2016 Recap - Part 5 - Friendsgiving, Korean Santa, and Champagne Showers Down Under


With November came a wicked chill in the air and the sudden realization that my time in Korea was quickly running out. Though I’d been doing a lot all year, I still had an inexhaustible list of places I wanted to go and things I wanted to see. Up until then, it had been easy to put them off and make the excuse that I’d do them later… but my time to do things later was dwindling fast. Since there were no international trips this month, I kicked crossing off the Korea bucket list into high gear.

One of the first places I went on my Seoul Searching adventure is Yongma Land, an abandoned amusement park on the outskirts of the city. It was creepy, quirky, and made for some interesting photo ops. I got there pretty early, so I had the place mostly to myself for about an hour, but, by the time I left, the park was filled with hordes of Koreans. From amateur couples with their selfie sticks to teeny models with wardrobe changes, a full blown posse of photographers, and a blaring boom-box, the influx of people and K-Pop tunes kind of ruined the creepy vibe for me. I grabbed my GoPro and called it a day.


I explored new parks in the city, marveled at the JunkHouse piece on the side of LuLuLemon in Apgujeong, and went to the Euljiro Light Way Exhibit at the Dongdaemun Design Plaza. Despite my best efforts to stay ridiculously busy, as the temperature grew colder and Thanksgiving drew nearer, I couldn’t help but start to miss home. Thinking about all the turkey and mac and cheese I wasn’t going to be eating had me feeling low, so I got high and had breakfast with a view. No, not THAT kind of high… the mountain climbing kind of high.

I’ve been meaning to hike Gwanaksan for ages. I can see it from my apartment window and it’s only a short walk away… but, because of its proximity, it had always been one of those, “Oh, just do it later,” things. Finally, on the Sunday before Thanksgiving, I got up well before the sun and headed to the mountain. I’d been TO the mountain, but had never hiked up it. It was still pitch dark outside, so I found an ajussi who looked like he knew what he was doing, and followed close behind til the sun came up and I got my own feel for the trail.

Losing a few extra hours of sleep was well worth getting to watch the sun come up over the city. The view at the top was absolutely incredible. If you’re in Seoul, I definitely recommend checking out Gwanak Mountain. It isn’t the tallest mountain by any means, but it is a fairly easy climb and highly accessible from the SNU subway station.


The following weekend, to celebrate Friendsgiving, a couple girlfriends and I went on a winery tour and to the Daedunsan Cloud Bridge. I definitely hadn’t anticipated hiking in the snow that weekend, but, when the snow began to fall and the world turned white, the Cloud Bridge got that much cooler… literally. Though it was freezing, the snow was beautiful and refreshing, and we were like a bunch of giddy little kids...

...So giddy, in fact, that I decided to start a snowball fight with no gloves on, and I'm not convinced the phrase, “Cold hands warm heart,” was made for that day. My hands were so frozen I couldn’t properly hold or use my chopsticks at dinner, but, all in all, I am not sure there's a better way to spend a Saturday than with a post-wine tasting snowball fight on a suspension bridge. Click here to read more about our Friendsgiving day away from the city.


Another HUGE thing that happened in November was the finalization of my backpacking plans. After weeks of planning various routes, and searching one-way flights at such super human speeds that SkyScanner literally kept locking me out, and asking me to solve CAPTCHAs to prove I wasn’t a robot. I’m so pleased with the deals I was able to find and can’t wait for this two month, 8 country adventure. Shout out to Air Asia for the cheapest flights in the game. Read all about where I’m going, and when, here.



Andddddd (can I get a drum roll please), we FINALLY made it to December – The coldest, and seemingly longest, month of the year. Last December, I was twiddling my thumbs and counting down the seconds til I could get on my Christmas day flight to Thailand, but, this year, that was not the case. In an attempt to stay busy and prevent the pre-holiday away from home blues, I went into full blown Christmas elf mode... but I bit off way more than I could chew. I had SO much to do to prepare for my trip to Australia that I was actually wanting the weeks to slow down.

Pictured below: A wild Kirst in her natural Christmas decorating habitat.

I'm never at my apartment, so I decided to decorate my classroom instead. This tree was covered in ornaments and actual lights by the time I was done with it, but, first, I had to cut it and make it a bit smaller... which was tough because I was practically in tears from laughing when I realized I was literally trimming a tree. If that's not funny to you, we can't be friends.


The month FLEW by with a slew of tests, corrections, report card comments, and, for me, funky Christmas sweaters and packing. I didn’t just have to pack up enough clothes for a week… I had to go through literally everything I own and decide what I was going to sell, what I was going to send home, and what I was going to bring with me on my post-Korea trip. In addition to that I took on a rather big (given everything else I had to do) endeavor of creating a massive advent calendar and daily gifts for my Kindy kids.

It was a pretty stressful month, and I didn’t have time to get sick… so, naturally, I got sick… for two weeks. It was absolutely awful. Being a sick adult with no one to have your back or make you soup is the worst… but imagine how bad it is in a country where there is no such thing as sick days, and doctors only halfway understand what you’re saying when you finally find the time to go to them. I had been coughing so hard for so long that I literally pulled a muscle, and, when the pain in my ribs became too much to bear, I headed to the doctor for a third time. Read all about that literal nightmare here.


