Churches, Canyons, and Donkeys: A week in Ethiopia

Ever since Akasha taught students from Ethiopia in Apple Valley, Minnesota, she has had a fondness for its culture and food. When we are visiting Minnesota, we often make a point to have dinner at her favorite Ethiopian restaurant, Fasika on Snelling. Looking at the travel sites only made us want to investigate further. So with a week off in February, we booked tickets and asked our friend Kristen to join us, and our whirlwind tour of Northern Ethiopia was in place.

We started early Saturday morning and we landed in Addis Ababa, late at night. We were there only long enough for a five hour nap, then we went back to the airport for a quick flight to Lalibela, an ancient capital best known for its 11 churches that have been carved down into the earth from solid stone.

These churches were built 900 years ago by King Lalibela. His citizens were spending 3 months walking  on pilgrimage to  Jerusalem each December. So he consulted with bishops, built a pilgrimage site, and had it ordained. Since then, it has been the center of a vibrant Christian community and it remains a holy site for the country’s Orthodox population.

Our paths kept crossing with a family dressed in elaborate clothing who were celebrating a recent wedding.They were enjoying the sight seeing and taking wedding photos.  Later, Akasha met up with he family and  found out the bride lives in Worthington, Minnesota. She had returned home to marry her sweetheart. It really is a small world.

Lalibela slide show:

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We had an amazing hike among the churches and through the landscape. It is still a mystery how they were carved down into solid rock hundreds of years ago. There isn’t evidence of where the rock they removed was taken to, though the king explained it was the divine work of angles. Our guide explained that it took 24 years, with men working all day and angels working all night.

Because they are below ground, the path to many churches lay along narrow grooves carved into the stone. There were also tunnels linking the complexes together. One of them, ‘the road to hell,’ took us ten minutes to walk through, in total darkness. It was a bit scary but we came out alive!


The top of St. George’s cathedral. The best known, St. George’s Cathedral, was one of the last to be built. It’s an impressive slab of stone with a huge set of crosses carved into the top. The ground near St George is also home to a troop of monkeys, who had no problem cavorting about on the churches and were happy to pose for pictures.

The legendary friendliness of Ethiopians was on display that evening, when we met a young man named Timothy, who offered to bring us to a local bar to see how Ethiopians enjoyed the evening. He brought us to a restaurant that served tej, the local mead made of honey and sorghum. The Tej House was off the main street and down a flight of stairs, and inside was a room lit with strings of red LED’s.

Dancing in the tej house.

It was the day before observant Orthodox began fasting for Lent, and the mood was a bit like Mardi Gras. A man strolled around the room playing a violin-like instrument with a single string called a Masinko, and a woman sang along while others danced and clapped. One of them coaxed Akasha and Kristen onto the dance floor to try out the shoulder-shaking, hip swaying moves of the locals.

After a while we were joined again by the wedding party we’d met at the church, so it was quite a day of meetings and festivites. When it was time to leave, Timothy walked us back to our hotel, and though we kept expecting him to ask for a tip, he just hopped into a tuk-tuk taxi and left. It was a wonderful night, thank you Timothy!

Hiking the Canyons
Then next morning we went on the road to hike among the canyons and farmland of the region. We took a tour that gave us three nights and four days in the farm country of this beautiful area.

We should also mention our guide, Getnet, was a wonderful resource and good friend for the three days we knew him. Good-natured, knowledgeable,  and friendly, we spent many hours chatting on the trail, and many nights exchanging stories around the campfire, and after our four day hike were sorry to lose his company. He was full of riddles and stories that he had collected from the travelers he met as a guide and we enjoyed sitting with him around the fire, trading and comparing adventure tales.

Hiking Slideshow:

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Most of our hiking was over stony paths that bordered fields being tilled for the next season’s planting. The ground here is rich but full of stones, so the farmers have to work hard. They still plow the field behind a pair of oxen, persuading them to turn with a whip that sounded sharp as firecrackers. Everyone was very friendly and eager to shake hands and say Salem (hello), and the children all rushed out to greet us. The whole trip children ran out to us, waving and calling goodbye until they couldn’t see us any more.

On our first evening, Kristen was lucky enough to spot a troop of baboons. Our guide, Getnet, led us down down to the valley floor, where the baboons congregated in a big troop to forage for grass roots. We watched them dig and walk, the babies riding the backs of the mothers while others played on the edge of a mostly dry waterfall in the golden light of the setting sun.

Here we are, chilling on the canyon edge.

The community lodges were amazing. Made of stacked stone held by straw and mud mortar, they all stood on the edge of huge canyons with spectacular views. We had huge beds and big windows that opened out to beautiful vistas. When we arrived sofas made of eucalyptus wood and leather were brought out for us to enjoy the view and relax while we drank coffee. Even the toilets had a great view, though if you took a mis-step you’d have a much faster trip to the valley floor than you wanted! And the people taking care of us were warm and friendly. They cooked dinner at night and breakfast in the morning, even roasting the coffee over a flame, right before they brewed it. We signed the guest book at each lodge and it was amazing to see the names and comments from people going back to the first guest.

