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Korean Phrases Ep. 55: 작심삼일

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This week's new video is a "Korean Phrases" episode. This series is for learning quick idioms and phrases in Korean. Even if you don't use any of these idioms in this series when speaking, you might find them written in books, or hear someone use them when speaking. So they're useful to know, especially if you're at an intermediate or advanced Korean level.

This week we'll be learning about an idiom that originally comes from China and the Chinese language. But it's still useful to know in Korean.

And today's idiom is: 작심삼일

This idiom is perfect for the upcoming New Year, and New Year's resolutions. Make sure your New Year's resolutions don't follow this idiom.

Check it out here~

The post Korean Phrases Ep. 55: 작심삼일 appeared first on Learn Korean with GO! Billy Korean.

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What's It Really Like To Teach English In Taiwan?

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Wondering what's it like to teach English in Taiwan? Awesome. I was there once, then later some other countries and now I am here to tell you about it.

I'll be doing some comparison to some other Eastern Asian countries like Korea, Japan and China.


"What do you like about Taiwan? Everything that England hasn't got. We've got great weather. It's a good lifestyle. It's a really easy lifestyle. You work 5 or 6 hours a day max and you have weekends and evenings free. You can have a..."

Dale in Taichung, Taiwan

You'll hear more from Dale later...

It's easier going than Korea or Japan

To generalize a bit I'd say that the teaching scene in Taiwan is a bit more easy going. Schools typically have shorter work hours in Taiwan compared to Korea or Japan.

Of course you could find a forty hour a week job (like in a public school), but it's quite likely that you could find a visa from a school working less than 20 hours a week (both of my contracted jobs).

There are lots of jobs advertised like that in Taiwan.

If you want to work more then you can get another part time job.

It might not only be the work it could be the weather too. Maybe the heat slows people down a bit and gives it a bit of the Southeast Asia vibe.

Most "exotic" in East Asia

From the unearthly Dragon Fruit and the Yen Shui Fireworks Festival (where people charge headfirst into fireworks) to the Bin Lang Xi Shi (sexy showgirls who prepare and sell betel nut), you'll feel like you're in a different land here.

The Tropic of Cancer runs right through Chiayi, Taiwan. The environment here is tropical like and you'll find the weather to be hot and humid. The north of the island is much wetter than the central and southern part of the island.

Instead of snow days, here you'll have typhoon days.

Roughly one third of Taiwan is urban, very urban and populated. Over 23 million live in an area the size of Maryland and Delaware. That third is pretty much plains and the other two thirds are a different story.

Outside the urban third...

Taitung Coast, Taiwan

You'll find mountains nearly 12,000 ft. tall, hot springs and some nice beaches in the very south and on the beautiful east coast of Taiwan.

Incredible fruit

You'll find a wonderful selection of exotic fresh fruit here. Dragon fruit, lee chi, wax apple, longyan, guava, mango, papaya, and many more wonderful fruits.

Vegetarian friendly

If you're a vegetarian then you might like it here best. You'll find many vegetarian restaurants that cater to Taiwan's large Buddhist population. There's no meat here, although you will find many things that look like it.

There's no garlic or onions neither, and the food is still quite tasty. I'd say that it's the best place for vegetarians in Asia.

Scooters in Taipei during rush hour

It's polluted

This is the downer about Taiwan.

The western plains of Taiwan are pretty densely populated and all these people contribute to pollution which is mainly because there are millions of scooters in Taiwan.

They are convenient and fun to own, but unfortunately many are two strokes and contribute greatly to air and noise pollution.

They say it's friendly

Taiwan actually could be more friendly to outsiders compared to a place like Korea or Japan. It's a pretty welcoming place, but to be honest I definitely had moments where I didn't think so and that's just part of the cultural experience.


I remember soon after I arrived, there was one night when I was out looking for a laundromat.

I happened to bump into a group of teenage girls on the street and I asked them where I could find a laundromat. They said there wasn't one around and then one of them said she could help.

She took my laundry home to her house to wash and then brought it back.

How's that for friendliness?

As a foreigner you'll definitely get some special treatment at times and then at other times not so much.

Great intercity buses

If you go to Taiwan make sure you try the green Free Go bus. You can travel between cities in Taiwan on a bus with large comfortable chairs while watching movies.

It's very nice! And it's cheap too.

A teacher in Taiwan talks: language, relationships, money, food & difficulties

Here's an interview with my friend Dale in Taichung, Taiwan.


My Experience

Taiwan was the first place that I went to in Asia. I lived there for two+ years. I like Taiwan and I have some good memories from there. I found people to be pretty friendly.

What got to me there was all the noise and pollution mainly from scooters.

If I was to go back I would go to either Taipei or somewhere on the beautiful east coast.

I first lived in Taichung and then later moved to Tainan. Taichung is the 3rd largest city and kinda like a mini version of Taipei.

Tainan is a bit different. It's the 4th largest city. It's less cosmopoliton than Taichung, more laidback and historical. I probably preferred that to Taichung.

Who & where I taught

I taught mostly kids. I taught in kindergartens and buxibans. I also did some subbing at a lot of different schools which included adults and even at a public high school and an elementary school.

My bosses were o.k. They paid on time. One was a bit dodgy and was deducting tax money, but not paying into my refund. Come tax season my new employer helped me get it back.

My other boss was a single woman who owned a small cram school in Koahsiung county.

The teaching scene in Taiwan

  • Requirements: Usually a 4 year degree & native English speaker, some schools may prefer experience, teaching licenses, TEFL certification, etc.
  • Average Salary: $NT600 an hour/$NT50,000-60,000+ ($1,550-1,900) a month
  • Cost of Living: Medium, similar to Korea
  • Housing: Not free or usually included
  • Teaching hours: 15-25 a week 
  • Airfare: No
    *These are just averages expect differences between institutions

Related articles

Things You Probably Didn't Know About Teaching English In Asia, But Should Know

How to Say ‘Cold’ in Korean

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Brrr… The winter is here and, depending on where on the globe you live in, it is likely getting very cold. If you’ve been to Korea during winter yet, then you’ll know the temperatures might not go down so low, but the wind will definitely be brutal enough to make you feel cold. You know you’ll want to know how to say ‘cold’ in Korean so that you could tell your Korean friends just how you feel about the weather.


*Ready to learn Korean yet? Click here to learn about our 90 Day Korean learning program!


‘Cold’ in Korean


As with ‘hot’ there are two primary words for how to say ‘cold’ in Korean. If we are talking about the temperature, whether it’s the weather outside or just your body being cold, most often the verb to use is 춥다 (chubda).

The descriptive verb 차갑다 (chagabda) also means ‘cold’. However, you would not use it to describe the weather, for example, besides describing the wind as ‘cold’ or ‘chilly’. Instead, you would use it to describe the temperature of your food or drink, as well as someone’s personality.

Other words you can use to describe cold weather are 싸늘하다 (ssaneulhada) and 냉랭하다 (naengnaenghada). They may be great additions to vocabulary with which you can truly impress your Korean friends with your Korean knowledge. However, keep in mind that these words are much rarer to see in use and usually even Koreans stick to simply 춥다 and 차갑다.


