Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Savoring the Spoils of War

Yes, I'm judging you and your drum circles.
As a self-proclaimed artist, it seems that I'm destined to suffer. To be a master of your craft and to feel that thrill time and time again when you make a film or take a photo requires unyielding dedication. Many accept and act on that fact by adopting the "Bohemian" lifestyle. Art comes first, then everything else. You become one with your art, joining a community of lives devoted to expressing the human condition.

I didn't do that, though...mostly because Bohemians have a bad habit of being incredibly pretentious, out of touch with the real world (a.k.a. the people funding your projects and enjoying your art), and not showering. 

Nah, I have a day job that keeps me busy. I am not known for my photography, film, or writing. I put in the time, but I still view everything I do as a 'work in progress'. They're not up to par yet to make a living, and I'm not quite ready to grow out some dreads and getting in touch with my inner-self.

Occasionally, I do fall into some projects where I'm thrust into that role where people expect you to act as a 'photographer,' and not be as self conscious about what I'm doing. It helps when you have a good friend taking pictures with you. And, sometimes, you get to go full out and rent gear you wouldn't otherwise use, taking pictures that you know are going to be used commercially. No pressure, right?

I look so professional these days.
So, naturally, I was stoked when my good friend Warren let me in on a shoot this past weekend taking pictures for a local restaurant's new menu. As you can tell by the double chin, I love food. And, lately, I've been a bit rusty in my photography skills. It's depressing as hell watching a 5dMkII collect dust.

Most of the day consisted of Warren and I circulating dish after dish from the kitchen downstairs into a makeshift studio consisting of 2 softboxes and a black cloth laying over a table.

At first, I struggled. Photography is like any other skill: you use it or lose it. Lately my time behind the lens has been extremely limited. I've been feeling a bit uninspired by the sometimes sterile metropolis of Seoul. Work has been sapping most of my energy, and a standard day after 6pm consists of spending time with my girlfriend or playing Halo.

Fortunately, photography is much like any other skill in that, like riding a bike, it's easy to pick back up again after some trial and error. I also had the pleasure of working with Warren, who is one of the more engaging and steadfast photographers I've met while abroad. When I think I've got the shot, he's trying to squeeze in a couple more...even if to just get a couple more minutes of practice. Working as a duo pushes me technically as a photographer and gives me that extra push I often need to perform at my best. I also found that, creatively, having another person that works well with you creates an ecosystem that allows ideas you normally wouldn't come up with on your own to bounce between one another.

Getting fancy with the dishes
The shoot went all afternoon long and well into the evening as the entire menu, literally, was cooked up for us. Waiters would come upstairs to see what we were doing, snack on the finished dishes, and tell me how much I looked like Harry Potter. On occasion, we would have the owner's daughter come up and talk with us. She is half Korean, half Spanish, and grew up in Spain. Her mother crafted all of the dishes here, and her brother runs the restaurant. It's something out of a mob movie, down to the delicious food and the 'manager' that looks more like a body guard. I don't question...I'm just here to take some pictures.

By the end of the day, we had shot somewhere around 30 dishes of food that, if you bought individually, would cost around $2000. It was so good that we didn't get paid for the shoot. Rather, we had the waiters pack up all the non-seafood dishes in tin foil so we can take them home. The next couple days Warren and I snacked on steak, kabobs, lamb chops, roasted veggies, burgers, and dishes I would never order because they go for $50 a pop. And, living in Korea, finding good meat like that and having it cooked right is a rarity. We savored the spoils of war as if we had never tasted meat before. It was totally worth it.

I'm still astounded that I fall into shoots like this, especially when I'm only just a passable photographer working in an industry that's hyper-competitive, pretentious, and cut-throat. I'm a lucky guy in that, along the way, I've met fellow people in my field like Warren whom I can learn from and tag along with for a ride. They're nice people with small egos and big aspirations and exceptionally good at what they do. I would never find these people back home simply because it requires a bit of unsettling to really strip away the clicks and social barriers that stand in the way of working cooperatively rather than competitively.

And besides, eating an entire menu's worth of food is only possible by working together.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Faking It Til' You Make It

During these intense couple of months I've consulted a good dozen self help and personal management books in an effort to manage my life more efficiently and more 'professionally'. You get all kinds of tips and advice, and most books tend to echo each other: manage your time wisely, presentation is key, optimize your body and mind so you can focus on work, it's all about how you say it....the stuff managers feed to their underlings to sound inspirational. 

It's good stuff, don't get me wrong. If you want to survive in the world of business, you have to play by their rules....or that's what they want you to think.

My best advice I've gotten so far? Well, it comes from one of the best cliches in the book:

Fake it 'til you make it.

It's the cure all in the quest of chasing success. You don't need prior experience. You can do it at any age or at any place in your life. It doesn't require any kind of skill set or tools, just a ton of drive and a bit of an "I'll show you!" attitude. While being smart is valuable, it's the guy who just doesn't know how to quit that ends up making it in the end.

Still not convinced? Me neither. Heck, I'm faking this blog as I go along. Here's some stuff that helps my argument, however. I picked alot of it up over the past 2 years I've been abroad.

1. Nobody really knows what they are doing...and if you're unsure, just ask them.

I've met countless people in bars and fancy shindigs with Singaporean Ambassadors. I like to gossip and talk. My favorite hobby is mining people for 'life hacks'. I want to know your secrets. How did you get here? Where are you going? What's the secret to your success? Where did you get that awesome hat? 

Usually, I can strike gold with the one guy or gal that likes to take the spotlight and talk about all the awesome stuff they've done. They dish out advice like it's candy on Halloween night. I know, because I like standing on the soapbox from time to time myself (seriously, have you read this blog?). 

What I've learned is the person who seems to have his or her stuff together really doesn't...and the guy who doesn't have his stuff together also doesn't. The guy in between? Also has no idea what's going on. That's the big joke, everyone. Nobody knows what the heck is going on, and we're so obsessed with pretending that we do. 

If I've learned anything, it's that admitting that you don't know is the hardest conversation you'll ever have with yourself. Which brings me to my next point...

2. Knowing what you don't know is way more valuable than knowing what you know.

Think about your resume for a second. What's on it? Skills, work experience, education, stuff you're good at: it's all stuff that will be valuable to an employer in selecting a candidate for the job. We use that to weed out 'under-qualified candidates' to give people who show the most promise the job. Experience is everything.

That resume is everything that you know you know. You are broadcasting to the world "Hey, I'm good at this stuff because I've done it before. Hire me."

Check out this cool diagram that I could have drawn in Illustrator in 5 minutes, but I instead took 30 minutes to find on some old 1999 website:

Your resume hangs out in that bottom left quadrant of the Diagram O' Knowledge. When I write my resume, I say "Yes, I know that I know this stuff. I want you to know that I know what I know, so I wrote it down for you."

The upper left quadrant is that stuff that pops up after years of not knowing that you knew it. A fine example would be that Backstreet Boys song your sister blared nonstop for 3 years, and it popped up on the local radio and you started singing along. You didn't know you knew it...otherwise you'd be ashamed. Or you'd rock at Karaoke Fridays.

The upper right is the scary uncharted territory of the Diagram O' Knowledge. That's all the stuff in the world that you have no clue it even exists, and so you can't worry about not knowing it because you don't even know what it is. This is where travelers love to tread. It's the thrill of finding someplace new and having no idea beforehand that something this cool existed. I have countless examples of places and experiences that started in that upper right quadrant. Most of them I documented in this blog.

The one I want to focus on is that bottom right quadrant. It's the second step of that circulation of knowledge illustrated by the arrows. This is an interesting step that most people in the professional world hate to admit it even exists because its the only quadrant that really challenges you and exposes you as a person.

To know something you don't know and make it something you know that you know, you have to practice and get good at it. 10,000 hours, 10 years, immerse yourself in it...whatever school of thought you come from, it takes effort to move on to the next quadrant. People often do it quietly. They study or they gain experience behind close doors. They rarely reveal that they are residing in that quadrant because they are afraid to admit that they don't know. Nobody likes to look like a fool.

