review: 15 countries, 5 continents, 5 years

Since this blog is in its infancy I thought it’d be a good time to explain how we went from living paycheck to paycheck in 2007 to having traveled to 15 countries in 5 continents in just five years.

In 2007 I was finishing up my Masters degree in Kentucky while my wife, Jessie, was working on a six month launch for a hopeful internet startup based in suburban Chicago. We were making it on one salary with the help of my excess school loans. I had been in school consistently for the past 23 years and was starting to burn out, but I continued looking into doctoral programs because, let’s be honest, that’s pretty much the only direction someone with a psychology or philosophy and religion degree can go. For her part, Jessie had spent four years working in marketing and media, fields which are notoriously all-consuming. She was consistently putting in 50-80 hours a week. While she enjoyed the creativity of her work, she wanted her life back.

Jessie’s university roommate had been teaching in South Korea for the past two years and was really enjoying it. She recommended that we come over and give it a try. I was raised to be adventurous. By the time I married I had already been to over 60% of the states. And Jessie was learning to be adventurous as well; first when we moved 6 hours from Michigan to Lexington, and then again when she moved up to Chicago all on her own. So we decided to give it a try.

We moved to Seoul in April 2008 to teach English at an English Village. They paid for our flights. They provided an apartment and utilities for free. They even supplied us breakfast, lunch and dinner. So basically, each of us was earning the same salary as Jessie was making back home, but with zero obligatory expenses. And we made great friends with the 40 other teachers from other English speaking countries and Korea.

It ended up being the perfect move for us for many reasons: we learned a lot about a different culture, we paid back a huge chunk of debt, we made a lot of friends from all over the world and we listened to their travel stories. As they traded stories about their experiences in Asia, India and Europe we learned so much about how to travel cheaply, smartly and prolongedly. Most importantly, we discovered that we didn’t need to fear the unknown.

When we finished our contract we vacationed in the Philippines for three weeks before returning to Korea to work a quick, high-paying 5 week summer camp. One of the perks of working in Korea is your employer pays for your flight to and from the country upon completion of a year contract. We convinced our employer that a stopover in Hawaii was only $50 per person more expensive than a direct flight to Detroit. And so for $100 we bought a weeklong holiday in Hawaii. We had no accommodation cost because one of the friends we made in Korea had just moved there.

Another thing we’d learned about was the working holiday visa. Many countries offer this visa to anyone under the age of 30. It’s basically a one-year free pass to travel and work anywhere in the country. I was on the doorstep of my third decade, so we grabbed the visa and moved to New Zealand. (Of course, we had to stopover for free in Fiji for two days and stay at a resort with buy-one get-one free nights). We traveled New Zealand for 2 months, sleeping in the car or in a tent on the side of the road. Then we worked 2 months at daycare centers and slept in our sleeper van in a friend’s driveway (again, a fellow teacher from Korea).

We’d heard so much about Thailand so that was next on the list. But we had to fly over Australia to get there, so why not go there first? We hit the major east coast cities over three weeks: Sydney, Melbourne, Gold Coast, Cairns (Great Barrier Reef). We stayed in hostels and with several friends along the way. Then we tramped through Thailand and Laos for 8 weeks, riding elephants, petting tigers, volunteering, eating one dollar meals and getting six dollar hour-long massages.

Then it was back to Korea for a 6 month contract teaching English at a university. We had a visa issue (you can read about that here) so we went to Japan for a weekend to resolve that issue. Then we were flown home (by our employer) and loitered for several months, living with family, until my brother’s wedding. We really loved the places where we volunteered in Thailand and decided to go back to help long term. We bought a multi-city ticket (big money saver!) to Thailand with stops in Italy, Spain and Egypt.  We spent 5 weeks in Venice, Florence, Tuscany, Cinque Terre, Rome and Capri; another 2 weeks in Barcelona and Sitges; and another week in Cairo and Alexandria. We stayed with some fellow teachers from Korea in Spain. We crashed with a friend from one of our Thailand volunteering stints in Egypt.

When we got to Thailand we lived in a bamboo hut here for six months. Halfway through, we did a quick winter camp in Korea. Then we flew back to the states for several months until Jessie’s brother got married. That flight cost us $75 each. We used frequent flyer miles to book the trip. On that flight we also stopped over for free in Hong Kong for a day, where one of Jessie’s high school friends gave us a tour of the city and let us crash.

