Ushering in 2009 / Crazy 2008

I have to first start this entry by saying that I have eaten so much tonight that I can hardly move, which is a pretty uncomfortable feeling. It’s 4:20AM on January 1st, 2009; ‘ca y est’ – it’s a new year, preceded by usually excessive drinking, and the characteristic new year resolutions. It’s very true that we must live in the present and look towards the future, yet I feel the need to reflect upon the past year of my life because it has been so incredible. I’m truly a fortunate individual, and I’d like to begin with an excerpt from one of my brother’s emails that he wrote for my 21st birthday (which I celebrated in Vietnam):

‘You have defiantly had a crazy year! Started off by playing champagne beer pong then you went to Europe for a few weeks then Japan, then Korean, then China, and now Vietnam. How many places you been in the past 7 months? Paris, Lille, Grenoble, Tokyo, Seoul, Pusan, North Korea, Jeju, Geongju, Beijing, Shanghai, Huangshan, Jingyan (forgot what its called), Yangshuo, Hong Kong, Macao, and Hanoi… Pretty awesome. Hope you are making the best of it, not that many people (including myself) have traveled that much. Wicked cool.’

Looking back at a year from the present moment of me writing, I was somewhere in the midst of serving my brother champagne and enjoying the 50 or so people who had come over. My bro left the next day to start his year in South Korea as an intern, influencing me to study abroad in Korea that semester. The Spring semester did not begin until February 25th, so I decided to take a trip to France for 2 weeks since I had found a cheap ticket round-trip Phoenix-Paris for around $475 (dead season).

France (Grenoble – Lille – Paris)

Following, I packed and left on the last night of my return in Phoenix (3 days), which so happened to be when my mom had an ‘Alsace night.’ Of course I had to wait until the last minute and pack everything under stressful conditions, but as is said, stress forces one to accomplish one’s task.

I headed towards Pacific Asia wondering what there was to bring me and asking myself if it was really something that I should do (as cliché as it sounds, but really as true as to what I felt).

Japan (Tokyo)

I spent a great time with my father, albeit that he was not the best tour guide. In any case, it was nice to be with my dad, as it has been so long before then. I loved Japan, and want to go back someday.

South Korea (Seoul – Gyeongju – Jeju Island – Busan – Northeast South Korea)

Essentially, the 4 months that I passed in South Korea were the best of my college life so far and one of the best in my life I would honestly admit. This true liking can be reflected in my post of when I left South Korea. I honestly love the work harder – play hardest, mentality, the South Korean culture, the safety, the Yonsei University Campus, the people, etc. Everything just meshed together very well to make a great experience, and I am very glad that I went through with my urge to go to Asia.

North Korea (Mt. Kumgangsan)

North Korea was simply indescribable and I still cannot believe that I had gone there to this day. It was something truly remarkable that I will never forget, and at times even quite scary. The most eery experience was when I had descended to the ground floor of the hotel that we were staying in (the 3 other friends of mine and I) and, upon looking outside, seeing dark black. The entire hotel lobby was dead, especially considering that the hotel was only a few floors full of its 7 or so floors. At that moment, I felt almost alone and deprived of any security. It was as if at that exact moment the entire weight of the experience fell onto my shoulders and made itself apparent to me. Indeed, it was the first time that I found myself without being led by a guide or entouraged by other people. Comme on dirait en français, j’étais tout seul pour faire face au fait que j’étais en Corée du Nord. I was alone to deal with the seriousity of the fact that I was in North Korea. I will never forget that invading sensation that almost paralyzed me from asking for a bandage for my cut thumb, that I had injured from an absent minded move of keeping my thumb lodged between the door and its frame in our room.

It’s a very humbling, disturbing, and unique altogether encounter that will be engraved as a bold adventure in my life story. I felt at sometimes disgusted by being enclosed in an insulated bubble whilst North Koreans toiled away not two kilometers away from us. At other points, I felt inspired as I watched the Pyongyang National Gymnastics Team perform in front of my eyes. Nonetheless, at other times, I felt as if I had traveled into the past into a failed socialist state of the 80’s that was kept churning by its propaganda films. The moment that I crossed the North Korean border, the most bizarre music was blaring from speakers placed in every direction. The entire trip we were carefully being watched and restricted into our small ‘sandbox.’

