Monday, September 30, 2013

Settling Down? Nah...Just Taking a Breather

I've been home for over a month now and, for the first time in a long time, I don't have much to share in terms of future plans or projects I'm working on. I started this blog nearly 3 years ago as a way to share with my family where I was and what I was doing. It worked surprisingly well! When I would come back for visits, I spent less time talking about where I've been and more time catching up with them. I was always more eloquent in my writing and photos, anyways. It was nice. 

When things slow down, however, I struggle tremendously with my identity and who I am. Am I just this vagabonding version of myself, always gearing up for the next big adventure? Am I nothing more than the guy who shows up from time to time with stamps in his passport and a story or two to tell? Reverse culture shock can destructive at times (and sometimes enlightening, like the last time I came back home). From time to time I read back over my blog and journals to make myself feel better, and more often than not I come out more frazzled and down on myself. Am I the same guy that did all those things? Really?!?!

I'm not the same guy I was years ago, however. I'm stronger. Wiser. Maybe a little fatter, but I'll work that off here soon (unless they bring back Mountain Dew Pitch Black, then I'm screwed). I've learned some tips and tricks to keep myself grounded in times of turbulence and uncertainty. It's all stuff you've heard before but, like everyone else, I tend to forget them when I'm feeling like I'm pinned against the wall. That's why I wrote it down and tucked it nicely in the front pouch of my journal, and here's what it reads:

For when you start getting down on yourself, try the following steps:

  • Consult your bucket list. Note what you've crossed off already, and all the stuff you still have to do. (Note: my bucket list is a physical written list that I keep tucked with my passport. There's something about handwriting that makes it so much more personal)
  • Stop comparing yourself to everyone else or to your past self. Everyone does it, and it only makes you jealous. We're all different and all have something to offer.
  • Go for a walk. Or a run. It's probably nice outside.
  • Hug/kiss your mom and tell her you love her. You don't do it enough.
  • Repeat that with the rest of your family. They've missed you.
  • You're good at Halo. Play some games and giggle at the kids taunting you. (yes, I what?)
  • "Your job doesn't define who you are." - Danielle (my friend told me this one)
  • Don't get upset at the situation. Do something about it.
  • It's ok if you get angry as long as it doesn't run your life.
  • Call someone and talk to them! They're either going through the same thing or have been through the same thing. 
  • This is all temporary.
  • Everything happening now was meant to happen, just like everything that's yet to come. It's called destiny, and you're shaping yours right now.
  • Look at the pictures your kids have drawn of you.
    Here's one of them. "Ryan" and "Lion" sound the same to alot of Koreans.
  • Don't binge eat and don't eat junk food. 
  • Actually, some junk food is ok from time to time.
  • Screw it...everything in moderation, right?
  • You were meant to do amazing things for this world. Don't ever forget that.
  • Use your Facebook to keep in contact with friends, not to have a pissing contest or brag.
  • Love! (This one is written in all caps and underlined a couple times)
That last one is the most important one of all. It's the one I never forget, even when I'm having the worst day ever. Love is why I do everything I do, and why I came home in the first place. My family never has a shortage of this, and they've been the best thing for me while I'm looking for work and figuring out what I want to do next (anybody wanna tell me what I should do next?!). My girlfriend, my friends, even the small handful of regular readers here...your love is the best in the world, and I only hope I'm able to reciprocate that whenever I can. 

I end this post with a recent story of love. Two of my friends got married earlier this month, and now they're both off to London for even more adventures. The guy got a free ride to get his Master's. He's seriously making me look bad, and I couldn't be happier for him. The girl has been my friend for over half my life, and the happiness she brings to the people around her nearly all the time is infectious. Weddings like theirs are rare in that I have never seen a couple so in love with each other. We all say that you should care about your significant other more than yourself, but they actually do...all the time.

Love like this is rare and it's something worth celebrating. I wish them a lifetime of happiness, and I want to thank them for reminding me that life is one long adventure we're meant to share with the ones we love.

And thank you, reader, for being a part of my adventure! I couldn't have gotten this far without you. I'm sure we have plenty of more to go on together, and I'm looking forward to taking you with me.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

안녕히계세요, Korea!

In March of 2011 I was sitting in my friend's kitchen in Arizona late one night sipping tequila and talking about our futures (because those two mix all too well). There were three of us, all recent college graduates and all trying to navigate the beginning of our 'adult' lives. Both of them were teachers finishing up their first year. I was coming off of a bad car accident and a 6-month stint of unemployment and sleeping on my brother's bunk bed. One of the teachers, Danielle, is a good friend of mine. We've been friends since elementary school, and she seems to know what I'm thinking and how I should be feeling before I do. Her and her friend Sarah were talking about teaching jobs abroad. Danielle had made some close Korean friends in college, and she's always had the idea of taking a year or two to teach overseas.

It sounded like an awesome adventure, and the next morning I found a recruiting agency in Korea and started sending out applications. I wasn't expecting much: at that time, my college graduation swagger was shattered by unemployment. Fortunately, I didn't have to wait too long. Within a couple days I was talking to Joseph and Hero at HandsKorea. Within a week, my documents were being processed. And, within a month, I had my first job offer and was prepping to go. Danielle and Sarah shortly followed, and we met regularly (and still do) while working and living here in Korea.

That was two and a half years ago. Now I'm less than two weeks from returning to the United States...possibly for good.

I've hit that critical point where I can see the end. It's coming. I've always known about it. I've had my flight booked for months now, and I always knew that all of this was temporary. But that last day has always been far away in the distance, just out of sight and out of mind. Now it's real, and things are starting to happen. I've already shipped boxes home, transferred contracts over, moved's all coming so fast.

I'm not old by any means (I turn 25 tomorrow, in case you wanted to send me some cake or something), but I'm getting old enough to have enough experiences to look back on and realize how damn lucky I've been. Decisions, both good and bad, have brought me here. I'm leaving Korea, and I'm not sure when I'm coming back. It's been incredibly special looking back at my time here, and I'm not quite sure how to say goodbye.

