It’s the end of an era. Round three.

I recently quit my job. I have two weeks left at the bookstore; the place that’s defined my life when I’ve been living in Canada for the past three years. It’s been both my stepping stone and my crutch. I worked there during my college and University years. I fell in love twice during that time with people I met at the store. A lot of my good friends are book nerds like me. We’d work together all day and go out together all night and it still wasn’t enough. And even ten years later I’m able to walk in the store and see the faces of some of the most amazing people in the world (and some of the worst) laugh and talk about nonsense. Some of my best friends still work there today. They’re people of all ages and walks of life, faiths and reading preferences.

I started working there again when I returned from Korea in the summer of 2011. I had plans to return to Asia and backpack around, but my bank account was lower than I would have liked it to be, so reality hit and I called my old friend, the bookstore, to help me out. And she did. I had six amazing months, made new friends and grew closer with old ones. I had everyone’s support and love when I finally bought my plane ticket back to Asia.

When I returned from that trip I wasn’t even home a week and I was back to my old friend, asking for work. It was a Thursday evening and my boss just smiled and said “I’ll see you Monday”. Then I went off to have coffee and pie with two great friends, fellow book nerds of course. Then a few weeks later I met love number three. So the bookstore let me stay a little longer than planned.

I still work with a lot of the great, hard-working people I worked with last year. I still have amusing, intellectual and silly conversations everyday. But at the end of the day we all work for a big corporation, and sorry to sound like a hippie, but that’s just not my thing. And if the people in charge are starting to reflect more of the bad side of a big company rather than the good, that’s when the little guy (and girl) has to leave. Or else we’ll drain out. Or maybe I’m getting bored and need a challenge. Maybe my pride is getting in the way and I’m just ashamed to tell people who I’m still working at the job I had when I was in college. That’s probably it…so please disregard my previous statement about big corporations 🙂

So the plan is…to spend my days doing what I love. Living everyday to the fullest and putting myself out there and work will come my way, perhaps even a job that I am meant to do. Taxi driver? Travel agent? Butcher? Business executive? Who knows…but that’s the point. I’m not getting anywhere shelving books and waiting for the right time to go back to China (yes, I will go back…someday). I’ve decided to take charge of my life in Canada and made the decision to not have a place to get up and go to every morning. I will choose when I get up. I will decide what to do…until I can no longer pay my minimum balance on my credit card and have to run back to my crutch and beg them for my job back. But it won’t come to that, will it?? When I reflect upon my months of backpacking and all the things that I learned during it, I’m always brought back to my time in Dali. When I was in other cities in China I took my time to wake up and experience another day of finding good food stalls, interesting museums and meeting strangers. And arguing in broken Chinese/English gibberish with cab drivers. But in Dali I rolled out of bed every morning, grunting a little because it was early and I’m NOT a morning person. But then I headed out to the main road (yes, there’s one main road) to catch my bus, walking under the morning sun (yes, it was ALWAYS sunny) listening to my iPod and I didn’t want to be anywhere else in the world. I crossed the street to catch my bus that drove through the village, where we usually caught the small town traffic (a.k.a trucks filled with pigs to be dropped off at the market) and finally stopping by the river, where I could walk to Jolie’s yoga studio. An hour and a half of rooftop yoga and spiritual conversation, followed by homemade, locally picked breakfast and Yunnan coffee, I had experienced more happy things in the first three hours of my day then I usually do in a week.

When your life doesn’t seem to illustrate some of that happiness you need, things need to change. So I decided to change things.

Eek. Let’s hope this works.

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Conquering the Trans-Canada Trail

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Plane tickets are expensive. And by September of 2012 I had bought my fair share for that year, or perhaps a lifetime?? Regardless of all that time and money spent on elong.net or travelocity.com I was out of cash and needed to get to Montreal. I checked for prices on Greyhound.ca. Advance bus tickets were pretty cheap, and for economic reasons, I had no other choice. Also, how could I live with myself, having spent so much time traveling around China and other parts of Asia without even giving my own country a chance? I’d seen all kinds of Chinese, Korean, Malaysian and Indonesian countryside through the window of a train or bus. Canada at least deserved similar treatment. As a traveler it wouldn’t have been moral of me to hop a plane on one side of a country and land on the other a mere five hours later, stuffed with a Quiznos sub and being none the wiser about the beautiful country that issues me a passport every five years. We travellers have a code, you know. It’s like a religion. And being religious myself, I couldn’t pass up the challenge of taking the road less traveled.
“Thou shalt take the longest, most gruelling route possible. Thou shalt speaketh to strangers, meet new mates of the soul and eateth the grubbiest grub thy terrain provides for you. And thou shalt be inspired.”

So, bus it was. Three days long and honestly, I could have kept going all the way to Newfoundland, but maybe next time. Best $127 dollars I’ve ever spent.