We are currently 8 months into our third “long” contract in Korea and looking forward to our next trip: Thailand, India, Nepal, England, France, Netherlands and Poland before landing back in the States. So, what does the future hold? Stick around and you’ll see!

We accomplished all this in 5 years because we decided to pursue five things: 1) living internationally, 2) making global friends, 3) learning how to travel hack, 4) adapting to a more minimalist lifestyle and 5) making decisions not based on fear.

The Sphinx at Giza


political science 300: the Vientiane runaround

Yesterday I watched a TED talk about a woman who escaped from North Korea and it triggered one specific memory that I’ve been trying to forget.

In the talk the woman recounted how she had smuggled her family through China and gotten them across the border into Laos. You could sense the horror she was reliving as she talked about how her family, just minutes away from the South Korean embassy, were imprisoned in the capital city of Vientiane. She spent so much time racing around trying to free them, and it was only by the generosity of another foreigner that she was able to pay the fine to get them released.

As I listened to her story, I completely empathized with her frustration at the governmental system in that country. Back in the summer of 2010 Jessie and I traveled around SE Asia for the first time. After enjoying three weeks in Bangkok, Kanchanaburi province and Chiang Mai, we crossed the border into Laos at the northern part of the country. We hunkered down for a two-day slow boat trip down the Mekong River enroute to our first stop, Luang Prabang. As the hours floated by we read books and talked about the university jobs that awaited us in Korea in a month when we finished our backpacking. It was a very relaxing journey.

We settled into our room in Luang Prabang and decided that we needed to make contact back home. So we headed to the Internet cafe. Seemed like everything was fine, except I hadn’t received confirmation that our criminal background checks had arrived. These are mandatory for teaching in Korea and without them we wouldn’t be issued a visa, hence losing our jobs. I called the FBI to inquire and was informed that our fingerprints had only just arrived. We’d sent them from Australia over a month ago with a 10-14 day guarantee. With the current processing time, our background checks would be available the first week of September.

Our jobs started in August.

We were facing being jobless and cashless within a month’s time. Also, we’d be letting down a friend who’d pulled many strings to get us these jobs. I made another call to the Secretary of State in Michigan and worked out a way to get our background checks in time. But we had to get the fingerprints to her immediately. We raced to the tourist police office. They told us that fingerprinting wasn’t done anywhere except inVientiane. Oh great! Now we’d have to zip across half the country in a panic, missing out on everything we’d come for. We packed up and bussed our way there.

As soon as our feet touched the capital soil we jumped into action. First was the American embassy. They didn’t have fingerprinting services, so they sent us to the nearest police station. At the station, they sat us down and questioned us for 20 minutes about why we wanted to do this and if we were criminals. They sent us back to the embassy. We explained what happened and the man called a different department and confirmed that we could have it done there. He gave us the new address and implied that we may need to give a “gift” in order to move things along. We walked over to the building, only to be told that foreigners weren’t allowed inside. But we had someone’s name, so after showing the paper they reluctantly escorted us to a room. Here we received the same treatment: a stubborn standoff between their arguments that only criminals get fingerprinted in Laos and our insistence that the government of Korea needed our fingerprints analyzed in order to know that we weren’t criminals.

A third trip to the embassy got us a name on the other side of town at the Ministry of Finances. Once again, we followed a reluctant guard to a small cinderblock-walled room and waited. Ten minutes later we were questioned. Then we were told that the man we sought was working today at the Foreign Affairs building, another 15 minute walk away. We were buzzed into the Foreign Affairs building and grabbed a slip with a waiting number. No one was manning the counters because they were all out eating lunch. An hour later we learned that our man was not working here today but was at the Ministry of Finances. This was ‘confirmed’ by a phone call. Another fifteen minutes walking back. The guard was very angry to see us again and said that the man was not there. He called Foreign Affairs and ‘confirmed’ that he was at the building we had just come from.