Faking it requires you to accept that, hey, you don't know everything. There's a ton of stuff in that 'things you don't know you don't know' category, and as you discover them they eventually pile up in the 'things you know you don't know'. To get out of it, you need to fake it. Sometimes, that requires help, which brings me to my next point.

3. Admitting you don't know is professional, and validates you 'faking it' so you can get the experience.

This one hits even harder in Korea, where 'saving face' is not just a business practice, it's doctrine. I'm pretty vocal and open, and when I see something wrong...I say it's wrong. I learned this after high school, and it helped break me out of my social shell that inhibited me from being the guy I wanted to be.

In my work, this kind of approach is harsh and is heavily scrutinized. And, more often than not, I'll get bruised up until someone finds something that I don't know about. Those moments become critical in th work world.

I often rely on my primal travel instinct to survive, and that's when I I'm faking it...that I don't know how to do a certain thing. Let me rephrase that to be more clear: I fake it while simultaneously admitting I don't know what I'm doing. How the heck does that work?

Well, it came from traveling and learning that it wasn't the end of the world to put all your chips on the table. My first trip out of the country was Fiji, a 3rd world nation that had just recently went through a military coup. I was a frightened 19 year old with alot of pride on the line. I had spent 3 months telling my friends and family how awesome this whole study abroad thing would be. I put all this effort into faking this "it's no big deal" attitude, and when I realized I was 6000 miles from home it because real that I had no idea what the heck I was doing.

So what did I do? I made friends. Quickly. I tagged along and was up front with people: this is my first time away from home, and I don't know what this traveling thing is all about. More often than not, I would be brought under someone's wing and taken along for an adventure. Slowly but surely, my adventurous side started taking shape. And that whole time I was faking a laid back attitude while being scared.

Korea's been a test of that character because I paint myself as a huge target. Korean culture encourages people to 'save face' and not admit that they don't know what's going on. Feigning success is just as, if not more, important than success itself. It has bit them in the butt a couple times, like a nuclear reactor that was built on forged security certificates.

When I'm out there and I'm expected to have a plan for everything, I make an effort to be up front and say that I just don't know. That doesn't set well sometimes, and either I'm forced to go back to the drawing board and teach myself how to do something or my supervisors have to accept that, sometimes, the insane (yet insanely awesome) task they assigned me to complete is just that: insane. There will be bumps, and we ultimately have to fake our way through this together. We are all on the same team, which brings me to my last point:

4. We all end the race together, so don't fret too much if you feel like you're falling behind, and don't gloat when you're ahead.

During these years of trying to 'make it', I've been especially conscious of the elderly people I meet along the way. These are my grandfathers and grandmothers, or elders that lend me their stories from time to time. These are people who have lived their lives, and are on that final stretch in the rat race that is life.

When I talk to them, I realize how petty 'getting ahead' is, and that in the end all the profits and success we have in our younger years just don't matter. Our legacy comes with family and friends, not fortune and fame. As long as you maintain relationships with a good heart and make an effort to live a morally sound life, you'll get to the end wholly satisfied. All my grandparents got to that point, and I haven't met very many elderly who feel like their life was a waste or who regret making decisions in their 20's (cept for smoking and breaking the law. Don't do that, kids).

It brings me back to the rat race, and too often it feels like a scramble to the top. It's cutthroat competition followed by intense periods of critically comparing lives like they fall on some kind of grading scale. As I get older, I start to notice the people who are figuring it out and finding that happiness we all long to have. They don't run in that race. They don't climb on top of people to reach a goal. They don't just fake the game...they play by their own rules, and when you do that you win every time.

That's comforting to know, right? We can all win together.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Your Vote Doesn't Matter...So Go Vote!

For the people that have been on a strict No-Mainstream-Media diet for the past 8 months (which, from what I've heard, can actually lower blood pressure and actively fight depression), there's an election coming up in a couple weeks in the good ol' US of A. People are on edge about it. I know this for a fact because, since I installed a plugin that replaces all my friend's political posts on Facebook with pictures of cats, I've had a significantly cuter news feed.

This is what Democracy looks like
I'm in an interesting situation this election season as I'm part of the 3% of Americans that are not currently living in the USA. Throughout this entire election season, I've successfully avoided the slew of media campaigns and the poisoned rhetoric that has seemed to seep into our every day conversations. Rather, I get the residual "we need jobs" or "health insurance" debate topic that, living outside the USA, I have no real stake in. But, as per my patriotic duty, I voted via absentee ballot a couple weeks ago. I even got a free pizza out of the deal.

Now for my international audience reading: there's a common belief in American society that voting matters. Or, rather, that my vote matters. That's the beauty of Democracy, right? That each individual can have a voice and an influence on the way a country is going. People died for Democracy and the right to vote, so I must honor them by taking part in the Democratic process.

Well that's the Kool-aid of America that everyone's been drinking at least...and it's become a placebo in place of us actually tackling the problems that matter.

You see, every election season plays out basically the same way. The people that hate the party in power come out swinging, with the supporters of the party in power defending them with all the emotion and rhetoric that they can muster. People young and old draw lines in the sand and act like voting is a life or death situation.

I remember how young I was when I started noticing it. It was the 2004 election between John Kerry and President Bush. I was only a Sophomore in High School, so I couldn't vote at all. That didn't stop the majority of my class from getting involved, however. I remember groups of my friends dividing into tribes and mimicking the talking points you would hear on CNN. 15, you have no idea what outsourcing is or why a war in a far away country is being fought. Nothing is black and white.

Throughout that whole 2004 election season, I heard time and time again "if only I could vote. I could make a difference." I actually believed that one as well...up to the point where I actually did research on our Democratic process.

We are a Democratic Republic, not a true "democracy". Our Senators and Representatives are voted by the people, but the President and Vice President are appointed by 'electors'. The mass of electors make up the Electoral College, and these electors vote in December for the President of the United States of America. They are not bound by the popular vote, and can vote as they please. Often, however, the process is decided on election night as the candidate losing the popular vote often drops out as part of the 'show' that is our election process.

To sum it up? Your vote, in the grand scheme of this dog and pony show, does not matter. Who you choose and who you associate with has no significant impact on who ends up in the Oval Office.

Yet every 4 years, we as Americans gather together and vote for all the wrong reasons. We vote to fix all the problems we have. We think that casting a ballot is the way to pave a bright and prosperous future. That's our contribution to our country, and immediately afterwards we go back to looking at our bank accounts, counting possessions, and wondering how we can help ourselves in such a dire situation.

Do you see the problem yet? you see the promise every election holds, and we somehow miss it?

I have another number for you: 122,394,724. That's how many people voted in 2008. That's how many people wanted a say in our country and how many people wanted better for our country. That's an astounding number. Most of those people, however, went back to caring about themselves shortly after that historic election. They watched as the economy crashed around us and the first thing everyone did was blame the Government. It was their fault. Their greed that did this.

They are right to a degree...but the economy didn't create the negative atmosphere that we exist in today. It was us. It was our fault. Rather than working with one another and turning to things that mattered, we focused all our energy on finger pointing and talking about how our party could have done better. Once you start doing that, any obstacle becomes exponentially more impossible to overcome.

So my message to my fellow Americans this election season? Your vote doesn't matter...but you should vote anyways. Voting isn't a process as much as a symbol that, we as a country, still care about where we are going and our place in the world. The Americans that came before us didn't fight for the right to vote...they fought for freedom and our country. They fought for us as a people. When we let elections and parties divide us like they do now, we jeopardize everything our country stands for.

We are still one of the greatest countries to ever exist on the face of the Earth, and that is because we learned to work together as one people while maintaing the freedom to do as we sieze our own destiny. It's not too late for us. This election won't change our country. Barack Obama or Mitt Romney can't save us. That power still lies with us and will always lie with the people as long as our election process still exists.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

October Updates

It's the end of September (beginning of October)! And you know what that means, right?

