seoul round three

I know there are a number of people who question my love of Seoul, but I love it. Maybe because it was my first Asian city outside of Japan. Maybe it was because when I went for the first time it was magical. Maybe it’s just my love of Korean food. Whatever it was, I fell in love right away, so I was happy to go again when my dear friend, Oliver, told me he was going to be there for work. His wife very kindly gave him the “ok” to head out of the country a few days early so we could meet up and play tourists. And to make the trip even better, I got to stay at my friend Jaclyn’s house and visit with her. It was another amazing trip!

And here are my favorite things to do in Seoul. (These are just in chronological order from this trip.) One quick tip for all attractions: be sure to check what days places are open as there are a lots of things closed on Mondays and some on Sundays and Tuesdays.)

img_7948DMZ/JSA Tour – I did the DMZ tour on my first trip to Seoul and loved it, but I didn’t realize at the time that there was a difference between a tour of the DMZ and a tour of the
JSA. The JSA requires a bit more advance planning (the tours fill up fast) and it’s the only area where you can actually set foot on North Korean soil from South Korea. So, this time I made sure that I got to do a tour of both. It was amazing. And intense. And I highly, highly recommend it. I booked us through a company called Cosmojin and they were fantastic.

 

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View into North Korea

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That little curb between the two buildings is the border between South and North Korea. You can even see a North Korean soldier standing at the top of the steps in from of the large building in the background.  

 

Itaewon – this is a cool little neighborhood that reminds me of a tame Harajuku. Great restaurants and lots of people watching.

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Spicy tofu at Jonny Dumpling. So delicious!

img_8036Nanta – This is a kind of musical / performance art / comedy show. I don’t know how else to describe it, but it’s super fun and equally ridiculous. This was the second time I’ve seen the show, but it was made even better that the first because Oliver got called up on stage and he was perfection. They said no photos, but of course I managed to sneak a few.

Myeong-dong – This is one of two central shopping districts in Seoul. I like this one because it’s not too huge and crazy AND has amazing food stands. Olive made a great partner in food adventures, which is needed you’re going to try everything you want to without wasting a ton of food.

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Changdeokgung Palace Secret Garden Tour – The palace itself is impressive, but it’s the Secret Garden that really makes this one worth visiting. It’s absolutely stunning. During peak times in the fall and spring it can be difficult to get tickets, so plan ahead. It’s one of my favorite palace/shrine/equivalents in all of Asia.

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I love doors, especially old ones in gates or walls. This one was so pretty. I wish my photo did it justice.

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The War Memorial of Korea – My friend Heather took me here the first time I went. It’s such an interesting place. And bonus, this time, there was this amazing Korean calligraphy temporary exhibit. There’s a beautiful exhibit of a teardrop made from dog tags that I absolutely love, as well. In addition to this, just around the corner from the museum is this amazing little hole-in-the-wall fish place. We weren’t able to make it because it was closed the day we went, but if you can go, do it!
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Gyeongbokgung Palace and the Nation Folk Museum of Korea – These are basically connected so you can plan to do them both on the same day. This palace is massive. In addition to that, they do a kind of “changing of the guard” which is very fun to see. (I didn’t take any photos of the Museum because we didn’t go there this trip…no time…but you can see my photos from my first trip here.)

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How adorable are these munchkins?!

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Oliver: “I am walking where Psy walked.”

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Janet’s Cooking Studio – I’m sure there are several Korean cooking classes you could choose from, but Oliver and I both loved this experience. Janet is a native Korean who spent much of her life in the U.S. Her English is perfect, as is her knowledge of Korean culture and food. We started with a tour of a local Korean market (we were the only foreigners there) and it was absolutely delightful. We tried some new fruits neither of us had heard of before and then got to taste roasted seaweed fresh out of the roasting machine thing (I have no idea what it’s called). It was so very good! This was followed by cooking five Korean dishes in her darling studio. There were two things from the class that really stood out to me about Janet as an instructor. 1) She adapted the recipes slightly so that we would be able to make them in America. While some people wouldn’t love this, it was nice to know we could recreate these in our respective countries. 2) She was very mindful of our skills and abilities and adapted her teaching based on that. As I love to cook and do it quite a bit, she didn’t spend as much time talking about the basics and she let me flip my Korean pancake (pajeon) which was super fun!

