Thailand is a deeply religious country. There are signs all over the airport and a huge billboard just outside, warning you that it is disrespectful to get a tattoo of a Buddha. Every shop has a shrine, either inside or just outside, with flowers, fruit and incense changed daily. And every block, it seems, has at least one or two temple compounds, large spaces where usually visitors are invited to wander, at least in certain areas.

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I felt very shy just walking onto the grounds, as if someone would appear and scold me because I’m not Buddhist and had inadvertently transgressed some norm, but that never happened. There were, however, certain areas where women were not allowed to go. They were clearly delineated with signs. And there were also signs saying women needed to dress modestly, not in short skirts or tank tops. If you wanted to enter a sanctuary, you could, you just needed to remove your shoes.

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Some of the larger temples offered wraps to cover up inappropriately dressed young women.

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Feet of a statue. Looks rather like when I attempt my own pedicure.  

Everything was extremely colorful. Thailand is really a sensory delight, multi-coloured, fast-paced, with everyone on scooters weaving in and out of traffic. The streets are lined with food carts and the smells of smoking oil from the cooking blend with flowers and fruits laid out in the small shrines which are outside many of the businesses. The sidewalks are crowded with people selling scarves made of Thai silk, or small fabric elephants in shades of pink and purple and gold, or wooden carvings, or t-shirts. And this is between markets! Some days, there were markets set up in the grounds of the temples. Every evening around 4, vendors would begin to set up for the Night Market, which is huge. But you could find the many of the same things for sale everywhere on the city’s sidewalks.

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I took millions of pictures. The dragons, painted and bejeweled, beguiled me. I loved the eaves of the temple, with their version of gargoyles to guard treasures within.

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I was rather bemused by all the statues. Not just the statues of the Buddhas, of which there were thousands upon ten thousands, it seemed, or the statues of the demons, or whatever they were. But the kid statues.

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Maybe they’re just monks, not kids, but their height and chubbiness made me think of children. I did like the glasses on these next ones though.

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I was about as touristy as one can get. I didn’t research my host culture or religion at all, although I had meant to. So I can’t explain these things to you. I just wandered round, photographed, and then went for a Thai iced coffee.

 

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My attempts to revitalize the blog aren’t going so well. The problem is time, time management, and time sucks like Twitter, where people are so much funnier than I am.

It’s a really long time since I’ve written at all regularly, and I would imagine pretty much anyone reading this is new here. So here’s a bit of background and an update. I live in Oregon, but I spent 9 years of my life in North Africa, plus a year in France. I started this blog while we were living in Mauritania, which was so different from anywhere we’d experienced before that we used to say in wonder, “It’s like another planet.” Our nickname for Mauritania was, in fact, Planet Nomad, since they still retain a lot of their very-recent nomadic past. And that’s where the name of the blog came from, although of course it also worked well as a name for us, a family who moved internationally 6 times in 9 years, and who continue to live cross-culturally wherever they land.

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Random pic of Latourell Falls, down the Columbia River Gorge. Oregon is beautiful! 

In 2010 we moved back to Oregon, and started working with Iraqi refugees, and that’s kind of when the blog died. My kids were teenagers, and as funny and infuriating as ever but much more aware of social media. And my new friends were internet-savvy and had such dramatic stories that I didn’t feel right telling them. I’ve always been careful, changing names and some details so that my Mauritanian friends would never feel exploited if they ever stumbled across the blog, but this felt different. Plus, so much of it was about raising kids and living in a culture not your own. So the blog died, in spite of my efforts to write of our visits back to North Africa and France.

So now, my kids are all grown. Elliot lives in Iceland, where he’s in grad school, getting a very practical MA in Medieval Norse and Viking Studies. That’ll just open doors for him around the world, right? He speaks about 6 languages now*, and I am v smug about this, because I told him that someday he would be grateful to me for making him go to French school, that first year when he cried every Sunday and said he didn’t want to go and refused to speak French. There are few things in life more satisfying than telling your kids, “I told you so!” The essence of good parenting in a nutshell!

*(I counted Icelandic but I really shouldn’t, since he is learning Old Icelandic by translating the sagas, so all he can say are phrases like “Thor swung his hammer and shattered the giant’s skull.” Fun, but probably not going to be super helpful if you need to know where the bathroom is.)

