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Festivals/Holidays

What is a weekend?  It used to be that thing I awaited for all week.  Those days you started planning for midway through the week.  What is it now?  I hardly know the date except weekends and holidays are those annoying times the streets are clogged and it’s harder to find a place to sleep.  Bundled with the fact that I have travel fatigue, it meant for what could’ve been a terrible weekend trip to the relatively expensive, gringo filled tourist city of Cuenca.  Why no, I do not care to do a tour or to see another bloody church.  Yet, I got introduced to a friend of a Couch Surfer and it was a packed weekend of fun.

First up was visiting the Museo del Banco Central and Pumapungo.  It had exhibits (some reminiscent of elementary school dioramas) of all of Ecuador’s various cultures.  Behind the museum is the ruins of an Incan town destroyed to build the buildings of Cuenca.

There's also a beautiful garden and rescue aviary.

There’s also a beautiful garden and rescue aviary.

Ecuador is home to a whole lot of birds and flowers.

Ecuador is home to a whole lot of birds and flowers.

It’s been a little bit since Europe which means my church fatigue has lessened.  That’s helpful as there are churches every block or two it seems.

It's a good way to remember where you are in town.

It’s a good way to remember where you are in town.

While I found the churches a little ragged in Quito with their broken stained glass windows, Cuenca had no such issues.

Am I in Europe?

Am I in Europe?

No, I am not in Europe.  Sometimes there’s just weird stuff.

"Who is Juan Pablo?" "The last pope!" "OH! JOHN PAUL!"

“Who is Juan Pablo?” “The last pope!” “OH! JOHN PAUL!”

It was a day of parades and celebration, some sort of religious festival related to no longer sinning but mostly celebrated today as lots of joking.  I was confused why I only saw mostly white baby Jesuses being carried around with a few black ones in a country full of mostly brown people.  End your European servitude!

I didn't know Ecuadorians had Maypoles… or Januarypoles.

I didn’t know Ecuadorians had Maypoles… or Januarypoles.

There’s a lot of leatherwork in this country and it’s visible on the men as part of some of their traditional dress.

Both the men and women have heavy traditional costumes for the cold Sierran weather that sure makes this jump-heavy dancing hard.

Both the men and women have heavy traditional costumes for the cold Sierran weather that sure makes this jump-heavy dancing hard.

All over town you’d see horses, people dressed as the three wise men, and hear all sorts of yelling and singing.

A "banda de puebla", or town band blaring across the square at a second band.

A “banda de puebla”, or town band blaring across the square at a second band.

As evening approaches, it was possible to see groups gathering all over town in costume getting ready to join the big parade of the evening.  For me the highlight may have been wandering the deep fry food stalls lining the entire parade route.  I watched about five or six floats of the weirdly Avatar themed bunch before we all got tired and headed home.

These terrifying and well organized clowns were on their way to the night parade.

These terrifying and well organized clowns were on their way to the night parade.

On my last morning, I went to the oasis of cheap delicious eats even in pricey tourist towns, the local market.

This three story market was likely the cleanest I've seen in a developing country.

This three story market was likely the cleanest I’ve seen in a developing country.

On my hurried walk back to pack and head out, I saw perhaps the most beautiful building I saw all weekend.  The whole town is covered in pleasing colonial buildings that make a great ambiance.

I struggled to find a good picture of colonial Cuenca and found it on my way out.

I struggled to find a good picture of colonial Cuenca and found it on my way out.

Cuenca is, for a short vacation, a lovely and picturesque city.  I imagine it’s quite the pleasant place to live with an interesting art scene, international food scene, and beautiful clean architecture and streets.  I have enjoyed my time here but am happy to move on quickly as well.  Onward and southward on my slow motion towards Peru.

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I rushed back to Banos post Amazonian adventure for what was said to be a great new years celebration.

Back to Banos, with a view!

Back to Banos, with a view!

There are all sorts of traditions here.  The big one is the giant puppets known as Monigotes that are stuffed with hay and burned at midnight.  They are even clothed in real clothing.  The men dress in sexy drag and the women wear yellow bras for good fortune and red underwear for good luck.  Banos is covered in people making the paper mache people of all sizes from two to twenty feet.  There are various huge concert stages set up on what feels like every other corner.  There was an impressive two port potties made of painted cardboard with an out pipe straight to two inches above a sewer.  The actual day is a town wide music festival of people dancing through the streets.  Oddly, or perhaps fittingly for Ecuador, there isn’t really a countdown and fireworks and puppets start burning at random intervals around midnight.  Then, I assume for more good luck, one jumps over the burning puppets.

