Sunday, June 30, 2019

In Medias Res: Walking el Camino

I can’t remember when it started for me, but for the last couple of years, my mom dreamed of walking el Camino de Santiago, also known as the Way of Saint James. When she asked me to join her, of course, I said I’d go. Even though it would take at least a month—approximately 35 days, 40 if we took rest days on Sundays—even though it meant I’d have to quit my job, I wanted to walk across a country if only to prove I could do it.

So my mom researched equipment and the route we’d take, and I enjoyed biking to work, racking up my steps while there, and biking home again. Though my mom invited a bunch of people to join us, only one of her friends agreed to come. We planned to start in St. Jean, France in April and walk 800 kilometers to Santiago de Compostela, Spain by May in time to see the swinging of the incense across the cathedral.

Then, about a month or so before our trip, my mom injured herself on a cruise. She tore her meniscus by carrying too much luggage up a flight of stairs. So while her friend started the Camino without her, my mom started physical therapy. I quit my job anyway and poured my energy into research for my upcoming move, job applications, and writing.

And so, we waited.

After nearly a month passed and the doctor cleared my mom for walking, we set off for Spain. It took another three days of flights and a bus trip to get there, but we finally arrived in Astorga to continue our journey. I say continue because where, after all, does a journey really begin? Is it at some set point like Saint Jean? Or is it as far back as the first pilgrim who walked the way?

If all the best stories start in medias res, so did ours. Not that my story is by default the best, just that it happened this way. As we headed out, I considered the words of Gandalf from the first The Hobbit film:

“The world is not in your books and maps. It’s out there.”

Our first day of walking was perhaps one of the hardest but most enjoyable. The town gave way to fields which ultimately gave way to foothills, and before we knew it, we were hiking up a mountain. That night we stayed in our first albergue, in a shared room with a bunch of bunk beds. I got the top bunk as I would for the rest of the trip.

The next day, we visited the Iron Cross. There, many pilgrims will lay down a stone representative of their burdens. I had picked up two rocks, one in Astorga and one from the hike that morning. Mom had brought four stones—one from Jerusalem, one from Auschwitz, one from Rothenberg, and one from outside our chapel in Germany—each to represent those whom she was praying for and remembering.

She carried her stones to the top of the mound of stones and came down crying. I knelt and tossed my stones, feeling my throat close up. A woman behind me was weeping. A part of me wanted to know her story, but maybe it was enough to simply live my own. To pray for forgiveness once more at the foot of the cross and the walk on.

On our way down the mountain, we stopped in a tiny village with two albergues and only one restaurant. The rest of the day passed by pleasantly as I finished a book in our albergue, on the upper balcony overlooking the back patio. Then I went out to photograph some butterflies, had dinner with my mom, took a shower, and hung my towel on the balcony to dry. We headed to bed at half past nine.

The next morning, we got up at six, and mom reminded me not to forget my towel. So I went to grab it, and saw a strange light from below. Somebody was shining their phone from the patio. The person tapped at the door. Was it a fellow pilgrim or a murderer trying to get me to open the door? I figured it must be a pilgrim, considering they were knocking on the balcony door, not the front door. How long had they been trapped outside?

I rushed down the stairs, hoping I wasn’t making a mistake, and opened the door.

The man was shivering, his arms crossed, teeth chattering.

“Are you all right?” I asked.

He nodded, teeth still chattering. “Thank you.”

I clutched my towel, nodded, and ran back up the stairs. Awkward social interaction averted. Or maybe made worse. Come to think of it, he probably didn’t even see me nod. And I could have offered him my towel to warm up. Instead, I just left.

That day, my mom and I headed to Ponferrada where my dad joined us.

The next night, the three of us walked to Trabadelo and spent the night in perhaps our favorite albergue. We had a room all to ourselves surprisingly enough, a nice stone basin on the patio to hand wash our clothes, and a friendly little dog to greet us on the ground floor. The lady who ran the place prepared dinner for us pilgrims, and as we enjoyed our first course of delicious pumpkin soup, I was listening to other people’s conversations. As an introvert, I’m not much of one to join in on conversations with strangers. Not right away.

