Transitions

21 Aug back porch flowers

I have been back in the States for over three weeks now.  It has been an unexpected time filled heartily with family, life transitions and passages. Saying that my father has passed away is still a bit of a shock to me.  I find I am aware that the first stage of grief is denial.

The busyness of life after a family member passing has started to subside and what remains is simple day-to-day living.  I am staying with my mother and we each have our own list of things to do at this time. Each day we tackle something new –  run a new errand, take a next step to resolve something on our list. Her list is much about the many changes that happen in life after a spouse has passed away.  Mine includes tying up loose ends from my time in Korea and preparing myself for “what’s next.”

Being back in the US is still new enough for me that I am enjoying the simple comforts and pleasures that come with life in the States – rides in cars, easy access to things I want and need, comfy couches and chairs, and bathtubs big enough for me to extend my legs in.  I find I cherish the Korean habits that still remain in my mind and body.  There is my habit of taking my shoes off when I walk in the door or my guilt if I still have them on while walking on carpet, even though no one minds.  My instinct remains to do the cute Korean two-handed wave whenever someone is leaving.  And of course, I cannot forget my tendency to bow in gratitude or respect… in a variety of situations, including to the lady at the customer service desk at the local department store.

The truth is I love all of these little habits and I cherish them like favorite souvenirs.  While I was only in Korea for a year and half, it became a part of me and I am delighted to carry a small piece of that as I move on.

As things have slowed down here, my time more recently is passed with long leisurely hours and neighborhood walks.  I particularly enjoy my time at the wellness center at my mom’s church down the street where they offer regular yoga and exercise classes.  Nearly daily, I get to enjoy the company of mostly senior members as we embark on yoga and strength classes together.  From time to time, we may even do a line dance or two.  The people are friendly and caring and it does my mind and body good to get out for a bit, connect with others and get some exercise.

I am just starting to catch up with myself after the recent whirlwind of experiences . The exhaustion is beginning to lift and my mind and attention are now turning to new things.

But for now I am here, in a small midwestern town filled with big skies, open fields and hot August weather.  I am surrounded by the everyday sounds of my mom and her life.  From the comfort of my mom’s guest room and her sunny back porch, I am also starting to take a look just a little further down the road.

 

Featured photo – sunny flowers on the steps of my mom’s back porch.

 

Departures

7 Aug peaceimage

It wasn’t easy leaving.  But I did it…in record time.  I was on the phone with my family in the US at 2am Korea time.  After that phone call, I was clear. I needed to get home and no time was to be wasted.

We had known for some time that my dad was sick.  More recently, I knew I had to be on the alert for a possible quick departure.  I had made arrangements with my employer to leave Korea in two weeks.  But after that phone call I was clear… two weeks was too long and I had to leave right away.

At 2 o’clock in the morning, I called the airline and began searching for a flight leaving the following day.  There was one that left at 5:15pm from Korea with only two seats left.  If I wanted to see my father again, I had no choice but to book that flight.  I was taking a risk in doing so as I made this change at a time when I was unable to consult first with my employer.  But I took a leap of faith hoping they would understand the circumstances.

After that I started to pack, wrapping up my year and half of life in Korea in the early morning hours. I was intently focused and by noon I had minimized the expansiveness of my personal belongings down to two suitcases, a backpack, and one box to be shipped to the States.

I quickly made my rounds at work, doing my best to smooth over in person the quick changes I had made in the night.  I cleaned my apartment and completed the sale of a few household items to other teachers. Next, without time to spare, I took a cab to the airport.

The flights passed quickly and I soon found myself landing around midnight at an airport in the midwest. My sister picked me up and we went directly to the hospice where my father was being cared for.

When I saw him he smiled and I am grateful for that recognition.  Later in that day he called me by name a few times.  I cherish those moments that I would not have had if I waited even a day longer to leave. What unfolded next was the witnessing and ushering in of my father’s passing.

My mom, my sister and her family, and I were constantly at his side.  Even during the night my sister and I took turns sleeping on the couch in his room.  He was receiving impeccable care from the nurses at his hospice, but we wanted to be there nonetheless.