Sure I forgot to leave my mask on, but Whee!

Sure I forgot to leave my mask on, but Whee!

The festivities don’t stop at new year’s eve here, and I’m told they’ll go on all week.  First up is the new year’s day devil parade in the nearby town of Pillaro.  Sounds more exciting than the rose parade I grew up with.  The family that runs the hostel I’m in was nice enough to bring me to this small town.

We stopped at a town that specializes in Ecuadorian arepas that are nothing like Colombian or Venezuelan ones.  This one was pumpkin.

We stopped at a town that specializes in Ecuadorian arepas that are nothing like Colombian or Venezuelan ones. This one was pumpkin.

We got there a bit early and took the extra time to wander around town admiring all the handicrafts.

The first mask I saw was plastered in all sorts of horns.  A hint of things to come.

The first mask I saw was plastered in all sorts of horns. A hint of things to come.

I was rather impressed with all these hand made masks and how expensive they were for this country.

I'm not sure why, but there were a lot of human masks.

I’m not sure why, but there were a lot of human masks.  Refreshingly it had faces of all sorts, not just pretty ones.

The real attraction was definitely the devil masks though.

So many devil masks.

So many devil masks.

The fancy ones start having extra horns, extra teeth, even extra heads or dragons attached.

This is some Alien like monster action.  Wooga wooga wooga!

This is some Alien like monster action. Wooga wooga wooga!

These masks are going to haunt my dreams and I wondered what exactly made them so darned amazing.  Nothing I’d seen made of paper mache looked like this.

Then we found out it was real animal horns.  That lower left mask even has real dog teeth.  Creepy.

Then we found out it was real animal horns. That lower left mask even has real dog teeth. Creepy.

Luckily not all the masks are so terrifying.

This one was gaudy with LED lights and glitter.

This one was gaudy with LED lights and glitter.

The parade was running on Ecuadorian time, so it was scheduled for an hour and a half after it started last year.  Except, it’s Ecuador, so it started yet another hour and half after that.  We took a break to go step in the local church, every town has one.

Why is there a creepy patron baby saint of cops with Ecuadorian flag belt?

Why is there a creepy patron baby saint of cops with Ecuadorian flag belt?

Finally, after the crowd had gathered for a while the parade started.

That's a lot of devils.  The groups of kids were particularly cute.  They all walked down the street grunting like demons.

That’s a lot of devils. The groups of kids were particularly cute. They all walked down the street grunting like demons.

It wasn’t just for devils though, the people masks made a great return.

I'm not sure if this was a continuation of new year's eve cross dressing but they were supposed to be Spaniards.

I’m not sure if this was a continuation of new year’s eve cross dressing but they were supposed to be Spaniards.

Every devil carried stuff in their hand.  A lot of them carried water or alcohol, there were a lot of whips, and most disturbingly, lots of animals.

The most popular animal was dead skunks.  Some still reeked of skunk.

The most popular animal was dead skunks. Some still reeked of skunk.

Although there was one thing worse than a skunk.

This hawk looks like it just died today.  Disease ridden, anyone?

This hawk looks like it just died today. Disease ridden, anyone?

It wasn’t all depressing though, someone brought their pet.

This iguana looked pretty calm about all the ruckus around him.

This iguana looked pretty calm about all the ruckus around him.

As the parade went on, the costumes got bigger and more elaborate.

This guy could barely walk without whacking into the crowd.

This guy could barely walk without whacking into the crowd.

The parade went on for multiple hours but we got tired after a couple.  I’m glad I got to see it though.  After all this travel and excitement I’m taking a few days of down time in Banos to, as my friend put it, let me soul catch up to my body.  Banos is a town of hot springs and it is nice to soak and do nothing in them.  Happy Devilish 2013!

Well ok, I didn’t manage to foil the robbers for Christmas, but I am spending it alone in adventure sport town Banos, Ecuador.  Originally planned for post-coast and maybe an Amazon visit, I ended up heading here early on my retreat from the coast and with some miscommunication in Quito with my Couch Surfing friend Carlos.  No matter, that just means for Christmas I’m treating myself to some adventure sports.

