Posts by Country

Sunday, February 23, 2020

A Nasty Surprise

My latest visit back to the States was somewhat bittersweet. It was lucky that I even could go back considering that COVID-19 was already bringing the world to a screeching halt. Still, it wasn't long after I got back that I discovered a very unpleasant situation - my renter had destroyed my property.

On the 7th of February, I arrived in Seattle. The jet lag hadn't quite hit, so I visited all my work friends back at Pierce College and tested my motorcycle, which actually ran much better than when I had last visited. Over the next couple days I also got in a hockey game with my old buddies Josh and Mike, visited the neighbors and then went to see my dad... which is when we saw the destruction.

We went to visit my property where it turns out my renter had not only abandoned my property, but had left it in a state of absolute chaos. He had packed garbage into every corner of the place... over a couple of years! Actually, he had gotten garbage service but only used it for a couple of months. After that he proceeded to fill up my shed with garbage and, when that was full, started stacking it behind. Then, after he managed to scam a neighbor out of a new trailer, he filled his old one with garbage.

We were going to need some heavy equipment. Fortunately, as always, my dad knew a guy. In exchange for helping him out with a nighmare situation of his own (a cement pour on a collapsing hillside under a public road...), we would then be able to borrow his truck, dump trailer and backhoe. We worked hard for a few days before finally getting the tools we needed in order to get back to work on my situation. We also had a bit of roofing to do on my other property.

Over the next few days we dumped 4.3 TONS of garbage at a cost of about $350 or so. We also burned loads of old rotten furniture, scrubbed off two years of neglect in the bathroom, ripped apart the old trailer, and sanitized everything by spraying it down with vinegar. It was stinky, backbreaking work (I actually hurt my back lifting and twisting...) but, in the end, it would pay off. The new renter wants to buy the place eventually and has made some great improvements already. So, that, along with a couple other nights visiting friends as well as my sister and nephews, resulted in the "nasty surprise" being thankfully a little less devastating.

Thursday, February 6, 2020

Exploring the Philippines

I always say that low expectations make for the best experiences. Well, the second half of my adventure in the Philippines was no exception. I had no plan. Chu Sum had gone back to Hong Kong and, in a few days, I was scheduled to go join him. But then I had a thought - I'd been to Hong Kong a lot already, but I still hadn't done much in the Philippines. I really didn't need another two weeks of the big city. So, I rebooked my flight for ten days later and found a hostel in Angeles... but I still had no plan. At the hostel, I ended up meeting the Russians (Janko, Nikita and later Yana) who were all starting big motorcycle trips around Luzon. Nikita had found a place renting motorbikes for half of what I had been paying the last few days and he offered to give me a ride there the next morning. I still didn't know where I would go, or even if I felt like going anywhere. But then it hit me... I don't need a plan, I just need some friends who already have a plan.

Sure enough, Nikita liked the idea of having a backup rider along for the journey. The next day, the 23rd of January, we picked up our bikes and started the most intense ride I've ever been on.

Riding in the Philippines is no joke. The traffic is nightmarish and some of the roads aren't even roads. Although, depending on how you look at it, I was pretty lucky as Nikita had lived on Mindanao for six months at one point before that and knew how to handle himself on Filipino roads... I, on the other hand, was learning. Well, I've always been a fan of the whole "sink or swim" mentality, so this worked out really nicely.

Whenever you enter a town in the Philippines, there's one thing you'll notice immediately - the trikes. They're everywhere... and they're slow as molasses. Oh, and they spend all day driving around towns looking for customers. This, as you can imagine, creates an unholy amount of traffic. Cars can't get past them, so they line up - 10, 15, even 30+ cars in a row. If you're a careful rider, you wait in line. If you're a crazy Russian, you race around all the cars at 100 kph until you make it to the front, or have to force your way in between two cars to avoid getting into a head-on collision with oncoming traffic. We did this like it was our job. Every time we entered a town we rode like locals who are used to navigating the chaos, except the locals didn't even ride like us - we made most of them look like little old ladies. We didn't hesitate to weave in and out of miles and miles of traffic, passing other riders as if they were sitting still. And we did this because, in the Philippines, nobody stops you. It's a free-for-all, complete anarchy, the Wild West of road law... that is, there is no law.

