts. For many of these kids, they have never been able to experience this kind of life. Their existence was limited to the confines of the big city and their ideas of the world around them were only learned from books. Even though the intellectual challenges that they gain from this style of learning is great, they still never know how far they can take themselves and what mountains they can conquer until they are out scaling those stony cliffs.

This specific group of students took it even farther. They not only learned what they could do for themselves, but they also learned how they could work with each other. There were many times on the hike where I saw students helping each other out to make sure that they all got down the path safely. They cheered their peers to as they took the challenges that the adventure course offered to them. But the area that I saw them work together the best was on the pond with the rafts. My students were broken up into different groups and sent out onto five rafts with about eight students on each one. The four teachers that were chaperoning the event were placed on a separate raft. It took us awhile to get on the pond; whereas, the students had a little bit of time to figure out how to maneuver the boats around and how to splash each other. Of course, by the time the teachers got on the pond, we were the targets of their new attacks. The way they organized the boats on the pond made it difficult for us to escape their attack. Even though I knew I was about to get soaking wet on a cool spring day, the moment made me really proud. I was able to see a good portion of the sophomore class come together to work against a common enemy. It showed that the learning that we wanted to take place was actually happening.

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For these students, these trips are traveling through a dark long tunnel which sometimes does not appear that it will ever end. But halfway through that dark tunnel they start to see a small pinprick of light far away. So they keep on traveling to see if they can reach that other end. As they get closer to that end, the light gets bigger and bigger until they get to the other end. When they emerge from that tunnel the feeling of joy is huge. They can’t help but smile. For the most part, this is the same way that many people would describe their high school experiences.

For the teachers, these trips are the moments that they can guide the students through these new experiences. They can watch their pupils learn new skills as they go through these challenges. In the process, they get closer to their students and each group is able to learn about the other because we get to see each other out of the classroom environment. It all translates well when everybody gets back to the school. The students have experienced something new that they could never have learned from books and they trust their teachers even more and are willing to do the work that is asked of them. The teachers get to apply what they teach to something bigger outside of the classroom, and create those lasting relationships with their students.

With all of these benefits, you begin to wonder why more schools don’t try to create programs like this. Some day they will come around to this kind of thinking and each school will become the powerhouse of education that they can be. Until then, they need to continue to walk down that dark tunnel making their way to the guiding light.

My Side of Paradise

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Paradise.

It is the place that we always think about while we slave away at our various jobs throughout the year. We want that place we can go to that will allow us to forget the worries always piled on us. In most people’s minds, it is the same kind of place. There is usually a beach involved where somebody can come out to serve you various kinds of fruit concoctions. The weather is always warm, and there is not a piece of responsibility to be found anywhere. It is the lifestyle that we wish we could subject ourselves to on a daily basis, but we are lucky enough to be able to enjoy it for one week a year. A short list of places come to mind when we think about paradise: Maui, Manuel Antonio, Cancun, and the place that I traveled to over my Spring Break, Boracay.

This sliver of an island is a part of the Philippines and is a huge tourist destination for many of the people living in Asia. Thousands of people flock daily to the sandy beach, sunny skies, and laid back attitude of this slice of paradise. It is hard not to lose yourself to the culture that this place has to offer as there are many fun activities to do during the day: swimming, paragliding, diving, paddle boarding, and sailing. And there are many ways to lose yourself to the nightlife: great restaurants, wonderful bars, strong drinks, and fire dancers. Instantly, when arriving here, you forget about the cares you have and indulge in the fantasy the place has to offer.

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During our stay there, we weren’t able to stay on the beach itself, but that did not mean that we couldn’t find a place that had spectacular views. It required a little bit of a workout to get there. 224 steps up from the beach to the patio of the villa we rented made the hike worth it. This was what I had to wake up to every morning. It was great to have my morning coffee while watching the morning storms blow in to cleanse the island of all the dirt that had collected the night before. Also being so far away from the beach but still being able to enjoy its view forced me to ease into my day instead of attacking the relaxation that I believed possible at the place.

Too often when we go on vacation, the idea of squeezing all the fun out of the moment is all we think about. We try to pack our days with so much stuff to do that we forget that we had come to this place to relax. This is exactly what I did on this trip. Of course, I needed to plan a little bit before I left my villa every morning. If I forgot something back at home, I would have to trudge up those 224 steps to get it and that would have ruined the whole purpose of this trip. So after the morning rains turned into the afternoon sunshine, I would grab my beach gear and a good book and make my way down to the lounge chair that was waiting for me somewhere on the sandy landscape.

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That left me time to enjoy the important things in life — drink and food. Even though when you think of the Philippines you don’t necessarily think about the cuisine, Boracay offers a wide selection of dishes. There are a couple of dishes that are from the area, and they usually come with fresh fruit, but if you don’t want to try this, there are many other restaurants there that serve any kind of dish. There was anything from Indian to Italian. Restaurants would serve burgers to baba ganoush. It just meant that I would never get bored with what I was eating.