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N. Seoul Tower – A total tourist trap, but well worth the views! I took no pictures this time as it was my third trip to the tower.

Insadong – This is another place we didn’t get to this trip, but it’s a great little tourist area where you can get all of your souvenir needs met with lots of yummy treats. There are also a number of great restaurants in there. You can see my pictures of this area here.

Finally, watch a Korean drama. Such an interesting experience. I can’t tell you where to do that because I did it in my friend’s home, but do it. You will not regret it.

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I think that’s it…for now. This is in no way comprehensive. Just my favorites.

the magical maldives

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Okay, so here goes. I’ve had a few people tell me they’d love a blog post detailing the information about my vacation with my niece to the Maldives, so I’m going to capture it here and try to make it as organized as possible. Also, I’ll include links to my reviews of the resorts eventually (haven’t gotten around to do them yet. I try to review most places on Trip Advisor.

Also, I’m going to qualify this post, though, with one major disclaimer: this was a once in a lifetime trip for me, so while I was not totally “money is no object” about the trip (I’m not made of money and I’m a terrible budgeter), I was also not traveling on the cheap either. And I’d almost say if you tend to be a very frugal traveler, the Maldives is probably not for you.

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Getting there: There are airlines that fly to the Maldives, but from the west coast of the U.S. (which is where I was coming from) I recommend Cathay Pacific (even though that means LAX and I LOATHE LAX). You will fly to Male (airport code MLE) and from there, you’ll have one more leg, either by speed boat or sea plane, depending on where you’re staying. Speedboat is the cheaper option by far, but a sea plane…is a sea plane and it was amazing to see the Maldives from the air. Your resort should arrange this last leg of transportation for you, but you’ll likely pay for it separately. Also, if you’ve got time and/or budget, I’d do a stop over in Hong Kong. You can get the highlights in a couple of days and take care of jet lag at the same time.

Choosing a resort: Most resorts are their own private islands, so you need to do your research and figure out what you want. For me, I had two main criteria. 1) I wanted an over-the-water villa (like I said, once in a lifetime) and 2) it needed to have a reputable dive center. This helped narrow things down quite a bit. Then it was a matter of reading reviews and budgeting. I actually booked three different hotels to hold the rooms while I did more research.* Ultimately, I chose the Sun Siyam Iru Fushi. It used to be a Hilton, apparently. And we did four days (three nights) which was perfect for us.

While this resort required transfer by sea plane (which, as stated is PRICEY), the room itself was significantly cheaper than any other water villa I found at the time AND the resort had an awesome dive center (they actually have a few locations throughout the Maldives. More on the dive center in a bit.

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A few other pointers:

1) Due to our arrival time (10pm) in Male, I booked us at the Maldiva Inn and arranged for an airport transfer. While I could have booked something closer to the airport, I’ve learned through lots of experience that a little distance from the airport generally gets you cleaner and safer rooms for about the same price. Worth the 15-20 minute drive. The airport transfer was $10 each way. While this was necessary due to arrival time in Male, it was super helpful budget wise. We saved a ton on that night and were at the resort around 8:30 am the next morning. We wore our bathing suits on the plane as we planning on not being able to get into our room until the regular check-in time. We were pleasantly surprised as our room was ready around 10:30 am.

2) Food is EXPENSIVE. I’ve talked to other friends who’ve been to the Maldives and read 100s of resort reviews…doesn’t matter where you go, it’s pricey. My advice is to do what we did: book your room with breakfast included. There are all inclusive options and if you really want to not worry about it and you’re going all out, this could be the right option for you. For us, we had breakfast included (and it was good!) and loaded up in the morning. Then we did protein shakes for lunch (yes, I packed protein shakes for every day and two shakers), so the only meal we were paying for separate from the room rate was dinner. And that was still expensive! Just be prepared. For two of us, with a few drinks (even without the alcohol, I’m a firm believe that island vacations necessitate fun beverages) throughout the day and dinner it was around $150-$200 day (we always did dessert…this was vacation after all)! I will say that while the food definitely wasn’t worthy of the pricing had we not been on a remote atoll in the middle of the Indian Ocean, it was quite very good.

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This lime creme brûlée was amazing!

