2017: Without Comment

Presented without comment: My favourite photographs from 2017. I’m working on a post about the year, but this is a good start. 2017 was packed with great stuff, and had opportunities for some of the best photographs I’ve ever taken. I’m ready to explore some more in 2018.

For reference:

  • January-April 12 = Busan and Seoul, South Korea
  • April 13th-23rd = Vietnam
  • April 23-June 13th = USA (Colorado and North Carolina)
  • June 13th – September 9th = Iceland
  • September 15th – Present = Vietnam














Coffee Taste Test – Four Preparations

I am not a coffee afficionada, because my brain only has so much space (and it’s been taken up with beer knowledge). I do love coffee, though. I like it when travelling, and have found ways to make it differ greatly on this little blue planet.


Vietnamese –> Drip –> French Press

In Italy, the moka and the cafeterria reign supreme. In Boulder, the french press is popular. In South America, instant is the way to go. In Korea, one can use a drip coffee maker if you are common enough to want to make your coffee at home. In Vietnam, they use a special silver filter.

Which one is best? Or at least, which is best for me?

Time for a side-by-side taste test. All these coffee types were made with the same coffee (Peet’s Robust Roast, or as my Mama calls it, ‘Crack’). That excludes the instant espresso, which is Medaglia D’Oro brand from the Latino foods section. Where’s the Moka? I can’t find it. Maybe it’s in Korea somewhere.



Boom, done! 10 seconds to fresh espresso. Just add hot water. It’s so convenient, and I know why I normally keep one of these on my desk if I happen to be working an office job. At $4 for 2oz., it’s also the most cost efficient. It’s grassy and burnt in taste, but it has a great little foam if you pour the hot water hard.

Korean-Style Drip


This brought back memories of Busan mornings. The drawback: you have to buy filters. The good part: it makes the biggest cup. The result is a lighter, smooth coffee with a certain amount of slickness in the mouth. This process seemed to bring out a cinnamon aroma in this coffee, too.

French Press


Hard to believe that this was once my favourite coffee maker. It’s light, and burnt on the first sip. The second sip is milder, but I just cannot get over the debris left in the coffee. I wrote, “SANDY” in my tasting notes. No longer a favourite.



This is my new obsession. Vietnamese coffee is wonderful and thick. There is nothing better than a coffee next to the busy street on a hot Hanoi afternoon. I am not yet an expert at making it, but this attempt was concentrated and thick. There is remarkably less aroma compared to the other preparations, and it’s earthy. My favourite.


Even though I’m back freelancing and need energy to sit in front of the laptop for eight hours a day, I don’t need four cups of coffee. I poured some into cups to put outside with incense, in true Vietnamese fashion. Thank you, gods of coffee, for such abundance.

Beer in Situ: Seoul Double Feature

We spent a night in Seoul on our way out of town, and of course stopped by a couple craft beer places. We stayed in Insadong, which is a beautiful artsy neighbourhood that feels like Old Seoul.


I even got to play around in a hanbok for the afternoon!


It’s a wonderful part of town.

The two craft beer spots we went to were great, but the second one was greater in my opinion. Let’s get to it!


Brew 3.14π

Address: 39 Donhwamun-ro 11na-gil, Ikseon-dong, Jongno-gu, 서울특별시

It’s hard to see the sign in the picture because this place is down a dark alleyway. Luckily, it’s also in Seoul. Therefore, there is no worry whatsoever that you will run into anything except a stray kitty or two down there.

Brew 3.14 is a pizza, chicken, and craft beer joint. Or joints? There are two small bars right next to each other, and the bartenders text back and forth to fill orders. We tried several of the beers and they were reasonably fresh and well-presented. I wished that they would pour a little bigger, but it’s typical.

We had a great time listening to the loud pop music videos on the TV and admiring the collection of money from all over the world on the wall. Overall, it’s good. We had just eaten a lot of 삼겹살 (pork belly barbecue), so we didn’t eat the pizza. It smelled good, though.


IMG_6695기와탭룸 Kiwa Taproom

This is a great little spot. We took pictures in the hanbok down the small alleyway, which opens up into a traditional hanok house that’s beer converted into a taphouse. I loved the mixture of old and new, with the gorgeous architecture and the Korean-style seating with low tables.


I had a Gorilla Nut Brown Ale and Russell had two fresh IPAs. They don’t currently brew their own beer to serve (as far as we could tell), but the owners and servers are clearly obsessed about being authentically craft-oriented. It was very refreshing to be in such a great, authentic spot when even San Miguel lager is being labelled as ‘craft’ in Seoul these days.