A word of caution about Romanization

While it is possible for you to study the words in this article simply by reading their romanized versions, it will come in handy for you to be able to read Hangeul if you ever wish to come to Korea. Hangeul is the Korean alphabet, and not difficult to learn. In fact, you can learn it in just 90 minutes.

After you’ve familiarized yourself with Hangeul, life in Korea will suddenly seem so much easier and the country won’t appear so foreign for you. So, if you’re serious about learning Korean, why not learn Hangeul today?


Sample Sentences


오늘부터 날씨가 추워진대요. (oneulbuteo nalssiga chuweojindaeyo.)

They said the weather will be colder as of today.


그녀는 차가워 보였어요. (geunyeoneun chagaweo boyeosseoyeo.)

She has an icy look to her.


왜 제 질문을 이렇게 차갑게 대답했어요? (wae je jilmuneul ireohge chagabke daedabhaesseoyo?)

Why did you answer my question so coldly?



오늘 되게 춥지 않아? (oneul dwege chubji anha?)

Isn’t it really cold today?


차가운 바람이 불어서 추워. (chagaun barami bureoseo chuweo.)

It’s cold because of the cold wind.


그이 손은 차가워. (geue soneun chagaweo.)

His hands are cold.


What do you usually do when it’s cold in Korea? Do you have a favorite Korean winter food or activity? Let us know in the comments how you enjoy it when it’s cold in Korea!


*Want more Korean phrases? Go to our Korean Phrases Page for a complete list!


Photo Credit: BigStockPhoto


The post How to Say ‘Cold’ in Korean appeared first on 90 Day Korean.

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How to Get A Job Teaching English In Taiwan

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So you are thinking about teaching English in Taiwan and you are wondering how to get a job? If that is correct then you are in the right place.

I spent 2 years teaching English in Taiwan (Tainan and Taichung). I'll give you a brief overview of the scene there and then tell you about a couple of different ways on how you can do this.

Hualian, Taiwan coast

Here's a quick overview of the scene teaching in Taiwan

  • Requirements: 4 year degree & native English speaker, some schools may prefer experience, teaching licenses, TEFL certification, etc.
  • Job Market: O.K.
  • Average Salary: $NT600 an hour/$NT50,000-60,000+ ($1,550-1,900) a month
  • Cost of Living: Medium, similar to Korea
  • Housing: Not free or usually included
  • Teaching hours: 15-25 a week 
  • Airfare: No
    *These are averages expect differences between institutions

What kind of school will you work in?

  • Buxiban (cram school)
  • Public school or university

Most teachers will work in buxibans. These are usually after school private insitutes that offer classes.

To teach in a public school in Taiwan you usually need to have a teaching license. To teach in a university you usually need to have a master's degree.

Your 2 options for how to find a job teaching English in Taiwan

  1. Try to find a job online before you go
  2. Go there and look

1. Find a job in Taiwan online before you go [Not what I recommend]

I guess some people do it this way, yet I don't really recommend it. It might work out fine for you, however in my years teaching in Taiwan I learned some things about the schools that do hire from abroad.

They usually have these things in common:

  • In off-the-beaten path places
  • May offer some accommodation
  • Are through recruiters
  • Lower pay

It's not that they are necessarily bad, but...

I have applied to a few different jobs in Taiwan that hired from abroad and have seen a quite a few job posts for these kinds of positions.

This is really not the way most people do it in Taiwan, but if you do your research on the school then you may have a good experience with it.

I can't recall seeing a job post like this in a big city.

All of them that I have seen like this are in smaller more rural locations. I think that's because fewer teachers want to work in those places, so they look for teachers who are abroad.

Quite a few of them I have seen like this offered accommodation too. I have actually interviewed and seen a few jobs like this when I was in Taiwan. It was nothing special and it was just a single room most of the time. Sometimes it might be free and others they may charge you for it.

I don't like recruiters, so I just tend to stay away from them. They'll pretty much just give you the run around and it's just better to deal directly with the school rather than going through a middle man.

Where to look?

  • ESLcafe occasionally has a few jobs posted from Taiwan where schools will hire from abroad.
  • Google it which will likely bring up some recruiter sites.

2. Go to Taiwan and look for a job [What I recommend]

Most people go to Taiwan to find work. That's the way I did it and everyone else I knew there did it. Prior to going I did interview with a school there that would of hired me from abroad. But I still would of showed up on a tourist visa and done all the visa stuff there.

Only a few schools hire foreigners outside of Taiwan. That means your chances of finding a job from home are way lower than if you were there.

Where to look?

  • Tealit is probably the best place to look. Keep in mind most schools will ignore you if you apply and are not in Taiwan.

Things you'll need to teach in Taiwan to get a visa

Here is a list of requirements for teaching in Taiwan that you may need:

  • 4 Year Degree - Some schools will accept a 2 year degree with a TEFL/TESOL certificate
  • Passport Photos
  • Background Check - I never had to do this or even heard of friends doing this. But recently things may have changed in regards to this and it may be a new requirement.

Option 1:

You could just show up without a visa and get a 3 month visa free entry. After you find a job you'll have to leave Taiwan and go to Hong Kong (the closest place for a visa run) and apply for a new visa.

Three months is plenty long to find a job and after you find a job it can take up to a month to process the visa and then you will have to do a visa run. I wouldn't stress about this now. Your employer will tell you what you need to do.

I would do this instead of option 2. Back when I taught in Taiwan they only gave a month long landing visa, but they changed that in recent years. This is much better.

Read more about this topic at forumosa.

Option 2:

You could apply for a two month or more multiple entry tourist visa that's extendable. They do cost money. Then fly to Taiwan to find work. But don't tell them that you are flying there to find work. Just say that you are going there to travel and/or use Taiwan as a hub while you travel around Asia. Or to visit friends (although they may ask for numbers). 

I now recommend option 1 or 3 if you want to study.

Option 3:

Sign up for Chinese classes and study two hours a day to get a student visa. This can be good as you won't be dependent on an employer to get a work visa. This method will also work with the other countries.

There can be a minimum amount of study hours that you will need to get a visa. The article on teaching without a degree also goes into detail on this.

Related articles:

More on visas in Taiwan:

Korea 2017 Year in Review: The Presidential Impeachment was Actually the Biggest Story

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Image result for korea 2017 impeachment

This is a local rep-post of a piece I just wrote for the Lowy Institute. I like these sort of retrospective, end-of-the-year pieces.

Basically I argue that the impeachment of former President Park Geun Hye was the biggest story of the year. Yes, Trump sucks up all the oxygen in the room, but who even knows if he means all his threats? But completing a full impeachment cycle is a pretty rare event in the history of democracy. And the Koreans did it with no violence or civic rupture. That is pretty impressive. But yes, I did then list North Korea and Trump as otherwise the big stories of the year.

The full essay follows the jump:

2017 was a rollercoaster year on the Korean peninsula. The South Koreans impeached their president. The North Koreans tested dozens of rockets, including intercontinental ballistic missiles. The American president threatened war repeatedly, possible nuclear war, against the North. And some random dorky foreigner in Korea got famous, because his cute little kids wandered into the frame while he was on TV. Honestly, why didn’t they fire that guy? It was quite a year.