A beautiful view overlooking the volcanoes and nearby towns.

A beautiful view overlooking the volcanoes and nearby towns.

First up, river rafting.  Although I can’t swim I love water sports and this time around that meant hitting the rapids.  It was fun to careen through dipping waves and holes in the water.  Granted it wasn’t exactly the most hardcore thing as there were two 5 year old kids behind me.  Also I got shifted from English speaking boat to French speaking boat as the odd man, but it was still a good time.  The scenery along the river was stunning.  As another patron mentioned, that would’ve been one awesome time to have a go-cam.

The recently activated volcano near Banos.

The recently activated volcano near Banos.  That’s lava generated smoke coming out the top.

While I certainly haven’t been eating poorly in the last month, I still decided to treat myself to a few Christmas dinners of varied food being in a gringo filled tourist town.  A steak dinner that was probably just objectively ok but tasted like the best thing ever because I haven’t had a good slab of beef steak in who knows how long.  A dinner of objectively good pulled pork sandwich and fries and even microbrewed craft beers.  On Christmas day I tried Swiss raclette, because melty cheese is certainly something i’ve missed.  Although I managed to find the Ecuadorian specialties of cuy (guinea pig) and encocado (coconut stew) to try as well.

A specialty of the town is a hand pulled sugar cane candy that they do with flourish to try to lure in people to buy some.  It's a weird hard taffy warm and I think an even worse hard candy cold.

A specialty of the town is a hand pulled sugar cane candy that they do with flourish to try to lure in people to buy some. It’s a weird hard taffy warm and I think an even worse hard candy cold.

On Christmas day i decided to treat myself well.  My family pitched in and purchased some of my splurges that I can’t do on a normal day.  While it’s not Thailand, I started with a massage in the morning.  Well, it certainly ain’t Thailand, it cost four times as much and was only ok.

Ecuador is a poor country.  It doesn't matter where you are though, you'll see a satellite dish.

Ecuador is a poor country. It doesn’t matter where you are though, you’ll see a satellite dish.

Later on I went for the more exciting activity, paragliding.  The guide’s American girlfriend looked at me and went, “This is what you are doing for Christmas?!” with an incredulous look.  Granted, she was with her boyfriend’s family, but I reminded her technically it was what she was doing for Christmas too.  Luckily she was really nice and took some photos of me in the air.

Sure, you can't see me, but that's me up there gliding over the hills.

Sure, you can’t see me, but that’s me up there gliding over the hills.

It was an amazing feeling to be up in the air like that.  You just take a few steps forward, back, take a running start, and are carried straight off the slope of a hill.  As a twelve year old, my parents bought me my first video game system, a Nintendo 64.  One of the first games I managed to play was Pilotwings 64, a rather boring game that was just showing off the power of 3-D.  I still recall you were supposed to catch thermal drafts, and I didn’t realize that was a thing you did.  They aren’t really visible in real life like they are in the game, but my do they lift you fast!

I can't even explain how beautiful the day was as we waited hours for the wind to be just right to soar.

I can’t even explain how beautiful the day was as we waited hours for the wind to be just right to soar.

The winds were strong that day, too strong to be safe.  GeoTours had given me bad info and told me not to bring anything so I was sans books.  Not a bad way to be though as I gazed upon the first active volcano I’d ever seen constantly rumbling, roaring and belching smoke. Finally near the end of the day we managed to get up.  Only we went, as the other people who brought parachutes thought it too dangerous and instead monitored the wind for us.  Unfortunately, I can get nauseous doing most activities and being this high up was no exception and I got altitude sickness from the sudden rise.  I held on though and the rather brisk air whisked past me as we floated around.  Suddenly though, the rather strong wind gave out and we made an emergency landing.  For me, that meant instead of walking down, I landed ass sliding onto the hill.

The day continued to be stunning even as we ended a wonderful Christmas day of adventure.

The day continued to be stunning even as we ended a wonderful Christmas day of adventure.  Unfortunately those beautiful sunset clouds are the same ones keeping me from seeing bright lava at night.

This is my first Christmas away from Los Angeles and I tried to make the best of it.  Not your standard Christmas but certainly a fun one.  Good thing I got Christmas presents so that I could greatly enjoy such an adventurous town.