3) Budget for your activities so there are no surprises. Nothing worse than arriving somewhere and not being prepared. My niece was doing the open water portion of her dive certification and I was accompanying her on all dives, so I priced all of that out so I knew what I’d be spending. I also knew we wouldn’t just want to lay on the beach or by the pool every second we weren’t diving. Our resort had a number of free activities, provided you had experience. I wanted to do paddle boarding (but neither of us had really done it before), so I budgeted for a 30 minute lesson and after that, it was free to use the equipment.

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4) I unintentionally chose a resort that had an adults only pool. I’m not sure if the resort we chose was especially kid friendly (wasn’t looking for that info), but there were quite a few kids. I’m not opposed to children in theory, but I mostly only have patience for the ones I’m related to when I’m on vacation, so the adults only pool was unexpectedly awesome!

5) For diving (if you’re a diver), because I knew I’d be joining my niece on her open water certification dives, I really didn’t worry too much about specific dive sites. There are probably amazing places that I could have focus our trip around, but with the limitations of a new diver, I just decided to not even research it and assumed the diving would be good wherever we went. Ignorance is bliss and we saw amazing stuff, so I feel really good about that decision.

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6) We had some extra time between our sea plane arrival back in Male and our flight from Male back to Hong Kong. Our butler (yes, we had a butler) was super helpful and arranged for a tour of Male which was actually really cool. The tour guide didn’t charge us anything, but we paid him $20 for about a 30 minute tour (it’s a small little downtown).

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*I use booking.com for almost all (like 99%) of my hotel booking. I know there are other websites out there (that may be better and or cheaper), but I love their app, I’m happy with the prices, and they have pretty true-to-point reviews. Plus, because I use them so much, I get an additional 10% off frequently and welcome drinks at most hotels. Small thing, but I love it. I also never use the non-refundable booking option. I’ve learned through experience that it’s worth it to me to pay a little more to know I’ve got some flexibility in case my plans change OR I find a different hotel that looks better.

 

saipan (google it)

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So, I turned 37 on Tuesday. And, as has been my tradition recently (two years makes it a tradition, right?) I took a trip. Last year was Burma/Myanmar with Brittany. This year was a little solo trip to Saipan (google it) to go scuba diving and enjoy some warm weather, the beach, and a little taste of America.

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It was a really good trip and the diving was amazing! My dive guide, Harry, was an American who’s been in Saipan almost 20 years. In addition to great diving, I got a lot of great stories about Saipan, it’s history in WWII, and the current state of politics in the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands. It was fascinating. And some of the best diving I’ve done. If you ever make it to Saipan, I highly recommend diving with his company. And you have to ask him the story behind the name of his company, because it’s pretty cool.

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It was also a much needed break from my crazy busy life and gave me some good time to reflect on the past year, as well as what I want for the year to come. There were a number of little personal epiphanies that took place. Some were a little painful…in the way muscles are sore after you work them hard. So, not a bad pain, but just a “wow, I haven’t worked those muscles in a while” type of pain.

IMG_4876If you’ve never taken a solo vacation, I highly recommend it. I know it sounds kind of scary to some of you. Or maybe you’re just thinking, “What’s the point?” And maybe there wouldn’t be a point for you, but I definitely need these times to just do a little personal inventorying.

And back to the part about it being Saipan. Because it’s an American commonwealth, I got to enjoy a little taste of America, including Diet Coke and Winchell’s. Happy birthday to me!

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And while the trip was over way too soon, I left feeling ready to take on this next year of my life with some good plans and goals to make some needed changes and to continue becoming the person I want to be…and more importantly, the person I think God wants me to be. And what a better reminder of how blessed I am than this little rainbow as seen from my plane when heading back to Japan.

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tokyo marathon 2014

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In February (yes, I know it’s April) I ran my second marathon. My friend Caroline came over from New York and we ran it together. If she hadn’t have been coming, I don’t think there’s any way on this earth I would have run. Prior to January, the only training I’d done was the half marathon I ran in Burma/Myanmar…for which I was also incredibly undertrained.

With five weeks to go before the race, I did the best I could to prepare…starting with a 16-miler. Go big or go home, right? My friends, Anne (with whom I’ll be running a marathon this summer in South Africa) and CoyLou joined me for some of my long runs, making them much more enjoyable. And somehow, even with the little training I’d done, I got to the marathon feeling like I was going to survive. And knowing that I’d finish before the cutoff (7 hours from the start time).