One of the guest books

We took some pictures of the coffee-brewing process and made short video. Enjoy:

Akasha in an Acacia tree.

Akasha in an Acacia tree.

On our hike we enjoyed the trees and shrubs, from the aromatic sage to the noble thistle and the cutely named ‘monkey farts.’ One of our favorite trees were the ones that branched out to form a big canopy of ground cover, and Akasha was delighted to find out they were Acacia trees. So she of course had to climb one, and now we have a photo of Akasha in an Acacia tree, which makes the world that much more complete.

And at night the sky was incredible with stars – we spotted Orion right away but had trouble finding the Big Dipper, usually the easiest constellation to find. It wasn’t till Mike played with SkyMaps for a while that we realized we were so far south, the Big Dipper was below the horizon, which never happens up north. It feels like a big world when even the stars change on you!

A few hours drive from Lalibela, in the northwest corner of Ethiopia, kings of the old Ethiopian empire built castles. They were inspired by the Portuguese and the castles have a distinctly western feel. Built from 1606 to the early 1700’s, as a series of emperors built their own castle on the grounds,  it has become a compound of great stone structures. We spent several hours here, in the old bedrooms and dining halls, saunas and courtyards. Although for us it was a brief stop, it’s a worthy goal for any castle-hunters looking for something off the beaten path, and like nothing you’d expect to see.

Gonder Slideshow

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Bahir Dar
South of Gonder is Lake Tana, the largest lake in the country and the source of the Blue Nile river. Here, we took a boat trip into the headwaters of the Blue Nile, where we saw more wildlife than we could imagine. Fish Eagles rested in treetops, cormorants stood on rocks, and hippopotamuses wandered in the shallow water. It was amazing to see them in real life, outside a zoo, even if we were only able to see their heads. One of them had a baby that poked its cute little head out!

Then we crossed the lake, which has two islands that hold monasteries – one for nuns, the other for monks. On the far side we hiked around to see more churches. This was the hometown of our guide, and he happily showed us the local plants – ferns that curled up when you touched them, bean pods that made great spinning toys, and wild coffee plants, just starting to bloom. We only had a few hours in Bahir Dar, which was a shame. Our guide invited us to meet his family and visit his village, but we had a flight to catch.

Bahir Dar

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Addis Ababa
After all that, we had a day to spend in Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia. Addis has a population of almost 4 million people, and it seems like they are all on the street all the time. Every road is lined with pedestrians, and ad hoc marketplaces are everywhere. Even the road up the mountain to another royal palace was filled with people carrying loads of eucalyptus, donkey caravans, and tourist vans.

Fruit for sale, Addis Ababa

We visited the fabric market, then drove through the Mercado, and stared in awe at the always-on bustle of an unfettered free market – you name it, you can find it in this sprawling landmark of the city.

Addis Ababa slideshow:

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Well, it was a fantastic trip – we even saw Lucy, the 3.3 million year old human prototype (or a plaster cast of her bones anyway) – in the national museum!

And this was just a small part of Ethiopia – there’s the whole southern section, with the Great Rift Valley, that we haven’t even gotten to. And of course there’s the entire rest of the African continent to find adventure in. So stay tuned, we’re not done yet!

The Great Mom visit of 2015!

My (Mike’s) mom is kind of a homebody. Aside from a few trips to Fargo every year, she’s content to stay in the Twin Cities, near her garden and the library. But ever since we moved abroad, she’s been hankering for an overseas visit.

The Christmas tree at Munich's town hall

The Christmas tree at Munich’s town hall

Lured by the promise of Christmas markets and European hot chocolate, Mom made the trip to Munich in December, where we met up for some winter tourism.

Munich is one of my favorite cities – it’s a perfect blend of old-world charm and new West conveniences. We stayed in one of Akasha and my favorite hotel chains – the Leonardo – which had great access to trams that led to the city center, and near several nice restaurants including the Lowenbrau beer hall. Prost!

We were fortunate in the weather – clear and cool, with a high blue sky – and spent the first day exploring the masterpieces of the Alte Pinakotech art museum. Here we brushed up against Rubens, Rembrandt, and the great German Albrecht Drurer. Mom loved the style of the Old Masters, marveling at how they painted eyes that could follow you around the room. She stopped often to sit and take in the works, communing with the painter.

Meet the new Queen

Meet the new Queen

Next day we took in the old imperial residence. This is a sprawling complex of stone towers and dusty corridors, but the treasury is a relatively intimate space filled with a hoard of silver masterpieces, gemstone encrusted jewelry, and many royal crowns. The big hit here was the ruby-encrusted tiara of Queen Theresa, an enchanting fantasy of glimmering gemstones that let mom indulge in a bit of fairy-tale imagining.