As the days went by the nurses continued to share the signs that let us know he was getting closer to his end.  We watched daily until the nurses with precision suggested that he had just a few hours left.  We all gathered around and were present as he simply just stopped breathing.

It is quite something to see a parent go and the swarm of emotions that follow.  Feeling strong one moment and being swept away by a surge of tears the next.  When my father passed away I felt honored for having been there for his last days. Strangely, it felt like we had accomplished something in being there for him every step of the way.  In some ways no different from birth and ushering in a life, we participated in the important process of being with someone, comforting, keeping and caring for them as they make their departure.

For now I am riding the quiet waves of grief in the strange space of his absence as my family and I prepare for his memorial service.  As my family migrated a few hours west of our home town, we are grateful to receive family and friends arriving from out-of-town for the service.

As life carries on… I am noticing all the little spaces that are now empty since my dad’s departure.  The thoughts of him that are now memories and the commonly spoken phrases that are no longer true. I am grateful that my dad and I did our best to stay connected with one another during this last year of his life and the journey of his illness.

And so, this journey of mine is detoured in the quiet lands of the midwest, stopped for now at this important family passage.

 

Featured photo – This quote was featured on the wall of the hospice where my dad spent his final days.

Simple Summer Pleasures

17 Jul Shopping in Itaewon

It’s the end of the day on Thursday, the last day of my “weekend” as I prepare to begin a new work week.  It’s been a somewhat relaxing weekend filled with the many familiar rhythms I have become acquainted with in my time in South Korea – the 2220 bus that takes me from English Village directly to Seoul; shopping for friendly and familiar food at2200 bus the foreign markets in Itaewon; riding the subway in Seoul while watching the sea of Korean faces mesmerized by their smart phones.  These are some of the things that have become the simple landscape of my life here in Korea.

I was thinking today that, aside from a few trips home, I have not lived in the United States for more than three years now.  That is amazing to me and it’s hard to believe it is true.  The other day I Skyped home to chat with my family and had the pleasure of receiving questions about being in Korea from my four very engaged nephews.  “What are the kids like in South Korea?” and “Why do they want to learn English?” were some of the sea of questions.  It was fun for me that they were interested and I was grateful that I could share this with them.

When I started this journey just over three years ago, buying a ticket to Germany felt like buying a ticket to the moon. Even still, a few years later buying a ticket to Korea felt like I was preparing to… I don’t know… travel through time.  While in earnest my international life has been quite modest, I am grateful for the “normalness” of it that has started to sink in over the years.  Buying or considering buying a ticket to visit a new country, while still exciting and sometimes a bit scary for me, is also something that feels totally available and accessible to me.  That is new.  And for that, I am grateful.

Don’t get me wrong, I do still “wonder” when I will return to the States and sometimes wish to swim in more familiar waters.  Occasionally I miss the accessibility I feel in the States simply because I can speak the language and read the street signs. But for now, I continue with my international journey.

My day today consisted of a quick trip to Seoul and some simple pleasures in the summer heat.  A little grocery shopping in Itaewon and also a little shoe shopping. The shoe shopping part did not take long as the shoes I liked were not available for my size 8 American feet. Disheartening… but not unusual in Korea.

I also treated myself to a therapeutic massage… doing my best to ease and tend to the tension I tend to carry with great commitment.  I went to a new place today called Create Wellness on the main strip in Itaewon.  My American conditioning is still disheartened when I walk into an office on a balmy summer afternoon and there is no air conditioning.  Even so, the staff was kind and friendly and the massage was excellent and my body heaved a sigh of relief as I exited the office.  I then easily made my way back to Paju and English Village.

We have a hearty handful of new teachers arriving lately at English Village.  As we haven’t hired in a while, most of the teachers here have been at English Village at least a year or longer.  It is good to have some new faces and energy around.  I see many of them observing with a timid or sceptic’s eye, adjusting to their new environment.  In many ways, English Village is a strange slice of life and it can take some time to adapt to its ways.