Ilsa is going to art school on the other side of the continent, in Rhode Island. Donn suggested she go straight to homeless as a way to avoid having school debt plus being homeless, but she declined. She is majoring in Painting, and will someday no doubt have a gorgeously-decorated section of the sidewalk to call home. She is very talented.

Abel lives at home, which makes me happy. He is working, photographing a lot, and keeps very busy with needing to rewatch “The Office” and “Parks and Rec.” I assume he does other things as well? He is never home and when he is, he’s either editing pictures or glued to his phone, watching Netflix. I think he’s doing well? Seriously, he’s a talented photographer, in an age when it’s nearly impossible to earn a living that way. Between our kids’ choices, Donn and I are almost certainly going to be joining them on the sidewalks in our old age. At least they will be beautiful, and we can pass our golden years learning about Thor and his hammer, and maybe adding some Icelandic vocabulary to our requests for spare change.

Donn and I now have an official non-profit. (Ilsa did that pic on the homepage, if you click through that link). Donn is the president. I am the Director of the ESL program, and we’ve grown a lot–we now have 5 levels and about 60 students if everyone comes (which they don’t), plus a small army of volunteers teaching them, ferrying people back and forth, watching little ones so their mothers can concentrate on English for two hours straight, etc. I actually love my job, except that it keeps me from spending hours staring out the window, reading books, and drinking tea, but all my jobs do that. I do drink a lot of tea but it tends to be in my students’ homes, accompanied by a lot of food and conversation.

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Many of the attendees at the ESL Thanksgiving Party. We ate turkey and qubbah and potatoes and dolma and biryani and pumpkin pie and baklava. 

And now that we’re all caught up, I will resume my travel writing. Come back for more pics of Thai temples, a treatise on the toilets of SE Asia (no really, I have to show you these signs), and if you’re lucky, pictures of various lunches! You know you care what I had for lunch, at least while in Chiang Mai!

 

For an entire 2 calendar years, I did not leave the USA. I came home from Marseilles, France on Nov 5, 2016 (very depressed, and you can figure out why if you remember what was happening then) and here I stayed. I was stuck! This is hard for a nomad used to roaming parts of the planet. Oh sure, I didn’t stay in Oregon–we went to California and even Florida. My kids traveled to places like China and Iceland and Rhode Island. But I locked my passport away and didn’t use it at all.

But 2019 is different. This is the year that, even though we are Gen-X or, as my husband likes to call us, pre-millennials (that’s a joke for all you current or former baptists out there!), we are traveling as if we were millennials. We started off January by going to Thailand, and in June, we are planning to go to Iceland. We may look more like aging hipsters, with our grey beards (Donn) and oddly wrinkled necks (me), but you’re only as young as you feel…no that won’t work, as we don’t feel young. In fact, we are already beginning to discover the joys of stiff necks and pinched nerves. We are just traveling to trendy spots!

Why there? You might ask. Why not return to France, with all their lovely cheeses and pastries and cobbled streets? What about Mauritania, with your good friends there, or Morocco, where you can bore us with yet more pictures of the markets? Simple. We went to a conference in Thailand and managed to squeeze in several days of vacation round each end. And our oldest kid moved to Iceland to go to grad school, and we want to see him, not to mention his new country. Iceland is so pretty!

We got home from Chiang Mai 2 weeks ago and I’m still sick, but I miss writing and who cares that blogs are dead unless you were smart enough to never quit? I like writing about my trips. So, I will leave you with a picture of a Buddha from the Doi Suthrep Temple, and I’ll be back soon to tell you all about it!

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Abel ready to go! 

This summer, Donn’s mother broke her hip. They live in the Southern California desert, and she went outside barefoot in the blazing sun to get the mail, and fell. We rearranged our lives and spent nearly a month total with her after she got out of rehab, and she was stubborn and determined and did really well. Then, in November, her heart stopped. Happily she happened to be at a concert held at a retirement center, and a nurse stepped in. But that fire and determination were lacking the second time around. She just wasn’t fighting as hard. And so we put our heads together and decided to drive down the 1200 miles and surprise her for Christmas.