Back on the Town Square we took in the Rathus glockenspiel show – a carousel of medieval figures dancing and even jousting on a tiny platform high above the crowd.

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The Glockenspiel on Munich’s town hall

Then it was back to the markets, which were the hit of the trip. All over Germany, on the historic market squares, vendors set up shop to sell the goods of the season. It was a shame we only got to two or three of them. Mom was a thorough shopper, and as a true connoisseur of the season, she was careful to check each vendor’s ornaments for quality, uniqueness, and adorability before adding the chosen ornaments to her collection.

Near our Prague hotel

Near our Prague hotel

From Munich we went on to Prague, where the medieval architecture left mom speechless. From the great forked towers of the Lady of Tym church, to the stained glass wonderland of St. Vitus cathedral, we walked around with our jaws dropped. I’d been there before, but to see it through her fresh eyes returned a sense of wonder too easily lost by the frequent traveler.

It was here we tried haluska, a stirred-up hot dish of cabbage, pork, and potatoes, a spiritual ancestor to one of Mom’s favorite North Dakota childhood dishes, halupsi. But this wasn’t the same – it had starchy potatoes that had gone gummy over its time in the pot. “Guess I don’t need to try that again,” was mom’s one-star review.

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The Christmas Market in Prague

Wroclaw was next on her Central European excursion. We found some wonderful walking paths through Cathedral island that lead to St. John the Baptist’s cathedral. After that it was time (again!) to storm the Christmas markets, where she came away with more gifts for everyone back home, plus a few more for herself.

A week later, we took mom back to the States for the holidays, and spent ten days visiting Minnesota. That was a hectic, wonderful time too easily lost and taken for granted. But ever since her visit, I’m trying to take my mom’s example to heart, and I’ve resolved to keep trying to see every wonder around me, however common or seen before, through fresh eyes for as long as I can.

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Venice for the weekend

One rule of international living is you don’t waste a 4-day weekend, so last Children’s Day we rounded up some friends and flew to that great jewel of the Northern Adriatic, Venice, Italy. AirBnB hooked us up with another charming apartment, the weather stayed sunny and warm, and the tide was kind to us. Rather than write a bunch, we though we’d let the pictures speak for themselves: (click on them to enlarge)

Venician Window Garden

Venetian Window Gardening

Venician Garden

Venetian Balcony Garden


A quick howdy from a lovely plaza

The Grand Canal

View from the Rialto Bridge of the Grand Canal


That Italian staple, tiramisu


Mike looking at boats

Mike pondering life and stuff

Even the laundry is pretty here

Even the laundry is pretty here.

Sweets and Susan

Susan and Akasha eye the sweets


Mary – detail from a mosaic in St. Mark’s Basilica

Friends on the terrace

Friends on the terrace

Singing boat ride

A gondola-ride serenader

Lions of Venice

Lions of Venice on a bridge keystone


Sarah reviewing her photos

Jeff and Mavis

Jeff and Mavis and their chauffeur

Patio garden

Patio garden


Hyacinths were blooming all over the city


an entire spectrum of pigments for sale

Candied Clementine

Candied Clementine in dark chocolate.

Produce delivery

Everything comes on a boat in Venice – including the produce

Wedding photos

Wedding photo

Gondola, at rest

Gondola, at rest














































































































































It was more beautiful than we could have expected – a great weekend of wonderful food and great friends. Thanks Mavis, Jeff, Susan and Sarah!

Up next: The giant heads of Nemrut. (duh-duh DAAAAH!)

The great Jim visit of 2014

Winner winner pottery dinner

Winner winner pottery dinner

One of the wonderful things about living abroad is the chance to host friends and relatives at our place and show off the beauty of Turkey. So when Mike’s dad Jim came all the way from White Bear Lake Minnesota to Ankara for a visit a few weeks ago, we were glad to welcome him. Plus it gave us the excuse to head out on a road trip to revisit some of our favorite places, and take in some new sights.

Dad arrived in his usual good spirits and settled right into Ankara and letting us take him in to town for dinner. During the next few days, some of our Bilkent friends showed him around the highlights of Ankara, and when he had a break from that, he enjoyed hiking the ‘wilderness’ trails of Bilkent University with our trusty hound Remington. Then, on Friday when school let out, Akasha and I picked up our rental car – a sturdy Hyundai – and the great Jim in Turkey road trip of 2o14 began.

Our first stop was Cappadocia, which you may recall that we’ve been to before, and might be wondering whether it’s worth going to again. The answer is a resounding YES YOU SHOULD GO MANY TIMES! There’s always something new to see, and the things you remember are just as spectacular if not more so.

A killer breakfast

A killer breakfast

Our hotel had a beautiful patio with a great panoramic view of the valley, and on our first breakfast Dad discovered the delicious joy of sigara boreks, honey and cheese, and cucumbers and olives for breakfast. From the patio we could  also watch a balloon company’s headquarters across the street, where a steady stream of baskets, propane tanks, and balloons on flatbed trucks returned from the fields where they’d landed after the morning flight, were cleaned and covered for the day.