Well, I don't. I was suppose to announce something cool and awesome about my job and some things going on, but life has a way of throwing molasses in your gears and slows things down when you're just getting on a roll. This time around, they are delays outside my control that are stalling my next big adventure.

The silver lining in all of this is I get to focus on some side projects that I've been setting on the back burner for a while now. They needed some love and attention, and I've made strides in developing some cool ideas for the next round of films! These projects include:

1) Tackling human trafficking in Korea. Filming has started on this one, with a target completion date TBD. It's a collaborative effort with one of the largest churches in Korea, and it's been my privilege to work with them over the last 6 months.

2) Outlining a Southeast-Asia based humanitarian project focused on the repercussions of the Vietnam War

3) Outlining an around-the-world project exploring culture in a very creative (and, at the moment, secret) fashion. This is a long term project which guarantees many more adventures in the future.

4) Next steps on the "Roots of Happiness". We have had success in film festivals all through 2012 (take a look for yourself here), and are looking at the next steps in getting the support these kids deserve as well as what we're going to do next.

Keeping busy is tough these days. I feel tired and sluggish sometimes, which is a byproduct of the new job and getting re-acclimated to living in Korea again. I know, I know. It's not a good excuse for the lack of posts these days. I've neglected you a little bit, and I'm sorry about that. Just know that the adventure continues in a much bigger and grander fashion...more than anything I could imagine. It's just taking alot of preparation to get everything off the ground.
I did want to share with you a cool story about one of my boys from Kenya. He's in trade school right now, and he approached me and my father about starting a soccer program in his hometown. His hometown has a problem with drugs and kids getting into trouble because the boys don't have alot to do, and they're all too poor to afford a decent soccer ball and some gear.

He wrote up a proposal and everything outlining his program, and the Michezo Hope program was born. "Michezo" is Swahili for sports or games, and the idea is to give these boys the chance to play sports to keep active and out of trouble.

It's not a big program at the moment. Really, it's just one soccer ball that was purchased for these boys. But that one soccer ball is already making a huge difference. I am proud of my brother and friend in Kenya, and I'm looking forward to seeing what he can do with this program he created.

It doesn't take much to make a difference. We think that volunteering and making an impact in this world takes movers and shakers and a ton of money. The reality is it takes good ideas and a calculated application of resources to make it happen. All we need to do is, from time to time, set aside our beefs and politics that plague our society and listen to the needs of our fellow man. The world is inherently good, and a young man in Kenya and his soccer program is proof of that.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Fukuoka Visa Run 2012, Part 4: Home

After Nagasaki, the rest of my Visa run really wasn't that exciting. If you've ever been to Japan, you know how expensive it is. Once I had that Visa in hand, I hopped on the next flight to Busan and was back home on Friday evening to have dinner with my friends.

It's strange because, for something as important as a Visa, the actual process of getting that Visa is very easy. It's a little page in your passport. That's it. All the stuff around it is the hard part. Like, for instance, right now I'm waiting on my Alien Registration Card. That's the ID all foreigners carry. It's a month long process and, until that card comes in, I don't have internet or a phone. I need to do so much more registration and go through a long process before, finally, I can get settled in here.

Visa runs aren't usually fun, but they can be eye opening. With all our technological advances and our 'globalized' world, we still rely on all this paperwork to verify something as simple as someone's identity. It's a tedious and taxing process, and often the Visa process is enough to deter people from working abroad.

I'm sometimes in that boat. Every time I do this, I ask myself "Is this really worth it?". After the panic attacks subside, I often come to the realization of how lucky I really am. Not many people work abroad. It's a privilege and a wonderful experience, one that opens your mind to culture and obstacles you would never get at home. It makes you strong and capable of taking on anything, and the process that allows you to work abroad is just one of those hurdles you must over come. I do have to remind myself of that sometimes...

Now...for that next adventure? Well, it's just around the corner. My job is in full swing now, and at the end of September I should have some news to share with all of you. I told you that this was just a beginning. I got the Visa in my hand now. I'm ready to rock, and I hope that the ESL world is ready for what's coming.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Fukuoka Visa Run 2012, Part 3: Nagasaki and A Thousand Paper Cranes

*This is a long one. Grab some coffee and take a bathroom break.*

After waking up, grabbing some grub, and packing my backpack, I headed out this morning to take care of my Visa paperwork. This was the most painless part of my trip: the lady looked up my Visa Confirmation Number and gave me the thumbs up. I paid the fee and she told me to pick up my passport tomorrow afternoon. Perfect. I had business to take care of.

I headed directly to Hakata Station, which is the main train hub for Fukuoka. JR Railways, which is the main railroad company in Japan, has an office there. I walked inside and asked around for an English speaking clerk. Eventually, I came to this younger gentleman in the corner of the room. Japan is known for its impeccable customer service, but this guy took it to a new level.

I told him that I was an American, and I was interested in seeing one of the Atomic Bomb museums in either Nagasaki or Hiroshima. I wanted the one that was the least expensive and didn’t take up my entire day. He smiled and said “Let me see if I can find you some discount tickets.” He looked around for about 5 minutes and eventually came to these options:

  1. Take the Bullet Train to Hiroshima. It takes 1 hour there and 1 hour to get back and costs ¥13,000 (about $165). 
  2. Take the High-Speed JR line to Nagasaki. It takes 2 hours to get there and 2 hours to get back and costs ¥6,000 (about $76). It is also an open-ended ticket, meaning I can come back at anytime in the next month.

My time here is precious, but at the same time I was in no rush. My mission was to get my Visa, and that was being taken care of. I was extremely mobile. I had no hotel I needed to stay at tonight and all my things were on my back. I literally could go anywhere and do anything, with money being my only inhibitor.

I opted for the Nagasaki trip as I had heard there are more buildings to see there and it has a more comprehensive look at what happened when the bomb fell. Today was a history kind of day, and I also wanted to take my time. If I had to spend the night in Nagasaki, then it was simply part of the adventure.

He gave me my tickets, explained how to claim the Nagasaki return ticket on my way back, and 15 minutes later I was on a train speeding through the Japanese countryside.

This was one of the of the perks about traveling with no plans and no reservations. I could ask people to show me how to travel like a local and I was bound my no schedule, which allowed me to basically go anywhere and do anything.

The train ride was amazing in itself. It wasn’t the Bullet Train, but it was the No-Joke train as it didn’t mess around. If I had to guess the speed of this thing, I would say it was going at least 80-90MPH in the country and a little slower in the city. Trying to focus on objects near the train was hard enough, yet alone take a picture of the beautiful countryside. I was able to sneak one in, however.

I miss places like this. I’ve been effectively living in a city for the past year and a half, and seeing green as far as the eye could see with only a handful of buildings to dot the landscape is a refreshing sight. The mountains were covered by clouds, and it was cool seeing powerlines disappear into the distance as they went up the mountainside.

Gorgeous days like these are rare, as is having days like these in amazing places like this. Traveling alone does have its perks, but sometimes I wish I did have a traveling buddy to share this with. That’s why I have you guys, right?

I arrived in Nagasaki 2 hours later just as the sun decided to come down an bless me with plenty of sunshine and sweltering, humid heat. Nagasaki is a beautiful harbor city nestled between two mountain ranges. Compared to Fukuoka or Tokyo, Nagasaki was quiet. The station was bustling, but small. People smiled at you as you walked by. At its core, it is a country city.

I picked up a local map and studied it for a couple minutes over a cup coffee. The city is small and, although I could spend a couple days here exploring the mountains around the city, I decided that returning to Fukuoka this evening was probably a good idea.

The city has a couple small light-rail lines that run through the city, and for a modest ¥120 I could get anywhere I needed to. The Atomic Bomb Museum was only a 5 minute ride from the station, and so after a small coffee break I was off to the Museum.