I'll give it a shot though :)

Monday, July 8, 2013

Break the Chains - Part 2: Be a Man

This is Part 2 of "Break the Chains", a series of posts about human trafficking. You can find the first post here.

I should preface this post to say one really important thing to consider while reading: I love Korea. I really do, otherwise I wouldn't have come back to live here for another year. It's a country that has gone from extreme poverty to an economic and social powerhouse in 60 years and in that time, as a country and society, they have gotten alot of things right. Health care, the economy, infrastructure, and even the Confucianism-based ethics and morals that seem rub Westerners the wrong way all work together to form some kind of chaotic harmony that I am just coming to appreciate. I have many Korean friends, and I've met very few people here that I don't respect or love...and yes, that includes the ajumma that likes to shoulder check you on the subway.

So, when I am talking about Korean men in this article, it applies to all men. It's a universal message, and it's pretty simple:
If we're to break the chains of human trafficking in this world, men need to learn what it means to be men.
Human trafficking is a broad term that blankets anyone who is exploited. However, of those people who are exploited, it is estimated that 80% of them are sexually exploited, which includes prostitution and rape. That's startling, considering that the reported number of people who are trafficked each year is around 30 million (and that's a conservative estimate). Going deeper into those numbers, you have to consider that more than 70% of those people are women and 50% are children.

That's 24,000,000 people each year who are sexually exploited, and these are the people who are most vulnerable in our societies. All sex-equality aside: these people deserve protection, and they aren't getting it.

These numbers scare me, but in Korea they become downright startling. Here's Korea's sex trafficking statistics by the numbers, and take into consideration that most of their data comes from 2004 when they passed legislation to help protect these people. Also consider that this covers the sex industry, not statistics on rape or domestic abuse, and that these are conservative estimates based on known businesses and sectors. The numbers could be much higher.

In Korea, there are:

  • 500,000 women involved in the sex industry, according to the Ministry for Gender Equality. The Korean Feminist Association estimates that number to be around 1 million.
  • That's 1 out of 25 women selling themselves. 
  • For girls between 14 and 29, 1 out of 5 girls have worked in the sex industry at some point in their lives
  • 200,000 Korean youths running away from home each year. Half of the girls turn to prostitution to survive.
  • 60,000 known businesses in the sex trade pulling in $40 Billion USD each year
  • nearly 100 million sex-trade transactions each year.
As much as those numbers bother me, it's this one that really makes me ashamed for my gender:

1 in 5 Korean men in their 20's buy sex at least 4 times a month.

I'm not sure how to interpret this statistic. This isn't a minor crime we're talking about here. It's not like a small demographic is going out and buying women every night. It's a huge industry. It's widespread. And it's either socially ignored or accepted by Korean culture.

Now I haven't been here long enough to be a spokesperson for the Korean mindset...and yes, it's a mindset. It's very hard for a foreigner to understand how Korean culture thinks and operates because of the language barrier and how closed-off it is to Waygooks (Korean for 'foreigner'). That doesn't mean I haven't had the chance to observe Korean culture and the consensus of the foreigner community. It is widely known that Korea is a male-dominated society. 

Korea ranks 108 out of 135 according to the World Economic Forum's Global Gender Gap Report, ranking behind countries like Cambodia and the United Arab Emirates. For every $1 made by a Korean man, a woman will make $.54 on average. Of the 100 members of parliament, 16 are women. Men dominate the workforce, and I've seen this at a couple of companies in Korea. Management is almost solely men, which means that women are often passed up for promotions regularly. Like always, there are exceptions...but generally, women and men are not equal in the Korean workforce.

These are economic statistics, yes, but that workforce dominance directly translates to the sex industry and how men treat women in general here in Korea. There is rampant sexual abuse in the workplace (although, fortunately, I've never seen this firsthand). It is common practice at many companies to take clients out to the noraebangs (karaoke rooms) or to tearooms, which often leads to treating them to prostitutes working at these places. 

That dominance even seeps into the act of sex itself...especially when men buy women. For the documentary I'm working on, we interviewed women who worked in the sex industry in Korea. Their testimonies are horrifying. Men would beat them and threaten them, sometimes with knives to their throats, while having sex with them. These women were degraded and humiliated on a nightly basis, both verbally and physically. One woman told us she didn't feel like a human being. She was a product. The man bought her, much like he would buy something at a market. For that set time, she was his toy, and he could do what he wanted with her.

Regardless if you're a man or a woman, I want you to imagine that feeling for a moment. Just try to imagine how it must feel to see yourself not as a person...but as a product. A thing to be sold, used, and ultimately cast away. It's no wonder that many girls in the sex industry try to commit suicide. 

Now, as I'm writing this documentary, I feel so disconnected from them....because I'm a man. Chances are, I'll never feel that kind of vulnerability in my life. I'll never feel that discrimination, or that degradation. It's easy for me at times to feel guilty for being a man, or to turn my guilt into anger towards Korean men. How could they make these women feel this way? How do they excuse their culture and let something like this become 'socially acceptable'? At what point does your ignorance become incriminating?

During those times, I have to reel it back in and realize that it's not just Korea...this happens everywhere. Every country on this planet allows the sexual exploitation of women. Men have dominated women throughout human history, and today the image of 'being a man' is often associated with chauvinism and superiority masquerading as confidence. 

Let me be clear: men are not evil. We aren't the bad guys. Both men and women contribute to this warped vision of manliness. Men aren't expected to act chivalrous these days. We've let us excuse deplorable behavior as 'boys being boys', when these boys need to act like men. We've let it slide for too long, and the sexual exploitation that is rampant in Korea and around the world is a symptom of us devaluing our morals.

