Saturday, November 8, 2014

You say goodbye, and I say hello

I suppose in the end, the whole of life becomes an act of letting go, but what always hurts the most is not taking a moment to say goodbye. - Pi Patel, Life of Pi (2012)

I am painfully aware of moment. Sometimes it enhances the moment and other times it doesn't let me just live in it instead of observing it. Leaving Japan and not knowing when I'd come back wasn't just a moment though. It was a process. In another post I mention how moving from another country takes weeks, well so does saying goodbye properly. Every place and every person that seems worthy of your goodbye should get an un- rushed, heartfelt goodbye. Do this and you'll have no regrets.

Japan already has goodbyes built into their culture with farewell ceremonies, enkais, and phrases like  お世話になりました (osewa ni narimashita) which is used to thank someone over a considerable amount of time. This was my life in Japan, the one I had wanted for so long, and now it was coming to a close. I said goodbye to every thing.

I said goodbye to my favorite bistro place with the awesome salmon calzone and their kind staff. To the bakery ladies who would laugh at the silly foreigner girl who asked for her sandwich to be toasted To my friend at the salon who diligently made every effort (and succeeded in kick-ass fashion) to dye my hair in 'gradiation' aka ombre. To the kind couple whom I rented my car from who would never let me leave without some token of their appreciation in the form of snacks, tea, pocket warmers, etc. To the mountain I climbed after school with my hiking buddies where we'd runaway screaming from giant Japanese hornets. To the kind Indian staff at our favorite restaurant who without fail, would give us free lassi each visit. To the rare Japanese gas station attendant with the beautiful blue eyes who would put in gas for me. To the older Japanese ladies we would have English speaking parties with. To apartment I hated at first and came to love after I'd made it homey. To the students who would smile and wave at me, To the teachers who had taken me in. The friends I never imagined myself lucky enough to meet. To the bunny I'd bought for month and was frantically finding a way to ship back home to me (spoiler alert: I did it). And the love of my life who I had met in the place of my dreams. He was staying and I was leaving. That's all I'll say.

Actual events included farewell dinners with these friends, but you know how those go, so I'll elaborate on the farewell enkai and ending ceremony at school.

That day would be the end-of-summer term concluding ceremony and since this is done essentially in the middle of the Japanese school year, many of the students were shocked to hear that I would be giving a farewell speech. It later had to be explained to them that nothing was wrong with me, it was just the end of my contract. I did the whole thing in Japanese and received a beautiful bouquet of flowers and a certificate from my school. Afterwards, I took pictures with several students and teachers, packed my desk, bowed to the principal and vice-principle, and then went back to my apartment where I proceeded to jump up and down because I DID IT! I'd taught for two years in Japan when at first the task seemed impossible in terms of being a teacher and through some of the harder days when nothing seemed to go right. Later that night, I had an enkai held just for me with not all of the teachers, but certainly my favorite ones. They wouldn't hear of letting me pay, and gave me way too many cards and little cute gifts. We took pictures and they gave speeches. I gave an informal speech that even surprised me with the emotion I suddenly realized I had. So with tears in my eyes as I said in Japanese, "thank you so much for everything", I looked around and saw people looking back at me with fondness and friendship. However, nothing struck me more than when the agricultural teacher, a young Japanese guy who had befriended me early on came up to me laughing as he tripped over his words in English trying to tell me something. I told him to tell me in Japanese and I'd help him. What he said left me so stunned that I couldn't fulfill my promise. He said,

"When the earthquake and tsunami struck, Japan was labeled as a dangerous place. Many people were worried about many things and even our ALT left even though we were all the way in Tamba, far from the affected area. I really didn't think we'd have an ALT that year, but you came and said you'd loved Japan so much you had to come especially when they needed you to...Thank you. Thank you for coming to Japan."

No, thank you Japan, for making a dream come for me by just being you.
Goodbye (for now)

The Process of Letting Go

These are my last few months living in Japan. A two year journey that was ten years in the making is going to be over soon, so some time to sit back and reflect over the course my life has taken since making this decision is in due order.
PSSSH YEAH RIGHT! Do you know how much goes into moving?? To another country?!? I'll just say right now that I have no idea how people who aren't as OCD as me about organizing can do it. They either have way less stress than I do about throwing stuff in a bag and hoping for the best when you get there, or get a lot more help than I do.

My to-do list included things like going ways presents for my co-workers and shopkeepers who'd come to know me as a regular. Things to sell, pack, throw away, give away, and donate. Things I could shuck off on my visitors to take home for me (you guys saved me so much in shipping charges and now forever part of my exclusive mule club!), things I could do without until my bf could bring it home to me when he visited, things I needed until the last minute, things I was taking to Europe (more on that later), tax-representative stuff, how to stop all my utilities in a timely manner, returning my rental car, cleaning the apartment for inspection, figuring out how to ship my bunny home (this deserves a post on its own), getting in those last trips to my favorite places, getting in those last trips to places I'd always wanted to go, seeing friends before they left - are you as tired as I am yet?