Good night for now from the balmy (but not yet rainy) lands of Paju English Village.  Thanks for reading and as you know, it’s always good to hear from you!

 

 

KSGI Escapade

10 Jul GEVSummerMorning

They picked me up at 7:10 in the evening – just outside English Village in front of the giant Stonehenge replica, still an unexpected sight in the quiet hills of South Korea.  They opened their car door and ushered me towards them with a friendly wave. I hopped in and we were off!

Where were we going, you may ask?  To the local Paju City meeting of my buddhist group, Soka Gakkai International.  I am grateful for my English-speaking connections and SGI friends in Seoul.  But from time to time… I get invited to a local meeting in Paju and it is always an adventure.

When they pick me up, I am never quite sure where we are going… it is a simple act of trust really.  We make an agreement to meet at a certain time and then they take me… wherever it is we need to go… wherever the meeting is.  I get a small glimpse of feeling a bit more “normal” in Paju, traveling by car through the regular roads and life of local folks. On the way there we pick up one, no two more people, and now there are five of us tucked into the back seat like a bunch of teenagers out for the evening.

A kind face turns to me and offers some friendly words in Korean.  After a years and a half submerged in the all English world of English Village, I have nothing to offer her.  I smile.  I shrug my shoulders.  She talks more slowly and uses her hands.  While well intentioned, it doesn’t help. I still don’t understand Korean.

In no time we arrive at the meeting and I follow the rush of bodies loading into the elevator.  We find our way to a member’s apartment where most guests are seated on the floor, Korean style.  Koreans know that foreigners don’t do the floor very well and I am no exception. I am escorted to a prime seat on the couch and me, my knees and my back are grateful.

Mostly, no one speaks English at the meeting.  So I sit and smile and look and listen.  I watch with admiration as the meeting is run so efficiently, packed with information, intent and interest and not a moment wasted.  People stand, share and everyone laughs.  I turn to ask, “what did she say?” and realize there is no one there who can answer this.

A near-by member, also on the couch, offers an olive branch.  There is a small paragraph written in English that summarizes the reading for the evening.  He shares it with me, smiles and says, “understand.”  I nod and am grateful for his English word.

The message of the reading is a reminder to “pray as earnestly as though to produce fire from damp wood.”  I love it and have some inspiration to take home to my daily practice.

As the meeting neatly comes to an end, just a well-packed hour later, everyone stands and prepares to leave.  I am met by wonderful faces and smiles.  The leaders greet me with their kind eyes and tug onto my hand as we share in our own language our wish to communicate.  But still, in earnest, it is nice to communicate in other ways too… the silent ways of smiles and eyes and kind touch.

As we prepare to leave, my couch mate offers his friendly smile and we take a picture together.  Without hesitation, he zips it off to my phone electronically.  But there is no time to wait as my escort is shuffling me towards the door and I feel I must keep up or lose my ride.  And so, I keep my eyes on them like a hawk as they lead me out and to their car amidst the many bodies departing.

A few minutes and a comfortable ride later I am home after my brief immersion into K-SGI.  I offer thank you in Korean, among the few simple words that I know.  I depart and they are off… almost as quickly as they came.

I check my phone to find a copy of the picture from the evening sent via text.  I respond a quick, “thanks!” to which I receive the reply, “No problem.  We are friends.  We are SGI members.”

And so is the beauty of community.  Anywhere in the world.  Whether we do or don’t speak the same language.  While I am someone with hermit-like tendencies and often happy with huge helpings of autonomy, I am also grateful for these snippets of connection and community.  Like a warm light in the night-time sky.

I returned to my apartment… happy to be home but also altered in a small way after my interlude in connection and the shared joy and power of the people and practice of Korea Soka Gakkai International.

Thanks for reading!  … and feel free to drop me a line… it’s always good to hear from you!

 

Featured photo:  Enjoying a quiet moment before class surrounded by the morning light and summer green of the surrounding hillside.

Russian Students and Watermelon Popsicles

3 Jul watermelonabstract

It’s my mid-week weekend at English Village.  Summer is finding her way to stay.  The heat is just a precursor to the impending Monsoon season, typically a month of practically non-stop rain.  Our slow work pace has picked up recently with a regular rotation of visiting Russian students.  When one group leaves, another arrives.