Every year, we hold a Christmas party for our Iraqi refugee friends, and every year, it just gets bigger and bigger. It’s always held the Friday before Christmas, which was of course the 22nd. This year, we had about 250 guests, mostly from Iraq, with a good representation from Syria, Egypt, Jordan and Iran as well. It was a huge success. The food was fantastic! We had it catered by a local Iraqi restaurant which does great dishes, and we went all out…kabobs, chicken skewers, falafel, hummus, bread. For dessert we had baklava and then a friend made hundreds of orange-fig shortbread cookies and coconut lime shortbread cookies that were amazing. We had an awesome program for the kids, run by talented people who run our church’s all-day summer camps, fantastic live music, and SnapBar donated their services!

We had tons of help but it was still exhausting. And so, it was with no great joy that we dragged ourselves out of bed the following morning, loaded the car, and headed south. Abel, who is still youthful and energetic, was the only one excited at that point. Donn and I were just trying to make sure we’d packed everything–the air mattresses, the presents, the snacks, the plates of food that Iraqi friends had made up for us to bring. Because yes, that was a feature. We had a plate of leftover kabobs, plus an ENORMOUS platter of fresh falafel and 2 plates of hummus from another friend, and a plate of quba from someone else. It was, frankly, a bit much. We drove to Eugene and Elliot’s house, where we ate lunch and left some falafel and hummus for his roommates to enjoy.

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I suck at selfies

We drove down through the forests of Oregon, which don’t seem like much until you leave them behind. Of course it was dark shortly after 4. We wound our way through the foothills of Mt Shasta, then hurtled down I-5 to Sacramento, where Ilsa lives.

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Blue winter’s sunset, somewhere at the bottom of Oregon

We picked up Ilsa and saw her new apartment and met her puppy, who wiggled out of her arms with joy at meeting new people. We went for pizza, crowding round a small table in a noisy bar because the restaurant end of things was already closed at 10 p.m. on a Saturday. One thing I did not expect to find in Sacramento was the best Starbucks I’ve ever been to, serving juniper lattes and affragatos and all done in cool blonde wood and stainless steel, huge and beautiful and open till midnight.

After that, we settled into the dreary part of the trip. Because we hadn’t been able to leave till December 23rd and because we needed to get to Hemet in time for me to do some shopping on Christmas Eve before the shops closed and because we were now 5 and that meant 2 hotel rooms, we’d decided to drive the night through. We’d rented a car–our Volvo sedans don’t really have room for 5 adults, 4 air mattresses, presents, luggage, etc–but the kids were still too young to be able to drive. Donn and I spelled each other, the passenger trying desperately to sleep while the driver played music to stay awake. Amazingly enough, no one got grumpy. We were all too happy to be together again, excited to surprise Grandma, tearing through the night which stayed dry and bright.

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These photos are from my snapchat

We stopped in a rest area for a while, where Elliot and Donn made fun of my desire for an eyeshade to help me sleep under the glare of the street lamps. “Something to cover your eyes? What about eyelids?” they quipped while I glared at them. Then we drove on again, into a terribly bright sunrise where all was certainly bright, and mostly calm too.

We stopped at Starbucks time and time again. I know all the arguments against this store but I don’t care. You can get decent coffee all the way to the inlaws now, and that’s always a good thing. We stopped for breakfast at one point, playing for time as we were in danger of arriving before my mother in law was up.

Finally we arrived. Abel knocked on the door. “Come in!” we heard her yell. We all trooped in, holding our phones like shields in front of our faces as we filmed her. “Merry Christmas!” we yelled! She just sat there, in shock. My father in law appeared with tears in his eyes. We’d made it, we’d surprised her, and, as they’ve told me approximately 1000 times a day, we were the best Christmas present ever! All together now, “Awww….” Also, I am, as always, their favorite (and only) daughter-in-law. So there’s that.

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Christmas in the desert. I personally think they’re trying too hard… 

 

Happy New Year to you all! Any plans for 2018?

In 2017, I didn’t leave the USA at all. (yes I know I still have 2 weeks, but I have no plans to do so) I went neither to Canada nor to Mexico. More notably, I didn’t go to Mauritania, or Morocco, or France. No Spain. No Thailand. I didn’t even go to Florida, as I did in August 2016. I didn’t leave the West Coast of the United States.

