Lessons from Angkor Wat

There are many reason people go on vacation. They want to experience a new culture and learn about a different part of the world. They want to try new foods from the places that invented them. They want to go on an adventure. They want to relax. Sometimes, they are trying to pack all of these things in together, and Siem Reap, Cambodia is the perfect place to do just that.

Cambodia has seen its fair share of problems over the last century. It has experienced war, dictators, genocide, and economic devastation. Through all of this, it has been able to keep itself together as it worked through all of these problems, and the people of this small country in Southeast Asia still have a sense of identity and where they come from. Most of this is due to the incredible temples that lie in its backyard, the biggest of them being Angkor Wat.

These temples are not small little structures either. They are the remnants of what used to be a thriving metropolis of over a million people. It can be found in a forested area outside of Siem Reap, covering over 1,000 square kilometers, and demonstrating the height of the Khmer empire. The most impressive of the temples is Angkor Wat itself which was built in the early 12th century by King Suryavaman II to demonstrate the world what he was capable of and show his appreciation of the Hindu god, Vishnu.  These massive marvels of architecture were built as the same time as some of the more impressive cathedrals in Europe, and those Catholic churches can not come close to the size and scope that these temples present.

It is not just the size of these great temples that draws millions of people to this corner of the world. It is also the intricate carvings and designs that can be found all over them. One of the more impressive temples, Bayon, has about 200 massive faces of Lokesvara looking down at the people wandering around the crumbling walls. Wherever you look, his smiling face smiles down upon you reminding you of the greatness of this once thriving society.

But the statues and carving don’t only come in sizes larger than man. They range from medium to even small. Whole walls have carvings of individual people depicting what life would have looked like during this age. It would have taken a group of workers a long time to create these images because no two of the people carved into the wall look alike, showing the productivity of this incredible society. You can’t help but be amazed as you walk around the grounds.

But there is another story one can’t help to wonder about while looking at the once majestic landscape. How did this place go from one of the greatest, and strongest societies in the world to this place trying to pull itself out of the abject poverty it is experiencing now? Where did it misstep? How can its story tell us about some of the other nations in the world? Should the United States take note on the fate of Angkor Wat?

There is one thing history tells us time and time again and that is its greatest societies eventually fall apart and crumble. And even though during the height of these empires they were able to create amazing things that the world would marvel at for centuries to come, it will only stand as  a tourist attraction and no longer the greatness that once was the civilization’s golden age. We are only left with the wonder of what life would have really been like to have lived in this period. The true greatness of the place eventually returns to the earth from which it originally came.

It makes you start to wonder what your place in history will be. Where will the great civilizations of today be when technology had improved so much to make what we have today obsolete? Does it lessen the pompous attitudes of so many of the world leaders who strut upon their stages thinking that they are mightier than time itself? Will their impact truly be lasting or will it be reserved for the curiosity of the historians in the future? What monuments will they leave behind and will we only marvel at them for the way they have been returned to the humility that they once belonged to and not the effort extended to make them what they were during the height of when they were built?

I look at Cambodia today and realize that they were once one of the major players in the world. They used to matter as a military, economic, and cultural powerhouse, but people today just regard the society as a place trying to crawl out of the poverty that now grips its citizens. The sad thing is they do not realize that this is the fate of all great cultures, and we should look upon its fate with humility because it is also our future. It might not happen in the recent future, but there will be a time when tourists will take trips out to the sites of the United States to marvel at what had once been and ponder why things could not have been different if the society had chosen to listen to the lessons of history instead of their pride.

But do not feel that there is no hope in Cambodia. Even though I thoroughly enjoyed the marvels of Angkor Wat, it was not the thing that most impressed me about the place. That would have to be the people. Here is a society that has seen pain, and destruction. Here is a group of people who sometimes wonder where their next meal is going to come from. Here is a land that suffered through years of drought only to be rewarded with flooding on an epic scale. Through all of this, the people still find a way to make the best of the situation. It is one of the world’s fastest growing economies, and the people of this country are not looking for a free handout or expecting to have jobs handed to them because they are Cambodian. They do it through programs that they know will help them grow as a country and a society mainly focusing on education. Granted, they still have a long way to go before they can grow back into the force they once were so many centuries ago, but looking at those towering monuments they left behind, it makes me realize that maybe some day they will once again be one of the more significant countries in the world. A lot of it has to do with their drive and the knowledge that they are doing it the right way by building up a lasting economy based on the strength and intelligence of its people. It shows me that the flux of power is a fickle thing, and those who have it should recognize that fact with humility instead of flaunting it.

This post is brought to you by Tag: A Cautionary Tale by John Collings, available at http://www.amazon.com/Tag-Cautionary-Tale-John-Collings/dp/1533623902

When Tommy knocks Franklin over and cries “You’s it!” he starts a game of Tag to end all games of Tag. Before long, boys gathering to play on Arabella Hill are consumed with the game, picking sides, forging allegiances and waging all-out war. In the process of the game, rules evolve, constitutions form, and lives are lost. From the mind of John Collings comes a satirical allegory about the clash of ideologies and what happens if this confrontation is never resolved. In the battle of the playground, there is only one question that matters–which team will emerge victorious?

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Seeing Home for the First Time

There is something strange that happens to the place you grew up in when you return to it after you have been away from it for awhile. You start to see it for the first time. You start to understand why the place you grew up in helped to define the person you have become today.

For example, I grew up with mountains always staring down on me from the west. They were such a part of who I was that I started to not notice them. Relatives of mine who grew up in the Midwest would come out to visit and would be amazed at their beauty and majesty. We would wind our way through the peaks, and they would stare out the windows with their mouths hanging open hoping to take it all in.

I would look up out of my window and say, “Yep, that’s a mountain.” They were something that was always there, and I did not need to think about it beyond that. Whenever I wanted to see them I would look west, and whenever I wanted to find west I would look for them. That was how I defined my life on the Front Range, and couldn’t understand why people would be so amazed by the thing that I took for granted.

It wasn’t until later in life when I voyaged to the ocean for the first time that I started to understand what people experienced when they visited the Rocky Mountains of Colorado. Here was the complete opposite of the landscape that I had grown up with. Here was this body of water that stretched out as far as the eye could see and was constantly undulating and changing. It wasn’t the steady rock that always hung to the west for me. Instead, it possessed a personality that could change from day to day. One day, it could offer a pleasant respite in the sun.

The next day, the clouds could come in and encase the coast with a dark blanket, giving rise to the waves crashing against the shore. People run to the safety of their warm homes and watch the weather from behind windows designed to frame the beach. The sense of solitude it offers is completely different than anything I felt while driving through the mountains, but I finally understood what others felt while they looked at those peaks jutting from the ground.

But then I moved out of the country for a couple of years, and I started to miss those things I had always taken for granted and those things that I never knew how much I loved. The mountains were the first things I longed for. I could no longer figure out which direction I was pointing, and because of that I always felt lost even though I knew where I was. But it felt as if a part of me was ripped away and I wished desperately to have them back.

When I got back to the states, the beauty and majesty of the peaks just stunned me as if it was the first time I ever saw them. I could start to appreciate them for the way they were meant to be enjoyed. I could feel that isolation that other felt as they were absorbed by the power of these giants. One of the days while I was out in Colorado, I got to enjoy the sunrise from above timberline as it inspired me and melted away the morning chill.