I overheard one guy tell his Brazilian friend how two nights ago he stepped out for a smoke and locked himself out of the building, and the next morning none of his friends believed him because some girl let him in. His story sounded awfully familiar.

“You’re the one!” I blurted out.

He stared at me. “It was you?”

I nodded, then ducked my head. What was I doing interrupting his conversation? But he had to know. I had to make it up to him for my terrible first impression.

“You saved me!” he said.

Okay, maybe it wasn’t such a bad impression after all.

Then we officially had our introductions. The guy was from South Korea, and he said his English name was Looney. I wanted to know his Korean name too, but I never did work up the courage to ask.

He told me the full story of the night before we met, how he had taken a shower and stepped outside for a smoke. Then the door had shut behind him, and he was locked out all night with nothing but a pair of shorts and a damp towel. He said his military training helped a bit because he used an umbrella to set up a makeshift tent.

Then I had let him in, and he finally made it back to his bunk. By the time all his friends were awake, they didn’t believe what happened to him because he had been in his sleeping bag when they saw him.

The rest of our dinner that night passed in easy conversation. Looney thanked me again for saving him before he said goodnight and headed off to his own albergue.

The next morning, we prayed with the lady who ran the place. Apparently, she’d just recently bought the albergue and had only been running the business for ten days, eleven that morning. After my dad’s prayer, she asked why we were walking the Camino.

“We’re moving back to the United States,” my dad explained. “After ten years of living in Europe, this is our way of saying goodbye.”

“No,” the owner said, “maybe the Camino is a new way to say hello. As you’re walking, I hope you find what it is you’re looking for.”

Dad nodded, tears brimming his eyes. “Thank you.”

I never heard him mention saying goodbye again.

Our walk started off peaceful as usual, and by that afternoon, as we were headed up the steepest part of the journey, up yet another mountain, Looney caught up with me. We walked together and talked for several hours. My family and I decided to stop for a lunch break in O Cebreiro at the top of the mountain. Looney waved goodbye and headed off with some more pilgrims from South Korea, the ones who hadn’t believed I existed until now.

Later, mom told me about a short conversation she’d had with Looney when we all stopped to catch our breath heading up the mountain.

“I like you,” Mom had said to him, “but if you ever want to date my daughter, you’re going to have to stop smoking.”

The heat rose to my cheeks. I was glad I wasn’t there when she said thatThough I didn’t disagree with her. My grandpa—her dad—passed away two-and-a-half years ago from throat cancer.

My mom and I had planned to walk 800 kilometers and ended up walking 260 instead. Plans change. Awkward introductions happen. We both faced our fears—not being able to walk the Camino and not being able to talk to people. And we both survived. We finished the Camino, and I made a friend.

Even if I didn’t see him again until we made it to Santiago. I was lying on the stones in the square, gazing up at the cathedral as is a tradition for pilgrims with tired feet, when I heard Looney talking with my mom. I sat up, and he helped me to my feet. We talked once more about the journey. For the first time, I noticed he was wearing crocs, and his Brazilian friend mentioned how he had hiked in them all the way from St. Jean.

Then my dad took our picture together.

“I’ll email you when I get back to Korea,” Looney said. “I want to see you again.” He smiled.

I smiled back. “Me too.”


Check out more of my Camino adventures on Instagram #ElCamino2019!

Let’s chat! What are some recent adventures you’ve been on? Have you ever been on a pilgrimage before? If not, would you consider one?

Similar posts: Poem: At my own Pace (Video); Grades, Grad School, & Goals: Studying Abroad in Germany; and Traveling and Writing: Inspirational or Disastrous?

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Sunday, June 23, 2019

Book Review: Fawkes

“But a man can be both soft and strong, maintaining a hope for the world.” 

This book is full of so many cinnamon rolls! I mean that in the best sense. Emma is such a strong female character who will kick in a guy’s face if he messes with her but would rather be painting instead. And Thomas is such a tender-hearted and overly dramatic man. I love them both!