This blog came by its name honestly. I get itchy feet. Our family moved internationally 6 times in 9 years, and we lost count of all our temporary housing along the way. Then we kind of washed up in the suburbs of Portland, and we’ve had the same house, and almost the same neighbors, for 7 years now, which is mind-boggling to me. But even though we haven’t packed all our belongings into boxes and inexplicably lost things along the way, we have still traveled. We went to North Africa 3 times, once to France, once to Thailand, and once to Korea.

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this year, I didn’t go to Marseille. pic taken Nov 2016

This year, I didn’t go to Marseille. Or Arles. I didn’t wander the dusty streets of Oudane, an ancient village in the Sahara, or sip coffee in the uptown shopping district of Rabat, Morocco. And I feel fine about that.

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Looking down at some ruins in Oudane, a city  built in the 12th century in the middle of the Sahara desert. Another place I didn’t go this year. Picture taken in October 2016.

Because somewhere along the way, dealing with jet lag and exhaustion while still trying to maintain an everyday schedule of full time work, I got really tired. I was ready to stay for a whole autumn in Oregon, to pass out candy on Halloween and take a language class at PSU and not be as tired.

We still did some scary things this year. For a start, we remodeled our kitchen. Elliot, now 22, was very stressed when I told him this. “So this means you’re never leaving?” he asked. He’s innocent, poor lad. We explained that the element caught fire in the oven so we needed a new stove, which meant we needed a new floor, and if we were going to do that we should repaint the cabinets, right? This should probably have its own post. We managed to choose a new cabinet color without even mentioning the words “divorce,” “over my dead body,” or “of course your mother would have loved this color; she had no taste either!” Success! We didn’t even scare the salesman at the paint place, as we rapidly went from our first choices (wildly divergent) through our second, third and fourth (question: how have we stayed married 27 years?) until we landed with a thud on our fifth choices, a lovely spring green we could both live with, although it gets mixed reviews from our friends. The most common reaction is, “That’s bold!” which of course means, “You’re crazy.”

It was very strange to remodel a kitchen. I felt like a real grown-up at last! We’ve never remodeled anything in our lives. In Morocco, we lived with a kitchen designed for Wile E Coyote after he falls off a cliff and turns into an accordion; there was no other person it could possibly have been designed for. I’m 5’2″, and the counters were too short for me while I had to stand on tiptoes to reach even the lowest shelf of the cabinets. But we didn’t change a thing.

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Outside one of our favorite restaurants in Rabat, just opposite the medina. Another place left unvisited in 2017.

Overall, I’m okay with my lack of travel for a year. But every so often…

…Donn’s sister just moved to Amsterdam.

…Elliot might move to Iceland.

…We just had coffee with a friend who is moving to Jordan, a place I’ve wanted to go for years.

In the meantime, it’s snowing on the blog, there’s a fire in the fireplace and Christmas jazz on the free-trial of Pandora Prime. Life’s good in Oregon.

For now.

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This kitten’s not going anywhere! Taken at the Chellah, Rabat, Morocco, in October 2016. 

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Colosseum at Arles, France. Taken on a sunny but freezing day in November, 2016.

It’s been so long since I posted that I had to reset my password!

Years and years ago, I was an undergrad at Portland State University. I lived in a small apartment with a wild kitten named Oscar, and on weekday mornings I would fly down the stairs, run 2 blocks, and catch a rumbling Tri-Met bus across the Hawthorne Bridge to downtown, where I’d usually catch a second bus up the hill to the university, because I was pretty much always late. But coming home was different. I’d meander down through the Park Blocks under the enormous elms, kicking at the falling leaves. The most brilliant leaves would be collected and pressed into whatever books I had with me that day; Victorian Prose and Poetry, or Anna Karenina, or Norse Mythology. (Yes I was a Lit major, in case you couldn’t tell from the cat’s name) In spring, I would skip class on sunny days to sit under the bright new growth fuzzing the branches, and I would justify it because Romantic poetry should be read outside, and also anyone who studies Hemingway and Raymond Carver should skip class sometimes.

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I like how this hipstamatic filter makes it look blurry and wet, which is was. Another change: taking pictures with my cell phone. 

Life moved on and so did I. Until this year. This year, I’m back and once again an undergrad at PSU, scurrying up that hill two afternoons a week, and strolling down afterwards. Some things have changed this time round though.

