Zipping It Up

In the end, only three things matter:
how much you loved,
how gently you lived,
and how gracefully you let go of things not meant for you.

-Buddha

These days, we sure are learning the importance and beauty of that last portion of Buddhist wisdom. Though a few weeks have passed now, it doesn’t feel like long since we found out we are headed back to Houston a bit earlier than planned. Isn’t that life though? Just when you think you’ve got it figured out. Turns out our journey in Asia will come to an end soon, and I might just have to do a little re-branding around here!

If you’ve wondered what we’ve been up to, recent days have been filled with list-making, box-checking, packing, a bit of anxiety, a lot of questioning and a lot of leaning on each other. Instead of painfully detailing the whole journey, I’ll tell you that moving back home from abroad is just as hard as moving in the first place.

We’re a little more familiar with the expat moving process now, but unfortunately that doesn’t make it much easier. We’ve got just as much stuff to take back as we brought, but our hearts have gotten much more full with new friends, who will make goodbye more painful than we could have imagined. Our circumstances are not the most favorable, but we’ve really discovered the strength of our relationships as we’ve dealt with this turbulence. The first of many thank yous is owed to our close circle both here and at home who have kept our chins up, distracted us from the noise, and reminded us we are loved. You know who you are! 😉

We’ll be taking another hiatus as we travel to be with family and decompress after a really challenging month. Now that we’re mostly packed and the suitcases are ready to be zipped up, I have time to write about a more lighthearted topic – ziplining in Thailand!

After our Bangkok adventures, we made our way north to Chiang Mai on a cheap Bangkok Airways flight. I’m telling you, these Asian airlines know where it’s at! Great service and lots of comfort for a reasonable price tag. We had all kinds of fun things planned for our few days in the mountains and set up shop at a B&B called Shewe Wana. It wasn’t the best of places but it did the trick.

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We didn’t hesitate to get our adrenaline pumping on the area’s most famous ziplines with Flight of the Gibbon. It’s a very popular company around Chiang Mai, and I’ll be honest, I was afraid it would be a bit kitschy and touristy. Still, our previous experience ziplining in the California redwoods and the Costa Rican rainforest made this a must-do.

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Thailand proved to be up to speed with past experiences – we had a blast! [Also, we agreed the lunch served afterward was some of the best and most unique Thai food we had all trip.]

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There’s a certain rush from flying in the open air no matter where you are or who you’re with.

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However, monkeying around like kids in a treehouse with two of our favorite friends for a couple hours is an special kind of fun.

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The Thai (rain?)forest is beautiful and we enjoyed our fair share of contact with the wilderness…

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…and the acrobatics were just as amazing. Watching Erin and Eric put on a show was quite entertaining. Cirque du Soleil here we come??

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We also got the chance to go down some double runs for the first time, where we got hooked in and screamed our heads off together.

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Though it did not show off my athletic “ability”, we all really enjoyed the Spiderman-style line where we got hooked in by our backs and landed in a net. No photos to show for that but check it out in the video below. I’m particularly proud of this one, I’m pretty sure it’s my best yet. [And like many other things, good ones still to come.]

The Times, They Are A-Changin’

It’s wonderful what you can do when you have to.

– C.S. Lewis

I’m baaaaack! As per my usual pattern, it’s taken me an inordinate amount of time to get this post together. I promise, this time, it’s for a good reason.

Some big changes are coming up for the Marasiaks, and before you speculate – no, they do not involve tiny humans. Not yet, anyway! I’ll say more when I can, but know that we are in a time of transition and busy, busy, busy. Looking forward to some exciting things ahead: we’ve got two HUGE trips coming up before the end of the year and a lot of decision-making to do in the near future.

In any case, I did finally put together a video from our biking tour in Bangkok, and while sorting through the files, I found more fun photos! Sidebar: we need a MAJOR digital cleanup day over here. Enjoy! :)

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We joined up with some young European backpackers to cycle around Bangkok for the day. We squeezed through alleys and dodged dangerous traffic, as you can see above and in the video below.

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Bangkok has some great river views if you know where to ride.

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More photos from our flower-folding tutorial outside the big golden Buddha temple, where our guide showed us how people leave flowers as traditional offerings. See more below:

Hope you all are having a wonderful summer!