Genre: Young Adult Fantasy, Historical Fiction
My rating: 5/5 stars
One-word description: Stunning

I just so happened to request an audiobook version from my local library and was first on the waiting list. And wow, was the narrator amazing! A narrator can either make or break an audiobook, and Oliver J. Hembrough did a stunning job. His British accent fit the book perfectly, and he managed to voice the characters so each one sounded distinguishable.

Not only was the narrator excellent, but the writing style was so captivating. My sister joined me about a fifth of the way through the book and was hooked after about twenty minutes. Listening to the story became something we’d do together after school and work.

Another aspect I liked about the book was the way it took the gunpowder plot, which I know a bit about from my time living in England, and combined it with fantasy. The magic system is simple yet elegant, and—at least the way I see it—representative of the Christian denominations at tensions with each other of the day. Instead of Catholics and Protestants, the story has Keepers and Ignitors, who have differing beliefs on how magic should be used.

The differing magic factions, of course, played into the themes of the book, particularly that of fully exploring and understanding a belief system before condemning it. While the themes had some recognizable elements that allowed me to predict some plot points, I greatly admire the way the Ignitors and the Keepers were presented—in such a way that wasn’t preachy or dull.

As for the characters, I already mentioned how I liked Thomas and Emma. Guy Fawkes himself was a fairly interesting character, but I felt for most of the book that he didn’t deserve Thomas as a son. Last and certainly not least, comes White, whose voice is so wonderfully sassy. I only wish the color had more of a part in the narrative as a whole.

Overall, I gave Fawkes 5/5 stars for an excellent narrative, well-developed characters, and a great mashup of historical fiction and fantasy. I’d recommend the book to those who enjoy both genres and look forward to reading more books by Brandes in the near future.

Interested in Fawkes? Have you read it yet? You might also enjoy these books: The Bird and the Blade by Megan Bannen (see book review), Jonathan Strange &Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke (see book review), and Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein.

Let’s chat! Has Fawkes made it to your to-be-read list yet? Have you read it yet? Have any historical fiction and/or fantasy recommendations?


Sunday, June 16, 2019

Writing about Travel

Growing up in a military community has forever given me a case of wanderlust. Even if one day I “settle down” and buy my own house, I think I’ll just buy a cabin in the complete opposite side of the continent so I can get away. Or maybe I’ll just take trips where I willingly live out of a suitcase.

After living in one place for a year, I get the itch to go. If I know I’m going to be there for at least another year, I’ll rearrange my room and plan a trip. If I know I’m moving soon, I’ll wait it out or plan a pre-move trip in the local area.

Whether you’re looking to write a nonfiction travel piece or an epic fantasy quest, here are some of points to consider.

Sometimes you need to tell, not show.

Mind BLOWN! But seriously, if you write every single nitty gritty boring detail of travel, your readers’ minds might explode. Or worse yet, they’ll put your story down.

You can, if you’d prefer, show a little bit of the character’s boredom, but don’t bore your readers to death. Perhaps one of the best examples of this is from Spiderman: Homecoming, when Peter gets trapped in a warehouse and spends what looks like hours running through a training program to relieve his boredom, but in reality, it’s only been 37 minutes. Later, the sunrise tells the audience that he’s been trapped all night.

To sum up, show some of the characters’ boredom and tell the boring transitions. For a complete list of telling vs. showing, check out one of my favorite posts: “5 Instances When You Need to Tell (And Not Show)” by Amanda Patterson.

Know your character(s).

This point may seem really obvious. But don’t forget to ask yourself (and your characters if you’re one for interviews) the right questions. Here are just a few.

How experienced are your characters with travel? More experienced characters may roll their clothes instead of folding them and may even tune out or be able to recite the safety speech flight attendants give before takeoff. Less experienced characters, on the other hand, may not know about weight limits for checked baggage. But even experienced travelers can encounter different restrictions in different places (i.e. from country to country).

How often do they travel? Maybe your character travels for work and pleasure and is used to back-to-back trips. Maybe they prefer to travel once a month, or maybe they make it a goal to get out of the house and visit a local site once a week.