I was also able to complete a goal that I always wanted to achieve but never have been able to because of various reasons. In a span of one day, I summited not just one, but two of Colorado’s 14ers.

Thousands of people flock to these specific mountains every year as they visit the state. They have become one of Colorado’s biggest tourist attractions. Depending on who you talk to, there are 53 or 55 of these peaks that rise 14,000 feet over sea level. The distinction comes from how a person defines what constitutes a peak depending on how much of a rise in elevation occurs between one peak and the next.

Greys Peak and Torreys Peak are two of the more popular ones. There is a clear trail that runs up to the top of both of these mountains, and if you plan for a whole day of hiking you can make it to the summit of both mountains without much trouble because they are close enough to each other. The nice thing about them is there are couple more difficult routes that give the more experienced hikers a challenge if that is what they are looking for, and it is a long enough trail to give the less experienced hikers the challenge they are looking for.

My major concern with the mountains was the altitude. Even though I am a very active individual, I was coming from sea level and once you get above timberline, the altitude can become a serious problem. I remember starting the hike at 9,000 feet above sea level and thinking this would be easy as I talked to my companions on the hill. But my attitude suddenly changed as I was gasping for any air that I could stuff into my lungs and still not getting enough. I was worried that I would fail in my attempt of summiting another 14er.

Altitude sickness can be a very dangerous thing. Basically you are not getting enough oxygen for your body to function properly. First, you will start to feel a little dizzy. Then you will start to get a headache. The worst thing that could happen if you don’t treat your altitude sickness is that you could become so disoriented that you could get lost in the wilderness of Colorado. There is only one thing that you can do when you start to feel this way, head back down the hill, missing your chance of reaching the summit. Of course, you are still alive and well, so I guess that is worth the exchange of not achieving your goal. I was able to get my breathing under control so I could finally do this for the first time in my life.

Luckily, the feeling of dizziness never returned, but that did not mean that dangers disappeared. Many different things can go wrong on a mountain. It is part of the reason I have never been able to complete a 14er even though I grew up with them in my backyard. I have had to cut my expeditions short because of weather numerous times. When you get that high, storms can blow in quickly. If it is a blizzard you find yourself in, you lose visibility as biting snow blow into your face, making the path a slippery slide that could send you plummeting off the peak at any moment.  These storms don’t hold the same danger as a thunderstorm. When you get above timberline, there is no place for you to go find cover if lightning starts to strike, and you are the only thing it is most attracted to because you are the highest point around for miles. There have been many times I have made a fast scramble down a mountain as one of these storms started to blow in. Throw in scree fields with bowling ball sizes boulders willing to slip out for under your feet or come crashing down on you from above, and the random behavior of animals from mountain goats to the occasional bear, and you have the trappings for a spectacular adventure.

The mountains offered me many adventures during my voyage home. Even though the Greys and Torreys hike was the pinnacle of the hikes I took, there were various others I went on that were not as grueling, yet still fun. Growing up on the Front Range gave me thousands of opportunities to look down on the sprawling city. I never took advantage of it very often, and I regret that. But going back I was able to go on a few of these closer and shorter treks.

I had the pleasure of enjoying them with another aspect from home I missed a lot, a canine companion. I have written on a couple of occasions how my voyages overseas started with the passing of my dog, Bear, and even though I will never regret the experience I have had the last couple of years, the one thing I really miss is having that happy friend come to greet me every time I come walking through my front door. I miss the silly things a dog will do in order to get your attention. I miss that unconditional love that can only come from being a dog owner. While I was in the Denver metropolitan area, I had the pleasure of house sitting, and it came with the care of my brother’s malamute, Sakari.

Your perspective on life changes in the presence of a dog. All of a sudden there is another being that needs me in order to survive. And there is a companion there who gets really excited to even go on a simple walk around the neighborhood, getting even more excited when they know that they are going on a longer hike. It made being home that much more enjoyable knowing I was going to get to spend time with this happy individual.

Of course, it was a pleasure to spend time with my family as well. It is the main reason I go home every year. I enjoy watching how much my nieces and nephews have grown over the year. When I was living in the same town as them, I did not notice the change as much. It comes in subtle surges when I got to see them every other month. But when I do not get to hang out with them but once a year, they grow not only in height but in maturity as well. I can start have conversations with a couple of the older ones that are intelligent and go beyond them just agreeing with me. They formulate their own opinions, supporting them with things they have read or viewed on television. It is refreshing to see them grow into young adults.

Of course I get to reconnect with my parents and my siblings as well. It is always a pleasure to see them, but it is a greater experience to enjoy their company on a summer evening as the day cools down and the memories heat up. At this time in my life, these moments are not only about catching up with the experiences throughout the year, but also reminiscing about the moments we have shared in the past. I get to relive a whole lifetime whenever we gather together for an evening.

Of course, it is also about creating new memories as well. This is the best part of going back home. I went to many of the touristy places in Denver that I might make it to if I was living there, but since I was only in town for a short period of time, I made sure that I made it to some of my more favorite ones.

Coors Field in downtown Denver was definitely one of the places that I really wanted to go back to. I have attended a couple of baseball games in Korea and they are fun, but it is nothing like going to a MLB game. The level of play is crisper and more intense when I get to see one of these games. It was an added bonus to be able to see the game as well during one of the Rockies’ better runs for a pennant. The night I went, they had just come off of two games where they came back in the ninth inning from a Nolan Arenado hit late in the ninth inning. The Rockies had the best record in MLB. Expectations were very high that they would be able to continue on this streak. Of course, the night I went, they lost 16-7, and started a losing slide that had them go to the fifth place in the National League. I know there are going to be a lot of Rockies’ fans that will believe that it is my fault for the slide, but I was only there to enjoy time with my family and hopefully see a win. I didn’t get to see a win, but I did get to enjoy time with my family.

And the beer was pretty good too.

This is another thing that I really appreciate when I come back to the states. Certain types of food and beverages cannot be found in Korea. In fact, Seoul is just starting to experience their first ever craft beer revolution. Little pockets are springing up all over Seoul where you can find good beer, but it is nothing like Denver. There are craft beer locations all over the place and many of them make some excellent beers. It is getting to the point where they have to do crazy things in order to compete for the business of the average beer drinker.

One of these places is Dry Dock Brewery. They are a big hit in Colorado, and they have been expanding to other places in the country, so if you live in the U.S.A. and have not tried their beer yet, give it some time and you will soon be able to see it in your liquor stores. It started off as a homebrew kit place where they would experiment with their own beers. Their patrons enjoyed the beer so much that they expanded their operations and soon had a tasting room in Aurora that you could go and enjoy their beer. Recently, they expanded even more to include a place where they could mass produce their beer and can it to send it out to various places in the nation. The new place has a tasting room, but it also expanded beyond the borders of its building to include a nine hole Frisbee golf course behind its building. It is awesome. You grab a beer, play nine holes, and go back in for another beer. I enjoyed the course twice while I was out there.

The only problem with the course was the snakes that slithered around it. You had to be careful while you went out to hunt for your disc because you could have been bitten by one of them. While I was playing, we did come across a big bull snake, and we did the typical thing that all Coloradoans do when they come across a bull snake; we captured it.

