Thursday, April 19, 2007

All good things must come to an end

And then it was over.

As shockingly fast as it started, our year in Korea is now over. It's hard to believe. So many experiences, so much fun, so much we've seen. We've met so many fantastic people that we hope to stay in touch with, and eaten so many things we never would have considered edible in the past. And to top it off, Steph and I still like each other! Who knew?

Yudal treasuresLooking back at our year, Steph and I would whole-heartedly recommend this experience to anyone who is finding themselves reading this post. All you need is a love for kids, a sense of adventure and an open mind, and you'll have a great time. It probably wouldn't hurt to have a strong stomach as well! So many things we have learned in this year...things we never though of, like; That you can exhausted and in bed at 8:30, that you can communicate solely through a hybridized set of charades, petting stray dogs is a good way to start the day, that even if something makes no sense, it may be the best way to do things, 15 hours of school isn't healthy and that you can the Korean people are amazingly kind and hardworking people.

As we head back to our family and friends in Toronto, we look back (as everyone who has been here does) at what we love and dislike about Korea:

Things we will miss:
$3 meals that are healthy for you.
Walking to work
Having no car
$5 cab rides
School lunches
Surprise days off
Yudal Mountain
Temples in the most unexpected places
Cheap buses everywhere, and are always leaving "right now"
Extra classes
Random kind acts from Koreans
Being called "beautiful" simply because you are tall
Getting "servisa" at every store you go to (free hemming at the dry cleaners, freebies at the corner store...)
The 9 puppies on our way to work
Celebrity status
Almost 3 months vacation
Naju Peaches
Nene chicken
The lady at Kimbap Nala
The folks at our gym
Random "Have a nice day!"s coming from someone biking past you
50" TVs in the classrooms
Random gifts from strangers
Great friends going through the same things
$5 bottles of Gin
Being sheltered by your obliviousness
Absolute freedom and endless possibilities
Steph and Momma dogThings we probably won't miss:
Giggles (It's what Korean kids do when they are uncomfortable)
Camera phones and their gratuitous use (Always pointed at us)
Skate (still not sure why people eat it raw)
Being away from family and friends!
Almost being run down on the sidewalk
Mistreated dogs
Fame without the fortune
Not being able to "blend in"
Transientness of the foreigner population
In order to really close the book on this experience, Steph and I have agreed to finish "The Dumping Hole" once and for all... like a finished project. So this is the last entry.

If you want to follow any of our future experiences, check us out at "The Thought Pile". Stay happy and healthy!

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Doesn't that bring a tear to your eye?Teaching is not something I ever thought I would do. My parents are both teachers, and I like kids, so I probably knew I had it in me. But this year in Korea teaching English at a Korean Elementary school has shown me a lot about teaching. It's a hell of a lot of work and is exhausting! This week, seeing some of the students cry and give me going away cards this week has made it all worth it.

It made me really think back to my favourite teachers growing up and how tough things were for them. Now don't get me wrong; being a bad teacher is easy. Just like being a crappy office worker. But being a great teacher, and putting yourself on the line so that the students can get the most you have to offer is a brave, selfless and incredibly difficult (not to mention physically and emotionally draining) endeavour.

Pile 'o' kidsThe teachers who had the greatest influence on my life, were, far and away, Brian Svenningsen in Grade 7 and Mrs Maclin in Grade 12.

Brian was a passionate person who put everything he had into his students. I don't know a person who had him who didn't swear that he was the most influential teacher they've ever had. Looking back, I don't know how he did it without running himself dry.

Mrs Maclin was my homeroom teacher during one of the toughest years of my life. At the time I was a reasonably good basketball player, with all the hopes and dreams that go with it. In that year, I broke a finger, a wrist, blew out an ankle, a knee (ACL) and a shoulder (ugly dislocation).... all in separate occations. While those injuries earned me the nickname "cripple" at school, Mrs Maclin repeadedly gave me warm advice and support.

These two people had an immense impact on my life and helped make me the person I am today. Thanks guys.
Brian is on the right... and who is that dashingly good looking guy in the middle!!

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Saturday, April 14, 2007


Steph sent me a link to this game... and in 2 minutes, I was addicted.
Now you are too. Enjoy.