It’s an amazing thing to know that your body will be able to complete 26.2 miles, even when you’ve only trained for five weeks. I know I talked about this in my post about running in Burma, but every time I do a long race, I am in awe of what my body can do.

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While Caroline had come over to run the marathon with me, we weren’t exactly going to be running together. She’s much faster than I am (she’s a triathlon-ing nut) so we weren’t even starting in the same gates. I’ve never run in such a large race that there were gates, but with approximately 36,000 people running, gates there were. Seriously. 36,000!!!

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Caroline and I said goodbye to each other and headed off to our respective gates. The beauty of the Tokyo Marathon is that you have two out and back legs, so there was a chance I’d get to at least say hi to Caroline along the way.

This was the first race I was going to be running with my new toy: a Garmin Forerunner XT. I’d just started to do heart rate training and was excited to try this marathon with a focus not on pace, but on heart rate. Unfortunately, I never got my heart rate monitor working (I was so annoyed…the monitor left me both literally and figuratively chaffed!). Fortunately, I’d done enough HR training that I knew roughly the pace I should be running at the beginning.

I did a pretty good job (I thought) keeping my pacing down so I would burn out. As it turns out, though, while my heart was pretty content, my body was not so much by the end. But the happy news is I had my fastest half split I’ve had in over seven years. And my second fastest ever. I was pretty happy about that, even if the second half was pretty pathetic in terms of pacing.

It was an amazing experience. And what really helped me in those last miles was thinking about how lucky I was, as I saw many, many runners along the way at medical aid stations or stopped along the course nursing calves/shines/ankles/feet, just to be able to finish without having to stop and get medical attention.

The other major help was my darling friend Anne (pictured in the collage below)! When I ran the St. George Marathon almost seven years ago, I was doing it with another darling Anne. She was actually running with me, which was a huge boon! But on top of that, her awesome family had traveled down to St. George to cheer her and, by extension, me on.

If you’ve never run a distance race before, it’s hard to explain the support that comes from those cheering you on…the spectators in Tokyo were awesome, but having Anne there along the way made a HUGE difference! She trekked all over the course and I got to see her four times along the way. Every time was like receiving a little shot of energy! (Unfortunately, I busted my phone in Singapore a few weeks ago and in the transition to a new phone, I lost all of my pictures with Anne. Sad face. )

The last three miles were complete torture. While the marathon course in Tokyo is relatively flat for the most part, the last three miles consist of a series of bridges…bridges that are engineered for strength, and therefore are bowed…which means “hills” for a runner. To add insult to injury (or injury to insult, as it were), somewhere along the way I’d developed what I could tell was a ginormous blister on my right big toe in addition to a shooting pain at the base of my second toe due to the chip being too tightly attached. If I walked, I was okay. If I ran, every step hurt. So, there was a lot of walking.

IMG_1517The last miles of a marathon are also mentally challenging for me because I want so badly to be done that I do my best to force myself to go as fast as I can…but I just can’t go that fast. And it’s so difficult to not just give up. But, somehow I pushed through and the it was over. My goal was to finish under six hours (chip time), which is not fast at all…but was going to be a good finish for me given my lack of training and that I weighed about 20 lbs more than when I ran my last marathon. I came in at 5:58:20.

IMG_1513Of course, with a half split that would have put me in at around 5:30 had I maintained it, I was slightly disappointed, but then I remembered that I had set my goal based on reality and managed to feel pretty awesome about it when I thought, yet again, at how amazing it was that my body could do what it did.

Post marathon, I went through the finishers area and met up with Caroline for the most amazing foot soak ever (I wish every marathon had this!) and then met up with Anne, who was patiently waiting to congratulate me. Because of where the finish is, she wasn’t able to be at the finish line, but it was awesome that she had come all the way out to the end!

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Soaking my feet…this might be how my blister got infected and why I had to see a doctor for antibiotics, but at the time, it was worth it.

And that was that. Marathon #2 on continent #2 completed. And now I’ve begun training for marathon #3 on continent #3 which will happen on June 21st. Not sure what I was thinking signing up for two marathon’s in one year, but now the bug has bitten and the goal is to run a marathon on every continent, culminating in Antarctica in 2017! I’m both terrified and super excited!