Like all injustices in this world, we have to ask ourselves "What can I do about it?" If something like this is so rampant, especially in a place like Korea, what can I do on a personal level that actually makes a difference? I've battled this question for most of my adult life, whether the dollar I give to an organization makes a real difference or whether a simple act of kindness translates to a better world. The thing does help. Positive change starts with small steps. Even for something like sex trafficking, we have somewhere to start. All of us do, both men and women, and I said it at the beginning of this post:
If we're to break the chains of human trafficking in this world, men need to learn what it means to be men.
This means, as men, we need to destroy this idea that dominance is our birthright. We need to act like righteous men all the time, not just around women, and demand that our fellow men do the same. That means viewing women not just as equals, but respecting women and showing that in everything we do. Women need to demand this from us as well, and that includes dismissing the stereotype that all men must exhibit confidence at all times. For both sexes, I know we're going against biology here. But if we can evolve beyond living in caves and accomplishing wonders like going to space or splitting the atom, I think we can evolve to the point where we see women and men truly as equals. We all need to do our part, though, and realize that when we look away from problems like this we are just as bad as the John buying a girl at a brothel.
I took a break tonight to go on my rooftop in Seoul and look out into the city. It's raining outside, and at 1 in the morning it's very quiet...even for a city. The clouds are low, and the streetlights illuminate them with an orange glow. On one side is a residential neighbor, and I can see all the way to the Han River. In Korea, many churches have this bright neon-red cross that sits on top of the steeple. You can see them for miles, and on that one side alone I counted 28 crosses. That's 28 churches, each with a congregation dedicated to the teachings of Jesus. 

On the other side of my apartment is the subway station and, just on the other side of that, are 10 blocks or so of brightly-lit motels, karaoke bars, massage parlors, and tearooms. It's small in comparison to other districts in Seoul. But, even on a Monday night, there are probably 50 or so places in that district that are selling women. That's not including the thousands of call cards thrown all over the sidewalk beckoning businessmen to call.

It's a fitting image for the project I'm working on, asking the righteous to take action against the other. It isn't a religious-only battle. It's a human rights battle, and the wrong side is winning right now. I hope and pray that, in my lifetime, we're able to turn the tide. 

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Break the Chains - Rebooted

This past Sunday I was originally booked to leave Korea and begin looking for work in the United States. But, after a series of serendipitous events and some long talks with my mom and my girlfriend, I've decided to stay in Korea until August. Here's why...

Over a year ago I met a group of people that were doing something truly ambitious: tackling the issue of human trafficking and prostitution in Korea. They're part of an English church called Onnuri English Ministry (OEM), led by an ambitious Pastor named Eddie Byun (here's a link to some of his sermons). I was introduced to OEM and Pastor Eddie through a network of friends and, through some video work I did for them, was brought on to work on a documentary covering this issue domestically in Korea.

The next couple of months I would go and shoot some weekend interviews with women who were involved in the industry and the people trying to help them. As much as I hate to admit it, at that time I was very uninformed about human trafficking and prostitution. In my spare time I would try my best to research the subject and become a more informed citizen. I wrote a bit about it in my blog, read some books, and talked to people about how terrible something like this can happen right under our noses. Even Korea and many other developed nations, it's socially accepted. It sickened me.

And yet, as a 23 year old just trying to survive the professional world for a while, I let the issue slide. I got lazy in my activism. I had the power to do something good and let it slip away, excusing myself because I 'didn't have the time'.

As I quickly approached the end of my time at my video job in Korea, I was approach again by OEM. They told me that they had made some strides in their fight for justice in this country with their own groups like Hope Be Restored, garnering attention of the the international anti-trafficking community. They also told me that they had collected some more interviews and that this documentary was still on, and that they wanted me on board to help.

It couldn't have come at a better time. I was in between, wondering what really brings me fulfillment in my life and questioning the moves I have made up to this point. I had forgotten the reason why film fascinated me: it has the tremendous power to make a difference. It sparks debate and dialogue about subjects that frequently get lost in the jumble of other issues we tend to face. It's in those conversation that the seeds of change begin to grow.

After some conversations with my family and some meditation and prayer, I decided to go in and finish this film we had started nearly a year and a half ago. Over the next 2 months, I'll be structuring this film based off of the very honest and vivid testimonies given by the women who, above all others, deserve a voice on this issue of prostitution and human trafficking. It is modern day slavery, and the developed world needs to take notice and deliver justice. As William Wilberforce once said,
You may choose to look the other way but you can never say again that you did not know.
I hope to share more information on what I'm researching concerning human trafficking, in particular how it manifests in Korea and the United States. Anything on the subject will fall under my "Break the Chains" series of posts. It's a multi-faceted issue affecting every nation on this earth, and I'll only scratch the surface with this blog and the documentary we're working on. But, like with any human rights movement, it requires individuals to take a first step. I saw and heard the stories of these women, and I cannot look the other way any longer. It's time to break the chains that bind our fellow man.

Monday, May 27, 2013

New Zealand 2013 - A Wrap Up (With Pictures!!!!)

I wrote this blog post on one of our last shoots in New Zealand. We've been home now for 2 months, and I found it stuffed in a Word document on my desktop. New Zealand needed some closure, as things are once again getting busy. Hope you enjoy!
One of our very last shoots I had ordered a helicopter shoot of some glaciers on the South Island. We had some delays and transfers to different branches, but at the last minute we got the all clear to fly out of Queenstown and to visit one of the nearby glaciers. After doing a shoot on a rock climbing face (and conquering my fear of heights…or, rather, learning to cope with it), we hopped into a helicopter and took a 90 minute flight to the middle of the Southern Alps.

The flight took us right over some of the most spectacular mountains on Earth. Rolling green hills turned into giant gorges with raging rivers flowing at the bottom. If you’ve ever been in a helicopter, it has a certain grace that just can’t be described. On the right day, it’s a very smooth ride. It’s so nimble, and you’re easily consumed by the landscape. It feels like you’re diving in and out of reality, like you're part of a painting or a giant photograph, and you’re stuck in between the real world and this spectacular sight. I love helicopter rides, and they’re worth every penny if you want to soak in a place like New Zealand.

Our pilot, Dave, was also a cool guy. He was a banker for a number of years, decided that his job kinda sucked, and decided to fly helicopters instead. 12 years later and he’s never regretted his decision. He pulled some strings and, rather than limit us to a standard 40 minute tour, took us the long way around.