When I arrived at the Museum’s station I noticed there were 4 places in the vicinity that were linked to the Atomic Bomb catastrophe: The Hypocenter, the Nagasaki Atomic Bomb Museum, Peace Park, and an elementary school that ‘survived’ the bomb. I visited all four, and each played a roll in painting a picture of the horror that the citizens of Nagasaki went through on August 9th, 1945...and what they have done since then.
The Hypocenter
A hypocenter in a nuclear blast is the center of the blast radius. This is where the bomb was dropped on August 9th, 1945. It is also where you can see the clearest picture of how the bomb devastated Nagasaki.

When you think of how a nuclear bomb goes off, you have to take 2 things into account: 1) The bomb actually explodes above the target, and 2) it blows up in a sphere. When the bomb blew up above the Hypocenter, it effectively pushed the earth directly below it down and the earth around it outward. What this did was create a small hill in the middle of the city at the exact point where it went off.

As you walk up to the Hypocenter, there are signs marking the original elevation of the city. It’s a good 20-30 feet above where the city is today. The bomb did more than just level the city: it plowed it over in a sea of fire and light.

Today, the Hypocenter is marked by a black monolith in the center of a park. Standing in front of the monolith is a black altar where flowers and gifts are often placed in memorial. Three rings of grass ripple away from the monolith. This is called the ‘Circle of Prayer’, where people will often pray for the victims and pray for a nuclear-free future. It was said that vegetation wouldn’t grow in this spot for 75 years. 67 years later the park...and the city flourishing.

When I went there was nobody in the park. It was incredibly peaceful and I was free to explore it without distractions. To a degree I was a little creeped out by the place. This spot...literally right in this spot an atomic bomb exploded, killing over 70,000 people in the blink of an eye. Without trying to sound overly dramatic, it’s like I could feel the souls of all those people in the silence of this monolith.

It was also the first time in a very long time where I felt the overwhelming urge to pray in public. I firmly believe that the way you pray or worship, or the way you don’t worship, is completely your own. As long as you don’t infringe on the rights of others and force your religion or anti-religion on your peers what you believe is between you and your beliefs. This is also why I refrain from praying in public...most of the time. Today, I couldn’t help it. I won’t share my prayer with you. That’s between me and God. I will say that I prayed for peace, and that he gave me a hint of an answer....but more on that later.

Right next to the Hypocenter stands the remnants of the church that once stood there. One pillar survived the blast. On the pillar is a carving of Peter with an outstretched hand. He was holding hands with Jesus, but that part of the carving didn’t survive the blast.

On my way out I found these strings of paper cranes. There were thousands of cranes in beautiful colors strung together in chains. I would later learn the story of the cranes, and I’ll share it with you towards the end of this post.

Nagasaki Atomic Bomb Museum
This, for me, was the reason I chose to come to Nagasaki over Hiroshima. I was told that Nagasaki paints a much clearer picture of what happened, and that advice turned out to be true. The Nagasaki Atomic Bomb Museum horrified, informed, and touched me  to the point where I had to sit down afterwards and cope with the sadness I felt for the victims and the volatile anger towards my own country for what we did and how we describe this event in our history books. History is written by the victor, and the victor rarely likes to paint himself as a villain.

The museum is a bargain for ¥200, but you can tell that the museum has a firm purpose and mission. They aren’t in this for the money, and that’s why they tell the story without bias.

For a country that strives to ‘save face’, I was blown away by how frank the museum depicted the Japanese before and during WWII. They recognize that their army did horrible things during the war, and that their intentions were not pure. They wanted to conquer. To this day, to a certain degree, I think the Japanese regret their past actions, and that’s part of the reason why they rebuilt their nation as a peaceful country after Nagasaki and Hiroshima.

I had written a very comprehensive report on the Manhattan Project when I was in school, and alot of what I learned during that research project resurfaced as I read the exhibits and the story that the museum was trying to tell. They talked about how the project cost more than the GDP of Japan at the time, how Japan was preparing to surrender before the bombs were dropped, how Nagasaki was a secondary target that day, and how many of the top officials in the US Army (including Eisenhower) as well as the entire research team that built the bomb (including physicists like Einstein and Bohr) were strongly against using it. They all foresaw the Cold War and what kind of world we would be forced to live in if things played out like they did. It was strange knowing now how right they were, and how a group of physicists and soldiers can be so insightful on the faults of humanity.

What really sickened me at the exhibit was seeing how many nukes the US owned, how we are one of the few countries not signing the pledge to disarm, and seeing the statistics on the casualties of the bomb. Over 70,000 died in the blast, with another 70,000 dying from the radiation and injuries suffered that day. Nearly 70% of the people in Nagasaki at the time were women and children, as most of the men were at war. This wasn’t a military target.

People didn’t just die. They were burned alive. They were trapped in buildings as the impending fire after the blast consumed them. They had all their hair fall out, sores open all over their body, and ultimately died in the most horrible way possible.

One story written was from a 10 year old boy. He wrote about how his sister got trapped underneath a giant pillar after the blast. His mother was burned all over and weak, and the soldiers there couldn’t lift the pillar. The city burned for a while after the blast, and they could see the fire line approaching his sister. They couldn’t do anything, and had to listen to the screams of his sister as she died in a sea of fire.

The museum showed us these objects and told these stories for a reason: to plead the world to not let anything like this happen again. And, as much as I struggled with this story in particular and wasn’t sure if I should share or not, I think that these stories are necessary in waking us up. These aren’t just bombs dropped in far away lands, and people should feel ashamed and appalled that tools of such massive destruction can even exist.

After the museum I needed a late lunch. I needed to sit down and catalog the feelings I was having. The best place to do this was at Peace Park. I bought a couple paper cranes and headed there.

Peace Park
Peace Park is a park right near the Hypocenter that shows Nagasaki’s commitment to world peace and the disarmament of nuclear weapons. Countries from around the world (excluding the nations with nuclear missiles, which includes the USA) were invited to place sculptures in the park depicting the concept of ‘peace’.

Places like Brazil and Norway did obscure art, while other countries created works of art that all mimicked the same thing: a mother holding a sick child. The child symbolizes Japan, and the mother symbolizes the world community that came to embrace Japan after the bombs were dropped.

The biggest statue of them all was this man striking a very odd pose. He was sitting. One arm pointed up towards the sky and the other pointed off into the distance. The arm pointing up to the sky symbolizes the bomb that dropped from the sky, and the outstretched arm symbolizes Nagasaki calling out to the world for peace...and to never let something like this happen again.

Next to the man was two shrines. Each had a golden paper crane at the top and inside were those strings of cranes again.

Shiroyama Elementary School
My last stop before heading back to Fukuoka was an elementary school near the Hypocenter that partially survived the blast. I didn’t get to see much of it, actually. It was a hike up this little hill, and the wall that survived was covered in trees.

What I did see was a bunch of children getting picked up by their parents and taken home. In the middle of the courtyard was the statue of a boy holding a dove. Next to him were those strings of cranes again, all in vivid colors. In front of the boy were two students gossiping.

It’s strange seeing these monuments and memorials integrated into the living breathing city of Nagasaki. To those girls, the Atomic Bomb is a history story. They have known peace all their life, and Nagasaki kindly reminds them that there are horrors in this world. Nagasaki also reminds them that these horrors can be prevented as long as there are enough people to stand up and call for peace.
Shortly after that I was back on a train for Fukuoka. I knew this was going to be a hard day. It was going to be a trip I would never forget, and I was right. I am a very sensitive person. I feel things on a very personal level...sometimes more than I should. What that does, though, is tune me in to what it means to be human. I feel connected to the world and to people. It’s also why I get such a thrill from traveling. The more I learn about other cultures, the more I feel connected. As I feel more connected, I want to help others and stand up to injustice. It gives me my ‘fighting’ spirit.

Seeing something like Nagasaki in person is life changing for me. It was always just a history story to me. Now it’s a place. It’s a group of people. It’s a story that should never be forgotten in order to ensure that something like this never happens again.

