Wednesday, March 11, 2015

A Little Career Change

A few of you now know that I've decided to make a bit of a move in my working life. The last time I quit a job on this continent was to move to the other side of the world; that's not happening this time around and probably to the delight of my family.

I was in the United States for a visit from Korea exactly 2 years ago. While I was here, I did a little bit of a job search around Nashville just to get an idea of the kinds of jobs that could be available when Al and I moved back a year later. I ran across a posting for an International Student Advisor for ELS Education Services at Middle Tennessee State University. It sounded right up my alley but of course I couldn't apply because I had a one-way ticket back to Korea for another year. I bookmarked it and forgot about it.

Once we moved back last May and I was on a very serious job search, I pulled up that bookmark to see if it was open; it wasn't. I vowed to keep an eye on it.

If you aren't familiar with what I do currently, I work in wholesale group travel. I'm the travel agent's travel agent. Say you go to a travel agent for your destination wedding, that travel agent calls me to get wholesale rates and book with me. I then do every single thing for that agent at their beck and call. And I mean "call" literally. I sit and stare at a computer screen and answer phones all day long. And groups are a different ballgame all together. They are always changing. A file could sit on my desk for a year with the agent calling twice a week the entire year changing dates, adding rooms, reducing rooms, "Mr. Smith wants the Ocean View now". I don't just change those wham bam in a system either. Every single change requires contacting the hotel or airline and waiting on responses and then updating systems and invoices and a myriad of other things. Now multiply that file many times over. Right now I have about 20 files like that. The other part of my job is Sales. It's technically a sales position, only I'm selling fun stuff like travel. Part (or most) of a sales job is meeting numbers. So on top of all the daily, endless, tiresome, maintenance that comes with my files, I have to meet sales targets. It's a bit stressful.

If you know me at all, you might've guessed this doesn't exactly sound like "me". The travel industry itself, sure, but I'm more of a people person, not a stare-at-a-computer person. Honestly, I LOVE the travel industry. I love being in it, I love everything about it. I love my company, it's a riot. But I just got to a point to where I couldn't picture myself in this role long term. I feel like I would kill it as a regular agent, actually meeting with the travellers and booking their trips, but wholesale is just very hard and quite frankly, ungratifying to me. I'm sure there are tons of people who love to watch their sales numbers rise and it seriously turns their crank to hit targets and all that, but I don't think I'm one of them. I want to actually help people and be involved. Which finally brings me to my new job...

I've been keeping a much closer eye on this International Student Advisor position within the last few months, checking it periodically. Two weekends ago, I checked as I normally do not expecting it to be open and there it was. I knew I had to apply and I did. I got an immediate interview and an offer within the week. I am so excited!!

My last day with GOGO is next week and I start at ELS the week after. I can't express how excited I am to make this move into a position where I feel like I'll matter and be a help to someone. I will be helping the students with their housing, directing them to lawyers and doctors, planning events and mixers to get them interacting with the American students and even accompanying them on occasional trips to nearby cities. Did I mentioned I'm excited? I'm scared to death too, but only because it's new and unknown, just like like with anything.

I'm really sad to be leaving the travel business, but not sad to be leaving my actual position. I've thought about signing up with an agency and doing travel part time once I get settled in here. I like the perks that come along with being an agent and it's really hard to give up. Not to mention my convention in Cancun next month. Bummer.

That was quite a long drawn out update on my life, but I haven't written on here in so long I got carried away. My bad!

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Dominican Republic, I'm Not Sold

I wish you all knew how exciting this is to write another post. After many, many years of traveling and writing, putting my blog on hiatus was really difficult. The right decision, obviously, considering I'm not traveling or living overseas anymore, but a bummer nonetheless.

This past weekend, my company hosted our conference in Punta Cana, Dominican Republic. I had many reactions to the news of the location, including but not limited to: "Warm weather!" "But I don't care about the Caribbean!" "New stamp in my passport!" "But I don't care about the Caribbean!" "I don't have to pay a dime for this!" "But I don't care about the Caribbean!"

