My casting of the Asian countries last year had two winners: Taiwan and South Korea. I decided to spend the Holiday part of my Working Holiday in these two countries, with a short intermezzo in Hong Kong and Chengdu. I found a hostel for volunteering on workaway in both of these countries, booked all the necessary flights and I was ready to go. Details below.
In the late afternoon of the 13th of June, Tuesday, I entered the International Terminal of the Auckland Airport. When I looked at the long check-in queues and heard the dear lady from the speaker kindly recommending me not to leave my baggage unattended, my brain suddenly switched back to the same mode that it was in between Japan and Oamaru: I was in a travelling state again, I was ready to go here and there, filled with the kind of excitement that I really missed for a long time. I remember how happy I was for arriving back to the western world last December. Taking a break from it six months later gave me a similar feeling. I didn’t bother with anything that I left behind in New Zealand and just looked forward.
My first station was Taipei. The hostel called Taiwan Youth Hostel was looking for musicians on workaway who can play for the guests in the evenings in exchange for free accommodation. I read about it in the Chillawhile back in January and I couldn’t resist. The receptionist called Summer, who is responsible for handling volunteers responded quickly, saying that they loved my video and they are happy to have me in June. I wrote back my arrival time and then we didn’t write to each other until 3 days before I came there. So, Daniel, you’re coming soon, right, she asked me. Yeah sure, see you on Wednesday, I answered.
When I entered the hostel, Summer welcomed me, showed me around in the building, meanwhile she realised that I stink and sent me to take a shower. After that we discussed my schedule, and I fell asleep. On some days I had to help making the beds in the morning, on other days I had to play for 45 minutes in the evening. Since I like to play piano but I barely have the chance to give an own concert, I really appreciated this opportunity. They had another musician, Adam, the guitarist from Chicago who’s in the same age as me but has much more concert experience, he gave me useful advices about my performances. The hostel made a live stream of my concerts, if you search for them on their facebook page, you can probably spot by comparing the earliest and the latest videos that I did make a progress in having some confidence and treating my nervousness. If you’re too lazy to do so, then please just simply believe me. Thank you.
Since the hostel appeared to be a very good choice and I still hadn’t bought my flight ticket back to Auckland, I asked them if I can come back after Korea and give a few more concerts. They didn’t have any new musicians for July so there was no reason to decline.
The first part of my holidays was not too active, I spent most of my time in the hostel, mainly just moved out for food. It says a lot about my life requirements. Having a piano and a laptop around, plus sometimes maybe one other human or two is able to make me stop caring about the outside world. By leaving the hostel after 10 days my lifestyle was about to change.
In the following one week I had 4 meetings, each of which I had arranged long before my departure. Even if I felt like a little prince in Taipei, I was really looking forward to these. And now, right before arriving back to Auckland again, I can say that this was the time that enjoyed the most.
Sabina was a volunteer in the Chillawhile in January. Those were her last days in New Zealand and she chose to volunteer there because she wanted to give a try living with Western people, after spending 14 months by working and travelling with Asians. As I mentioned before, a flight ticket to Hong Kong was much cheaper last year from Taichung than from Taipei. Since I was planning to fly from Taiwan to Hong Kong again, I told her in Oamaru that I will go to Taichung in the summer so we can meet there. She said okay. It turned out later that the cheap ticket from last year disappeared. Finally I bought my flight to Hong Kong from Taipei instead. Still, I wouldn’t have minded to go to Taichung and meet her. She said okay.
She spent only 10 days in Oamaru but that short time was enough for her to find out how to make me happy: by giving me food. So we spent the whole day in Taichung by going from this place to that place, and eating something everywhere. A fancy ice cream, pig blood, BBQ chicken, takoyaki, grapefruit green tea, pineapple juice and other things I don’t really know the name of. Things that I’d have never tried without the guidance of an experienced local. We made only one short break from eating, when we visited the national theatre. It was nice to see an ex-volunteer from the Chillawhile again and to have a relatively active day after just hanging around for 10 days in the Taiwan Youth Hostel.