For example, email. I was supposed to get it automatically, and I kept getting an error message. I could tell when I called the bright young thing at the IT help desk that she, enormously patient and supportive, thought I didn’t know how to set up email. That wasn’t the problem though, we found. The problem was that I have already graduated! I pointed out that I graduated  before email was really a thing, but the system was adamant. We did eventually work it out, so I could have another inbox telling me how to get health insurance, how to handle temptations of being on my own, how to avoid phishing schemes, where to get a flu shot.

Also, when I went to PSU last, I applied by writing my name in blue or black ink in a series of little boxes. One of the areas to fill out was gender, M or F, and I was expected to check just one. Now, of course, it’s all online, and I can’t even remember how many gender options I had, but I think there were at least 8, including the “prefer not to answer.” In addition to gender, I had to choose sexuality; again there were a lot of options.

Donn and I are taking Arabic 101. We don’t sit together in class for reasons (I am a confirmed back-row dweller and that has not changed) but the class is not big and we arrive and leave together, plus we are partners for the oral presentation (Hello! Hello! How are you? I am fine!), so I thought it was obvious. But the other day, one of the other students said, “Wait! Are you guys married?” We said yes, and she gushed, “That is just so cute! You taking a class together! So cute!” So I guess we’re cute.

I expected to be the oldest in the class, and to stand out amongst a group of fellow undergrads, all of whom would be the ages of our kids, but I was wrong. PSU is an urban campus and has always had a healthy percentage of older students. Our class has 4 senior citizens who are auditing the class for free, which seems a really painful way to spend your golden years.

I also expected to be the best and brightest for the first 2 weeks, because we know a fair amount of Arabic, although we’re finally learning to read and write. But no. Our class has a lot of “heritage” students; kids from Arabic-speaking families who need to improve, learn their letters, etc. We are very average in all ways (except for being so cute!).

Arabic is painful, as I knew it would be, but it is also more manageable than I expected. That’s because much is review, dragging out of my brain things learned in the past and relearning them, pinning them down, finally having a place to slot them into and remember them. I go to the library and check out baby books in Arabic, learning words for colors and animals. I check my pronunciation with my friends. It’s kind of fun. When the insomnia inherent to my age and gender tries to strike, I now have a new weapon–I just go through the Arabic alphabet slowly, picturing each way to write each letter, and I am asleep by the time I get to jeem.

Donn and I drive down together, so we’re always on time–even early. One day I came down on my own and managed to be 15 minutes late to class…plus ça change, I suppose. We can afford cups of coffee from the local Starbucks, and on-street parking. I need that 16 oz cup of dark roast to stay awake in the afternoons, and I recall a teacher of Contemporary lit from long ago, reading Charles Bukowski to us, and I think of how I understand the frustrations and weariness of age so much better now than I did at 19. Arabic 101 is not as stimulating as literature, but I am much older, and much tireder, and I realize this as I climb the 4 flights of stairs to my classroom.

 

Since I have such a bad habit of never finishing my accounts of our travel, I’ve decided to do this one backwards. How will that help? you ask. Because we’ve gone to Morocco and Mauritania 3 times now in the past 6 years, and I’ve never finished an account of a trip yet. In fact, I never told you the two funniest parts of the 2013 trip. Maybe I will do so now.

Funniest Thing #1: Moh is in many ways a typical Mauritanian man; generous to a fault, proud yet insecure about his country. No matter what we said, he tried to out-do it. We were telling him about how we now live in Oregon, which is known for its tree-huggers. We know, of course, that this is a metaphor. Oregonians don’t typically actually hug trees. But he was not to be outdone. “I love trees so much, I kiss them!” he announced, going up and kissing a tree.

Funniest Thing #2: We had just finished tea on the dunes with Aicha and were heading back into town. It was after 11. Elections were coming up, and we began to see the familiar tents and men in voluminous white and pale blue robes gathering in them. (Here is a post about Mauritanian elections) We turned onto another road and found ourselves behind a truck with a loudspeaker. As we drove, the people in the truck turned on the loudspeaker and began to broadcast a song extolling their candidate’s virtues. Frustrated, Aicha glanced at the clock. “It’s only 11:30,” she fumed. “Elections don’t open until midnight! They don’t have the right to disturb people until after midnight!”