My idea of a good vacation is vastly different than 90% of the average American. To say that I think (thought?) the Caribbean is a little "common" might sound a bit snobbish, but that's definitely not how I mean it. It's just not my cup of tea. Going to a brand new country and staying within the walls of a colossal all-inclusive isn't exactly how I'd like to spend a week. I'm not saying it's not fun; on the contrary, it's very fun. Just not what I want to spend my money on. I sell the Caribbean. That's my job. My job is to sell an area that I've seen very, very little of and frankly don't have much interest in. But after this trip, I realized there's so much more to these places than just massive resorts.

Our trip started as many do, awake and bleary eyed at 3:30am to catch that sunrise flight. My coworker Nikki and I were flying together, along with two others from the Individual Reservations office next door. We connected in ATL and from there it was a short 3 1/2 hours to the tropics as I, for what seems like the thousandth time, left US soil (and thankfully the frigid temperatures) behind.

Our plane pulled up to a thatched-roof terminal and swaying palms. Soon I was trading my boots for flip flops, exiting to the balmy heat and en route to the Melia Caribe Tropical Resort. I love the feeling of laying my eyes on new landscape. The Dominican Republic was spread out before me...and I mean literally spread out as Punta Cana is really flat. What I noticed and thought was really interesting was that it looked a lot India or Malaysia or Thailand. Perhaps all tropical developing nations look similar: lush greenery, hazy air, barefoot children, unfinished infrastructure, straw roofs, unpaved roads and crumbling, shack restaurants with plastic chairs. The smell was a little different here, however. That smell when getting off the plane in Kuala Lumpur can't be beat!

The energy in our transfer van (with Olympus Tours, our ground operator. I gotta plug 'em because they are truly incredible) was palpable. We're off work! We're in hot weather! Look, a palm tree! Who cares if this is a conference, we're in the Dominican Republic!!

 At first look, the Melia Caribe isn't too bad. The entrance is beautiful with the dark woods and earth tones. But, unfortunately after not much time, we realized that the hotel isn't all that great. It's so enormous, the staff has to lug guests around on golf carts or they have two trains that also take you where you need to go. No, thanks. Our room wasn't fantastic either. It needs a face lift (which it's getting very soon. All the Jr. Suites are getting a much needed overhaul). Nikki and I checked in and went to our room (on a golf cart of course), put our bathing suits on and nearly sprinted to the pool bar. Seeing as how this was technically a work trip, our free time was somewhat limited so we were going to savor every minute we could. We hopped in the pool with our margaritas and pina coladas and took it all in while we watched the clock tick by until we had to be in a boring meeting room.

The first evening we just had a fast meeting type welcome, then a company beach dinner and then an after party at the pool. If there was ever a company to embrace the "work hard, play hard" motto, it's GOGO. It's basically a company of travelling alcoholics. (and I mean that in the best way possible)

On our first full day we were stuck in a meeting room from 9-4. Booooooriiiing. But they did give us weird melon snacks decorated as such...

What to do with your food if you're stuck in a conference room
This first day was one of the highlights of the trip (no, definitely not the conference part). Before we all came down, they told us to bring school supplies to donate to the local communities. Little did I know we got to go deliver them ourselves! They took a few different groups to separate areas to visit the children. Our group visited a nearby school in one of the commonly destitute areas a few miles away from the main resorts . This wasn't my first rodeo experiencing places like this. I've seen my fair share of the squalor that some parts of the world call home and this was no different. Each time it's just as sad, it's just as unfair, it's just as humbling.

They sang songs, took some on tours of the very tiny school and laughed and played with us as if we were old family. I used a lot of my fundamental Spanish that I still managed to hang on to from college and the kids seemed to really enjoy that I could have even the most basic conversation with them. There was a lot of como se llama? and cuantos anos tienes? (what is your name and how old are you). But they would answer and they asked how old I was (veinte y ocho!) and a few kids had brothers and sisters there and would introduce me (hermano/hermana). See. Basic. But it seemed to entertain them. I've seen a lot of poverty-stricken villages in many countries but I've never been able to interact with the locals on this level, especially kids! It was remarkable to see how happy they were to see us and play with us when I was nearly close to tears the entire time. I wanted to kidnap all of them.