Our first stop was actually to pick up Yana at her local friends' place. We had lunch with their family and then rode for a few hours through the mountains up to Baguio City on the way to San Juan. It was such a beautiful ride. Up in Baguio it got really cold and humid and then, as we bombed our way down the other side of the mountain, down to the coast, the temperature increased dramatically. I can't emphasize enough how amazing these roads were. As we descended it was like sliding down a twisting waterslide. The roads were super smooth and the ever-warming air temps made it feel like stepping into a warm spa.

We soon arrived in the surf town of San Juan, settled into our hotel rooms, and started mingling with the locals. Of course, we were tired and could only manage a couple hours of chit chat... one of the guys would have gone on all night if we hadn't called it quits.

On day two, we headed off to visit our first major point of interest - Tangadan Falls. This was the first time that we were told that we had to have a so-called guide in order to enter. Fortunately, these frauds don't have control over public roads. So, we continued riding along the most rolling road I've ever been on, up and down, all the way into the middle of the jungle. It was a great ride. We then followed a trail for about 20 minutes to a particularly stunning waterfall with a rather cold, but refreshing pool.

The swim was a perfect start to the day but, a little later, our luck ran out. As we were riding through Santiago, my engine popped and I lost power. I tried to honk at the others (Nikita was a motorcycle mechanic for years back in Russia, so he really could have helped), but my horn didn't work either! It seems I just can't catch a break with motorcycles as this wasn't the first time (NZ), the second time (NZ) the third time (USA), the fourth time (Spain), the fifth time (USA), the sixth time (Switzerland), or even the seventh time (Germany)... no, this was the eigth time a motorbike had broken down on me. It immediately occured to me that my holiday had come to a rather unfortunate end. Thankfully, like all the other times, it didn't take long to get help. At first, I thought someone would have to stop, as it didn't seem to be a very central location, but then I just started pushing. And just 200 meters later I came across a mechanic! By the time the others had noticed I was missing and turned around, these guys had already gotten busy. A few minutes and 300 pesos (about seven or eight bucks for labor, spark plug and new horn) later, we were back on our way! We found a reasonable hotel down the road in Candon where we had dinner and relaxed on the balcony for the evening.

The ride on day three was twice as long the the previous day, but it was totally worth it! We arrived at the Samaguing caves in Sagada where, again, they tried to force a guide on us... after we had already hiked down into the cave. We managed to sneak in while pretending we were part of yet another group, then just did our own thing once we got in there. The caves were pretty cool, but crowded with weekend travelers. It probably didn't help that Taal volcano had just erupted and wiped out tourism down south of Manila. That night we stayed in a really nice homestay where the owner prepared wonderful local meals for us. The next morning we left to see the Hanging Coffins of Sagada.

But, as you might have guessed, we had to get guide. I even asked what would happen if we just went in on our own (as that's how it used to be anyway according to online reviews), and they said that the police would come - of course, we later found out that his was likely just a lie to get us to hire their guides. They also wanted us to go back to town first and register, but we convinced our guide to do that for us after the visit. As expected, it was just a trail into a valley where some locals had hung a bunch of coffins on a cliff. Although, we were a bit surprised to hear that this is an ongoing practice that locals occasionally still observe. When a local elects to be "burried" in this way, a group of men will run in carrying the deceased on their shoulders, stick them up on the wall, and run out.

By about midmorning we were back on the road. On our way to our next major destination, Benaue, we stopped in a little town and bought some unbelievably delicious mangoes - another major item on any tourist to-do list in the Philippines. Finally, we arrived, took our photos, and hired a couple message therapists to come sort out our increasingly painful neck problems... the 6-10 hour rides were starting to take their toll.

On day four I was running low on cash - the only way to pay for anything in the Philippines - so I rode down to the town hall where they have the only functioning ATM in Benaue. As I rolled up, I noticed a big crowd standing in front of the town hall. As I got closer, I heard a voice over a loud speaker asking me to turn off my motorbike. I quickly realized that I had interrupted the mayor giving a speech to the townspeople! He resumed, but I could hear some surprised remarks as I snuck into the ATM booth directly behind him... Filipinos are friendly, though. So, I got nothing but smiles as I worked my way back to the bike and rode off. We then rode for another 6-7 hours to Tuguegarao... needless to say, the neck pains came back with a vengeance.