To further explain that Europe blurb, I knew from the get-go that I would be treating myself to a Europe getaway at the end of my JET contract. I wasn't sure if I was going to backpack over three months or something crazy like that, but as it had happened in the past, my two moms and best friend jumped on board. This meant some serious readjusting of what I had envisioned, but it didn't bother me in the least. This post (coming soon!) details that incredible trip, but needless to say, that kind of adventure isn't one you want to be planning while moving.

Some tips for those departing moving from country to country would be the following (in no particular order) Some of these are more for leaving and some are more for going:

  • It's never too early to start planning - make lists, read up on the experiences of others who have come before you (ahem), and plan way ahead.
  • Make a list that counts down by weeks so you know what has to be done by that week. This will help you remember the time-sensitive stuff like if you need to order something online or cancel a service before you're charged for the next month, etc. 
  • Take advantage of off-season sales for things that you will need on your trip and are difficult to acquire wherever you may be going. 
  • Make one-on-one time for everyone in your life weeks before you go so you're not feeling rushed at the end to see everyone in big groups or whenever you can cram them in - trust me, they'll appreciate you thought of them.
  • Set up a blog, vlog, instagram, facebook page, etc before you go. Some people document the departure process as well as the arrival one, but some leave it for when they get there and lose some of those first impressions in the initial haze of settling in.
  • Think about bringing some gifts for the people you'll meet in your new life abroad and giving some to the people who did make your trip memorable. Things that are from your country are best. Sure this isn't the custom in all countries like it was for me in Japan, but it's good etiquette and appreciated no matter where you go. #Stayclassy
  • Take pictures of everything!! That front yard that is never mowed like you've asked a million times for you school to do - do it. That side angle view of your students walking to school as you have your tea in the morning. Yup. You'll probably never show them to anyone else and think you don't want to remember them, but one day you'll be going over  your pics and see them and get a wonderful rush of nostalgia. 
  • Stop to appreciate the last time you'll probably hang out with all the friends you made in your time abroad being in the same place at the same time. Just a moment. It goes well with the Japanese proverb I live my life by which is  一期一会 (ichi go ichi e) meaning one chance, one opportunity, because that moment will never happen again. 
I think that's a good poignant place to end this post. Let me know of any other tips you have from your experiences in the comments! 

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

The Successor

Somewhere, someone was eagerly waiting to find out if they had gotten into JET, was then waiting to see where they'd be placed and what academic level, and THEN wants to hear from their predecessor to learn as much as they can about their placement before they arrive to be totally prepared!


That was my experience at least, but due to the devastating earthquake and tsunami that happened mere months before my arrival, my whole process was pushed back by about six weeks. So maybe that's why I was so eager... 

My predecessor was helpful with whatever I asked of her and sent me a video of the apartment so I knew exactly what kind of space I had to work with when I arrived. Not only that, but if you remember this post, it also took the edge off my shock when I arrived (but did nothing to alleviate the tears. hmm). She would comment on my pictures the first few months after my arrival and so on. 

As I was waiting to hear about my successor, all the other ALTs had learned of theirs and began the usual process of informing them about their daily life and duties as well as trying to establish what could be sold to the successor or thrown away from their belongings. My JTE had told me on other occasions that my three previous predecessors were girls and from America so I just assumed that would be the case. I had wild imaginings of preparing long a Word document detailing every aspect of life in Tamba and what I had learned. I got this idea from my previous employment where a sort of manual is on file listing useful phone numbers and quick help guides, but with a to-do list as long as mine, that didn't happen..

Soon after I found a note on my desk with the name Peter Johnson and his email address. I took the grand leap of deducing that this was news I had been waiting to hear! Hello, Peter! Peter? A boy...huh, well look at that. He is from America though, and the nicest guy. We emailed each other a few times, but he didn't have many questions or expectations. He bought a few items off of me, but oddly refused the mattress. For some very hygienic people I know refusing a mattress is not a surprise at all (myself included), but I was selling it dirt cheap, it was a full size, already in the apartment, and even for a clean freak like me, a new mattress cover would have sufficed. He explained that a futon would be fine for him (maybe for the authenticity?) so I wished him Godspeed and sold the mattress to another incoming Tamba ALT.  (oh these youngens with their resilient backs). 

It's not too common for a predecessor and successors to meet since people usually leave their town to travel or go home right after their contract, but I was sticking around for various reasons and so, we met! It was strange going back to my home of two years, the site of so many happy, sad, quiet, personal, intensely visceral memories and having to walk in to my apartment like a guest. I explained a few things that were baffling him like the bathroom temperature control panel and the hot water faucet, and left my apartment forever. 

