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Category Archives: travel

Short Takes

Because I’m on the road, and there’s no time for long takes.

Francis MarionWhere Did the Fox Live? Right here. I’m on a work trip in South Carolina, home of one of my boyhood heroes, Revolutionary War commando Francis Marion, aka “The Swamp Fox.” This region is full of marshy pine forests where Marion and his irregulars led the Redcoats a merry chase and employed innovative guerrilla tactics to sustain Colonial resistance in an area that had been practically given up as lost to the British. The U.S. Army Rangers trace their origins, in part, to Francis Marion.

His life and military career are not free of controversy—he was a slave owner and participated in a brutal campaign against the Cherokee during the French and Indian War, details absent from the laudatory, romantic biography I found in my school library.

avatar_rift_1Still Saving the World: NetGalley is a cool service that connects reviewers to publishers by providing access to electronic advance review copies of new books—including graphic novels and comic books. Dark Horse Comics has been running a popular graphic novel series based on Avatar: The Last Airbender for some time now that continues the story where the television show left off, and I snagged a NetGalley review copy of the latest installment, The Rift, Part One, written by Gene Luen Yang (whose 2-volume graphic novel Boxers and Saints I reviewed here a few weeks ago) and drawn by Japanese comic art team Gurihiru.                .

Aang, Katara, Sokka, Toph, and a trio of Air Acolytes witness the seating of the first coalition government with representatives from both Fire and Earth Nations, then they travel to a sacred site to celebrate an ancient Air Nomad festival—but trouble’s waiting for them. Aang runs headlong into an unexpected conflict between his desire to resurrect his lost Air Nomad heritage and his vision of global unity among the Nations, and Toph stumbles into emotional tension between her past and present lives. It’s an intelligent, entertaining story that ends with a juicy cliffhanger.

Story, characters, and art preserve the feel and appeal of the original and continue to nicely fill the gap between ATLA and The Legend of Korra while weaving a tale that stands quite well on its own merits and strikes a good balance between thoughtful interaction among the characters and dynamic action. The Rift, Part One hit the streets just a few days ago—if you’re a fan, or if you’re simply looking for a solid fusion of comic art and storytelling in an intriguing speculative universe, pick up a copy.

nodamecantabileMusic Hath Charms: Hardworking, prickly perfectionist Shinichi Chiaki wants to achieve his dream of becoming a symphony conductor, but his abrasive introversion is holding him back from greatness. Lazy, childish Megumi “Nodame” Noda is a piano prodigy, but it looks like she’ll never come close to fulfilling her potential. Can these two misfits somehow supply each other’s missing pieces and make beautiful music together?

Not a chance.

Well, maybe there’s a glimmer of hope. Nodame Cantabile is a cute romantic comedy filled with wonderful classical music, but this anime suffers from stereotyped characters and uneven animation quality. Megumi is embarrassingly ditzy and infantile through most of the early episodes, though she gains depth as the story develops, and Shinichi begins as such a dismissive jerk that he threatens to be completely unsympathetic, though he also gains humanity and likability as we learn more about him. Bottom line, there’s an infectious thread of joy and love for the masterpieces of classical music woven into this series, and given a little patience, it’s a fun watch. 24 episodes, English-dubbed, free-streaming on Crackle.

jesus-of-nazareth-2On the Down Low: Lent is here again, but I won’t say anything about how I’m observing it this year, other than to note I’m reading the second volume of Joseph Ratzinger’s Jesus of Nazareth—Holy Week: From the Entrance Into Jerusalem to the Resurrection, which I intended to read last year at this time but did not. It’s a bit more theologically dense than the first volume, which focused on Jesus’ ministry years, but it’s well worth the effort. I’ll post a complete review after I’ve finished it.

You can find my reflections on Lent, and devotional resources from previous years, here.

 
 

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These Are a Few of My Favorite Apps

apps

I’m old enough to remember when staying in touch while traveling demanded fervent prayer for a working pay phone at some filling station or greasy-spoon restaurant between here and there. Now I can carry enough communications and computer processing power to run a space shuttle (if we still had one of those) from the palm of my hand.

Awesome.