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A long and teary-eyed goodbye from my best friend at the Vancouver bus terminal I boarded the sleepy bus to Calgary. That was my first big stop. We were scheduled to arrive in Harper’s Canada around 10 a.m. It was six at night by the time we left Vancouver and most passengers were already passed out, equipped and huddled in their sleeping bags, taking up two seats. Lucky for me there was a pair of seats left at the back, and I didn’t have to wake up a groggy student traveler and let them know our long night wasn’t gonna be as comfortable as we hoped. The sun had set by the time we were out of the city and I started to nap, taking one last look out the window and said goodbye to B.C, sad that I’d be missing the view of bountiful western Canada. Next time.

I was going “home” for a visit. This made the long haul back “home” not so long…I saw it merely as a part of the adventure I was still in the middle of. It wasn’t a last gasp type thing, one last grope before settling in to the get a job, get a man, get a marriage, get some kids thing that apparently must be part of every one’s reality.
I’m not saying I don’t want to eventually “settle down”, just not now, and don’t tell me what to do, loser.
That was the biggest question when I returned home. “Was that your last trip?” “Are you done for now?” I don’t even know what “done” means. I shouldn’t vent though. I have lovely friends and co-workers who support whatever adventure I choose to go on. So what I’m saying is if I thought the Trans-Canada bus trip was the “end” for me, I would have grown increasingly nauseous and crazy with every mile (sorry, kilometre) and probably would have gotten off and never looked back somewhere in Saskatchewan.

I thought I was gonna be the only crazy for my three days on the road. The Trans-Canada road, to be exact. This was the only thing that made me nervous when I was in Vancouver munching on gluten-free organic whatever, and my thoughts drifted to my upcoming cross-country trip. People would be hopping on and off and I’d be alone. I was getting tired of alone. But thank you Canada, you’re filled with many crazies. You’re filled with gentle, yet eclectic creatures and I’ve never been more proud to carry around your passport. (No, I don’t put a Canadian flag on my backpack. Who does that?)
When I boarded the second bus from Calgary, Alberta, most passengers were headed to Toronto, and a few to Montreal or Ottawa. I’d never been to that part of Canada. I’d just seen the Rockies. We drove by them and I wanted more, but we were headed east, and I guess I’ll return one day. Serge, my seat buddy for day number two was headed to my city of Montreal. We shared our stories and Lays potato chips. I was often distracted by the blue sky and yellow ground before my eyes. Serge had seen it a few times, he said. Lots of people who work out west do the bus trip a few times a year. And most of the time it isn’t just the economic factor. “Why would I just fly across and not see anything?” Asked my seat buddy for day number three, Chris. He’d just come from four months picking fruit in B.C. We talked as the sun rose over western Ontario and passing one of the great lakes. “Look around, how could I miss this?”

He was right. Sigh. I was home.

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I had four months of living on the road in a backpack behind me, not to mention seven months of memories at the bookstore at home in Montreal; with all the drama, growth, losing friends while gaining new ones, and a new-found strength from wandering on my own that I wasn’t fully aware of yet. I got off at Busan Station, went up the ramp and through the terminal, passing a lot of businesses I recognized. There was the Happy Zone waiting area (only in Korea), Baskin Robbins, Dunkin’ Donuts, the Twosome Place, Paris Baguette, places me and my friend Jean would go to get a snack before rushing for our Seoul-bound train after a long workweek.
Nothing beats a Friday night trip, by the way. Rushing out of your weekday life, packing up a few things and meeting up with the people who matter most to you at that moment in time to have an adventure on the two days of freedom you have a week. But this time it was a grey, muggy and welcoming afternoon (a typical sweaty summer day in South Korea) in the balmy city of Busan in the south. I was alone, and it had been over a year since I left Busan; the city I lived, loved and worked in for 14 months.
I left Montreal at the beginning of March and with my backpack I saw the end of winter in Shanghai, an entire spring in over ten provinces in China (complete with plum blossoms, cherry blossoms, palm trees, and then typhoons in Hong Kong,) to a sweltering Chinese summer. I shared my last few weeks in the country with bubbly Chinese twenty-somethings on their two-week vacation in July. And my good friend Maria, who spent her first week of vacation showing me around Beijing as well as a weekend in Tianjin. But China was getting too hot and summer camp season was fast approaching in Korea. My good friends and co-workers from Busan were in the middle of their second teaching contract and hooked me up with a summer gig at their hagwon (private English school). They found me a good deal on a place to sublet in the busy, beautiful, beach neighbourhood of Gwangan-li. Jean was also planning on returning to Busan for two weeks before a solo end of summer South East Asian excursion. How could I NOT go? A job, old friends, and an old home? So, after unsuccessfully nailing down a boat ticket from Tianjin to Incheon (summer vacation time in China=impossible for a traveling foreigner to get a ticket to anywhere) I did the expensive thing and bought a last-minute flight from Beijing to Seoul.
After what felt like my hundredth Chinese train ride, we arrived at Dongzhimen station in Beijing. I hugged Maria goodbye and told the Mainland I would see her soon, whenever that might be. For lots of departures, it’s always “see you again”. In Chinese, goodbye or再见 (zaijian) literally translates as see you again. It took me a few years of wandering to really get this. To really understand that you never do know when it’s goodbye, or that there never really is goodbye. With people who matter to you and countries that stick with you, it’s all one big zaijian.