Day five we rode to Santa Ana, the northernmost point on Luzon, where we caught a boat to the tiny natural paradise island called Palaui. There we enjoyed a lobster lunch (included with our very affordable homestay) and went off looking for the local waterfall. As we followed the path, we came across a random registration booth. They stopped us and, big surprise, tried to force a guide on us... even when we told them that we were just going for a walk down the beach. We managed to get away, but they protested this quite a bit. As we made our way into the village, we ran into a young boy who, yeah, wanted to make sure we had a guide. I asked why and the boy lied about there being dangerous animals on the island - our host had told us otherwise. So, I got a little bit frustrated. I asked him if he needed a guide as well, but he had no answer to that. We weren't about to pay them just for the privilege of leaving our hut, so we just continued on our way. We crossed a swinging rope bridge, went through a rice paddy, and followed the trail until we arrived at the waterfall - no guide necessary!

It rained all night and, on day six, we waited half a day for it to stop before taking the boat back to the mainland. From Santa Ana we rode for several hours to Pagudpud - a famous surf spot. On the way we slipped around on muddy mountain roads and finally witnessed one of the 2.5 billion dogs here getting hit by a car. That'll likely be someones dinner tonight... yeah, really.

On day seven we went surfing and tried to go visit another waterfall, but the rains caused us to turn back. Surfing was good, though. We had intended to go kitesurfing, but that would have cost a fortune. Luckily, as there were no tourists around, we had our pick of surfing spots.

On day eight we went on the biggest ride yet! It was actually too long... about 12 hours or so. It didn't help that we took a two-hour detour into the mountains just for fun. It also didn't help that we got lost in the mountains on our way from the west coast to Tabuc. Some of these roads were just dirt, mud and, in some cases, pieces of wood that we had to ride across in order to avoid full-on lakes of muck - this stretch of total crap went on for literally 100 kilometers.

It got late, and really cold, but we managed to hunt down a cheap hotel in the middle of the night anyway. This was a small consolation. This and the earlier experience of coasting down mountains with the engines turned off - that was great!

On day nine we rode to another surf town called Baler - the tidiest place I've seen anywhere in the Philippines. We found a hostel, had dinner there, and then, the following day, we went to Mother Falls. I probably don't even have to say it at this point but, of course, they required us to hire a guide in order to walk over to the falls. At least we were able to get her to take some video of us playing in the water. Later that day we went surfing and got the "Baler Sports Message" AKA a physical beating - they are NOT gentle.

So riding to Baler was actually only possible for one reason - COVID-19. My flight to Hong Kong had been cancelled, and this turned out to be a really good thing! Had I gone to Hong Kong, I would have been stranded because my flight to the US was also cancelled! And even then, had I successfully flown from Hong Kong to the US, I would have been quarantined for my whole two-week visit... I wouldn't have even been able to visit my family!

Anyway, thanks to COVID-19, I now had a few more days in the Philippines. What's more, I wouldn't have to take busses through nightmare traffic in order to get back into Manila, because I was now flying out from Clark in Angeles! I'll tell ya, if you ever go to the Philippines, fly in and out of Clark! Manila will suck the life out of you and your schedule.

On day 11, we returned the bikes, had dinner, another message, and got a super deal on a hotel with a pool for just 250 pesos (5 bucks) each per night!

During the last few days, we went wakeboarding, got some good deals on souvenirs at Hypermarket, sat by the pool, and found my favorite food in the Philippines - Buko pie! The Buko shake is also pretty awesome. Both are surprisingly good considering that they're made from coconut and I usually hate coconut.

On the 6th of February, day 14, it was finally time to bring it all to and end. I flew to Incheon in South Korea, which is probably the nicest airport in the world, and slept there overnight (free beds!) before continuing my journey back to the states. There I expected to finally take a break but, as I would discover, taking a break was nothing but a pipe dream.