Good luck, Peter! May you come to love Tamba as dearly as I do (but you will never be queen of Kasugacho Mountain! That's mine forever! haha)

Friday, May 31, 2013

Spring Breakin' all the rules (Part 2)

Here is Spring Breakin' all the rules part 2! Click here for part 1~

I last left us off with me leaving the wondrous and ancient kingdom of Angkor in Cambodia bound for the 'Island of the Gods' as lauded by some, Bali.

I went via Malaysian Airlines where my dashing, but very tall companion had enough leg room to completely stretch out. He was quite excited about it for an 8 hour flight. We arrived at the airport at night and like in many Southeast Asian countries, the hotel pickup service was late and needed to be reminded to come get us as they had offered online. We arrived at the hostel and got the grand tour.

It. Was. Gorgeous!

Very lush, giant pool, open air bar and patio for morning breakfast and cathedral ceilings in our huge room that had a view of the pool from the balcony. It was also just down the road from the main road in Kuta. The only downside to this place was the spotty wifi, but not the worst thing when you're suppose to be disconnecting for a while, right?

Unlike Cambodia, we had whole of Bali to see and just 3 days to do it in. My friend had his must-sees and I had mine. Luckily, we had discussed beforehand what kind of travelers we are to see how compatible we'd be, so a lot of the same things were on both our lists.

Day 1: Tourists in the extreme!

I was told that Bali is the Australians what the Bahamas is to Miamians - a paradise next-door. Aussies go Bali for weekend trips and want nothing but the beach, pool, trendy shops, and restaurants. So that's what we did and it was glorious. That part of Bali felt very much like places we were used to back in our own respective countries, especially me as I thought of Miami Beach. Also keep in mind that back in Japan it was still cold even in March so a day at the beach was just what we needed. I took it up a notch and wanted a surf lesson. I'd never had one before and am always up for new experiences so I was really excited when I read about easy it was to book one. Different guys would have their surf boards set up on the beach and would kind of follow you for 10 feet while you passed them trying to convince you to have a lesson with them. The usual advertising was for a two-hour lesson for the equivalent of 30-50 USD. They know many people are tourists, so are willing and even expecting to pay this price no questions asked. I'd read online though how to handle the ones that we being too pushy or bargain them down if a two of you wanted a lesson for example. In principle, I hate being swindled, but when traveling in poorer countries, I try to consider that this is these peoples livelihood and if I'm blessed enough to be on vacation in their country, I'll pay their prices. BUT I refuse to be harassed or forced into any purchase so the winner of my surfing affection was this cool dude who, from a distance, called out and asked if I wanted a lesson and when said, 'maybe in a little bit,' he just gave me a thumbs up.

I walked up and said, 'how much for two hours?' He asked if my friend wanted one as well (probably already savvy to the split cost technique), but my friend wasn't interested. I ended up only paying the equivalent of 30 USD for 2 1/2 hours. I put on a skin guard and we practiced how it is you swim, stand, and steer all on the sand before heading out into the waves. The waves were rolling in gentle that day, but still high. My first problem was not standing up fast enough. If you don't do it in time, the momentum of the wave will prevent you from ever getting your balance once you're up. My second problem was overcompensating my balance to one end and virtually launching myself from the board. The last problem I had was trying to master this new technique while taking selfies with my underwater camera - haha! My friend was taking photos for me from the beach, but nothing like that first person point-of-view, right?  Once I started paying attention more, I picked it up quickly and was riding the waves all the way to shore. No fancy tricks or anything, but I was able to switch directions and do a cool pose for the beach paparazzi. I knew that dragging the surfboard from shore back out to open water over and over again was going to leave me aching so afterwards I decided to take advantage of one of the many spas~~~

My hubby walked with me till I found one that I liked and then he went off to do some tourist shopping while I had a two hour package deal. Massage, rose-petal milk bath, and hydration wrap, aaaahhhhhh. It's a little known fact about me that I love a spa day. You could gift me a spa day for any occasion and I'd love you forever. But this, this was the mother of spa days! Of course a spa day in Bali, paradise on earth, was going to include lush garden as your surroundings, the actual ocean sounds not far, and the sky changing colors like a kaleidoscope overhead. Surreal.

After the spa experience, we met back up and had a romantic dinner on the beach complete with a Balinese troupe of people playing traditional music as they walked up and down the beach as the sun was finally setting in to the sea. It's the most striking sunset on the ocean you'll ever see.