Our current bundle of students are overall really great.  They are mostly bright-eyed, friendly and engaged, traveling with supportive and interested teachers, parents and guardians.  At English Village, whenever we teach a class for the first time it is typical to invite the students to ask us questions.  Expected questions can include,”what is your favorite color”, “where are you from”, and of course… “how old are you?”.  But not this bunch.  Recent student questions have included, “why did you want to be a teacher” and “what do you think of the political situation in the Ukraine”… a bit daunting, but thoughtful and appreciated nonetheless.

One can’t help but notice cultural differences reflected in classroom behavior when teaching Russian and Korean students.  The biggest distinction I see is that our visiting Russian students typically have WAY bigger boundaries than our Korean students. For the most part, our Russian students talk more, ask more questions, and are more inclined to physically roam, try and test.  This can result in interesting and engaged classes. Sometimes it can also bring additional classroom challenges.

For example, a few weeks ago during our between-class ten minute break, a class of Russian students suddenly began playing frisbee in the classroom with about ten frisbees that seemed to appear from nowhere…  They were flying everywhere. Surprised, I did my best to collect them and asked… where did these come from?  It turns out they came from the English Village collection of sporting supplies, unlocked as typically students just leave them alone.  But somehow, they made a surprise appearance during class time break.

Despite the increased activity, life at English Village still seems laid back and slow.  Some days this feels like a wonderful gift.  Other days it has me a bit anxious, feeling like there is something I need to do.

I indulged and purchased a watermelon this week with my regular delivery of organic fruits and vegetables.  Some things in Korea are just more expensive than we are used to in the States.  Watermelon is one of them.  While it can be a bit daunting to pay sometimes twice as much for basic things… in general I have learned to just pay it and move on.  We refer to it as the Korea factor – some things are very expensive, but in exchange the lifestyle is simple, salary is descent and expenses are few.  Not a bad trade.

In an effort to make good use of my watermelon (I now have watermelon a-plenty!), I snooped around looking for watermelon popsicle recipes.  I used what I had on hand and easily concocted a basic watermelon brew and poured it into my popsicle molds to enjoy a frozen summer treat later.watermelon popsicles

Here is what I did:

  • Cut up some fresh watermelon and put it in my blender
  • Added a little lemon (lime would be better, but it is all I had on hand)
  • Added just a drop of vanilla

Voila!  Watermelon popsicles!  And not a drop of sugar!

How about you?  Any summer stories or refreshing recipes to share?  It’s always great to hear from you!

That’s it for now from Paju, South Korea.  Thanks for reading!

 

 

Travel Tips for Freedom and Flexibility

26 Jun FlowersinSeoul

When planning for a vacation, dream journey or family excursion, it never hurts to have a bit of flexibility.  In my past three years of wandering and international travel, flexibility has been a key theme.  Plans change.  Sometimes quickly or unexpectedly.  In my global escapades, I have found myself in France one day… and the next being offered a job in South Korea.  In a matter of weeks… I rerouted my life back to the United States and began the long process of acquiring a Korean Visa.  Ah, flexibility… a good partnership in the exploration of freedom.

No matter what your 5th grade teacher or high school boyfriend told you, it’s okay to change your plans or your mind.  It’s alright to be flexible.  In fact it is essential in the exploration of a created life.  For me personally, flexibility does not always come easy.  Despite the wide assortment of change in my life, I like to have my plan. This lesson for me often includes some growing pains.  But a dose of flexibility goes a long way.

Flexibility and travel plans might seem like an oxymoron.  In these days of cheap internet flights and travel deals, flexibility may seem like an antiquated story told by your old Aunt Nellie.  But it is possible and often optimal to build a little flexibility into the foundation of your travel plans.  Here are a few tips that will help put the flow back in your travels.