It also sickens me to think that it was my country that did this, and that we intentionally leave out facts to cover our shame. I am an American, and I have so much to be proud of. My country is home. I also feel ashamed that we see this as nothing more than a ‘necessary evil’ to end a war. We haven’t learned, and you can hear it today in the rhetoric we use on a daily basis. People talk about making Afghanistan or Iraq into a 'parking lot'. We talk about nukes like they are sticks on the playground and we are the bully that wields them to threaten and scare others into submission. And, for the most part, we don’t stand up to our government and demand that they try to correct these injustices. We even encourage them to build more and wield them in the name of ‘protection’.

I am proud to be an American, but what I just said will ultimately be our downfall. It’s up to us as individuals to change that. I hope and pray that we do, much like I hope and pray that the world knows peace.

And that brings me to the story of the paper cranes. In the years that followed Hiroshima, there was this young girl who was suffering from the late stages of leukemia. She survived the initial blast by getting thrown through a window when she was 2, but later on she developed complications from the radiation. There was no hope for her, and when she was 12 years old the doctors gave her only 1 year to live.

If you have ever spent an extended amount of time with a child, you know how they hate to say ‘no’. In their innocence is a never-give-up spirit.

There is an ancient Japanese story that says that, if you fold 1,000 paper cranes, you will be granted a wish from the gods. When she was put into the hospital, her best friend came by and brought her a piece of golden origami paper folded into a paper crane (allusions to that first golden crane can be found everywhere in Nagasaki).

While in the hospital, she folded paper cranes to pass the time and...possibly...she would be able to wish the leukemia away. She would borrow paper from everywhere she could find it, including unused medical wrappings and paper brought from friends.

When I imagine this little girl folding paper cranes, I think of those stories of the kid who beats cancer. The good guy wins. She gets to go home and live on with her life.

This story didn't have that happy ending. She died in the hospital later that year.

According to the story, she only got to 644 cranes. Before she was buried, all her friends rallied and helped her finish her 1,000 cranes. They buried the cranes with her.

I don't think her wish was to become a symbol of peace around the world, but that's what came true. Her story caught fire and is now firmly embedded in Japanese lore. Many girls look up to her and see her as a heroine. She turned the crane into symbol of hope...that we would never know the horrors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki ever again, and that the world will know peace.

Her name was Sadako Sasaki, and she helped stir up hope in millions of hearts around the world. 67 years after the bombs, her story lives on in these cranes that populate Hiroshima and Nagasaki. And sometimes, a story of hope like Sadako's is just what is needed to push humanity in the right direction.

*You can read her story in this book, Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes. There are a couple iterations of Sadako's story, but each has the same moral behind it. This one is the children's book version.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Fukuoka Visa Run 2012, Part 2: Encapsulated

So I made it to Fukuoka, safe and sound. It’s been smooth sailing since I boarded that flight in Busan. Asia works so efficiently and so methodical that, so far, everything has been on time to the minute. Everything from the plane ride to the train to the consulate: even though I’ve been out here for over a year, I’m still in awe.

Fukuoka is an interesting city to get lost in, and that’s exactly what I did today. After paying a visit to the Korean consulate, it was only 1pm. And, as I had no idea where I was staying, it only made sense to walk around until I found something.

Japan in general is a trip for anybody. This is my 3rd time visiting the country, so I did kinda know what to expect. Regardless, I still found myself at times staring at the vivid colors and sheer volume of advertisements or giving myself a headache just trying to read 1 word in Japanese. The culture is off the wall in terms of style, and people march to their own beat here. It’s vastly different from Seoul, and the more I think about it the more I miss my soon-to-be home.

The top priority today, aside from locating the consulate, was finding a place to crash for the night. I carry gear with me, and there’s nothing worse than strolling in a foreign city not knowing where you’re going to sleep or worrying about getting mobbed for all your stuff. Fortunately for me, I stumbled upon a gem of a place that is not only a rad place to stay, but it’s actually affordable. And for Japan, that’s good. The Yen is kicking our butt right now.

It’s called the Hotel Cabinas, and it is a combination capsule hotel and sauna for about $50USD a night (most 3-star hotels will cost you $150 or more in Japan). Now I am already a professed connoisseur of Korean saunas, and to combine that with the concept of a capsule makes this place an absolute steal.

The capsules come in 2 flavors: shared, and private. I opted for the private one, and my ‘room’ looks something like this:

It’s the perfect home base for me! I don’t need big rooms, I just need a place to drop my gear. I can lock everything up and not worry about the thing. The capsule comes with a reading light, pajamas, and the Swiss-Army knife equivalent of a remote control that powers a TV, radio, and your alarm. Effectively, I could live in this thing if someone kept feeding me. It does make me feel like a puppy at the store, though. It has a strange vibe to it.

The best part of the capsule hotel is with a room you also get access to their rooftop sauna. They have pools that put the Korean saunas to shame, all including an outdoor pool overlooking the 15th story warmed to a perfect 40C. I’ve already spent a great deal of time there, and after walking the entire city with a ton of gear on my back my body needed the break.

Tomorrow is shaping up to be a doozy as well. I have to talk to the consulate in the morning to finalize stuff, then get my Visa. From there, I have so many travel options...and for the first time, it was easy to nail it down to one that is a must see. I’m going to try and visit it tomorrow and take some pictures. It’s going to be an emotionally taxing day to boot.

Now it’s 7pm here, and I’ve been effectively awake since 3am.The fatigue is starting to set in, so it’s about time to settle in my capsule and call it a night. I can’t wait till tomorrow. I’ve been waiting a long time for this one.

Monday, September 3, 2012

Fukuoka Visa Run 2012, Part 1: He Took the Midnight Train Going Anywhere

I was trying to explain the concept of a Visa Run to a non-traveling friend of mine the other day, only realizing afterwards that it was impossible to explain without sounding like I was doing something shady. In the traveling world, the concept ‘Visa Run’ is very well known and accepted as part of the reality that you really are far away from home, and that as a guest in a said country you must abide by their laws. To someone outside that circle, however, a Visa Run sounds like something of a spy movie. Papers, Embassies, Last Minute Flights, Confirmation Numbers. Trust me, it sounds cooler than it really is.

Regardless, it marks the beginning of a new Adventure of the Orange Sweater, and I’m excited to let you in on this mini-adventure that kicks off a series of more adventures that is sure to be....well, quite adventurous indeed!

This adventure starts with a midnight train in Seoul, speeding off into the distance to catch a flight on the other side of the country.

Well, actually, it starts at my soon-to-be office. To be exact, it started a couple weeks ago during the tedious process of applying for an E-7 Visa in Korea.

For those of you not familiar with the concept of Visa’s, let me explain. A Visa is not a credit card, but a piece of paper or stamp in your passport that lawfully allows you to be in a country. When you travel, the most common type of Visa is a Travel Visa. This is usually nothing more than a stamp saying the date you arrived and the date you must leave. Sometimes you pay a fee, sometimes you answer questions, and sometimes you must apply weeks beforehand and get permission from the local embassy. The time you are allowed in a certain country can vary from a handful of weeks to 6 months. For a country like Korea, it is completely dependent on what country you call home. I am an American citizen, and as of June of 2012 you are granted a 3 month traveler’s Visa when you enter the country.

Now, in nearly all cases, you are not allowed to do alot of things on a traveler’s Visa. As far as the government is concerned, you are simply a guest in their country. You cannot own a cell phone or a house. You also legally cannot work. To be a more permanent guest in a country, you need to secure a long-term Visa. There are some specific for Diplomats, ones for Marriage, Students, Workers, and just about any situation that requires a person to be in a foreign country for longer than the duration of a Traveler’s Visa.

In my case, I am getting an E-7 Visa, which is a working Visa reserved for professionals in an industry in Korea. My Visa is for Video Producers. Previously, I was on an E-2 Visa  when I taught here, which is the standard Teaching Visa. And as for the past 3 months? Well, I was visiting my Girlfriend on a travel Visa set to expire at the end of September.