I had gone to Mt. Kumgangsan from June 22nd-24th. July 11th a South Korean tourist was shot on the same tour that I had participated in. Just makes you think, and concretes the fact that this trip was not a joking matter. My friends and I had taken many strictly forbidden photos, and could have gotten into a lot of trouble (fines, confiscation, etc). But as a friend of mine has said: no risk, no fun. Apparently, in our human nature we have a desire to undermine the rules that are in place, and in a sense, gain satisfaction and enjoy ourselves for accomplishing something without being caught. Petty in theory, but this sort of mentality can lead to grave acts and even more serious consequences.

China (Beijing – Shanghai – Huang Shan – Yingtan – Guilin – Yongshuo – Hong Kong – Macau)

China was so dynamic, interesting, contrasting, overwhelming, sickening, invigorating… it was a complete mix of all emotions that I went through in China at one point or another, depending on the circumstances.

One of the most moving moments was definitely watching the sunset and ensuing the sunrise in the Huang Shan Mountain(s). I loved it, although it was quite dangerous climbing and descending the mountain with the lack of security infrastructure (rails among other things) and the sheer steepness of the descent. What still brings a smile to my face this day is the fact that we had planned to mount and descend the mountain in one day (~ 25 kilometers of hiking) and sleep at the train station. Sometimes ignorance is just hilarious.

The limestone peaks of Yongshuo were breath-taking, but the city was too full of tourists and became quite dodgy after 11PM. After all, it was rural China and we didn’t speak Chinese. What fun going to a brothel was after being recommended that it was a legit place by our hostel owner.

Hong Kong was a very cool place, interesting, vibrant, moving, exciting, exhilirating, and moderately priced. We had a very nice time for the 14th of July by sneaking into a 5 star hotel and drinking an open bar along with open cheese for free. At the end of the night, I had stolen a bottle of Pastis, while one of my friends was passed out on the couch and another was in the bathroom praying to the porcelain god.

Macau began very slow and was to be an apparent disappointment, but in the end it came through with a stunning surprise in the end of the night in the form of a club finding.

Vietnam (Hanoi – Hoi An – Nha Trang – Ho Chi Minh)

I could go on and on about Vietnam, and I due most of the credit to my good friend Alex and his family. He treated Thomas and I like VIP for 2 weeks, taking care of all of our needs, from travel arrangements to food to accommodation. It was just unbelievable.

I cannot describe how amazing my birthday was, because it was just overwhelming. I almost fainted to be honest, such that the birthday present was a surprise. Unforgettable. Alex’s friends were so genuine in actually treating me genuinely and taking the time to spend my birthday with them.

What a good time.

Cambodia (Phnom Penh – Siem Reap)

Cambodia is a country that is fully marked by its scars of war from the Khmer Rouge in the 70s. It was the country with the most contrasts that I have ever perceived in my life. It was quite difficult to travel through this country, both because of the poverty level and the difficulties arising from this poor economic reality (both mentally and physically). We didn’t go out in Phnom Penh because it didn’t feel too safe, although Siem Reap provided us a chance to thank our Angkwor Wat tourist guide and his friends to a nice dinner and a great night out all for free.

The Angkwor Wat Temples seemed honestly to be out of a movie, and were truly incredible. It was the true definition of the overused word ‘awesome,’ however kept in its original meaning of exceeding excellence. The tour guide was incredible with all of the numbers, dates, and history that he had memorized.

In any case, Cambodia was a difficult but sobering voyage. I am so glad to have gone there first-hand and again pushed my comfort zone limits to discover something new about myself and the world.

Thailand (Ko Samui – Damnoen Saduak – Bangkok – Ko Phi Phi – Ko Phangan – Ko Samui)

Thailand can definitely be summed up as an area that is attractive for both the typical ‘old vacation destination’ of retired couples as well as the Western sex tourist looking for cheap sex thrills. There is an entire culture of prostitutes, ‘lady boys,’ hostess services, and a heap of other services and activities to keep dirty Westerners entertained. On the other spectrum of Thailand lies the beach life, full moon parties, high class Thai clubs ( I want to extend my condolences to the families of those who were affected in the fire at the night club this night in Thailand ), interesting people, and a relaxed atmosphere. I encountered relatively few problems, aside from small confrontations in a night club in Ko Chang and Ko Phi Phi. As my brother indicated to me, once a populous is in a very ‘lax’ society, it is almost tolerable for people to act in ways that are usually unseen in a more tightly regulated society relative to comportments in the scale of norms and values (such as that of South Korea or Japan).