Wholly great. I wish it could be my local. Glad I could have a Gorilla brew again before moving on from Korea.



“Can I tell you something?”

I’m outside one of my toughest classes, having just been told that the kids inside are crying due to being (justly) scolded.

“I’m so proud that you did your speech this morning. Remember how when I got here, you couldn’t read very much at all?”

This is a student from the class with the following description: can’t sit in a seat for more than five minutes, little to no grit or resilience, five-six years old, one of whom could not find the pages in the book when I arrived (but now can!!!) and one who likes to climb on the table and kick the others in the face. Not hard, but still.

Of course, I love them still.

“Yes….” says the student. She understands everything I say to her, having spent a long time living in the USA.

“I am so impressed with you. High five! Seriously, though. I cannot believe how much progress you’ve made.”

The bright, humble smile this particular student possesses gleams into existence on her face. Only I can see it, in this passing moment between insane amounts of stress.

“I want you to know,” she turns that sunshine on me, looking up into my face from her standing level, around my knees, “This is the whole reason why I love being a teacher.”

DO I love being a teacher?

I do. I don’t. I bang my head on the door of the toilet at the school, in the briefest of moments I can both sit down for fifteen seconds out of a 9.5 hour day and perform a necessary bodily function. I plead. I beg. I shout. I cry (not normally out where anyone can see). I am entering my sixth year of being a teacher, and I am in a situation that reminds me daily of the first time I was called “Miss Coleen.”

In my first school, in Patagonia, I had access to the copy machine only when it had paper and ink. And when I could convince the janitor to copy something. And when it was connected to power. And when the time permitted. And when it was in service.

Let’s be honest. I had no copy machine.

I remember writing out worksheets by hand for my students with a red magic marker. I remember crying in front of my class and telling them that I was a volunteer, and than meant I wanted to be there. I remember them telling me that they didn’t believe I wasn’t being paid to teach them.

I remember paying out of pocket for the services of a print shop down the road from my homestay, feeling my stomach fall out and land near my shoes to be kicked along the pavement at the sight of a stiff, dead, orange kitten outside. It was maybe 6 July 2011, and I was about to leave Escuela 5 (Juan de Ladriellos) in Puerto Natales.

My very first day, I had to bend the law and my volunteering contract to cover a class for my colleague. It was Septimo A. It was the hardest class in the school. Seventh graders are, to this day, a challenge to me. But that day I walked in with no prep time, no lesson plan, no Spanish, and no prior training to be a teacher (excluding the prefunctory TEFL Certificate I had received an A for on the Internet).

I didn’t die, perhaps surprisingly!

But it was a tone-setter. The school was tough on veteran teachers. I was a newb with idealistic tendencies, who was an outsider and also always the good girl in classes growing up. I realised that I cannot easily anticipate the ways that students will go off the rails or try to hurt one another, or subvert my lessons, because I simply never dared to be naughty.

There was a three-day period where I almost gave up in Chile. I couldn’t find the strength to eat or get out of bed. I half-feigned illness and laid in bed, unable to sleep or even close my eyes for days, with the National Geographic Channel on 24/7. At the time, it seemed a perfectly logical response. Looking back, I was in serious distress. I made it through, decided to keep going, and went back to the school.

On my last day, I was mobbed by students who nearly knocked me over in the assembly called to confer upon me an honourary certificate. I remember tearing up in front of everyone, and people cheering my name. In some slow-motion from a movie, I remember the kids rushing me and shouting in a newly-minted teacher’s voice for them to be careful. Don’t hurt each other. Be nice. No, stop that. Be good. Be good. Be good.

In some Korean hagwons, we live a teacher’s nightmare.

There is no time to prepare your lessons, so they turn out like shit. You try to make them fun, and the kids respond by becoming so competitive that they are liable to start self-harming if they believe that there was some small slight to them.

Taking a bullshit, made-up, inherently arbitrary “point” away induces paroxysms of rage and ear-splitting bellows.

Many students carry a mobile phone around their necks or on their wrists, able to text mummy if teacher is even one second late to class or tells them off for being rude to another student. That way, parents can swoop in to watch the CCTV in real-time of our classes, without speaking to us or asking why their student was put in the Time Out Chair. Heaven forbid they should actually ask me about their child’s seeming inability to control himself or what swearword precisely he used to be sent outside. When you ask about why the moms are all so overbearing, you get the response that they are “very sensitive.” Every. Last. One.