1.  Get the Facts on Your Flight.

Regardless of which search engine or budget travel site you use, before purchasing any airline ticket, take a little time to find out how refundable your flight is. What happens if you cancel? Does it make a difference if you cancel one day or a week before your flight?  If you cancel, can you get a full or partial refund?  Being informed with facts can put some swagger in your travel foundation should your plans change… for any reason.  A ticket that is slightly more expensive, but has a better refund policy may in the end be the better deal.

Money Back Guarantee?  Some flight search engines and travel sites offer extra insurance and money back guarantees for modest fees.  Before checking that purchase box, read the fine print to see be clear about the conditions of that guarantee.

Recently I purchased a ticket from Tripsta at an impressively affordable rate.  In an effort to support my travel flexibility I purchased the add-on Money Back Guarantees and Premium services.  When my plans changed and I wanted to cancel, I was disappointed to learn that the guarantee was only under certain circumstances (death, hospitalization, alien takeover…).  And so, while I did get a partial refund for my ticket, it would have served me well to get 100% clear about these services before making my purchase.

 

2. Know the Cancellation Policy of Your Accommodation.

When it comes to accommodation I am always looking for the best balance of affordability and quality.  I have only recently discovered how important a location’s cancellation policy is when weighing its pros and cons. Yes it may have everything I am looking for, but how much do I pay if I cancel one day or five days before my arrival.  In the spirit of flexibility, a more relaxed cancellation policy is a huge bonus and can be a deciding factor if choosing between a handful of places to stay.

Recently I booked two different accommodations for a vacation that, in the end,  I did not take.  As I often do, I booked through Airbnb.com and found a couple of places I was really excited about.  I checked their cancellation policies but unfortunately I looked at the information incorrectly and was misinformed.  When it came time to cancel…I waited too long and was out a little more money than I expected.

The best practice is to write your perspective host and ask specifically for the details of their cancellation policy to be sure you are correctly informed.  When you are clear and understand the terms of the agreement you can make your choices accordingly.  Then, if you need to fly the flag of flexibility, there won’t be any expensive surprises.

Do you have any tips on flexibility and travel?  Any great experiences or resources to share?

Thanks for reading. It’s always good to hear from you!

 

Featured image – a hit of vibrant color along the streets of Seoul.

 

Slow Summer Beat

17 Jun Green Summer Days

Life continues to be a bit strange and unpredictable in the recently altered and still mostly quiet land of English Village. As many of you know, work life suddenly and surprisingly changed after the tragic SEWOL ferry accident in South Korea. After so many students lost their lives traveling on a class trip, many schools, parents, and even the government responded by canceling class trips for… we don’t know how long.

With no students visiting English Village on their class trips, we now make our way following our leadership’s attempt to more actively engage our daily visitors.  The only problems is, during the week quite often… visitors are few and far between.  Often we sit at empty tents waiting for no one to come, or stand at the front gate ready to greet a handful of visitors.

There are still some students to be found at English Village.  The regular syncopation of my Saturday book club classes continues to beat consistent and strong.  But these modest Saturday classes teaching young Koreans to read are a tiny drop in a now quite empty bucket.

Despite continued change and a degree of uncertainty, there are still some things at English Village I can always count on. I can be sure, without fail, that if I give a package of crayons to my young book club students, before coloring can begin they will sort the crayons and put them in proper order.  If, after sorting them, they find they have two of one color or a color is missing, I know for sure that soon I will hear an innocent voice call “teacher” alerting me to their crayon situation that must be handled before coloring can commence.

I can also rely on my book club students laughing at the strangest things.  If I accidentally put the dot on my “i” to the right of its “base” when writing quickly, I know I will get a chuckle or two. Dropping something on the floor will merit ridiculous giggles.  And, shockingly, if they see my stomach when my shirt accidentally lifts up a little while describing something in an animated way, I can count on the laughter bringing down the room.  One time I even had a sticker on my butt… ridiculous chuckles.  Yes, some things will never change.

We have a small bundle of Russian students now visiting English Village.  Some of these students just visiting for a week or two have already come and gone.  What remains is the modest assembly of students here for 3 and 6 weeks. A handful them have our full attention with behavior busting boundaries on an hourly basis.  Others are sweet and somewhat engaged and ready for class.  When I see them move from class to class, the look on their face reflects a mixture of homesickness, heat exhaustion and perhaps just a bit of “English Village” fatigue.