For all the bluster and threats of war, I would nonetheless rate the impeachment of the South Korean president as the most important event. North Korean war scares are, as disturbing as it is to say it, pretty common, while a completed democratic impeachment is actually quite rare.

1. The Impeachment of South Korean President Park Geun-Hye

With several months of distance from the upheaval of the winter protests against Park, the impeachment trial, the new election, and all the attendant drama, it is now pretty clear that Park Geun-Hye’s circle was grossly corrupt, and that she, by extension, did not really deserve to remain in office. There are diehards who are convinced it was a ‘communist’ conspiracy. The South Korean right is disturbingly comfortable with mccarthyite attacks on liberal opponents, and there is an Alex Jones-style conspiracy fringe here. But it is otherwise pretty widely accepted that Park’s confidant, Choi Soon-Sil, grossly abused her access to the president and had far too much influence over Park.

Choi was often compared to Rasputin. Choi’s father had a quasi-religious influence over Park since her youth, and Choi seemed to ‘inherit’ that. Choi in turn abused it, particularly on Park’s ascension to the presidency, enriching both herself and her cronies. It was undeniable sleazy and embarrassing, and as more and more details came out, Park’s approval rating fell to an astonishing 6% at one point. Has any chief executive in a modern democracy ever fallen that low?

There is much debate about whether Park herself knew about all the corruption. But like Ronald Reagan’s ignorance defense during the Iran-Contra affair, this too represents a gross dereliction of duty. President Park was either blithely unaware of what was happening right under her nose among her closest companions and staff, or covered it up, Nixon-style.

Eight months out now from all the controversy, my own sense is the former, while most of the Koreans I know seem to think the former. Park, it strikes me, was more incompetent than dastardly. Her behavior throughout her presidency suggested she was constantly overwhelmed by the scope of her office. On missile defense, North Korea policy, or the sinking of the Sewol ferry, she was adrift, and the rumors from her staff regarding her (low) intelligence were harsh. We will likely never know.

2. North Korean Missile Tests.

North Korea conducted twenty separate missile provocations in 2017, involving dozens of missiles, from short-range Scud-style launches to full-blown ICBMs designed to strike the continental United States. This was the fastest test tempo ever. For all Donald Trump’s pettiness, his ‘rocket man’ nickname for Kim Jong Un is not wrong.

One of these tests overflew Japan, prompting the commencement of civil air defense drills. (Although in a society whose median age is 47, they likely will not work well given the 8 minute warning time the Japanese will have.) Others have sought to demonstrate a capability to strike the United States. November 29’s test seems to have been accepted as that breakthrough.

Much of the debate over the weapons turns on whether the North intends to use them offensively. It is widely accepted that nuclear weapons give North Korea a potent shield against US-led regime-change against Pyongyang. After the Western removals of Saddam Hussein, Slobodan Milosevic, and Moammar Kadaffi, that is an understandable goal, however regrettable for us. There is a defense and deterrence logic here which all can grasp.

We may dislike it, but it is in fact quite rational for a state like North Korea to pursue these weapons. It is poor and backward. It is loathed by much of the world as a freakish cold war relic. It is surrounded by enemies, or frenemies like China eager to exploit it instrumentally, but it has no real friends. When international relations theorist Ken Waltz spoke of ‘internal balancing,’ North Korean nuking up against such a tough neighborhood despite its poverty is exactly what he had in mind. Friendless, encircled, dysfunctional, and poor, North Korea is, in Victor Cha’s words, the ‘impossible state.’ In such circumstances, nuclear weapons are in fact an excellent choice. Not only for security, but they can be proliferated for cash and used as gangsterish shake-down instruments as well.

Hawkish fears of North Korean aggression in the vein of the old saw that ‘nuclear weapons make the world safe for World War II’ strike me as over-wrought. Even if North Korea could successfully ‘de-couple’ the US from South Korea, it could likely still not defeat South Korea. The terrible health of that recent defector, who was a relatively privileged border card, is suggestive. And even if the North somehow managed to win, it would struggle enormously to occupy and integrate a modern state of free people twice its size into its ossified framework.

3. Trump’s Fire and Fury

Throughout the year, Trump’s erratic and explosive commentary raised tension in ways not seen before. No previous American president had ever threatened to ‘totally destroy North Korea’ or threw around casual war threats – the ‘armada, ‘fire and fury.’ Trump, in his impatience to distinguish himself from his predecessor, claimed ‘strategic patience’ to be over. All this created a momentum to strike North Korea – enough that South Korean President Moon Jae-In felt it necessary to publicly declare to the National Assembly, just days before Trump’s arrival, that no war could take place against North Korea with the South’s assent.

And curiously, Trump blinked. When he also spoke to the National Assembly, he forsook the best chance he had to lay out a case for war to the South Korean government and public. Instead he fell back on bromides about South Korea’s self-evident moral superiority and the need for ‘maximum pressure.’ In fact, there is little difference between that and strategic patience – alliances, deterrence and defense, missile defense, sanctions, etc. Similarly, after the November 29 ICBM test in which North Korea triumphantly declared it could strike the US, Trump said little more than ‘we’ll take care of it,’ likely because he know realizes that no one believes his bizarre threats anymore and that war in the region would be a catastrophe laid at his feet.

South Korea came through these multiple challenges remarkably well. It completed a full impeachment cycle without violence or civil upheaval. Few democracies have ever done that. It similarly held the line on the North’s bullying despite a new liberal president whom conservatives relentlessly criticize as too dovish. And for all the anxiety about Donald Trump’s warmongering – or it just reality TV star blather? – the US president finally seems to have realized what South Koreans and the analyst community have known for years: There is no obvious solution to North Korea; if there were, it would have been tried long ago; and war is a terrible option. Now if only they could find a way get rid of that hack BBC Dad guy…

Filed under: Korea (North), Korea (South), Lowy Institute, Nuclear Weapons, Trump

Robert E Kelly
Assistant Professor
Department of Political Science & Diplomacy
Pusan National University




Korean Test Practice with Billy [Ep. 9] – Intermediate Korean (Listening Practice)

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Are you preparing for the TOPIK test, a government Korean test, or a Korean test at school? Then let me help you prepare with my video series focused on Korean test questions and explanations.

This episode will cover an example of an intermediate level listening question. More episodes to come soon!

And feel free to send me requests for videos you'd like to see. There are also higher request priorities through my Patreon page. Thanks for watching~!

Don't read below if  you want to try the problem on your own first.

Here is the listening example from the video:

안녕하세요? 처음으로 뵙네요. 저는 김유라라고 해요. 15학번 과대표를 맡고 있어요. 이쪽은 17학번 과대표 민정이에요. 16학번 과대표는 지금 수업을 들으러 가서 없네요. 한국은 처음이죠? 학교생활하면서 모르는 것이 있거나 도움이 필요하면 언제든 연락하세요. 앞으로 일 년간 잘 지내봐요.