I’ve collected what I think is a pretty decent set of useful apps over a few years of trial and error and a whole lot of time on the road. They don’t offer raindrops on roses or whiskers on kittens, but these smartphone and tablet apps help me manage my travel, reading, and devotions, provide some extra security when I’m away from my home network, and sprinkle in a little fun along the way—things I’ve added beyond the standard browsers, e-mail, and social-networking. I’m always looking for another gem in the Google Play sluice-box (yes, I’m an Android guy), so if you’ve got one that floats your boat, I’d love to hear about it.

These are a few of my favorite apps:

Travel

  • Currency Converter: User-friendly app that tracks exchange rates and allows me to easily compute how far my dollars will go in Europe, Korea, Japan, or anywhere else my company sends me.
  • Fly Delta: My company uses Delta for most of our air travel. The app helps me monitor my reservations and flight status (including weather delays, gate changes, and schedule updates), tracks my baggage, and prompts me for online check-ins.
  • Google Maps: Mobile-tailored interface for my favorite navigation and mapping service.
  • Google Hangouts: International phone charges are totally insane, and I’m not. To stay in touch with my family, I’ve used both Skype and Hangouts when traveling overseas, but Hangouts seems to provide the most reliable and stable connection, with minimal lag. Running Hotspot Shield VPN (see below) also helps circumvent most stability or connection issues that occur on foreign servers. Video, voice, or messaging, one conversation or a conference call, all free. You just need a WiFi connection.

Techie

  • Open Signal: Need a WiFi connection, you say? Open Signal finds nearby hotspots and navigates you there. It also links to a database of previously-identified hotspots, so you can plan ahead.
  • Hotspot Shield VPN: Routes your internet traffic through a secure server via an encrypted data channel, a good idea when you connect to an unsecured public network, like airport, hotel, or Starbuck’s WiFi. Also bypasses geographic media play restrictions when using services like Netflix or YouTube, because they see only the location of my secure server. I might be in Korea, but Netflix thinks I’m in Los Angeles, so I’m still able to watch all my subscribed content. There’s a nominal fee for the ad-free version, but it’s worth it.
  • Google Authenticator: Provides two-factor authentication for my blog and e-mail accounts. To log in from any device I haven’t designated requires a randomly-generated, time-limited numerical code from my Google Authenticator cell phone app. It’s an extra layer of security that isn’t cumbersome or intrusive.
  • AVG Antivirus: Everybody should have one, and this app works unobtrusively and efficiently for me. Scans software and memory automatically and on-demand, looks for other vulnerabilities in your device settings.

Devotional

  • Olive Tree: The most user-friendly, resource-rich, and easily-tailorable Bible study app I’ve found.
  • Ancient Faith Radio: Streaming music and podcasts from the Orthodox Christian community. Good stuff.
  • Pocket Common Prayer: Daily Scripture readings, devotions, and prayers following the liturgical calendar from the Book of Common Prayer. Provides scheduled reminders for prayer time.

Games

  • Chess.com: Nice interface for online chess that accesses a huge community of players and lots of chess news, events, and instruction. Friendly to the casual player, but Grandmasters hang out here too.
  • Quell: Moderately-addictive maze puzzle game with pretty graphics and soft music. I think it actually lowers my blood pressure when I play it.
  • Elder Sign – Omens: Guide an intrepid team of paranormal adventurers into combat against Lovecraftian abominations that threaten to destroy the world! An electronic version of the tabletop dice/card game, and a great solo game. Beware Things Man Was Not Meant to Know, or you might Become That Which You Fear Most…
  • Words With Friends: My brother-in-law and I have had six simultaneous games going on this Scrabble-clone app for about a year now. Enough said.
  • Ingress: Pursue exotic matter, decode hidden messages, locate portals to another dimension, and link everything together in a quest to determine the future of humanity. Google has poured tons of money and manpower into this detailed meta-game that turns your neighborhood into an invisible battlefield for enigmatic alien forces, a shadowy human resistance, and a host of agents and multinational corporations vying for control of Earth. There’s an extensive backstory, live events in cities around the world, and the haunting sense that this might all be something more than a game. Along the way, you get a lot of exercise and find all sorts of cool landmarks you never knew existed.