Moving on from one of my favorite songs to one of my favorite game titles, I ended up spending over a month on the farm.  I was going to leave after the first week, after I celebrated Thanksgiving with my American hosts.  However my credit card got stolen the day before I was planning to leave and I found myself waiting three weeks for it to arrive.  So what does one do on a farm that long?

The view from the far was stunning on clear days.  It was particularly beautiful at dawn and dusk.  You wake up early on a farm.

The view from the far was stunning on clear days. It was particularly beautiful at dawn and dusk. You wake up early on a farm.

You explore the beautiful natural surroundings.

We visited the deserted half finished hotel of a friend of the farm's.  It had a beautiful view of what I think is Cotacachi Lake.  We later returned for a hike around here.

We visited the deserted half finished hotel of a friend of the farm’s. It had a beautiful view of what I think is Cotacachi Lake. We later returned for a hike around here.

You explore the nearby towns full of retired Americans.

Hilarious Latin American stereotypes means there are Barbies that are too young to have babies in the stores.

Hilarious Latin American stereotypes means there are Barbies that are too young to have babies in the stores.

Otavalo is more known for its Saturday market, but seeing as how I went more than once, I also checked out a cockfight.  It's full of drunken Ecuadorian men at 1 pm.

Otavalo is more known for its Saturday artisan market, but seeing as how I went more than once, I also checked out a cockfight. It’s full of drunken Ecuadorian men at 1 pm.

You do some work as well.  I was on a chicken farm, full of 15,000 chickens.  They butchered them the day before I got there but at least I got to see the new batch.

Chicks are adorable, fuzzy and need to be kept very warm.

Chicks are adorable, fuzzy and need to be kept very warm.

Not all birds are good though, as some nice song birds were eating all the seeding plants before we could collect them.

This is the scarecrow I made, we named it Pip after we learned that seeds are called pips in Ireland and England.  Also their most famous brand of orange juice is called Juicy Bits.  The garden is lovely and Pip is lucky I didn't name him Juicy Bits.

This is the scarecrow I made, we named it Pip after we learned that seeds are called pips in Ireland and England. Also their most famous brand of orange juice is called Juicy Bits. The garden is lovely and Pip is lucky I didn’t name him Juicy Bits.

After we were sure birds weren’t eating all the seeds we continued weeding and seeding.

I had no idea beet seeds looked this interesting.

I had no idea beet seeds looked this interesting.

You hang out with the various animals.

Tigger, the orange kitty, is a garden kitty that follows you and stands at your feet while you try to do anything.

Tigger, the orange kitty, is a garden kitty that follows you and stands at your feet while you try to do anything.

The big project that happened near the end of my trip was an earth house cellar so that the host could expand his prosciutto and sausage smoking operations by having a cool shed to store them in to age.

The earth bodega is made of chicken feed sacks full of lovingly hand shoveled dirt.

The earth bodega is made of chicken feed sacks full of lovingly hand shoveled dirt.

I came to the farm to learn butchering and smoking but it was mostly nonexistent or only handled by the hosts.  However he had to leave due to a family emergency and I stayed a few extra days to try my hand at smoking a ham.

My female host was afraid of the flamethrower and I was more than happy to oblige.  What could be more fun than lighting a barrel full of charcoal with a giant flamethrower?

My female host was afraid of the flamethrower and I was more than happy to oblige. What could be more fun than lighting a barrel full of charcoal with a giant flamethrower?

It turns out you still don’t need too many people to make hams and I’m terrible at heavy lifting so I was only useful in the beginning of the day.

My first tied ham.  Further proof you can just about learn how to do anything on YouTube.

My first tied ham. Further proof you can just about learn how to do anything on YouTube.

The hams sure did look nice at the end of the day though.

The hams sure did look nice at the end of the day though.

My cooking duties continued as well.

Although the pigs, dogs and kitties will all eat leftovers I still feel bad leaving them.  So instead I made leftover oatmeal cookies.  Interestingly, all the blogs with leftover oatmeal recipes for cookies involved huge 10+ children families, the very religious, or people who were gluten free.

Although the pigs, dogs and kitties will all eat leftovers I still feel bad leaving them. So instead I made leftover oatmeal cookies. Interestingly, all the blogs with leftover oatmeal recipes for cookies involved huge 10+ children families, the very religious, or people who were gluten free.

While most of my requests were American or things commonly found in America, left to my own devices, most things I eat are ethnic, heavily spiced, and saucy.