We had 2 landings scheduled for the day. The first was on top of the glacier, and it was the most dangerous one. A cloud was hanging on top of the mountain, and throughout the day it would regularly roll down the glacier, blanketing the landing site. We had a small window to land in and, serendipitously, we got in and out just as the sun decided to peek out and grant us some fair weather.

Production Value
Sitting on top of a glacier with a helicopter in the background is something else entirely. Now you’re part of the painting, and all you can do is soak it all in. Of course, I had a job to do and had to film as much as possible in our 15 minute landing window, but that didn’t stop me from enjoying myself. Above us was a blanket of clouds waiting to roll back in and overtake the glacier. Fifty feet in three directions was a cliff face that plummeted a good 1000 feet down the mountain side, and everywhere around us were giant crevices that are notorious for eating people and giving poor Dave a ton of paperwork to fill out.

After a snow fight and some “we’re awesome” pictures on top, Dave took us down to a lake that forms every summer as the glacier melts. It was at the bottom of that giant cliff face, and in many ways it was even more majestic than standing at the top. From down there, you can truly grasp how huge this place is. Waterfalls from the melting glacier were tumbling a thousand feet down into this sky-blue lake. Small mountain flowers grew in the cracks of the glacier rock. On 3 sides is melting ice, and in that moment as you stare up you think only of how small you truly are.

Dave took us back the long way, making sure to do some incredible banks above the glacier face. I got a shot of us flying along a crevice and banking off a cliff that was just absolutely incredible and, in that moment, brought me back to why I loved filmmaking in the first place. The stress of getting the perfect shot melts away when you're consumed by a location like this. You and your camera are just minor players on this grand stage, and so whether the film that results is stunning or not is irrelevant. This is an experience, and you and your camera are just there for the ride. It’s taken me to some amazing places thus far, and I’m bent on riding this adventure as long as I can.
That was one of the last posts I wrote while actually in New Zealand. It's been 2 months since then, and looking back I'm reminded of how lucky we were to go on a trip like that...and have it funded nonetheless. We accomplished something amazing, and I'm sure we'll reap the rewards later down the road. 

For us and the cast, it was a bonding experience that still lingers today. We've all met up again in Seoul a couple of times, and it's always been met with inside jokes and fond memories. Spending 30 days in a Mini Van driving one of the most beautiful countries on the planet will do that to you. You'll always have a fondness for the time spent there...especially if you have friends to share that feeling with you. That's what traveling's all about, and I'm lucky to be able to take these memories and shelve them next to all the others.

Now, we did take a slew of cameras with us. It was a job after all. Here's some of the images from the trip. And trust me, with a country like New Zealand, the pictures never do the country justice. Enjoy!

Sara and Steven getting their Zen on

Steven doing most of the always

Me taking a break near the tide pools in Dunedin

Never leave Sara alone in the car...

Doing some mountain biking in Rotorua

GoProing it up before bungy jumping
Trevor off in the distance. Glacier country is so colorful
Early morning Balloon ride
Taking a breather on top of a glacier. Some clouds are rolling in.

That's a nervous smile from me...
This is what fear looks like... (Photo by Steven Mortinson)
Hot Air Ballooning
The whole gang

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Chasing Shangri-La

Good news (especially for Mom and Dad)! Well, big news at and my sweater are returning to the United States this June!

We came back from New Zealand over a month ago and my coworker Steven jumped right into editing. I was sitting through debriefing meetings and doing what most producers do, occasionally peering over Steven's shoulder in the editing room to see what awesome footage we managed to capture over the course of a month. I can say now that most of it looks awesome, and the final product should be something that's ridiculously fun to watch. I can't wait for people to enjoy it, and I'm hoping to share some of the last pics from New Zealand in the coming days and weeks. Sneak peek below:
Me on the left. Steven on the right. Awesome helicopter sitting on a glacier in the back.
Looking back at New Zealand and the past 7 months of working on this project has been a humbling experience for me. I was doing the job of a 34 year old with the maturity of a 24 year old, and while I celebrated some key victories along the way I definitely had my fair share of stumbling and falling flat on my face. I lost alot of sleep, grew alot of grey hair, gained 10 pounds, and resorted to letting my girlfriend make all my fashion choices. I struggled to manage the ego I never knew I had, balancing self-confidence and a firm stance with arrogance. I was fortunate, as I had friends like Steven who kept me in line and seeing the bigger picture...and it's a big picture. One that's much more expansive and detailed than I had originally thought. The good days mixed with the bad created a lifestyle that, although insanely rewarding and interesting, was not where I wanted to be for an extended period of time.

I was chasing Shangri-La. It's pretty common for expats and those doing extended traveling. Before you leave home, the world is so big. Frightening at times, but never boring. Once you start traveling, the size of the world doesn't change...just your access to it. Having a passport and living light makes you mobile, and far away places don't seem that far away anymore. They are only a plane ride and a passport stamp away. You have an infinite amount of directions you can go, all leading to spectacular places and wonderful experiences. I still think they are spectacular, but I've taken off the rose-colored glasses that you wear in the 'honeymoon' phase of traveling. It's now a lifestyle.

A while back I was reading Reddit (in all its cat-idolizing wisdom) and I stumbled on a post about this old vagabond living in Central America talking to a younger fellow traveler. To quote, he said:
The more places you see, the more things you see that appeal to you, but no one place has them all. In fact, each place has a smaller and smaller percentage of the things you love, the more things you see. It drives you, even subconsciously, to keep looking for a place that's not perfect, but for a place that's "just right for you." But the curse is that the odds of finding "just right" gets smaller, not larger, the more you experience. You keep looking even more, but it always gets worse the more you see.
He goes on to talk about how rich a traveler's life is, but that it's always complimented with a tinge of loneliness and sadness...especially when you start to cast roots and settling down somewhere. Those relationships and people, the ones you have at home, don't know what you've been through or what you've seen. They haven't shared the experiences you've had. It's hard to reintegrate back be a member of a group of friends or feel like you belong. In you heart, you'll always long for the friends and people you've met abroad. And, because of that, you'll never be whole.