Now, as complicated as that sounds, that’s the short and sweet version of the Visa application process. When you turn in all your paperwork and Immigration accepts everything, you are then given a Visa confirmation number. That number is your ticket to  go get a Visa at any Embassy for that country in the world. So, for example, if you are getting a Visa for the UK you will need to visit a UK Embassy.

The silly part about this process is that an Embassy for a country cannot be found in that country. So, for people that are in Korea and require an Korean Visa, you will need to leave the country to get the Visa. This is much more common than it sounds, and so the concept of a Visa Run is the time honored tradition of literally running out of the country to get a piece of paper that says you can stay in that country. You would think, in this age, they would have an easier way of doing this...

Anyways, I just got my Visa Confirmation number for my E-7 Friday of last week. The following Monday(today), I booked a slew of tickets, including a train ticket leaving Seoul station this very evening.

My route is pretty simple: my destination is the Fukuoka Korean Consulate in Japan. It’s a 2 day process to get my Visa, and I was able to cushion that time frame with an additional 2 days to compensate for any kind of hiccup in the process.

To get to Fukuoka from Seoul in the most economical way possible on literally last minute notice was to book a midnight train to Busan, a city on the southern tip of Korea, and take a plane from there to Japan. There was the option of taking a ferry, but the ticket buying process was in Japanese and I couldn’t navigate the website without having weird anime characters jumping around the screen.

So now here I am: on a midnight train going to Busan to catch a morning flight to Japan. It’s that quick. This morning I wasn’t planning on doing much. This evening, I packed a backpack in a scramble and was running after a train. It happened that quick.

I’ve been napping most of the train ride, but I did get up at around 3am to take a peek outside. It’s strange seeing the countryside of Korea. Sometimes I forget that Korea isn’t just Seoul. It’s a proper country. This night in particular was something special. We were in these foothills that went on for miles, all with rice paddies carved into the side of the hills. A harvest must have just taken place, as the paddies were empty. Rather, there were just hundreds of circular ponds sprawling as far as the eye could see. A morning fog was rolling in, and the moon had this eerie glow that bounced off the water that illuminated the landscape. In the distance, I could see 1 small house with the light on. It was probably a farmer preparing for his day. He must get to wake up to this wonderful piece of land every morning.

I didn’t have much time to dwell on it, as just like that the train was in a tunnel and I was riding through Daejeon, another Korean city. I dozed off again shortly after that.

My train is finally coming to a stop now. It’s 4am. I have about 6 hours until my flight. I think a quick trip to the sauna will do me alot of good. It’s been quite a day, and I wasn’t expecting such a spontaneous. Nevertheless, I’m intoxicated on the thrill of it all. This is what traveling is all about: you, a backpack, and the uncertainty of what is up ahead. I’ll see you all in Japan!

Friday, August 24, 2012

Quick Update

Hey guys! I'm still on the road in Korea prepping to embark on a multitude of amazing projects. I still unfortunately cannot disclose what I'm doing at this time, although I will be able to share my adventures when everything finally begins. That's coming very soon here, and I look forward to bring you guys along for the ride.

Until then, to exercise my writing chops, I'll be writing on some of my more tame adventures over the last couple of months. Thanks for staying with me, guys!

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Updates and Things To Come!

I originally started this blog to let my mom know that I was alive and doing well while I was out and about. It was perfect: leave a post every couple of weeks...occasionally with some pictures...and let her know that I was indeed alive. (And by the way, mom: if you're reading this now, I just want to let you know that I know it's hard to have your son travel all the time. You worry alot, and I just want to let you know that I love you. Thanks for letting me have my adventures.)

I've looked at my many excuses for not blogging, and frankly some of them are kinda lame. My favorite one was one summer when I was busy playing Minecraft and let a month slip by without knowing it. Regardless, it's hard to blog when there's not exciting things going on. I'm not a Twitter guy, nor am I into the whole "Let's post everything about my life on Tumblr" crowd (although I have some friends that do it well). I usually need something cool and exciting to share with you, and sometimes life is just not exciting. I mean, if it was always exciting all the would get boring, right?

Well, I wanted to check in with you folks and let you know that AOTOS has not been forgotten or neglected. In fact, I wanted to let you know that the lack of posts as of late is actually because of how busy I am right now. I'm working on something super awesome...and super secret (for now). Some old projects are taking off, like Roots of Happiness, which is touring festivals right now. Check it out!

Super proud of that one. It's refreshing seeing something like this take off. We're doing some things on the side as well that supplement this project. Kids are stepping up and making a difference. It's going to melt your heart, I promise. I'll update you more once they're solidified.

This project I'm working on right now, however, is another beast entirely. It's so awesome and stressful and intellectually stimulating that I'm simply devastated that I can't tell you what I've been doing over the past 2 months........yet. It's a game changer. That's how awesome it is.

It's coming soon guys. I'll share what I can. Hang in there. I'll have some cool stuff to post in the coming weeks and months. Really cool stuff. Travel stuff. Film stuff. And the Orange Sweater is coming along. It's not over yet.'s just getting started.

Enjoy some pics for the time being. Keep following me for the ride. I'll talk to you soon!
Editing myself is so much fun.
Some of my new friends. They're cool.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Charity is An Act, Not an Organization

charity |ˈCHaritē|
noun ( pl. charities )

1:  the voluntary giving of help, typically in the form of money, to those in need.

2:  an organization set up to provide help and raise money for those in need.

3:  kindness and tolerance in judging others

There are 60 countries in the world that recognize English as an official language. The English language is beautiful in that, although words may share a similar definition, they are capable of conveying entirely different meanings across countries and cultures. In many cases, I find this to be an amazing thing. Language is capable of tearing down walls and building bridges. Many of the problems that our modern civilization faces can be solved with communication, and crossing the langauge barrier is one of the big hurdles that we've been able to plow through in the past 100 years or so.

Yet as 'advanced' and 'cultured' as we claim to be, it sickens me to think that a word like charity seems to be confused with guilt in the Western World while my kids in Kenya hold it to such high esteem.

My Kenyan friends seem to correlate charity with hope. At the risk of putting words in their mouths...from the conversations I've had with them, it seems that they define charity with the first definition. It's an act of giving to those in need. It doesn't necessarily come in the form of money. It can be as simple as feeding someone a meal or showing compassion to a person who might need it. Although simple in theory, it's much more powerful and moving in person. It's addicting and exciting, and seeing a person's face turn from sadness to joy only further cements the idea that charity is an action that requires you interacting with another human being. It's communicative. Interpersonal. Loving.

That's a beautiful way to see it, and it took an orphanage halfway around the world to make me see it that way.

That's also why I cannot be angry at the Western World for defining charity under the second definition. If you were to ask a person on the street in the United States what a charity is, they would mention organizations and groups. We correlate the act of charity with the act of giving money...and often strictly as that. It's that elderly lady who rings a bell around Christmas time asking for your spare change, or the endless car washes and gala dinners and raffle tickets meant to raise money for some nameless face a thousand miles away.

It's a simple cause and effect: you give a couple dollars to make a problem go away, and in turn you feel great because you are doing 'your part'. It might be to make the guilt go away or to believe, in the bottom of your heart, that you are doing something good.

Now this is the part where I'm suppose to take that way of thinking and destroy it with pathos. I'm suppose to make you feel bad for putting your spare change into the UNICEF canister sitting next to the cash register. I can't do that, though, because it's extraordinarily difficult to make a change in the world without the proper financing. In fact, I'll be asking you to donate at the end of this entry. How's that for a convincing argument?