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On this most recent trip, we went once again to the dunes to drink tea. The weather was pleasant, even a little cool at midnight as we stumbled in the moonlight to the top of a small dune at the edge of town. Here’s a picture of the herd of camels who were right next to us, silent shapes in the gloaming, until the headlights of a car turning around caught them in its beam.

We’ve been back 2 weeks now. We’re over jet lag, and we’re mostly recovered from traveling for an entire month. We visited friends in 3 countries, were served everything from exquisite cheeses to couscous in rancid butter, wine in stemware to camel’s milk in wooden bowls. In many ways, the month flew by. In each country, the time was too short to see everyone we wanted to see. But it’s good to be home.

 

 

Day One: The new airport is really impressive. Built since our last visit 2 year ago, it boasts AC, and lit signs in 3 languagues (Araabic, French and English).  You no longer have to walk outside to board and deplane, the hot air in your face like an oven welcoming you to the desert.

A local friend has sent a driver for us, and he manages to get past security and meet us coming off the plane. We ask how he managed this. “Oh they all know me,” he says. “Also the son of my sister works here.” The more things change, the more they remain the same…

Yes, we are traveling once again. This is our third trip to Mauritania since we moved away in 2007. “Are you back to stay this time?” people ask us, but no, no we’re not nor are we even planning this. But it’s good to come and enjoy a bit of desert hospitality and see our friends. And I’m once again attempting to blog it. I meant to write about our summer but never did, as you can see. We’ll see how far I get this time.

Late October in Nouakchott. At dusk a cool wind blows, and the sky fills with torn-wing bats, like black construction paper cut-outs pasted unevenly against a pastel orange sky. The city has changed a lot. There are more paved roads, more traffic lights, although people sail through red lights wtthout even a cursory brake or glance to see if there’s oncoming traffic. There are highways lined with solar-powered street lights, a brilliant plan in a place with excess sunlight.

This time of year, the camel herds are here. Throughout the city but especially on the edges of it, you will see herds grazing on bushes in the distance, or loping across the road, or hobbled outside a store. The result is fresh camel’s milk for sale, and people are taking advantage of that. So far we’ve only been given it once, in wooden bowls, served to us in a fancy living room (salon), chilled. I don’t like milk so it’s not my favorite, but Donn managed a whole serving. It’s thinner than cow’s milk and maybe slightly sweeter. I don’t know. I never drink milk. It’s supposed to be really good for you.

Afterward, we head out to the edges of town to drink tea on the dunes. The moon is one day past full, and I take pictures in the brightness of it. A lot of peope have had the same idea. You park and there are little stands set up where a guy will make you tea and bring you 3 rounds in small glasses, sweet and minty. He brings each glass with foam in it and pours the tea in with a flourish, then hands it to you. (The foam is made from pouring the tea back and forth ahead of time) We sit in the moonlight with a Mauritnian friend and drink tea and savor the cool air, the soft sand, the lowing of some nearby camels. A group near us starts to sing.

 

 

So yes, this is still happening. This is the last day of that trip we took to Thailand, oh, 7 months ago or so. I have a bad habit of never finishing my little travelogues. The sad fact is, the only way for me to finish this is to allow myself 7 months. But you don’t care, right? My one day in Korea was in November and I’m writing it up in June, yes, but what difference does it make on the internet whether it’s October or January or November or June?  none. None at all. 

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Warning: I have way too many pictures! 

We left Chiang Mai, Thailand, at midnight at Saturday and arrived in Seoul for a long layover at about 7-something Sunday morning, Korean time.We flew out at about 5:45 or so Sunday night, had an 8 hour flight, landed in Vancouver BC, had a 2 hour layover, flew down to Portland, and got in about 4 on Sunday afternoon.

It messed with my mind. And that’s the joy of crossing the International Date Line.

With a 10 hour layover, we knew we had to go into the city, although I do want to take a moment to rave about their airport. They have free showers and nap options, a museum of Korean history, a place to do Korean-themed crafts for free, plus live music to entertain you. When we were on our way to Thailand, it was a string quartet playing Bach. On our way home, it was a boy band in white suits, crooning away. I tried to get pictures but Donn was in Capt Stress mode and wouldn’t let me even pause, so the pictures are too blurry to post. More on Capt Stress’ appearance later. But that airport is fantastic! OH and free 5G wifi.