And if I didn’t feel like partaking in what the restaurants had to offer, there was a market where I could pick up some freshly caught fish. There was a grill at our villa that we could use, and it was nice to be able to BBQ again. This is not a luxury that you can find if you live in an apartment in a big city, so it just added to the atmosphere that this small treat was made available to us. I did spend one night grilling a chicken that was probably killed and plucked that day, and we were going to do the same thing with some fish. This was until the maid that we had working in the villa came in and grilled the fish for us. It wasn’t the way I would have cooked it, but it did give us an opportunity to try it the more traditional Philippines cuisine.

The drinks in Boracay are also good. Beer is not what the country is know for, but on a hot day, a cold San Miguel is a welcomed refreshment. Most of their mixed drinks come with fruit juice that was squeezed that morning, and if the drink required coconut milk, the bartender could grab one that had fallen from one the nearby palm trees. I don’t know if it was invented on the island, but it was the first time I had ever encountered a drink called the weng weng. It had seven different types of spirits in it mixed with various juices. It reminded me of those drinks I used to be able to find at college parties usually mixed in a large trashcan. People at these parties would bring a bottle of something that would be poured into the mix followed by more juice. The juice would tone down the alcohol, so it made it feel like you weren’t drinking anything at all. The sad thing would be a hour later after sucking down a few of these drinks you would be reminded that you had been drinking all along. This was also the power of the weng weng. It could make an evening very interesting or shorten it up altogether.

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Despite the cultural experience that could be found in a weng weng, around certain corners, you could find little gems of the culture that is offered on this island. Statues of lions, and other cultural icons could be found everywhere.

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The sight of these statues made me wonder more about the culture of the area. I feel that something has been lacking in my education when I travel in the Pacific and Asian countries. The American-centric view of the world makes me wonder how a whole culture can ignore such a large population of the world. The history here and the culture is just as rich and probably even older than anything that Europe has to offer the world. But the only way that I can experience it or learn anything about it is by visiting these countries because this little corner of the world is ignored in the history text books back home.

It is not the only thing that is ignored out here. Even though there is slice of paradise out on this island, there is another aspect of it that is not often talked about. It requires people to look through the cracks to find it.

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Even though the sun might always be in the sky, and the sandy beach seems to stretch on forever, the people who live here aren’t always given the opportunity to enjoy it the same way the people visit it do. In 2014, one out of every four people in the Philippines lived below the poverty line which was slightly higher than it was the previous year. Things are not getting better, but in fact they are getting worse. There are always signs of this problem wherever you go. Children on the beach yell at you to give them some money because they are hungry. Mothers with their newborns wrapped in their arms sit outside stores with a cup to collect unwanted coins. In fact, if I looked out the back window of the villa we stayed in, I was welcomed by a different sight than when I looked out my front patio.

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The reality of the situation is more people live like this, but the tourist industry does not want you to think about this when they create a picture of the paradise you can visit out here. They don’t want you to think about the people who have made shelters out of any scrap that they find lying around and then call it a home. They don’t want you to think about the hungry mouths and unclothed people. They do want you to think about the great time you will have by visiting this paradise. And there is the fact, that when you do come out here to visit you pump a lot of foreign currency into their economy. But if tourism was the solution to this problem then the poverty rate would be declining instead of rising.

It has to be even worse for the people that do live here. Every day a new shipment of visitors come in with huge wallets ready to ignore the poverty all around them. They sit on the beach, consume the food, sip on fruity concoctions and go back to their first world problems to quickly forget about the struggles that other people in this world are experiencing. The people who live here are reminded every day what it is they will never be able to have.

Does that mean that I am a contributor to this problem by being one of these tourists that comes and enjoys their time while ignoring the plight of the Philippines’ people? What could I do? Throwing money at the problem won’t solve anything because it will only end up in the hands of the people who don’t really need or it will just continue to serve the poverty by giving the ones who live there a meal without showing them the way out of it. How can I make the world a better place and eliminate this debilitating social disease?

Well, it can always start at home. An honest person would look at their own community and admit that poverty exists there as well. We can not solve all of the problems of a country half a world away, but we can make a dent into the problems that we have at home. The only chance that these kids have of rising themselves out of the lot they found themselves born into is by becoming a productive part of the work force, and this can only be obtained by a good education.

During my days on the island, I saw lots of children playing in the cool water and on the beach when they should have been in school. They were getting a personal education when they were rewarded for their begging, and even though this was an easy solution to their problem, it would never help bring them and their country out of poverty. They need to be in that classroom, and the classroom needs to be well supplied and have a great teacher at the helm. There they will learn about the truth of their situation and gain the tools needed to fix it.

This same solution works for the children struggling with poverty in your corner of the world. If they are given the tools to succeed, then most of them will. You will always have the ones that fight against the charity given to them, and there is not a lot you can do about it except to not encourage the damaging attitude. For the most part, most children want to make something of themselves and are grateful for the opportunity.