Day 2: Temples, temples, temples

Remember how I said Bali is the Island of the Gods? Well then naturally, there would temples everywhere to celebrate them. Like the Japanese, the Balinese didn't separate their religion from their lives; They blend seamlessly in everyday practices, architecture, and speech, so already we had been exposed to some of the religious paraphernalia. There are many famous temples, so with our limited time we chose they most famous and most varied of the options. We rented a taxi through our hostel (about 45 USD for 8 hours) which was the best thing we could have done. It was perfect to have a personal chauffeur, GPS, and tour guide all in one. This seems like an obvious perk to renting a taxi but I've actually known people who rented their own cars or mopeds because it's cheaper. Bali can have scattered showers and winding, dirt roads can be dangerous to navigate so I don't recommend doing so. Moving on, although the hostel told us how much it cost, it was important to also confirm this with the taxi driver at the onset. If you don't, they might say there were surplus fuel charges or some other bogus charge that surprises you at the end. Just like with the temples of Angkor, I'll list which ones we saw and my brief impressions:

Pura Taman Ayun

The most typical Balineses temple. It was interesting because we could see what the typical layout of these temples are with this one, but overall not too interesting. I think more interesting was how a group of ladies were falling over themselves to take a picture with me and boyfriend - two light haired, light-eyed foreigners. Oh, dear.

Pura Ulun Danu

This is the temple that you see whenever you google Bali. Picturesque, packed, and full of interesting facets to look at. Unfortunately, some of the infamous scattered showers was happening while we were there, so people were packing in all the crevices, limiting our leisurely strolling. There was a great market outside of it for souvenirs as well.

Tanah Lot

The must-see out of any temple on Bali, and at sunset for sure!! You can walk out the famous rocks, sit and watch the waves, wander around the typical pagodas, see the gates up close, get a snack nearby or visit the little shops on the grounds. I bought my favorite necklace there for 2USD and will forever regret not buying about 18 more.

These temples weren't close to each other, and of course we spent time at each one, so unlike at Angkor, we only saw these three. Also, we squeezed in time to go to a coffe plantation where I bought THE BEST dark vanilla chocolate I've ever had in my life, a short hike up to Git Git Waterfall which was definitely worth it, saw the famous stacked rice paddies, and went all the way up to the north to go to best Black Sand Beach in Lovina. 8 hours was all most not enough time, but we managed it!

Day 3: Just being a local

Due to different school schedules, I was leaving my boyfriend to go back to Japan while he continued on to one of the most famous diving spots in Indonesia, but on our last day together in Bali we walked around and saw some smaller local temples, found a mall in the touristy area where I did some shopping (and found some of my favorite shirts till this day) and enjoyed a last lunch eating traditional Balinese food we found in a hole in a wall. It was basically a no-fuss, let things play out kind of day taking in Bali as a local instead of a tourist. I then made my way to the airport via taxi and left this island in the sun.

Ever since that trip, when I tell people about my travel around Asia, the mention of Bali always seems to make their eyes widen just a little bit more. It's one of those places everyone says they'd love to go or imagine they would, but scarce few do. And I do consider myself extremely fortunate to have made it down there. It's not an easily accessible place of the world and I still pinch myself that I was able to go. I say 'able', but I know I moved heaven and earth to make to heaven on earth. Best decision ever.

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Spring Breakin' All the Rules! (Part 1)

Last post, I explained how I managed to have a proper Spring Break despite my lack of PTO and now, here's the result! I had a fantastic 8 day journey yet again through parts of Southeast Asia that I never imagined myself going to. This time, it was with my best guy friend and together we set out to make this a trip of lifetime.

Early in January 2013 we were causally talking about what we'd both like to do before leaving Japan. After what was at first just a talk about what we longed to do, quickly became a plan! Not being overly ambitious with our limited break time in between semesters, we agreed on two countries and made clear goals for each. The first, travel to Siem Reap, Cambodia to see the infamous Angkor Wat. The second, some chill time on the well known beach paradise, Bali.

I won't bore you with the details with how we figured out the ever exhausting puzzle of finding flights and accommodations, but after a crazy week of constant research and tactical planning, we managed to get very good deals on our flights and hostels. We get paid well enough on JET to not have to worry about price so much, but it becomes part of the challenge for the avid traveler.

After that was settled, the next hurdle was my 'spring breakin' out of work' plan (even though no work was to be had, since it was break for the kids, but you can read all about that here.) Last came my favorite part - planning the activities! Spontaneity always makes for better memories when traveling, but I would hate to have gone to a place and missed out on its most famous {fill in the blank} attraction out of pure ignorance. My policy is to be in-the-know about what to expect from a place and then let the days fill themselves with that knowledge or whatever else comes our way. What follows is an account of the activities we managed to do, which is impressively, about 98% of everything we wanted to do.