Chilaquiles made with red salsa and Doritos.  You do what you can.

Chilaquiles made with red salsa and Doritos. You do what you can.

And once I got done with all the pies and cookies, I got around to things I haven’t made in a while.

Secretly, I'm a five year old and like yellow cake with chocolate buttercream frosting.  If only I had funfetti.

Secretly, I’m a five year old and like yellow cake with chocolate buttercream frosting. If only I had funfetti.

On my way out the other female volunteer and I got our homesick female host some Christmas ornaments.

Christmas in Ecuador means we get a Charlie Brown like Christmas tree wrapped in a leopard skin blanket.

Christmas in Ecuador means we get a Charlie Brown like Christmas tree wrapped in a leopard skin blanket.

And for myself, I fixed a Christmas present I wanted last year that was sold out.

Why buy a travel spice kit online when you can fashion one in your retiree town with a daily medicine holder?

Why buy a travel spice kit online when you can fashion one in your retiree town with a daily medicine holder?

After a month settled in, it felt weird to pack up again.  However after that break I’m ready to be moving again, to stop working and to explore.  Onwards to more adventure!

I may have been in Singapore for the set up of Moon Festival but I find myself in a tiny village in southern Hungary instead for a harvest festival.  Perhaps more confusingly, it is a German minority festival with a gypsy theme.  What I was excited about though is that the community gets together to make puppets, parade down the streets eating and drinking, and make Hungarian desserts.

We arrived the day before the festival to help with the retes (strudel) making.  One of the grandmas told me villages used to get together and do this during weddings.  Then she told me I should marry a nice Hungarian lad so they could hold a retes making party for me.  Well, hot damn, that’s the first time all year anyone’s had a benefit for me with their proposed weddings.  It was even more endearing when she brought homemade langos for everyone as a snack.  I ran back and forward between the retes making and decking the culture hall dance room out with crepe paper streamers and grapevines.  And here I thought I’d never use my middle school dance decorating skills again.

All good festivals start with grandmas around a giant pot on the stove.

And what’s the only thing better than one grandma cooking? A whole village’s worth!

Kneading at the speed of light. I seriously don’t get how they pull knead like that.

The dough rests before being pulled to stretch over the entire table. They then pull off the extra bits off the edges and fold up the edges using the tablecloth.

The dough is brushed with butter (or margarine) and sour cream. See the tablecloth through the paper thin dough?

Next you fill the dough with tasty things like cheese, apples, or in this case cherries.

This one is being filled with marrow (squash) and poppy seeds. That grandma chuckled that you aren’t passing a drug test anytime soon.

Using the tablecloth to roll up the retes.

Then you cut and put the segments on a tray.

Last is the most important step, you pause, to sing dirty songs in Hungarian and have a few shots of palinka.  See the mischievous looks on their faces?

Then you repeat the process until you’ve filled an entire room full of trays of retes.

That you throw into the wood fired outdoor oven to bake.

Then when they come out burnt, all the grandmas fight a good bit about who did what wrong.

The next day we showed up early to help with the kurtoskalacs, a chimney shaped cake cooked over an open fire.  The bread is doused in sugar and caramelizes into a crispy exterior and soft interior.  I personally needed a little coffee to get going this early in the morning.

Kneading large amounts of dough by hand, the hard work intensive Hungarian way of doing things.

I had quite a bit of help to get from wet, shaggy dough to this lovely ball. My forearms hurt after a while. I’m not cut out to be a Hungarian grandmother. I can’t knead and I don’t smoke or drink nearly enough.

After letting the yeasty dough rise you roll it out.

Then you cut it into strips and wrap it around a bunch of buttered tubes.

If you can roll a bacon wrapped hot dog, you can roll a kurtoskalacs. I realize that may not be a common skill, but that’s how I roll.

Then in typical healthy Hungarian fashion, you brush yet more butter on it before rolling the whole thing in sweet powder.

Finished kurtoskalacs with poppy seed, chocolate, nut and vanilla sugar coatings ready for some wood fire.

Then we retired back to the farm to rest before the afternoon’s parade and activities.

The town and culture hall were decked out in grapes, grapevines, paper streamers, and slightly terrifying scarecrow-like puppets. This one in particular seems to have a soft spot for box wine and mini-Heineken kegs.