This is where you come in. Support public education in your community, and country. Respect the professional attitude of the teachers, and understand that they are doing their work for the right reasons. Fight against the standardized tests because there is no job in this world where filling in the appropriate bubble on a piece of paper is considered productive. If you do this then every child who works their way out of poverty will make the whole place a better one to live in. This way when you make it out to paradise, you won’t feel guilty because of the poverty that is hidden behind the beauty that you came to see in the first place. The trickle effect of your contribution to the world will make all places into true paradises.

The Staycation

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Our lives are busy.

I’m sure many of you are screaming at me for wasting those five seconds you spent reading that statement to be told something you already know. I’m sorry to state the obvious, but it is something that we all need to recognize from time to time. The big question is what should we do about it once we admit to ourselves that we need a break from our daily routine.

The conventional wisdom tells us that we should go on a vacation to some place fantastic so we can tell everybody about it. They will be jealous and will start to make plans about going to the same place. How do we know this happens, well, they start to ask us things about what we loved, and the things we would have skipped if we were given the opportunity to do it all over again.

The crazy thing though is we come back from these incredible vacations more exhausted than when we left. It is because we don’t stop with our busy lifestyles while we are on vacation. We just change the focus. We tell ourselves that we need to squeeze in as much fun as we can while we are at these places or the effort of traveling half way around the globe wasn’t worth the experience.

You know this is true. I’m sure many of you have made the statement that you need a vacation after you return from your vacation.

Why do we do this to ourselves? We know we need a break, but yet we go on vacation and run ourselves ragged in order to get it.

There is another option that more people are considering, a staycation.

What exactly is a staycation? It is where you pack a bag, find a hotel in the city you live in, and go and stay there instead of making yourself crazy by rushing to the airport, driving across the country, or making other travel plans that leave you more worn out than when you began.

It might sound like a cop out for really going on a vacation, but I am here to tell you that there are many benefits for enjoying this kind of break. Don’t get me wrong, I love going out and seeing the world, but I find myself not knowing much about the city that I live in. In fact, you probably have said sometime in your life that it take others to come to town for you to really go out and see the sights of where you live.

It also is less expensive than taking a vacation further from your home. You don’t have to pay for that travel expense. You just have to find a way to make it to the downtown area of the city you live in. For most people that means hopping in their car and driving there, and if you live in a big enough city, it means just getting on some public transportation and finding the route that takes you to your destination. The money you save on transportation costs, you can use on getting a little nicer place to stay and still save a bunch of money. It also means splurging on some better food.

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Add into this mix a national holiday, and you have something really special about your staycation. I know you are thinking that the holiday would have to be the Super Bowl, but the city I live in really doesn’t care much for that game (Yes, there are places out there that don’t care). The people of Korea were getting together to celebrate the Year of the Monkey. It was my first Lunar New Year in Asia so I wanted to go out and see how they celebrate this event. We picked a place downtown which we haven’t explored much of, Myeongdong, and got a hotel room right next to the subway entrance.

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It was the perfect place to experience this holiday. There was a huge shopping market right around the corner, which is not something I am usually excited about especially in Korea. They are interested a little too much in fashion which doesn’t excite me as much. It also doesn’t help that the clothes out here are a little small for me. But there was plenty of street vendors offering my favorite Korean cuisine, street food.

Koreans know how to do street food very well. They have a sweet bread that they cook an egg on top of. They will twirl a potato into one log chip and poke a stick through it. They then lightly bread it, fry it and roll it around powdered cheese. They will make a banana pancake, fill it up with Frosted Flakes, and Nutella. It all spells delicious. If you find yourself as one of those guys who have to stand around while your wife or girlfriend looks at shoes or clothes, you can always run out to the streets and partake of some of the local fare that is offered. The Koreans have figured out how to please both genders with the shopping experience. The only real problem was it was still cold, so I wanted to run back inside every moment to warm back up.

But Myeongdong has you covered there as well. There are various restaurants around that will satisfy your hunger that the street fare only tickles. There are offerings that show what Korea has to offer to world culture, such as Korean BBQ, and chicken and beer places. But if  you are in the mood for something else, you can find sushi, Indian, Thai, Italian, burgers, Chinese, and even pizza. My favorite was the Italian place underneath the CGV movie theater called Mad About Garlic. There are two locations that I know of in Seoul, and this is the second time that I have eaten at one. The atmosphere in the one in Myeongdong isn’t as nice as the one in AK Plaza, but the food is just as good. A little warning for those of you who don’t like spice, when Mad About Garlic says something is spicy, they mean it. For those of you who like spice, enjoy.

After you have eaten, are there places where you can enjoy the evening? Yes! What would an outdoor shopping place be like if you couldn’t have a few drinks and enjoy it a little more? The stores like it as well because it makes people spend more money. There are bars that make strong cocktails, and the craft beer movement has even seeped into the streets of Myeongdong. You can find a good IPA, or a hearty stout. And if a beer is not enough for you, you can always go with the traditional Korean drink, soju. It might be a little more expensive to buy it at one of the bars than the dollar fifty you will spend at a convenience store, but it is still a lot less than a beer. It makes the next experience you come across even more fun.