Overall Itinerary:
March 23        Flight from Osaka, Japan to Siem Reap, Cambodia
March 24~25  Trekking the Angkor Kingdom Ruins and Temples
March 26        Flight from Phnom Penh to Bali, Indonesia
March 27~29  Exploring beautiful Bali at our leisure
March 30        Flight from Bali, Indonesia to Osaka, Japan


The Kingdom of Cambodia is a fascinating place with a tragic history and the most kind people. If I had more time, I would have gone to see the sobering 'killing fields' and gotten to know more of the culture of Cambodia. However, my time only allowed me opportunity to go the World Heritage Site, Angkor Archeological Park. I've heard of visitors spending up to a week in this place, but most have a 3 day excursion (my companion and I saw the highlights in 2 days).

We arrived in Siem Reap after a layover in Shanghai where we met the nicest Korean gentlemen who inadvertently chatted us up so much we nearly missed our flight. How ridiculous would it have been to miss a flight during a 4 hour layover? Anyway, once we arrived we paid the 25 USD entry visa (paying for visas on arrival is not always an option so check that about any country you visit ahead of time!) and in line met a woman from San Francisco who was the chaperone of a group of high school kids on a volunteer trip. My boyfriend (he's going to get various names from now on) and I could pass as high school kids ourselves with our baby faces, so she must have felt the need to take us under her wing and next thing we knew, we were being escorted to our hotel on a free ride via their tour bus.

Arriving at our hostel, we immediately inquired about how we'd go about seeing the best of Angkor. As is usually the case with hostels, they are extremely helpful with these matters. We devised our plan for the following day, showered off the trip and got to bed. But not before learning our hilarious wifi password, you know, since we're unabashedly addicted to our smart phones. The rest of the trip consisted of us using that pass code as code for something or other (sorry! I'm gonna keep it our little inside joke, haha!)

Another thing I love about hostels is that they will typically have a restaurant attached to them that serves some of the local food for ridiculously cheap and without the hassle of searching for a place on your own. Cambodia used to be a French colony until as recently as 1963 and so baguettes were on the menu. Baguettes, fruits, eggs, beans on toast, juices..simple but delicious. After our $3 breakfast, our tour guide arrived. His name was Bo and is a friend of our hostel owner. This is obviously a partnership they have going on so we had full confidence that he'd be a good guide in the interest of keeping this partnership going. He would be taking us around the expansive park in his Tuk Tuk. A normal Tuk Tuk ride can cost between $2 - $4, so for the whole day we were asked to pay $15. That's it. He was going to be our personal driver and tour guide for $7.50 each (it wasn't required but we tipped him enough to make it an even $10 each). And after going to the park I believe transport via Tuk Tuk, as opposed to tour bus or bikes, is the best option. These temples are part of a huge complex and are not close together. Being in bus loses some of the adventure aspect of it, but being on a bike means you're exhausted by the time you arrive at each temple and have the sun beating down on you most of the day.

Bo recommended doing what is known as the outer (also 'big') circuit one day and then the most famous temples the following day. We trusted him and off we went. The hostel had also lent us a Lonely Planet book, so on our way to each temple we'd read up on what we were about to see. From the first temple to the last, each was unique in its own way and absolutely fascinating. Trees woven in between crumbling structures. Intricate carvings, weathered and yet vibrant with their history. The structures themselves stood tall and I for one found myself staring in awe.

The only unfortunate part of the experience is that in front of each temple are various peddlers grabbing for your attention, including small children. Even inside some of the temples, usually men crouched in a corner, are Cambodians offering to give you personal tours of the temple for a fee. What they do is they start walking with you, pointing things out and their significance. Once you're intrigued and listening, they ask for a tip. They also know some creative poses for pictures within the walls. Outside, food vender stalls set up which is convenient for a quick lunch break without leaving the grounds. I say unfortunate about these things because it does distract you from walking up to these ruins with only wonder in your eyes since instead you're saying 'I'm sorry, no thank you' to the 20th kid to ask if you want a postcard. However, more unfortunate is that for many this is their only livelihood. Cambodia is poor and Angkor is the biggest pull they have as far as local economy.

Now a quick summary of the temples I saw and my impressions (the history is for the guide boks):

A quick note before I start, some temples are dress-code enforced and others are more spectacular at certain times of the day. Take heed when I point these out. Also, make sure to discuss where your ride will be waiting for you outside of each temple if you choose the Tuk Tuk option.

Pre Rup: Gorgeous one to start the day off. Lots of steps and different carvings on the wall to see. The morning sun worked really well to shed light on the intricate carvings. 

East Meabon: Elephant corners temple! There were Elephant statues at each corner and that was basically the only differentiating feature about it.