Here's the English translation:

“Hello. Nice to meet you. My name is Kim Yu-ra. I’m representing class 15. Over here is the class 17 representative, Min-jeong. The class 16 representative now went to class and isn’t here. It’s your first time in Korea, right? If there’s anything you don’t know relating to student life, or if you need any help, contact me anytime. Enjoy the year ahead.”

The post Korean Test Practice with Billy [Ep. 9] – Intermediate Korean (Listening Practice) appeared first on Learn Korean with GO! Billy Korean.

How to Say ‘Umbrella’ in Korean

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Oh no, it’s raining outside today! Maybe you’d like to tell your friend to remember to bring an umbrella? Or perhaps you were caught in the rain and are now browsing a store, finding the need to ask the cashier where the umbrellas are? Possibly you already know how to say ‘umbrella’ in Korean but are looking to learn how to describe a parasol?

If you’re hoping to learn how to say ‘umbrella’ in Korean, or any of the equivalent words, then you’re in luck because this is what today’s lesson is all about!

*Ready to learn Korean yet? Click here to learn about our 90 Day Korean learning program!

‘Umbrella’ in Korean

beach umbrella

How to say ‘umbrella’ in Korean? The answer is a simple 우산 (usan). If you want to say you are opening an umbrella, the basic form to use is 우산을 펴다 (usaneul phyeoda). If you want to say you are closing an umbrella, the basic form to use is 우산을 접다 (usaneul jeobda). If you want to say you are using an umbrella, the basic form to use is 우산을 쓰다 (usaneul sseuda).


Now, what about ‘parasol’ in Korean? If you want to take the easy way, then you can simply use 파라솔 (parasol). However, if you want to show off your great Korean skills a bit more, you might want to instead use the word 양산 (yangsan), though please note that a little bit of Konglish in this situation will do you no harm. Similarly to a regular umbrella, if you want to say you are closing a parasol, the basic form to use is 파라솔 접다. However, if you want to say that you are putting up the parasol, the form you are looking for is 파라솔을 치다 (parasoreul chida). However, in the same instance, you can also use 양산을 펴다 (yangsaneul phyeoda). Note that parasol also equals to beach umbrella in Korean.


A word of caution about Romanization

While it is possible for you to study the words in this article simply by reading their romanized versions, it will come in handy for you to be able to read Hangeul if you ever wish to come to Korea. Hangeul is the Korean alphabet, and not difficult to learn. In fact, you can learn it in just 90 minutes.


After you’ve familiarized yourself with Hangeul, life in Korea will suddenly seem so much easier and the country won’t appear so foreign for you. So, if you’re serious about learning Korean, why not learn Hangeul today?


Sample Sentences

colorful umbrellas


우산을 집에 두고 왔어요 (usaneul jibe dugo wasseoyo)

I left my umbrella at home.



오늘 비가 올거라서 꼭 우산을 챙겨 나와! (oneul biga olgeoraso kkok usaneul chaengyeo nawa!)

They said it would rain today, so don’t forget to take your umbrella before leaving home!


내 칵테일은 귀여운 파라솔로 장식되었어 (nae kakteireun gwiyeoun parasollo jangshikdwaeeosseo)

My cocktail was decorated with a cute parasol


Now that you know how to say “umbrella” you don’t have to worry about getting drenched in the rain! Are there words you’re wondering how to say in Korean? Let us know in the comments below what word you’d like us to cover next! Maybe we’ll cover your request in our next post.


*Want more Korean phrases? Go to our Korean Phrases Page for a complete list!


Photo Credit: BigStockPhoto


The post How to Say ‘Umbrella’ in Korean appeared first on 90 Day Korean.

Riding El Chepe: Part 3

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Back on the Train

As the train pulled out of Bahuichivo, memories of the past several days flashed before me: the boozy, musical afternoon in the El Fuerte cantina; the enchanting train ride into the mountains; the close shave with death on the narrow road; the splendid chaos and grandeur of Urique and the canyon it calls home. All of it added up to a heady string of hours, the kind of travel I hadn’t properly tasted for years now.

By my standards this was to be a short trip — just a week — so I was wringing it out for all it was worth. Perhaps the time limitation forced me jump into things head first and do my best to truly live in the moment. What I do know is that most everything that had transpired since I stepped off the bus in Los Mochis only reaffirmed why I do this — why I find this kind of travel so intoxicating. I’ve found few other avenues that come close to charging me with such an electrifying sense of freedom.

El Chepe weaved through the highlands now, a world of pines, small farms, and white rock formations approaching the psychedelic. It was a bright, sun-soaked land of big sky and blooming clouds. Again, I was reminded of the American West, before chiding myself on the worthlessness of such comparisons. The land itself was the same on either side of the border; it will always be indifferent to those very temporary, large lines drawn up by small men. A magnificent stone spire doesn’t give a damn about the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo and it never will.

One of the more thrilling parts of the trip took place when we passed the El Chepe train heading the opposite direction. There are only two trains each day — one heading east from Los Mochis, and one heading west from Chihuahua. The moment the two meet is cause for celebration for the passengers and crew on both sides. I leaned out between two of the cars and cheered, and was met with smiles and fanfare from people on the sister train. It was a very simple, childlike moment of recognition, of saying, Hey, we’re all doing this same thing and it’s a hell of a lot of fun.

El Chepe, meet El Chepe

After a couple of hours, the train pulled into the stop known as El Divisadero. This popular viewing and access point sits atop the rim of the canyon and is home to a cluster of luxury hotels, along with a ramshackle track side complex of handicraft and food stalls. One look and whiff had my mouth gushing, despite the fact that I had bought and taken down three excellent tamales during the ride there. I just couldn’t resist the pull of freshly prepared fare offered up by local women from humble little food stands.

Photo by Matt Nager

We were now in Tarahumara Indian country, and all of these women were natives, dressed in colorful shirts, headscarves, and long skirts. The smoky aroma of frying meat hung in the air, underscored by the constant sizzle of the pans. One stall caught my eye, and I soon walked away with two thick flour cakes — gorditas — over which the woman heaped fat little piles of pork cooked up with loads of onions, spices, and red chilli peppers. I spooned on two kinds of salsa and tucked into these juicy, hot, delectable treats, eating just for eating’s sake. The fact that I wasn’t even hungry never entered into it. This was a chance to experience a native take on Mexican street food, and there just was no way I wasn’t getting down.

Afraid that the train would pull away, I hurried back aboard, where I sat for another 15 minutes. El Chepe makes a 20-minute stop at El Divisadero to give passengers a chance to visit the viewpoint that looks out over the expanse of canyon. This fact must have sailed past my ears (or cerebral Spanish comprehension center) when they announced it as we pulled in. I somehow didn’t get the memo and missed out the big photo op and vista, but those gorditas were so damned good that I didn’t care.

A Town with No Bars

I jumped off El Chepe in the town of Creel, which serves as the tourist base camp for the whole Copper Canyon region. It’s full of hotels, restaurants, and companies that book excursions in or around the surrounding canyon land. After a few days in the hinterlands, I felt firmly back in the realm of civilization.