And yes, there is culture down here as well. You can take in the longest running play in South Korea, Nanta. If you don’t speak Korean, you don’t have to worry about it because it is blend of physical comedy, drumming, and audience interaction. It is a lot of fun no matter what your language barrier or your age might be.

Another fun little thing to do if you don’t mind making a fool of yourself in front of your friends is to go to a norabong. This is Korea’s answer to karaoke. You rent a room, and are given a book of songs you can sing. A waiter comes in dropping off cans of cheap beer while you shout into the microphones, and laugh at the scores the computer gives you for your performance. If you have lived in Korea, or just visited, and have not made it to a norabong, you have not lived yet.

If these activities are a little too low brow for you, there are some other places you can go that are more worthy of your sophistication. A short subway stop away is the Korean War Memorial. This museum gives perspective to America’s forgotten war. I will admit that what I know about this conflict comes from the TV show, M.A.S.H., and I don’t think that is very accurate. A visit to this place will clear up what you might have thought happened and what really did happen. So far, with all my experience in South Korea, it is the one museum that has moved me the most.

All of these experiences have made my first ever staycation a wonderful and relaxing experience. I have also learned more about the city I live in. I would recommend to other people that this is something that they should do as well. So the next time you need to recharge your batteries and are thinking about the place that will help you do this, start thinking about it from a different perspective and just…

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Stay.

My Pilgramage

As I once told one of my old co-workers, we are all geeks.

Just as he did at the time, I am sure there are some who are offended by this sweeping statement, and the negative connotations that are usually associated with the word, geek. My old co-worker told me that there was no way he could be a geek because he was too athletic to be one. He demonstrated this by showing off the various college football t-shirts that he owned and talking non-stop about the history and the importance of the SEC. This outward display of his passion for college football just proved my point; he just first needed to realize what a geek is.

A geek is someone who is so insanely passionate about something that he or she will obsess over it, and know everything there is to know about that one subject. This is usually displayed in the media by those who attend Comicon every year to debate which is the better series Star Wars or Star Trek. But this passion does not only need to be reserved for the ones who enjoy science fiction and fantasy. There are food geeks, and there are fashion geeks. Probably, one of the biggest contingencies of geeks out there are the ones who obsess over sports. There is nothing wrong about this. These people should be proud of the fact that they have a passion for something because if they did not, it would mean that they were a hollow people waiting for some form of inspiration to give them a reason for living. At the same time, they shouldn’t claim that they are superior to other people because they don’t want to admit that what their passion is makes them a geek. They geek out as much as the stereotypical geek as portrayed in the media.

Considering that I believe that every person holds this pension for geekdom within themselves, I can’t exclude myself. There are a few things that I geek out on, but one of the biggest ones is The Lord of the Rings. I am a huge fan of that story. In fact, the whole history of Middle Earth has been a passion of mine ever since I first saw the Rankin Bass version of The Hobbit when I was in first grade, and I had nightmares that Gollum was going to come and gobble me during my sleep. At the same time, I was always fascinated by the character. When Peter Jackson released the movies, it was a dream come true for me because here was one of my favorite stories coming to life on the big screen. I had some reservations about it: would they be able to create a believable Sméagol, would they make sure to stay original to the text, and most importantly, where would they find a location that demonstrated to me what the world of Middle Earth actually looked like in my mind?

At the time, I knew that there was a country called New Zealand. Beyond that, all I knew was that the people who had visited it considered it beautiful, and if I ever had a chance to go visit during my lifetime, I should do so. I always had it in the back of my mind that I would make it there someday, but it wasn’t until I saw the scenery in the movies that I knew that I needed to make this one of my life goals. It was the place I always imagined while reading the novels here it was on earth. The only problem was it would require a lot of effort to make this trip a reality, and it wasn’t until I moved to South Korea that this effort would be minimized to the point where I would be a fool if I didn’t take the opportunity to visit and fulfil one of my greatest desires, visit Middle Earth.

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So this Winter Break, I boarded a jet plane to travel to the other side of the world, and see the wonders that New Zealand held. I would search for the locations that had been made famous from the movie and see first hand what it was like to travel through Middle Earth to destroy to one true ring. This had become more than a quest for me; it had become a pilgrimage. It would be a religious moment. I would be able to witness first hand what the vision of Tolkien was supposed to look like much like the pilgrims Chaucer wrote about in his most famous work as they traveled to the site of that famous martyr they respected so much. It threw me off even more when I encountered a Canterbury while traveling around the country, but this wasn’t about the bones of that holy saint, Thomas a Becket, but instead about the spiritual connection I had come to make with the land of the elves, and orcs, and most importantly hobbits.

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In fact, my first stop on this trip was to the small town of Matamata which held a small farm just outside of its jurisdiction. This location was used by Peter Jackson to create Hobbiton. If you have never been there, it is a magical place that transports you to the Shire. There are hobbit holes all over the place, and they were built as if they were intended for halflings to live in because the top of the doors would barely come up to my hips. The amount of detail that went into making this place look real was intense. Small coats would hang on the edge of small plows leaning against tiny wheelbarrows. You would be able to look into the windows of some of these places and see small vases next to small wheels of cheese. There was even the party tree placed in a huge field next to a babbling stream. The whole place made you feel as if the hobbits would come out at any moment and eye you suspiciously as an invader to their peaceful land. There was even a bridge over the river next to Sandyman’s Mill that led you to the Green Dragon. And yes you could go inside and order a drink and sit next to the fire that was built out of tiny blocks of chopped wood.

