28 March 2009

Back in the Future (not)

As my first year in Korea will come to a close soon it has been of utmost importance to figger out what I am going to do next. I have had to face the grim reality that I am very, very happy here. Why this is I can't pinpoint exactly but there is little I can do now to fix it. I seem to be stuck with a beautiful Korean girlfriend who is nearly half my age and thinks I can walk on water. I have also nearly procured what appears to be, on paper at least, a deeply rewarding and highly lucrative new job. All my friends here, expat and Korean alike, seem to think I am funny and witty and at times tolerable. And Spring in Busan is just simply incredible.

The main source of angst now is the break. I have nearly two months with nothing to do. I am not sad about this. If you know me you will recall that leisure is my area of expertise. But with this amount of free time comes responsibility. Should I go home and see the people I miss who apparently miss me as well or should I go see something in Asia or should I get a temporary job and work like a good boy?

In what amounts to being as close as I ever come to a serious commitment about anything, I purchased the Loney Planet for Southeast Asia today. Aside from being a major financial investment (damned Korean bookstore), simply holding the thing in my hands makes my leg start twitching. It is huge (we are already calling it "The Bible") and chock full of travelley goodness. I remember the day I bought the Loney Planet for Korea. Even though it was still a tentative decision, when I opened that up it was over: I was already on the boat.

This is worse. From what I have been told and now read, we can go almost anywhere we want in Southeast Asia outside of Singapore and Hong Kong for $30 a day. That means that I could conceivable spend the whole two months walking about down there. I am also looking into the possibility of working for a little while here in Korea during that time or possible getting some temp work in Thailand. That would make me feel better about it.

I would like to hit Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam, Malasia, Sumatra (Indonesia), and Bali as well but all of those places have had political/terrorist/Muslim issues lately. They just caned an Italian aid worker in Indonesia for having pre-Marital sex with his Muslim girlfriend, but usually (so the book says) the Islamic laws are only enforced on Muslims. And I am and have always been exceptional when it comes to the authorities (there is a standing bet among the wait staff at the Sangamo Club regarding the date/cause/number of lashes of my inevitable caning). Many of the areas I will be visiting were affected by the Boxing Day tsunami, which killed approximately 220,000 people. In many of those places the after-affects were positive. Northern Sumatra rebels negotiated a peaceful coexistence governance due to the necessary presence of foreign aid workers there. It is now safe to travel to some of the most pristine beaches in the world along the western coast.

Burma is still largely off limits and there are issues with Muslim separatists in Southern Thailand, but they aren't into killing tourists too much. I also have to figger out an immunization schedule, as it looks like I will need about 30 shots. This doesn't sound good, but then neither does Dengue Fever (they call it "break-bone fever because of the associated joint pain). Asia has budget airlines like Europe now and I can get flights around the region for next to nothing (Bangkok to Manila $60, to Singapore $30, to Hanoi $50 [in all cases cheaper than first-class bus or train]). It is my plan to find an island bungalow ($10) and chill for a week and then getting out a bit. The Loney Planet lists cooking classes at most of the larger Thai destinations and a three day course with lodging is well within the budget and I wouldn't mind adding Thai to my already impressive culinary qualifications (it's true, I'm sorry, but when you look like me you better have some skills or you are going to be L-O-N-E-Y).

So that is the deal. All of those people back home who feel like they can't wait another year to see me could maybe consider meeting me in Hawaii at Christmas time. Peace.

07 March 2009

Update. Won-Dollar Exchange Rate: From Bad to Worse.

Update: If you want the nuts and bolts of how this all works check out today's New York Times leader: "Rising Dollar Lifts the US but Leads to Crisis Abroad"

I wrote about this a while back (see "If") but the situation has become so much worse that I thought it would be beneficial to comment on it again. As of this writing the rate sits at 1/1555, which means that if you need to send home $500 a month it will cost you over W800,000 depending on how you do it. This is not good. I have friends who have to send a lot more than that home and things for them are getting desperate. The rate has now collapsed to the point where one wonders where it will bottom out, or if it will.

There is some indication that the rate change is beginning to affect recruitment and, as a result, salary levels here. Posted salaries were increased for the last EPIK hiring cycle but they are no where near replacing the lost income through exchange rate deflation. It will be interesting to see if the salary schedule for the current hiring cycle will reflect any acknowledgment of the current rate dive. I am not sure the Education Ministry understands the degree to which this could affect the willingness of new teachers to come to Korea. Of course, with the unemployment rate in the United States now topping 8% there will be more push from the backside but the debt load of the average college graduate ($19000 as reported by the SeattlePI or see a complete breakdown here at the AMSA site) may cause many of them to look elsewhere to teach abroad.

The problem is the uncertainty: Even if you look at the rate now and feel you can deal with it you still have to ask yourself: if the won/dollar trade has declined over 55% in one year where will it be a year from now? Most economists think that the economic downturn in the United States is going to get much worse before it improves.

There may be some hope. The good people at forcasts.org (who BTW predicted a much smaller downturn in this quarter) have the Won rebounding by September. Since they last updated in early February the rate has collapsed completely so it will be interesting to see how they adjust the comeback levels. I would be ecstatic if the rate got back into the 1/1250 range again. I hope they are right.