I don't necessarily agree with this old vagabond, but his words carry weight as I prepare to come back home. There's still so much left to see and do, but I fear that one day I'll be the old man sitting in a bar in South America telling young travelers about my experience and warning them of the same. At the same time, I fear staying in one place long enough to feel bound by my social obligations. Korea was an in-between for me. I've been here long enough to have roots here, yet this place can never be home. What I want to accomplish in my life cannot be fully realized here as I am a foreigner. I'm a Waygook, an Expat...never Korean. It's not just a Korean thing, either. My roots are in the USA. I am an American, and I'm always going to gravitate home.
10 years from now, we'll be laughing at how slow this is

It's been a good 2 years, and I will miss Korea dearly. I'm seriously wondering what I'll do without Kimchi and Rice in my diet, or how I'll be able to live without their internet. I'm going to miss my Korean family and friends, and I hope that they know that I'm only a $1500 plane ride away. We'll promise to see each other again, even if we don't. And that's's all a part of this lifestyle. We cross paths, maybe destined to never meet again. That doesn't mean you don't have an impact on my life. It makes the time I spent with you that much more precious.

As for the advice of the old vagabond? Well, I'll be combating the remorse and loneliness by keeping I always do. Might go digging for some long lost images to edit. I have a new demo reel to edit and some scripts to attend to. I have friends new and old to reconnect with again. And, like always, I have this place to write and chronicle my journey. Between here, my pictures, videos, and journal keeping a living record of the amazing places I've seen and people I've met....well, let's just say my Shangri-La has been sitting in front of me all along. I've been shaping and crafting it for nearly 11 years.

Here's to many more posts and pictures on this grand adventure!

Monday, March 11, 2013

New Zealand 2013 - Bottled Ships

Woohoo! Finally, we have stable internet! I forgot how difficult New Zealand internet is. I suppose it's a small price to pay for a country this beautiful. There could be worse things like cancelled credit cards, cancelled flights, and Kim Jong Un threatening my current home with nuclear war. Gotta take the small victories when you can.

Last time I talked with you fine folks, I was on the North Island just finishing up some Bungy Jumping and was about to do some filming in Waitomo Caves (the infamous glowworm cave in New Zealand. You travel along an underground river on a tube looking up at a ceiling full of glowworms. How cool is that?). That seemed like ages ago, so I'll try my best to catch you up.

Our next adventures took us to Rotorua, a city in the middle of the North Island of New Zealand. It's an adventure city, and we took full advantage of our 3 days there. Our first stop was doing something I didn't get around to in 2008: Zorbing.

Whoever came up with this concept is a genius. A Zorb is basically a giant inflatable hamster ball for humans. You stuff someone in the middle, throw some water in there so they can slide around easily enough, and go rolling down a hillside. Easy enough, right?

It's a rather easy and cheap 'extreme sport' to partake in, and we were lucky to get some film privileges when we went to Zorb Rotorua. The guy there, Kevin, hooked us up with as many rides as we want for free and let us play on the hillside with cameras while our actors were rolling down. While most people are confined to a viewing platform, my coworker and I got to dodge Zorbs on the hillside while capturing some of the best footage we've gotten on this trip.

Our best shot, however, was really close to being something like this:
Although these things are like 10 feet tall, they move pretty silently down the hill. They also have no brakes and no steering, and all it takes is a little bump to set them off course. We were filming at the bottom of the hill, and him and I were placed between two tracks filming our actors racing down the hill. About 3/4 down the track both Zorbs, as if it was staged, took a turn and started coming straight for us. We had about 10 seconds to react before we ended up like the girl in the video, so naturally we thought running from the giant plastic balls like Indiana Jones was the best option. And, much like Indiana Jones, I was able to just escape as one of the Zorbs grazed the back of my head. We shared some laughs with the owner, mostly out of thanks that we didn't have to sign a ton of paperwork at the hospital that day.

After nearly getting crushed by some Zorbs, Kevin took us aside and called up his tourism buddies all around Rotorua. I guess our near death experience entertained him enough to hook us up with some free rafting. Producer tip #1: make friends with people on location.

The Rotorua leg ended with some mountain biking and forest shooting and, for about 3 days after, much needed rest.

We stopped for about 2 days in Wellington, where we took advantage of some time there to score some B-roll and pick up shoots. We also got to roam the streets a bit at night, making friends with some local bar hoppers and discussing the finer points of drunken politics.

Wellington was a good midpoint for the trip, and at night I would look at pictures of New Zealand from 2008 and try to compare them with this trip. The memories would sweep in, and I imagined myself in 10 or 20 years down the road and what I would feel about this trip.

I always imagined that, when I was done with this whole adventuring thing, I would settle down and get a house somewhere. One room would be my office or den, and I would fill the cupboards and bookshelves with the knick-knacks and trinkets I've collected on my adventures. I've spent 5 years building these memories for myself, and I want there to be some evidence that I lived this kind of life.

It reminded me of those people that build bottled ships. They spend hours, even days building this little ship in a bottle. They take their time. Each piece has a purpose, and needs to be placed right. Once it's finished, they put a cork in it and set it on the shelf for display. Over time, as that bottle collects dust, the ship will still be on display...but the memory building it would fade with time. You'll remember the finished product, but the finer details you saw while building it would be lost forever.

For this trip, it was as if I was opening that bottle and trying to build that ship again...exactly as it was before. I was digging up old friends and places I've been. I drove by my old house in Hamilton and the university I went to. I pointed out the window to places I've been as if the cast and crew I was traveling with would have the same emotional connection I had. It's hard, because at times when this job becomes difficult, I fear that I'm going to taint that bottled ship. New Zealand won't be the magical place I always built it up to be in my head. It'd just be...well, another stamp in my passport.

That jaded mentality comes from the age, I suppose. I'm older. I've seen so much more at 24 than I did at 19.

There are some good things that come with that age, however. I've learned to experience moments rather than try to capture them. It's hard to balance that as a photographer and filmmaker, as you feel obligated to take pictures of everything. I'm finding that balance, finally. It only takes 1 photo to capture a moment. I'm learning to spend less time behind the camera and more time in the scene.