Ta Som: One of the more popular temples that is the first on the Big Circuit you'll see with the trees weaving themselves in between the crumbling ruins. Be ready to wait to take a picture in front of the courtyard entrance where one tree has elegantly draped itself. *must go*

Neak Poam: A long walk for a big lake with some still-standing ruins around it. I'd skip it.

Prea Khan: The bridge leading up and the back courtyard are the best bits of this temple. The bridge is the best example of the Naga bridge style in my opinion. The back courtyard is virtually empty but has one of the tallest, if not the tallest, tree sticking out of one of these temples and was really impressive. *must go*

Phnom Bakeng: Notably, the sunset temple. Lots of steps to climb, but at the top there is really only one not so very impressive structure. It does afford you a view of the park but not a great view, just a lot of foliage. It's very crowded with people waiting for sunset and not worth it in my opinion. Also, dress code enforced (ladies, no bare shoulders or above the knee; gents, just no cut off shirts if I remember correctly)

The Bayon: The temple with the faces. There are lots of steps to go up and down so you can see the faces up close and from the ground. This is also one to do when the sun is high in the sky so that the faces are illuminated and thus letting you see all their intricacies. I kept expecting one to talk to me about the legend of the hidden temple, haha! *must go, my favorite temple overall*

Ta Prohm: The Tomb Raider temple. Just wow. You've never seen trees like this. They're big, tall, wide, long, twining, never-ending, and just imposing! They spill over the temple like melted candle wax. Because it is so well-known, this temple is very crowded and many places for photo ops have a wait (but only 5 minutes or so). This alone is a reason to come to Angkor. *must go, one of my favorites*

Angkor Wat: People mistakenly call the whole park 'Angkor Wat' when it is in fact referring to this one temple - but with reason. This is the most important temple and rightfully should take up at least half a day. This temple has both a dress code enforcement and a time day to see it; that time being sunrise. Bo and other tour guides know this and so they have no problem accommodating this as part of their tour. Watching the sun rise over Angkor Wat is something I'll never forget. The colors burning into the sky, feeling the moisture in the air turn humid, seeing the shadows of the temple burn away to reveal new layers - it is simply stunning. You'll be able to see it anywhere from the walkway leading up to it, but most people like to be the perfect distance away to be able to get the rising sun and the temple by in a tight shot. My buddy and I went the extra mile and some perspective fun using the sun (as seen below!). The temple is also beautiful at sunset, so in this case we left Angkor Wat after sunrise, went to Ta Prohm and The Bayon, and then came back to see the rest of Wat around early evening before closing time. This worked out well for us as the sun was not necessary to see many of the inner courtyards. *must go, my favorite lasting impression of the whole experience*


After the archaeological park, we had found that the cheapest way to Bali was through Phnom Penh and not through Siem Reap where we were. To clarify, we knew this when we booked our flight while still in Japan, but left finding a way to Phnom Penh until we arrived and talked to someone. We found a bus (again, through our hostel), that would take us there over night in time for our flight in the morning. It was $20 for a 6 hour overnight bus, but we saved over a $100 on the flight as a result. This was ultimately worth it, but there was a short period while making the arrangements where it seemed like we wouldn't be able to get a shower in before getting on the overnight bus. Picture it, we got up at sunrise, spent the whole day visiting temples, were about get on a 6 hour overnight bus that would take us to the airport where we'd immediately take an 8 hour flight to Bali. Just after a day is dusty, humid Angkor, we were gross. And thus I had my first ever panic attack. I'm a very clean person and don't mind getting sweaty and dirty as long as there is the promise of a shower at the end of the day, so without warning and faced with this prospect, I started pacing, shaking, and hyperventilating. Thankfully, my boyfriend saw something was wrong, took the lead, and found us showers. I don't think it was a full blown panic attack, so forgive me if it seems like I'm making light of it or if my reason for having one seems trite, but it's just the truth of what happened. I mention it because now I know for future travel to avoid that situation because it is a trigger for something that, apparently, makes me deeply uncomfortable.

Before boarding the bus, we had some time to browse at a local night market and a quick dinner and then we were making our way to Bali! This post has gotten quite long so I'll save that half for next time!

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Spring Breakin' all the rules! (the heist!)

I have a hard time following rules that I don't see as making any sort of logical sense. For example - I'm required to be at work when I have zero work to do while the kids are on break. And I don't mean they give me busy work to do. They actually ignore me the whole day while I do what I want (as long as I'm at work). I know this from plenty of break experiences by now. If I wanted to take the day off I'd have to use PTO (nenkyuu), but I don't have any of those days left. Thus with spring break coming up for the kiddies, I hatched a plan and set it in motion spurred by the Mark Twain quote,

"Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn't do than by the ones you did do [...] Explore. Dream. Discover."

And no, I wouldn't use that as justification for whatever I please or to blanket past regrets. But for taking advantage of opportunities I might not ever get again at no cost to those around me? It wasn't even a question.!