Wednesday, January 22, 2020

The Filipino Road Trip

On Saturday, the 18th of January, Chu Sum and I had made it - we finally had our own wheels and were ready to go explore the Philippines on our own! But, it was getting late which, as I learned, would make the ride from Angeles to Subic Bay a bit uncomfortable as the air was thick with insects. After about an hour or so, we arrived in Olongapo covered in tiny little dots... or at least I did - Chu Sum was a bit scheltered there on the back of the bike. We settled into our "pods" at Subic Bay Hostel & Dormitory then went out and got our first taste of restaurant quality Filipino food at a place called Coco Lime.

The food was a bit pricey, as would be the case with most places during the trip (at least compared to Vietnam), but that's what we get for getting recommendations from the hostel. Actually, even if we had managed to find a local-friendly place, they would probably have charged us more because we were tourists. In any case, the food was excellent.

On our way back to the hostel, we stopped by a live music event where a group was performing what were probably local hits based on the reaction of the audience. I suppose this was my first time being exposed to Filipino entertainment, which I would say is rather unique in that they regularly pepper their lines with English words. In fact, I eventually realized that everything is that way in the Philippines: commercials, recorded announcements, TV shows, etc. The English words sound so out of place, though, that you'd be forgiven for thinking that they'd simply forgotten the word in their own language.

On day one of our motorcycle journey we both had our first scuba diving experience. We got there in the morning for an hour of so of instruction before heading to a pool to do some training exercises. Then, that afternoon, we took a boat out and did the real thing! Scuba diving really is a lot of fun. I get it now why so many people are so passionate about it it. The feeling of breathing underwater alone is pretty awesome but, of course, the real treat is being able to navigate the depths without needing to resurface. I have to say, I'm really relieved that I didn't have any problems equalizing the pressure in my ears. I've had trouble with that before, but it turns out that you just have to go up a bit again if you feel pain and then, when you go to descend again, just equalize a bit more often. I also learned that you can adjust your boyancy by just controlling your breathing. Chu Sum had a bit of trouble with this because he relied too heavily on the boyancy control unit. As I discovered (and later confirmed with the pros), you just have to let the air out of your lungs and you sink like a rock!

On day two, we had problems. The bike was making weird noises, so we stopped by a local mechanic and he told us that the engine was going to seize. We called the owner, Alex, and he told us to ride it back to Angeles City. This actually worked out really well! It was slow going getting back to Angeles with the bike protesting anything over 60 kph but, upon our arrival, we were given a free upgrade! We actually would have gotten such a bike at the start, but we had arrived on the weekend. Now it was a weekday, so we got something that could take us to a much more interesting destination.

Alex didn't just upgrade our bike, but he gave us some good tips as well. He told us about some interesting routes we could take to get to a little-known place in the mountains with a free hot spring! So, we took the bike over to the local mall, grabbed a tent and some food, and drove off into the countryside. Our first obstacle was navigating a small neighborhood (or "barangay" aka "barrio" in Spanish) that gradually became more and more rural until the roads were no longer paved. Soon we exited the neighborhood onto sandy pathways that were rather difficult to ride on. Luckily we found a local to follow who rode much faster which, as I had expected, made the bike much more stable.

Eventually we came to the river, which we had to cross several times on the way to the pools. At one point we came to a fork that Alex had told us about. He had told us to go left, but our wannabe guide was insisting that we follow him to the right. So, we paid him (money is always expected even if you didn't actually ask for help) and, despite his objections, we continued to the left. Alex had explained that there are indeed hot pools to the right, but that they would charge us there. Sure enough, as we continued to the left, we came upon a bunch of very well-made hot pools with nobody charging entry. We set up camp, did a little BBQ and then went for a midnight dip in one of the best hot pools I've every been in.

On day three we decided to head back to where the first bike had broken down. There we had another go at our original destinations - Balanga City and Mariveles. We hit a couple snags along the way, though... not the least of which being that we got trapped in quicksand. Alex had warned us about riding in the river where the big construction machines were working. I just figured he meant to start looking for the exit, but no - he meant to get out of the water! Anyway, after a few minutes of panicking and beeping SOS with the horn, I managed to get some locals to come help pull the bike out. Not a moment too soon, though!

