Mar(k): Travel, Hiking, and "Doing Good"

musings on our life of travel and volunteering

Five Tips for a Simple Thrift-mas

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How did the silly season arrive with such rapidity this year? Egads, I was in the CBD earlier this week, and ALREADY there were Christmas shoppers out there, running around like headless chooks! With that in mind, I thought I would try and do my bit for a simpler, greener, less stressful holiday season. In no particular order, here are five things that you can employ that will make your holidays more enjoyable, less stressful and easier on the pocketbook! (“Thrift-mas” – you’re welcome).

  1. Learn the Art of “No”.   You simply don’t have to do it all!  Yes, there will be invites to things – but think of the amount of times that you have said “Gosh, I’d really rather not go to XXXX (insert boring social event of your choice)”.   Well, don’t!   I know you can come up with a lot of excuses as to why you CAN’T say no…. but try and challenge yourself!   And by doing that, you can be honouring yourself.  Saying no can be done graciously.  Here are a few ways to say no politely:
    • Thanks so much for the invite!  Unfortunately I/we won’t be able to make it.  But have a drink for us!
    • I would really love to come to X, but I have already made plans for that morning / afternoon / evening (NB:  even if your plans mean curling up with a book and listening to music!)
    • I am feeling pretty overwhelmed at the moment with all the holiday planning, and I really need to take a step back from all these social engagements.  Have a great time and send me a photo!   (and thanks for thinking of me).
  2. Remember the motto “It is better to DO, than to HAVE”.   If you still have present obligations, remember that the gift of TIME is always an appreciated one!   You can prepare little “gift certificates” that provide your friends and family with quality time with you (big night in, complete with movie of choice and popcorn, anyone?), or assistance for people who may need it (“this voucher good for one hour gardening time”).   This can also be extended to providing gifts of experiences, rather than buying more “things”.   Examples are movie vouchers, dinner vouchers, or even sporting experiences that you can share together (trips to the local swimming pool, or an indoor skydive?).
  3. Wrap with the REUSE in mind.   I always save wrapping or tissue paper when I can.  If you ARE wrapping up a gift, try to use wrapping paper that has already had a good life.   So much waste is generated during the holiday period, it is good if we can minimise where we can.  And no-one is going to care if their gift is wrapped in paper that is on its second life.   Trust me.  And if YOU get given a gift that has beautiful wrapping paper surrounding it, keep it and reuse it yourself next time!  Ditto for the ribbons.
  4. Remember those less fortunate.  This is a tough time of year for a lot of people.  Instead of buying “things”, think about making a donation to a charity in a friend’s / family member’s name.   Or get the family involved in making a “reverse Advent calendar” (where you put a new item in every day up until Christmas, then gift that to a worthy charity.  One very worthy charity in Perth can be found here).
  5. Get all old school and give home made gifts.  Spending some time baking yummy treats and then packaging them up in festive (recycled) ways are always a hit.  Made with love, the old-fashioned home baked goodies are definitely appreciated.  This year I am doing gingerbread muffins, festive shortbread, and fruit drops.  (my first Xmas batch of protein rich bliss balls shown below are already out the door!)

Remember to take the time to relax during this festive period.  Happy holidays everyone!

Pictured: Home made bliss balls. Always a hit! Heck, they even kinda look like snowballs (and these are about as close to a snowball as we are going to get in Australia in the middle of summer!)

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Written by Mar(k)

December 5, 2017 at 6:01 pm

Hiking tips for South Korea

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Some of the most enjoyable time we spent, during our month in South Korea was in some of the absolutely beautiful National Parks.  Not only were there some fantastic hiking trails, but invariably they were also a place to see some well preserved Korean temples.  Given that many of the mountains in South Korea are sacred, having a temple there dedicated to worshipping the mountain makes good sense.   It was a great way to get some cultural sightseeing done, while also enjoying Mother Nature’s wonderland.

South Korea surely must win the award for the most well maintained hiking trails in the world!   Wow.  We were sooo impressed!   But it kind of makes sense, when you see how wildly popular hiking is with the locals.  There are a LOT of people on the trails.

We weren’t the only ones on top of South Korea’s highest peak!