I really had no idea where to stay, so I threw my fate into the hand of a hotel tout who greeted me when I walked off the train. I’ve dealt the touts and hawkers throughout my travels and have learned how to ignore or avoid them accordingly, but sometimes they come in use. If you need a place to stay and guy working with a hotel promises to bring to you a decent place to stay, it’s not always a bad idea to take him up on the offer. Most hotel touts aren’t there to rip you off; they’re just trying to get their cut while hooking up the proprietor with guests.

His name was Oscar, and he led me to a more-than-acceptable hotel for a price that seemed fair. I got a fully-outfitted, clean, warm room (Creel is a high elevation town, and it was late October and cold), and he got his commission. This is what scientists call “win-win.”

I hadn’t hit a proper boozer since El Fuerte, and after talking to my wife and grabbing a couple of quick tacos, I figured that I was overdue for some cantina time. My trip was winding down and I longed for the drunken polka-beat and according squeal of Norteño music washed down with proper Mexican lager.

I asked Oscar about any bars, and he told me there was a joint on the town’s main drag, but numerous trips up and down the strip revealed nothing. Eventually, I came across the place he was presumably talking about, but the lights were off, and a padlocked iron gate stood in front of the door.

Undeterred, I continued my march through the streets of Creel, but my recon proved fruitless. I just couldn’t locate a cantina, and the temperature was dropping. It was now see-your-breath cold, and the only real warm-weather clothes I packed were a padded vest and a long-sleeved thermal shirt. My teeth were chattering and I was assed out from a long day of travel, so I picked up a couple of Tecate tall boys from the shop, trekked back to my hotel room, and sipped cerveza while I read a fantasy novel on my Kindle beneath a positive avalanche of blankets.


Most people who’ve haven’t visited Copper Canyon have never heard of Creel, but this all changed August 16th, 2008, when the town became another infamous entry in the tragic history of the Mexican drug war. A heavily armed gang in three SUV’s pulled up to a group of locals as they talked on the street, got out, and opened fire. By the end, 13 people lay dead, including a baby boy. It was cold-blooded killing, straight up.

The next morning I got up, tracked down a decent cup of coffee, and walked around the layout of the town in an attempt to get my bearings. Soon I came across a large compound housing a high school, and behind it, a massive white mural.

What was once an empty lot had been transformed into a simple memorial for the 13 victims. A plaque listed their names, and statue of a woman reaching into the sky with two children at her side, stood on a pedestal up front. But it was the mural itself that delivered the deepest impact. The 13 faces were painted onto the white wall with photographic detail. It seemed to me a simple, yet very effective way to keep their memory alive.

This was as close as I got to seeing any of the drug war violence during my week in the country. It was sobering to take in those faces, knowing that these were just a few of the tens and thousands of people murdered by the sicarios of the cartels. The tendrils of violence had reached all corners of Mexico, though it was the northern states — especially Chihuahua — that had been hardest hit. In fact, just two years later, sleepy Creel would see even more violence, when another cartel gang rolled into town, broke into a home, and slaughtered 9 members of the same family, including their 14-year-old daughter.

Despite the fact that I never once felt unsafe during my whirlwind visit, the killing continues in Mexico, unabated. 2017 has been the worst year yet, with over 18,000 people murdered. That is an insane number to try to wrap your head around, the kind of body count racked up by conventional warfare. When confronted with such grim statistics, it’s no wonder so many tourists are giving the country a skip.

Despite the grimness of my morning pilgrimage, I was determined to see more of the place, so I rented a mountain bike and headed out to explore a nearby Tarahumara settlement and country around it.

The road out of town was thankfully free of traffic. I peddled under a brilliant high country sky with gnarled, layered rises of rock and pine expanses on either side. Clouds floated by like fat sailing ships, and an intermittent breeze sliced through the insulation of my vest, reminding me of the elevation.

It had been years since I’d hopped on the back of a bike and just it felt good to move my body after several days sitting in busses, vans, and trains. Soon I was at the gatehouse for the settlement, and after paying a toll of 25 pesos, I peddled on over the dirt track leading in.

My first stop was the San Ignacio, a 17th-century Jesuit mission with a big white cross carved out of stone in front. A few local women in colorful clothing stood nearby, selling necklaces, bracelets, and little dolls. It was a cool old building, but like temples in Asia, I have a hard time getting excited about churches, so after a quick peek inside I jumped back on the bike headed out, just as a van full of Mexican tourists arrived.


I really had no idea what to expect when I rode out to this settlement, other than open space and fresh air. I quickly learned however, that this area was famous for the beautiful and bizarre rock formations that popped up around the landscape. Each one went by the name “valley:” The Valley of the Frogs (Las Ranas), The Valley of the Mushrooms (Los Hongos), The Valley of the Monks (Los Monjes), and my favorite, The Valley of the Titties (Las Chichis). These were impressive and very trippy stands of stone that more than often clearly resembled their namesakes. Taking these in reminded me of my younger days, when I’d head into out into the open country with a few friends, where we’d attempt to enter new realms with the aid of some particular compounds. This piece of land was perfectly designed for such vision quests, a kind of natural psychedelic theme park.


When I left Creel, the clouds appeared fluffy and harmless, but after an hour of peddling through Indian country a much larger, menacing cloud took shape. It began to pelt the area with bursts of frigid rain, which would ease up, and then return with a stubborn intensity.

For a while I took cover in a nook carved out form the rock underneath a great pine. From there I watched the world pass by in what seemed like quarter time. A farmer worked his field, while his two bristly dogs paced the perimeter of his little field and barked my way. A couple of pickups, one packed with what must have been fifteen locals, rolled by, and three women scurried along the road in hopes to get out of the unpredictable precipitation.

The dark cloud refused to blow over. Instead it just parked its stubborn ass over the land and unleashed its wet payload in waves. Sensing a lull, I jumped back on the bike and blazed out in search of a local lake on my crude, hand-drawn map, which I hoped would be out of rain range. After an hour of grinding trail riding, I managed to locate it, only to discover that my back tire was nearly flat.

Once I got the bike back out to the sealed, main road, there was no air left in the tire. It was dead flat, so I had no choice but to push the bike all the way into town. This, however, turned out to be one of the most pleasant legs of this day’s journey. The rain let up, allowing me to savor a walk along an empty road through stunning quiet, stunning country, reminding me that no form of transit beats my own two feet.

As soon as I got back to Creel, turned in my bike, and retired to my room for a late afternoon nap, the cloud — which had been growing in size and darkness for hours now — let loose an icy, thundering deluge that pummelled the town and drenched the landscape. As the drops exploded on the roof of my hotel, I was serenade into an inky, syrupy sleep.

Creel after the rain


The last leg of the eastbound El Chepe is said to be its least scenic. After Creel, the train descends onto a flat expanse of high plains that offers up little for the eye or camera. As a result, many travelers elect to take the bus instead, which saves both time and money.

I opted for this choice, and after a few hours found myself on the outskirts of Chihuahua City, the financial and political center of Mexico’s largest state. This was to be my last stop before the long slog back to Phoenix.