Russian students typically visit English Village a couple of time each year.  It is undoubtedly a bit less “exciting” this year as the small group of students are the only ones on campus.  Typically they would be just a spot in a sea of Korean compadres.  Not this year.

We hear that our special programming in August is going to be hopping with students.  Perhaps after that a return to the regular craziness bursting at the seams with students.

In truth, aside from tragic event that caused this interruption, I am earnestly appreciative of a shift in intensity.  I was ready for a break from week after week and month after month of stampedes of Korean adolescent students.  A teacher mentioned recently that I look happier lately and in truth I think it is because I simply feel less stressed without teaching so many students in such an erratic schedule and system all of the time.

June weather has been kind in Paju so far as the humidity and heat continues to gently make herself known.  It is still nothing compared to the wall of heat and humidity I knew and sort of loved in New Orleans.

It is Tuesday, but also my “Friday” as I have a mid-week weekend.  It’s always nice to have a break for a few days, even just to have some simple time off to relax and do whatever feels good and fun in the moment.

How is summer settling in for you?  Thanks for reading and it’s always good to hear from you!

Photo of lush and green summer days at English Village.

My 5 Favorite Healthy Snacks

4 Jun Rice farm behind GEV

Whenever people learn that I don’t eat sugar, not any, not even a drop, it is often met with faces of horror or disbelief.  “What do you eat” they often ask.  In truth, while inconvenient at times, it’s not difficult to eat a simple, healthy diet.  Living in Korea does complicates things further with language challenges and most Korean foods being tucked with a hearty amount of sugar.  But the benefits and improvements of how I feel without sugar definitely outweigh the inconvenience.

I am like anyone else – I still love to snack!  It’s important to have things I love to eat so I don’t feel denied. For me, snacking is something that requires no fuss. Nothing fancy, no big preparations. As more and more people are choosing a sugar-free healthy eating lifestyle, I thought I would share my favorite munchies.  Here are my top five healthy gluten-free, sugar-free snacks.  With the help of Iherb.com, they are accessible no matter where you are in the world!peanut butter and apples

1.  Peanut Butter and Apples
This is my go-to favorite snack, so simple and healthy.  I use only natural peanut butter with no-sugar added.  My top pick is Arrowhead Mills Organic Creamy Peanut Butter.  It is delicious, smooth and creamy, and not a drop of sugar added.  You can find this peanut butter in many health food stores as well as iherb.com.

kale krunchies2.  Kale Krunchies from Lydia’s Organics, Herb de Provence flavor
This crispy treat is a great way to go when you have the munchies for something crunchy.  The Herb de Provence flavor is very inviting.  I often use it as an addition to a simple, quick lunch or to fight off the evening munchies.  It’s also a good way to get some veggies on the go if you are traveling or someplace where you don’t have access to healthy food choices. Delicious!NOW-Foods-Real-Food-Dry-Roasted-Macadamia-Nuts-Salted-733739070197

3.  Macadamia nuts
Oh, my favorite of the nut family.  In the 90’s romance film, It Could Happen to You, the first thing she buys when she wins a million dollars is Macadamia Nuts.  True luxury!  I find when I eat these I feel like I am getting an unexpected treat.  Surely I must have done something good to deserve something so yummy.  A great late afternoon snack to get you through until dinner time.  I order NOW brand from iherb.com.

beanitos4. Beanitos
This is my solution to my snack chip cravings.  It is a great alternative to corn or potato chips.  The ingredients are simply black beans and rice.  They can be purchased at most US grocery stores or at iherb.com. They are delicious on their own, but also great for dipping in humus or guacamole.  Yumm!

5.  Fresh fruit and Greek Yogurtyogurt and kiwi
As ice cream for me is a thing of the past, this is truly a refreshing and satisfying treat.  It is so simple, just a dollop of yogurt and fruit of your choice.  I often like bananas or kiwi.  It’s important to choose a greek yogurt with no sugar added. Here in South Korea I order from a company in Seoul that makes their own fresh and delivers it to my door.  If you are curious, you can find them at www.medfoodinkorea.com.