Hong Kong, Áfonya
Originally I wanted to visit Hong Kong to hike through the Hong Kong Trail, a 50km long walking path on the Hong Kong Island’s mountains. But when Áfonya, my favorite Tibetan law student told me that she’s ready to take a train from Guangzhou to Hong Kong to meet me there, I reduced my hike-related ambitions and decided to only make the first part of the Hong Kong Trail around the Victoria Peak on one day and the last section, the most famous one out of the 8 called Dragon’s Back on the next one. She said that she doesn’t particularly like hiking but she doesn’t even mind it. So it seemed to be a fair compromise.
I took a bus from the airport to the Hung Hom Train Station where she was already waiting for me and we continued where we stopped back in Da Nang: walking and sitting and talking. The talking part works especially good with her. She has interesting random thoughts that I have no idea where they come from and she’s happy to talk about anything that comes to her mind. Which I find extremely amusing. She told me once (twice actually) that a huge wish in her life has always been to have an older brother, with whom she could have discussed through all her teenager problems. First she told me this back in Vietnam, and then she repeated it in Hong Kong again. Now I can’t stop assuming that that’s the role that I’m supposed to play for her. An older guy who she can meet time to time and just spill out whatever she’s full with. And hence those amusing random thoughts. I’m not sure if this is correct or not. But as long as we get along with each other as well as we do, it doesn’t matter actually.
Just as planned, we visited the Victoria Peak on the first day and the Dragon’s Back on the second one. Her favorite part was the beach at the end of the Dragon’s Back trail. I didn’t plan to stay there at all but she liked the water so much that we spent there more than an hour. She told me that she finds her Hungarian name Áfonya boring, and she wants a new one. I recommended Burgonya. Which means potato. That’s good, she said, she loves potato a lot. But when it came to pronouncing it, she gave up after a few attempts (Asians have serious problems with pronouncing the letter R) and decided to keep being Áfonya. From the beach we took a bus to Kowloon, visited the Science Museum which was free but quite boring and just started to walk around the streets.
A bit later she asked me to go to a supermarket, just to look around. She was staring at the pasta sauces for ages and she said that she really likes to practice how to pronounce their names. In the pet section she told me that she has tried dog food and cat food, and the cat food tastes much better. Especially the one with fish. She also told me that her favourite vegetable is the broccoli but she’s only eating it because its name sounds so great. We spent more than half an hour in the supermarket. She didn’t buy anything. We just left and took the ferry back to the Hong Kong Island.
One time we stopped at a corner because she wanted to smoke. While I was standing next to her, a middle aged white businessman passed by. He looked at me, smiled a bit and nodded. I looked back at him, replied with a semi-smile and nodded back. Wow, what was that, asked Áfonya. What was what, I asked. Your spirits just crashed, she said and just kept smoking. Like it was the most obvious explanation ever. She probably forgot her answer in about five seconds but for me it was a quite impressive reaction. In the Western world people say hi to each other. In the Eastern world their spirits crash.
I guess the small differences between interpreting everyday stuff like this are one of the main reasons for my attraction to Asian brains. Or Asian spirits. Whatever.
Speaking of interpretation. My next flight brought me to Chengdu, China, where I met Nina. The plane was late by more than 5 hours but it didn’t stop her to keep waiting for me at the airport. We went to my hostel first, then to a restaurant where she introduced me to the super spicy Chengdu hotpot.
Nina is studying translation and interpretation but she definitely prefers the latter one. She said that she wants to be the world’s top Chinese-Japanese-English interpreter. Which might sound a bit ridiculous at first but she does take it seriously. We started our exchange studies together in Sapporo. I started the language courses at level 1, then went home after one semester and forgot everything in a few weeks. She started the language course at level 2, spent the winter holidays by learning on her own so she could skip one level and continued her next semester at level 4. At the end of the second semester she took a Japanese-Language Proficiency Test and passed the N1, which is the highest level a human can get. She went back to China, took internships, visited conferences, made who knows what else to gain more experience in interpretation. Right now she’s in Ottawa, Canada, in a summer school and she’s already got a scholarship to the UK for the next year at the end of which she will receive her masters degree. Not bad from a 22-years-old, I’d say.
To be a good interpreter, you not only have to know what the people say but also what they actually mean. To improve the skill of finding out the latter one, Nina’s big project is to get familiar of how the brains in the Western world function. This is where I come in the picture. She told me once that she finds my thinking interesting and talking with me is an opportunity for her to get know new opinions.