A few hours later we arrived in Balanga City and found our hostel. Balanga City is a center of tourism with historical buildings, a public market with interesting drinks and snacks, and really weird traffic issues. We got there and I wasn't sure if my GPS was working properly as the traffic was actually directed along a circular route that, unless you cut back through the middle of it, you ended up being coraled along an unending loop that just kept going around and around.

We spent the evening walking around getting food (Sissig!) and looking for a good message. A lot of the places we just couldn't find - one place was just a gas station - but, in the end, we found a pretty good one.

The next day was Chu Sum's last, so we headed down to Mariveles to check out the famous "Five Fingers" - a bunch of peninsulas with caves and beaches. Unfortunately, the road was blocked and, though we found a trail, we soon started running out of time and became demotivated. The views were nice, though.

Still, we did manage to find a cool little coastal barangay on the way back where we finally got to see some beaches. We even met some nice locals and a little kid who had a pet crab! We got back on the road, returned the bike in Angeles and took a trike to the bus station so Chu Sum could go back to Manila to catch his flight.

That night I went to a new hostel where I made some new friends from Russia named Janko and Nikita. Janko was riding around on a little scooter that he had rented in Manila (not an easy way to get around!) and Nikita had found a place that rented out full-sized motorcycles for half the price of the ones Chu Sum and I had rented. We talked a bit and agreed that he would take me there the next morning so that I could rent one as well and we could explore the Philippines together for the coming weeks! The real adventure was about to begin...

Saturday, January 18, 2020

The Filipino Adventure

I've been on a lot of great adventures - and I'm not just referring to the fact that I've been to about 25 countries - but I'd have to say my experience in the Philippines was probably the wildest yet. Still, for the sake of comparison, here's a chronological list of my most notable adventures (note: some of them are perhaps a bit poorly written...):

In 2009, I had my first experience abroad in Greece (we sailed around a bunch of the islands). In 2010, I went to Ireland (where I almost got hit by a terrorist rocket), slept in a closet in Paris in order to save money, made a visa run to the Rock of Gibraltar, and hopped a train in order to catch a flight out of Frankfurt, Germany. In 2011, I went on a trip across America during which border patrol stopped us because they found seven pounds of marijuana under the bus. In 2012, I caught a ride with a truckie down the coast of Australia, worked as a door-to-door salesman, smashed up my friend's car driving through the outback, worked with a bunch of carnies to make money to repair the car, and also worked as a driving instructor for a girl that didn't know how to turn or brake... we went over the roundabout, took out a sign post (as well as her front bumper) and ended up in someone's yard. In 2013, I became a bushman trapping possum and living in the Tararua Ranges of New Zealand, almost froze to death riding through the mountains on the way to Christchurch, worked as a mountain lodge manager at a club field called Cheeseman, almost got stranded doing a 3-day hike in one day, and got a really cool job working in the middle of the wilderness just by rolling up on a motorbike - I later replaced that bike with a super dodgy one, which I then used for a two-day 1000 km trip through a storm. In 2014, I traveled around China (and saw the Great Wall), was locked out of my friend's place during one of the biggest protests in Hong Kong history, went off the beaten path in Malaysia, found a place for cliff diving in the jungles of HK... and almost got caught in a flood there two years later. In 2016, I did a huge scooter trip around Spain with a friend on a beat-up bike, traveled around Morocco in a Swiss friend's old van... we didn't actually even know if they'd let us into the country with it. In 2017, I rafted the Puyallup River (the second time there a friend almost drowned), ate some weird stuff in Vietnam, and rode my old junky Spanish scooter from Switzerland to Duesseldorf.

So yeah, I've been around a bit. Nevertheless, I think my trip around the Philippines might have actually topped them all... The story begins on Thursday, the 16th of January. I woke up to cars honking, as I would for the next couple of days... welcome to Manila - no alarm clock needed. The first day was just that way. I later got ripped off by a trike guy (gotta negotiate the price beforehand!) and spent the rest of the day testing my patience with the public transportation system. After hours of busses, Grab taxis and Jeepneys (ubiquitous WW2 jeeps repurposed and used nationwide as a cheap A to B), I had managed to visit the mall and return to my hostel. At least the day ended well seeing as I met some new friends on the rooftop of the hostel. We shared our stories and ate tasty Filipino BBQ chicken and pork - a major item on any tourist to-do list.