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I was in pure heaven. Here I was, less than twenty-four hours out of Seoul with an ale in my hand and the summer sun shining right out a circular hobbit door. The fire was only there for effect because we really didn’t need it. The best part was the place that Peter Jackson had picked to create this reality was on a sheep farm, so it had that pastoral setting I always thought of when reading the stories. There was a connection with nature there where these little people were able to live n harmony with their surroundings instead of trying to control it. There were no combustible engines except for the one that brought us from the gift shop to this other world. If I was half my size, I would have taken up residence in this place and would have been one with the hobbits.

Unfortunately, all good things must come to an end, and they loaded us back on the tour bus to take us off the farm and back to the reality of life. Luckily, I was in the place where they created Middle Earth, so wherever I turned there was another reference to The Lord of the Rings. We spent some time searching out these spots, and sometimes re-enacting some of the scenes. Yes, I hid behind the root of a tree pretending that there was a Nazgul on the other side hunting for the one ring. And of course I made it down to Wellington.

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Wellington is most famous for the home to the Weta Cave. This is the special effects department that Peter Jackson and Richard Taylor created for all their various projects. It is one of the leading production companies in the world and it is situated in this small town on the southern coast of the northern island. These two not only work on their own productions, but they are called by many other directors to make other fantasy worlds come to life. They designed the weapons and aliens for District 9. They imagined the world of Krampus. Most famously, they put together the tall blue aliens that inhabited James Cameron’s Avatar. This was a place that I needed to visit, and it is not where you would expect it to be.

In order to get there, you have to get on a bus as it takes you over Mount Victoria to a small suburb on the other side. When the bus drops you off, you have to stroll through streets that look more like where you grandmother would live rather than the place where they would hide a major movie studio. In fact, when you get there, you find out that the Weta Cave actually belongs to one of these houses you were passing.

There were a few other people on the bus that were looking for the Weta Cave when we got on, and we all instantly became friends on our search for this magical place. We kept on scanning the horizon for some sign that we were getting close to the place, and we knew we were there when we heard from one of our group scream out in joy, “Look, Trolls!”

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Yes, that is how you know you are in the right place. Peter Jackson took the life sized models that he used for Tom, William and Bert and placed them in front of the Weta Cave. It is a little disturbing because it is right across the street from an elementary school, and there are probably a bunch of kids attending that school that have nightmares every night because of these statues. There were some kids that obviously didn’t care. One Chinese couple brought their toddler who ran between the three of them with a huge smile on his face as if these were something he would see on a regular basis. The rest of the tourists didn’t seem to care much either as they walked around the three trolls and had their pictures with them in various poses of terror and humor. For me, it was just another one of those moments that let me know that I had found a concrete connection to one of the stories I have loved more than any other in my life.

The tour was a lot of fun too. We got to play around with various props from the original movies such as battle axes, mythril, and prosthetic limbs that were used to make the different inhabitants of Middle Earth look as if they belong there. We got to view other items too, such as aliens weapons from District 9, Hellboy’s gun, and the snowman from Krampus. It was like being in movie making heaven even though the room was really small, and you would expect something more from such a big player in the movie making industry. I got to learn a lot about the production of special effects and props and it made me want to pick up a camera and start to make movies of my own. So if any of you who are reading this have a half a million dollars lying around could you lend it to me. I’ll make you a really good movie.

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The creations of Peter Jackson weren’t the only things that excited me on our trip. We found ourselves in the back country of New Zealand which there happens to be a lot of. At every turn there were more moments from the movies. It didn’t only happen on staged sets. This is Franz Josef Glacier; you can see it peeking out from underneath the clouds on top of the mountain. This was a set in itself. Peter Jackson used this location for the lighting of the beacons. It wasn’t his first choice either but the summer they were filming was extremely dry and there were fire bans all over the place. He had to use this place instead because he was allowed to light huge bonfires on the tips of these mountains. I could sit there and point out the peaks that the fire were being lit from, but something strange happened to me here. I stopped paying attention to the reference to The Lord of the Rings and started to pay attention to New Zealand. My propensity to my geekdom was causing me to miss something quite amazing. I didn’t need this obsession of mine to make this place incredible because the place was pretty amazing on its own terms.

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The landscape jutted out of the ocean in such a dramatic fashion that I needed to quit worrying about where Frodo would be on his journey, and start marveling at the natural landscape that surrounded me. There were opportunities for my own personal adventures here that I didn’t need to worry about the epic voyage of a couple of hobbits; I could make my own memories of the place.