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Elevator selfie with our medals after dinner and a movie.

dear mom

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Dear Mom,

While I’ve written several blog posts about you, I felt like it was time to write something to  you. Last Saturday marked 18 years since you died, making this the year that (sometime in April) I will have been alive longer without you than I was with you. Justin hit this a couple of years ago and it made me so sad for him. And this year it’s my turn. And it makes me sad for me. I definitely feel like I got screwed out of a mom a little bit. There are so many things I wish I could ask you now. Some important. Some not so important. And there are still moments almost every day when I think, “I wish I could talk to Mom about this!” But that’s not why I’m writing you this letter. I know if you could still be here with us, you would be. And that is probably the greatest gift that you’ve given me. Your unconditional, selfless love. And that is probably what I miss the most.

I’m writing this to you to tell you about my life, how I’m doing, and how much a part of my life you remain. I don’t want to try and recap the past 18 years in one letter. That would be too much, as I discovered in the attempt I made earlier this week. So, let me just cover the important stuff.

First of all, I am really happy. Life is hard, don’t get me wrong. But it is also amazing, and unpredictable, and full of beauty, and love, and joy, and laughter. I often find myself looking around at the world and thinking, “How did I get so lucky?!” I’ve realized that this is a gift you’ve given me. I see the world the way you taught me to see it. You taught me to view it with faith when you told me over and over again that “it always works out.” You taught me to live in the moment when you reminded me constantly not to “borrow trouble”. You taught me to be kind, even in the face of pests (a lesson that maybe took me a while to learn) whenever you reminded me that I could catch more flies with honey than I could with vinegar. You taught me to take risks when you let me go to Belgium as an exchange student when I was only 14 and then told me to try out for cheerleading…again, even though I hadn’t made it after I got back from Belgium when you told me, “If you don’t try, you definitely won’t make it”. You taught me to keep learning through your example as you developed new talents throughout your short life. You taught me the value of hard work can solve a lot of problems when I would complain about being cold or bored and you’d tell me to go clean the bathroom. 🙂 And you taught me to be generous with my time and talents, as you were with yours. And all of those lessons have led me to where I am today. And it’s pretty great. I know you’d approve 150% (and you would have definitely visited me here at least five times already…if not just moved to Japan with me).

Second, I really like who I am. It’s been a long time in the making, but the foundation has been there since long before you died. Don’t get me wrong. There’s still room for improvement, for sure. And there are some days when I really disappoint myself. But most days I think, “Mom would be proud.” Although I know you love me even on my worst days. I didn’t realize at the time, that all of those things you were teaching me weren’t just to help me become a good person, but to help me become a person I really like.

Third, on the days when my actions wouldn’t make you proud, my collection of shoes definitely would. As would my mastery of makeup application while driving a car or riding a crowded subway. (I can’t say the same for the butane curling iron, but I haven’t tried.)

Fourth, while no one is you, I have been unfairly blessed in the “family and friends” department. And while the sum of their parts can’t make up for not having you here today, they do a pretty incredible job filling in.

And finally, and maybe most importantly, you have some pretty awesome grandkids. I know you know that, but seriously, they are just so great! There is a part of you in each one of them. And I do my best to make up for the fact that none of them will get to know you in this life. I’m not perfect at being you, but I send gifts and try to see them as often as I can and there’s this amazing technology now that let’s me talk to them face-to-face even though I’m 6,000 miles away. I have taken time off work to help with the new babies. I make them Swedish pancakes. I jump on the trampoline with them. I teach them how to do knee dives and flips and back floats, and I make sure they don’t twist when they jump into the pool. I take them on trips and try to show them how exciting the world is just like you did for me. But more than anything, I try to help them feel the unconditional, selfless love that they would have unquestioningly felt from you.

I still miss you every day, but thank you for giving me everything I needed to become the person I am and showing me how to live a truly joyful life.

I love you always!

Love,

Chloe (your favorite youngest daughter)

P.S. Sorry about all of the change I never returned to you…and the occasional $20 bill that went missing from your purse. That was totally me. I promise, I don’t do things like that anymore.

P.S. #2 And sorry I was such a brat the last day I saw you alive. Don’t worry. I’m not dwelling on it or anything. I know you forgave me that very day and that you understood I was a moody, selfish teenager, but still. I think it’s important for you to know that if I could go back and do things differently on that day, I totally would have.

P.S. #3 If there’s any chance your pizza sauce recipe exists somewhere in the universe, it would be great if you could somehow let us know.