Saturday, February 28, 2009

tough times in taiwan

After another short stop in Bangkok to get some appropriate dress clothes, we were off to Taiwan. Our original plan goes like this: we come to Taiwan to Teach English. This is one of the few places that only requires a college-diploma and proof of citizenship of an English-speaking country (other places require an English-teaching certificate among other things). Compared to other Asian places where foreigners come to make a buck, Taiwan has the best earning-to-living ratio, which makes for some good savings. We planned to work for a year, save up close to $2000/month each, and have a little nest egg to spend on graduate school (and possibly have some left over).

Our expectations slowly lost their vigor as each day of our job search went by. No one calling us back, jobs filled the moment they're posted, schools offering way less than we were expecting. What was happening here? Well, we ran into a few expats who have been around Taipei for a while, and they gave us the scoop. Since the Korean currency has lost more that 1/3 of its value against the dollar, many of the expats in Korea were coming to Taiwan to teach. So, the market is flooded with all of these experienced teachers coming from Korea, which gives us first-timers a disadvantage, having no experience. Not only that, but the Taiwan economy is shrinking, which means less rich people to send their kids to private English schools. On top of all of this, the Taiwan dollar was also losing its value against the dollar just in the time we've been here. Since the beginning of the year it has lost one percent against the dollar each week. Which is a bad indicator for us, because if it keeps trending in this direction, we would sign up to make $20/hour, but by the end of the year it will be more like $12. Ugh.

So, all of these things we couldn't have known (they all happened in the months while we were traveling) are affecting our plans and thwarting us! Global economic crisis!!! *shakes fist*

Ah well, we aren't ones to wallow for long, we are do-ers! So we hopped a (relatively) cheap flight to San Francisco, are going to find a two-month sublet, and are going to look for jobs there. The medium-term plan is still to get into a grad program by the Fall of 2010, but I only will go to grad school if I have a significant amount of the cost saved up, as I don't think this is the best time to be taking out a bunch of debt. Now onto the Castro and the Mission, the city of Harvey Milk and the Top of the Mark and hilly streets and Full House. Ahh, my heart's already there.

luxury on phi phi

Our last official stop on our Asia trip, Ko Phi Phi is a white-sand-blue-water vixen of the island world. Famous for being the location where the movie THE BEACH was shot, we got a free pass to stay in the ritzy island by writing a piece for the Chicago Tribune on a resort there. We got speed-boated to the resort, which is on a private mile-long stretch of beach, and were greeted with coconut shakes garnished with a pineapple and orchids. Ahh, well, this is the life, no? We relaxed poolside and floated around in the endless infinity pool, we spent time in our gigantic (by our room standards on this trip) air-conditioned bungalow, and had a romantic dinner under strings of glowing lights and, beyond that, the brightest glowing starlight.

Look for the article, set to come out around March 8 in the Tribune.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

more in far southern thailand

After sadly leaving our tropical paradise island, we headed toward the jungle - in the form of Khao Sok National Park. Famous for being home to the biggest flower in the world - which smells like rotten meat when blooming. How nice. Many of the 'towns' like the ones we encountered in India or earlier in Thailand near these national parks try to leech off of the proximity of the park and often offer tours into the park. Usually they offer transport into the park, food, specialized walking tours, a knowledgeable guide, and often it doesn't cost more than twice the admission to the park. Well, this town had gaul. Not only was the park within walking distance and without roads inside, the entrance fee was only four dollars. And what did these hotels offer? They offered to have a guide walk you around on the clearly marked trails for thirty-five dollars! Plus you have to pay your own admittance! The nerve (or as Uncle Mike would put it, the noive!)

Having avoided the terrible scammery here, we could enjoy even more the first official tropical rainforest we've ever been thoroughly inside (previous little jaunts into the amazon and other tropical forests were often in monsoon - not rain - forests). The first visitors inside, we immediate spotted some fluffy white gibbons swinging in the treetops, and a little while later, some long-tailed macaques. We climbed over gigantic vines, gaped at forests of the most gargantuan grass in the world - bamboo - as the sun leaked through the most air. After a long break for lunch in the hottest part of the day, we did an insanely vertical trail that was clearly created by a madman and, 500 feet from the end of the trail, Alex spotted a mouse deer. The smallest hoofed animal in the world, it is a whole 4 and a half lbs. and about a foot long. Nature is amazing.