Before you do that, though, I want to propose that you do some things first. There's a lovely website run by the National Center for Charitable Statistics that is a treasure chest of information on the non-profit sector in the United States. Go there and learn a bit more about what non-profits are doing with donations and money. If you're too lazy to check out the links, here's some information that'll put some perspective on donating (pulled straight form the NCCS website):
  • There are over 1.5 million tax-exempt organizations in the United States.
  • Non-Profits make up nearly 5.4% (as of 2009) of the National GDP
  • Non-Profits reported nearly $1.41 trillion total revenues and $1.4 trillion in total expenses in 2009
  • 22% of that revenue came from donations. the other 78% came from program service revenue, goods sold, rental and special event income
  • Of that 22%, 35% of that came from religious organizations. Education institutions came in 2nd with 14% of total estimated contributions
  • Approximately 26.3% of Americans over 16 volunteered to work with an organization in 2009.
That last figure is the one that I find most disheartening. On a yearly basis, only about 1 in 4 people actually volunteer their time and do rather than give.

It comes back to my Kenyan friends, and how they view charity in comparison to many of us in the Western World. They don't have alot, but they want to give what they have and help someone in need. It's an instinct. A foundation in their very being. They do and give, and in turn they are rewarded with a joy that very few achieve in a lifetime. 

Just recently, I had one of my friends in Kenya tell me about a program he wanted to start. It was simple: he wanted his friends in his hometown to play soccer so that they would stay off of drugs and form a sense of community. To start, they would need a soccer ball and a couple jerseys. That's it. 

Think about that for a second. If you wanted to play soccer, right now, what would you need to do? You could probably just run to a local store and buy a ball or borrow one from a friend and walk to the nearest park. You could probably join a league of people, meet many friends, and play throughout the year without much of a hassle.

Here's a fine instance where you can't do but you can empower. There's a kid somewhere with a great idea but no resources to pull it off. We have the resources to empower him to help his community. Should you give? Absolutely!

At the same time, you should look at what he is doing and see how you can do that in your own community and in your life. What can you do? What will it take to empower yourself to give back to your community?

Charity is an act. It isn't an organization of people. It isn't something to write off on your taxes. You have to do, and 1 in 4 isn't good enough for me. Too many people are complacent, and charities are focusing on fundraising and budgets over actually doing something for the world. In fact, they advertise that their donations are 'tax deductible'. It's a vicious circle, and it's up to you to consciously do something about it.

Once you do something, it's then that you can understand the true joy of empowering others to do good for this world. We're all in this together. Do. Empower. Then give. Trust me, it's easier than it sounds.
Also, if you're at that point where you feel like you want to empower some amazing people far away, consider donating to an education fund we set up for the kids in Kenya. Empowering someone is more than giving them survival tools. It's giving them the means to help themselves and find solutions for their communities, like my friend Kelvin did with soccer. I would even encourage you to visit and do a project with them. That trip may cost alot, but it'll empower you for a lifetime and give you the tools to take on the world. It will also let you see what charities do, and how you can navigate the non-profit world with confidence.

I would also encourage you to demand more from charities (like Think Kindness) and ask how your money will be used and what they are actually doing. Charitable donations need to be dialogues, and you should demand more from the people that you entend to empower.

You can find a link to the Tumaini Education Fund here

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Lost Baggage

Remember that post a month ago about making footprints? Yea...I took Hayden's advice to heart and decided to take a gamble on a high-risk, high-reward job. I'm back in Korea, working my heart out on a project that if successful will fundamentally alter the way English is taught in this country. It's not every day that opportunities like this come around, and from a personal and professional standpoint I'm treading into territory that is unfamiliar and uncertain. Fortunately, I'm behind a camera...somewhere where I'm comfortable and confident. That'll guide me to the realization of this project.

As for blogging, I'll update you kids with what I'm doing when there's some exciting news to update you on. Right now it's budgeting and pre-production. Lots of numbers, lots of pitches, and lots of head pounding on desks. You don't want to see that nit and gritty part yet. I'll show you the fun stuff. You know...the adventures.

And in case you were wondering, I had a scare with my Orange Sweater and a lost piece of luggage on the way here. When it was lost and its fate was uncertain, I had a long reflection on the life that it's had. It's been a long one for a $5 sweater found on a clearance rack. By all logic, it should be sitting at the back of a closet somewhere or as a 2nd-hand oil rag on someone's car. It's not practical, nor is it a style that screams fashionable.

Regardless, the two of us have built a legacy together. Stories of our adventures together have preceded us. We've created something special here, and I've had people approach me telling me they've been inspired by the stories and adventures me and my orange sweater have had together.

The idea that it might have been lost forever frightened me. It meant the possible end of an era. It represented a chunk of my life where I learned what it meant to truly live, where I followed my heart and took the path less traveled. Facing the world without my orange sweater...well, it felt daunting. I wasn't ready to move on quite yet.

Fortunately, it found it's way back to me. I think that's a sign. At the very least, it has survived this long. There's still time for some adventures and excitement, even though the years are creeping up and 'real life' is calling. I'm not quite ready to hang up the sweater just yet, which means our story will still have some tales yet to be written.

Sunday, June 17, 2012


Last time I checked in with you guys, I had 1 more Korea Photo Dump for you. It's strange how easily promises like that can be broken, isn't it? I'm sure I'll get back to delivering you some good photo content eventually... for now, though, I'll be back to my sporadic-posting ways. I promise I have a good excuse this time, as I did just get an awesome job opportunity to work in video production and ELT content creation. It's going to take a lot of my free time for the foreseeable future, so bear with me. For now, enjoy some good ol' fashioned 'life-affirming' written content. You know...the stuff that I liked to write in High School that helped shape me into what I am today. Yea. We're getting to my roots on this one.

I've been in a strange position for the past month or so. For the most part, I like to live a very fast-paced life. I always thought that it was because it was "what you were supposed to do when you're young."I take advice from my elders very seriously, and everyone that I look up to in my life has told me that experiencing adventures like the one found in this blog is the right move for a 20-something year old. I got my degree. I have my wits. I support myself and am fairly self-sufficient. On paper, it seems like things are turning out how they are suppose to. That gave me drive and ambition, and it propelled me into this run-and-gun lifestyle I've grown accustom to. I've made this kind of life work for me, and I do love it.

What I didn't anticipate when I began going on these adventures was how much of my identity would be intertwined into being a 'traveler'. Let me tell you now, it's an awesome feeling knowing that people read this blog and talk about it with their friends. I've had old friends...ones I haven't seen or spoken to in years...come up to me and tell me how cool it was to follow my life in such detail. I mean, that's why I started this blog in the first place: to let my friends know how I was doing.

Over time, however, I realized that I was no longer just "Ryan Abella", but "Ryan Abella: the world-traveler." They both go hand in hand. One cannot exist without the other. And, when I flew back to the USA a month ago, I went through a major identity crisis.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Korea Photo Dump #4

Today you get three photos! Today's theme: nights in Seoul.

Sometimes, nights in Seoul get crazy. Really crazy. Especially in a little area near Hongik University, appropriately named Hongdae (the Korean word for "University" is 대학, which sounds like "dad-hak"). It's a large area full of bars and restaurants and coffee shops, much like any university town you'll find in the USA. It's where the cool kids hang out and have fun on the weekends. Except this is Korea, and Korea does things a little bit differently.

For starters, the bars in Seoul do not close until 7 or 8am. Yes, you read that right. There is essentially no closing time, and that is dangerous. It gets even more dangerous when you consider that most people use public transit, and that public transit shuts down at midnight and opens back up at 5am.

What does that all mean? Well, basically, you have till midnight to decide if you want to get home that night or not. If you miss it, you are basically obligated to party all night till the subways open again or sleep in a sauna (more on that later). And, because of that, crazy stuff happens around 3 or 4 am...

Like in this picture, which was taken at a small park in the middle of Hongdae. If you notice, the horseman and wizard have headphones on. That's because they are in a silent disco, one of the strangest events I have ever seen. This was taken around Halloween, and everyone was in silly costumes and properly inebriated. Everyone was also dancing around, but there was no music. Apparently, the DJ is spinning some techno music that is being broadcast to about 100 different pairs of headphones that the people are wearing. So, to them, they were at a crazy party. To us watching, we thought they were nuts.'s a horseman petting a wizard's beard. That's just crazy.

