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Friday, December 23, 2011

Prince and the Pauper

Giving a nod to Mark Twain for such a title!

If you are taking the time to read my musings on life, travel, poetry and everything in between, then you are probably familiar with Mark Twain's tale of The Prince and the Pauper. In short, a poor kid and a rich kid switch places and experience the world through each other's eyes. I am now living this tale! The only difference is that I am playing both roles.

Life in Busan, South Korea was pretty good. I worked about 14 hours a week (of course I am talking about actual work. The rest of my time was spent looking busy). I made some of the best friends and acquaintances a guy could wish for. I was able to express my interests in poetry and music. I lived near a couple of beaches. I had a decent apartment in one of the best neighborhood for going out, Kyungsung. And generally, I never really had to budget or think about money.  I was a prince!

This life continued while I traveled around SE Asia to places like Thailand, Malaysia, Cambodia, northern Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia again! I saw everything. I did everything. I ate everything. I drank everything. I had a pretty flexible budget for travels when I embarked on this latest adventure. And like the Prince, I never thought about money or what it means.

Of course, like most tales, there was a complication or two that sent me on another path. My goal was never to travel forever. Part of my time moving about SE Asia was devoted to starting a business (plans on hold for now), and finding a new country to settle down and teach English for a bit. As I made my way around the map, I found plenty of places that were almost perfect. Everywhere has something to love.

Great beaches

Amazing view.

Breath taking sunsets.

Rustic charm.

Meandering rivers.

Hidden gems.

And urban flair.

It's been one hell of an adventure!

While I would not trade a single moment I have been blessed to have, there is a cost to seeing and doing everything: money. Several months of spending money and not making money, a missed flight, getting scammed here and there (never for a lot of money), eating out and never cooking, buying art and shipping it to the States, renting motor bikes, and having my fair share of massages (it really is hard to say no to a 1 hour foot massage for $6), and a few other financial complications have drained the budget that I never really paid attention to anyway.

Before I knew it, the Prince was running low in the old Royal Treasury Department. So I had to get back to thinking about the one thing I would never like to think about again - money. Skipping a lot of details that I hope to cover in future blog posts, I settled on Saigon, Vietnam as my new home.  I was woefully unprepared to move to a new country -

When I sold all of my belongs and moved to South Korea 2 1/2 years ago some of my friends said it was a bold and courageous move. I never really saw it that way. After all, in Korea teachers are supplied with a free and furnished apartment, a decent salary, health insurance, a pension, bonuses, and if you are lucky, an ample amount of vacation days with which you can travel - and I did! What was to be afraid of? Sure, I did not know a single person in South Korea and I was moving far, far, far away from my friends and family, but all the survival stuff was pre-packaged.

Spending several months living out of a back pack and then moving to the last country on your travel plans is a totally different experience! I soon realized that this transition abroad - from abroad - was gonna take some work.

Things I needed:

  • place to live
  • a job
  • a second job
  • a third job
  • a motor bike to get between several jobs
  • a mobile phone (lost mine in Laos)
  • internet (helps with finding jobs)
  • professional clothes
  • criminal background check ( I am a teacher and need to prove that I am not on the lam)
  • original university degree
  • letters of reference and recommendation
  • food
  • beer (job hunting is stressful)
  • laundry services
  • taxis (until I get a motor bike)
  • good walking shoes (remember, no motor bike)
  • non travel sized personal grooming supplies
  • language skills
As you can imagine, most of the items on this list are not things that your keep in your backpack while traveling SE Asia.  As I began checking things off of my list, I quickly realized that the remaining travel budget I had saved and the list of things I needed, were not going to be friends.

The Prince becomes the Pauper.

I am still busy checking off the things on the list. Got a few big ones done, like the job and second job. Still looking for a third (possibly as a drama teacher). But as my progress in my survival checklist proceeds, I have become increasingly aware of the price of things and what I can and cannot afford. And surprisingly, the low cost of living of Saigon can get much lower once you are off the tourist path and into living mode.