After this, back to beach world, but this time we had to face all those beach bums who rent four-wheelers and speedboats. Ko Lanta, an island inexplicably filled to the brim with Swedes, was where we came to scuba dive the Andaman Sea. Since, during our diving course, we dove in the Gulf of Thailand, we saved our money so that we had enough to do one dive on the other side of Thailand, in the Andaman. Checking out a bunch of places, we went with the cheapest on the island, the biggest school which was run by - what do you know - Swedes! Tall and rosy-cheeked, I felt a little bit like I was home with them.

A few days later, we hopped on their slow boat to go dive 90 minutes away on Ko Bida. With our somewhat careless divemaster Liam - who kept kicking the coral and anemones with his flippers - we again entered the gorgeous underwater universe. There were schools of hundreds of fish, lobsters, crabs, sheer walls of anemones, giant fan coral, jellyfish, lionfish, scorpion fish, and trumpetfish. Ahhhhh. If only diving where cheaper, I'd never come up.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

sweet sweet surin islands

Have you seen the movie THE BEACH with Leonardo DiCaprio? Well, a lot of people come to Thailand searching for this utopian island of happy coexistence and healthy living. I think I have found it here in the Surin Islands.

It is a small island chain that's part of a National Marine Protected Area 40 miles from land. The islands are jungly mounds of emerald green ringed with turquoise bays which house untouched and therefore jaw-droppingly gorgeous coral reef ecosystems. You spend your days lying on the snow-white sand, drowning yourself in the ecstasy of bathwater hot dips in the ocean, and going out for snorkeling trips (where we saw a giant eel, a sea turtle, multiple octopuses, schools of giant barracudas, fan coral, gardens of elkhorn coral covered with bright blue and green and purple soft coral, among many other things) that leave twice a day and cost $2. I almost feel like I shouldn't be telling you this.

To stay in the Surin Islands, you have to pitch a tent on the beach. So, that selects our 95% of the population who refuse to sleep anywhere without central air. As it turns out, that 95% are the ones who can't go anywhere without renting a car and three jetskis and who throw their trash all over the ground - which is what all of Thailand's other island's are filled with.

We remains is quite an interesting mix. There are Thai locals who come here as we would go to Yellowstone, some short-term tourists like us, and a handful of Europeans who rent out their homes and use the money to live here while the park is open for the five months of winter. Amazingly enough, there are many families whose children speak multiple languages - Thai, English, German, French - and whose homeschooling probably consists of reading classics, learning math skills and swimming in the ocean above unparalleled coral reefs everyday.

Shhhh. Don't tell anyone.

otherworldly in ko tao

We then (finally!) began our trip south to Thailand's rich island's and beaches. Stopping through Bangok on the way down, our first official stop was Ko Tao, an island in the Gulf of Thailand which is famous for certifying the most scuba divers in the world. So, with the help of our generous parents' Christmas gifts, we planned to get certified to dive!

Our instructor for our four-day course was Pascal, who was as French as Jacques Cousteau. Coming into the dive shop every morning was like coming home. It is a strange sensation on a trip to come back to a place where someone knows your name and recognizes you as belonging there. After some cheesy videos and some basic shallow water training, we got to enter the world of diving. We sunk down beneath the water, our life supported by the capabilities of the tank on our backs, and entered a new universe. We swam past gardens of clownfish guarding their anemone-homes, saw an ultra-venomous sea snake slithering along the sandy bottom, a giant transluscent jellyfish hovering above us like an alien presence, and endless varieties of shining coral housing just an infinate variations of fish. Well, now that we have this certification, we can forever enter this world with the confidence that education brings, and now we have seen one tiny fraction of our world's 75% water life.

awe in khao yai

After our time with the lovely gibbons, we went off to enjoy Thailand's oldest national park, Khao Yai. This is the best place in the world to catch a glimpse of the wild Asian Elephant, so we shelled out to go on an all day safari with a small group of annoying short-trip tourists with identical machine-gun laughs. Trying to ignore their stupid comments, we rode and hiked around the gorgeous monsoon forest and even spotted a wild gibbon family, which was especially fruitful being able to see our friends in the wild after having worked with them so closely.

After nearly 10 hours in the park and very little hope, we spotted a lone young male elephant muscling its way through the dense forest. It always bewildered me that something as large as an elephant could live in the jungle, as they would have to spend most of their time pushing and pulling just to get through. In any case, we got to watch him for a few minutes before he retreated beyond where we could see. We have now been so lucky to have seen some of the rarest and most endangered animals Asia has in the wild: leopard, tiger, and elephant. I hope these animals stick around long enough for my kids to appreciate them.