This next picture is actually one of my favorites, and I have still yet to hear back from the girl in the picture (so if you are reading this, email me so I can get you your photos). That same Halloween weekend, I was scheduled to take pictures at a Halloween party for a bunch of foreigners hanging out at the Han river. It was a cool gig, and it was hosted by a microbrewery in Seoul. beer all around. It was awesome.

Anyways, I was taking pictures for the event, and I come up this Korean couple and ask if I can take their picture. The girl says sure, and the boy is all reluctant. They do the normal peace-sign pose, I take a shot, and I start to put my lens cap on. She asks for one more from me and, just then, grabs her boyfriend and gives him a sweet kiss on the lips! It was kinda romantic in a way, and I was just there to get an awesome picture of a young couple in love.

You can see on his cheek that I had the flash pointed right at them. I was using a wide angle lens, and so I was really close and, therefore, the light was pretty harsh on their faces. As it turned out, however, it pulled them out of the scene and put the focus on them too. I also got lucky with some backlight from the barge that really made the scene that much more vivid.

This last one is from the Seoul Fireworks Festival on the Han River. Korea and two other countries (this particular year it was Japan and Norway? Or the Netherlands? Some European nation) bring a ton of fireworks and put a show on for the city of Seoul. They are all judged, so each country brings their A-game to the competition.

Thing is, the two visiting nations are restricted because they only have a week or so to prepare on the ground. They can plan it out, sure, but they have a distinct disadvantage to the Koreans. I would consider this cheating, as the Koreans blew us all away with their show. We all win, though, because we get to see some cool things go boom.

This shot is actually from the Japanese show. We were a little bit down river, and I had my tripod and my 70-200L mounted to take some long exposure shots. Each of these shots were about 3-5 seconds each: just long enough to catch the trails of the different shells exploding. The end result is these awesome streaks of colored light framed by the river and the city itself. I have a good 30 shots from this night that turned out this way. It was truly an awesome night.
Tune in tomorrow for the last photo dump of this week. I'll pick back up on them this coming Monday and make it a regular thing. Hope you enjoy!

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Korea Photo Dump #3

Photo Dump #3! Today's theme: people in Korea!

This photo is actually of one of my best friends in Korea, Warren. He's a fellow photographer, and much better than me at that. We talk about gear and technique and such. Nerd out. That kind of thing. His wife asked me to take pictures of him for his graduation, and to tell you the truth...I was intimidated.

You don't like to tell people this, but if you ever mess up a job with a non-photographer kind of person, it's not that big of a deal. As long as you capture the moment and are able to edit it a bit, you can cover up your mistakes pretty well.

With Warren, I knew he would know every single mistake I made. I knew he would look at framing and aperture and all the nit and picky stuff....not to judge me or anything, either. It's more to know how I took a photo and what he as a photographer would do differently.

For his shoot, however, it was pretty cool because we were both in spots that were different than we're use to. He's not usually the subject, and I'm not usually shooting photographers. It created this team mentality that allowed us to grab some pretty cool shots. The day was kinda gloomy to begin with, but we were able to squeeze some good ones out.

This one in particular I liked a lot. I was able to snipe him with my 70-200L and pull him out of the frame with a wide aperture. We bounced it off the wall and, like all good photographers, he knew the pose that would fit perfectly for the scene. The white balance, with the gloomy clouds outside, played into the scene really well. Plus...he graduated. That's all that matters.

It's rare when you actually get to see me in a picture of mine! This is one for me. These are some of the girls I taught at WAW Middle School in Korea. They're funny, awesome kids with great senses of humor. My last day there was filled with pictures and saying goodbye, and this one is perhaps my favorite one of the bunch. One of the girls asked me to do a 'flower' pose, and I happily obliged. Quietly, they all crowded around me and did the same thing! It's can say 'awww'. I love this picture because I loved my job at WAW, and this is just one of many happy memories at that place. They were awesome kids, and it was an honor to teach them all.
Tune in tomorrow for a special photo dump of some of the nights I had in Seoul!

Monday, June 4, 2012

Korea Photo Dump #2

Today's photo dump theme: long exposure shots. Lots of fun :)

To take shots like these, you need the following:
  • A tripod or something completely still to set your camera on. That means no movement whatsoever.
  • A camera that can take exposures in excess of 10 seconds. For many DSLR's, you can go in upwards of 2 minutes, and if you want to get longer you can invest in a remote shutter that will hold that thing open for as long as you want.
  • Patience. It takes some time to set up shots like these.

This first shot comes from those hot summer nights in Korea, where staying inside on a Friday night just isn't an option. I had the privilege of living about an hour outside of Seoul, so I had an urban playground that was open literally all hours of the night. That usually meant me going out with friends and my camera to play around.

This night was no exception. Myself, Danielle (the girl on the left), Alex (the guy on the right), and Jonathan (the guy watching my camera so nobody hits it) decided to explore Namsan Tower: a giant tower on a mountain in the middle of Seoul. It is a really spectacular place, with people admiring the city lights below and taking in all the locks on the rails (I'll show you those later).

Usually I don't carry around a tripod with me, but this night was an exception. That meant we were going to have some fun. I set my camera low to the ground and cranked down the ISO really low. I kept the aperture pretty small as well, because for long exposure shots like this you are letting an phenomenal amount of light into the camera. We timed it for 30 seconds and had Jonathan count out loud for us. We would stay perfectly still for 15 seconds and immediately jump a couple feet to the left for another 15 seconds. This created the illusion of us looking at ourselves. Cool, right?

Also, if you look at the clouds, you can see light from the city bouncing off the sky. Long exposure lets in a ton of light, and so light pollution is something that you should account for. In this case, it actually makes a normally black sky look more vivid and alive.

Much like the last one, this was taken on those restless summer nights in Korea. This is actually my street in Wau-Ri, which runs right down to the University of Suwon. I always loved this street because, although we were in this small and tiny town, this place always seemed to come alive once the sun went down. It was rare to see it without college students walking up and down the streets.

This was one of the rare occasions where I had a nearly empty street in Wau-Ri. It had just stopped raining and the temperature dropped a good 20F. The air had this stillness to it that was very uncharacteristic with the season. I loved it.

One cool thing about this shot is the lights. I love the star patterns they create when you expose a picture for more than 10 seconds or so. Also, the rain puddle was still and cool, and I was able to capture some of the street lights in its reflection.

This picture brings back many memories of this wonderful little neighborhood I found. It was my neighborhood. I knew the people and the shops. I lived there. To me, this place will always be home.
Tune in tomorrow for another couple pictures from abroad!

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Korea Photo Dump #1

Yea...that was a long week, I know. Strangely enough, it's kinda hard to keep up on an adventure blog when you don't have any adventures to go on. Who knew, right? Sometimes you just don't have much to say.

That's been me for the past month; I've taken a back seat on writing and photography. It's a well needed break...where you just indulge yourself on all the movies and books you've been depriving yourself of for the last year and a half. It's nice to enjoy other people's work for a while. For me, it helps me get the creative gears turning. It allows me to sort the slew of ideas in my head and see which ones really stand out. Eventually, a story or an image or two will come clawing its way out of the void...refusing to be silent any longer.

Got carried away with that metaphor, I know. It's been a while, and I'm taking it out on my journal and AOTOS. How bout I just give you some pictures from Korea to make up for it. We'll call it even :)

A little history: I had about 10,000 pictures or so that I sorted through. From there, I edited about 500 of the good ones. These photos stood out to me and told a story. They have been helping me bring some closure to the 1st year of Korea, and I hope you enjoy some of these unreleased images. I've been hoarding them for way too long.

I'll be releasing 2 images per day for the next week or two (or whenever I get tired of talking about my pictures), with some stories behind the image. Hope you enjoy!