The next day I just took it easy - spent time hanging out with new friends and did some planning. That night Chu Sum arrived from Hong Kong and, the next day, we started our journey. We took a train, waited at a bus station for over an hour, then took a bus the rest of the way to Angeles City. There we rented a motorcycle from one of the only places in all of the islands (AKA the Philippines) where you can get something big enough to take on the motorway. The Filipino road trip had begun!

Thursday, January 16, 2020

Back in Vietnam

So far 2020 has been pretty interesting - and I'm not referring to COVID-19 (though I suppose we have quarantine to thank for my latest posts). I had my first game of glow-in-the-dark minigolf, made a daytrip to Bonn and, yeah, traveled Southeast Asia for a month, as one does.

On Thursday, the 9th of January, I flew over to Berlin for the night. I stayed with Raul (met in Anaheim) and some other brothers from the church. It was late, so we didn't really get to see anything, but it was a good visit nonetheless. The next day I flew to Singapore and, thanks to the time difference, I arrived in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam on the 11th.

The first thing I noticed was one of these guys sleeping on his bike. Though, the one I saw was doing this in the middle of traffic!.. Basically, just slightly off to the side. At the hostel I immediately made new friends with whom I spent the afternoon eating pizza and planning the next day. I also had a $15 message - the first of many to come.

The following day, after a two-hour bus ride, we all arrived at the Chu Chi Tunnels. During our visit we learned about the many extreme survival techniques used by the Việt Cộng. First of all, they lived underground in tunnels and ate Tapioca root all day long as their only food source. We tried some, which was actually pretty good, but one can imagine getting tired of it in about a day.

Due to the resulting malnourishment, the Việt Cộng were quite small, which helped them to live in tunnels that, as I discovered, are quite confining... Of course, I'd rather be malnourished than experience the horrible conditions that some of the US troops had to face. Not only did the Việt Cộng find devestating ways to use the weapons of the attacking forces against them, but they were also quite effective in coming up with gruesome traps that would shred and impale the flesh of their victims.


Yeah... I'm pretty glad I wasn't around for that conflict. After visiting the shooting range (overpriced and crowded), we took the bus back to Ho Chi Minh City.

The next couple of days we enjoyed the fantastic free breakfast on the hostel terrace (most hostels offer really good breakfast free of charge), and ate at lots of nice restaurants. Although, most notable was the street food, in particular Banh Mi (very cheap and filling sandwich bursting with spicy flavor!). I spent most of my time with two hostel buddies - a German and a Canadian.

In the last two days, before I left for the Philippines, we checked out the Indepenence Palace, the Central Post Office, and the markets. I bought a good backpack for about 500 thousand dong (about $20) at the Ben Thanh Market (more touristy than the Chợ Bình Tây market, but good luck navigating that mess!) and tried the famous Coconut Iced Coffee at Cong - not bad!

Monday, December 30, 2019

Sliding into the New Year

Aside from a few busy days and weeks here and there, the rest of 2019 was pretty relaxed. I spent time with friends, got back into bouldering a bit, did some hiking, took part in a few church conferences, gatherings and BBQs, went to Japan Tag again (just got some Japanese fried chicken and walked around), stopped by the kirmis (local carnival) a couple times, and ran around Phantasialand with my friend Robert.

Oh and I bought more land! This time it was a bit more expensive, but still a real steal. I look forward to seeing it when I go back to the States for a visit in February. Unfortunately, by then my Dad will have finished developing it without me, but at least we were able to work together a bit on the first one.

So, a quick summary of Amsterdam: on Friday, June 7th, I caught a late train to go meet my friend Garret at our AirBnB that we would be staying at for the weekend. Right off the start I was reminded of one reason why I don't take trains - delays. Fortunately, the tree in the tracks only delayed us for 20 minutes or so, but this was still inconvenient considering that it was already almost midnight. We managed to both arrive around 1am only to discover yet another fun challenge... finding the secret entrance to our accommodations.