How do the characters handle stress? Something inevitably will go wrong. Especially if you’re focusing on the travel aspect of your story. Maybe your character withdraws into themselves becoming quieter and quieter. Maybe they have explosively verbal anger. Maybe they become super witty or sarcastic, which is more common but enjoyable to read all the same.

Are they a planner or a panster or both? Maybe your character puts a lot of effort into the destinations but forgets to account for bathroom breaks on road trips. Maybe they like to pack the night before, the week before, or even twenty minutes before leaving. Maybe they like being in charge of the plan but aren’t super good at communicating said plan with their companions. Or maybe they just point to a map and go.

Is your character an adventurer or a homebody or both? I’m a little bit of both. I like the comfort of my own room and my own books, but at the same time, I like to get out there and get lost in a place I’ve never been before, pushing the boundaries of what I know and what I don’t. But I still have a limit to how much traveling I enjoy at once, which makes coming home just as enjoyable. Some people like to travel more than others, so when developing your characters, be sure to determine the degree of how much they lean toward adventurer or homebody.

Know your settings.

Yet another seemingly obvious point. But I’m a huge fan of settings, and I automatically give well-developed ones an extra star.

Where are they going? And where are they coming from? Maybe your character is coming from a tropical paradise filled with bugs and rain and sunshine to a desert filled with dust and cactuses and even more sunshine. Maybe your character is used to harsh winters and travels to a place where they didn’t consider bringing better sunscreen (e.g. 5 versus 50 SPF). Maybe they’re used to a lower altitude and a hike in a higher one leaves them winded.

Do time zones come into play? And if they do, how inconvenient is it? Having lived in Europe with friends back in the States, I got really good at knowing what time it was back in the States. But it got kinda old when I wanted to talk with a friend but knew they wouldn’t be awake for another three hours. Though time zones may not be necessary for most fantasy, I’d like to see them come into play in sci-fi, especially when characters travel off planet.

You can make travel plans and still encounter unexpected events. Maybe your character remembers to get off at the right stop but accidentally leaves their book on the train.

Some of the best written travel arcs/scenes include, but are not limited to, the following books:

  • The Hobbit, especially how Bilbo is part let’s-go-on-an-adventure-Took and part leave-me-in-peace-Baggins.
  • The Horse and His Boy, particularly the chapter where they’re crossing the desert.
  • Stardust by Neil Gaiman, especially the contrast between Wall in our world and the market in Faerie.
  • The Someday Birds by Sally J. Pla, particularly the road trip aspects. Best I’ve ever read.
  • Where the Woods Grow Wild by Nate Philbrick, especially with its excellent world building.

So there you have it! Of course, you don’t have to include every element listed above. They’re more of guidelines than actual rules.

Let’s chat! What are some of your tips for writing about travel? Any that I missed? What are some of your favorite books with great travel arcs/scenes?


Sunday, June 9, 2019

Where Fiction Meets Art

I’m an artist at heart. I like visiting art museums and staring at wall-sized tapestries and miniscule paintings. When it comes to paintings, my favorite medium is impressionism. My gaze is drawn to bold colors, thick globs of paint, and a touch of imagination to figure out what on earth is going on.

Though I’ve tried my hand at painting and drawing, I’m not particularly good at it. And I’m okay with that. Art, like writing, takes practice. I simply haven’t dedicated the time necessary to a certain medium. Not yet, anyway.

All the same, I like to claim that the written word is an art form, and, therefore, my art is essentially my craft of writing. This post, however, will focus primarily on visual art and how it ties in with the wonderful medium called fiction.

Visual Art as Fiction

Like poetry, various types of visual art can blur the lines between fiction and reality. While some art reflects reality, others tell stories and others express emotions. Some pieces do them all at once. I particularly enjoy visiting castles and listening to the tour guide point to the paintings on the walls that tell of the legends of the castles, like the story of Saint Michael (similar to Saint George and the dragon).

Book Covers

Let’s just take a moment to appreciate the beauty in the following books!

Graphic Novels

I don’t seem to understand how people can appreciate art and novels, but novels featuring art and a storyline are somehow neglected. As if, for some reason, as soon as teenagers enter high school, they must put down their graphic novels and delve into “real books.” Or once students enter college or “the real world”, they must enjoy classics and not YA fiction. Like, excuse me? Double graduate student here. I still enjoy art. The Louvre has art. Give me pictures!