The plan: eight day vacation exploring ancient ruins and relaxing in paradise.
The cover: bad case of food poisoning that normally incapacitates someone for at least a week.

Simple enough I thought. The key to all of this was one simple piece of paper; a doctor's note to excuse my absence from work in the official records (quite a big deal in Japan).

Phase 1: The day before I left on my trip I planned to go to the doctor's office to plant the seed. Between my Japanese and the doctor's English, we established my 'symptoms' (basically every food poisoning symptom I could find online), but then he wanted to check my stomach for sensitivity. My boyfriend was in the room at the time and as the doctor gently pressed down on my abdomen for signs of agitation or discomfort, I inconsistently gave him grimaces of pain. At that I could feel my boyfriend face-palming behind me, but what can I say! I'm a terrible actress! Unfazed, the doctor just prescribed some powdery medicines and sent me on my way. Sort of success.

Phase 2: While away on my trip, I needed to call my school every weekday morning to let them know I wouldn't be coming in. In the past, for reasons out of my control, I knew that if I didn't call, they would show up at my apartment and would go as far to enter my apartment without my permission just to check on me (another story altogether). This meant that I had to buy Skype credit to make calls internationally, make note of the difference in time zones to know when to call, and have crystal clear wifi. I could handle the first two, but the last bit had me worried since that was out of my control and lo and behold, I had reason to worry. At our last hotel, the wifi was shiiiite. I can't really blame the hotel though.. wifi and paradise should really be incongruous things anyway. So the best reception for the wifi was out by the courtyard where we were having breakfast every morning. I have one picture of my face while making these calls, but a recording would have been much more entertaining. Between kids crying, roosters crowing, plates clinking and other sounds that have no place in my apartment where I'm supposedly on my death bed, my JTE must have been rolling his eyes as hard as I was scowling at the source of the noises. By the third day in a row that I called he was definitely on to me, but blessedly too Japanese to call me out on it. Success enough in my book.

But to add insult to injury (from me to them), I had been given the news just the week before that some remodeling would be done to my kitchen. This was most certainly welcome news (since I think my apartment should technically be labeled as dilapidated), but what terrible timing! They were expecting me to be there to open my apartment and let the workmen in every day as well as to answer any questions they might have. Fortunately, my boyfriend wasn't going on the trip and so he was there to at least open the door, but of course the builders would be asking for me. I had to avert this dilemma (quite brilliantly I thought) by saying that a lack of kitchen and sink in my (food poisoned) state required me to stay with a friend so I could have full amenities available to help me get better. They understood and left the matter alone. Further complicating things, even my boyfriend couldn't be there as he suddenly had to be in Osaka for two days! Not able to do much, this delayed the kitchen remodeling process until even I had to deal with it when I got back from my trip. Oh well.

Phase 3: Once back, I had to return to the doctor to let him know that I had missed work and required a doctor's note. One problem - I got back on a Saturday. In Japan, -no- form of medical clinic, hospital, or outpatient center is open. It's often joked about here that you should only plan on getting sick or having some other severe injury on a weekday or else suck it up until Monday morning. It sounds ludicrous but it isn't far from the truth. You can call an ambulance on the weekends to receive first aid treatment and certain tiny emergency centers are open to receive such patients, but you better be on your death bed to expect treatment. Me? I just wanted a note. A note that if I didn't get could incur serious repercussions, but they would not be amused for me to show up wanting a note. If need be, the repercussions route it was then. I would deal with them without complaint of course since, after all, it had been my choice to choose adventure over a desk sentence. But despite accepting my potential fate beforehand, it was still an uneasy thing to go into work Monday morning to face my boss empty handed.

To my utter surprise, my boss cheekily said (while actually pointing to his cheek), "nice color" (referring to my tan), and asked for the note. I gaped for half a second at his knowing remark and then confidently said, "I'll have it tomorrow." He smiled, nodded, and kept on walking back to his desk. What in the what just happened?? After all the phone calls and excuses I made, I was expecting a full interrogation! (and was prepared for one too). Instead, I simply went back to the doctor's after work to get the note. On my way I felt a little bad because I thought that telling the doctor that he had sent me away for my condition to only worsen over the week might feel like a failure on his part. But a second cheeky surprise of the day came when he heard of my continued illness and told me I had misdiagnosed myself as having food poisoning instead of what obviously must have been a virus (this in spite the symptoms I listed and the medicine he prescribed?) So for the second time that day I gaped at someone, but recovered my composure and said that he must be right, silly me. NOW GIVE ME THAT DOCTOR'S NOTE.

Success!! Doctor's note in hand I handed it over to my boss the next day and without further incident, I had managed to have a trip of a lifetime instead of keeping my seat warm at my desk without jeopardizing my standing at work.