Chihuahua stretched through this flat range of scrubland with a few little mountains rising stark from the clusters of pink, green, and white buildings that made up the neighborhoods of the town. A couple of high-rises — nods at skyscrapers — poked up from the general sprawl, reminding us that this is a place of commerce — the center of ranching, mining, and agriculture in this vast, rugged part of Mexico blessed with resources galore.

The bus deposited me in a corner of town far from everything, it seemed, but a very friendly taxi driver ferried me into the city center, where I decided to spend the night. Like several Mexicans I met, he had lived in the U.S. for some years, but was now glad to be home.

This is a great misconception that a lot of people from the U.S. have towards our southern neighbors. Because of the flow of immigration, a lot of us assume that most Mexicans are desperate to cross the Rio Grande or the Sonoran Desert in order to make a new life in the great, big, shiny U.S.A. While this may be true for some of the poorest, most Mexicans that I met who have lived in both places actually prefer life south of the border — where things are still more centered around family, friends and a kind of happiness that can’t be found chasing material gain. And despite widespread poverty, Mexico has a very large, thriving middle class — one that, for the most part, is very happy just where it is.

Chihuahua City

As I walked the streets of downtown Chihuahua, I got the sense that the place didn’t draw too many international tourists. Still, I liked it a lot. It had the clean, well-ordered look of a regional capital. Government workers in business attire and lanyards walked down the uncluttered sidewalks, carrying briefcases and paper cups of coffee. The city’s plaza was home to a huge, centuries-old church, while nearby the tricolor of a gargantuan Mexican flag flapped in the high desert breeze from atop a towering pole.

I also noticed scores of young people walking the streets wearing black jeans, band t-shirts, and black leather boots. Some had pink, red, or green dyed streaks in their hair. Many of them sported eyeliner and visible tattoos. As I came around one corner, I saw what most have been a hundred of them lined up at a bank. My only guess was that they were buying concert tickets. What else could explain a snaking afternoon queue of emo kids and goths?

Now I had known for some time that Mexico is home to a sizeable subset of young people into darker music. Bands such as Depeche Mode play sold out soccer stadiums both in Mexico and all over South America. Perhaps this is a nod to their Day of the Dead traditions — who knows — but for some reason this subculture caught fire south of the border, especially among the middle class kids who have the luxury of chasing such trends in fashion and music. I had always been curious about this phenomenon, and it was interesting to see a gathering of this scene’s adherents up close.

Northern Mexico is serious cowboy country, and downtown Chihuahua is the place for all of your vaquero outfitting needs. I came across three city blocks packed with stores selling hats, boots, shirts, chaps, even saddle and tack. It was like cowboy Costco, with ranchero music blaring out from each shop.

I needed a room for the night, and while I thought about splurging for something nice, I realized that I would probably be spending very little actual non-sleeping time there. In the end settled for a bare-bones $20 affair that looked like a very good place to bring a hooker of the same price.

The only mistress I’d be meeting that evening was one so familiar to me: beer. So, I located the bar closest to my hovel and walked through the door.

It was called El Tradicional Cocina/Cantina, and while I found it more than sufficient, the only thing “traditional” about the place was its name. It was a kind of shrine American sports; the walls were completely decked out in pics and memorabilia from MLB, NFL, and NBA. The clientele was mainly middle-class, educated guys who worked for the government, and spoke decent English. I stayed there for several hours, watching football and baseball at same time on two separate TV’s, chatting with the friendly locals, while washing down the evening with bottles of Indio beer and a couple, well places shots of Don Julio, which I sipped, of course.

After a late-night meal of tacos al pastor straight off the kabob rotisserie (tacos as we know them are said to come from Syrian immigrants to northern Mexico), I decided to get one, final nightcap. As I wandered the streets of the city center, I heard music flowing up from a side street. A young man sat playing guitar and singing in front of a small restaurant/bar. A number of tables were set up outside, with customers drinking and listening to the tunes. I pulled up a chair and soaked it in, happy to spend my last night in Mexico as I had my first.

As I sipped my beer and basked in the overwhelming romance of it all, I noticed young woman waving me over to her table, where she sat with two male friends.

I joined them an immediately bought a round of beers, for which they were grateful. From one look I could tell that they were twenty-something bohemians and probably light in the wallet. I know, as I had lived it.

I was right, the girl’s name was Rubi, and she was an aspiring theater actress.

“You looked so miserable, over there, alone,” she said, in fluent English.

“I’m actually very happy,” I said, smiling. “It’s been a hell of a trip.”

Her friends were Adan and Ivan. Adan was a musician, while Ivan, resplendent in his long black hair and Che Guevara beard, was a painter.

Rubi had lived in the USA, but it wasn’t a great experience.

“Where were you?” I asked

“Oklahoma. For two years.”

“Oh, dear.”

“Yeah, it was terrible. Every day the racist kids at my high school called me ‘wetback’ and ‘spic.’

It crushed my heart to hear this, especially after the kindness and beauty of spirit shown to me by her countrymen. All I could do was apologize for her mistreatment by my fellow “Americans.”

Pendejos,” I spat. “Lo siento.”

I tried to assure them that her view of the States may change if she were to visit a more enlightened pocket of the country. But who knows? The ascendance of Trump has brought out this nasty hairball of anti-Mexican bigotry all throughout the country. Could I guarantee that she would be immune from such abuse in so-called liberal enclaves as San Francisco or Seattle?

What I can say is that the three of them were very happy to hear of my adventure, especially the fact that I was ending it in their city. As the music reverberated along the walls of the alley, Rubi said:

“You say you are a writer? Then write about this. Tell people about Chihuahua. Tell them how lovely it is. And, please, tell them to come.”

What could I do, but smile, nod, and order another round?

Chihuahua at sunset

Riding El Chepe: Part 2

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Into the Canyon

I jumped off of El Chepe at the town of Bahuichivo — a picturesque hamlet nestled among the mountain pines — and immediately came across three white women carrying big packs. They had been in my train car, and from the sound of their language, I pinpointed them as Dutch. Years of meeting travelers in Southeast Asia had attuned my ear when it came to picking out accents and languages, and Dutch was one of those that I just knew right away.

There were also heading to Urique, so we boarded the dusty white minivan going there and rolled out of town. Our driver was a thin young guy with a soccer player’s fauxhawk and thick eyebrows that threatened to meet in the middle. He immediately slammed the gas and began screaming down a narrow road replete with cracks, ruts, and potholes — not to mention dogs, cows, and chickens aplenty. Two of the Dutch women (one blond, one dark-haired) immediately piped up with calls for him to slow down: “¡Tranquilo! ¡Tranquilo!” they cried. The one in the dark hair then went on to explain in emphatic Spanish, that she had been in a car wreck just a couple of months before due to speeding. Laughing nervously, our driver smiled, nodded, and just barely let off the gas.