Three Nights in Bangkok

When booking travel, I have a bad habit of searching the depths of the Internet until it cannot be searched anymore. This time, my efforts paid off when I discovered an awesome deal on two one-way tickets for our journey to Bangkok from Busan. After a year of extensive travel, we had built up enough miles for business class tickets to Bangkok. Even more awesome: the “cash” value of that ticket combined with a regular fare return on Korean Air (still awesome) was equivalent to the price a round trip!

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Business class is a totally awesome way to kick off a trip, and believe me, a real treat for us. The only other time I’ve ever flown business class was when we moved over, on the company’s dime.

The real excitement for this trip, though, was meeting up with our dear travel pals Erin and Eric. I could go into the long but awesome story about how we met (which Eric tells everyone he possibly can when we’re together), but the important part is that we’ve traveled in five countries together over the past four years. And, we’ve got another country to add in the next couple of months!

Having been separated from our dear friends for over a year, you can imagine the excitement that erupted when we knocked on their door at the Sheraton Grande upon our arrival. We were ready to kick off our Christmas adventures in Thailand, and were hit with a challenge right off the bat.

Bangkok isn’t Bangkok without a drink from a rooftop bar with great views. Our Lonely Planet guidebook pointed us to the Vertigo and Moon Bar, located at the fancy Banyan Tree Hotel. It was a bit of a challenge getting there on public transportation from our hotel, but we were willing to forgive for a place to rest our feet and a delicious beverage.

When we arrived, the really pricey Vertigo restaurant was “full” (nearly empty) unless you had a reservation. We were really just there for drinks and appetizers anyway, so we took our chances at the standing-room only bar and paid for an overpriced drink. At that point we were incredibly hangry from trying to find the place, which was not made better by the tiny bowl of nuts we had to steal from a passing cart. Thus, when the host came over and said a table had “magically” opened up, we relented to ordering from their set menu because none of us wanted to put in the effort to find another place to eat.

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Despite the rocky start, the views were truly beautiful and the food, which came with wine pairings, was pretty delicious. They even took a group photo and gave it to us in a frame to keep.

Following our unintentional fine-dining experience, we were ready to meld with true Bangkok cuisine and culture the next day. We had full schedule of adventure ahead, including a bike tour and an evening food tour on a tuk-tuks, a vehicle synonymous with Thailand itself.

The first stop of our bicycle tour with Follow Me was a really unique site. Of all the things I thought we’d see in Bangkok, this sure was not on the list. Unfortunately, I didn’t get a good shot of the gorgeous Bangrak fire station’s exterior, so I had to grab the one below from the interwebs.

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Built in 1890 under the direction of King Rama V, this was originally the customs house of Bangkok, the gateway to Thailand if you will. An Italian architect designed it, which is why it may look a bit out of place in an Oriental city. They moved the customs office in 1949, at which point the building became the new home of the Bangrak fire brigade. It has been the backdrop for multiple films.

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Interestingly, the firefighters who serve this area of the city also live in the building with their families. Considering the aesthetic glory of the building, it’s hard to believe, but the interior is more like run-down subsidized housing.

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After an interesting start, our tour, which included hideously awesome lime green hats, took us through many different parts of Bangkok, including a trip on a ferry across the river, which reminded me of our vespa tour in Vietnam.

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Any tour in Bangkok would be remiss without a stop at some sort of Buddhist temple. The first place we stopped was a Chinese-inspired temple with some beautiful coloring, set in a seemingly random spot of the city.

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Later, we visited a glorified, huge golden Buddha inside Wat Chakrawat. Here we learned how to fold a lotus flower offering and rang the humongous outdoor gong/bell for good luck.

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Overall, the bike tour was a great way to see sites outside of the typical Bangkok tourist experience. For another unique and more local experience, later that evening, we took off in tuk-tuks on the Best Eats Midnight Tuk-Tuk Tour with Bangkok Food Tour, hopes set high on discovering authentic Thai food.

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Our tour kicked off with a visit to a public plaza, where there was a beautiful temple/statue set up next to a traditional Thai dance performance. Then it was on to try some chicken and rice with a purple jelly-type dessert.

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While the food on the tour was good, I don’t remember anything blowing my mind, which may be why I can’t even remember the names of anything we tried or places we stopped. Shame on me for taking 7 months to write this! Anyway, we were really focused on the fun of weaving in and out of city traffic and nightlife in a tuk-tuk. Priorities.