Entertainment

  • Netflix, Crunchyroll, and Crackle: I’m never lacking for movies or TV shows to watch during layovers with these three apps. Netflix provides a wide-ranging assortment of movies and shows, Crunchyroll focuses on anime and Asian TV, and Crackle is my go-to when I’m hankering for an oddball movie that’s not popular enough to make it onto Netflix. Netflix is a subscription service, but if you already have a home subscription, there’s no extra charge for using the app, and it lets you interact with your home account. Crunchyroll is free with the option to subscribe for faster access to new shows, and Crackle is free.
  • Pandora: There are plenty of good music apps out there, but I like this one, which is reliable, easy to navigate, and does a decent job of monitoring my favorites and tailoring the stream so I get the sort of music I enjoy.
  • Bluefire Reader: This app provides a nice platform for reading e-books in a variety of formats, links seamlessly to my county’s and state’s electronic libraries, and negotiates Adobe file protection protocols, which seem to be the currently preferred method for library management of e-book borrowing. It works especially well handling graphic novels on my Samsung tablet.
 
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Posted by on February 27, 2014 in Technology, travel

 

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Back from Korea, Home for Christmas

747My work trip in Korea is over, and it feels nice to be home after a month on the road, though I’m still reestablishing my equilibrium. I’m shifting gears between two cultures, two daily routines, two very different time zones. Everything feels atilt and askew.

mokshawoodcutIt was a good trip, all things considered…the work went well, complicated travel itineraries executed without a hitch, I wasn’t injured or ill, and I was able to explore a few new corners in a familiar part of Korea.

koreamarketAs I look back over my blogs and photos, I’m realizing how much I didn’t notice. The closer I look, the more I see, and there are certain sights, angles, and perspectives I wish I’d taken a moment to consider. It’s the Uncertainty Principle on a macro scale. Observation impacts our ability to measure and quantify. The act of documenting an experience incurs a cost in detail, even as we strive to capture it all.

charliebrowncafeI’ve been 30+ days away from my family, another unquantifiable expense. Things happened while I was gone, nothing momentous in particular, but substantial in the aggregate. Bits of life I’ve missed and can’t recover, even with the help of instant trans-global communication in sound and video.

Our Christmas celebration is discombobulated, as has been the rule rather than the exception these past few years. The harder we try to build traditions and a familiar pattern for the season, the faster our efforts crumble into dust. The tree and outside decorations aren’t up yet, Advent is nearly over without the lighting of a single candle, and we see our children mostly in passing as they dash to and from schools and jobs. The feeling of rest and peace I crave at this time of year is overwhelmed by an oppressive sense of being two steps behind on just about everything.

detroit_ap_treeThings will settle back into their proper place soon enough, I know. Somehow, we’ll pull everyone back around the hearth by Christmas Eve, and all will again be right with the world, for a little while, as we pause to hear the angel’s words echo in the still of night, as cheering and powerful now as they were at the beginning.

Fear not, for behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.

 
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Posted by on December 20, 2013 in Family, travel

 

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What I’m Watching on Korean TV, 2013 Edition

There always comes a point during these work trips where the schedule compresses, consuming the scant slack time for exploring the local area and tossing me into a repetitive cycle of work-eat-sleep-work. During the transitions between eating and sleeping, or sleeping and working, there’s not much I can do but read or watch television.

Yes, I should be reading, but the compact dimensions of my hotel room are offset by a very large flat-screen television.

The language barrier limits my ability to fully appreciate what’s happening on Korean TV, but I’m finding ways around it. Cartoons are my old standby, with their modest demands on language skills, but this time, I’m getting some help from internet resources like YouTube, where I’m finding some of the programs I’ve been watching, subtitled in English. You can get the gist of a drama or comedy through physical cues and music, but a joke, for example, is usually funnier if you understand the punch line. Not always, but usually.

gagconcertGAG Concert: Ninety minutes of sketch comedy with a young ensemble cast, à la Saturday Night Live minus the snarky political commentary. Some of their standard set-ups include a celebrity agent suffering through a parade of high-maintenance clients, two bachelors bemoaning their eternal solitude, a big sister’s dating horror stories re-enacted for her younger sibling, ballroom dancers flirting and fighting mid-tango through their relationship issues, and, if you need high-pressure business negotiation, call in a pair of no-nonsense ajumma (old ladies) to do your haggling. There are also zombies.