Donn googled “what to do with a long layover in Seoul” while we were still in Thailand so we were prepared. Then we found that the airport offers a free bus (I know! Amazing! WHY must American airports suck so?) that went to all the sites we were planning to see. However, being us, we opted instead to buy two $10 tickets for the hour-long bus ride downtown and just be on our own. We don’t like tours. We like to explore on our own, although this inevitably means we miss some things and are usually in a rush at the end.

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It had been hot and humid in Thailand, but Korea felt like Oregon on a mild November day. Of course we hadn’t brought warm clothes. I was wearing sandals and 3/4 length leggings under a cotton dress, and Donn was wearing jeans and a cotton shirt. I did have a scarf. It was spitting rain and freezing as we wandered through downtown Seoul, stopping at a cafe for a hot drink in a desperate attempt to warm up.

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Although admittedly I have a very limited acquaintance with it, I have to say I loved South Korea and hope someday to go back for longer.

Our first stop was the Gyeongbokgung Palace (linked to wiki and including lots of information which I won’t go into here except to mention it was originally built in 1394 and it is right smack in the middle of a very modern city, which makes it even cooler). First we admired the funny hats of the people outside the gate.

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Then we watched the changing of the guard. More really great outfits!

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We walked into the first courtyard. The palace is built with 3 very grand entrances. One thing I learned on this trip was how very little I actually know about Asian art, architecture, religion, and culture in general. But I guess the Korean palace was purposely designed to be simpler than others throughout the region. There was still a lot going on though. We passed through three very impressive gates into enormous stone courtyards, ending up at the third peering into the throne room.

Then we sort of turned to the left and went through a little wooden doorway and found ourselves in a magic kingdom. Ok not exactly. For one, there were still lots of tourists, and we were still walking on pavement, but the farther we went, the more beautiful the views.

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The detailing was fantastic!

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There were lots of beautiful wooden buildings, set over water that reflected the autumnal trees, leaves drifting down to add to the palette of various tones on the still grey water.

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Eventually, regretfully, we reached the end of the palace, and came out the opposite end.

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We asked the guards for directions to our next destination–a neighborhood of art galleries and trendy boutiques tucked amongst ancient alleyways. They gave us directions to a certain point and said, “And then one more ask,” which I found an adorable way of telling me I’d have to find someone else to question at that point.

We wandered past entrancing shops, stopping for the best Bulgogi (a sweet pork dish. I’ve always had it with beef in the US. Seriously amazing) I’ve ever had in the tiny, hole-in-the-wall down-that-ally round-a-corner restaurant, a place with quilts on the back of the chairs and only room for about 20.

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Entrance to restaurant. I don’t know if we could even find it again, but it was great! I recommend it, if you’re ever in Seoul. And this is one reason why we don’t like tours; we like to at least have the opportunity to find places like this on our own. Sure you don’t always, but it’s worth a shot. 

We came down into an area that reminded me of Chinatown in San Francisco–lots of outside shops selling cheap knick-knacks. I bought socks with the Gangham-style guy for the twins, and a fancy bookmark for a friend of mine who loves Korean culture.

We still had HOURS to get back to the airport, but Donn, rather like Bruce Banner under stress, began to transform before my eyes into his super alter-ego, Captain Stress. Captain Stress looks like Donn, but he possesses incredible powers of Worry and Fuss. He appears at times involving airports, the birth of our firstborn, and car breakdowns in the desert. The problem was, we had to find a bus going to the airport and buy tickets to get on it, and we didn’t have much Korean money and didn’t really want to change as who knows if we’ll ever even go there again? We walked fast, and he refused to let me stop and photograph anything. We still had hours to get back, I pointed out reasonably. We walked through a gorgeous hotel lobby, decorated for Christmas, in hopes of changing money. I used the fanciest toilet in the world. It had push buttons for everything imaginable that you might want from a toilet.