I've never thought my school to be the cruel aggressors who make the rules for prefectural JETs, only the ones that enforce them. Remember when I said my JTE was on to me? I like to think that the cheeky admission that was made to me afterwards was an acknowledgement of sorts that said as long as I work within the rules of system (getting a doctor's note to excuse my absence), they didn't mind that I took the break into my own hands. Besides, it fits with the known paradigm of Japanese people to turn their faces away from things that are unpleasant to deal with or discuss. An ambiguous policy of theirs, but in my case it read, no harm, no foul!

The moral of the story I want to highlight is that this is your life and it shouldn't be dictated by anyone's set of rules. You might miss out on something that can change your life. As long as you don't affect other lives negatively, go after the things you want and don't take no for answer. Where there is a will there really is a way.

Monday, April 29, 2013

Second-Year JET reflections

I had always planned to stay on the JET Program for two years. That plan was nearly derailed early on after my bumpy start and the surprising, overwhelming homesickness I felt. However, I had hope that things would get better, and boy did they ever. With much trepidation I signed the contract for my second year in February 2012, but by the time I was making my way back to home in August 2012 for a visit, I knew I had made the right decision.

I had made some amazing friends, traveled to amazing places, and only just fully settled into my life in Japan. One year is simply not enough to properly fit in the experience or to even make the hassle of moving your life to a new country worth it. To make this post easier, I'm going to categorize my reflections.

I mentioned in another post how I enjoyed knowing what was expected of me and that the upheaval that comes with the new school year every April is jarring. Be that as it may, it is still infinitely easier to merely adjust to these changes than it is to find your groove when starting out. This second year meant that from the start I was confident in teaching, giving presentations, and communicating effectively with my students and teachers. It's an ease that can only come with time, so after about seven months of struggling to find the balance, the remaining seventeen have been a breeze.

Living Space:
When you're not certain about how long you'll be staying in place, certain purchases become questionable. Buying a car, or a TV, or some kitchen appliance for example. I hate investing in things that I won't get a significant return on, so this was plaguing me the first couple of months. After signing my contract though, I made a couple of 'comfort' purchases that I had decided I could live without for a year, but throughout have made all the difference. They tell us at orientation to make your apartment someplace you feel comfortable in as a means of escaping the every day stresses, and they were spot on. Not having to use the mental and physical energy to do this for the first few months in my second year was refreshing.

The nature of the JET Program is that people come and go. They make their mark on their communities and then become a memory. Luckily, six out of nine of us were new to our town when we arrived and we all decided to re-contract for a second year. We were definitely a dysfunctional bunch of misfits when we got here, but this second year solidified them as my family away from home. Unlike friends back home, I've relied on these people for my sanity. Friends back home do that too but it's not the same. This was survival in a foreign environment and it's because of them that I have not only survived, but prospered. When we received one new person our second year, we welcomed her with open arms and extended help the way it was done for us. Being a second year JET means you reciprocate what previous JETs have done for you and help them navigate through all the changes. The camaraderie among JETs and built in support groups are some of the best aspects of the program in my opinion.

Within Japan and Asia, there are more places than I could ever hope to have visited even after two years. Within the confines of the school schedule and carefully placed PTO, I have managed to travel to most everywhere on my personal list and then some. It's just a no-brainer that a second year in Japan meant that I'd once again have the cycle of holidays and PTO to travel. I was quite enthusiastic in my first year and traveled to most of my destinations within Japan so the second year was all about going abroad. It's just as expensive but more time consuming so not traveling as often has also meant I have saved money. This brings me to my next point..

Moving to a new country is ridiculously expensive! JET pays for your flight to Japan (thank God) but there are still a million things to buy in preparation and then upon arriving. Basically, you're broke until your first paycheck, and then traveling like I have means that I was constantly (but happily) broke in my first year since I'd blow my paycheck on weekend excursions to the furthest reaches of Japan. What you spend your money on and how frequently you travel are up to you, but this next part isn't: your contract. I was in the lucky last batch of JETs to have a contract with a stipulated consistent salary throughout my time in Japan. The next year we learned that new JET contracts work on a pay scale with each year adding more money to your salary as incentive to stay since bringing in new people is a hassle for everyone. In their first year, they make less than I do, in their second, the same, and then a little more in their third year. For me, staying a second year meant that sure, I could save money, but for a new JET it could possibly make a world of difference in supplementing their financial needs.

This program was my dream come true. After many years of waiting to apply and then being accepted, I'm so glad I stuck it out through the hard times in the beginning to see the best times of my life. Like I thought, after two years I'm ready to come home, but if you're on the fence and don't have immediate plans, consider staying a second year. It makes all the difference in the overall experience.