Thankfully, the third time was a charm, and my voice came back just in time for the last week of school before the winter holiday... and our open class. Open class happens twice a year, and is the day where all of your student’s parents sit in on a lesson. You are judged on your looks just as much as your teaching, and so I had to do my hair for the first time all month. I wasn’t nearly as nervous for it as I was the first two times. It could be because I know these parents better than I knew parents in the past… or because I’m about to leave this job anyway and have a serious case of “end of contract-itis.”

The open class went really well. The students (per usual) mocked me when I hadn’t asked them to repeat after me, and so I took that opportunity to tell their parents that a lot of the English the kids learn comes from copying what I say when I don’t want them to.

Later on in the lesson, which was about the five food groups, Jayden (my youngest, and brightest, student) provided more comedy when he shouted out some very insightful information about the protein group. He said… and I quote… “PROTEIN GIVES YOU MUSCLES BUT MISS KIRSTIE DOESN’T HAVE ANY.” Like I get it… I should probably train arms more at the gym, but geez. (Side note: After getting straight up called out by a five-year-old, I trained a little bit harder at the gym that evening).

Pictured below: Jayden also critiquing my photography skills. (Also pictured... Korean Santa Clause. He looked super uncomfortable in his beard, and the kids and I were not convinced. It took absolutely everything in me not to shout, “You're not Santa, You smell like soju and kimchi!”... which he did.)


Once open class was over, I felt like I was home free. I finished up my packing and started to get SO pumped up for Australia. Bright and early on Christmas Eve, I started pumping some tunes, headed to the airport bus, and prepared for what would, after layovers, be nearly 24 hours of travel time.


When I boarded my final flight from China to Melbourne I was so pleased to see that 1) I had a window seat, and 2) I was sharing a row with the most adorable old Chinese man. He was reading a newspaper as big as he was and greeted me with a friendly smile when I sat down. I could see that his passport was brand new, and, throughout the flight, he was visibly confused about things like how to turn on his T.V., light, and what to write on his declaration card. 

He didn't speak a lick of English, and my Mandarin (despite my attempts in Taiwan) still doesn't extend beyond hello and thank you. Through a series of hand gestures, nods, and smiles, we were able to communicate (and laugh at our hilariously failed attempts). I was able to help him sort out his T.V., light, and, somehow, what to write on his arrival card. Towards the end of the flight, he pulled some tangerines out of his bag and shared them with me. I had Christmas cards in my backpack so I discreetly wrote one for him and gave it to him after we landed... He definitely couldn't read it, but was still so tickled.

It was a pretty beautiful way to spend Christmas morning, and a nice reminder that no matter where you are in the world, no matter who you encounter, and no matter what your differences may be, you can always find common ground and share beautiful experiences with people when you open yourself up to them. Traveling on the holidays can make you forget that it’s a holiday at all, but the connection I made with this man served as a pretty good reminder of what Christmas is all about.


I went through customs, picked up my bags, and then began the (seemingly endless) wait for Bethany and Rachel’s flight to arrive. Their luggage was lost, and we had a bit of a rough start, but the days that followed would be filled with bottles of champagne, rainy bicycle rides, wedding fun, marvelling at Melbourne’s street art, eating all of the avo-toast I could handle, obligatory sister fights, ogling at Australia’s incredibly good looking men, and watching the fireworks at a rooftop bar as we said goodbye to 2016 (...and also watching my little sister mack on the Aussie boys. Side note: she was the only one of the trio to land a New Year's smooch.) - Ya heard it here first, mum ;)


Bethany is going to kill me... so I suppose I'll leave it at that for now. Full post on Decking the Halls in Oz, and all of the Aussie shenanigans coming realllll soon.


Stay tuned to hear about kangaroos on golf courses, the ferrari rides that led to all-nighters down under, and How Bethany is basically a huge lady-stud...


Did you miss something? Catch up on the previous recaps!


New Year's Eve over Melbourne with Picture This Ballooning

If you’re in Melbourne and looking for a fun and unique experience, skip Eureka Tower and get a better view on a hot air balloon ride over the city.

Keep reading to find out about the time we time we woke up before the sun and DIDN’T go up in a balloon... and my experience finally flying over Melbourne with Picture This Ballooning

On Christmas Eve Eve, the day before I left for Australia, I woke up to my cousin’s girlfriend posting some epic photos of their hot air balloon ride on Instagram. They’d already arrived in Australia, and had done many of the activities I also wanted to do, but had been too busy to plan. With it being a holiday week, I knew it was a long shot, but I sent a few emails to try to arrange a balloon ride for my sisters and I.

That afternoon, I received an extremely friendly response from a staff member of Picture This Ballooning. Their kind and upbeat tone alone was enough to make me choose the company, as I’d emailed several other companies, and the same cannot be said. I scheduled a morning flight over the Yarra Valley, and my sisters and I were so excited.