Meanwhile, Capt. Stress was continuing to manifest. We talked to a bus driver but…I forget why, but his bus wasn’t an option. We found our way to a subway station, where there were trains going to the airport, but we were short the equivalent of 25 cents in Korean money. Remember that it was Sunday, and everything was closed. A very kind young man with a black umbrella tried to help us, and practice his English at the same time. I will skip how very complicated everything was, and how we ended up taking a taxi to another subway station where there were actual people working, and how we bought tickets and ran to catch the fast train and made it back to the airport just barely in time, sigh, so he was right, sigh, which was just so lame.

We rushed past the boy band and made it to our gate with enough time to wander round the folk museum. Our flight to Vancouver was not full and we EACH got an entire row in which to stretch out and sleep, which made me wonder if in addition to crossing the International Date Line, we might have crossed the Planetary Time Travel Line and were actually enjoying a bit of 1985. Seriously, planes are always full nowadays. Can you remember the last time you got extra room?

We had two hours in Vancouver, enough time for coffee, and got home at 4 p.m. the same day we left. It took me two full weeks to get over jet lag. And with this very long post, I have finished a travelogue.

I teach ESL to adult learners, pretty much all of whom are refugees, although our classes are open to everyone. This week, I introduced the concept of Show & Tell. Sure it’s a kindergarten concept, but I knew my students would not bring in stuffed animals. It was supposed to get them to speak English uninterrupted, express their thoughts, use idioms and practice fluency. And I think it was a success. I was careful to explain the things didn’t have to be emotionally weighty, because I didn’t want my students to feel coerced. I used as an example a ticket stub from a play we went to with friends a few weeks ago* But everyone brought in things from their original home. And to see what things refugees have carried with them on their long journeys to safety is, I think, a privilege.

Student #1: H slowly unfolded a scarf and held it up for everyone to see. It rippled in many colors–shades of brown and pink arranged geometrically. “This scarf belonged to my mother,” she said, and kissed it. “She used to wear it when she lived in the village.” H draped it around her own black hair. Then she took it off and held it up to her face. She has never washed it, she told the class, and it still smells of her mother. Everyone passed it around reverentially. Mothers are highly esteemed in Arab culture, and of course the bond between older mother and adult daughter is universal. At the next class, she brought in a picture of her mother, her hair tied back in a scarf. H is from a Christian background, so her mother wore the scarf differently than Muslim women do and I had had a hard time picturing it. She also brought in baby pictures of herself with her sisters. Again, she kissed their faces.

Student #2: S took out of her purse a plain brown envelope, the kind that official documents come in, but it was empty and held no interesting marks. “This envelope changed my life!” she announced dramatically, waving it in the air. S is from Iran, and 5 years ago her husband won the lottery for a green card, and brought her and her youngest daughter to America. The announcement arrived in this very plain brown envelope.

They first lived in Texas, she told us. A fellow immigrant told them they needed to go to the Social Security office, so they looked the address up online but ended up at a building that looked like a house to them, but was flying a big American flag. That confused them. Many people from other countries don’t understand Americans’ propensity to fly flags at all times from all types of buildings, not to mention turn them into jewelry, t-shirts, hats, bumperstickers. etc. The flag, plus the fact that the address on the house matched that of Google maps…this had to be the place, right? So they went up to the door. They were greeted with the sound of a deep, throaty barking. Why would Social Security have a large dog? They stepped back in alarm. The door opened, and a woman appeared. They showed her the piece of paper on which they had scribbled the address and tried to explain what they were looking for, but it was too late–she had already called the police, alarmed by the mere presence of a middle-aged couple on her front walkway.

S started to cry when the policeman questioned her. He was very gentle, she tells us now, but he told her not to walk up to private people’s houses. I think this is terrible advice. What kind of world do we live in? When I lived overseas, I only had to look sort of lost and people would help me find my way. (Sure they might expect payment, but they didn’t threaten me) I told her that I was glad she had found her way to Oregon, and to my class in particular.

Student #3: A brings his marriage license, showing he’s been married to his wife for 37 years. We talk a little bit about marriages. I’ve been to a few Iraqi weddings now, here in the US, and they can be summed up best in one word: LOUD. So loud. We compare Iraqi wedding customs to Mauritanian ones. As always, I’m amazed at how many similarities there are between the 2, separated by thousands of miles and in many ways very different.

*in part because I forgot to bring anything even though it was on my lesson plans, and I found that stub in my purse. The best teachers are good at improv, right?

March 2019
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