We’d been at it for six hours and had given up all hope. Besides what I’ve mentioned, we’d asked at every governmental building we came across along the way. Several times we were relieved to hear that they would fingerprint us, only to have our hopes crushed when they realized that someone would have to sign their name to confirm they had witnessed the process. Important lesson: in post-Communist countries, people still carry a fear of being responsible for anything. As we dragged our weary feet across the roundabout at Patu Xay, I noticed a small building with flaky golden letters that read “Ministry of Justice.” One more couldn’t hurt. It was 20 minutes to 5 o’clock; soon everything would be closing down and we would officially be doomed.

The first person we met with told us that he could do exactly what we needed. We were jubilan! What a stroke of last minute luck! Inside his office he dug around his drawers and then asked, “Is red ink ok?” Our hearts sank. Of course it wasn’t ok. Fingerprinting has to be done in black ink. He shoved us out the door, pointed us in the direction of a street market and told us to find our ink and be back before five.

Usain Bolt couldn’t have caught us that day. Somehow, miraculously, we walked out of the Ministry of Justice at 5:15 with officially signed and stamped fingerprints. At 5:29 we slipped into a DHL, one minute before closing. We placed our two pieces of paper in an overnight package and handed the clerk eighty US dollars. Then we went back to our room and didn’t emerge for a day. In the end, we got our background checks two days before our scheduled flight to Korea.

I’m not saying my fiasco was anywhere near as dire as the Korean woman’s. But I realized while watching her that traveling has done something marvelous for me: it has increased my capacity for empathy. For some people, like my wife, empathy can be found in every square inch of every bone in their body. Not me. I’m not sure why this is; I think some people just have it and others don’t. For some reason it’s always been difficult for me to understand others’ emotions unless I’ve experienced a situation very similar to theirs. But happily, and unexpectedly, the vulnerability of traveling in unfamiliar places has given me insights into the world of human emotion.

Patu Xay, Vientiane

anatomy 100: a Korean bathhouse

Last weekend I made a special outing to the local jimjilbang. For all my friends who haven’t lived in Korea, a jimjilbang is a magical place where you can toss all your cares aside and relax. Quite simply, it is a large expanse of hot tubs and heated rooms laid out over several floors of a building. One floor is for men, another for women. There’s also a third floor, which can be used by both genders.

If you personally know me, you know that I love being in the water. I don’t really care much for swimming per se, but just loitering in the shallows of a pool on a hot summer day or body surfing on waves near the shore are definitely on my bliss list. So it should come as no surprise that a jimjilbang is, for me, pretty much like Chuck E. Cheese’s is for 7 year olds. At least, it should be that exciting. Except there’s one small problem: everyone inside is undeniably, unavoidably, undesirably, 100% buck naked.

Yes, naked.

Now I’m not extremely self-conscious about my body. I know that I’m a skinny, lanky white boy. (Someone even described me as gaunt once….yikes!) But the men I know usually don’t relish the necessity of locker room nudity, so a sausage party at a giant public hot tub seems like a VERY understandable place to draw the line. However, since everyone lives in apartments in Seoul, this is the only place to find the comforting warm waters of a tub, so I’ve learned to live with the collateral damage.

Let me describe the atmosphere. After taking off my shoes and locking them in a miniature hole in the wall, I am assigned a random locker located on the perimeter of a lounge room. As I walk barefoot to my locker I can’t help but notice the old guy who’s reading the paper and sitting Indian-style on the edge of his chair, proudly displaying his bait and tackle for all new comers. I peel off my clothes, store them away, and walk toward the sauna room. In case I was trying to forget that I am in my birthday suit, wall mirrors capture front and side views of my every movement as I weave my way through the blockade of naked Korean men who are drinking beer and huddled around the one small tv in the corner. I make it to the foggy glass door and open it.

Two tiled hot tubs greet me with bubbling gurgles in the center of the floor. Each one could easily accomodate 15 people. Along the front wall men are rinsing off at showers separated by useless glass dividers. On the back wall there’s a “swimming pool” wide enough for precisely 1½ people to swim 5 meter laps. From the “pool” there is access to two grottos with arched entrances, where you can explore dark areas roughly the size of an elevator. Naturally, I stay well away from them.

Three doors are nestled in the corner containing a steam room, a dry sauna and a poorly lit area with no discernible function. Behind the hot tubs there’s a small raised platform where men lie dangerously close to one another taking their nude naps. There are also two massage tables, just in case you want to get vigorously exfoliated by a man who is also rocking the au naturale look. Recessed in the back are a tranquil ice-cold tub and a small cubicle where water is blasting out of the ceiling from 10 small jets with firehose-like propulsion. Nearby, endless faucets and mirrors are situated about knee height in three enclaves, populated by men squatting spread-eagle with knees up to their ears. They fumble around with flimsy scratchy towels filled with fistfuls of course salt, feverishly grating their skin until it turns bright pink.