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Between stops for food, we got a private night tour of Wat Pho, a temple known for its “reclining Buddha” statue. The complex is really beautiful all lit up against the dark sky. Until they turn the lights off while you’re there, indicating it’s closing for the night. :)

Our last food stop had a really impressive chef that played with fire.

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Throughout our travels in Asia, we have found that any restaurant hosting lots of locals seated in plastic chairs on the sidewalk proves to be a delicious option. This place was just that. I remember everyone choosing what type of phat thai they wanted, I think the options involved a choice of heat and a choice of egg. All of it was yummy, and something we probably wouldn’t have found on our own.

At some point, we also climbed some serious stairs through a random B&B which ended up having a rooftop bar with amazing views of the city at night. Probably a cheaper menu than the Banyan Tree, although since we only had drinks, I can’t attest to it. On the other hand, the strong smell of weed indicated it might be a good place to “relax”, if you will.

I’ve got some fun video footage to put together on these tours, but in the spirit of more frequent blogging, those will have to wait until another day. Stay tuned for our next day in Bangkok, which may or may not have involved waking up with face tattoos, a chain-smoking monkey and a severed finger! 😉

Thanksgiving in May

In effort to be just as ironic as Christmas in July, and to remind myself I should blog in a more timely manner, this week it’s Thanksgiving in May!

Though much less exotic than any of our previous travels, a trip back home to the US of A was in order to celebrate the holidays. Eat, drink and be merry with as many people and in as many familiar places as possible: challenge accepted! While we had great fun enjoying not one but three Thanksgivings in Columbus, then Holgate, Ohio, and in Janesville, Wisconsin, it was exhausting.

Going home to Columbus is always an exciting affair, but we tend to cram in way too much activity. This time around, we had the added pressure of visiting from abroad, which meant we weren’t sure the next time we’d be in town, let alone the country. Between endless social visits, shopping trips and eating as many Chipotle burritos as possible [yes, more than one meal per day], we ran ourselves ragged! J-Mar also had a very untimely illness, which made socializing all that more difficult.

Still, he managed to make it out to a fun happy hour we had in Gahanna. So many people in our lives came out to see us; going home is always a humbling reminder of how many great people we have in our lives. It was almost like a second wedding reception – family, friends, friends of family, old family friends, you name it! Thanks to everybody who made time in their day to come hang out!

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J-Mar and his college buddies, my long-haired Dad with Jake and Mom, Joe and Susan!
Some of my awesome high school friends!
Rice hats for Mom and Dad C, me and Mom!

Being the nomads we are, we don’t often get to be in the same place as all of our siblings at once. Luckily, all three of my siblings and some extended family were able to gather for the first of Thanksgivings. Mom, Alan and Grandma even made it all the way from New Orleans! Mom- and Dad-Mar were gracious enough to let us all exchange early Christmas gifts in their living room, and my nieces had fun with their new rice hats.

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J-Mar and AP, me and Emma
AP in her new hat, J-Mar with P-Mar and Maggie
Jacob and Grandma M, Alan and Grandpa F

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Later we had a family dinner at our favorite Italian restaurant! Totally traditional Thanksgiving. :)

A three hour drive took us to our second Thanksgiving, where we introduced the selfie stick to northwest Ohio. As you can see, some people took to it quicker than others. My only regret is that Grandma and Grandpa B weren’t in some of the photos. We also had a lot of fun doing a Korean white elephant game, where all the kids got to open random souvenirs we brought back, including an extra selfie stick, chopsticks and some Pocky sticks. Lots of sticks.

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Cousins are even more fun the older you get! I’ve got 10 of them on this side of the family!

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From top left: Katie, Nancy, A-Mar, J-Mar, Jacob, Hannah, Madison, Chelsea, Alek, Kirsten and Abby!

After a sadly short two days in Holgate, we were reminded of the joy (ha!) that is the American rest stop on our four-hour highway journey to Chicago. Worlds collided when we had another happy hour that brought together friends from all over. Thelma and Sam from a past life in Houston, Lara from the Korea circle, Monica and Srinu whom we met in Vietnam, and Albert from college days in Ohio. What a small world that we could have a drink with all of them at once in the same place!