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When I started to look at New Zealand for what New Zealand had to offer, a whole new perspective started to carve itself from the landscape. There was blue sky with fresh air just waiting to be sucked deeply into my lungs. There were some of the most dramatic mountains I had ever seen, and remember that I come from Colorado, and have spent considerable time in the Pacific Northwest and the Swiss Alps. There were river of the most beautiful icy blue coming directly from glaciers that were carving the newest sets of fjords many people this world have not enjoyed yet. It was a young land still being shaped by mother nature, and was so far off the beaten path that humanity hadn’t destroyed its beauty with its own mark. The lessons we had learned from all the other places of the world were being implemented here to make this one of the last and purest frontiers left on Earth.

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But the view would dramatically shift as I traveled along its highways. In the morning, I would be shivering next to blocks of ice floating down frozen rivers, then travel through pastoral lands filled with sheep and the occasional farmhouse, to find myself on a pristine beach soaking up the sun of the day. Even the beaches were something I had not witnessed before. The volcanic rock that made up these islands left behind a soft, fine dark sand that is not associated with beaches, and since the ocean in this area wasn’t being littered with gasoline extract of thousands of ships, the water was the clearest blue that begged to be jumped into. Of course, I didn’t do it because I was far enough south of the border to know that the water would be freezing, but it was still nice enough to dip my toes in before strolling down these amazing beaches.

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Because man had eventually learned to respect mother nature and let her thrive, many animals come to the place to enjoy moments of their lives. Rocky extensions of the shores would be covered with seals as they ate, mated, and raised families. It wasn’t always that way down here as they were hunted almost to extinction at one time, but man quickly learned its mistake, and made adjustments to live in harmony with nature instead of always trying to control it. It was this decision made by the Maori that allowed this little corner of the world to thrive before it was touched by Western thought.

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The changes in landscape didn’t only happen when I moved from inland to the coast either. There would be dramatic shifts when I moved from beach to beach. Where one beach would be filled with dark sand and my lonely thoughts, another would be covered in all types of trees giving it a feeling of a tropical rainforest rather than a cold water beach.

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And then there were the beaches that the people sought out to relax on. They were usually in a small coves that allowed the water to warm up a little more. Many people would dip their toes into this water, and the more adventuresome person would actually venture into the water to take a swim. The landscape made the beach even more impressive allowing me never to tire of the views.

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Sometimes the coast wouldn’t even allow for a place to pull out a beach blanket and enjoy the view. Rather, rocky cliffs would constantly be giving way to the waves crashing into them. It would develop into fantastic sculptures that only mother nature could create, and only man could decipher. Natural formed bridges would allow people to cross from one section of these sculptures to another part while watching the wave create a smaller bay right underneath it.

The landscape of New Zealand had so enthralled me by this point that I had stopped searching for every little hint of The Lord of the Rings. In fact if I had turned just a little to my left of the land bridge pictured up above, I would have seen another set used in the movies, and even though it was still interesting, it was this tiny bay carved into the hills of the coast that captured my imagination. I was starting to become enchanted with this land, and my original purpose was getting lost among everything I was experiencing.

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The people with their quirky sense of humor were wonderful to visit. At first, it threw me off because they were overly friendly and I was coming from a place where this wasn’t natural, but I quickly accepted it and enjoyed every moment of it. There were also funny little gems along the side of the road that forced you to laugh when you saw them. Before you even realized what it was you actually saw, you would be further down the highway laughing out loud about the way the people of New Zealand could make you laugh without even having to interact with them. Items like this sign or a construction of a Gary Larson cow would instantly put a smile on my face. It made the time I got to spend here even more enjoyable.

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If that wasn’t enough, the towns that were scattered throughout the country all held their own special charm. A small town would give you the feeling of living in the old west as it shop fronts would maintain a rustic design. Just off the beaten path from here was a river in which you could actually dig up part of the bank and sluice through the dirt to try to find some of the gold that was there. It wasn’t that unusual of a thing to do either because there were a bunch of people who were doing it.

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There were even some mountain communities that reminded me of the ones I left behind in Colorado. During the summer months, this town offered many exciting opportunities such as mountain biking, and bungee jumping; the latter of which, I found out, was invented in this small mountain town and then spread throughout the rest of the world. Though I did not partake in either of these activities here, it did not stop me from hiking around the hills and even riding a couple of luges down a cement track laid on one of the hillsides.

I could just imagine this place during the winter as well. It would still have that cozy feel that I experienced when I was there, except it would be covered in a blanket of white instead of the green canopy. People wouldn’t be walking around in shorts and t-shirts while carrying around skateboards, but instead, would have snowboards under their arms as they trudge off towards the slopes in their heavy coats and snow pants. It was the tourist destination that you always expect when you are on vacation, but with split personalities that you won’t get to experience unless you go back in a different season.

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And even though they might be modest compared to other places within the world, New Zealand even had its share of large cities. Even these places were very livable, and seeped in culture. Of course, if you still want that thrill, you can bungee jump off of the needle in the middle of town.

