Tag Archives: Friends

Travel Guide: Seoul and Around

My friend and I took a high-speed train from Busan to Seoul and immediately on arrival I noted the cooler weather and the need to don my trench coat, which was really exciting. I hadn’t been in real fall (or autumn, if you prefer) for a long time!

We were staying in Insadong in order to be at the centre of the action. The neighbourhood is a wonderful mix of contemporary art galleries and traditional crafts, restaurants, clothing stores, dessert cafés, and the Ssamzigil shopping mall that specialises in handicrafts. Food vendors line the streets alongside vendors of yet more crafts and souvenirs.

Insadong has a pretty robust night life, too.

An evening walk took us to Jogyesa Temple, which was celebrating its Chrysanthemum Festival. Jogyesa is the main temple of the Buddhist Jogya Order and, like many temples in Korea, hosts a templestay program in which visitors can spend a day or more at a temple to learn about Korea Buddhist practices and living. (If I have the opportunity to return to Korea, I’d be interested in taking part.) Not having expected anything like it, we were surprised and delighted to see the chrysanthemums in the dark.

The next day was possibly my favourite day of our nine days in Korea and definitely the most unique. We took the metro to the train to the ferry until we arrived at Nami Island, an island in the middle of North Han River. Nami Island considers itself a nation, the Naminara Republic, and has its own passport, stamp, and currency. All of these can only be used on island but the symbolism struck me. Unfortunately, the officials did not stamp our passports after we paid the visa fee before boarding the ferry.

We spent the day enjoying the fall colours; I didn’t realise how much I’d missed them until they were right in front of me. I also really enjoyed the trees, flowers, plants, and animals that we don’t have in Singapore. Nami Island is famous for its appearance in K-dramas, which I don’t know anything about, but I appreciated it as a charming escape from a big city.

Nami Island has a beautiful emphasis on, in its own words, imagination, fairy tales, and nature itself. It also hosts the Nami Concours to highlight and celebrate picture book illustrators. The island was filled with signs of how the Naminara Republic fashioned itself and I enjoyed it very much. Nami Island also has artists workshops, galleries, and souvenir shops, as well as art on display across the island. It was very pleasant to walk around, especially since the sun came out over the course of the day.

This is also the first time And of course, I enjoyed the ferry very much. (I do really miss working on boats.)

We organised our time in Seoul around day trips, so we spent every other day in or out of the city. After Nami Island we were due for an urban day. Accordingly, we spent the morning at Gyeongbokgung Palace, the main royal palace of the Joseon dynasty built in the late fourteenth century. Luckily, we arrived just in time for the changing of the guards!

Like much else, the palace was destroyed by the Japanese during the twentieth century occupation but had also been destroyed by fire in the 1500s. The palace is the size of a small city and covers about 410,000 square meters, which is only a fraction of its original size. Today, the grounds are open for visitors as are individual buildings and two museums.

Anyone wearing the traditional Korean hanbok entered the palace for free and we saw all kinds of people in traditional clothes. There were rental studios in every touristy area and it was refreshing to see men, women, and children of different nationalities and body types dressed up. I was initially very resistant (insert self-critical thoughts here) but we ultimately decided to do what everyone else was doing and I’m really glad we did. We returned to the palace two days later in our hanbok.

After our first visit to the palace, still deep in discussion about wearing the hanbok, we walked over to Bukchon Hanok Village, a collection of hilly streets with traditional houses. There were a few restored homes open to visitors as well as a handicrafts centre offering short sessions on different types of crafts.

Still steeped in tradition, we headed back to Insadong to experience a traditional teahouse. This one was built around a courtyard with a room of low tables and floor cushions and a second room of tables and chairs. Tea was served hot or iced with traditional Korean sweets. We chose dried persimmon stuffed with walnuts and Korean rice cakes, as well as iced balloon flower citrus tea and iced cinnamon tea. The presentation and flavours were different from any tea we’d had (and high tea is a common social activity in Singapore) and we thoroughly enjoyed it.

We spent the evening in Hongdae, a neighbourhood near Hongik University. As predicted, it was full of all the quirks of a university neighbourhood, including street art!