We crossed the Cook Strait this morning, a journey I've never been on before. It was a new memory and experience here in New Zealand, as I've never been to the South Island. As the ferry crossed into the sound near Picton, the morning fog broke, allowing us to see the emerald green ocean below and the waves crashing on the cliffs next to us. Sailboats would cross our path in the distance. Feeling the ocean breeze as we cruised towards Picton seemed to wash away the anxiety I was feeling. I remembered that feeling of freedom you get when traveling somewhere new. It was exhilarating again, even if only for a moment.

We're 10 days out from heading back to Korea. I'm feeling a little homesick, but I was smart enough to save the best for last. We've got a couple days of shooting that will seal the deal on this entire production. For the time being, I still can't release the images I'm producing for you guys. It'll come in time...

Our next stop is Frans Josef Glacier and then we're off to Queenstown for some rock climbing. I'll see you all there!

Friday, March 1, 2013

New Zealand 2013 - Leap of Faith

Our first week of the New Zealand shoot is officially in the can, and we've all earned a proper day of rest. That means, of course, that everyone else is sleeping while I'm writing in my blog. Honestly, I couldn't leave you guys hanging for too long. It's worth dragging my butt out on a Saturday morning, grabbing a coffee, and going over the week.

Last time we chatted, we were in a holding pattern waiting for gear to come back from Customs. We were scheduled to have it back by Monday, but ultimately we got our gear late on Tuesday. Because of that, we lost 3 days of shooting (and, on this shoot, there's no room for lost days). If I learned anything from that ordeal, it would be these 4 things:

  1. Customs agents are lazy. It doesn't take 6 days to clear gear when we have all our documentation in order.
  2. Don't trust immigration. Always double check what they say, because one missing form (like in our case) can lead to your gear getting confiscated.
  3. New Zealand Customs Officers are super nice. They smiled and answered my mountain of questions with enthusiasm, and they never turned me away when I would prod a little bit concerning the $20k worth of gear stored in their office. US Customs should learn from these guys, as even as a US citizen I feel like I've always done something wrong when I land.
I learned later that I could have had my gear in my hands as I left the plane if I had claimed the gear as my own personal gear. While tempting, I don't condone lying or tiptoeing around the law. 

What filmmaking is really like....Photo by Steven Mortinson
It wasn't a complete loss. We spent plenty of time getting our ducks in a row and doing some on-the-ground producing. We got to spend some quality time at the beach and enjoy the summer weather...or, in my case, huddled on a couch answering emails about when I can get people footage.

Our first shots came on Wednesday in Raglan, New Zealand. Raglan is a surfing town located on the West side of New Zealand, about 30 minutes from Hamilton. It was a location I was familiar with, as I studied in Hamilton in 2008 and spent some time surfing and relaxing in that town.

We came out cameras blazing, but ultimately fell short of our targets. This was tough on me and my colleague, Steven. We each have a different way of filmmaking, but that's easy to mesh. Our hardest obstacle was getting use to the new gear. Because of the situation, this was our first time using all this gear together. We literally were buying gear the day before flying to New Zealand. For the filmmakers reading this blog, you are probably scoffing or cringing at that thought. The key to any shoot is spending less time setting up gear and more time setting up shots and working with actors. Even for a guerrilla film shoot like this, it's too difficult to just take gear and mesh it into a workflow that is, even at it's core, absolutely absurd.

That night, we came back a little defeated. We both have done better and know we could do better. Even though we are beating all our competition in this genre, we weren't satisfied. True filmmakers want perfection.

The next day we woke up on our game and with some bounce in our step. At this point, we were already behind by 4 days, and we had to shoot triple the amount of footage to catch up. It was a 6am-8pm kind of day, consisting of us only taking a break for lunch and a small surf break to let out some steam.
The office
We came back to the hotel and, although we weren't blown away by the footage we were putting out, we were satisfied. Unfortunately, because of how this shoot was structured, we don't have the luxury of getting re-shoots. Getting the shots and sound at a passable quality is sufficient enough for us, and getting those flair shots when we can really makes us happy.

There wasn't alot of time celebrating, however. We had to do the same thing again on Friday, dealing with similar issues. This time around, we were a bit more prepared. We also were going to a location pretty unique: in a little pod under the Auckland Bridge.

We had a hookup with Auckland Bridge Bungy, and we were going to shoot a scene based around our actors jumping out of this 'jump pod' resting in the belly of the bridge. It was a pretty simple shoot in that, for the most part, whatever we shot in that location would be something unique. It's hard to fail when they've granted you full access and you're allowed to drag your cameras around while walking on a catwalk floating 30 meters above the river.

I look goofy even when paralyzed with fear...
Our jump pod was 40 meters, or 131 feet, above the ocean. We got some shots of our actors climbing up into the pod and walking along the catwalk dressed in their bungy gear. It was a windy day, but remarkably clear and absolutely perfect for jumping.

For each actor, we strapped a GoPro Hero 3 to their hand as they jumped. It's been an overused shot, but like good cliches it's a money shot. We were able to get their reactions as they fell, and in good taste they would play it up by positioning the camera so they can scream and smile for the kids at home.

Now, as much as I claim that I'm an adrenaline junkie, I'm actually irrationally scared of heights. I don't know where it comes form, or why it's only standing on tall things...but getting near a railing and looking over makes my knees buckle and my heart pounding a mile a minute. And, just as irrational as it is to be afraid of high places, I couldn't pass the chance to jump off a bridge. Steven, our Korean coworker, and I also suited up for a bungy jump.

Steven made me look bad: he did a swan dive backwards, basically launching himself off the platform like an Olympic diver. It was awesome, and the footage we got from that was amazing. Before I could comprehend what was going on, I was already strapped in with a GoPro and standing on the edge of the platform looking at a watery grave down below.