To help you out, here are a few tips which may assist in making the most of your hiking time in South Korea:

  • It is a bit difficulty to find details hiking info in English.  One place you can try is through the National Park site.
  • Whilst online information in English is a bit of a challenge, once you are at the trailheads, we (almost) always found signage in English.   So don’t worry!   (tip: take a photo with your phone of the map at the trailhead, as there is not often any other maps along the route, although there will be ample markers)
  • The trails are incredibly well maintained, and well signposted.  On steeper sections, the concept of switchbacks seems to be largely overlooked, but there are often steps put in.  Fantastic workout for the glutes and quads, that’s for sure!
  • Water is readily available on the trails (well, at least on all the trails we were on, and there were a few!).  Lots of the temples have water “fountains” which you can fill up at, as well.
  • Bring along some snacks to share.  South Koreans love to share some food at the top.  Sliced up apple, biscuits, chocolate or dried fruit are always a favourite.
  • Don’t be too put off by the level of difficulty of hikes.  We were originally quite intimidated by the hikers we saw coming down from trails, kitted out like they were ready for Everest!   Hiking poles, mountaineering boots, gaiters, quick dry from tip to tow, hats, the lot!   Then when we would actually get onto these incredibly well groomed trails, it was more than do-able.  But South Koreas take their hiking seriously, and need to look the part!
  • Per the above, we absolutely LOVED how colourful everyone is!  Because hiking is taken so seriously, even the casual day hiker has the full on gear.  We paled into insignificance with our drab greys, blacks and muted tones.  Bright yellow, pink, green and purple was definitely de rigueur, often worn all at once!
  • Some other blogs that have some good info on hikes can be found here and here.

Enjoy!

Written by Mar(k)

July 31, 2017 at 6:35 pm

Plastic Free July – some trials during Week 1 (and a win!)

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We decided to sign up for Plastic Free July. We already “do” a lot of the things to minimise our waste, particularly plastic. But it is always good to have something like this to keep it at the forefront of your mind and raise your general level of consciousness about plastic waste.

Interestingly, we had already “failed”, only hours into our July! Saturday morning dawned, and we had only just the previous week signed up for an eight week subscription to have our newspapers delivered on the weekend. Bad choice! Might have saved some money, but every Saturday and Sunday, we get the delivery of our papers wrapped in plastic! eek! Wasn’t really part of the plan. A good learning though, so we certainly won’t be renewing this (temporary) subscription.

On on! Later in the day, as we headed off to get some groceries, it was a no-brainer to bring our grocery bags, which are always in the car, along with our onya fruit and veg mesh bags. Had to remember to pack along our “keep cups” though, so that we could have our takeaway coffee and stay within our “plastic free” July and away from the evil disposable coffee cups!

Another challenge met us the following day, however, as I started to think about packing for an upcoming trip. I tend to use my “daily disposable” contact lenses when I travel, but alas! It is throw away plastic. Argh. Not sure about this one. Haven’t yet decided if I am going to bring along my usual monthly disposables, or just live with the (guilt?) of daily disposables while I am away.  A bit of a summary on the good, the bad and the ugly on disposable contact lenses, versus glasses, etc…  can be found here.

Porridge sachets – a no no that we hadn’t considered!

The other challenge on the Sunday morning was for Mark, as he was fuelling up his body for the 100 km or so cycle ride he was about to embark on. He just popped a porridge sachet into a bowl (something warming on these cold winter mornings!) but alas! More throw away plastic. Damn!  (Update:  I went onto the site for our porridge sachets, and I see that although they sell plain old rolled oats in a cardboard box, none of their (yummy) instant porridge with various delicious add-ins are available in “bulk”.   Bummer!)

voila! ready to use. Will happily keep on with this idea after Plastic Free July is done.

HOWEVER!  Not all was lost this week.   I took advantage of our (plastic covered) weekend newspaper, and made a bunch of paper bin liners.   A bit of origami fun, and it will be an easy transition to keep doing this long after July.  Here is a bit of what it looked like for me:  (NB:  I have kept a plastic bag in the rubbish bin in case of wet spills, but I am not expecting any huge dramas!)

A bit of creative origami that even I could do!

Popped these newspaper liners in with a plastic bag in case of wet spills.

If nothing else, this month is certainly highlighting for us where we can improve. It is also highlighting that maybe we aren’t as good about being “plastic free” as thought!   On on to Week 2.