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Hidden within all of this is an indigenous culture that is rich in history and unique among all of the cultures of the world. Though it is believed that the Maori people originate from Tahiti, it still had been removed from those people long enough to create its own art, its own philosophy, and its own spirituality. This was a culture that was embraced by the people who moved here from Western Civilization; instead of them trying to take over the culture. A lot of this was probably due to the fact that it was the last part of the world that the European countries ever found, and some of the first people to land here, such as Cook, could see the mistakes that had been made in other places that were colonized that he didn’t want to make the same ones down here. It allowed the cultures to eventually live in harmony with one another, and not to let the Maori culture to get blended with the European one and eventually disappear. This history, though short, is very rich and should be looked at more often in history classrooms across the world, but won’t be because of the fact that New Zealand is so far away from any other country.

All of the richness of this faraway land was revealed to me throughout the course of my travels, and I might have missed it due to one of my passions. Though I would often say that you should never let anybody put you down for that thing that makes you a geek, I am now able to say to not let that passion consume you. For if you do, you will be a lot like Sméagol hiding out under the Misty Mountains content with what will come your way. You need to make it out of that cave every once in a while and experience different things. Don’t let that passion leave you because it is a part of who you are, but let other people’s passions into your heart as well.

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The voyage that you take might surprise you and what you find will become unexpected. It is what makes life worth living. Though my pilgrimage originally started out as an exploration of a great passion of mine, it turned into something even greater than I would have expected. It was for this reason that this will always be one of my favorite trips.

But don’t worry, I still got to see Mt. Doom!

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Camping Korean Style

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Dictionary.com defines Taoism as “the philosophical system evolved by Lao-tzu and Chang-Tzu, advocating a life of complete simplicity and naturalness and of noninterference with the course of natural events, in order to attain a happy existence in harmony with the Tao.” (Taoism) Basically Tao literally translates into English as the way or the path.

Being a professed Transcendentalist, this idea appealed to me as I made my move to Korea. It conjured up images of a society that blended together with nature to create a new harmony between these two opposing forces. I was told of hiking trails in the hills surrounding the city of Seoul that within seconds would make you feel like you were out of the city. Tales of a community that enjoyed the outdoors was regaled to me on numerous occasion before I took the flight over. I was going to a country that loved skiing, hiking, and camping. How could I not look forward to this. Even in one of the largest cities in the world, I would be able to find nirvana just by walking out my front door and finding peace among the trees that surrounded me. Even though there is some truth what was explained to me, what I built up in my minds rarely lives up to that expectation.

Over the recent Thanksgiving holiday, I had the chance to go on a “camping” trip with people I work with at my school. It was suppose to be an opportunity for us to gather together in a remote part of South Korea, and celebrate the holiday with the people who have become our family out here. The head of the experiential education program set up a place for us for this adventure. It wasn’t necessarily camping because she had rented out a whole pension for those who had signed up. It was located in a beautiful part of the country called Peyongchang. The pension itself is a series of cabin like rooms that overlooks an amazing river and is close to a cave that you can explore next to some wonderful hiking trails. It wasn’t exactly my idea of camping but then again it was cold outside so there would haven’t been as many people willing to come if they had to spend the night in tents. The first snowfall of the season confirmed their beliefs that this was the way to go.

The pension rooms definitely lived up to the concept of Taoism. There was not a lot added to the room and we were given the bear minimum in order to make ourselves comfortable. There was a thin pad you unrolled on the hard floor to sleep on. They also provided you with a pillow and a comforter to keep you warm. The small kitchen had one electric burner, and one gas one. They did supply us with a canister of propane, even though we never used it. They did give us enough plates, chopsticks and spoons for four people. Luckily, we had five people sharing the room, but we made it work. The whole layout required us to get very comfortable with each other and there is some to say about that.

It still wasn’t roughing it. Some of the others who came along might have thought that it was truly out in the wilderness because there was no Wi-Fi connection which for a younger generation would be like going back to the dark ages, but once again this was something that I really appreciated. It forced all of us to take those extra steps to talk with each other instead of hiding within our electronic devices.

It still wasn’t this connection with nature that I was hoping for or used to. I wanted the feeling that I had gotten away from signs of humanity and could enjoy the natural way of things. How was I able to be in harmony with Tao if wherever I looked there was some sign of human interaction? Even on hikes up in the hills behind the pension, it was hard to escape from these signs.

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Now I have been on many hikes during my lifetime in the mountains of Colorado, and I have run into cairns many times on these hikes. They were small stacks of stones to help guide you on your hike so you wouldn’t get lost. I know that they would be considered signs of human interaction, but they are easy to ignore as soon as you find them because they will blend back into the environment.

The cairns I ran into on the hillsides of Korea were a little different. They weren’t stacks of five or six rocks to help guide your way, but instead a large stack of stones that obviously took more than five minutes to put together. In fact this labor of love looked more like an archway welcoming you to the rest of the trail rather than a few guiding markers. It was impressive to look at, but it instantly reminded me of the fact that I was now in one of the most heavily populated areas of the world. As I have mentioned before, it might be because I have been spoiled by growing up in Colorado and have been able to experience those moments of extreme solitude that when I see a sight like this I automatically think of those moments and wonder why the rest of the world can’t preserve the nature that is around them instead of trying to enhance it.