Hongdae’s shops were eclectic and fun, densely packed, and extremely popular. It’s very entertaining to see different trends and the lifestyle that goes along with them. In Korea, fashion and cosmetic trends are as popular for men as they are for women and there seems to be relatively little convention around fashion choices. Everyone clearly has a style, but the style itself comes from anywhere under the sun. Contact lenses are even sold like any other type of makeup – as an enhancement of what is already there.

There was a Halloween street party in Hongdae, too, and it was fun to watch the set up for that. It appears that Korea is just like it’s shown in the movies and people really do perform K-pop in the streets!

After a day in the city it was time to get out of Seoul again and take the train 30km south to Suwon. Seoul’s metro system is so sprawling that one train took us all the way there. Suwon is Korea’s last completely walled city and the primary reason to visit is to walk the 5.4km wall of the fortress. It was lovely to spend yet another day outside in cold wind and bright blue sky.

It was really neat to watch the skyline unfold as we climbed higher, too. Korea is a hilly country and the fortress rolled along with the land.

After a day in Suwon we had one final day in Seoul. As discussed and investigated, we rented our hanbok for ₩10,000 for two hours, which gave us plenty of time to return to Gyeongbokgung Palace to take photos. We’d worried about feeling silly and out of place for dressing up, but it quickly became clear that people from all over the world do this because it’s fun! As soon as we walked out of the rental shop a woman stopped us to chat about our experience in Korea. Later on, different people offered to take our photo. It was a lot of fun and a nice little confidence boost.

Just like our first day at the palace, we went back to Insadong for traditional tea, this time in a tea house that opened into a cozy room with plaster walls lined with benches, stools, and tables. Different teas and desserts and a similarly lovely experience.

In sharp contrast to traditional clothes, the palace, and Insadong, our next destination was Gangnam across the Han River, which runs through Seoul. We stopped first at the COEX library in a mall . . .

. . . and then walked through the business district until we reached Gangnam Square and all of the entertainment around it.

It was fun to experience traditional Seoul in the morning and modern, glittery Seoul in the evening. That was something I noticed throughout our trip – the infusion of traditional and modern culture everywhere we went. There was an ease to being in Korea that I hadn’t experienced before, a sense that being whoever you were was just fine and that we should treat others accordingly. The world could do with more of that.

Lessons from a Friend

I was really frustrated when I left work today. As often when that happens, I came home and threw myself into a run. A fast one. Since moving to a new neighborhood and devising a circuit that I really like I’ve also developed a habit of stopping in a lovely little park about halfway through and sitting for ten minutes of meditation. When I lived by the beach I would often pause to stare at the water and sometimes I try to be intentionally mindful while running but purposely stopping my watch for ten minutes is a new one.

Today it was hard to focus on my breathing, or the sound of the waterfall in the pond, or the birds that make their homes in the trees. But I tried.

One of the things I learned to do through meditation is to recognize the thoughts I’m having and focus on having the thought. Okay, here’s a thought. Now back to the breath. Etc. But one thought in particular stood out sharply today and I kept it in my mind for the rest of my run.

Today I thought about a friend from the first few months of living in Malaysia, and I thought about when I learned in December of last year that he had passed away in July. He was only a few years older than me. His wife, who I had only met twice and did not know well, wrote to me. She reintroduced herself, gave me a bit of background on her husband’s life since I’d last seen them, and apologized for breaking the news. In turn, I contacted the entire group of people we’d worked with and every single person wrote back.

What struck me today was not sadness for my friend who died too soon; rather, it was determination. Determination to remember the model he was for me in terms of doing what he thought was right. I didn’t always agree with his choices but never had to guess where they came from. He was a person who meant what he said and did what he promised. He stood for fairness and justice and was easily the friendliest person I’ve ever known. He knew everyone and everyone knew him; he expected nothing from others except the kindness and respect that he gave everyone.

Sometimes good people die too soon.

Along with his joviality, this friend taught me. I worked with him like I’ve rarely worked with anyone and I hadn’t known that model before. Recently I started working like that again and the vividness of those first memories has never, ever left me.