I go to my routine, which consists of apportioning time between hot and cold tubs, using the Finnish method I learned on cross-country skiing trips to Ontario with the Lillvis family. They taught me to stay in the heated sauna room until I’d almost perspired to the point of splitting, then tear down the hall and fling open the door to the wintery outdoors, launching myself headlong into a snow bank and rolling around until my skin tingled. Then we’d do it all over again.

I leave the 50°C bath and sit up to my neck in the ice water. I feel the blood rushing to my head as the water begins to settle. In the placid water, my body appears strangely impersonal. My legs, unmoving, seem to be in a different realm, broadcast on the giant aquatic screen before me. I move them to make sure they’re still mine. When my lungs become so cold that I start to exhale blasts of cool mist, I know its time to switch back to heat.

My body is beginning to feel like putty, so I dry off and don the XL baby blue pajama shirt and shorts I was issued upon payment and make my way upstairs. The icing on the jimjilbang experience comes at the top floor, which contains a restaurant, a massage and nail parlor, a workout room and coin-operated vibrating chairs. More importantly, there are five massive walk-in ovens where you can bake yourself to warm perfection. One even has salt rocks for seasoning! These all surround a large sitting area where old men and women doze noisily on mats and stiff hardwood pillows while catching up on the latest Korean dramas. After the invigoration of hot and cold soaks, this big hall is the perfect way to check out for a few hours.

The jimjilbang is an important life experience. I could try to make a metaphor about how we need to be emotionally naked in order to achieve inner peace. Or I could tell you that it’s important to try new things, no matter how crazy they sound. But realistically, when you’re standing in a huge room wearing only your smile, little unclad boys running and playing all around you, and their fathers and grandfathers staring at the whitest brightest object (inevitably this is you), the only thing you really need to remember is this: never look a naked man in the eyes (or below).

Suyu jimjilbang


When I signed up for Facebook I was already in my second year of graduate school. I know this makes me sound like I’m old enough to have been personal friends with Jared Leto and Jennifer Connelly, but really I’m only 32 years old. Back then before the dreaded Timeline format, the personal section was pretty simple. You entered your name, school, birthday, and favorite books, quotes, movies and tv shows. And then it gave you an open-ended opportunity to tell everyone “about” you. This was your chance to make a first impression on the world. What would you say that let people know who you were?

I remember one time when Jessie and I were talking she asked me what I wanted to do with the rest of my life. I told her that if I had my choice, I would like to remain a student for life. I have a deep love of learning. The content usually doesn’t matter. It’s the process of discovery, the expansion of understanding, the lengthening of perspective that gets me all charged up. This is who I am. This is what I was made for.

And so as I stared at the screen contemplating what to say about myself, these words came to me: “In school for over 20 years, little work experience, no idea where I’m going, and loving it!” I felt this was an accurate, if rather succinct, representation of my experiences and my goals.

I wrote this  in early 2006. A few months later I took my first real trip outside the country. I spent three weeks in the sands of Israel, plunging my fingers in the dirt in search of ancient artifacts. What I found were the mysteries of life hidden in the people, the inescapable culture, the devout religion, the exotic food, the architecture, the hills and the desert, the complicated beliefs about their past. Up to this point I had studied many things in school: English, mathematics, social studies, science, art, music, history, drafting, geography, psychology, philosophy, theology, ancient languages, religion, archaeology. I had even traveled quite extensively throughout the continental United States. But this was different.

I had stepped out of my own world, experienced a different way of living, and then examined myself through the lens of this new experience. What I discovered was I had become a student of travel.

I have come to view travel as a great portion of my curriculum. I am hoping that this blog will be my classroom. I don’t want it to be simply an autobiography or a memoir; it isn’t meant to be a travel narrative or a string of interesting little anecdotes. It is a collection of essays of my learning. Some lessons are deep while others are very trivial. They all matter. I hope you enjoy learning with me.

– Ryan, 15 March 2013

Digging at Tel Dan