After we all decompressed on the bus ride back, we had yet another pre-arranged dinner scheduled at the next door resort, the Paradisus Palma Real, which is fancy shmancy and SO much better than the one we were staying at. I would recommend it way over the Melia! 

The next day was a lot of trudging through the unforgiving heat from hotel to hotel for site inspections. Don't get me wrong, I was pretty happy to see some of those resorts because I sell them all the time, but would I have rather been at the beach? Of course. (Tip: Don't stay the Be Live)

Once we were back and done with the inspections at 4:00, we were completely free until we had to go to the airport the next afternoon. I ran straight to the room for my bathing suit and beelined for the beach. The water here is just meh. It's kind of a nice color of the sun hits it just right, but it's milky turquoise and quite a bit seaweedy. Not too impressed with the water. I did love all the palms that fringe the coastline, however. And these are like 40 feet tall Fiji-style palms too, none of that Florida palms nonsense.

So tall. 

 I met some friends back at the pool once the sun went down and we decided to eat at the fancy adults only restaurant that night. A lot of other people had actually already left because they were extending their stay and went to other hotels, so maybe only 10 of us went to eat and the VP joined us because that's the kind of guy he is. 

Our transfer to the airport was picking us up at 11:30AM, so I wanted to wake up early and actually enjoy my day. A few others kept the night going but, being lame and wanting to not be miserable the next day, I went on to bed. I got a glorious 8 hours of sleep and therefore was refreshed and ready to hit the sand at 8am. Nikki, however, met me out there about 9:30. We had a nice swim in the ocean then had some breakfast (which was not spectacular) and went back to play on the beach for just a little bit longer. About the time we should have actually been checking out, we unwillingly made our way back to the room to pack up our last little bit and go to the lobby. Boo. Trip over. What's crazy is that I quote and book groups for just 3 nights ALL the time. That's how long I was there and it's so not worth going all the way down there for such a short amount of time, those people are crazy. 

Overall, as a country, it was just alright. I don't know if I've seen enough of it to be making a fair judgement, but I don't think I'd go back. I just wasn't that impressed with the things I need to be impressed by in order to want to return. The beaches aren't great and the scenery is nothing memorable. Perhaps I wasn't on a great beach, I'm not sure, but if I have turquoise water, I want it pool-clear and seaweed-free, which it most certainly was not. If you've had a better experience in the DR, please let me know and sell me on it, because DR, I'm not sold on you! I'm a bit more open to seeing more of the Caribbean, but I'm still not big on resorts. I'd rather visit a cute bungalow in Bonaire or some hut in the Exumas if I'm doing the Caribbean. But Dominican Republic? Been there, done that. 

(But it was free, so who's complaining!??!) 

Monday, June 23, 2014

Thanks For Reading Through the Years

It's come a time to put this blog on indefinite hiatus. It wasn't that hard of a decision; it's a travel/life abroad blog and I am no longer traveling nor living abroad. I won't be bringing frequent updates on my exotic (ha) Asian life, however when I do travel, I will write a post. I love writing and I love this blog, I just have the same life as every other American now and truly nothing worthy of writing about is going on at the moment. No crazy Korean children, no fireworks festivals, no trips to Seoul.

Sure, I'd like to be writing about my new job and first days there and I'll be going to training in NJ for two weeks then to DC for the company USA Ball all next month...but that's a different blog entirely. I made this blog for travel, so travel is shall remain (however infrequent). 

Thank you guys for sticking with me and reading my posts over the past four years. You're the reason I have over 14,000 views. That's not much when you think about how long I've had this thing going, but it's a lot to me and I've gotten excited over each and every hit. If there are any last things to say for a while, it's that you, YOU reading this, get out there! Go! Travel! Adventure! On your deathbed, you will never regret taking that trip to Argentina or Paris or Bali, but you may perhaps regret not taking it. Don't live on the "someday"!

 I love all of you. Thank you, thank you, thank you for reading this blog. 