Travel Tips for South Korea

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Many of the Travel Tips for Japan apply also to Korea. Some exceptions are:

• Buses rather than trains are generally the easiest way to get around the country. Buses are so frequent that it in many cases it is just a matter of turning up at the terminal and buying a ticket for the next bus. Note that “express buses” are the quickest and most comfortable. “Inter-city buses” stop along the route. There are usually tourist information bureaus at the bus terminals. On several occasions, we found it helpful to get them to write our destination in Korean. We could then show this to the person selling tickets (beware, place names are very similar and easily confused if you don’t have them written in Korean!).
• You can purchase sim cards for both data and phone calls. As wifi is readily available we didn’t find it necessary.
• Credit cards are accepted just about everywhere.
• Public transport in all major cities and even taxis use “T Money” cards. These work the same way as a Suica card (in Japan). We purchased ours at the airport on arrival for 50,000 Won and used it on the Airport Express bus which delivered us to within a few 100 metres of our Airbnb (they have a number of different routes). We could have caught the metro but this would have involved multiple transfers.
• All the hotels we stayed in and restaurants we ate at were non-smoking. Quite a different experience in Japan, where many noodle places were so smoky we could not eat there.
• Although 7/11’s had a withdrawal limit of 100,000 Won, CU (an equally ubiquitous convenience store) had a limit in excess of 200,000 (maybe 300,00 Won like the Standard Chartered bank). We found that most atm’s at local banks didn’t accept our debit card, even if the bank displayed an international logo.

We LOVED South Korea!   Once we were outside of Seoul and Busan, we really felt like we were off the (Western) tourist track, and loved the challenge.   Highly recommended as a destination for the well seasoned traveller.

Written by Mar(k)

July 3, 2017 at 9:07 pm

Travel Tips for Japan

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Konnichiwa! 

We loved the month we recently spent in Japan.  It is a fascinating culture, with some customs that are very different to our own. We are passing these tips on, in the hopes that they may help you, if you are planning a trip to this magnificent country any time soon. Please feel free to share, and ask any questions you might have in the comments!

Trains
• Use http://www.hyperdia.com/en/ to research train travel. Gives times, fares, platforms etc.   The bullet trains are called “Shinkansen” trains.
• You must first book/purchase a ticket to travel on the train. If it is a busy season you should then book a reserved seat, which costs about 50% more. You will then have 2 tickets. If you are changing trains, which is often the case, you may have more than 2 tickets, which are all fed through the turnstile together. The ticket for that particular journey is removed. Trains generally have about 1/3 of the carriages for unreserved travel, with seats occupied on a first come basis.
Japan Rail passes cover various parts of the country – depending on where you are travelling it may not be worth getting one. These must be purchased outside the country. In Perth they can be purchased at Travel Japan, in Irwin St, next to the Mercure Hotel. If you purchase a Japan East Rail Pass, you can reserve your seats online no more than 30 days ahead of your date of travel. For most other travel passes, you cannot book online in advance.

• For travel on public transport in Tokyo and a number of other cities, get a Suica or Pasco card. These can be easily topped up at the station and save the significant hassle of trying to work out what priced ticket you need to purchase. The Suica card can also be used to make purchases at 7/11 and some vending machines. If you don’t have a Suica or Pasco card, you can purchase the cheapest ticket and when you get to your destination, use the top-up facility to pay the correct amount before you pass through the turnstile.

Navigation
• We found Google maps invaluable, as addresses are not necessarily logical. Prior to going to a new place I saved the destination. As the last map area is saved in the cache, you don’t have to be online to find your way around.

Mobile Phones
• You can only buy a local sim card for data – not for making and receiving calls or texts. As all the places we stayed at, whether hotels or Airbnb, had free wifi, we didn’t find it necessary to purchase a sim card.

Google translate
• The Google translate app was handy, particularly to translate instructions on electrical appliances in hotel rooms. Voice recognition and using the camera on the app only works if you have wifi. Otherwise, the text feature is the only one that works.
Money
• Surprisingly, Japan is largely a cash economy. Only big hotels and department stores accept credit cards.
• Bank atm’s don’t accept foreign cards. Use the ubiquitous convenience stores like 7/11, which have a a Y100,000 limit. Note that you may have to insert the card before getting the option of choosing the menu in English.
• We used a pre-loaded cash card which worked without fail at 7/11’s and wasn’t subject to the Y100,000 limit.