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Does it make me antisocial to want to have these moments where I enjoy the world for myself? Would you claim that I am being selfish for not wanting to share it with anybody else? Do I expect to find comfort in only what nature has to offer me instead of what mankind can prove it can do? I think back to Taoism and revel in the fact that the way cannot be perceived the same for everyone. There should be no guidance along the path because only I can find the revelation for myself. The paths that I found in the hills of Korea contradicted this idea in my mind’s eye.

I voyaged back down to the pension and this idea that Korea had about camping disappointed me a little bit. I know that not every culture tries to experience things in the same way and they have their own take on things, but still I couldn’t help to think that maybe, somehow, Korea had gotten it wrong in this case. The connection with and the struggle against nature is what camping should be about and not this moment where you go out there to relax in it and enhance it. I didn’t spend too much time worrying about it though because I only had a short break off from work and one of my favorite holiday traditions was asking for my attention.

That night the folks from my school gathered together in a large hall in the pension and everybody brought a couple of dishes to share. We gathered around the table, stuffing our faces with the traditional fare as well as some new items that were brought from people from other cultures. We shared stories, we laughed, and eventually somebody brought out a guitar and we sang together. It wasn’t a new experience for me, but I felt at that moment a joy I hadn’t felt in many years. It was the same joy I used to feel on Thanksgiving Day when I gathered with my extensive family, a feeling of love and kindness. Glasses were raised and for the first time out here in Korea, I felt like I belonged to something greater. It was euphoric. It was a collection of individuals brought together to create something special that would endure forever. It was in harmony with everything around me, and yet I could feel that it was always there to begin with. Maybe it was the Tao that I was searching for in the first place.

I came to a realization that day that when looking for what is important in life, I shouldn’t look for what I expect to find because what that is never truly existed. Instead I should take in what is given to me and enjoy it for what it is worth. That is the place where I will find something special, and I need quit searching for it. Maybe that is what is meant by finding the way. So even though camping in Korea is nothing like what I am used to, I am still able to find a new truth through the experience that I wasn’t able to find before. Maybe instead of looking for the power of nature, I should start to look for a way that I can live in harmony with it. Even though nature’s beauty has a lot to offer, like a thousand rocks brought together, and fifty strangers gathered, there can be an enhancement to that beauty that makes it a greater marvel than what it started out being.

“Taoism.” Dictionary.com. 2005. Houghton Mifflin Company. 5 December 2015 http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/taoism

The Changing Seasons

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I have been really lucky in life. Not everybody gets the opportunity to grow up in one of the most beautiful places in the world, Colorado. But I was one of the few people that can say that I have been able to enjoy all my life the warm summers in the magnificent Rocky Mountains, the snowy winters landscapes, and the joy that you get to feel as you get to see life come back during the spring months.

Even though I enjoyed all of these moments year after year, there was one time of the year when Colorado could not claim the beauty that makes it so memorable, and that is in the fall. Yes, there is that short window of time during late September and early October where you can enjoy the golden splendor of the aspens changing, but this is a short window, and afterwards there is not much to see until the winter snows come. Everything just turns an ugly shade of brown, and trees are nothing more than bare sticks poking out of the ground. It is not the spectacular vision you get the rest of the year in Colorado. In fact, there were a few times when my in-laws came out to visit Christine and me during the Thanksgiving holiday, and I was embarrassed to say that this barren landscape was actually the place that I convinced their daughter to move to. I would always try to explain to them that Colorado does not look like this all year long, and I could see them shaking their heads in agreement, but their eyes told a different story.

While growing up, I had heard about these wonderful places where autumn existed. During my elementary school days, the teachers would have us cut up different kinds of leafs with colorful construction paper so we could decorate the room with them. They would try to tell us that in other parts of the world this is the what autumn looks like. I would hear about the pilgrimages people would take to New England so they could look at the foliage out there, and I would wish I could some day experience the same beauty, but after every passing November, I would forget about that wish as the first snows of winter would collect on the ground. It wasn’t until this fall that I was able to experience the gradual change in the weather and see the color explosion that comes with this season.

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Recently, I was able to make it out of Seoul to go on a research and development trip for an experiential education experience that the school I work for is planning for my 10th grade students. We headed out to a camp called Boramwon to see what it had to offer. There was an adventure course, mountain bikes, and archery, but the thing that impressed me the most was the four mile hike that I took through the craggy hills surrounding the camp. It was a beautiful hike that allowed many opportunities to see the countryside of South Korea. The most amazing thing was seeing all of the different colors of fall. For the first time of my life, I was able to see bright reds, yellows, and oranges as they blended together with the usual greens of the pine trees.  I was blown away by the spectacle, and I realized what it means to experience fall colors. If ever you plan to make a trip out to South Korea and you don’t want to spend your time in the confines of Seoul, autumn is the time to come. The weather is mild and pleasant. The air is crisp, rejuvenating you every time you take a deep breath. Most importantly, it is the most beautiful time of the year I have seen while living out in South Korea, and it has been by far, the best autumn I have ever experienced.