28 08 2009

Last night we were looking through pictures of old travels and I was trying to find a few images that would sum up each particular city. It was of course, easy for some cities, and downright impossible for others.

I’ll start with Barcelona, which I visited for a week in July of 2007.

A trip to Barcelona has a lot to offer – great seafood (paella to die for!), modern interior design, a nice beach, and lots of nightlife. This pic was taken on Las Ramblas, late at night, after all the bars had closed and the streets were being washed and cleaned.

Las Ramblas

Let’s face it though, nightlife aside, a trip to Barcelona is really all about modernist architect, Antoni Gaudi. He died in 1926, but before he passed, he created some of the most unique and interesting buildings in history. A walk through the streets of Barcelona can sometimes feel like a trip down Alice’s rabbit hole.

This is a picture of the interior of Gaudi’s iconic Sagrada Familia. It’s still not completed, but well worth a visit.

La Sagrada Familia

This is Gaudi’s Parc Guell. An outdoor wonderland of architecture, art, music, performance and nature.

Park Guell

Next up, Venice!


A Visitor

27 08 2009

We’ve had a visitor for the last 10 days.

Furry Bear’s mom is here! She took a crazy connecting flight from New York to Helsinki (Helsinki???) to Seoul. Though she’s traveled to and lived in many countries around the world, she’s never been to Asia, so I was a little curious about how she would react to Korea. It’s always interesting to get an outsider’s opinion of something you take for granted.

Since Furry was at work, I met her bright and early at Incheon airport. We boarded the KAL Airport Limo bound for the Grand Hyatt Hotel by our apartment. A little while into the ride, she commented that Seoul reminded her of Albania of all places!! Furry had mentioned this to me earlier, and now his mom had confirmed that something about Seoul was reminding her of Albania – and Tirana in particular. It’s so interesting to me that 2 cities that really should have nothing in common, were so similar to both of them. It must have something to do with the energy that both cities are carrying. Needless to say, Furry’s mom felt immediately comfortable and at home.

Here are a few more of her observations about Seoul:

  • She did not expect Seoul to be so modern. She was extremely surprised by this and mentioned it a few times.
  • She loved the tomatoes – the ones Furry has grown – and the store-bought ones. She said that you could tell they were local.
  • That it’s a myth that all Asian people look the same! She started to really notice the difference between all the people, and the differences between different Asian races.
  • That Korean women are beautiful, tall, very slim, and stylish. (lol…not me, I am Canadian-Korean!! ūüôā
  • The children are angelic and innocent compared to North America, and that it would be a great place to raise children.
  • That’s what I can remember off the top of my head. I’m off to Kuala Lumpur, Borneo and Brunei tomorrow. See you in a few weeks!

    A Comparison

    24 08 2009

    You can’t help but compare and contrast different countries while travelling through them, or residing in them. We’ve all done it. Thailand has better beaches than Miami. The food is better in Vietnam. Canada is more expensive than everywhere. Korea has better saunas than Morocco and so on and so on.¬†The comparisons never end really. One difference I noticed sort of by accident, is that garbage pick up in different countries is different too. Now this may seem a rather silly and trivial thing to notice, but it’s really quite telling. Something that became most obvious to me while travelling in China.

    I can’t quite remember exactly which city we were in, but I do remember that it was warm and sunny, so it had to be either Kunming, Lijiang or Dali. I’m guessing Kunming. Anyways, we were standing on a street corner, just surveying the scene and taking it in, when a big blue unmarked truck rolled by, stopped about 2 blocks in front of us, and waited. Suddenly, from every street and side street, Chinese housewives, labourers, men and children streamed out and began throwing plastic bags and cardboard boxes into the back of it. We stood in confusion as people ran past us with their bags for several minutes. It took us a bit to figure it out, but the smell helped us realize that this was the garbage truck! And in Communist China, the garbage truck doesn’t stop by your house and pick up your junk. You bring your garbage to the truck. Makes perfect sense in a way.

    Contrast that with Korea, where garbage is sorted very systematically into specific bags and types and picked up on certain days. Garbage is picked up everyday, it’s just that you have to put the right garbage out, in the right bag, on the right day! And because we live on a street that only 1 car can fit through, our garbage truck is a guy on a scooter pulling a cart behind him. It’s efficient in a way that is kind of aggravating, but at the same time, uniquely Korean.

    In Thailand, I don’t think I ever saw garbage being picked up, but I did see big piles of it being burned once a week. Not sure if that is all they do there.

    And in Canada, of course, our garbage is picked up by large outsourced trucks that automatically compress the garbage. It is then sent somewhere else. We don’t know where, and don’t really care, as long as it is not in our backyard. Of course, this is only when the union is not on strike!!