Vik, Iceland

Monday, June 9, 2014

The Planet of Iceland

It seems impossible that Iceland is a part of Earth. Just for some quick information, Iceland is one of the most geologically active countries on the planet with hundreds of volcanoes and frequent earthquakes. This very aesthetically strange country boasts many geysers, waterfalls, geothermal pools and glaciers...and some can seen from the main road! There aren't many people; only about 300,000 in the entire country. Because of it's geological activity, the landscape is rough and wild giving it a kind of Mars-like appearance.

We arrived to cloudy and cold, much of what I was expecting, even in May. I think the high temperatures in the middle of summer only reach about 60 degrees. The highest temperature ever recorded in the capital is only 79 degrees! It was in the 40s during our stay, so not too bad. The bus from the airport into Reykjavik (RAKE-ya-vik) takes about 30 minutes of driving through nothing but lava fields. (Fun fact: Reykjavik is the Northernmost capital in the world.) My first thought looking out those bus windows: I'm not on Earth. 

Flying in. Nothingness

Leaving the airport

Vast lava fields with a road through them

We only had a few days there, but had a plan in place. We were spending the first afternoon we arrived and the following full day and night in Reykjavik and then renting a car and driving the Southern coast to Jokülsárlón for one night before driving back to Reykjavik to catch our flight out. We checked into our guesthouse and then went to explore the city. Iceland is expensive!!! Beautiful, but by far the most expensive place I've ever visited. For example, a plate of pasta at a restaurant was about $30, a cheeseburger was about $20, fish and other local foods ran about $30-40, a can of pop was $3-4, a bag of chips or other snacks was $6 or so. The place we stayed was really nice but just a guesthouse and it was one of the cheapest rooms in the city at about $110 a night...and that's without a private bathroom! Only shared. 

We walked downtown and explored a bit, popping in and out of shops until things started closing down. It was still pretty bright out and the sun had clearly not set yet, so I was confused on why things closed so early...until I looked at the time and it was 9:30pm. I looked at the sky. I looked at the time. I looked at the sky. Whoa. Cool. It didn't get truly dark and black outside until around 11pm! Iceland sits just below the Arctic Circle, so it enjoys 24 hour days in the summer and it's pitch black all winter. 

Reykjavik is full of colorful houses and rooftops all sitting on the ocean with snow-capped peaks behind it. Perfectly picturesque. (But so are the people, Icelanders are gorgeous!)

Try and pronounce the street names. Icelandic is nearly impossible. 

They have to stay warm somehow
The second day we had a full day, so we went to the world-famous Blue Lagoon. If you've ever seen any travel pictures of a milky blue pond surrounded by rocks, that's what it is.

The Blue Lagoon is a geothermal pool. As pretty as it looks, the story of how it got there isn't as pretty since it's actually man-made. Most everyone in Iceland uses geothermal power and in the 1970s a geothermal power plant was built right in the middle of, what else, a lava field. Water run off from the plant formed a huge pool rich in minerals like silica and the lava flow under the ground heats it to around 100 degrees. People started bathing in the water saying it did wonders for their skin and voila, a spa was born. They use the minerals in the water to make all kinds of (expensive) skin products and while bathing in it, you can slather your face and body with the white silica mud found in it. So basically everyone is swimming around in this lava-heated lagoon covered in white paste. It's a good time. I have to say, the mud did make my face feel nice, it's quite an exfoliate. We paid a little extra for a more premium package instead of the just the entrance fee and got bathrobes, towels, free face products and a free drink from the Caribbean-style swim-up bar in the lagoon. 

From the viewpoint

Surroundings. Mars?
We spent most of the afternoon at the Lagoon, then we went back into the city to spend the evening and found a cool Viking boat metal sculpture. 

The next morning, we picked up our rental and got on Highway 1, the "ring road" around Iceland. Iceland is very, very sparse and so there is basically one road around the entire island. I'm going to go back one day and do the entire loop for sure. We were driving all day due East and stopping at all the sites along the way until we reached Jokülsárlón, the glacier/iceberg lagoon. Along the drive we saw waterfalls...

We could go behind this one!

This one was enormous!!

And you could walk right up to it

We saw glaciers...

Well, this is what a glacier looks like 

More up close. (the black is ash from volcanoes)

Way up close

Holdin' some glacier

Glaciers just hanging out by the road

Another one just chillin by the road

And even some volcanoes...