And then we took it to scare other people who were playing the course. It was just a flavor of Colorado that I missed while I was living across the ocean, but was happy I got to enjoy it while I was back home.  It was fun to revisit old haunts like the Denver Zoo.

The difference this time around, I got to look at all of the sights through the eyes of a visitor and not as a resident.

It meant that every time I looked around I saw something that I usually would not see even though it was always there to begin with.

All of a sudden, the trees took on a new shape, and a new meaning.

The columbine flower was now worthy of my time to stop and enjoy. Colorado came to life for me in a way it had not for many years. It was as if I became like one of my relatives from the plain states of the U.S.A. driving through the mountains for the first time and being awestruck by its beauty.

But there was a time where I had to say goodbye to the Rocky Mountains and make my way further west. I still stopped at the ocean to stop and enjoy some time in the state of Oregon. When I eventually made it back to Korea and told my friends what I did over the summer, they all explained to me how jealous they were that everywhere I got to go was considered the more beautiful parts of the nation. I am lucky that I do get to spend a considerable amount of time in these parts of the world, and I have always been fascinated by Oregon and the Pacific Northwest in general.

The problem comes with the fact that I have been there so many times that the true beauty of the place starts to get hidden among all of the trees the state boasts of. And if you have never been to Oregon before, there are a lot of trees there.

But once you emerge from that forest, there is a lot to see. And it seems to get better every time I go. I have caught an Oregon sunset over the ocean a couple of times and it is a very rare event because the coast is usually covered in a thick haze from the clouds that roll in. To get a cloudless night is a rare treat, and you should take advantage of it if you are given the opportunity because the sunsets are spectacular.

I also got to spend more time on the beach then I normally would. We stayed two nights in the same location in a house right on the beach which added to the experience of going out there. Pretty much every other time I went out to enjoy the Oregon coast, I took a day’s drive from Portland and made it back before midnight on the same day. Because of this, I rushed through the time I had there hoping I could suck the most out of it. This time I was able to relax in the morning while enjoying the crashing waves, and go out in the afternoon to take part in many of the activities that the coast has to offer.

One day, my wife and I went down to Cannon Beach to take advantage of the breeze constantly blowing by buying a kite. There are many kite shops in town because this is something many people do while visiting this iconic spot. The water is not something people experience as much because it is colder than you would find in warmer climates. So people go down to the beach to enjoy the salt air and warm sand. The place where we bought our kite was on the edge of town run by a man who was clearly enjoying the new laws about marijuana. He had a Grateful Dead concert jamming in the background and was happy to show all of the kids that came into his shop how to assemble their kites and fly them. They usually bought the beginner kites, but my wife is an expert kite flyer and she went with the trick kite instead. It was the perfect purchase for the place because it allowed us to have many hours of enjoyment not only on Cannon Beach but also the beach that our house overlooked.

The next day, we went out to Manzanita, the next town further south from Cannon Beach. It is not as big of a tourist destination that the other place is, but some of the things that draw people to come down here are the salmon fishing and the kayaking on the Nehalem River. There are many places along the river where you can find a guide or rent a boat. If you time it perfectly, like we did, you can travel up the river during high tide and turn around when the tide switches so you can easily float on back down the river. It is also a great place to watch the wildlife. Many herons fly up and down the river in search of the salmon swimming upstream to their breeding ground, and we were followed by a bay seal that liked to pop its head out of the water far enough away where we could see him but not take a really good picture of him.

The beaches of Oregon offer many sights to see. When the tide goes out, you can observe tiny microcosms of sea life in the tide pools. I feel educated every time I stare at one of these natural aquariums from the ocean. I know the elementary schools of Portland bring their students to the beach at least once a year to give them this education, but considering I grew up in the shadow of the Rocky Mountains, it is a fascinating sight for me.

In fact, when I see sea life, I get really excited. Oregonians will look at a tub full of crab and think about how tasty they would be with a little bit of butter. I look at a tub full of crabs and wonder what it would be like to live that way. How did this creation ever evolve into the beings that they are now? Why do they need to walk sideways? But that is just because they are not something that I grew up with allowing me to take them for granted. I grew up seeing them in plastic containers after they had been processed and no longer looked like the creature they used to be.

It is this way for everything that exists in the town that you grew up in. You never really see it until you move away. But as soon as you come back from that long time away things start to emerge in a new light.

You can start to see the weirdness of the city because it is no longer the everyday you’ve become accustomed to.

It might be overwhelming at first, and the slightest changes might throw you off. It might disturb you that the band that was always promoted on your favorite music store is no longer painted on the wall. The company needed to make changes in order to keep up with the times, and you wish it was still the nineties. But change needs to happen, and the best way to embrace it is to enjoy it as if you are looking upon it for the first time.

And don’t worry because there are some things that never change. It is the combination of the old with the new that make the places you visit and the places you return to the great dynamic expression of humanity. Try to look on as if you have never seen it before, and the world will always remain magical.

This post brought to you by Tag: A Cautionary Tale, available at https://www.amazon.com/Tag-Cautionary-Tale-John-Collings/dp/1533623902/

Cabbie Logic

I must be growing up because I went on my first ever business trip. Through my years in education, I have been out many times with my students on Experiential Education trips, but I never really considered them business trips. Those kinds of trips require me to get all dressed up to meet colleagues so we discuss the matters important to our profession. I didn’t have to put on a tie and present myself in a professional manner on the EE trips, nor did I have to network with people and do the all important dinners afterwards. My most recent trip was my first time to have this kind of experience and I was lucky enough to have Singapore be my first stop in the land of adults.

I attended the reThinking Literacy conference held on the UCW Southeast Asia campus. It was a refreshing look at the way people view different forms of media and how it is being used to influence the masses. During this day and age, it was a particularly relevant topic especially when the keynote speakers discussed the ways producers of media have gotten selective with their audiences in order to deliver the messages they know their consumers want to hear. Of course, we have heard this message before and we believe that we are not a person that can be so easily influenced by this type of propaganda. We are more intelligent than that. And if that is true, then let me ask when the last time you spent some time watching or reading the media that you disagree with? If you can’t think of a time when you did, then the information you consume might be influencing your thinking and you might not even know that it is doing this.

Don’t worry you are not alone. I used to believe that I was above the influence of the news I watched and read. I believed that I could make up my own mind, and I was not being told what to think all the time. I believed that I could watch it with a critical eye. It was my choice to believe the same kind of things that they were telling me to believe. That was until I learned a little from the cabbies in Singapore.

Yes, there is a certain kind of wisdom that can be found from a conversation from the people that drive other people around town. They really know the place where they live better than anybody else. They are in touch with the pulse of what makes the place tick, and they are not afraid to tell you what they think. I got into a conversation about various world leaders with a cabbie on my third day in town. We started off by discussing one of the most recently elected to office presidents, Moon Jae-In, and how he impressed the cabbie by the way he was willing to come to the table to talk with Kim Jong-un.