larvaLarva: I watch this not because I like it, but  because it’s running on every single channel. Two worms against the world—a little red one with attitude, and a big yellow flatulent one. These guys live in a seedy apartment, eternally scavenging the oddments of food left behind by its slovenly human occupant. Part of the show’s amusement is how many imaginative ways they find to employ their infinitely-elastic prehensile tongues to solve problems, since they don’t have arms or legs. The larvae occupy the rock-bottom of the food chain, which means they’re usually fighting off predators for the privilege of eating things that would choke a maggot. The show leans heavily on gross-outs and toilet humor, but there are some inspired moments, such as an episode where our slimy heroes spin cocoons in the hope of transforming into butterflies, only to emerge months later as geriatric larvae. They re-enter the cocoons for successive do-overs, getting their metamorphosis spectacularly wrong every time.

jewel_in_the_palaceJewel in the Palace: Another show that seems to be playing all day long on one or more channels, this 54-episode historical epic is a more uplifting experience. Jewel in the Palace is Korea’s Anne of Green Gables or Little House on the Prairie. Jang Geum, the orphan daughter of outcast parents, finds her place in the royal court of Korea during the golden age of the Joseon Dynasty, circa 1500. She rises above palace intrigue and her tragic family heritage to become the first female physician to the royal family. Along the way, we’re treated to a vivid panorama of the often perilous life inside and outside the palace walls, traditional Korean culinary artistry, the harsh injustice of the caste system governing Korean society of that era, and the practice of medicine at a place and time when science was just beginning to ascend above ignorance and superstition. The staging and costuming are lavish and beautiful—Seoul’s network of restored palaces provide an authentic period backdrop. The Korean television and film industry put $15 million and some of their best talent into this production, and it shows. Jang Geum’s story is both compelling and inspiring. She’s one of Korea’s greatest and most beloved heroes. All episodes are available for free viewing, subtitled, at Crunchyroll.com. If you fall in love with this series, take heart—a sequel is planned in 2015.

 
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Posted by on December 8, 2013 in Media Reviews, travel

 

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Soyosan Mountain: Soyosan in Snow

After reaching the top of Soyosan, or near enough, I figured I was finished with the mountain.

As it turned out, the mountain wasn’t finished with me.

soyosan_gate_snowThe day before Thanksgiving, there was a snowstorm in Dongducheon that dropped a couple of inches of white fluff across the countryside. My team had Thanksgiving Day off, and I was curious to see how the snow had changed the scenery along the Soyosan Mountain trail, so I bundled up and set off about 7 am on Thanksgiving morning to take a look.

I wasn’t foolish enough to even consider trying for the crest with wind chill and ice added to the challenge. Jajaeam Temple would be far enough.

soyosan_stream_snowThe sun rose into clearing skies, and I found the trail transformed by its dusting of snow. Everything looks better with a little frosting, and the mountains of Korea are no exception. The snow was wet enough to cling to the trees and feed a little more life into the stream that bordered the path uphill. Monuments looked more impressive, caves and grottos seemed more mysterious, and the temple itself felt more hushed and tranquil. Click on the photos for a better view.

It was a nice walk, and some consolation for a Thankgiving spent half a world away from my family. There were only a few other people on the trail, but everybody seemed extra cheery, even though Thanksgiving isn’t on the Korean holiday calendar.

jajaeam_steps_snowjajaeam_monorailAs I approached Jajaeam Temple, something interesting happened. I was passing by a metal framework I had thought was construction scaffolding when one of the monks came motoring along it in a little chair. The contraption was a one-man monorail train that ran from the temple along the mountainside to a waterfall and shrine further down the mountain. It was propelled by a tiny gasoline engine and, I suppose, a healthy ration of faith. I saw the monk again later, sweeping snow from the trail in a steep spot where he’d spread a cloth tarp to aid hikers’ traction on the ice.

jajaeam_snow

As for the temple itself, and its adjoining waterfall, they were as enchanting as I expected. I’ll let the pictures speak for themselves.

jajaeam_snow2jajaeam_falls_snow

 
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Posted by on December 5, 2013 in travel

 

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Mount Soyosan: Onward and Upward

soyosan_stairsI returned to the Soyosan trail the day after my jaunt to Jajaeam Temple, taking advantage of the unseasonably balmy weather before a forecast snowstorm later in the week. I set a brisk pace to the temple grounds.