We spent the day wandering the red and rose valleys of Cappadocia, in and out of the caves and churches, stopping for juice on a hillside cafe. In the evening, we stopped for dinner, and then Dad had more ice cream.

The next morning was our balloon trip. with Turkiye Balloons.  We woke well before dawn, and were picked up at the hotel by a shuttle bus that took us to breakfast, then down to the launch fields. Here, dozens of balloons were being inflated in the calm morning air, bright nylon colors reflecting sunlight, fluttering under the hot air being fanned into them as they rose, held in place by stubborn attendants on the ends of ropes or just grabbing the nylon. After twenty minutes or so the balloon was inflated, the basket uprighted, and about 20 tourists climbed up over the edge. After a pause for safety directions, (and pictures) we rose off the ground and went over the canyon on the slow steady breeze.

Whatever word you want: breathtaking, amazing, transcendent, pick it and times it by ten or so – the experience

Balloons over Cappadocia

Balloons over Cappadocia

was spectacular. We passed over the valley we’d hiked through the day before, drifting and oohing and awing and grinning like little kids. Our group was a great mix of Koreans, Russians, Spaniards, Argentines, and us Americans.  Our pilot was great, he told jokes and tried to speak to everyone, a bit, in their language.  When the balloon finally landed – right on the bed of the flatbed trailer that would haul it back across town – we got out, celebrated with a glass of champagne, and were bussed back to our hotel.We celebrated again, later, with ice cream.

After our flight we went down to Mazi to see a cave city that was off of the beaten path.  We pulled up to the village and were greeted by a group of guys. One of them is working on the restoration of the underground city and he gave us a brief breakdown of what his neighbor would show us. Then we went up to the top of the hill where he showed us several ancient pre-hittite tombs of stone in the old cemetery.

Our cave guide at Mazi

Our cave guide at Mazi

After this we walked back down to the road and went into the underground city. These cities had everything – wine cellars, nurseries, kitchens – even a stable where they kept animals! The rooms were linked by narrow tunnels we had to duck-walk through, and vented by narrow shafts that led up to the surface. We poked around ten or fifteen rooms, which our guide said was maybe 1 percent of the whole city – it was sobering to think of the people who had spent their lives there.

Afterwards we had tea with our guide and the guy working on the restoration – they were incredibly friendly and warm. It was a unique opportunity to see the town before it becomes commercialized, and I’m glad we were there.

Sadly, we had to leave Goreme and Capaddocia. Our rented Hyundai took us down through Konya – home of the Mevlana museum, where we stopped for, I think, ice cream, then down the coast to Antalya. Antalya is a nice little historic town on the Mediterranean sea surrounded by a sprawl of resort communities owned mostly, it seemed, by foreigners – I wouldn’t not recommend it, but I wouldn’t tell you to go out of your way for it. We had a nice dinner at a fish restaurant, and stopped by the Anatolian museum of antiquities, and after a few days, we were on our way again.

Jim discovers his love of dondurum

Jim discovers his love of dondurum

I’m pretty sure we stopped for ice cream somewhere as well. Turkish ice cream, dondurma, is extra sticky, which allows it to cling to the long steel rod the vendors use to scoop it up. This stickiness allows for lots of tricks, and the street vendors who serve it up have developed whole carnival routines to mess with the heads of people buying it – I wish we’d filmed it. But Akasha, dad, and I all got a kick out of watching them fling 5 kilo slabs of ice cream around, and play with the cones, faking handing it off and pulling it away time after time.

The library

The library

Our next big stop was in Selcuk. This is another beautiful little town near a historic city, the ruins of Ephesus, once a thriving commercial port and home to Greeks and Romans for centuries before a receding coastline and series of earthquakes turned it into a ghost town that wasn’t dug out again till the 20th century.

We wandered through the impressive restoration work, including the great amphitheater that once seated 15,000 people, and the facade of a great library three stories high. We ooed and awed and craned our necks, and giggled a little bit at the presumably original public toilets, with their tiny openings just a few inches apart. They’re probably technically functional, though this is highly discouraged.

From there we went up to Bursa, a smallish city we’d chosen mainly to break up the 10 hour drive back to Ankara. There are beautiful things to see in Bursa, and great ski resorts on neighboring Ulu Mountain, but we were getting tired, so we just had dinner at a small diner and retired early.

In the morning we stopped by the city of Eskesihir, and by evening were safely and kind of sadly back in Ankara. We took Dad around some more sights of the city – the citadel, and Ulus market, the Temple of Augustus. There were days and sights I’m barely even touching on here, things we barely had time to register, like:

The mineral springs of Pamukkale, with its own ancient city of Heliopolis;

Driving out to the Aegean sea to watch the surf.

Driving up to the assumed final home of Mary, Jesus’ mother.