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Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Winds of Change - Yellow Dust

My lungs are going to love this!Reading the papers from back home and listening to CNN, one gets the impression that the concern about the environment has finally reached the general public. The fact that it is now the #1 election topic in Canada clearly states that. But is the Government ready to show some vision? Like Charter of Rights and Freedoms vision? Probably not, being the minority government that it is.

Lucky for most Canadians, environmental crisis is not obviously upon us yet.

When we arrived in Korea in April of 2006, we spent a week of orientation in Gwangju, a city of 1.8 million in the south western province. It was in the middle of the Yellow Dust Storms, and for two days, the afternoon sky was dark with sand. The entire month, cars were covered in yellow dust, and car washes were inundated with eager customers. Andrew Leonard at "How the world works" sums it up like so:

It's April in Korea, which means it is time to don surgical masks, seal windows tightly shut, and keep a weather eye out toward the Chinese border. April is yellow dust storm season, when a noxious brew of Gobi desert sand particles and assorted effluent from China's industrial development comes roaring out of the west and dumps down on Japan and Korea... (more)
I think that's the sun...And so Koreans have to debate staying home from work (which people in this hard working nation NEVER do), kids can't go outside during recess, and a large number of people now dawn those surgical masks to keep their lungs clear. Is it really that big a deal? Well yeah, yeah it is. One of my friends here was just admitted to the hospital this week with pneumonia. It's pretty serious stuff.

All this is not just a reminder that we in Canada should be doing more on an individual, Municipal and National level, but that we also need to be part of the global effort. We are much closer to a crisis that will irreversibly change the way we live - a crisis we can better relate to than the catastrophic ones discussed Al Gore's "An Incovenient Truth". Although, those may be coming too.

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Sunday, April 08, 2007

Templing about

The beautiful Temple at Duryursan
It is truly amazing the rich culture Korea has to offer. This weekend we decided to jump on a bus with our friends Heather and Glen, and head to Haenam to check out a Buddhist temple called Duryunsan. With 2 weeks to go, this was probably our last outing before we head home. I originally was hoping to use this weekend to visit the historic gem; The Gyeongju area. Problem was, it was a 5 hour bus ride away, and with 2 weeks left, we aren't up for that long a barf ride.

Brush your teeth twice a day kids!We reached the Duryunsan area after 2 bus rides and 1.5 hours. The streets to Duryunsan were lined with cherry blossoms in full bloom, and the weather was great. We arrived at the Temple after walking 30 minutes past some totems and a grave site of "Stupas". The site was amazingly uncrowded!

We toured the site, that seemed to be abuzz with construction (with timber, granite, cranes and a little monk firetruck!).

Steph and a PagotaPushing on, we made our way up the mountain's rocky, bouldery trail, haphazardly choosing the opposite direction the girls wanted to go at each fork. Lucky for the men, the monks were smart enough to build this particular temple at the point where ALL the trails eventually converged. Our only real issue was the pack of nursing dogs living at the Temple, but the resident Monk soon yelled them into silence. Each Monk we saw had this amazing calm to them... the kind that puts you at ease as soon as you see them.

Looking out onto the valleyLike it happens in Korea, we made our way up to a pagota sitting right at the tip of a cliff. As we walked by the pagota, a clearing opened up and there we were beside a small one person temple looking out on the entire valley. Breathtaking.

On our way back, we stumbled across another temple, still under construction, that was built to protect an 4.2 meter tall Budda figure that had been carved into the rock face. The carving was so amazing, none of us dared go into the room (which is good because we probably weren't supposed to be in there)... but all you could think about was, how did we not know about this, and why were we the only people there?
We made our way down the mountain and found our way into a steak barbecue restaurant for some well earned Calbi for $2.50 per person (plus beer of course!).

Just another example of the unexpected amazing that is Korea.
Where did this come from?

Saturday, April 07, 2007

Wise words

Richard just wrote a post that I think we all should read.
It's an issue we all need to be conscious of.

Tuesday, April 03, 2007


Living in Korea for a year, and visiting neighbouring countries, not to mention being an ESL teacher, it dawns on you that something interesting is going on with language. Some people talk about English being the mother of all languages, the most dominant of the languages. Because of its broad adoption by the business community, it's use as primary language in many developed countries and it's blanketing broadcast by America's marketing machine, it has definitely become the language of choice. However, saying that English will devour all other languages is far fetched.