It was a bit tricky finding the part in the bushes that led to the path behind the apartments but, thanks to Google Maps, we were able to feel our way to our destination. It was an interesting place with strange, seemingly makeshift facilities that could easily be mistaken for being out-of-order. Of course, this bothered Garret more than myself - I don't mind a little inconvenience so long as it all functions. But I digress...

We spent the next day walking around eating Indonesian food (really common in Amsterdam and really good!), Stroopwaffles, and samples of local cheese. Then, the following day, we visited the Rijksmuseum to see the big Rembrandt exhibit. We then basically finished the trip with a bit more walking around and eating stuff like Patatje Oorlog (Dutch fries).

In the months following the trip to Amsterdam, I finally got in a little local travel. Some of us did some hiking over by a nearby city called Bochum, and in a region of forest called the Neandertal (where the caveman was discovered). I actually found these hikes to be a bit unusual as they didn't exactly give the feeling of really getting away from it all. Sections of the hikes were pretty good, but they regularly intersected with civilization which, in my book, is a bit like cheating. In any case, I was in good company, so the nice scenery was more of a bonus.

We also got to visit some other local destinations, such as Gut Elim (a small farm in the countryside that belongs in part to the church), and Bielefeld where we met with many from the churches in neighboring cities. I have to say, Gut Elim is pretty cool. We've got a lot of space for sports and gathering together, and the farmers there also have some crazy animals (check out the video at the bottom).

We made it out to some other cities as well, like Hamburg, Aachen (twice), Brussels (Belgium) and Utrecht in the Netherlands for a youth conference. Aachen was great; we bought tons of chocolate at the Lindt factory, had an awesome BBQ and recorded hymns. Hamburg seemed like a nice city (even though, as in Utrecht and Brussels, we didn't see much), but the trip back was exhausting. We got stuck sitting in parked traffic on the autobahn for probably 2-3 hours. We even witnessed people from one car sharing food with the car next to them in order to survive!

Now, I did mention that the last few months weren't all bowling and glow-in-the-dark minigolf (though I did do these things a bit as well). I also dealt with visa concerns, confusing insurance documents, and the occasional 12-hour day of back-to-back classes. One of these classes in particular was quite strange. I had a business student come in who immediately decided he needed to test my German ability (even though I teach English)... I later found out that he was judging my professionalism based on said skill. He then proceeded to reject all tasks after only looking at the first question. After the first 20 minutes or so, we had about a dozen or so various tasks sitting on the table - all of which I would have to sort back into my files. At this point he asked about meeting everyday, including Saturdays, and then decided to "take a break". He left everything on the table and went home. I was stunned. It was only in the following week or so that I heard from one of the sales managers that this guy was giving him a hard time as well. It turns out the student had shown up the first day asking for the sales manager thinking that he, a German who works in administration, would be his English teacher. So, he was already confused and upset by the time he got to me. At one point he emailed the sales manager asking for a call back. During the call the student told him that he didn't think any of the tasks were of any use to him (even though he hadn't even tried them) and, after it was explained that my students are generally quite satisfied with my lessons, the student got flustered and demanded a call back, as he suddenly had a meeting; the response to this was priceless, "no, when your meeting is over, you call me back."

I was later relieved to learn that this student would no longer be my problem, or that of anyone else at our school. Good riddance.

As for the visa problems, I will be taking a long holiday in Southeast Asia for three weeks in January before returning to the States for a couple weeks to visit family in February. On the 5th of December I was happy to learn that I had been granted two more years in Germany (at the end of which I will be able to apply for permanent residency). I was not happy to find out that, due to a broken visa machine, and temporary visa documents not having been signed by the supervisor, the visa itself wouldn't be available for several weeks... possibly even until after I had planned to already be in Asia. This is a problem as I can't return to Germany without a visa. So, I had to make an appointment to go back later and get what's called a Fiktionsbescheinigung - basically a 13 euro visa extension. But no, this would also be a problem because my original visa is in my old passport - no extension possible. Instead, I would have to pay 55 euros for an actual visa that would replace the old one until the new one arrived. Good thing I recently got a raise at work!