The ruins of St. John’s basilica.

Stopping off in a national park on the migration path of pelicans and cormorants, watching them by the hundreds nesting and feeding on the banks of a lake.

Our return to Ankara, where Jim visited the Anitkabir, resting place of Mestafa Kemal Ataturk, founder of the modern Turkish state.

And everywhere we went were friendly people who told us about their lives: men who ran fruit juice stands, journalists from near the Syrian border, women who studied the Koran on the train while on outings with their girlfriends, little kids playing with their parents. I wish we could write them all up and give you sense of the scale of Turkey, its sweep and history and rich vibrant life. I have to give credit on this to Akasha, the most outgoing travel companion you’ll ever have, who makes friends so easily I wonder how everyone can’t do it.

Well, I do go on. But. The most important thing that we learned, from all we did, was that Jim likes ice cream. A lot. On our final days in Ankara, dad set some kind of ice-cream : body ratio record in his three weeks of visiting.

We salute you, Jim. Intrepid traveler, good sport, great father and friend. We miss you! Did we mention that we have a spare room for you, when you’re ready to move in?


Winter vacation: Island hopping in London and Dublin

Well, it is March, so we might as well share what we did in January.  Such is the schedule of blogging and living – always so much to do and much less time to record it in.

Korean public schools break for a few weeks every winter, and everyone gets a vacation. We get 24 days of winter break, which is a pretty good deal, more than the private school teachers get, which is next to nothing. And, since our time in Korea is drawing short, we did what American teachers who don’t have jobs lined up do – went to a job fair!

The nearest one was in London, and while England isn’t your typical winter vacation destination, we booked tickets, threw in a few nights in Dublin, and viola! An island-hopping winter vacation is born! True, the islands are Ireland and Britain, and the season is all wrong, but you get the idea.

Here’s a quick photo tour of the highlights:

Korean Restaurant

A Korean restaurant in Dublin – You can take the foreigners out of Korea, but you can’t take Korea out of the rest of the world. We did not eat here, since we can get Korean food in Korea, and because we wanted to sample all the other wonderful food the isles had to offer.


We were out of Korea, and jumping for joy at our beer options. This is on the Guinness Storehouse tour. Also in Dublin is the Jameson distillery, home of the smoothest whiskey in the world! Ireland, you may gather, takes its libations quite seriously, and we, being gracious guests, did our best to appreciate the local flavors.

Then we went to the Dublin zoo, a nice little zoo in the middle of Pheonix park. While it’s not as large as many zoos, the animals were in fairly large enclosures and seemed happy, except for the big gorillas, but then again gorillas seem pretty grumpy even in the wild. Here’s Harry, elder statesman of the gorilla paddock, having a chat with Akasha:

HarryA woman we met there said that this is one of Harry’s favorite things to do – squat next to the glass and socialize with the people on the other side. Not a bad retirement plan, when you think about it.

Irish history is long on oppression and invasion, none more important that the British occupation that ended in 1920’s. There were many frequent uprisings during that time, so it’s no surprise that Irish prisons played a great role in the planning of the new country that emerged. The most famous and well maintained of these old prisons is Kilmainham Gaol, a large building with expansions marking many steps in the evolution of prisons.

Kilmainham GaolIt’s also been used to film many movies, so if it looks familiar, that may be why.

Dublin is also famous for all the writers it produced, none more important the James Joyce:


Here’s that picture of Mike telling James Joyce he’s a pretty okay writer.

Then it was on to London.

London Tower Snow

This is what London looked like most of the time – cold and menacing. This is the kind of weather we saw most of our stay – snowy and cold. In fact it shut down the airport just after we arrived. We did our best to stay warm, but there was a lot of shivering going on.

London is of course famous for it’s musical theater, so we had to get some tickets for something. Luckily, this show was in town:

Palace Theater

Yeah, Singing’ in the Snow would have been a more accurate title. We found a half-price ticket booth and scooped up a pair of discount tickets, and, come showtime:

InsidePalaceThese were our seats. They sold oxygen at the concession stand. You can see the stage down there in the corner, somewhere.

The show was fantastic! It rained on the stage and the dancers took glee in splashing the front rows! (We weren’t in any danger of getting wet.)

Buckingham PalaceHere we are at Buckingham Palace, far from the massive crowd that had gathered to await the changing of the guard. As you can see, the Queen was not available to receive our visit, so we had to get our own coffee.

Akasha got a good chuckle that the Royal band was playing Dancing Queen during the changing of the guard ceremony.

Overall it was a wonderful stay, and then got we down to the business of the job fair. For three days Akasha, trooper and thrill-seeker, braved the crowds and elbows of six hundred other candidates to look for our next adventure. Long story short, we are going to be moving come next August, to Bilkent Laboratory and International School, just outside Ankara, Turkey. Hooray! I’m pretty sure that probably deserves a post of its own.