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Lara and I can never resist the kimchi sign.

Thanks to Albert for hosting us and putting up with our car trouble times two with almost getting towed and battery problems! Despite the trouble, we were on our way to Wisconsin next, being sure to stop for our umpteenth burrito and a stock-up shopping trip at Target. It was weird to walk through the aisles and take in all the different items for sale. So much deodorant! The dollar aisle! ACTUAL large-size dog stuff!

Did I mention how cold it was? Seriously, there had to be some record temperatures and snowfall while we were there. Even growing up in the north, I have never seen a white Thanksgiving until 2014. The downfall to all those enticing pit stops was getting in and out of the car. Brrrrr!

I really wish we had captured some photos of our very busy (third) Thanksgiving. Our now-three-year-old nephew Evan (what a cutie pie!) entertained his Uncle Jeffrey and Uncle Amanda. :) We also spent some much needed, rare quality time with the rest of the -Mars, had a delicious turkey feast, and helped Grandma settle into a new living arrangement. The boys did a great job moving all the big furniture while the ladies got to help with the shopping. I think we were all grateful the family kept it together through the chaos.

The biggest disappointment of the trip, by far, was saying goodbye so much. A visit home can be just what the doctor ordered, but be careful about how you arrange it! We still haven’t gotten the hang of how to stay put when we travel abroad, but can you blame us? The world may be full of great places, but it’s also full of great people and we just can’t pass up the temptation to see them all.

Who says you can’t have a grateful heart all year round? It may be May, but I’m certainly still thankful for everyone who shared in part of our Thanksgiving.

Mmmm… Dumplings! Cooking at The Hutong in Beijing

The only way to end an exhausting trip of adventure is to stuff your face with food. It’s true, I’ve tested this theory. Our overnight return from Xi’an left us wanting for some good, hot food. Thus we hungrily headed to our final activity: learning to cook traditional Chinese dumplings at a place called The Hutong.

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Our lovely instructor Sophia greeted us with a smile and was a gracious hostess throughout the morning. Even though you can’t see her face above (Hey Lara!), we could really see her passion for cooking and her nostalgia for making dumplings on special occasions with her family as a child.

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All good cooking classes begin with a trip to the local market to learn about the staples of the local diet and hunt for what’s in season. As far as markets go, this one wasn’t vastly different than many we have toured before. Still, it was unique, set amid the hutongs and ancient Chinese architecture while serving residents of a hugely populated city.

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All the standard items were for sale: rice and grains, chiles, meats and seafood…

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…lots of delicious looking produce, too. One of the major challenges to the obesity epidemic in the US is access to fresh produce like this in lower income and rural areas. It is amazing to me to find markets such as this in lower income countries and communities in Asia. If they can do it, can’t we figure it out?

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If only Ulsan had so many fresh red onions. The things you miss as an expat.

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The one stall at this market that I had not before seen in my travels was the handmade tofu vendor. I’m not a vegetarian by any means, but something about the looks of this fresh tofu makes me want to look up some recipes right away!

Strangely enough, the only purchases made at the market consisted of some yarn for crochet projects and some nuts for a snack. Soon enough we were back at the kitchen to roll up our sleeves and get cooking. And drink beer before noon.

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I was really impressed with The Hutong – by far the most professional cooking class company I’ve come across. They are also an active cultural center, hosting university exchanges and other knowledge sharing. We purchased a huge cleaver and some “tea balls” from among the selection of many fun items for sale in the kitchen, and they supplied us with some really well-done folders with recipe information inside.

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I was too busy filming and actually making dumplings to take too many photos of the actual cooking process. However, I bet everyone would agree that we had a blast making and eating our dumplings of various size, shape and cooking methods! I, for one, could stand to eat these far more often than a special occasion like Chinese (Lunar) New Year.

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Finally, I’ve produced a halfway decent video! It was my first shot with the DSLR and it seemed to make all the difference! Maybe it will remind us how exactly to make the dumplings once we get up the nerve to try it at home. Dumpling party, anyone?

What Are We Doing Here?

[It’s been a year and a half since we moved to Korea, and sadly, most people still don’t have a great idea of what brought us here or the kind of work that J-Mar is doing. I’ve been bugging him for just about 18 months to start writing a post of his own to explain his work. It took several months for there to be concrete evidence of the project that is being built, but things are starting to come along. With his experience so far, he has a lot of new insight into the marvel that is large-scale project engineering and fabrication, and now he can share some of it with you.]