First order of business? Put on a traditional Hungarian skirt over my jeans. The two cups of wine help.

The townsfolk dressed in not particularly politically correct dark face to be gypsies. I’m not sure why cross dressing was necessary.

The other normally dressed townsfolk came on carts pulled by not always willing horses and donkeys.

The harvest festival is to celebrate the year’s goods. This is a wine press making must (grape juice).

Each house hands out things made from harvested goods. This is zsiroskenyer, fresh bread covered in goose or duck fat, paprika and some red onions. The Hungarian trinity is fat, paprika and meat. Other houses handed out various baked goods.

Some houses had wine or palinka, a strong fermented fruit liquor. This house had both maize palinka and red/white wines.

I took a more careful look at the decoration on the table. Well, these Hungarian grandmas are saucier than I thought!

Then everyone retired to the culture house to watch some music and dancing. I appreciate that dressing like a gypsy means putting on face paint and leather pants.

This time I passed on doing folk dancing in a circle and I unfortunately did partake in the local liquor again.  Perhaps the high amount of Hungarian techno both days and fanny packs just didn’t do it for me.  I didn’t plan for this festival but it has turned out pretty darned well.  Whenever I’ve had a little too much energy now I can try making traditional Hungarian pastries.  Until then, I’m going to eat my heart out here.

Western new year usually makes me cranky and worried about making big, expensive plans.  The Thai people have gotten it down.  They’ve mixed spring break, new years, and in Chiang Mai at least, a moat filled with water and a city full of water guns and buckets to make a great holiday.  I see why all the backpackers told me to come to this town for the new year.  There were concert stages everywhere and the moat was lined with cars, food stalls and so much festivity that instead of grass or moat, you just saw hoards of people.  I don’t have many pictures as everything was getting absolutely drenched.  I did appreciate the people who duct taped plastic bags around their camera lens and arms.  They looked like Zoolander-esque hand models.

Over the course of three days I wandered the length of the town moat getting soaked many times over.  What started as a gentle bathing with scented water of Buddha statues and of your elders has turned into the biggest water massacre ever.  I had a nice chat with a monk in a big temple.  A little girl soaked me with water but then beckoned me over to put talcum powder on my cheeks.  I got adopted by a Thai family for a day when I wandered up to their store trying to buy food.  Next thing I knew, I was being plied with an endless supply of rice noodles, beer and homemade coconut wine.  You aren’t acting like a Thai person until you’ve crammed more than two people on a motorbike.  For Songkran, you aren’t acting like a Thai person until you cram an entire family into a pick up truck to have a giant mobile waterfight on the moat roads.  I got to do both with this family and it was a blast.  The rest of the days I wandered the moat eating every five minutes.  Of particular note, the Thais generally respected when I was eating or drinking and would avoid soaking my food and head during this period.  Most foreigners were not this bright or polite, but more on that later.  I was at a distinct disadvantage any time I shot anyone as I brought down the wrath of whole smiling Thai families on me every time I did so.  It was a lot of fun.

Say hello to my little friend, the fake Super Soaker. I had water gun envy of the people with multiple nozzles.

So how does one get goosebumps for hours in 90+ degree weather?  People put huge ice chunks in their water to freeze it up.  The dirty brown moat water became a welcome warm splash after all the ice water.  I’ve realized the best way to not get targeted by everyone was to follow other high profile targets:

– people in costumes (there were four guys in full SWAT outfits).

– women walking alone (yes, I realize the irony of this statement).

– cars full of people and trash cans full of water.

– women wearing white.

There were definitely a few perverted men who kept shooting at the women wearing light colored clothing and at their chests.  The abundance of hip-hop and Thai pop also fueled a spring break-like atmosphere as I couldn’t understand many songs but you could definitely get the gist.  There were scantily clad (here, scantily clad means some midriff and short shorts for Thai people) women selling beer at most locations.  I’m amused that even out here, I was hearing the some of the same music (Pitbull came on at one point) and the same overused sound clips that I hear in America and every spring break I’ve been to.  I even saw a foam party at one stage.  Unlike when I was in college, I no longer have the endurance to drink as much and found these things amusing for shorter periods of time due to that.

Then my cheap knock off Super Soaker broke so I moved on to this lovely turtle pack. Neither was that effective against the giant buckets of water dumped on me constantly.