Sorry Mike, you missed one of the most important parts of our trip – the food! We’ve said it before, we’ll say it again: Korea has great Korean food.  If you want non- Korean food you’d better lower your expectations.

We ate well on this trip.  Our Dublin guest house, The Celtic Guest House, was fantastic.  They provided a full English breakfast and we ate like kings!  Their bacon was thick cut and delicious. Even better was the bistro next door, Le Bon Crubeen.  We like to try a variety of restaurants when we travel, but the food here was so good and affordable that we kept coming back.  Their head bartender had a warm personality that made us feel like we were back at Sen Yai Sen Lek chilling with Nicole.

One of our first meals in London was Ethiopian at Addis Restaraunt near King’s Cross.  Their Selata Aswad and Misser Wot were perfect and their Injira was moist and fluffy.

Our last week in London was my most stressful.  The Search Associates International Job Fair was worth the time, but it was a 3 day long 8 hour a day interview based job fair and I was on edge all day.  It was great to return to our motel neighborhood each night for r & r.

Two of our favorite places in Fulham were Chaam Thai and the Cock Tavern.  Chaam Thai was cozy, and relaxing and after a long day of interviewing it was so nice to enjoy a big bowl of Tom Yam and a spicy plate of Naam Prik Noom.  The staff at the Cock Tavern were super friendly, they had a great sampler menu and amazing beers.  Our last night in London we celebrated my job offer with a pub quiz.  The host was hilarious and teased us for not getting any of the answers.  We came in 2nd to last place, but had a great time.

Well, here’s hoping our next post is a little quicker coming than this one. We have about 50 days left in Korea, so we hope to pack in a few more baseball games and weekend outings. Then it’s back to the States for a few months before our new adventure begins. See you soon, America! See you soon, Turkey!

Chuseok Road Trip Time!

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A couple of weeks ago (Spet 29 – Oct 3) we had a 5 day holiday to celebrate the harvest festival of Chuseok, and Korea’s National Foundation Day. So, what better way to celebrate Korean holidays than with an American tradition: Roadtrip!!! After much debate, the three of us (Mike, Akasha, and Remi) set out to see the sites of the east.  We had a few items we wanted to see and friends we wanted to visit, but no set agenda.  Our goal was to drive a bit (about 3 hours a day), sleep on isolated pagodas, see northern and eastern Korea, hike mountains, go to the beach and see a few festivals.  We did it and it was by far, one of our best vacations ever!

Our beautiful pagoda

Day 1 This was a Friday, so we had to work till 5 pm, at which point we finished packing the car, grabbed a quick dinner at the local Kimbop Nara and hit the road at 6!  We went a bit north first, and traffic was good until we got to Gwangju, where we hit some serious Chuseok traffic. Chuseok traffic can be paralyzing, turning two hour drives into nine-hour odysseys, but for the most part, we got lucky. A few minutes past Gwangu, we found our dream pagoda just around a sharp bend on a mountain road not far from the small town off of Namwon. It was around 9:30, and even in the dark it was obvious that we were going to wake up to a beautiful view of Jirisan.  We slept with the moonlight pouring through the tent.


Day 2 We woke up to a beautiful view of the valley leading to Jirisan national park. After rousing ourselves, we hiked for an hour giving Remi a stretch before heading out on the road.  We didn’t get very far because I (Akasha) was beckoned by a mural of my favorite Korean children’s book, Puppy Poo.

The first mural panel of my favorite Korean children’s book.

We walked along the streeets of Udang, also known as ‘the cutest town ever.’  It was covered in murals.  We poked into someone’s home business, watched them make rice cakes, and snuck pictures of their garden.  Then we  pushed on till we stumbled on to a nice little farmer’s market.  Here we found whole fried chickens, sompyeong candy (a Chuseok specialty) and fish, fish, fish. Finally, just past noon, we found a landmark that was on the map: Haeinsa Temple, one of the oldest and most important Buddhist temples in Korea.

murals in Haeinsa

Nestled among the peaks of the Gaya mountains, Haeinsa was founded in 802 by two Chinese brothers. There are over ninety buildings on several levels, which makes for peaceful walking and beautiful views. It also has the Koreana Triptika, a collection of several thousand wood blocks that make up an entire set of Buddhist scriptures. It is a UNESCO World Heritage site and amazing. We weren’t allowed to take pictures, but we did get a print.

Finally, we met our friend Lisa in Andong, saw a bit of the festival, and had a dinner of Kim Chi Chi Ge. Then we drove out of town to find a nice pagoda by the reservoir. It was a beautiful campsite, but the night was cold.

Day 3 Once again we awoke to a beautiful morning, dripping in dew, the mountain valley cloaked in fog. We broke camp, fed the hound, and went into town to meet Lisa for some coffee at a great cafe in her neighborhood. Next we went to the Andong Mask Festival.