For example:

Coffee at a normal place with an English menu - $1.20 Coffee from a Vietnamese street cart - $0.55.
Mini hotel - $10 -$20 a night, apartment in non tourist area - $200 a month
Dinner at an average place - $5, Dinner at a place in an alley off the beaten path - $1.50.
Beer at a bar - $1.00, Bia Hoi (made fresh every day!) - $0.30 a pint.
Taxi - $2 - Hopping on the back of a moto bike - $0.50 - $1.00.

This list can go on for day, but I will stop here. You get my point. Life in Saigon is cheap when you are backpacking. But damn, when you are up against the wall trying to go from backpack to bedroom, you can really cut some corners!  I have been cutting corners for about a week now. Hopefully my checklist will continue to evaporate over the coming weeks. It will be nice to see the Royal Treasury start to rise again! 

When I started writing this post, I totally planned to write more about the Pauper version of myself, but now I sort of don't want to do it. Like the Buddhists say, nothing is permanent. So I will stop writing for now and go meditate on how to make tomorrow awesome!

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Siem Reap, Part III

The real beauty of Siem Reap and the rest of Cambodia is the people. In the 70's the rise of the Khmer Rouge led to the death of almost half of the country's population over the course of 4 years. Between 3 and 4 million people were either killed or died from starvation and over work.

Yet, modern Cambodians are some of the most genuine and friendly people I have met in the world. Despite the recent history, the existing problem of un-exploded landmines, the poverty, the lack of access to healthcare, and the beast that is tourism, Khmer culture is still heavily informed by a social grace that we should all aspire to achieve. 

This is Mon. He is 14 and sells books on the streets and alleyways of Siem Reap. Kids like him are forced into selling books, postcards, bracelets, flowers, and any other tourist kitch you can think of. Whenever possible, I try to avoid buying from kids because those tourist dollars keep them employed in modern day slave labor. But I do offer to help them practice their English or provide the occasional meal.
Mon is one of the smartest kids I met while traveling. Lena and I got to know him over a few days and by the time we left, we both wanted to adopt him and give him a chance to make something of his life. One of the more memorable moments was talking with him about selling psychology. "I don't always sell books. But that is ok. If a person says no, I smile and ask if I can just hangout and talk to them. So even though I did not sell anything, I got to practice my English."
It turns out that Mon has quite a bit of skill in English. He told me about how a year ago he met a tourist from Hawaii who works for a news organization. She has been sponsoring his $25 a month English school tuition for the last year.

Now for some randoms.
Hanging out in Temple Bar on Pub Street in Siem Reap - The time I planked the dance floor.

 Smiles and laughs with Odie at Temple Bar. By the way, she is an excellent stylist and you should check out her work at Odie's Site

On the third day of visiting Angkor, we went to the Kbal Spean Waterfall. Lena and I made some new friends from The Netherlands and a few other places. We took a break to have a mini dance party. Our tuk tuk had speakers and Robert plugged in his Ipod.

Here is the tuk tuk drive with the awesome sound system. His name is Ramorn and if you find yourself in Siem Reap, email him and get a ride. Tell him Marcus and Lena say hello.

Sunrise at Angkor Wat.
Here are a few more images from Siem Reap.

Cambodia Part II: Siem Reap Rocks

I grew up in a small factory and furniture town in North Carolina called High Point. It is a simple place were people work hard (when work is to be had), spend a lot of time with family, eat like you would not believe, and generally take it easy. This is important because High Point is the lens through which most of my experiences are filtered.  

Subsequently I have lived in much bigger cities in the USA, and the mother of all cities that was Busan, South Korea, population 4 million.  So when I come across a quaint small town like Siem Reap, Cambodia, there is something in me that triggers a bit of nostalgia for "home." That being said, Siem Reap is nothing like High Point, NC in any meaningful way other than that it is a small town.

Siem Reap is the base camp for all things Angkor Archaeological Site, with Angkor Wat being the most famous.  I will get to that in a second. But first, have a look at the little alley in the Old Quarter that runs parallel to Pub Street. 