If you are new to iherb.com and would like to save up to $10 on your first order, use coupon code STG569 or click here for more information.

What about you?  What are you favorite healthy snacks?  It’s always great to learn about more healthy, sugar-free snacking!

Featured photo, a sneak peak at the rice farm in the “backyard” of my current home, Gyeonggi English Village in Paju, South Korea.

Travel the World with Helpx

22 May Flowers! Ilsan Park

It’s a typical Thursday afternoon at English Village in Paju South Korea.  It is my “weekend” and I am busy sifting through plans and possibilities for myself and my life.  Spring is here and while it is finally lovely it is also a sad little season.  Here in Paju it seems bossy summer starts to fight its way in before Spring has even had a chance to settle.

Yesterday was a refreshing break from the land of Paju as I met with a young Korean friend from my SGI Buddhist group in the nearby city of Ilsan.  It is near by car I should say, as the meandering local bus is more than a short journey.  But it was worth it to connect with her and her friend visiting from Malaysia.  Both went to university in the States with very agreeable English and inspiring dreams and attitudes.  It is fun and fresh to spend time with both of them.

The highlight of our easy afternoon was a visit to Ilsan Lake Park featuring a stunning rose garden.  I had flashbacks of the many hours I spent in my favorite parks in New Orleans, playing among the live oaks dripping with spanish moss.  Ilsan’s park seems like a distant cousin to the parks of New Orleans as Korea does parks differently from the sultry ways of the South.  In Ilsan the park was open and spacious but complete with tidy boxes of flowers and neatly laid paths. The rose garden, however, was unexpected and off the charts.  To me it seemed like everything Korean.  Colorful.  Neat and tidy.  And utterly lovely in its never-ending patterns and displays of roses of all colors.

As I am poking away at my own travel plans, it has me thinking once again of helpful travel tips to pass on to you – tips that might open doors, ignite some excitement or stir up a dream or two.  In my past three years of unfolding international adventures, one of the best tips I received was being turned on to the website Helpx.net.

What is helpx.net?  Quite simply it is a network of people in locations around the world willing to provide travelers with room and board in exchange for work.  It is one of the best inventions in travel and can open up the world to people who have ruled it out because they “don’t have enough money.”  It can also be an economical way to “getaway” or have a change of scenery even in your own country.

Who are the hosts?  Helpx hosts are business owners, farmers and private people and families who want to open their doors to travelers.  Businesses may include bed and breakfasts, resorts, hotels, or farms.  I once stayed with a helpx family who ran their own business from home and were looking for a graphic designer.  You never know what you may find that is a match for your skills and interests!

How does it work?  It is quite simple really.  You can view the website without becoming a member, but if you want to contact a host you must pay the modest fee to join.  Once you are a member, contact a host or hosts that are interesting to you.  If they feel the same way, they will get back to you.  The length of stay can vary greatly.  Once an agreement is reached between you and the host, all you have to do is make your plans and show up!

How many hours do I work and what do I do?  This will vary by host.  Some hosts are laid back and are mostly interested in meeting people from other parts of the world.  Others really rely on the helpx work for the vitality of their business.  I would say average expectation is 5 hours a day, 5 days a week.  But some hosts will ask for 6 hours a day, 6 days a week with one day off.  And others may not set hours and just ask that you help as needed through out the day.

Work varies widely as well.  In my experience I have cooked, cleaned, mowed lawns, painted ceilings, chopped wood, taken care of children.  Some people need help with construction, caring for their farm in some way or teaching a language.  There are also unexpected little pockets or work needed that are best found through exploring the site.

How to choose a host.  I found it helps to be clear about what matters to you and screen hosts for those things.  How many hours do you want to work?  Do you want to be in a city or out in the country?  What kind of work are you willing to do?  Do you want to be around a lot of other people or do you like solitude.  Can you go with the flow with whatever your hosts cooks or do you have diet requirements?  How long do you want to stay?  Do you want to share a room with others or do you prefer privacy… the clearer you get, the easier it is to choose and shorten your list and start making contacts.