This friend was also a fighter. When something wasn’t right, he tried to fix it. He stood up when others around him remained seated. He made a fuss when there was a good reason for it and never, ever left doubt about who he was and what he stood for.


Is it strange to say I miss him? We hadn’t spoken in at least two years before I heard from his wife.

Is it strange that as soon as I got home I reached out to a friend I’ve long owed a phone call and to another I’ve been trying to reach?

This is where frustration at work led me: To a friend from a former life who was good and kind and honest. Who loved living and the world around him. Who did what he thought was right. Who stood up and stomped his feet and demanded action.

I remembered important things today. Thank you, my friend.

The view from the first place I met this friend. – Seremban, Malaysia, September 2014

Dreaming of Purple Mountains

I’m not sure when it started, this dreaming of purple mountains. But when I look for you behind closed eyes, I know that’s where I’ll find you.

The mountains have always been purple. Deep purple, dark purple, thick lines, visible brushstrokes. Hints of lavender and a touch of violet or indigo, depending on the light. A painting.

The mountains are gently rolling in some parts and in others, steep and jagged. Sometimes there are clouds, too, tinged with dusky blues and greys. Often a few lingering white puffs across the sky. But sometimes there’s just a vast bright blue. The sun is shining. The grass is soft, the bright green that begs you to take off your shoes and play. 

I’ll see you in the purple mountains, I think before I fall asleep.

Behind my eyelids, we’re skipping up the hill and we’re laughing.

Neither of us are strangers to this place, to this watercolor illustration out of a children’s story.

But where did it come from? The first time I said it out loud, I knew it was right.

Where did it come from and, more to the point, how did I know you’d see what I saw? Where do you come from? What lives have you lived? 

Who are you? And who am I?


I live in a world where we say goodbye on the last day of school in June. Not just, “Goodbye, have a good summer, see you in August.” There’s some of that, certainly, but there’s also, “Goodbye, friend, as you journey to another part of the world. Maybe we’ll meet again one day.”

Maybe we will. 

It’s hard to send off the colleagues who have become friends and friends who have become family. I hope they all find their own purple mountains, the realization of dreams both articulated and hidden, wishes both acknowledged and buried. 

Yesterday I told a friend, “I hope it’s everything you hope it will be.”

He replied, “I don’t. I hope it’s everything we need it to be right now, but I’m not done yet.”

I smiled. “Then let me say it again. I hope it’s everything you need it to be right now, and that you voyage on.”


This makes sense to me. It makes sense to keep looking for the purple mountains in whatever form they take. It makes sense to dream of them and find that I’m not the only one up there dreaming. I’m not the only one up there looking and imagining and creating.

I know too many people who stopped looking. Maybe that’s the right decision for them and I certainly respect it. But it’s not the right decision for me. I tried to put the dreams aside, to look for purple mountains somewhere else, but I couldn’t find them. In fact, I lost them. For a time, there were no mountains and where they had been was full of holes and erasure dust. I tried to wipe it off but it was hard to see through the smudges. 

The mountains were gone and I drifted in the space where they had been.

The most frightening feeling I’ve ever had was not being able to imagine tomorrow. I remember the first time the mountains were hidden in black.

It’s hard to explain this to people who stopped looking or who found their mountains without much getting in the way. Compared to many people I know, I think I’ve lived a lot. My purple mountains with springy green grass were trampled on once but I am filled with gold bubbles when I dream of them now.

Yes, this is hard to explain. I don’t mind when people don’t understand, and I take responsibility for not explaining very well, but I do mind when others do not respect that the right thing for me to do is keep looking.


Sometimes I think I’ve found you. And having worked so hard to get back there, how could I let you go?

When I close my eyes, maybe I’ll see you and learn of the lives you’ve lived. You’re right there beside me, dancing up the purple mountains into the white cloud blue sky, barefoot in the grass. You believe in a world that might exist in a children’s story.

How did I know you’d see what I saw?

Neither of us are strangers to the purple mountains. Maybe they won’t always be everything I hope they’ll be, but maybe they’re everything I need them to be right now.

And then we’ll voyage on.

Kandy, Sri Lanka – April 2016