Sometimes when I answer her something, she just repeats it slowly, word by word, like she would try to put it in the right place, probably wondering why I used those words and not any other ones. Which I obviously couldn’t explain, since I’m doing it quite spontaneously. Anyway, I have the responsible task of providing an insight to the Western mindset for the future’s best interpreter. It’s a role that’s worth to appreciate.
On the one full day that we spent together, we went to the Wide and Narrow Alley, which is probably the most popular walking area of the city, with small souvenir shops and heaps of street food. I should have bought some panda souvenirs here but I assumed that there will be even more stuff in the panda base tomorrow. Silly me. Later we went to her campus. I saw about 20 pingpong tables next to each other and asked her if she wanted to play. She said she doesn’t have any rackets. So I bought two rackets and three balls and we started to play pingpong. That was the first time that a beat a Chinese person in pingpong. 11:2, if you’re interested. It felt really good. Her friends saw us playing there and invited us to play basketball. So we switched the sport and played some basketball. We finished very late, we only had time for dinner and then she showed me the English corner where people used to gather once a week and talk in English to each other. We arrived much later than she wanted to, there were still some people left there talking in English but we didn’t want to join anymore. So we just talked English for our own.
I met Stephanie in the Duckstay Hostel in Taipei last September. Since she was planning to visit New Zealand in February, we stayed in contact and planned to meet again there. Later she had to cancel that trip because of her job but the facts that Chengdu is her hometown and that I’m going to Chengdu made a meeting in the summer very likely.
She drove her car to my hostel in the morning, greeted me like we were best buddies, and took me for breakfast. Her friend joined us before we reached the Chengdu Research Base Of Giant Panda Breeding. The main purpose of the day. The week. The month. It’s a huge park that includes a museum about how to grow the world’s panda population, how to feed them and keep them happy. There were several areas where pandas of different ages were kept. We were just walking through the different panda sections, making photos everywhere. They are quite lazy creations, barely do anything except for sleeping and chewing a bamboo and since it was too hot for them outside, they were staying in their air conditioned rooms. It was definitely an unforgettable experience but a bit less unforgettable than I expected.
After the pandas she took me to a restaurant, then her friend said goodbye to us and we went to the New Century Global Center which is officially the world’s largest building. When I first saw it, I strongly doubted that all the buildings on the Earth are really smaller than this but the Wikipedia confirmed me that indeed, its 1 700 000 square metres of floor area do make it the world’s largest building, measured by floor space. It included an artificial beach, a hotel of more than 1000 rooms and hundreds of different shops, some of which we took a look at. Before she left me in my hostel, she said that she will pick me up again in the morning and take me to the airport. Okay, see you tomorrow, we thought naively. A few minutes after that she wrote me a message that she had a car accident and she’s fine but her car is not.
So I went to the airport by bus next day.
I don’t know if it’s obvious from these descriptions or not but I found each of these meetups unexpectedly successful. Each of them included some honest conversations and some joyful moments. They felt like four friendships that I should keep working on. As a first step in that process I arranged four upcoming meetings: one in Taiwan, one in Mongolia, one in England and one in New Zealand.
With the new memories in my mind I departed from Chengdu to my new destination. A few hours later I safely landed in Bangkok.
Landed in Where??
Fine, I explain. It all started at the Hong Kong Airport. I knew from my visit to Shanghai that if I have a ticket out of China in no more than 72 hours after my arrival, I can apply for a transfer visa at the airport without paying any extra fee. So I had my ticket to Korea based on that simple rule. When I tried to check in in Hong Kong to Chengdu, the check-in boy looked at my tickets and told me that no, the rule is not that simple. My flight from Chengdu to Korea has a stopover in Beijing. And this is not okay, he said. And why is it not okay? I’m not entering the country again, I stay in the international zone, waiting for my next flight, it doesn’t matter if I do that in Beijing or in any other airport. No, it’s not like that, I’ve been told, because that’s not the rule.
So I had to decide if I cancel my flight to Chengdu or find a direct flight out of China for the 2nd of July. I was very much against the former option, so I opened Skyscanner, used it’s magic ‘anywhere’ feature, and searched for the cheapest direct flight for the 2nd of July from Chengdu. It went to Bangkok.
So did I.