I have been working for a major oil and gas company for the last 8 years. Part of the company is dedicated to the management of engineering and construction of new facilities (platforms, pipelines, LNG facilities, etc). These projects are designed and built all over the world, so the company provides great opportunity for international travel and assignments. These are also some of the biggest construction projects in the world, so as someone that enjoys project work, you can see why I was drawn to this field.

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The project that I am working on is a platform to be installed off the coast of Canada. The major piece of the platform includes drilling and processing equipment to extract the oil and gas, known in the industry as a topsides because all the equipment sits on top of the platform. The topsides has 4 levels, each about the size of a football field. The platform will also have a living quarters, which in and of itself is the size of a small hotel, and houses 220 people.

In the end, the topsides will be 51,000 tonnes of steel, equipment, piping, and cable. And all of this will sit on top of the gravity-based substructure (GBS), 627,500 tonnes of reinforced concrete. The concrete structure sits on the ocean floor, supports the topsides, and also stores liquids. Looking for a size comparison? Equivalent weight of the topsides is 440 mid-size 2-story houses (~2200 sq ft), 125 fully loaded Boeing 747s, or 7.5 Eiffel Towers.

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The GBS, living quarters, and some other small parts of the platform are being built in Canada, which provides local job opportunities. So where does Korea come into the picture, you ask? Imagine this… You want to build a house in Canada. Even better, you want to build it on a remote lakeside lot.

Just one small problem: there is only one road that leads to the lot, and 4 months of the year it is too cold to work outside. The closest Home Depot and Lowes are hundreds of miles away. There are no contractors that live anywhere near this place. Start to get the picture? This project would cost 6, 8, maybe 10 times as much if we were to build it in Canada. At that point, there is no project, because the investment is more than the return. But, if you can find a way to build it somewhere else for a reasonable price as well as a cost-effective way to transport it to your lot, you may be in business.

hhioverviewAn aerial view of the offshore yard where I work, images from hhi.co.kr

So why Korea specifically? Surely there are other capable places to fabricate this thing? I am sure that someone could write a whole book on what makes Korea an optimal place to build large offshore facilities, but I will try to give you a little insight.

In the last 40 years, Korea has become a global center for shipbuilding and offshore fabrication (you can read A-Mar’s history lesson at the end). Between the three major shipbuilders – Daewoo, Samsung, and Hyundai – there is a skilled, trained Korean labor force more than 75,000 strong, not to mention the millions of subcontract workers that supply materials, equipment, and storage for all of this work. This is unheard of in any other industry. It still doesn’t compare to the 1.9 million Walmart employees, but you would probably admit that Walmart does not have the most skilled labor force.

jmaratworkManaging some critical lifts at work.

With around 25,000 trained welders, pipefitters, and electricians, the yard that I work in puts out more tonnage of offshore fabrication work than anywhere else in the world. At peak, our project alone will have around 2,500 workers. Nowhere else could you call on trained workers and have that many people show up, much less be qualified to do the work. Access to this centralized, affordable labor in a relatively temperate environment makes it cost-effective for companies like mine to send expatriates to supervise and manage the project in Korea.

If you’re interested, take a look at HHI’s YouTube video below that gives a glimpse of HHI’s operations in Ulsan, specifically the shipbuilding division. [Likely due to proprietary restrictions of oil and gas projects, there aren’t any videos that show much of the offshore yard.]

Your next major question would probably be: J-Mar, what do YOU do in Korea? Stay tuned until my next post, and you’ll find out!

**A-Mar’s history lesson:
The reason that Korea, and Ulsan in particular, has become host to much of the world’s heavy industries construction is directly the result of the work of a self-made entrepreneur named Chung Ju-yung. Despite very little formal education, Chung capitalized on a major business opportunity: the industrialization and reconstruction of Korea following WWII as well as the Korean War. He ultimately spearheaded the development of the shipyard in Ulsan in the 1970s, quickly transforming Ulsan from a small coastal fishing village to an industrial powerhouse. Around here, he is considered a visionary and by the end of his life became involved in politics and even a part of the Seoul Olympic Committee.

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