You will have more options if you plan at least a few months ahead of time as there is less “last-minute” availability. Additionally, I found it useful to contact more than one host for the same time period as some people don’t get back in touch or have changed plans.

Is it safe?  With all of my helpx experiences I always felt very safe.  There is a place for reviews on all helpx hosts and reading those is very helpful.  Once when I still had more questions, I contacted previous helpxers to get more information. If you’re still unsure if a host is right for you, its never a bad idea to get a second opinion from a wise and trusted friend.

Is it worth it?  Absolutely!  It provides intimate experience into a different life and sometimes different culture.  New experiences, new people, new skills.  Don’t get me wrong, sometimes there is some hard work to do or relationships to be managed.  But that is all the depth and color of the experience!

Daytime is melting away on this quiet almost summer day in Paju. I am listening to English Village top 40 leaking through my window from the speaker outside.  Ah the sounds of life at English Village.

If you have any questions about Helpx, feel free to write!  Always happy to share my experience!

Photo at top. A bright array of flowers neatly displayed at Ilsan Lake Park.

Business as Usual

15 May Gyeonggi English Village

Well, it seems like it is back to business as usual here at Gyeonggi English Village.  Except that, for the most part… there is no business.  In the past weeks we have waded through questions of teachers going on paid or unpaid leave and the future of English Village. And now things have emerged with no major change… except that, for the most part, we don’t have students to teach.

While we whittle away our days away with no students, for the most part teachers are expected to spend their time preparing their lessons for August programs.  Additionally, there is a new emphasis on weekend programming for English Village visitors more in the vein of entertainment.  New responsibilities have a fun flavor and include things like face painting, mask making and English focused games.  Lately we find ourselves scheduled to work a few hours at our front gate welcoming visitors to English Village that are sometimes there… and sometimes not. Life is undoubtably strange… or stranger than usual as we adjust to new programming and dance an odd dance with our administration struggling to keep us busy during this mostly non-busy time.

This past week we had our first student programs in quite a while.  We hosted a group of university students visiting from Japan as well as an adult program.  While it was nice to have a little “life” here, this modest program hardly put a dent in our weekly schedule. In future weeks more students will arrive…. a group of Russian students here for 6 weeks among them.  As required by the local government, Korean students will not take student trips until after this semester ends which is in early July.  Even after that we are not quite sure if Korean students will return to their regular class trips at English Village.

Meandering in Seoul

This week during my regular week-day weekend I headed to Seoul for the day for a bit of an escape.  While I appreciate my home at English Village, the fresh air and quiet surrounding hills, it felt really great to get away.  I spent my day doing a little shopping, meandering the streets of a favorite neighborhood, and also getting a message.  At the end of the day I met up for the first time with the Seoul chapter of a spiritual group called The Art of Living.

I have been connected with the Art of Living since I took their first course in New Orleans about 8 years ago.  Led by Indian guru Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, the group was in New Orleans to be of service to the community in the wake of the challenges from Hurricane Katrina.  As an organization they are committed to spiritual health, well-being and harmony through a unique set of practices and tools. They are also committed to being of service to humanity through good deeds and projects.  Their main teaching is something called the Sudarshan Kriya and is learned in the first course.  It is a series of hand movements and breathing techniques that support the mind and body in reducing stress, detoxing, and being more balanced. As an organization I have found them to be nothing short of lovely and inspiring and have benefitted from the continued use of their practices.

It was a real treat to connect with the group, meet some new people and take some time out for spiritual practice in community.  An Art of Living teacher was visiting Seoul this week, so she led the group in the Kriya as well as some yoga and chanting.  I came away from the evening with a renewed interest in my own practice and reminder of the simple joy that can be cultivated from the inside out.

As the sun begins to set and my weekend begins to wind down, I prepare for a new work week.  Returning to a new irregularity but still somehow business as usual here at Gyeonggi English Village.

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