The driver also told me about his opinion of other presidents, and prime ministers. This list of the ones he admired included Lee Hsien Loong and Donald Trump. This surprised me a little bit because I have not run into many people on my extensive travels through southeast Asia that admire the current president of the United States. In fact, most jokes I hear from people from various nations include the punch of Donald Trump. In the past, I would have made an instant judgment because this person did not agree with my way of looking at the world, but this time I held my tongue and listened to what he had to say.

I learned a lot by just listening.

The cabbie liked both of these men because of their abilities to grow the economy. They were also able to keep the people of their nations safe from the terrorists coming from the Muslim communities. It was really hard for me to not correct this individual that terrorism do not only come from Muslims, and not all Muslims are terrorists, but I was getting an education at this time, and it was important that I listened. The language barrier between us caused poor communication, and he was never going to listen to the opinion of a foreigner; whereas, by listening to his beliefs, I was able to see what issues were important to him.

I might not have agreed with his perspective and the handling of these issues has been done well by the current President of the United States, but I couldn’t deny that this was an issue that kept this cabbie up at night. Maybe if other politicians listened to this base instead of ignoring it, then maybe they could come up with a solution that would be something I would be more comfortable with and would avoid the racist, single-minded attitude spreading all over the world.

It was really interesting to hear that these same concerns were also taking place in this small city/state. It is one of the economic powerhouses in the world, and because of the British colonialism this community is a collection of a variety of people from all over the world. Where were these ideas coming from? It probably had something to do with the media being pushed out to the community, and if I spent some more time watching it I might have gained a new perspective on their thinking. But I only had cabbies to talk to instead.

The next cabbie took the crew I was with down to Arab Street. This is one of the bigger tourist spots in Singapore. It has a lot of great shops and a variety of restaurants that reminded me of a cleaner version of the Sojo district in Hong Kong. The journey to get there was just as eye opening as the one I had taken earlier in the evening. This time the revelation came from a conversation I was having that excluded the cabbie.

I was talking about past relationships with a colleague of mine, and he had mentioned something about his ex-husband. The cabbie had picked up on this. As I sat in the front seat, I had the prefect view to watch his eyes grow really big.

“Ex-Husband?” he questioned.

Once again this reaffirmation that Singapore was not the most progressive thinking country presented itself. The difference between this type of discrimination and the other was we couldn’t ignore it this time around. At first, my friend tried to correct himself by stating that he meant to say ex-wife, but this line correction was not really working. He finally just admitted who he was and answered any questions that the cabbie had about him and his life. On the other hand, we asked about the laws in Singapore and the attitude of people towards gay rights. It was an educational experience for all involved, and I do think that a new respect for both sides was reached during that cab ride, but the only way for that to happen was by first engaging in conversation.

I don’t know if it was the type of education that the reThinking Literacy conference was speaking about, but an important nugget was still there. My education on this trip was about digging through the onslaught of what we receive daily to digest and how we discover the truth of the matter through all of that noise. It really begs the question if we should be consuming all of that media in the first place. Instead, should we take the time every once and awhile to sit down with that stranger who sit across from us at the bar and have a conversation with them? What will we learn from those conversations? What will they learn? How will the world grow from having a healthy discussion? Is this what we are missing in our societies today?

Honestly, I don’t know.

Maybe, you could tell me.

This post brought to you by Tag: A Cautionary Tale by John Collings available at Amazon.com. Now on sale in the Kindle store for only $3.29.

The Real Bali

Why doesn’t anybody ever pick up an orange and bite into it right away? Because the skin is inedible. You must peel through that layer before getting to the juiciness underneath it. The same can be said about Bali, a small island near the equator in the southern hemisphere. When I first got there, I thought of it like any other country whose major economic power comes from tourism. The roads were crowded with shops selling various forms of artwork, saris, and trinkets to take home so you could remember your time on the island. Restaurants claimed to serve local cuisine as well as westernized food, so if you ever felt the need for a slice of home you could have it in the same place where the others would have the opportunity to experiment with the world flavors. On the surface, it looked like any other vacation destination that would have a couple of places that you needed to go to, but would allow enough relaxation so you could unwind from that long flight before getting back on another plane to go back home again. But I learned that I needed to peel back the layers.

That’s why I would recommend if you ever find yourself in Bali to veer off of the main drag to see what the place really has to offer. Most of the times if you are in a country who is not an economic powerhouse, I would not recommend doing this unless you knew where that would lead, but Bali has a different feel to it. You are not really experiencing the place if you stay where all of the tourists hang out. There is a lot of beauty to the country that you have to look for, and then you will really have an amazing experience.

Bali’s culture is seeped deeply in the Hindu religion. In fact, when the island was first growing, the Hindus brought their faith with them and created thousands of temples so they could celebrate it. Some of these temples are rather large; whereas, others are hidden behind secret doors down strange alleys. The one thing that is consistent with all of them is that the beautiful art work that gives you respect for the faith which inspired it. It is a place reminiscent of an Indiana Jones movie. The culture begged for me to learn more about it, and the further I delved into the corners of Bali, the more intricate the statues became. Some peeked out from the mountains, while others were covered with so much moss from the hills around the towns that it made me wonder how long they had been there and why had humanity forgotten about them.

It made me start to wonder which had come first, the works of masterpieces, or the nature that the gods created around those structures because this is the other side of Bali that is wonderful to discover the further you walk away from the beaten path. It is a tropical paradise. I was lucky enough to find myself there in May which would be a lot like November for those who live on the northern part of the world. Because it is so close to the equator, it never gets too cold, but it stays warm enough during this time of the year that you are never in need of pants. This is the perfect time to explore those expansive forests.

But when I did that I discovered something else about this amazing island. It was almost impossible to escape from some indication that man is lurking someplace around the corner. Most of the time this type of exposure would annoy. Hiking the hills of Colorado, I am always mad when I come across the signs that someone had been there before, but in Bali, this did not disturb me as much. The footprint left behind by man had a certain amount of respect with the place where it was left behind. There was a harmony that went along with the natural landscape, making me feel as if man had found a way to live in harmony with nature.

It could be seen in the way they grew their gardens. Rice fields were carved into the sides of cliffs, and laid far behind the facades of the towns, but these fields that supplied the people with their major source of food did not feel intrusive. Instead, it became just a natural part of the landscape much like the statues and temples that were hidden throughout the whole of the countryside. It just became a part of what Bali was all about.

The people of Bali were able to take this even further to make the landscape in their backyards into a great spectacle. They are able to shape it into something that is both relaxing and contemplative at the same time. This is where the real Bali lies. It was a place that allowed me to unwind, to take those principles of losing one’s self in nature and by doing so finding one’s true self to the extent I have always wanted to achieve. The place behind the façade of this country is the place where I was able to lose my façade for a while and connect with myself.

This is what Bali was for me. Most of my wanderings happened in the small mountain town of Ubud, and I would recommend that you take the time to find yourself there at least once in your lifetime, but do not just spend a quick time to do it. It takes some moments to shed the worries that come with your normal life. You need that time to forget about those worries, and Bali is great because you don’t collect more in the process. It was exactly what I needed during this stressful time of the school year, and I am glad that I got to enjoy it.

It allowed me to look at the horizon again with vigor and excitement. It allowed me to feel the tension that was wrapped up in my shoulders slowly relinquish its hold on me. It allowed me to feel at harmony with my own nature.