We soon pulled off into a kind of mountain depot with a couple of school busses parked outside. This is a common sight in Mexico, since they routinely buy old American school busses and reuse them for public transportation. A dozen or so locals milled about in front, while a tough-looking woman in jeans and a ponytail (who had been riding shotgun with us) got out, slid open the passenger door, and informed us in military-sounding Spanish that we’d now be transferring to a very shitty looking school bus sitting next to the van. The thing was covered in dirt and grime and most every window had at least one major crack. We could see a number of locals sitting inside its dark cavity.

Now all of us had agreed to pay 230 pesos (around $15) for the two-hour ride, which, while not exactly a king’s ransom, wasn’t exactly a bargain, either. We knew we were being charged the “gringo price,” which didn’t bother me so much, as I think double-tiered pricing in parts of the world where people are seriously poor is just fine. What bothered me — and the Dutch trio — was that they were changing up vehicles on us. We were initially led to believe we’d get to ride to Urique in a private van, but now we were being foisted off onto a filthy bus that looked like it was held together with glue and baling wire. And we hadn’t even seen the inside. Though two of the Dutch women spoke good Spanish, I nominated myself to make a stand.

I jumped out of the van and located the woman in charge.

“If you are… changing vehicles…” I sputtered… “then… you have to change the price.”

“No, no. Everyone pays the same price.”

“But we paid for the van. Not this old bus.”

“You are taking the bus.”

“But it is not fair. “

“230 pesos is the price. Or you can walk.”

She had us by the collective ballbag and had no choice but admit defeat. Before we knew it they were tossing our bags from the roof of the van into the bowels of the jalopy. We soon followed, slinking onto the crowded little school bus and squeezing into our seats, where we took our hosing in grim silence.

Not only did the passengers change vehicles, but so did the driver. The Dutch women groaned as our fauxhawked speed demon sat down at the controls. They understood clearly that he was about to navigate us down the narrowest of roads that descended into a very deep hole in the earth, a place where one miscalculation would mean the death of us all.

Damian, our driver, the “Angel of Death.”

The bus was now filled to capacity, with four foreigners and local folks of all ages and sizes. We found this out very clearly just before departure, when a young woman lumbered on board with her daughter, who must have been about five years old. At this point there were no seats left, so she and her little girl were forced to stand as the old bus herked and jerked out of the depot and onto the main road.

I felt sorry for this woman and for a moment I was seized with the impulse to surrender my seat, but one good look at her mammoth ass quickly disabused me of such a notion. Her ass was so big that it nearly managed to touch edges of the seats on either side of the aisle. To top it off, she had it squeezed into a pair of short shorts which did little to contain the cascade of blubber. The ass fat just fell out of the bottom, huge slabs of cheek being called the ground by the brutal bitch named “gravity.” Feeling the eyes of the bus drawn to her beef flanks, she kept trying to pull down the tiny strips of denim in a futile attempt at modesty, but they were invariably pulled back up while that ass just made a run for her feet. There was simply no way she was going to fit into just one seat. I tried to avert my eyes, but each jostle of the bus shook her cheese in tectonic waves, and I just couldn’t help but stare.

Luckily, our creaky bus pulled into another improvised station just 20 minutes down the road. Much to my relief, the woman and her daughter exited the vehicle, though I’m sure some of the local boys were more than happy to have such an addition to the area’s landscape.

We soon pulled off the main road onto a very rough gravel track which brought us out along the top of the Urique Canyon. It was gorgeous country. The river carved out its path over millions of years, revealing golden and red rock toward that rose from the verdant valley in sheer magnificence. The sky was a brilliant blue, with blossoms of white and purplish clouds hovering just over the spires. Far below we could see the silvery brown thread of river snaking through the bed of the canyon, with the settlement of Urique splayed out as a motley assortment of colorful buildings. It was the kind of scenery that punches you in the chest; all I could do was gasp in a kind of blissful disbelief.

But the savoring of the canyon’s grandeur was interrupted by our maniacal driver, who blasted the bus along the tiny gravel track a rate that made our hearts sprint. With each jerk forward and hard corner we left claw marks in the seats in front of us.. The dark haired Dutchie (Katja) who sat across from me was especially horrified, having just recently survived a crash. Along with Jessica (the blond), she again protested, admonishing the driver to slow down. “We don’t want to die!” they shouted. “We don’t want to die!”

And “die” is exactly what would happen. This particular route was blasted out of the face of the cliff, with sheer drop-offs of thousands of feet at the road’s edge. This left zero room for error, yet our driver lurched and careened as if there was no danger in the world.

We were offered a respite when we turned off and stopped at the mirador, a large viewpoint with metal platforms bolted onto the lip of the cliff. This installation offered vistas of the whole valley, opening up the wide expanse of canyon for all of us to take in. We took turns snapping photos and breathed in the pure air before once again boarding our rolling tube of death.

Urique from above

As we began to drop back into the canyon, I noticed that our driver was having trouble with the gears. He was grinding them pretty hard, and a one point he just stopped for a while and revved the engine in neutral, as if he had lost the gear altogether. I took advantage of the pause in horror to retrieve a small bottle of Jameson that I had stashed in my pack. I immediately unscrewed the cap and took a few hot swigs to dull the sharp edge of fear slicing my guts. I was straight-up afraid of dying in a Mexican bus plunge.

After more revving and clashing metal he found his gear and we throttled forward once more, only now the bus picked up even more speed. His driving became extra-erratic, lurching and weaving within inches of the road’s killer edge.

The locals rode in seemingly unconcerned silence, while the four of us looked on with faces drained of blood. I was seriously pondering the possibility that this may be it, that at any moment we were going over. After all, we read about deadly mountain bus plunges all the time. Who was to say that I couldn’t go out that way, in a crushing tumble of glass, rock, metal, and blood?

I had been on these hell rides before — on a crowded Vietnam highway, in a minivan in Sumatra, on the Karakorum Highway in far western China — and each time had come face to face with real, cold sweat fear. Here I was again. I thought of a passage from Paul Theroux’s “Riding the Iron Rooster,” where his own terrible driver crashes the car while heading balls-to-the-wall to Tibet:

“It infuriated me that this had happened on a dry road, under clear skies, so early in the trip. Now we were stuck, and it was because of the incompetence of Mr. Fu. He had been driving too fast. But it was also my own fault for having said nothing. “

Inspired by Theroux, I resolved to raise my voice, but Jessica beat me to it. She had had her fill. She shot up the aisle of the heaving vehicle and shouted, in very demanding Spanish, “What part of ‘slow’ do you not understand? Are you crazy?? Do you want to die???” Our driver grimaced, and the two of them continues with a short, hurried conversation.

Jessica turned back towards us and announced in loud English, “THE BUS IS BROKEN. HE SAYS HE CANNOT USE THE LOW GEAR. IT’S NOT SAFE FOR ANY OF US.” Switching back to Spanish, she shouted “Stop! Open the door! I’m not riding on this bus any longer.”

Abashed, the driver obeyed and brought the bus to a halt. She wrote down his number so she could later track down her bags, and motioned to her two companions, who got up and walked down the narrow aisle in solidarity.