What is happening, is that countries throughout Asia (specifically) are using English as a common tongue, facilitating travel, business and cultural exchange. They are doing this on a general scale, through English as a second language, but more often than not, through a simplified version of English. Now, I'm not talking about the simplified English that John Kerry was told to use (which was highly publicized)throughout the 2004 Presidential elections. We call it Konglish or Chinglish or Engrish depending on what country you are in. I like to call it Englishy (and so does Virginia).

As I've posted about before, Englishy features phrases that get to the point or are more descriptive than what a native speaker would say; for example "Take away" instead of take out food, "Let's learning" where "Let's" is put in front of any word to denote group adoption, or "Coffee Story" where "story" is used around EVERY WORD you can think of to attach reputation or credibility to any product. It is interesting to see the core group of phrases that are emerging from this ESL region.

What does this mean for North America? Not much. Critical mass of native english speakers means we won't see any effect of Englishy unless immigration drastically increases (although Canada is looking to up their immigration levels from 100,000 to 400,000 people per year in the not too distant future). But in the east, this could mean the propagation of a "new" dialect of English. As the region becomes more integrated, and since they out number the total native speaker population, it may be this new dialect that becomes the prominent language.

So don't get cocky English speakers... you too may have to learn a new language... Englishy is on the rise and has an amazing number of adopters!

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Monday, March 26, 2007

And then you remember again why you love Korea

This country is an amazing place. As foreigners, we find some things we aren't too crazy about, but every once in a while, you are greeted by random acts of amazing kindness. One time, we were been given a half watermelon and 2 beers from complete strangers, while another, a family happily fed me a feast of grilled pork (sangyupsol) while Steph and Hugh's mother swam at Waedaldo.

Oh, yeah, thanks for the gotchies...This time, we were out hiking in Muan, a half an hour north of our home town, with Handsome Steve and Warren. We were on our way towards the start of the mountain when we ran into a group of about 25 Koreans sitting down beside the trail having a picnic. No sooner had we seen them, the group grabbed Steph and Warren and sat down them at their huge spread of food. Before we knew it, we were making small talk, drinking Makoli (a fermented rice wine), eating strawberries, pork and lots of Kimchi, while avoiding the Skate!!!

Please... no more Skate!Every once in a while, the man closest to me would stand up and announce a fact that he had just learned about me. Everyone was fantastic. Somehow, during the meal, Stephanie was "awarded" a brand new pair of underwear (yes, underwear) that one man thought it was his duty to pull over his head before he handed them over to her. I guess he was trying them on for size!

In the end, after a number of photo ops, we scooted out to start our hike... The rest of the day, though, we could only talk about the amazing generosity of random Koreans.Ok... one more photo!

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Sunday, March 25, 2007

Things start to become familiar

We stepped outside the other day, and Steph turned to me and said "This really feels familiar... like it did when we got here."
Not really Mokpo, but I'm sure this looks like somewhere in Korea!It's so true. It's been almost a year, but the feel, the temperature, the fresh smells and the budding trees, brings back a wave of memories. A lot of good memories. It's amazing how much we have experienced in this past year... like 4 years of memories jammed into one.

Now, we find ourselves packing, sorting out who gets which of the possessions we aren't taking with us, tying up lose ends, and thinking about all the great things we have done and been through this past year. It has been an amazing run to say the least. And we officially have less than a month left.

Hard to believe.

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Tuesday, March 20, 2007

The unrewarding world of Trust

While our trip to China was fantastic, there were many chances for it to go horribly wrong. Well, maybe not horribly, because we did play it safe in staying in the big cities, but there were scams abound. Luckily, we had read up on a number of them.

Steph at Peoples Park.Walking through People's park in Shanghai, a nice girl calling herself Lily, came up and started talking English to us. She was from inner Mongolia, going to University somewhere in China, but was in Shanghai on holiday, and was excited to practice her English with us.