Thank you, Bali.

This post brought to you by Tag: A Cautionary Tale by John Collings. Now only $2.99 in the Amazon Kindle store.

Why Travel?

I was walking in the village of Te Van, Vietnam working my way to the start of my trek through the muddy hillsides covered in rice patty fields when I looked over at the man walking next to me. We started a short conversation because he heard me speaking English with a typical American accent. I found out that he was from Chicago, and even though he was surprised that I lived in Seoul, South Korea it didn’t take long to realize that I really was from Colorado. He and his family had been traveling through Vietnam for the last couple of weeks and remarked that we were the first people from America that he had come across. I told him that it is not an unusual thing to experience when traveling the world. Rarely, do I run into other Americans, and as of late, if I do, they usually happen to be part of the international teaching community like me. Americans do not typically travel outside of America.

Part of this is because America is a vast land with so many amazing places to visit that it shouldn’t be a big surprise that they wouldn’t think to visit places so far away. Proximity plays a big part in the equation too. It takes a long time stuck in the cramped spaces of an airplane to get to the place where you are going and then when you get there you get to experience jet lag for a few days before you can truly enjoy yourself. Americans have been known to travel to Mexico, Central America and the islands in the Caribbean because they are closer, and I have not run into many Australians or New Zealanders while traveling through Europe for pretty much the same reason. Lastly, there is this aspect of being comfortable. When you go to a different country, there are many cultural and language differences that you have to overcome in order to truly enjoy yourself. It causes a lot of stress for a moment that should be relaxing. Why would anybody want to do that to themselves?

Most of the time when people think of vacation they think of the moments when they can get pampered and leave their troubles behind. They want to find that expansive beach that looks out over the ocean so they can bask in the sun with a good book. They want that neon colored drink with the fat straw, heavy pour, and plastic umbrella. They want that soft bed with the towels folded into a swan and covered with rose petals. This way they can forget about their complicated lives for awhile and truly enjoy themselves. Why complicate things by learning about a new culture at the same time?

Actually, that is the thing that excites me the most with travel. I want to experience new things, and see a new perspective on the world. As the world moves closer to hiding themselves behind their secure borders, I would prefer to see how the rest of the world is living, and try to gain a different understanding of the people from different cultures. Yes, I do enjoy being pampered from time to time, but that is not the main focus of my travels.

Many Americans will find the all-inclusive places along the beach in other countries that allows them to enjoy this carefree life, but is that really getting out of their comfort zone. It is just another representative of America on a distant shore. In order to really experience that culture, the people need to leave the confines of their safe hotel and walk out on the streets of the place where they are visiting.

This can be a very scary endeavor. The streets on Ha Noi are a great example of this. People in this great metropolis need to get from one place to another just like in any other city, but they do not usually do it by car. Instead, many of them purchase motorbikes to trek across town. They don’t only take themselves, but they will load up their whole family on these bikes. There were many times that I saw a dad guiding the bike through the busy streets of town with the mom sitting sidesaddle on the back while holding on to a new born baby as the younger brother bounces up and down on the father’s lap. They weave their way through the traffic that is not dictated by any traffic lights, so there is always a blending of hundreds of bikes, cabs, cars, and trucks at every intersection with each one of them vying for the position that will allow them to get to their destination, and they let others know of their presence by continuingly honking on their horns. It creates a crying cacophony of music that lets people know they are in Ha Noi.

But one must look beyond the traffic if they really want to see the heart of the place they are visiting, and Ha Noi really has a heart to it. Once I ventured out of the streets of the old quarter, I found Hoan Kiem Lake. This is probably the most touristy place in the whole city. Restaurants and bars circle the lake, and if you are really adventuresome you can check out a water puppet show. I decided to visit the temple on the small island in the middle of the lake instead.

This is the place where I was able to put the noise of the city behind me and find some peace. The tranquility here allowed me to collect myself and really start to understand the culture of Vietnam. It was also the place where one of the country’s greatest myths played out. The name of the lake translates to “The Lake of the Returned Sword”. The legend goes that in the 15th century, Le Loi, on his way to becoming the emperor of Vietnam, was gifted a great sword named Heaven’s Will by the turtle god that lived in the lake. Le Loi used the sword to defeat his enemies and gain control over Vietnam. He returned to the lake and was once again visited by the turtle god asking for the sword back. After thanking the turtle god for the use of the sword, he returned it to him and the turtle brought it back under the lake where it is supposedly still buried today.

I had never heard of this story before, but it showed me that no matter where I travel in the world, the people have great stories that help give their culture shape and depth. It also showed me that no matter where I went, the stories might have their own unique twist to them but essentially they are the same. This story reminded me of Excalibur and the lady of the lake. This story reminded me a lot about the world. Though we may wear different clothes, pray to different gods, and eat different foods, we still value the same ideas held up with our heroes, and when we dig through all the superficial stuff, we are still the same underneath it all. It is easy to forget this when we stay safe in our home clutching on to our national pride.

I have started to realize that this is one of the main reasons that I travel.

But there are other reasons as well.

My travels also takes me to some of the most amazing sites this world has to offer. I have traveled to many National Parks in the United States. I have roamed over the vast fields filled with animals in Africa. I have studies the great cathedrals in Europe. And I have been to many of the UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Each time I visit one of these places, I am awed by the natural beauty, and Halong Bay might top the list as one of the most spectacular places I have ever seen. Any visit to the northern part of Vietnam has to include a cruise on this bay, and I would recommend going for at least three days and two nights.

This bay supports almost two-thousand tree clad islands. Some of them are so small that they will only support one or two people; whereas, others are so large that they have oyster farms, or beaches, or hidden caves on them. The cruise I went on took me to some of the better ones while giving me the opportunity to swim in the ocean, kayak to a hidden hideout of the Vietcong soldiers during the Vietnam war, and take a hike to the top of one of the tallest islands so I could survey the expanse of this wonder. This best part of this adventure was I got to do it from the comfort of a small ship that served amazing meals next to a well stocked bar. During the night, they taught us how to squid fish, and in the morning they showed us some Tai Chi.

With all of these experiences and views that are offered on an excursion like this why would I want to sit at home and see the same thing over and over again? I once had a student of mine tell me that a trip like this was not worth it because he could go online right now and experience the same thing through the free pictures that he found there, but I know from experience that these pictures do not do a place justice. Going out there and seeing the majesty of these islands and enjoying them from the comfort of a patio on a small ship is completely different from scrolling through pictures on Google image. I get to breathe in the fresh air. I get to taste the salt on my lips. I get to hear the gentle waves crash against the ship. It is the whole experience that makes it amazing, not just the view.

But this isn’t the only reason I travel.

Hidden in the clouds next to the border of China is the small mountain town of Sa Pa. This place shows the diversity Vietnam has to offer and reminds me a lot of the smaller towns in the hills of Colorado. There were a couple of streets where all of the restaurants situated themselves, and a market place was built, dedicated to creating and selling various handwoven items. It is an amazing process to actually see. Women, living in the hills, will gather hemp which they will constantly be threading together to make into a durable thread. This thread will then be dyed with a color created from the flowers growing all over the hills. It will then be woven together to turn into bags, pillowcases and shirts. They are beautiful pieces of art that are a huge part of the economy of this small town.