Behind that farm is the famous Eyjafjallajökul (AY-uh-fyat-luh-YOE-kuult-uh) volcano. The one that pretty much
 disrupted all of Europe air travel a few years ago. 

Along with some of the most beautiful and other-worldly scenery I've ever seen...

Wild horses are everywhere

Iceland is a lot of vast nothingness

I don't think I'd want to live right there
The black sand ash beaches of Vik

A lone church

People stop and pile these rocks like this for good luck around the area of a farm that got destroyed hundreds of years ago by the volcano, Katla. 

The end of our journey eastward was the Jokülsárlón (yo-khuls-AR-lon) Glacier Lagoon. These huge icebergs break off of a large glacier into the lake that sits at the foot of it. This lake sits directly inland from the ocean and we sat on the edge of the water watching these behemoth chunks of white-blue ice drift lazily out to sea. Occasionally they would run into one another and break apart or larger chunks would break from the tops and fall into the water. It's so loud when this happens! The crack sound would echo across all the Icelandic nothingness. It was almost haunting. 

Looks a bit like what I imagine Antarctica would look like.

Between the iceberg lake and the ocean was another black sand beach. What made this beach unique were the hunks of ice that washed up onto the shore. I'm not sure how, but I'm guessing that once the icebergs from the lagoon make their way out to sea, they end up breaking up and somehow make it back to this beach. Or perhaps I'm way off. Either way, the contrast of the black sand and the ice was just ridiculous! 

We were spending the night in a B&B farm (pretty much the only dwelling for miles and miles) near the town of Höfn. We drove into the little town for some dinner and found some pretty fishing boats. 

Our flight was the next day at 5:00pm, so we got an early start to drive the 5 or 6 hours back to Reykjavik to catch our evening plane. We woke up at 4:30am, and this is what it looked like outside when we left!  

Taken around 4:45am from our B&B

We had plenty of time to kill when we got back to the city. We dropped off our rental car and the guy offered to drop us off back in town. He was about our age and told us all about growing up and living in Iceland. It was fascinating! He said that everyone in Iceland learns English and Danish as a second and third language, and once students reach (I think) high school, they have to pick a fourth language to study. As far as food goes, he said at traditional meals his mom would put full animal heads (sheep I think) on the table and everyone would dig in. He said his father's favorite was the brain and ears. Nothing is left of it but bone when it's finished, I guess. 

Al and I were actually on our way to the flea market to try some strange food ourselves. We had heard tale of this delicacy called Hakárl and wanted to try it. Basically, it's rotted, fermented shark. I guess the Icelanders get a real kick out of tourists coming in and trying it and give it as samples at this market. It's one of those things that you have to check off on a list of things you did while in Iceland, so we weren't going to be left out. Some of those famous food guys on TV have gone to Iceland to try it and Anthony Bourdain said it was the "single worst, most disgusting and terrible tasting thing" he's ever eaten. He wasn't wrong. A news crew spotted us getting ready to try it and rushed over to film it. They found it hilarious. 

Getting ready to film Al eating it

I was scared

The ammonia content is really high, so it felt like my mouth was burning off and then it burned the entire way to my stomach. To describe it perfectly, imagine, if you will, the foulest, strongest fish flavor imaginable and then mix that with rubbing alcohol. Got the flavor? Now turn that solid and make it really rubbery and nearly impossible to swallow. That's Hakárl, an Icelandic favorite. 

Locals buying some meat (?) at the market

We walked back to the bus station (Reykjavik is not very big despite being the capital) where we'd get our ride to the airport. Our three days wasn't even close to being enough. I'd love to go back in the middle of each summer and winter. I'd love to experience 24 hours of daylight and in the winter is the best time to catch the Northern Lights. Luckily, Iceland Air is impossibly cheap so I'm sure I'll go back again. 

I've been to a lot of different kinds of places, but Iceland is for sure at the top of my list of favorites, partly because it's so unknown to travelers. I've now been to a place that very few people get to see in their lifetime and that gives me a huge thrill. It's also so unique and truly one of the most beautiful places I've ever seen. I just wish we would've had more time!