Some of my all-time favorite kids books include The Missing Piece and Harold and the Purple Crayon. Some of my favorite graphic novels include but are not limited to Maus (vols. I and II), M.F.K.: Book One, and The Best We Could Do. There are still plenty of graphic novels on my TBR list.


Like graphic novels, you don’t see this one talked about a lot. But I still like to look at it, hence my Art of Fiction Board on Pinterest where I like to “collect” pieces from my favorite fandoms, from How to Train Your Dragon to The Greatest Showman. There’s also fanart on Instagram, and I like to find artists on Twitter, but I prefer Pinterest because I’m not very good at photography and I can keep all the pictures in one place.


Recently, I added a Bookmark of the Month tab in the right-hand column because I have so many bookmarks that I thought I’d share them with you. I like to collect bookmarks from my travels. Aside from paintings and sketches, they are perhaps my favorite type of souvenir.

Recent bookmarks include the following:

Traditional Korean hanbok
my parents brought from a conference in Poland.
Tuscany, Italy. Watercolor.
Acquired from a trip to Siena with my sister
Sainte Chapelle, Paris.
Bookmark my mom bought from her latest visit to Paris.
El Camino de Santiago.
Acquired from our 260 km pilgrimage.

Let’s chat! Are you an artist? What’s your favorite medium to create? To look at? Where do you like to share your art and find other’s?


Film references: How to Train Your Dragon and The Greatest Showman

Literary references: Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes and Other Stories, Lewis Carrol’s Alice in Wonderland, Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See, Alison Croggon’s The Bone Queen, Hans Christian Anderson’s Classic Fairy Tales, Olivia A. Cole’s A Conspiracy of Stars, Azelyn Klein’s Last of the Memory Keepers, Lisa T. Bergren’s Remnants: Season of Wonder, Maggie Stiefvater’s The Scorpio Races, C. G. Drew’s A Thousand Perfect Notes, Shel Silverstein’s The Missing Piece, Harold and the Purple Crayon, Art Speigelmann’s Maus (vols. I and II), Nihal Magrunder’s M.F.K.: Book One, and Thi Bui’s The Best We Could Do

Sunday, June 2, 2019

Poem: At my own Pace (Video)

Hey, guys!

I’m back from my hiatus! More specifically, I’m back from a thirteen-day pilgrimage across Spain, seventeen days if you count all the traveling it took to get to and from our starting and finishing points. My mom, dad, and walked el Camino de Santiago, aka the Way of Saint James.

Everybody has their reasons for walking the Camino. I’ll delve more into the trip itself in a later post. For now, I’ll just say that for me, it was a spiritual and philosophical journey. After reading The Philosophy of Walking last year, I was curious. I’ve always enjoyed nature and hiking, and I’d been camping before, but I’d never gone on a trip longer than a week let alone a pilgrimage.

So I went.

Here’s a brief poem that had been forming in my head throughout the trip.

At My Own Pace

What does it mean to walk at my own pace?
To set one foot in front of the other
rather than slowing down—joining a race?
To find my own heartbeat not my brother.

The woods spread out a canopy of leaves
while sweat adorns my face at my bidding.
Set me loose in some field swarming with bees
as the click of my staff saves me from skidding.

Another pilgrim says, “Buen Camino
as they pass. I’ll see you in an hour
when you—or I—stop for a coffee break
or maybe some fresh zumo de naranja.

Walking westward, I set a new horizon
with each day. Yesterday I climbed the mountain.
Today I descend, and tomorrow will find me
passing windmills again.

I can breathe freely in the crisp, sunrise air
my nose catching the scents of spruce and
cow manure, gravel and eucalyptus
like the first time.

I stretch my legs when we stop,
doing lunges when we start.
I don’t want it to end—but I do.

Here is what it means to walk at my own pace,
to carry my own pack—
to finally feel



Let’s chat! What did you think of the poem? What are your thoughts on walking? Have you ever been on a long hike or pilgrimage before?