Students are expected to be instantly fluent, and instantly perfectly behaved, and instantly copacetic. I have kindergarten students taking a goddamned TOEFL test! Yes, the one for college entrance! A four-year-old who was born in 2012 and cannot consistently use the toilet without assistance should definitely memorise a three-minute speech about animal defense mechanisms and predation behaviour. Yes, even the oldest have not yet mastered the mystery that is shoelace-tying, but they should analyse and regurgitate university-level news articles.

A familiar strain from Chile comes through….we’re often out of paper, and there was until today but one computer shared between six teachers. For a week in December, we had no paper to print or copy, and no books. I said, “Fuck it (internally, obviously), let’s make snowflakes and chat for two hours.” I buy and hoard my own supplies. I save scraps of paper to a fault. I find myself writing out worksheets by hand once more.

But that smile. That light.

It’s true, what I told that student today. No matter how insane it all gets, or how little time I have to pee, or how few pencils I have. No matter how much I feel the muscle knot I carry with me in my left shoulder, remnant of those three bedbound days in Patagonia. No matter how much I kick myself for shouting at a preschooler.

That light is like a drug. I am a teaching addict, and I chase the dragon every day. One second of that light, and it all seems worth it.

2016: May All Years Be This Good

It’s been a long and crazy year. Let’s start with some basic statistics.

  • Countries lived in: China, USA, Iceland, and Korea
  • Jobs Held: Senior Teacher, full-time volunteer on a Scout Camp, cleaning lady, Teacher
  • Toilets Scrubbed: More than 300 (conservative estimate)
  • Pairs of Shoes Worn Through by Work/Walking: At least four (RIP leathers with the holes)
  • Uniforms Worn: Two (EF and Ulfjotsvatn)
  • Weeks Spent Back ‘Home’: Seven

The year began in a crappy bar in the Koreatown of Shanghai, out far from the Bund where we lived in Minhang. No one else seemed to mark the passing of midnight, when 2015 became 2016. We made a toast and attempted to order a single round of tequila shots. We were served sweet Vermouth in its place, the bartender either not knowing what tequila is or deliberately serving us laowai something weaker.

This year, we got the tequila! For free! With a community of other waygooks from around the world, with Chinese lanterns and fireworks on Gwangalli Beach outside. It was a great New Year’s Eve.

This post will pull the best photos from our year of nomadery, from each month. I started out saying it would only be one photo per month, but we did a really good job packing in amazing experiences. I simply couldn’t do it.



We started out the year by taking a high-speed train to Nanjing, the site of one of the worst massacres in history during the second World War. It was a sobering experience to be in the place it happened exactly 70 years ago, in the freezing cold grayness of winter.

Nanjing itself is a great city and fun to visit. We also did some hiking on Purple Mountain, which would be a theme for the year.


Shanghai was the coldest it had been in nearly 30 years early in January, and a lot of pipes froze. We could see our breath in our apartment every day.




Chinese New Year came on February 8, and we actually got some time off from the English Mines. We used the time to relax in Minhang and to finally visit the theme park right near our apartment. It was a great time, and one of the very (VERY) few clear days in Shanghai.



Massive Shanghai Everbright Convention Centre



Five words: The Great Wall of China. Norovirus notwithstanding, it was one of the best hikes of the year. Up the backside of the wall, onto the Wild Wall, and down.



Handmade Xiao Long Bao

April gets three pictures and a video, because it’s the month when we were finally free of the bonds in Shanghai and went out to explore China. I took the HSK 2 on the 16th to test my Mandarin (I passed!) and I learned how to make Xiao Long Bao, a traditional Shanghainese food.

After our contracts at EF ended on the 23rd, we moved out of our apartment and went on the road. Terra Cotta Warriors and Huashan Mountain were absolutely the coolest.IMG_1943


They also leave messages, which are beautiful in contrast to the natural colors.

Here’s a video from the crazy gondolas at the mountain.


We started May on a beach in Sanya, China and ended it in Iceland! In the meantime, I spent some times in Colorado and established “Boulder Day” to celebrate the town of my birth. Patchouli required.




We travelled to the Westfjords of Iceland and worked on a Scout Camp as volunteers. It wasn’t always warm, but the midnight sun was absolutely incredible. We spent our days working hard in the kitchen and on camp, but the scenery was incredible.


We also swam in the Greenland sea.

On June 23, two months to the day after we left our Shanghai jobs, the United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union. It was a harbringer of things to come in November, and I felt an abiding sense of dread after that day.




Our trusty tent


Like an alien world


þórsmörk and the Westman Islands to begin with, and a big fat Scout meetup in the middle. It was so wonderful to be a part of that time at the Úlfljótsvatn | Útilífsmiðstöð skáta Camp, where we danced with an open-air concert and cleaned so many toilets that I lost count.