Misty morning pagoda

Andong has the reputation of being a very traditionally Korean city, and Mask dances are part of Korea’s traditional entertainment. They have also expanded the festival to include international dancers and masks, so there’s a lot of cultural knowledge there. There’s also tons of food and activities (like eating shwarma!).  We met up with some of our friends.  Akasha and friends  made a mask in one of the tents, and then we visited a booth that had traditional wedding garments. Here, they dressed us up in hanboks. Mine (Mike’s) was a simple affair, but Akasha had to dress in about four layers, which took almost ten minutes.

Finally, they took our picture as if we were being married in the traditional Korean way, which involves bowing to each other, handing over chickens, kissing with dates, and numerous stiff formal poses. It would have been very romantic, if not for the dozens of Koreans crowding around the booth, all very amused to see a couple of foreigners being dressed for a wedding.

After leaving the festival, we drove across the mountains to the coast of the East Sea (internationally known as the Sea of Japan). We drove carefully through the narrow streets of some seaside towns, not finding any pagodas, until we found a campsite that had beautiful cabins for rent. Akasha met up with a principal from Daegu’s Dongbu Elementary School, who was incredibly helpful in booking us a cabin.

She also insisted we come to her cabin for dinner, where we met her husband, daughter and son, and her grandchildren. Our own cabin was an amazing furnished two story beauty just feet from the shore, and we slept well on the ondol (heated floor) bedding.

Day 4 In the morning we watched the sun rise over the ocean and enjoyed the amazing view.

Our road trip goal of the day was simple: The furthest point East on mainland South Korea. (Hey, we’d already been to the southernmost point.) Along the way, we impulse stopped at whatever looked interesting, and this morning we discovered a gem: The boyhood home of Korea’s current president, Li Myung-bak.

President Lee Myungbak’s childhood home

Li was actually born in Japan during the occupation, but after the war he came here to Deokseong-ri for part of his boyhood. They are very proud of Mr. Li here, and have put up several biographical plaques that extoll his hard work, intelligence, and determination.

We pushed on to Homigot, the easternmost point of Korea.  We walked along the port and ate sashimi on the pebble beach. Our next goal was Jinju and we decided to take a twisty county road instead of the straight expressway.  It was a beautiful twisty drive between mountains following a river to a dam.  It took a really long time and was inspiring.  My favorite rest stop included an ancient ice house, which was a large mound covering a place where they stored the ice below ground.  It had access to the creek to keep it cool and let it drain. It reminded me (Akasha, of course) of the episode of Little House on the Prairie where Belinda gets locked in the ice house.

After hours of driving  we stopped by the Jinju Lantern Festival, commemorating a battle in the Imjin War. This festival was amazing, hands down one of the biggest, most ambitioius festivals we’ve been to. The entire riverfront was lined with giant paper lanterns, and more lanterns were moored in the river.

The fortress on the hill was decorated with hundreds more lanterns of people in every possible activity: skating, playing games, getting married, or carrying the emperor, for example. At 8:00 there was a fireworks show, the loudest and closest to the grounds any of us had ever seen. Then we had dinner, strolled through the high school’s ‘wish tunnel,’ and by 11:00 we had to force ourselves to get in the car and go look for a pagoda.

Picking a pagoda late at night can be an adventure. It took us a while to get out of town, and even longer to find a nice quiet pagoda, and in the end we weren’t too picky, but did find a nice place in another valley by a lake. At first we thought it would be a nice, quiet night like the other pagoda, but then the dogs started barking. One dog started, then another, and soon their barks were echoing up one side of the valley and down the other echoing over the lake, and we realized there would be no sleep that night. It even got a little bit scary, and Remi was anxious with all the noise, and then there was a strange rustling/flopping sound in the grass around the pagoda. So we got out of the tent, ran like scared teenage girls into the car, drove down the road, and napped closer to town until dawn.

Day 5 

We woke up in the car and drove back to break down the tent. We soon discovered that our scary sound maker (ie: ghost) was the world’s cutest puppy who had escaped his collar, and his owner was one of the friendliest Ajjumas (older ladies) we have met in Korea. Nothing like the light of day for a little perspective.

Our goal for the day was to Oktoberfest at the German village in Namhae. Along the way we drove down to Sacheon, a gorgeous coastal-village, and stopped for breakfast. We took a series of side trips as we jigged and zagged our way to Goseong, home of the Dinosaur Museum and the World’s Dinosaur Expo.

I love big statues

We knew we wouldn’t be able to bring Remi to the museum, but we thought we could walk him along the coast and see the footprint fossils along the coast. Unfortuatly, the walkbridge along the coast was damaged (it looked like typhoon damage.)

We crossed over the bridge connecting Sacheon to Namhae on our way to the Namhae Oktoberfest.  I set my hopes too high for the Oktoberfest. We had hoped for lederhosen, spaetzle, and polkas. But there was only one brand of German beer.  There was one very dry sausage with some yellow mustard.  There was a lot of Korean food, especially dried squid.  There was also a LOT of Korean music.  We only heard Korean spoken and only heard Korean music.  “Gangnam Style,” the current uber-hit overplayed everywhere in Korea (and around the world, we hear), was played repeatedly, to the exasperation of those who came for some good German fun and were dying for a Beer Barrel Polka.  Heck, I would have  settled for an Edelweiss, which my elementary kids play on the recorder.