Steph had just read a warning online about scams where a woman will come up and befriend you asking to practice English. The girl then asks (usually a single young virile man) if he wants to come to a small tea shop or bar with her. They order drinks (harmless?) and in some cases the girl's friends make an appearance. Before the foreigner knows it, their company has left, and the foreigner is charged for 6 "traditional" cups of tea costing $20 US each. Since they are at a "privately owned" establishment, they are stuck with the choice of paying the bill or being carted out in a stretcher. This couldn't happen to us though, could it?

After talking with "Lily" for a while, we decided to head to People Square... to which she was a little too eager to join us. Little alarm bells, or paranoia? As we settled onto a bench in People's park, we continued to have an easy conversation with Lily, learning about Mongolia and China's growth. We were tired from all the people, so we decided to say goodbye to Lily and head back to our hotel... And that was when she said "Oh, but I was hoping we could go to this nice little tea shop I know..."

People's Square


Goodbye Lily.

And it's one experience like that that makes you paranoid (rightfully so) about everyone, even though we met some really nice people in both Shanghai and Beijing. But, from the street vendor selling cake who measured portions by weight using a bar, a sliding weight and his finger as the fulcrum (yes, I just used the word fulcrum), to the German lady who had to physically tear her suitcase out of a cab that had taken her "sightseeing" through Beijing, to the general joys of bartering at markets, you have to always be "aware" when you are travelling.

On a side note: The cake was worth double the price, our cabs were all awesome because we kept with Beijing taxi's orange cabs and the markets were great because we keep telling ourselves that we got great deals! (Like my $32 fake TAG!)

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Beijing: 2008 Olympics bound! (China: Part 2)

Us at the WallAfter a fantastic couple of days in Shanghai, we headed to Beijing, the capital of China. Steph, again in all her wisdom, booked us a sleeper room on a 12 hour overnight train to Beijing. Aside from being subject to some very aggressive begging in the train station, the whole experience was great and painless. One old man sat beside each person in the waiting room, grunted and yelled while banging on the metal chairs and poking people. I wasn't too pleased, when he pulled that routine on us, let me understate.

Lionnesse!The 12 hour train ride seems to take only moments to get us to Beijing. Immediately upon arriving, we realized that Beijing is BIG. Our hotel, The Harmony, was located just a block from the train station, was supposed to be 3 blocks from Tiananmen Square... We soon realized that these blocks were the same as 4 conventional blocks by 4 blocks, and that Tiananmen was 40 minutes away!

Tiananmen is enormous. Even with the tens of thousands of people milling around (being Lunar New Year), the square and Forbidden city surprisingly did not seem all that rammed...well, it did, but it wasn't like a herd of cattle. Getting tickets was another story. Queuing is still in its infancy in China, and its enough to drive any Westerner absolutely mad. White PagodaYou really need to stake out your land and be bigger than everyone else (hehe)... and don't let it get to you. I say this, but on my last day, I was so fed up with people rushing onto the subway without letting people off, that I lowered my head and ploughed over 5 guys trying to beat each other onto the train before the doors had full opened. I digress.

Copper pots in the Forbidden city

The Forbidden city (39°54'59.94"N 116°23'25.82"E) is the center of the city where royalty spent centuries ruling. It now hosts a mind blowing number of Chinese treasures amongst the countless temples located within its protective walls. Unfortunately for us, many of the temples were covered with sheeting and scafolding as resoration efforts were underway for the upcoming Olympics. We even had a coffee at the "forbidden Starbucks" located inside city, which is still causing an uproar amongst traditionalists. It was delicious, but I think someone budded in front of Steph in that line too. Grr!

Steph ALONE at the Temple of HeavenOver the next couple of days we visited the Pearl Market, where I bought a "real" TAG watch for $30, and Steph found numerous teasures, the Temple of Heaven, the Dirt Market (Antique and trinket market great for haggling), we watched an amazing acrobat show, and went on a 10 hour Great Wall tour, that only gave us 1/2 an hour at the Ming Tombs and less than 2 hours at the Great Wall at Juyongguan (the rest of the tour we were dragged through countless Jade and Pearl shops). We made trips to the breath taking Beihai Park and the White Pagota, with its amazing view, and the Summer Palace (39°59'48.98"N 116°16'3.51"E). Again, the size of all of Beijing's treasures are on such a huge scale, it's tough to put into words.