 This gem of an alley is lined with restaurants of various types from traditional Khmer cuisine, French bistros, Western cooking, Thai food, and an assortment of other tasty treats. One of my favorite Cambodian/Kymer dishes is Amok.

Amok is steamed curried fish that is coated in a thick coconut milk with various spices and then baked or steamed. The best part is that it is usually placed in a bowl made from banana leaves before it is steamed. 

I could write an entire post about the food and the old quarter, but I am being lazy and have so much to do, so just know that your stomach will be more than satisfied for about $3 USD.

The main reason that people go to Siem Reap is to visit Angkor Wat. 

Angkor Wat is everything you ever heard it would be. Intricate carvings, massive size, historical significance, awe inspiring view, megalith dominance, and the life's work of so many ancient Khmer artisans. But what Angkor Wat is not is the most impressive temple in the site.  There are dozens of temples at Angkor and each one has something unique that makes it awesome.

 How cool are these stone faces at Bayon?

Like I was saying, Angkor Wat is not the most impressive. For my tastes, Ta Prom is the stuff of legends. Unlike Angkor Wat, the jungle has not been beaten back at Ta Prom. Hundreds of years old trees are interwined with the stone temples to create a scene out of Indiana Jones or Tomb Raider (Tomb Raider was actually filmed at Ta Prom)

 Check out how tiny my friend and month long travel mate, Lena, looks next to one of the massive trees.

This is a case where the jungle has clearly proved its dominance of the construction of Man.

 Anyway, if you want to see the full set of pictures from Angkor, check out my facebook albums. Angkor and Siem Reap

Also, here is an obligatory shot of a tuk-tuk. In Siem Reap there are no taxis. People either ride a bicycle, walk, or hop a ride in one of these contraptions for about $1 to anywhere in town or $10 to $15 dollars for a full day of touring out and about Angkor.

Here is Lady Killer. He worked for my guesthouse and was also a tuk tuk driver.

This post is getting long, so I will start a part III soon to tell you about WHY I love Siem Reap. Here's a clue: the people are great.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

The scandal in education is that every time when you teach something, you deprive a child of the pleasure and benefit of discovery . . .

Today I received a response to a job inquiry in Thailand as a teacher. I was given this quote and asked to write a very short response, presumably to test my English skills. I actually found it quite a useful way of screening potential teachers. See the quote and my thoughts below.

The scandal in education is that every time when you teach something, you deprive a child of the pleasure and benefit of discovery . . .

Take a moment and reflect on the above statement. What images does it generate in your mind as you reflect on your own personal educational experiences?

By spending a few moments reflecting on your relationship with the education process, you can more clearly understand the implications of the statement above. There is a distinct difference in exploring your own thoughts versus having a pragmatic and systematic transfer of information from teacher to student. Of course I am not saying that there is no role for teachers in this world; only that the role of the teacher may be better fulfilled if it is thought of as “one who facilitates learning.”

I am a teacher. I have taught primary school age students English in Busan, South Korea for the last two years. Sometimes the requirements were that a rigid system was used to hopefully help students increase their English proficiency. Other times I used crafts, games, activities, acting lessons, role plays, situational humor, and art as a means to facilitate the learning of English. Without fail, the activities that were non-traditional were more engaging for both my students and me. So while my title may be teacher, I went to work with the intent of engaging and having fun. I was paid to be a teacher, but more often than not, learning was something that my students did by default. The real value in my job was being able to provide as many different forms of engagement as possible to my students.  To be a generator of ideas.

My personality in my non work life does not differ from my personality in the classroom. Whether it is conversations with friends, blog posts about cultural differences we experience when we travel the world, or spending time creating a book of poetry, my first aim is always to facilitate the generation of ideas in others. That being said, I also cherish the times that I am able to learn and discover something new about myself by shifting my perspective and seeing the world through the eyes of others.

I may not always hold the title of Teacher in my life, but I will always play the role. And if you are an educator, remember the reasons that you wanted to teach. Remember the joy of discovery. Remember that learning happens every day in many forms. And use this reflection as an opportunity to engage with your students. They deserve it.

Marcus Williams