As my feet waddled to the edge, however, I started to get some clarity on my situation. It might have been the adrenaline pumping to my head, or me just trying to not look down as my knees trembled to keep me standing tall. Negative thoughts would jump in my head, but would be decimated by fear and my survival instincts telling me how this was a bad idea. The man started to count down, and right before 1 I looked straight ahead and blacked out...just for a moment.

There was some perspective to be gained in this moment, and I only had a breath to grab it before it got lost in the adrenaline that was soon to come. I thought about only one thing: fight or flight. For most of my life, I've been a flier. When things get tough, I stick around long enough to validate the time spent there and get the heck out of there. Life's too short to be dealing with crap, and it's too short to be spent in a situation that makes you unhappy. For the most part, that mentality has lead me to some amazing places and pushed me to do things I wouldn't normally do. Flying makes me feel alive, because as long as I keep running I can keep experiencing and growing, right?

I regained myself just a split second after my feet left the platform. It was as if I wanted to run away but my body said "No, Ryan. You're doing this." That moment when you're falling for the first time is absolutely exhilarating. Your body freaks out, telling you that death is imminent. Your mind is racing, but all you can think about is how wonderful it feels to be this free. All that stress, all that anger, and all that drive I had came out in screams of joy. Your breath is stolen from you, and you try to figure out how you can remember this feeling forever. You are truly taking a leap of faith, as your life is dangling by a string (or, rather, a giant rubber band).

And, just like that, it's over. Next thing I knew, I was pulling my cord and sitting in my harness overlooking the city of Auckland. They pulled me up and, knees still trembling, I stood back up on the platform.

We all left the jump pod feeling relieved. We got the footage we needed, and we all did something we've never done before. The rest of the day was much easier as we got more of the shots we needed with a little less stress and more appreciative of our situation. We're going to need that drive in the coming weeks, as things are only going to get more intense from here.

Our next stop is in Rotorua, where we will be Zorbing (think giant Hamster Ball for humans), spelunking, and partaking in some Maori culture. Once our internet is stable again, I'll update you with some cool video and pictures. See you there!

Friday, February 22, 2013

New Zealand 2013 - Landing, Customs, and Macklemore

Traveling is exhausting...and when it's a work trip it makes everything exponentially more complicated and tiring. Every receipt must be logged, every person must be accounted for. You're tracking multiple flights that are in the air at the same time, and rolling with delays and people missing flights 6000 miles away. And, although I love filmmaking, I wouldn't advise wanting to be a producer. It's alot of hard work that goes unrecognized until something goes horribly wrong, and when the problem is fixed you're still held responsible. I'd rather just sit in the back and shoot video, taking the artistic credit for myself.

Regardless, my team and I have successfully made it to New Zealand in one piece. The last of our cast and crew are filtering in as I write this, and I can't wait to get them all started. 

It was incredibly strange landing in New Zealand again and seeing that, for the most part, things haven't changed in 5 years. I don't know what I was expecting...I mean, outside of Korea, the world doesn't move all that fast. I even had an old friend from Waikato (who has been acting as our in-country Producer) meet us at the airport to catch up and get us all sorted. She took care of us, got us all connected with a car, cell phone, and hotels for the duration of the trip. Coming into a country knowing that you have a place to stay for 30 days and a way to get around is incredibly liberating, and it allows you to focus on more important things and enjoy yourself a little. 

The past 2 days have made me feel like I've never left New Zealand. I see the same brands everywhere, and I'm eating at the same bars and restaurants as when I was 19. All our gear has been held by customs, so there's not alot of filmmaking going on these days. It gives me the chance to reminisce a little and get settled into what is shaping up to be an incredibly complex and from-the-hip film shoot. Not to mention... the forecast of 7 days of sunny weather and a nice cool Pacific breeze blowing through the city makes it hard to stay inside and rest all day.

My team has also taken advantage of the down time and went to see Macklemore and Ryan Lewis at the Vector Arena in Auckland last night. After dealing with dozens of moving pieces and cranking out a pile of reporting, it was nice to let loose a little with 5500 other people.

This concert was insane. My coworker and I have been listening to these guys for the past 7 months and got to see their album "The Heist" just blow up. If you don't know who these guys are, they're a rapper and a producer from Seattle who are making some waves in music these days. They go against their genre and rap about issues and social change like gay marriage, drug addiction, consumerism, and the love of baseball. The songs are catchy and fun with some pretty deep lyrics. Everyone will know them for "Thrift Shop", but I think they really show up in their other songs. Take "My Oh My" for example.

Stuff like this doesn't come out of rappers very often. It's unique to see a group that's independent who produces and writes all their own music and produces and directs their own music videos. They get that freedom of expression that all artists crave because they don't have to answer to anyone.  It's just them. They're doing it for the love of the art, and it shows in every concert they play and every song they produce. And they worked for it all. It's a rad story. To quote of their songs:
The greats weren't great because at birth they could paint. The greats were great because they paint alot.
Perceptive words for self-doubting artists. All this time put in isn't wasted.
Our gear is back on Monday, and first shots will happen that very afternoon. Until then, we'll be out at the pool lounging in the New Zealand sun (with an iPad working, of course). I'm itching to get shooting, but some good ol' R&R is required on trips like these. You never know if you'll ever do something like this again.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

New Zealand 2013 - There And Back Again

2013 is taking off, and the Orange Sweater is going to have a busy year. I'm working on a massive film project that, because of how much game-changing potential it has, I'm not allowed to go into detail about what exactly I'm filming.

I can, however, talk about where I'm going and the adventures I'm about to go on. The first leg of this project takes me and my team (yes, I have a team!) to someplace very familiar:
About one week from now my team is going to New Zealand for filming. Our project is taking us all over the North and South Islands, and we're packing an entire month full of hiking, bungy jumping, surfing, spelunking, wildlife adventuring, and all around awesomeness...all captured on video.

For myself, this is a homecoming 5 years in the making. I always knew I would return back to New Zealand. It was my first home-away-from-home, and the first place I travelled and made lifelong friends. Every place I've been to since then has been compared to that 6 months I spent studying in Hamilton. It's a country that has always held a special place in my life and shaped me into the globetrotter I am today. This time around, I get to see all the places I couldn't while doing something that I love...and get paid to do it.