What was visible everywhere, is branding and work going on in preparation for the 2008 Olympics. Posters and volounteer programs go hand in hand with the enormous amount of construction. Mega-block upon mega-block of traditional Hutongs were being gutted to be replaced with new apartment complexes and comercial complexes. Our guide told us that those displaced were given modest compensation that wouldn't come close to covering a new apartment.

The two center pieces...Two of the centerpieces for the Olympics are the main stadium and the aquatic center. The Bird's nest and the Water Cube are just two of the amazing buildings that Beijing is hoping to have done for their "Green Olympics". With all the work to be done, its hard to believe they will be ready... but then again, the Chinese have a record for amazing feats.

Great Wall at Juyongguan

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It's the little things...

Another "blogworthy?" post about something I've been just shrugging off lately.
Everyday, I walk home from school, past the fields, across the "New 4 lane road to nowhere", and I pass a line of cars idling on the side of the road.

Line up on the right please...Beside the first car in line is a guy who is, in plain view, emptying a 10 gallon clear bladder of what I assume is gasoline, into the gas tank of the first car. Once filled, the next car pulls up and the "attendant" goes to the trunk of his car (parked around on the curb) and pulls out the next of his 15 bladders of gas, and starts filling up the next car! In plain view.

What's going on? Where is this guy syphoning the gas from? How is this happening every day? I have no clue, and I would take a picture, but I don't think that would be "Good for health".

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Friday, March 16, 2007

March Madness!!!

Round ball-erific!
So here it is. I've been singing "It's the most wonderful time, of the year!" all day. It's the NCAA's single elimination tournament, and it is my favourite sporting event... so much so that I take 4-6 vacation days, this time, every year.

Dad and I plop down (This year he bought a brand new Plasma TV!!!!) and watch as much basketball as our eyes can manage. Of course, I'm in Korea... and the Koreans don't care for college basketball. Lucky for me, CBS has decided to put almost all the games, live online. Since there is a 13 hour time difference between home and Korea, CBS has even made it so that I can bring up the games, On Demand, after they are done.

I love you CBS... (You too Dad, for sending me the VOD link. You rock!)

Monday, March 05, 2007


While we were in China, I was amazed at how many people wanted to take "sneaky" pictures of me. It's one thing to take the photo of someone tall, but totally another when people sneak up beside me, or stand 20 feet in front of me while someone else tries to frame a picture of them with ME in it. I mean, this happens in Korea, but not with as much effort as the Chinese were trying.

No, I'm not paranoid, because they definitely weren't subtle! Funny, but not subtle. 4 days into our trip in Shanghai, a girl (who happened to be the one who tried to take us to her "Special Tea cafe") told me I looked a lot like DASHAN. WHO?

I'm a tall white guy that looks like Brent!Dashan is known in Canada as Mark Rowswell, where he is almost a complete unknown. What's his claim to fame? He came over to China in the mid 80's and learned how to speak Mandarin Chinese unbelievably well... as well or better than many Chinese. While this isn't so odd, a chance to perform comedy on a television show made him a national celebrity overnight. Apparently 550 million people were watching him the night he appeared TV. And he can still live the life of an unknown back home. Appropriately, he has been hired to be the Canadian Team Attaché for the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing, even though no Canadian has a clue who he is. Pretty sweet work there, Mark!

So if you hear a story with the title "Dashan sticks tongue out at picture takers!" or "Dashan mysteriously grows 1 foot taller overnight!", don't blame him!

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Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Shanghai: Out with the old!

Do I ever work? The answer is a resounding NO. And I love it.
After an amazing time in Australia, I came back to Korea, rested a bit, went to school for a week (not to teach, but just to sit and "attend") and then left for China.

Us in ShanghaiI know everyone says "How did you get Steph?", and "You sure are lucky" and "You don't deserve her, you tall..." (Yeah, some people go a little overboard), but she outdid herself this time. Steph planned all the flights, hotels, the sleeper train and the sights to see in China! All I did was show up and pose for pictures. Sweet deal!

Shanghai is only 2 hours by plane, but it takes 5+ hours to get to the Seoul airport from our town, so no flight is a short one. Again, no one minds any inconvenience when they are heading off on vcation. We arrived in Shanghai, and immediately noticed what everyone told us: Everything looks new and everything is built on a massive scale. The city of 18 million is striving to be the financial center and the prime international destination in China, and all I can say is - Wow.