First I was very pissed off about this issue. That was definitely not my plan. I looked at all those Chinese tourists on the airplane to Bangkok, they had to go through a long process to get their visa accepted and they are probably all very happy that they are allowed to spend a few days in Thailand. For me this trip was a torture, I had no idea how to spend my time there, all I had was my flight ticket back to Taiwan for the 11th of July. I’m pretty sure that I was the one on the plane who was wishing to visit Thailand the second least, right after the constantly crying baby in the first row.
After arriving to the airport I sat down and started to plan. I was considering to go to the city called Chiang Mai. It just popped out somewhere from the bottom of my memory can that I heard about it in (probably) this video first as a cheap place which is quite popular among freelancers (and I just noticed right now that the vlogger girl of the video just moved to Budapest – she’s making so inviting movies about it that I almost want to move back there…). I checked the room prices and found a private room in the downtown with an own bathroom for 32 EUR for a week. And even if it’s almost 600 km from Bangkok, there are many trains and buses going regularly to and from Chiang Mai. Plus Áfonya has been there twice and she had really good experiences too. So I booked my room from the next day and started to go to the main train station in the middle of Bangkok, where all the buses and trains depart.
I got off the subway 4 stations before the train station to see a bit of Bangkok. And while I was walking through the streets and parks, I slowly calmed down and accepted my situation. There are worse things that can happen to a human than having one free week in Thailand after all. My walk took longer than it should have and when I arrived to the station, it turned out that all the night buses were already fully booked. But I still got a ticket to the last night train, on the third class.
Well, a third class night train is something that I wouldn’t recommend. There was no air conditioner on it and the windows didn’t move. Luckily, my window was open so I didn’t even want to move it but the Buddhist monk sitting in front of me was less lucky, he really seemed to have some troubles with getting enough air. After some struggling with his window he asked the inspector to help who tried it but performed exactly the same struggling with the window instead. He left and came back with some metal tool, started to hit the window’s bottom, with no progress. Finally he just kept saying sorry for the inconvenience to the monk for whom the rest of the night must have been a great practical exercise about escaping from the present world filled with pain and suffering (Dukkha), that are caused by carving (Tanha), and hence getting a bit closer to the ultimate state of soteriological release (Nirvana). In addition, the light was on all night on the train and the speaker woke me up at every station, announcing where we are at the moment. Like their goal was that all of their passengers spend the night awake. It was a long 14 hours.
After arriving to Chiang Mai I walked to my hostel, sat down on my bed and didn’t know what to do. I started with default activities: bought some food in a convenience store, ate it in my room, then slept for 12 hours.
Most of the days’ highlight was walking around in the city and eat in random restaurants. I really liked the structure of the city. The old town is a huge square, surrounded by an artificial canal. The square takes 78 minutes to walk around (true story), and there are hostels, restaurants, massage shops and temples inside of it. My hostel was also there which was pure luck, I didn’t check it before.
To make something memorable during the week, I decided to book one of the many activities that were offered in every hostel: the half-day elephant tour. I had to wait in front of my hostel at 7am, a van picked me up a brought me together with some other tourists to an elephant resort. After arriving to the resort a guy gave us a short introduction, first about elephants in general, then about their own ones. It’s a family of five, was six last year but the grandma died but the mother is pregnant so will be six again next year. Now they are already waiting for their breakfast, let’s feed them and take some photos. Okay, now let’s bring them to the river and wash them and take some photos. Okay, now let’s say them goodbye and have a lunch. Okay, now let’s go back to Chiang Mai. It was fun actually, even if it doesn’t necessarily sound like that. It fulfilled the requirement: became the most memorable activity of my visit in Chiang Mai.
In the van I talked to a British boy who had been in the city for a few weeks already. He recommended me many places around and it made me want to come back to Chiang Mai again. He said that riding a motorbike without a proper driving license is really common here. The police will very likely stop me but all they do (besides of making me pay a small amount) is giving me a document that proves that I paid a fine. If I show that document to the police again in no more than 3 days, they don’t charge me. After the three days I will have to pay again but then they give me the same document which I can use for 3 more days.