For a moment I froze. After all, I had supported their attempts to get this driver to slow down. For me, the most nerve-wracking aspect of traveling in less-developed countries is the stupidly aggressive way that so many people drive. I hate it. The fact that these women weren’t putting up with it made them heroes in my eyes. On the other hand, we were on a mountainside somewhere in… Mexico. Could we just jump off this bus and expect everything to turn out okay?

Of course we could.

I grabbed my light pack and joined their walk out.

As the bus rolled away, we were left with nothing but the rocks, earth, wind, and clouds. I was decked out in my new light hikers that I had picked up for this trip, but the women were in flimsy little flip-flops and totally unprepared for a long slog down a road with jagged rocks jutting forth like so many crude arrowheads.

We were probably about halfway down the mountain. We could clearly see Urique below us, with the road making countless switchbacks in its seemingly never ending descent. Any way you cut it we had a long way down.

As we walked (with a lot of sliding and stumbling on their part), I learned their story. Jessica and Katja were doctors. They had been working at a hospital in Mexico’s southernmost (and poorest) state of Chiapas. Sylvia, Jessica’s sister, was a mother of three back in the Netherlands and had flown into Tijuana for a visit. They had spent several days travelling in Baja, before taking the ferry across the gulf to Los Mochis, where they jumped on El Chepe. They planned to continue on to Chihuahua City before heading back to Chiapas, and Europe, respectively. They were enjoying bit of girls’ adventure, only now with a random American man thrown in.

The Dutch trio.

We hiked down the road into the wide embrace of the canyon, marvelling at the rocks and the sky, which took on a supernatural look. A bruised cloud unleashed a streak of rain onto a nearby mountaintop, with the low rumble of thunder confirming its presence. It seemed to be wafting our way, but we managed to stay dry on our side of the canyon.

“So what’s it like working at a hospital in Chiapas?” I asked. A large hawk circled overhead.

“It’s a Catholic hospital,” Jessica said.

“Run by nuns,” remarked Katja.

This caught my attention. “Nuns?”

“Yes, but we think they’re actually brujas,” Katja replied, using the Spanish word for “witches.”

“That’s right,” said Jessica, laughing. “We’re crazy bitches who work for witches!”

After about an hour on the road we heard the sound of a vehicle crunching on the loose rock behind us. Jessica and Katja waved it down and soon we joined two local dudes sitting in the back of the black pickup. We rode in the rocking bed for about five minutes, until we spied another vehicle heading up the road towards us. It was a red jeep, piloted by none other the driver of our bus. He had been sent to retrieve us.

The four of us jumped down from the back of the black pickup and poured into the jeep. “¡Tranquilo!” admonished the women. “¡Tranquilo!” Our driver, Damian, was all now all smiles, as if the incident on the mountainside was all forgotten. He pulled a very careful three point turn and, to our relief, delivered us into Urique at a speed that could only be described as geriatric.


It was around five o’clock on a Sunday evening and the whole town was drunk. As Damian rolled through its streets, we were greeted by red-eyed, swaying men gulping down red and silver cans of Tecate. Music blasted from doorways, balconies, and the few vehicles putting along. People shouted to us as we passed by. From the look of things, it seemed like we were catching the tail end of Urique’s all-weekend bender.

The town itself was made up of about three main roads and a minor maze of side streets. The houses and buildings were all just one or two stories, while a handful of tall trees provided shade from the punishing canyon sun. Urique was originally founded as a mining center, but now relied on tourism and local agriculture, not to mention the drug money that was surely circulating through. Damian made sure to point to a few of the “mafia properties” to me, which included the biggest house in town and an empty motel with a few hard-looking men sitting in the parking lot next to a couple of menacing, black SUV’s.

The Urique River gurgled past, penned in by expansive rock fields on either side. Like most deep canyon streams, the silty water resembled a heaving, rolling channel of chocolate milk. A pedestrian footbridge made from cables, chain-link, and wooden slats spanned the river, delivering crossers to a collection of humble houses across the way, as well as the town’s baseball diamond.

After driving in circles for the better part of thirty minutes in what I supposed was an attempt to introduce us to the town, Damian brought us to our guesthouse, a wide compound of traditional stone outbuildings called “Entre Amigos.” The Dutch trio took a private room, while I opted for a bed in the dormitory lodging, which, to my luck, was empty of guests.

We were, in fact, the only people there. Aside from the couple of backpackers I’d seen at my place in El Fuerte — as well s the American senior citizen tour group at the train depot — I hadn’t come across any other non-Mexican tourists during my admittedly short time on the road. Foreigners just weren’t making the trip and I was absolutely sure this was due to the drug violence that continues to plague northern Mexico. While everything I’d heard and read assured me that — as bad as things may be — tourists are almost never targeted, the bloodshed was enough to keep people away, and Urique was feeling it firsthand.

Still, I was glad to have a private room for the price of dorm.

The two nights and days I spent in Urique were hallucinatory. I could wax for pages, but in the interest time, it’s best to boil it down to just a few snapshots:

*The food at Restaurante Plaza, where Dona Tita offered up down home fare that scratched a deep itch. Each meal was a massive plate of rice, beans, chili-pepper fried meat or slabs of fish, served up with lettuce, avocado, salsa, and flour tortillas. It was the food of the home, of the family. She was a woman in her 60’s and respected throughout the town. She kept a cat that, every night, slept on a shelf over a portrait of her late husband. She told me that the cat never much cared for her husband when he was alive, but now honored his memory. “Animals, know these things,” she said.

  • Endlessly cruising the circuit of the town with Damian while the weekend’s party staggered to its conclusion. Over the course of the evening I bought several six packs of Tecate at the walk-up open air beer mart and shared them with him and anyone else who needed a one (which turned out to be a lot). They sold the cans in plastic bags that include a scoopful of ice. Damian cranked the Mexi-music as he drank and drove at around the town at 5 mph, introducing me to el patron (his boss), his very pretty wife and son, as well as a long chain of friends and relatives, including his cousin — an M-16 wielding cop who gave me a handshake and Damian a couple of smokes.
  • Hiking up the canyon along the dirt road skirting the river in the press of the afternoon heat. After an hour I was forced to turn back, dizzy from the early signs of heat exhaustion. I revived myself by plunging into the cheap, algae-choked above-ground swimming pool of the Entre Amigos compound, which was also home to actual, live fish.
  • Sipping an ice-cold Dos Equis in the shaded courtyard of the guest house while the compound’s cat lounged nearby.
  • Bisecting a nasty-looking black scorpion as I whapped it off the side of the candlelit bathroom/shower outbuilding wall with a broom handle. I didn’t want to kill the thing, but its presence in such a intimate space was just too much too bear.

Urique was a charming vortex, and I regret that I didn’t have more time to spend there, to do a proper canyon hike, or even a horseback trip. This was driven home as we boarded the white minivan for the trip back up to the canyon rim to the train stop at Bahiuchivo. El patron (Damian’s boss who seemed to owm all of the vehicles that got us to and around town) implored us to come back and see and do more, and to also tell our friends to come — that Urique was actually a safe destination.

This was the overriding mantra I heard during my week in northern Mexico: Tell people to come. It’s good here. Really.

Heading back to El Chepe at sane speeds. Gracias, Damian.

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