Beyond Jajaeam Temple, the trail up Mount Soyosan develops what I’ll call “attitude.” Soyosan isn’t a terribly tall mountain, but it’s rugged and steep. The stairs that were helpful negotiating the lower portions of the trail get longer and increase in pitch to the point where they become a daunting obstacle themselves. (Click on the pictures for full-size images)

soyosan_trailThen the stairs disappear, replaced by stone steps, which in turn dissipate into a dirt trail with nothing but a stout rope separating the hiker from a nasty fall.

Until the rope ends.

I’m embarrassed to admit how much huffing and puffing this trail brought on, and how many times I had to stop to catch my breath. Meanwhile, wizened Korean ladies and gentlemen, fitted out with sporty Alpine togs, boots, and backpacks, trotted past me from above and below. They were mostly cheerful and politely silent, but a few chuckled softly at the silly American staggering up their mountain. One nice young man with excellent command of English offered me a sip from his Gatorade bottle. There were families making a day of it too—one young couple with a 3- or 4-year-old in tow passed me on the trail. Having worked through some of the more challenging spots, I had to admire their courage, or wonder about their sanity.

soyosan_ridgeLight began to fade, and I still hadn’t reached the top. I considered turning back, an option that became more appealing with each step. I’m glad I pressed on. A few minutes later, I crested the ridge, not at the tip-top of Soyosan, but one of the parade of smaller peaks along its crest, at least. Good enough, and a prudent compromise, knowing I had to make it back down the trail while I could still see it. That was a different sort of challenge, perhaps not as difficult, but a bit more dangerous if I wasn’t careful.

soyosan_viewAs for the view…words fail me.

Yes, it was worth the climb.

I picked my way down the trail in the last glow of sunset, arriving at Jajaeam Temple without mishap. The doors to the shrine carved from the mountain were open, and a few of the monks were inside, chanting and prostrating and tapping on hollow gourds, the sound echoing from the stone, blended with the waterfall’s patter into its dark pool below.

soyosan_eveningThe rest of the trail was wide and well-lit. No reason to hurry now. I paused a few moments to listen.

 
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Posted by on December 2, 2013 in travel

 

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Soyosan Mountain: Jajaeam Temple

monhyos_gateAfter passing Wonhyo’s Enlightenment Place, the trail changed from a broad, gently sloping, paved avenue to a narrow, winding path punctuated by steep flights of wooden stairs that hugged the mountainside. As my lack of conditioning began to make itself felt, I encountered Moksha’s Gate, which marked the entrance to the Jajaeam Temple precincts. A small brass bell hung from its apex, and the local folklore holds that sweethearts who stand within the gate and ring the bell will enjoy eternal love. Since my own sweetheart wasn’t along with me on this trip, I pressed on.

temple1After a few more ups and downs and a lot more stairs, I finally entered the temple plaza, a cluster of buildings that included two shrines, one freestanding, the other built into the mountain. Like the gentleman in this photo, I aligned my camera lens with a gap in the latticework of the outer shrine to capture the impressive altar within. Click on the photos for larger images.

temple2Jajaeam is a working temple with a resident community of monks. I didn’t see any of them around the temple this particular day, but several were engaged in maintenance and restoration of the trails and structures further down the mountain. You can see stacks of cushions and prayer books used by the monks in their daily rituals on the left. The door’s lattice was backed with plexiglas, which caused some reflections in the photo, but the focus on the altar itself is reasonably sharp in the full-size image.

temple3After viewing the remarkable collection of gilded buddhas in the first shrine, I turned my attention to the unobtrusive door set into the mountain a few steps beyond. It was flanked by a bank of candles, a pair of guardian statues, and a little niche with an assortment of buddha dolls, beads, and other knick-knacks.

temple4Like the other shrine, it was what lay beyond the door that was most striking. Instead of the dark grotto I expected, inside was a kaleidoscope of light and color, from the candlelit altar to the ceiling draped in glowing paper lanterns in rainbow hues.

templefallsTopping it all off was another pretty waterfall that fluttered down the mountainside into a pool below the temple. The burble of falling water formed a pleasant background to the scenery, and I spent a while just watching and listening. It was a place meant for lingering.

Dusk was approaching, and I had no more time to explore beyond Jajaeam Temple. I was determined to return the next day and try for the summit of Soyosan Mountain.

 
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Posted by on December 2, 2013 in travel

 

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