My excitement for returning home to Korea overpowered any feelings of loss I had for China. On a financial level I couldn’t really turn down a job, even if I did have to pay to cross a sea to get to it. Also the thought of waking up in the same space for an entire month, in a bustling area like Gwangan-li Beach nonetheless, made me giddy. I could unpack! I could buy food, and put the food in a fridge. I would have a private sit-down toilet at my disposal every morning. The notion seemed all too surreal after four and a half months wandering around Mainland China. These were all great reasons to return to Korea but mostly, I just missed it. I wanted to go back for a dose of the amazing life I made for myself, and what South Korea made for me during my time there. And some soju.

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As I walked out of Busan Station and into the city, I noticed that the smells were the same, the smiles seemed bigger and things brighter. Something is always developing in South Korea and the neon lights, high-rise apartments, a new cute themed-cafe and department stores pop-up overnight. They stretch up all the way to the DMZ before North Korea. And even when you didn’t think they’d be able to build another high-rise, they do. And it still doesn’t stand as tall as the mountains, which rest so calmly as the backdrop. In almost every city along the peninsula it’s that similar scene, where the chaos of the new concrete jungle blend with the lush mountains. Maybe there’s a temple on the mountain that’s been there for hundreds of years. You look at both; the 40-storey LG apartment building and the green mountain with a Buddha hiding amongst it’s bushes and wonder what land you’ve arrived in.

Then the few moments happened when I transitioned from traveller to a “normal” citizen. I had my backpack on but I didn’t need to have anything prepared and written down in Chinese or Asian characters. I knew my way around. I knew the voice of the subway lady announcing the stops in three (sometimes four) languages. I wasn’t the only foreigner in the subway car, in the subway station and walking the street.

In a metropolitan city like Busan or Seoul, Westerners have been coming to teach English for almost two decades. The big city population are pretty unfazed by a round-eye, especially the young generation. No one stared, no one wondered why I had a big backpack. Koreans travel all the time. They spend weekends hiking mountains or flying to Jeju, their subtropical island to the south where most of the fresh ingredients in their unbeatable cosmetic products come from. I eventually went to Jeju and learned a lot about it, even how a big portion of Mainland China actually owns the land in Jeju. But that’s another story.

When I got off at Gwangan-li station I walked up from the platform as if I’d never left, but somehow longing for the chaos and claustrophobia of Chinese subways. Sometimes coming “home” isn’t that sigh of relief you expect it to be, or want it to be. But at least there are some friendly faces to see at the end of the day. I knew which exit to take; I didn’t need to spend time scrambling around trying to find a map I could read…do I go West? East? North? I walked down to Gwangan-li beach as if it was a year prior. I found my new apartment with my new key thoughtfully put in the mail-slot for me, checked into my new place, showered and UNPACKED! I was back home, and had a new home, even if it was only for five weeks. Then I left to spend the evening with old friends.

By the way, I’ve been a vegetarian for over ten years. The first time I was in China, back in 2009, I ate all kinds of animal things I never thought I would, in the name of politeness and also in the name of survival. You order plain rice in China and there’s likely to be pork bits in it. Don’t get me started on what you get if you order tofu. But I didn’t let that experience break me. When I moved to South Korea a few months later I went back to being “vegetarian”. I could afford to because I had a paid teaching job, and I lived in a developed city with all kinds of food options, even a chain of vegetarian restaurant called the Loving Hut. And my good friend Norah and I loved to go for Vietnamese veggie wraps at Green Hanoi. So many options, so little time.

BUT during big group dinners when my friends and co-workers indulged in juicy barbecue, I stuck to the rice and greens. Some seafood too. And those boiled eggs. So the top-notch Korean dishes like Samgyupsalgalbi and bulgogi (all involving fatty delicious parts of the pig and cow) I left to my imagination. But there I was, having just finished China trip number two where I returned to my old ways and ate anything that looked edible, regardless if it was kosher or not. I wasn’t stopping there, I decided. I ate pork in China. Heck I even went to a KFC. Korea deserved the same treatment. I wanted to truly respect its unique culture (food) and live it up Gangnam style. So I ate meat, in Korea. It was so amazing that I didn’t even feel (too) bad about it.

Describe the rest of the summer.

Juicy barbecue, great friends and beach time. Who ever said you can’t go home again? You can, even in the middle of a backpacking trip.

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