On the morning of, we all jumped out of bed, got ready, and were outside our Airbnb ready to be picked up well before our 3:30am pickup time. A van pulled up… the kind of van your parents warn you to not get inside… a man with a headlamp on his hat climbed out, walked towards us, and said, “Where ya headed?” in an extremely Aussie accent. Entering stranger, danger mode, but also not knowing whether or not this was our ride, I said, “A balloon...” Turns out he was in fact our ride, so we all climbed in to the back of the van. (Lol… sorry, mom. I promise I listened to your lessons about strangers).

We drove all the way out to Yarra Valley, and in to a country club, where we met up with the rest of the people who would go ballooning. Long story short, it wasn’t until we’d made it out to a field where they tested a weather balloon that we were told, due to the overcast and cloudy conditions, we wouldn’t be going up in a balloon that morning. It was a huge bummer to wake up so early in the morning for a ballon ride... and then to not have a balloon ride… but I really appreciated the company’s reasoning. This activity isn’t cheap, and they really care about ensuring their customers get their money's worth (while having a safe ride). This wouldn’t have been the case that morning.

On our ride back to the Airbnb, I noticed the same Kangaroo crossing road sign that had gotten Bethany extremely excited (literally sitting on the edge of her seat) when we’d driven in. Our eyes had been peeled for a kangaroo sighting since landing in the country, so I’d decided that, in an attempt to perk everyone up (and entertain myself), I’d shout, “KANGAROO!” So I did. I didn’t actually see any, but my outburst caused our driver, who had since proved himself to totally not be the creeper van type, to go, “REALLY?!”

He slowed down the van, and I laughed and apologized, explaining that I hadn’t actually seen anything… but then he pointed to the golf course and said, “Look, there are some over there!” I thought he was turning the tables, and playing my own tricks on me, but, turns out, there actually WERE about a dozen kangaroos grazing on the golf course. Who knew kangaroos liked golf? We walked out to get close to them, got some cool photos, and didn’t get kicked or sucker punched. The moral of the story, folks, is that sometimes practical jokes pay off, and that even when things don’t go according to plan, you can still create epic memories if you stay positive.

The staff of Picture This was extremely apologetic about our flight cancellation, and, after seeing how excited we got over the kangaroos, told us about penguins we could see at St. Kilda pier (Update - went to see them... it was awesome). They were so personable, and seemed to really want to make sure we still had a great visit to the city. They worked so hard to get the three of us on a flight that week, but with the weather being poor and the holiday season being busy, it wasn’t looking good. Then, as if by some miracle, they had one spot open up on New Year’s Eve… the day before I was leaving Australia. My sisters had a few more days in Melbourne, and being really understanding of how much this was something I wanted to do, told me I should go ahead and take the spot.


On New Year’s Eve, I got back to my Airbnb at 3 a.m. after a night out, changed my clothes, threw on a baseball cap, and, shortly after, was picked up by a different staff member of Picture This Ballooning. He drove me to a hotel downtown where everyone was meeting for the sunrise balloon ride. I grabbed a comfy chair, a latte, kept my fingers crossed that, this time, the balloon would actually go up, and tried to not let myself become overrun with exhaustion.

Just before sunrise, we were off. We were driven to the field where we’d be taking off, given a briefing about the do’s and don’ts of our balloon ride, and were even able to help get the balloon ready for flight. I thought surely this time that it was really going to happen, and, even though I was the only person in my balloon group flying solo, I was absolutely giddy with excitement (or exhaustion, I'm not really sure).

As we took off over Melbourne that morning, my exhaustion vanished and was replaced with a calming sense of pure awe. The sun was slowly beginning to rise up over the horizon, and the, already picturesque, skyline was now dotted with half a dozen colorful balloons. In that moment, I was overwhelmed with gratitude. At times like this, it really hits me how far I have come, and how thankful I am for all of life’s adventures, both big and small. Oftentimes, we get so wrapped up in our day to day routines and the things we need to do, that we totally forget to stop and reflect on how hard we’ve worked and what we’ve already accomplished.

I couldn’t tell you how long the flight was that morning because I lost track of time completely. However long it was, I’m so thankful I had that time to stop and reflect on the year that would soon be over. Though I hadn’t had a wink of sleep, I can’t think of a single other way I would rather have spent the last morning of the year – (which, I must add, was also followed by the most delicious buffet breakfast and glasses of champagne).


In addition to a smooth and beautiful flight (and a yummy breakfast), I was highly impressed by the professional, and candid, staff of Picture This Ballooning. They were experts in the field, and highly conversational. I was glad to not only have had an awesome experience flying over Melbourne, but also to have learned a lot about the history of ballooning. From my initial emails with the company, to the kind drivers who picked me up and dropped my off, ensuring a safe flight, and offering pointers on things to see and do in Melbourne, I was so delighted by my experience with this company.

I’m sure Eureka Tower is cool, but, for a better view of Melbourne and an overall amazing time, splurge on a balloon ride over the city... and if you’re going to spring for the balloon ride, you might as well do it with the friendliest company in Melbourne – Picture This Ballooning.

If you're not already convinced, check out my video recap of the flight below!


Though I was a guest of Picture This Ballooning, that in no way impacted this review of my flight with their company. All opinions, musings, and bad jokes are my own.