I learned even more about it when I ventured out of this small mountain town and spent a night in the village of Te Van. Many travelers will come out to these villages to stay at a home stay, and then hike between the villages to stay at another home stay. When I first heard about this cultural experience, I was really excited. It sounded like a place where you would stay with a family from the village, learn how to cook their traditional foods, and enjoy their company for as long as you stayed there. But this was not the case.

It felt more like a hostel that was built around somebody’s home. They supplied us with a bed in the corner of the house that was sectioned off from the rest of the people by a blanket tied to a rope. They did cook a nice meal for us, but it was not the most memorable one I had on this voyage. The thing that made it great was the company I got to share it with. I met a nice family from Switzerland, and a happy couple from Australia, but once again my friends and I were the only ones from America staying there for the night.

Even though I did not get the experience I wanted from the home stay, it does not mean that I did not enjoy my time there. I did get to go on a long hike through the hills. It started on day where the rain had pounded the fields early in the morning, and we each had to pay ten dollars a piece for a guide. At first I thought the price was a little steep, but I soon learned why it cost that much to make the hike through the mountains.

The path through the rice patty fields and bamboo groves was carved from the mountains, and because of the rain had turned into mud. This would not have been a problem if it wasn’t for the fact that we were not traveling on a flat road. The path took us up through the hills only to bring us back down again. The guide was able to navigate these paths without too much difficulty to get us to the next village with ease.

Each one of us also found a companion hiking with us. At first, I thought that they were just ladies who were being nice to hike with us through the hills as they made their way to wherever it was they were going, but I soon noticed that every time we stopped to take a break, they would stop with us. Eventually they helped us move through the muddy trails by holding our hands, especially when it got steeper. They carried this big basket on their backs and never slipped once which made me feel like a total scrub, considering I grew up in the mountains and usually have sure footing when I am in them. This is when it started to dawn on me that this is where our money was going to. After I considered that, the price of the guide did not seem that outrageous.

Of course, when we made it to the next village, before we sat down to lunch, the ladies convinced us to buy some of their wares they were lugging on their backs. How could I say no, after all they did to help my friends and me make it through the mud. I do have to warn others who might want to make this voyage though. As soon as I bought one thing from the kind lady that helped me, it signaled to all others in the area that I had money and they swarmed me with requests about buying their wares as well. It is really hard to tell a ten year girl who is holding up a bracelet she supposedly made that you don’t want to give her any money, but in the long run, she will never be able to improve her lot in life if she continues to peddle products on the street instead of being in school where she belongs. It broke my heart to see it but I knew it was the right thing to do. The older ladies trying to get me to buy things didn’t get the same kind of sympathy, plus I didn’t have enough money to buy something from all of them.

We eventually got back on the path and it took me to one of the most beautiful spots I had seen on the whole trip, a waterfall that wove its path down the tall mountain. An outcropping of rocks allowed for a relaxing spot where I could lay out and listen to the rush of water as it passed by. It allowed me to clear my mind and absorb all of the things I had experienced and comes to terms with it as it related to my life. Sometimes, I get so wrapped in my daily duties that I completely forget about my place in the world. I start to think that I hold a greater importance than I really do, but there is a whole world of people out there believing the same thing, and we can’t all be right. Sometimes I should just decompress to recognize that my problems are smaller than the ones that others are experiencing and the little things that I make a big deal about, I have no control over and they should be rushed away like the water pouring over that outcropping I found on that sunny day. I just need to enjoy the moments as they are presented to me.

This is the real reason that I travel.

So I respect my fellow traveler from Chicago who took his family out on an adventure far from the comforts of the United States. He came to the same realization that I did that there is more to this world than what can be found in the confines of the country we grew up in, and it is important to see them. It gives a true perspective of the world we live in and to our own lives. My hope is that more people take this risk so the world we live in becomes a smaller place, and we can start to heal the wounds that are dealt between us.

Go Travel.

 

Brought to you by Tag: A Cautionary Tale.

Available at https://www.amazon.com/Tag-Cautionary-Tale-John-Collings-ebook/dp/B01GOVCELQ/

 

No Worries, Mate

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It happens every December in the world of international teaching. The last grades are plugged in the grade book, students and their parents are consoled about the grades earned, and teachers flock in droves to the airports. Many of them look to head back to their homes so they can spend the holidays with their loved ones. Others look to escape the confines of the country hey are living to go visit one that they have never been to before. For me, it was a little bit more.

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I looked to escape the cold winter of east Asia, and breathe fresher air. I looked for a place with a sunny clime with people open to the idea of waving a hearty hello and not hide themselves in their heavy coats and shawls. It was time to cross over the equator to once again find summer. This years Winter Break adventure led me to the palm trees of Australia.

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Actually I was surprised when I came across palm trees out there. It was not what I was expecting. In fact, I really didn’t know what to expect from the adventure. All my knowledge of the country came from 1980s movie in which somebody was being taken out of the outback to find themselves in New York City or strange apocalyptic sci-fi adventures involving the quest for gas out in the dessert. It didn’t involve beaches and European architecture.

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In fact, what surprised me even more was the warm and friendly people that I found there. This was a country originally started so the British could ship their unwanted criminals somewhere far, far away. This included a very eclectic group of people. There was a woman who after her husband was hung, she carted his body back to her restaurant to display it in the front window as a sort of advertisement. There was a gang who decided the best way to protect themselves from a police onslaught was to forge their own medieval armor and used it to deflect bullets. These were the people that started this great nation. So what happened to turn them all into the nicest and friendliest people on earth? How did the harsh environment, the unwelcoming locals, and the original intent turn into something completely different?

It might have had something to do with the phrase repeated by many of the Aussies we encountered, “No worries, mate.” The phrase is almost a philosophy of life to them, and by adhering to this rule you can’t help but to become subjected to the laid-back attitude of the country and just go with the flow of the people around you. It made for one of the best vacation experiences I have ever had.

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I started my trip on the southern edge of Australia in the city of Melbourne. It was rewarding to the see the green of summer dancing before my eyes. It made me forget about the craziness of the holiday season taking place in the northern part of the world. Of course there were still small reminders that it was still in progress. Banners hung in outdoor shopping malls with pictures of candy canes and toy soldiers wishing everybody a Merry Christmas, but somehow they seemed out of place. But I chose to take the Australian approach to it, and not worry about it.

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Instead, I took the free city tram all over the downtown area and enjoyed the holiday season in style. I strolled through the city streets basking in the happy chatter being bantered about by various languages from the people enjoying their time in the place. I ate wonderful food and appreciated great art. One of my favorite moments came from when I was able to sit in Federation Square, sipping a coffee while watching a free showing of Elf on the big outdoor screen. Once again, it felt a little out of place but it was still a great way to spend an afternoon.

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Melbourne is a great city with great architecture blending the classical styles of Europe with modern designs to buildings and bridges. It gives the city a feeling all its own and it is one of those places that will be a great place to go back to years from now because it is still growing. There are many pockets of the city still in development and will have a surprising new vibe the next time I visit.

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The roads through Australia are great as well because they do not always lead to another big city. There are many places along the coast which surprisingly are not shown in the movies from this country. Its stunning landscape would look great on film, instead of the desolate interior usually portrayed.