    Tipping is not a City in Asia

    12 08 2009

    “Do you know much the Korean teachers get paid at my school?!” Furry Bear exclaimed as he walked through the front door.

    From the look on his face, I knew it had to be a ridiculously low sum and I was right. KRW5000!! which with current exchange rates converts to about $4.40 an hour! Now teachers are underpaid for their work all over the world, but $4.40 an hour!? This is total insanity. The Korean teachers (who are without a doubt more qualified than most of the ESL teachers here) are earning 1/10th of what the foreign teachers are earning. No wonder Koreans work 10 hour days and on weekends…they have to, to survive!! Of course, you can’t extrapolate one profession to all professions, but…

    We also found out that the average bar or wait staff earns only KRW4000 per hour, which amounts to $3.50! Did I mention that tips are not expected or added onto that amount? The amazing thing is that I still receive customer service that is beyond caring, authentic and professional. Service standards in most Asian countries destroy North America’s, and it is clearly not about the money involved.

    Being here has completely changed my attitude about tipping as a practice. When I was younger, it used to embarrass me when my parents didn’t give the expected 15% standard, and it is a common stereotype that Asians don’t tip well. And d’you know? They probably don’t by North American standards, and here is the problem. When did a tip become expected? I thought tips were for extraordinary service, NOT for run of the mill, bored and lackadaisical work!¬†Waiters, bartenders etc…EXPECT they will receive a tip for a completely substandard service experience and will even feel slighted or give you a dirty look if you give less.

    Many Asians get labeled as cheap or worse in restaurants for not tipping, and I know I have probably overcompensated in the past to avoid looking this way. ¬†In actuality, I think they have it right. It just took for me to get away from the North American way of doing things in order to see it clearly. It’s amazing what we will do under social pressure.

    If you are just doing your job (taking my order, picking up my plates etc…), then as far as I’m concerned, you are already being paid by your employer. But give me extraordinary service and believe me, I will give you a deserved and extraordinary tip!


    6 08 2009

    Yesterday, Furry Bear, Michel, (a French-Canadian friend I met on a flight between Seoul and Vancouver), and I headed to the 63 building. The 63 building is one of those Seoul landmarks – a tall, skinny building that I assume is 63 floors high. Pretty hard to miss in the skyline actually.

    Inside was a predictable zoo of bratty, screaming Korean boys having temper tantrums, well-behaved little Korean girls, ajumas, Chinese tourists, and a few foreigners. We purchased our tickets, and headed up the glass elevator to the art gallery and views at the top of the building. What an eye-opener! I knew Seoul was huge, but the pure visual impact of the geography from the 63rd floor was unbeatable. Simply put, SEOUL IS MASSIVE, and I must say, quite beautiful from up above.

    Han River - Seoul

    This is the Han River, which basically runs through the centre of the city and divides North and South. I’ve been over 3 or 4 of these bridges, but seeing them all stacked out into eternity was pretty cool. The Han River is over 1 km wide. It is by no means, a small river, and everyday millions of cars, people, scooters and dogs dressed in funny outfits cross those bridges.


    Here’s another view. Buildings upon buildings upon buildings. It’s kind of mind-boggling to actually think about how many people are living in all those buildings. Twenty-five million in metropolitan Seoul, which is approximately the same geographic size as the GTA. Almost 11 million in Seoul – a city the size of Toronto. Imagine 11 million people in Toronto!! The city can barely sustain 3 million. You know the craziest part? There’s no more traffic here than there is in Toronto…

    Red Lights

    3 08 2009

    Korean drivers run red lights all the time. All of them do. Really. Scooter drivers, taxis…even public bus drivers. In fact, I may have even seen a few police cars run red lights. Not to mention that people seem to have no qualms about roaring on through the light in full view of said authority figures! I don’t get it? How did this start? and why is it so totally acceptable?

    Personally, I think it’s great. Why should you wait at a red light when there’s no need to. I don’t think more accidents occur because people are doing this. I would even argue that less accidents occur because of this. You KNOW everyone does this, so you have to be constantly vigilant at intersections. Even as a pedestrian, you must be fully conscious of what’s happening around you. You can’t take it for granted that all the cars will stop just because you have a green walk signal. Actually, it’s quite likely that some scooter punk is going to swerve around you to save time.

    But what is it with Koreans and the rush-rush all the time? Korea has been nicknamed the Italy of Asia, Land of the Morning Calm AND most appropriately¬†balee-balee (hurry-hurry) culture.. Where are they all going in such a hurry? Surely, all 23 million inhabitants of metro Seoul are not late for an appointment??¬†On any given day, at any given moment, in any given situation, mothers across Seoul yell at their poor children¬†balee-balee. Gesturing wildly, they trot across the street ahead of them…

    …and maybe straight into a car running a red light if they are not careful!