Not much more to say about my trip to Chiang Mai. I tried Thai massage for the first time. The foot massage wasn’t any special, the back massage felt really good. I went to a gym once but they didn’t have a shower room so I had to stink back to the hostel to wash myself which was a bit inconvenient. One day I saw a note on a convenience store’s fridge that today they don’t sell alcohol because it’s a holy day for Buddhists. It turned out that this was the full moon of the eighth lunar month called Asalha Puja or Dharma Day, when they celebrate that Buddha shared his first sermon with his five followers. If you’re interested in these teachings, you can find them in the beautifully named book called Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta.
On the way back I took a bus instead of a train. The difference was so huge for almost the same price that no wonder if they are booked out earlier than the trains. Air conditioner, comfy seats with big leg space, dinner and breakfast, the lights turned off for the night, the bus driver remained silent. A wise choice.
I got off in Bangkok in the morning and went to a park to have my breakfast. At 8am the Thai national anthem started from the speakers, the people stood up from the benches, the runners stopped running and a police kept blowing his whistle. The latter one happened because of me, I was so happy with my chocolate donut that I didn’t realize what’s going on and kept eating happily. In Thailand it’s a disrespectful and ignorant act. According to the law, I could have been arrested for that. They play the national anthem every day at 8am and at 6pm in parks, train stations, shopping malls, and you have to stop whatever you do and keep standing for about a minute.
And that’s my last lesson for you, dear blog reader, from Thailand. The park was right next to the bus station where the airport shuttle departed and took me to the airport for 30 baht. I flew back to Taipei.
I spent almost two weeks in the Taiwan Youth Hostel for the second time. There was nothing radically new compared to my first visit there but I didn’t even want any. Giving concerts, making the beds, going out for food and watching the time go by. I’m going to come back to this hostel next year but I’m still less infected than Adam, the other musician who loves Taipei so much that he’s planning to move there permanently.
I cooked some food in the last night for the crew, then on the 24th of July it was time to fly back to Auckland. Back to the industry. Start to work something. I do need some money after these 6 weeks.
To talk about the future, let’s look back in the past. I studied in the University of Leipzig for two years, to get a master degree in Informatics. After I received my WHV to New Zealand, I wanted to finish as soon as possible. I went to the student’s office and discussed with the proper person (at least that’s what I thought) what modules I need to take in the last semester to have my studies done. I talked to my supervisor as well who allowed me to keep writing my master thesis from the distance and stay in touch online. I finished all the necessary modules last summer and finally finished my master thesis too, when I was already in New Zealand. I was waiting for my reward.
Since nothing happened, I wrote a mail to the student’s office. They said that oops, one of the modules that they promised me to accept from my old university in Budapest, well, they changed their mind, sorry. That meant that I have only 115 credit points from the 120 that a master study consists of. Oh and by the way, I’m not a registered student anymore since I didn’t pay the last semester’s fee. And no, I cannot do it now, it’s too late. But good news, I can apply for the same studies any time again, they will be happy to accept all my 115 credit points I’ve done and all I need to do is completing a so called seminar module which is giving a 45 minutes long presentation about a specific topic.
So that’s how far I am from being a graduated student. I have to travel to Leipzig, pick a topic from some topic list and give a presentation about it for those 5-6 people who happen to sit in the room. Since I had no plan for my next half year in New Zealand, I was seriously considering to go back to Europe in October when the semester starts and do some student job like in the old times.
I’m not saying “seriously” because I want to sound dramatic. I already registered to the website where I can apply for studies in Germany, filled in all the forms and I was just one click away to make the whole process official. I looked at my options. If I go back to Europe in October, probably finish my studies just in a few weeks and then I would work in a Christmas Market in Germany for 6 weeks and make enough money to start travelling again, already in January. If I stay in New Zealand until my visa allows me to, I will keep searching for various jobs, which I will either enjoy (e.g. Chillawhile) or not (e.g. apple packhouse).
Finally I chose the more vague version and let the application deadline just fly away with the 15th of July. It’s a frustrating feeling that I will finish my studies later than expected. But who knows how frustrating it would have been to cancel my working holiday just because of my studies.
The next question was how to spend my time in New Zealand until the expiration of my visa. I needed to find my next job.
I wanted to do something useful.
Something that I can think about later as a step forward in my life.
Something that teaches me skills I can take advantage of in my future.
Something that doesn’t give me the feeling that I’m just wasting my time.
So, I will start pruning kiwifruits in a few days.