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This coastline also comes with some amazing stretches of beaches. The water is welcoming and warm, the sand is soft, and these beaches could rival some of the greatest resort countries in the world. They are a huge draw to some of the top surfers because the waves that crash into them are the perfect example what a wave should look like. One of the best places to see this coast is along the Great Ocean Road that ends in the town of Port Campbell. This is another place in Australia where the landscape is in constant flux. The massive waves are constantly crashing into the seaside cliffs and pulling them into the ocean. There are a group of rocky pillars formed because of this action called the Twelve Apostles. The funny thing is there are only nine of these structures in the area. There used to be twelve but the seas washed three of them away. But don’t worry, the way thing are working a new three will form probably within our lifetimes.

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From there we drove past Melbourne to travel across the eastern coast of the country. It is one of the more touristy parts of Australia because in this small section of the land there are more beaches than anywhere else in the country. At least this is what I was told by a nice lady in the town of Colburra, one of the small havens along the stretch of highway that reaps the benefits of this small little fact.

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It was one of the three towns that we stayed in on my trip up the coast, the other two being Lake’s Entrance and Eden. It made the trip up to Sydney more relaxing instead of trying to squeeze the voyage into one day. The car rides were only a couple of hours in length and when I arrived in town I got to enjoy the comforts of the beach as the heat of summer started to sink in.

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The only thing that I would change about this part of my voyage is when I did it. The three towns basically covered the days of Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, and Boxing Day. These are three big holidays in Australia, and just like in the United States, many people would rather spend these days with their families rather than working in restaurants or grocery stores. Because of this, food became scarce, and a little planning was in order to make sure that I had enough to eat. Christmas dinner might have been the weakest I have ever experienced as I made peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, but there were some pluses for taking this part of the trip during these days.

At many times, places with great beaches become crowded quickly, and I can’t blame people for flocking to these sandy retreats. It is the same thing I was doing on my vacation, escaping from the cold winter of Seoul. I just wanted to find a comfy place in the sand where I could lay down my towel for a little bit while enjoying the surf crash. Every once in awhile when I felt the need or things got too hot, I would rush into the water to cool off or to play with those waves. For a boy who grew up next to the mountains, it is always enjoyable to be given this experience. It helps to wash all of my worries away. Sometimes these crowds can bring stress to a place like this, but on the day of Christmas, I went out to one of the beaches. The same reason that people had closed down the stores and restaurants also kept them away from the beaches. Of course, a couple of stragglers came down, but it’s obvious from the above picture and the one below how much of the beach was mine as opposed to just a few days later.

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But beaches aren’t the only thing Australia has to offer. Before I made way into Sydney, I veered to the west into the Blue Mountains. I was really excited to see these. Being in mountains has always made me feel at home. These were not the Rocky Mountains though.

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Yes, technically they were mountains, but I would still place them into the realm of rolling hills. This does not mean that they still did not have majesty, making traveling up to them worth the trip. There were many times I would be strolling around and turn a corner to see crags jutting out of the ground in spectacular form. They were also covered in a green that could never be replicated in Colorado.

If you ventured even further into the mountains, they offered some of the most dramatic caves I have ever found anywhere in the world. They rival the famous caves of Carlsbad, New Mexico, offering spectacular rooms and startling structures.

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The hiking and the spelunking made me feel like I was back in the Rocky Mountains except the nagging feeling that it was December and I should be skiing through the hills instead of hiking through the green beauty they offered. There were lakes and streams just begging for me to sit next to them and allow all of my worries to drift away.

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But there was one worry I could never wash away. I had a very important place I needed to be on New Year’s Eve. It loomed large on my bucket list. I always wanted to be at one of the places that exploded in sheer celebration the moment the clock ticked down to one on that fateful night. It would give defined closure to the year, and even though I am a firm believer that nothing changes on New Year’s Day, this is the one year that I felt I needed to put things behind me. There were too many important deaths, too much ugliness from politics, and too much stress from work. Sydney was the place to go to have the definitive moment in time I was looking for.

There are advantages to this place as opposed to the typical ones in America. Not only does it have an iconic place to watch the changing of the year, but it is not freezing. You do not have to stand out in the cold waiting for the clock to strike midnight. There are party places set up all along the harbor with great viewing spots, so even though the crowds do come, you do not have to fight through them to find your place. They even serve drinks and food, and provide chair rentals so you can enjoy it in comfort.

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There were a couple of things that made my visit to Sydney a little more stressful. Prices were absurd. The cheapest hotel room we could find during the week was $700, and a nice meal by the bay can run $100. But we had this covered as well. The University of Sydney is on summer break right now, and you can rent one of the dorm rooms for only $150 a night that comes with the typical school breakfast of beans, eggs, bacon, and most importantly coffee. It is located in a great neighborhood that is only a fifteen minute train ride from the bay, and it has some great bars and affordable restaurants that are more appealing to the more thrifty traveler. These great finds made what could have been a stressful part of the trip, worry free.

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The time I spent in Sydney was fun and adventuresome. Besides watching the amazing fireworks, I was able to relax on Manly Beach, tour the Opera House, and climb the Harbour Bridge. Even though it was enjoyable, after a bit I got those itchy feet again and had to move further up the country to the Sunshine Coast. This part of Australia would be comparable to Florida. It took some adjustments for somebody from the Northern Hemisphere to think about driving north to warmer climes, but by the time I got there I didn’t care much about this down under way of thinking. I was just happy to find myself in the sunny town of Noosa.

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This resort town on the edge of the Great Barrier Reef is a great draw for people all over the world. Many languages can be heard from the trails of the national park to the tourist filled beaches. The town also offers shopping for those rainy days, and a plethora of water activities to do from kayaking, surfing, boogey boarding, jet skiing, and just tooling around on a speed boat. It is the play area of the Australians, and even though we came out during the height of the tourist season, it was not enough to discourage us and ruin the fun we were able to have here.

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As the clouds of reality started to filter back into my life reminding me of my responsibilities back in the land of winter, I was able to reflect back on my journey through the land down under. I came to the realization that the philosophy of the people there is one I should adopt. Yes, we will have moments where we are troubled by our cares and worries and we lose sight of how wonderful life can be. We need to brush those worries because they will eventually resolve themselves and we can go back to the life we love.

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Bizarre moments will happen in our lives. Cows will eventually get stuck in trees (real name for this piece of art on the waterfront in Melbourne), and we will stare up at that cow and wonder how it has gotten this far. There are many Americans pondering that same perplexing thought right now. But eventually the tree will break, or the cow die, or we will take a picture of it to laugh at later and forget that it actually happened. The point is, don’t worry about it. It is what it is, and there are better things to concern yourself with.

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When we find those other concerns things seemed to be in good hands. Everything will work out for the best if this is what you believe will happen, and the only way to allow this to happen is to not to fall into the hype of worries dragging you down. The best thing to do is to let the philosophy of the Australian take hold, and live by the principle of, “No worries, mate.”

Brought to you by Tag: A Cautionary Tale for sale at
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Taking Back Black Friday

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Let’s face it, life is busy.