Camping in the Westman Islands

It actually started to get dark at night for a little bit around the time of the moot. We played archery and swam in the lake most days, and had a tightknit ‘village’ of volunteers and coworkers around us. I was apparently too busy during the moot to take many photos!

These were days filled with beauty and wonder every single moment. Life-fulfilling and values-affirming days. I felt a renewed commitment to this nomadic life that we continue to choose each day. Validation.




With our staffmates after going through a lava tube


Whale Watching in Akureyri


In August, the road that leads to the Icelandic Highlands finally opens up. Ryan and Emma came to visit us in Iceland and we went to the top of the island. We also jumped off a bridge for the second time of three into the lake. jumping

You could feel autumn coming quickly at that time, and our wonderful Icelandic adventure came to a close with a big staff dinner at Ulfjotsvatn. It was like graduation and Christmas at once, and when we walked out after saying, “See you later” to everyone we’d spent the last three months with, it was very dark for the first time in months.

We must go back. 13920483_10153857799300878_7446863482708074595_o14206140_10104278171207503_8732950961375828333_o


img_4901img_5059I don’t have many pictures from September, because I was biding time waiting for a Korean visa to come through and mostly doing odd jobs around town. I made a macrame wall hanging with my excess time and did a mini-travel in Colorado on the Peak-to-Peak highway.

On 23 September, exactly five months after we left our jobs in Shanghai, we arrived in Korea to begin living in Busan.



Our daily grind at school is tough tough tough. We have a rough time staying healthy and it’s hard to see the weekends as the light at the end of the workweek tunnel. Wednesdays are particularly dark for me these days.

Luckily, Busan kicks arse! We have so much to do when we are not working. We hike almost every weekend, go to the beach at least once a week, and have a baseball stadium less than a block from our place. In October we got settled, set up our tiny 200 sq. ft. apartment, and began exploring. We saw old friends, and I went in the sea on my 29th birthday.


I also voted in the 2016 Election, and sent my ballot back to the USA.



On 5th November, we had our own Fireworks Night here in Busan. I burned Donald J. Trump in effigy on the beach, in place of The Guy.


Then the election came and I could be found with my face against the floor in the locked teacher’s closet, frantically listening to NPR’s livestream with my heart thudding out of my chest. Trump was elected, and I wept on our rooftop in Busan. In response to the world seeming to go insane, we started hiking more and more.


We started climbing a mountain almost every weekend, and loving it!



The grind was really getting to us at this point. Miraculously, we received the greatest gifts that ESL teachers in Asia could ever have: nine days off work for Christmas. It’s been a wonderful Staycation here in Busan, and we spent the time off reveling in the amazing city we managed to come live in.


We went to Taejongdae and Iggidae, and led our first hike after being trained in Iceland to guide groups on outdoors activities. We climbed Jangsan Mountain in spite of the landmines!

On the 31st, we hiked across a mountain to the beach. We ended 2016 in Beached Bar on Gwangalli Beach, surrounded by a group of other migrant ESL teachers who were mostly strangers and yet seemed so very familiar, dancing and singing. It was so much fun, and felt just perfect as a New Year’s Eve. More importantly, it finally felt like we are a part of the community here.

At the end of a year like 2016, many have been tempted to say that it is a great thing it’s over. They are saying that it was a terrible year, and that we should be happy it is gone. With the deaths of so many celebrities (which should have been overshadowed by the terrible turns of events in the six-year-long war of attrition in Syria) Brexit, Donald Trump as President-elect, violent attacks in the US and Europe, and two very hard jobs sandwiching the amazing middle of 2016…I understand that feeling.

But 2016 was so incredible for us, and it brought equal parts joy to the pain for me personally. It made my different life choices, hard for many to understand at times, valid. There were many times I found myself saying to my husband, “THIS is why we do what we do!”


The hardest moment being going from a close, warm community in Iceland overnight to being back in Louisville and separated by the Atlantic from my husband. At the airport in Reykjavik, we stood on a lawn in the sun and wind. We didn’t have a set date for when we would see each other again. One job in Korea had already fallen through. We had to let go of each other and take the next step blindly. There were so many stomach-lurching global events, but that moment of having to watch my husband walk up the terminal stairs was hardest on me.

We live in interesting times, but I don’t see it as the ‘curse’ that people always say is a Chinese proverb. 2017 brings new things to us all.

2016 was true adventure. I dare to hope that every year may be this good.