The one downside was how many rude foreigners I saw.  I was told, I assume like most backpackers, that this was the place to be.  That means that I saw more people wearing “In The Tubing – Vang Vieng” t-shirts, which is a place where people only show up to get trashed, hurt themselves tubing over shallow water on sharp rocks, and do a lot of drugs.  It was always the foreigners starting days too early, soaking people during rush hour trying to go home.  Often it was foreign guys that were being too serious and aggressive, throwing water in buckets as hard as they could or skulking around like it was World War III.  There was the idiot who screamed “I love you long time” at a poor masseuse in her shop.  There was even one guy who shot a 50 year old bartender while she was behind the bar working.  You aren’t even supposed to have water fights after the sun goes down.  She walked out to punch him in the face, but in a move that made me respect the bar less, they didn’t kick him out.  The front page of a local paper the next day had only one English article talking about drunken foreigners in bikinis (very conservative here) causing trouble.  I wish this isn’t what we brought with us to join the celebration.

I had a wonderful time during the new year but I can see how it can be too much for most people.  It’s a lot of drinking and loud, obnoxious behavior for the otherwise rather quiet and polite Thai people.  I’d only recommend coming if you do like a spring break atmosphere or a large group in which to do your own thing.  You literally cannot step outside anywhere in the moat and not get soaked in the four days (or five/six for foreigners) of Songkran.  Happy Songkran everyone, and a third happy new years for the year to me.

The onslaught of beautifully designed modern Seoul peeking behind a rare historical neighborhood.

I came to Seoul for a wedding and just did not know what to expect.  From a rural village wedding in China to what I was told is a fashion show extravaganza in Seoul.  All I knew is that Seoul is a big city.  It has certainly proven to be that.  What I’m surprised by is how well public planning was done or how many buildings and spaces I just stand staring at awe and appreciation of.  Their endless sprawl of buildings is cut by a man made river landscaped with rocks, small waterfalls, well lit waterways and lots of plants.  The river is bordered by interstates, but under those are bike and walking paths with parks, sacred trees, and replanted areas.  The national museum is in a former US park with a gorgeous building and has excellent curation and layout.  It is not until we got to one of the royal palaces that the history of war ravage destruction is more obvious.  Korea has charged forward with  modernization that is certainly more aesthetically appealing and pleasant than anything I experience in China.  There is a dark underside though, as Koreans now work ridiculously long hours and have one of the highest suicide rates in the world (even above Japan’s!)  The hard work turns into some long nights as there is definitely a strong alcohol culture here as well.

The wedding itself was as advertised by my high school friend: fast and like a fashion show.  It was like an American drive thru wedding without a car.  The altar was surrounded by spirals of LED lights, the walkways leading up to it covered in color changing lights and fog machines.  Grooms seem to almost run up he walkway to speed up the process.  At one point, the couple is led to an area where they are in sequence to watch a color changing LED self filling fountain of champagne glasses as they quickly link arms to down a sip of champagne before being handed a knife to cut a slice from a cake a foot away.  It is both impressively and terrifyingly efficient.  The entire ceremony lasted all of 20 minutes as people in the hallway and even in the back talked super loudly.  After the ceremony you are led into a buffet area that may as well be a war zone.  I watched one old Asian lady almost bowl me over carrying two heavily laden plates.  The highlight of this was seeing my lovely friend in a traditional hanbok and watching the next two speed weddings on the televisions spread throughout the eating area.

The view from the hill Seoul Tower is on. The bottom right corner is all the locks that lovers place on the fence before chucking the key over the mountain to hit unsuspecting hikers.

On my last day I tried to go to the Leeum Samsung Museum.  It looked like an interesting mix of modern art and traditional art in a spiffy building.  Alas, I have the worst museum luck and it was closed on Mondays.  Slightly defeated, I dragged my friend up a random path that said “playground” for a kilometer straight up.  We ended up on an large empty road surrounded by police completely confused.  Two seconds later, a giant motorcade of black American cars with American flags drove by.  We can only assume we saw President Obama’s motorcade drive by for the ongoing nuclear summit.  Apparently I will get the closest to the president thousands of miles from either of our homes.  We continued onward and upward, stumbling upon a botanical garden and then the path up to Seoul Tower.  From there, I could see the endless sprawl of the city pocked with random hills of nature.  I came not knowing what to expect but I have ended each day impressed by such a seemingly forward thinking and design-centric city.