Sometimes it gets so busy that you do not have any time to breathe, but you still plug along through the grind hoping to find a moment that you can just enjoy. It gets even more difficult when you find yourself in a large city. You become just another face in the crowd. It almost feels as if society packs you into places like sardines so it can just shuffle you off to the next destination your busy schedule deems you need to be at.

It gets even crazier as the year approaches its end. Not only are you responsible for the usual things on your list, but now you have to squeeze in holiday parties, family moments, and shopping for all the loved ones. And just when you think you have everything accomplished there is that random person who buys you a gift obligating for you to return the favor. It is this never ending cycle of insanity, and you never think you will ever be able to get ahead of it.

The one day out of the year that pushes the stress levels to the highest and brings out the worst of humanity happens to be the day after Thanksgiving, Black Friday. We are told as a society that on this day, you need to go out and buy those Christmas gifts. You need to compete with your neighbor to get the best possible present and it has even gotten to the point that the corporations expect you to shake off the tryptophan daze inducing your good night’s sleep, get up a couple of hours before the break of dawn and stand out in the cold just so you can participate with your fellow shoppers in competing for those amazing deals.

It has even gotten worse over the last few years. Companies have started to promote the shopping frenzy on Thanksgiving Day. I know not everybody would agree with me, but I believe that this holiday should be considered sacred. It is the perfect time for the family to get together and share a moment at the dinner table. We should not ask to take people away from those moments just so people can go out and buy a bunch of stuff just so they can check off all of the people on their holiday lists. It is almost as if the big corporations are taking this holiday away from us so they can make more money. It offends me, and what I propose to do would make the corporations realize they do not control our lives. I want to show my loved ones that I love them not by making sure they have another present under the tree they may not need, but instead creating a memory that will last a life time. My hope is that people refuse to let the corporations dictate this insanity by taking back the day that was meant for them, Black Friday.

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The way to do this is to first refuse to go shopping on Black Friday. I know this might be hard. It is so tempting to go out there and snatch up all of those amazing specials, but they are really not important. Ignore that big huge sale signs with Santa showing you how you can save money. Instead, go out there and find those rare moments that will allow you to experience life with friends and family.

For a second year in a row on Black Friday, I voyaged to a new place and experienced something new. Last year, I spent my Thanksgiving weekend making connections with my extended overseas family as they got together for a Korean camping trip. This year, I downplayed it a bit by hopping a plane over the Sea of Japan to spend the holiday in Tokyo. Of course, with my current position in Korea, I am not given the holiday of Thanksgiving Day off. I can’t really complain though because it is an American holiday and I am living overseas. They are still kind enough to give us the next day off, so I spent the afternoon of Thanksgiving Day flying to my destination, and the next day celebrating my favorite holiday on the next day. I did spend it at one of the greatest commercial centers in the world, so when I saw thousands of people rushing around to attend to their holiday shopping, I sat back and enjoyed the day. This is when the thought of what this day could mean started to formulate. Why did I need to be one of those crazy masses trying to find a great deal when I already had one next to me, the friends I chose to spend the day with?

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I spent the day, instead, enjoying the cultural opportunities Tokyo had to offer. I strolled through the park that was the entrance to Meiji Temple, a Shinto shrine that promotes peace in the world. It was easy to see how it was trying to make this promotion because I felt the same experience as I enjoyed the serene atmosphere from the natural setting. It also reminded me of the other joys this country had to offer. Sake producers would bring large containers of their drink to the grounds to let it ferment while getting the blessings of the spirits of the king and queen who founded the shrine back in the 1920s. These weren’t the only ones that brought their drink to this site. Stacks of barrels of wine were delivered all the way from France looking for the same kind of blessing.

Many other people came to this same location to find the same kind of serenity. When we had finally made it to the temple, we saw many families with their young children hoping to get another blessing. It was also a place where a man and a woman could join their lives together in a traditional Japanese wedding. We were lucky enough to witness one of these ceremonies while we were there.

If serenity was not what you looking for, there are other experiences out in Tokyo that can send your heart racing. There is, of course, Godzilla Road in Shinjuku that shows the beast’s head poking out of the top of one of the various skyscrapers. There is the Tokyo Tower which is nothing more than a replication of the Eiffel Tower. It sit prominently on one of the bigger hills in the middle of the city offering amazing views if you take the trip up the elevator. I would recommend doing it at night. It makes you feel small by standing up there and looking at the glittering lights of Tokyo because all of a sudden you realize that you are just one of over 13 million people now inhabiting this small dot on the spacious world map. You start to wonder how anybody can stand out in crowd that size.

If the reminder of your place in the universe is not your thing but you still want to have the cultural experience, there is the Samurai Museum. It costs a little bit of money but the historic armor on display and the stories about the history of Japan is worth it. They will even allow you to touch one of the samurai swords and try on one of the helmets. These gems make the visit here worth your time.

But the real experience of Japan, the one that everybody needs to enjoy, and the one that showed my ability to take back Black Friday was to eat the various kinds of food offered in the country.

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Japan is one of the greatest places in the world if you are a foodie. There are so many different styles of food from different regions of the country that you can travel for over a year and still find a new kind of food you have never experienced before. Of course, the best place to find all of these regional delights is to wind your way through the streets of Tokyo. They bring the best of the best together in one location to fill up that hungry stomach. I have eaten food in Japan before but I do believe that this trip here the best for this experience I have ever had.

I was able to enjoy okonomiyaki which is considered the Japanese equivalent to pizza. It is basically a mixture of veggies, meats and cabbage thrown on a grill for you to cook. You wait until it is golden brown on either side and then you top it off with mayonnaise and enjoy.

There are also izakaya bars. These places are Japan’s answer to Spain’s tapas. These places offer many small dishes you can share with the rest of your table. Many of the dishes were wonderful at the one we went to, but we were given a dish that we did not ask for by mistake. I wish I knew what it was called because it would be something I would avoid in the future even though it was very popular with many of the other guests. It was some kind of root vegetable steamed then topped with a kind of shaved horseradish. It did please my palate as did other guests but that might have been just me. You should try new things, and I did, but that does not mean that everything I am going to try is going to be something I enjoy.

The other foods I ate on my day long feast were ones I had tried before and still enjoyed. Of course, the sushi and ramen I enjoyed were better than I would have found in the United States or South Korea, but then I am in the country of its origin so I would hope that it would be at the peak of its perfection.

We did enjoy an hour at a tempura restaurant as well. Even though I enjoyed it, it was a little overpriced. I understand it was a small location in the heart of Shinjuku which meant the location was in a prime spot. It made sense I should have to pay a little more than I would have if it was from the smaller town of Castle Rock, Colorado, but when I am paying almost three dollars per piece of tempura-fried vegetable then I do believe I am paying a little too much. But once again, live and learn.

Even though there were a couple of times that the trip did not live up to my expectations, it was so minor that I couldn’t let it bring down the better moments. It also made me proud that I did not fall into the temptation of the holiday season by driving myself crazy fighting the shopping crowd Black Friday loves to attract. Instead, I enjoyed the day the way it and every day is meant to be enjoyed, spending that time with friends and family. I challenge you to spend the next Black Friday the same way. Ignore the temptation of the big corporations and take back the holiday season from the stress it imposes upon you. Spend the day relaxing with loved ones.