Lonely Planet
• We borrowed an electronic copy from the library

Hotels / Airbnb
• We had no problems with Airbnb bookings. Some of the apartments were very small and the mattress was on the floor, but still comfortable. We also stayed in a few traditional ryokans, which was fun. In these you need to unravel your mattress on the tatami matting. Seating is on the floor.
• Most places had sandals just inside the door where you removed your footwear, leaving it facing outwards and slipped on the sandals. Note that you remove the sandals before stepping on tatami matting (ie: socks or bare feet only on tatami).
• Some hotels had onsen (communal hot baths) where you could relax if you so choose. Make sure you read up on the etiquette (see link below) and scrub yourself thoroughly before entering the bath. I saw people spending over 10 minutes washing before getting in the bath! Onsens are single sex only, as you are not clothed. There are a few exceptions, but expect to be starkers, and bathing / soaking with your gender only.
• Most hotels had umbrellas in the foyer to borrow.
• Most hotels had a room with a microwave and vending machine on each floor.
• Make sure you book a no smoking room!

Tokyo
• If you want to visit the Imperial Palace (apparently it’s worth it), you need to book online a month before, as numbers are very limited.

Links on etiquette:

http://www.onsenjapan.net/onsenbasics.php

https://www.jref.com/articles/japanese-manners-and-etiquette.89/

http://www.wikihow.com/Blow-Your-Nose-in-Japan

Written by Mar(k)

June 21, 2017 at 9:19 pm

Prepackaged Japan

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Sometimes we buy our dinner meal at a supermarket, as a way of keeping costs down, getting fresh fruit and veg, and trying local foods. There are many pre-packaged meals that are ready to eat, healthy and delicious. However, enjoying these meals certainly comes at an environmental cost. The Japanese love their packaging.  
Everything is wrapped. Bento boxes, rice balls, salads. All in plastic. Soy sauce, wasabi? Available. In tiny little plastic sachets. Chopsticks? Yup. Wrapped (think also massive deforestation, as the takeaway business is big business here. Thats a lot of wooden chopsticks that get chopped down from trees). Plastic spoons and forks. Plastic wrapped in plastic.  

The Japanese also love their beautifully wrapped presents, often food stuff from specific regions, highlighting the specialty of the area. They make great looking gifts, but inside is _______ (insert whatever the food stuff is here), often again individually packaged. Think a dozen sakura (cherry blossom) shaped biscuits. All in a gift box, wrapped in plastic, then put in a plastic bag, and EACH INDIVIDUAL biscuit is also wrapped, once you get inside the box! It seems crazy to us.

Even when we go to checkout at the supermarket, and bring our little reusable shopping bag, it is often met with some disbelief. But hey. We are kind of getting used to that look. Because it is very similar to the look we get when we tell people here that we are vegetarian. On, on! 

Even the bananas are individually wrapped! WTF?!?

A note on Japanese Food Culture

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We are currently enjoying a month in Japan, taking in the amazing shrines, soaking in onsens, admiring Mount Fuji, and chasing the cherry blossoms. But one of the most enjoyable parts of our holiday in Japan has been enjoying the amazing diversity of food here. Virtually every region has its specialty, and we haven’t had a bad meal yet.

IMG_1470

Although we have had a few large meals (pictured), even here you can see that the individual portion sizes are quite modest. Each meal has a lovely blend of the various tastes: sweet, salty, bitter, sour, and that most ubiquitous of Japanese flavours: umami. Each small dish is savoured, and with the enjoyment of these diverse tastes, you don’t need a lot to fully appreciate the dishes themselves.

This strikes me to be in marked contrast to many Western cultures, (and I am thinking North America here in particular), where I am always horrified at the portion sizes. Its not rocket science to see the correlation between portion size and obesity. And I do wonder about the lack of varied tastes in so much Western cuisine (the major tastes leaping to mind are sugar, salt and fat).

Other things that perhaps contribute to the overall healthier diet in Japan include the following:

  • Soft drinks are not widely available. Vending machines are everywhere, but fizzy drinks do not feature largely. Common cold drinks are iced teas, most served without any sugar.
  • Meals are largely based around vegetables (again, refer to the picture). When animal protein is served, the focus is on fish and seafood, rather than meats. But even when meat is served, portions stay in control. Tofu and soy are widely consumed. Fermented products are commonly eaten. Breads and pasta are not widely consumed. Rice and noodles feature regularly.
  • Presentation of each dish is as important as the taste of the dish itself. Some of the dishes are truly like works of art. Balance, harmony and simplicity is demonstrated in both the tastes and the presentation of the meal.

It has been a joy thus far sampling the wide variety of foods and tastes in this most magnificent country. Highly recommended destination for the foodie.

Written by Mar(k)

April 23, 2017 at 8:26 pm