Marina where we camped

We spent the night in Namhae, on the beach, with a campfire. It was fantastic.  We shared a campfire with a sweet Korean couple from Busan who came down for the beer. It was a beautiful pebble beach with a cute tribute to the wind breaks we were camping in and how windbreaks protect villages. It was a beautiful night for sleeping, a bright moon, clear skies, waves lapping the shore, and crickets singing.

Day 6 Our only plan was to have fun driving home. In the morning we discovered the marina where we camped was beautiful and has an amazing little cafe.  We indulged with another waffle breakfast and coffee. Mike saved several dying starfish that were drying on the dock (that Remi would like to have eaten.)  We poked along Namhae’s scenic coastal drive for an hour. We had hoped to do more exploring, but I think we were explored out, so we jumped on the express way and were home by 3 for laundry and a nap.  It was a long 6 days.  It was an amazing 6 days.  I’d love to do it all over again!

This was the monster who drove us from our tent

A vacation home

Wow, that was a whirlwind trip.  I can’t even think of everything that happend.  It was a Fantastic F bomb of Friends, Food, and Family. We had wretched jetlag in Minnesota, and our friends who’ve done it agree: the jetlag is 750% worse going to the US than in coming to Korea.

The riverboat

First of all, we have a great visit with the family. We had plenty of time with Mike’s family, going to a Twins game (They lost), and on a riverboat cruise (it didn’t sink!) on the St. Croix to celebrate the publication of Mom’s book, which has been the results of years of hard work with her father’s memoirs. Congrats one more time, mom.

Just like old times

We also went out to the lake house for a fantastic barbecue. Mike got a long-awaited session behind the grill, flipping burgers and brats, and almost felt fully American for a while. Then, we sat back and drank a few beers while the boats raced on the lake. What a great relaxing day it was.

Cotton Candy attack

We also got to spend a bit of time with the Sweetpotato and my Corazone.  They are growing up so fast, it’s impossible.  The last time we saw Sweetpotato she was talking a bit but you really had to know what she was saying to understand her.  Now she is an eloquent and articulate 4 year old getting ready for pre-school.  Corazone was 6 months old when we left, but now she has a clear personality.  She loves animals, books, running, and is begining to talk.  Her first word was DOG!  She’s so classy.

Our friend Jenni was the hostess with the mostess.  We were so comfortable in her home. There’s no way we can thank her enough. She provided us with a bed so comfy, I kept looking for the pea. Her apartment was laced with MN products and WI beer to make us feel at home.  What a babe.

Speaking of FOOD, we had the best quick-tour of Minnesota quisine in our ten-day visit. Here’s a quick shout-out of the stops: Matt’s Bar, for Jucy Lucys. Kramarczyk’s Deli, both at Target Field and at their NE Minneapolis location. Drinks at Kieran’s Irish Pub and the 331. The NE Social, for a million bites. Victor’s 1959 Cafe for bistec cubano y cordaditos. And we couldn’t get by without a visit to the best Thai in Minneapolis, Sen Yai Sen Lek! Hey guys, thanks for the Mango and sticky rice, it’s unbelievable! I’m probably forgetting something, but there you go. Sea Salt at Minnehaha Falls! Wendys! Um, okay. I got a bit carried away…

Then, there was a whirlwind day at the State Fair! Thanks to Jenni, Buzzo, and Carson for their company. Also a big shout-out for Erik, Ari, Corazone and the Sweetpotato for coming out and showing us how modern kids still love the big giant slide! It was some mighty fine screaming! (Mike, you forgot how visiting I Like You at the fair made us feel like we’d never left.)

Corn feed!

And, later, Katie and David came for a corn feed and walk through the Eco building. In all we spent 12 hours poking around, eating pronto pups, meals on a stick, milkshakes, watching butter-head sculptures, and pretty much everything else you can cram into a 12 hour day at the fair.

Thanks to everyone who came out to visit us. We’ve settled back into Mokpo, where we just sat through Typhoon Bolaven, then tropical storm Tembin. You can watch footage of Mike walking to school through the storm on YouTube.

It was 24 hours of wind, rain, noise, and canceled school. Welcome back!

On a side note.  We were sad to leave MN, but happy to return to our neighborhood, Yeonsan Ju Gog.  Everywhere we went people asked us “Where has Remi been for the last 2 weeks?”  Man, that is one heck of a popular puppy.

We began and ended the trip up in Seoul/ Incheon so there are a couple of pictures from our trip to a 1,000 year old Buddhist temple, an junk art camp ground, and our first meal back in  Korea, seafood soup.