France (Mulhouse, Paris, Toulouse, Montpellier, Biarritz)

Well, for the past 4 months (September-December), I have been studying in France. More specifically, I am at the ‘Ecole Supérieure de Commerce de Toulouse’ in Toulouse, France attempting a dual-degree programme in International Management. The exchange event is very differing from the South Korean one, and even from Grenoble. Despite this, the experience has been a great one, and I look forward to what there is for me in the future. I will say that there are some disappointments and questions that have arisen in my time here, but that is normal and in any case will only be resolved upon my leaving.

Montpellier and Biarritz were great breaks (even though these breaks were quite frequent) from the semester, and allowed fellow exchange students and I to relax at the beach. Moreover, I attempted surfing for the first time in my life… however, it may not have been such a good idea. In the end, I had dislocated a vertebrae and dislodged many parts of my body (diaphram, ribs, hips, upper back, spinal cord, etc), and was very painful for quite a few days.

Spain, Greece & Turkey (Barcelona, Athens, Mykonos, Thessaloniki, Istanbul)

Barcelona was a great time as usual, and I got to meet up with some Korean friends (Alex, Manuel, and Alex’s girlfriend Yuna), which was refreshing.

I was lodged in Athens by a friend of the person with whom I was traveling for a good 3-4 days. Athens had a nice feel and it was really great to see the Acropolis. It was also very nice to get back into touch with Soti and Vassou, two Greek girls who came to Grenoble for their study abroad.

Following, going to Mykonos was kind of disappointing since the entire island was closed down for the winter dead season. Oh well, it was nice to see the island in a calm state (try to keep looking at the positive side).

Afterwards, we went up north by bus to Thessaloniki, where we stayed for one day. It’s surreal to think that just a few weeks after our stay in Thessalonikiand Athens, that there was such social unrest. Glad that missed that.

Lastly, Istanbul was really incredible, definitely the highlight of the trip. Unfortunately, I did not get to see everything, but the highlights were formidable, especially St. Sophie and the Blue Mosque. There was an abrupt contrast between the conservative, Islam-oriented older generation and the liberal, Western-positioned young generation. An example that most easily comes to mind is when we were looking for the area where all the young people congregate, we ran across so many older men listening to Islamic music and praying with their prayer beads. A few streets away, the streets were full of young and contemporary dressed (sometimes quite scandalously as we would discover in the clubs with girls wearing almost nothing but swimsuits)

Italy (Rome)

Here I am in France after having passed 3 nights, 4 days in Rome with my brother, his girlfriend, and my sister. I can still feel the effects of the trip, as there is pizza still digesting in my stomach as I write these words. We had at least 2 kgs of pizza each one of us in our time span, which is actually kind of disgusting. Be as that may, one cannot make a judgement call on our actions until they try the pizza in Italy. It’s just simply better than anywhere else. The Rome hostels are pretty weak I may add.

Our flight back home was pretty rough, as the emergency lights in the cabin and on the wings were lighted (first time in the history of my flights) while our landing descent. It was just really uncomfortable. Did I mention that I really don’t like turbulance?

The digesting food is taking its toll on me, or the fact that it’s 6:22AM. In any case, it was nice to write down my thoughts of what I have done over the past year. I can’t really have any major complaints, since I have been so ‘lucky, blessed, fortunate, etc’ this past year. I have to thank my family as it was because of them, particularly my brother and mother, who allowed me to partake in these impassioned and animated adventures.

On a side note, in Rome a few days ago while in a famous Gelato shop, I laughed the hardest that I have ever laughed in my life. It was at least two minutes that I was laughing for, and I honestly almost had to vomit. I also had the best coffee of my life in Rome today.

Bisous, and happy new year to all!

2009 will bring challenges and new growth for me – I’m ready

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