The next month is going to be wild and crazy, and there's alot of camera time to come. Although most of it will be for this project and I can't show you what exactly we're creating (not until September, at least)...I'll be able to sneak pics of behind the scenes and some of the rad stuff we're doing. It'll all be coming to you as we do it, and I hope you enjoy the ride as much as I will.

I can't tell you how incredible it was for me to see that New Zealand Visa in my passport again. It reminded me that most people aren't as lucky as me. They don't get to do what I do and see what I get to see while pursing their career and passion at the same time. I was also reminded of how time flies. 2008 seemed like it was yesterday. I can still smell the grassy hills of Waikato and feel the breeze whipping off the ocean at 90-mile beach. I was 19, and the world seemed so big. In 5 short years, the world got smaller. I got faster, older, wiser, and a little fatter all at the same time (yea, figure out how that works). 

It's been a long time, but I think I'm quite ready for another adventure! See you in New Zealand!

Monday, January 7, 2013

Over the River and Through the Woods

It's not often that I get to write about going home for Christmas, as Christmas at my house has gone relatively the same way since I was in diapers. Good food, early morning presents, lots of family and shenanigans are the norm. The years start to blur the older I get, but nevertheless Christmas is always a special time for my family. Last year was the first time I actually missed Christmas. Korea doesn't celebrate it like Americans do, as they only get 1 day off (it didn't spare me the months of Christmas music pumping through every storefront and coffee shop, though). Going home has proven to be difficult when I'm living 6000 miles away.

This year, however, I was a bit more lucky. I had a new job with a little extra money in the bank and a vacation that timed perfectly with Christmas. I also had a girlfriend with the same vacation as me wanting to go on a trip this year. She had never been to the USA before, either, so we saw how perfect it would be to visit my home and meet my family.

To tell you the truth, it was less about bringing a girl home for Christmas as much as it was exposing a side of my life that even friends I've had for many years don't get to see. I make it a point to keep my friends and family in separate worlds ever since I left for college. I think most people do this, but I found it had a very distinct function when I started living abroad for a year or so at a time. Traveling abroad lets you be whoever you want to be, and you can take risks you normally wouldn't take because there's the good chance that after a short period of time you'll never see these people again. Everything's immediate and the clock is ticking. Failing is a very real possibility, and knowing that a world away is your family is the most comforting feeling in the world. It makes you invincible. It protects you and them. No matter what happens, you have a place in this world waiting for you at home.

When my worlds start to merge and the lines begin to blur is when I feel threatened. What if they don't get along? What if I learn I can't have both because of unforeseen circumstances? I knew it was a possibility to begin with, but I'm not ready to face that decision quite yet.

Fortunately, I seem to underestimate the love of my family and where I come from. My family welcomed her with open arms...even at times showing her more love than me. It made her first trip to the USA way less intimidating, with the language barrier melting away in a shower of gifts and hellos. My baby niece and nephew also are heart-melting, and she couldn't get enough of them.

Over the course of a short week, we managed to log over 1000 miles in the mother's mini van. Jet lag would catch up with us at times, often squeezing in naps between seeing the Grand Canyon and opening presents with the family on Christmas Day. Our awkward sleep schedule let us visit some old friends at night and we often ended a day with me explaining some of the odd things she saw. Try explaining to someone new to the United States why we need 64 ounces of soda with our Big explanation went along the lines of "We like freedom, and it's our right to give ourselves diabetes."

Our whirlwind tour ended with a day in Disneyland, one of the destinations that I insisted we visit to validate the $1500 plane ticket. We picked up a pair of Park Hopper passes and pulled an open-close day in both Disneyland and California Adventure parks. For those not familiar, Disneyland is divided into two parks: The Magic Kingdom (Original Disneyland) and California Adventure. A Park Hopper pass allows you to hop between both in a given day. Both parks are pretty big, and you can easily spend a day in one and not do everything. Everything's dependent on the crowds and how lucky you get with lines. We also were in the middle of the busiest season for the parks, so busy that they often close the parks down because they reach capacity at around lunch time.

Fortunately for my girlfriend, I'm a Disneyland veteran. I've been to the park every year since I was 5, and I can map out the park on memory alone. I let her know ahead of time that we were going to go from open (8am) to close (12am), and I made the bold promise that I would get her on every ride and see every parade and show.

The day played out perfectly. I was able to Fastpass and walk on literally every ride in both parks. We managed to squeeze in shopping, a lovely lunch, and even a nap during the Aladdin show. We got to find some decent seats for Fantasmic and see Mickey battle some dragons on a perfectly cool winter night in Southern California. Our night ended with World of Color in California Adventure, which seemed so perfect that even a Disney nerd like me couldn't have planned it better.

I could spend an entire post telling you how much I love Disney and the ecosystem they create for people. For many of us, the characters that Disney has created over the years hold a special place in our hearts and our inner child. When I go to Disneyland, no matter the age, that inner child comes out again. I'm travel-hardened, and I've seen the harsh realities that this world has to offer. For a day, however, I'm able to see that even in between those horrible things in the world there's still room for imagination and a little magic. That's what Disney gave me as I grew up, and I'm able to see that still today (even in between all of the horrible tourists that seem to occupy Disneyland). Shows like World of Color, where they make water fountains look like flumes of paint coloring the night, culminate those feelings and enhance it with music that still makes my inner kid sing along with smile on his face. I got to share that with someone special, and it's a Disney memory I'll hold on to for a long while.

After Disneyland, we were off to see some more family and, just like that, we were on a plane heading back to Korea. Exhaustion finally caught up with me as my immune system decided to give up on me and give me a nasty cold. I'm still recovering, but it's hard to be bitter about it. My girlfriend has some of the trinkets and gifts my family gave her on display at her home. She's still talking about it and how I have such a wonderful (and slightly crazy) family. She doesn't have to remind me, I know I'm a lucky guy. I have 2 homes, and I'll always have that place to go back to that reminds me where I came from and where I should be going.