Pudong view from breakfast.After a 150Y ($25)/40 minute cab ride from the biggest airport I have ever seen (and a equal sized addition almost completed to its side) we arrived at our Hotel; The Panorama (Copy and paste these coordinates into Google Earth 431°14'46.70"N 121°29'12.94"E). Located right in the Bund district, on the Huangpu River, we were in the middle of everything! To make matters even better, we were even upgraded to a suite, which was far better than my fears a week earlier when we heard the hotel had a recent "change in management" and was unable to confirm our reservations!

Nanjing Street. Shopping Mecca.Every morning we ate breakfast at the top floor restaurant, overlooking the Bund and Pudong districts. It was unreal. We spent our 4 days walking the riverfront, shopping on Nanjing street (with every other person in China), sitting in People's Park and People's Square (Copy and paste these coordinates into Google Earth 431°13'52.69"N 121°28'11.17"E), braving the crowds at the "Old Shanghai" Yuyuan markets (Copy and paste these coordinates into Google Earth 431°13'47.33"N 121°29'11.54"E) (you begin to see that Markets were a focal point for one of us!!!), gazing at the Oriental Pearl(Copy and paste these coordinates into Google Earth 431°14'29.31"N 121°29'43.68"E) and taking riverboats up the Huangpu. Steph even took me up to the 56th floor of the Jin Mao Building (Copy and paste these coordinates into Google Earth 431°14'14.28"N 121°30'4.61"E) (The tallest hotel in the world) for my birthday dinner!

Shanghai is developing at a ridiculous pace. Blocks upon blocks of Hutongs (old traditional houses) lie in semi-gutted conditions, walls broken down and roofs removed to make them inhospitable, clearly in wait for another enormous apartment complex to take over the land. The progress of this can be seen clearly in pictures displayed in the center of the new financial district of Pudong(Copy and paste these coordinates into Google Earth 431°14'22.96"N 121°30'7.78"E). Pictures taken every year show the "Out with the old" process from 1993 and on... Amazing.

Visiting Shanghai on Lunar New Year is a wild experience to say the least. Lucky for us, being as tall as we are, the crowds practically parted as we walked through them. Unlike in Korea, the stares were usually followed with a smile, as well as a friendly "Nihow". It was an incredible place, but still exhausting.
Where's Waldo?

Check out the rest of our pictures!

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World class Sydney

Me and the OperaAfter the beautiful city of Melbourne, I flew to Sydney where I was picked up by my friends, Paul and Amanda. They have been living in Sydney for over 3 years, hanging out in the posh Bondi Beach (Copy and paste these coordinates into Google Earth 433°52'41.75"S 151°16'14.33"E), where a house that looks to be worth $200k run well over a million dollars, and were kind enough to put me up and feed me! So nice they are! (Well, at least Amanda is nice)

If you like gorgeous beaches, beautiful people and a fantastic walkable city, Sydney is the place for you. I walked the breathtaking Eastern Coast Trail (Copy and paste these coordinates into Google Earth 433°53'32.65"S 151°16'35.32"E), past 4 of the best beaches you are going to see, took the ferry downtown, walked through the incredible RBG that sits right next to the downtown area and the Sydney Opera House (Copy and paste these coordinates into Google Earth 433°51'24.85"S 151°12'54.33"E) and climbed the Harbour bridge (Copy and paste these coordinates into Google Earth 433°51'17.64"S 151°12'33.37"E)(opting for the $9 view rather than the $160 guided, tied off tour!)

P & APaul and Amanda were awesome! They took time to take me to the Blue Mountains to the west, into the Jenolan caves (Copy and paste these coordinates into Google Earth 433°49'8.92"S 150° 1'25.95"E) and to the 3 Sisters National Monument. As well, they took me out for Steak and Brontosaurus Ribs (which I ate with a bib!) for my 16th birthday. They even let me take a crapload of cash from them in a couple of poker games we played while I was there. Now that is the mark of true friends.

In the end, it was time for me to get on my way, but not without adding Sydney to my list of Great world cities... The service still sucks though. Ha!


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