Dream as if you'll live forever, live as if you'll die tomorrow.

James Dean

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Christmas in Korea

Since this was going to be our first Christmas in Korea, my 2 friends Andre and Kristina, and myself decided that we should go away. We only had the weekend so we couldn't go far and after some debate we decided on Seoul. We would head up on the 24th, spend Christmas Day wandering and seeing the sights of the city and then go to a restaurant for a great Christmas dinner.

So far this winter hasn't been too bad in Korea, at least compared to what I am used to in Canada. Most days it has been fairly mild with the odd cold day mixed in. WELL ... December 24th I awoke to -12 temperatures and reports that it is only going to get colder over the next few days. At 5 pm I headed to the train station to meet my friends and just in the short distance from my house to the bus stop I was frozen. I decided it would be a good day to splurge on a taxi. At 6 pm my friends and I board the KTX and head off to our first Christmas together in Korea.

When we arrived in Seoul we all looked at the throngs of people waiting for the subway and in unison said the same word ...TAXI! We headed outside to the taxi stand and joined the long of people waiting. The wind there was so cold that in a matter of minutes my hands were numb. Being Canadian, I know how to dress for the winter. I was bundled in sweaters and parkas, scarves and hats and mitts and yet the cold just went right through it. Finally it was our turn. The 3 of us were frozen solid and with a sigh of relief we hopped into the warm car. We told the driver anguk yak (our destination) and he immediately said NO, get out. It seems that we had gotten in the taxi on the wrong side of the road and since we wanted to go in the other direction, we would have to cross the road and find a taxi over there. Cursing all the way, we climb out of the car, back into the cold night, across the road and after some confusion hailed another taxi.

We finally arrived at our guest house, only to be informed that we weren't actually staying there. We were staying at their other guest house further up the road. The young man (Kevin) who was working, piles us all into his jeep and drives us 5 minutes up the road to the other place. He told us not to worry as he sped down narrow alleyways barely missing pedestrians and other cars. Afterall he was a driver in the army.

The place that we had chosen to stay in was called Yoos Guesthouse. We had chosen it because it was a traditional Korean Hanok that had been restored. A Hanok is an old style Korean house built with an outside courtyard in the middle and then bedrooms and kitchens all off the courtyard. This particular guest house was located on the grounds of the former Unhyeon palace.

We thought it would be a very interesting and unique experience, not knowing that it was going to be -12. The room we stayed in was heated but in order to use the bathroom, kitchen etc you had to go outside, and it was chilly. The rooms were traditonal Korean style rooms, which means no beds or furniture. Just a room with a floor and then mats and covers that you lay down to sleep on. Since they use the ondol, or under floor heating, it was warm and comfortable on the floor.

We had decided to spend Christmas Eve inside and given the cold temperature outside, it was a wise decision. We all brought an assortment of foods and beverages and we had a cosy night talking and laughing at all the funny things that we had done and the people we had met the previous year.

The next morning we awoke to even colder temperatures and frozen pipes. There was actually icicles hanging off the tap in the bathroom. We bundled ourselves up and headed to our first destination, a guided tour of Seodemun Prison. The guest house where we were staying had arranged for us to have a tour guide and we thought no better place to spend Christmas Day, then in jail.
At the prison we meet our tour guide, a sweet little girl named Sarah who was all of eleven years old. Her English was excellent and she led us through the prison telling us the stories of all the horrible things that happened there. The prison had been built by the Japanese and many Koreans who fought for independance had been imprisoned, tortured and killed there. At one point we were even led through the torture chambers and shown all the various methods that they used. It was so heartwarming for Christmas day. The first half of the tour was comfortable as it was inside a heated building but the second half was either outside or in the jail cells where there was no heat and by the end we were frozen and ready to go. The tour ended with us standing outside bewildered watching Sarah running away while at the same time thanking us for coming. I htink she was cold too and anxious to get back inside.
We had planned to spend the rest of the day going ice skating and shopping but quickly decided that it was too cold. Instead we headed back to the guest house where we sat huddled under blankets until it was time to go to dinner.

We finished Christmas Day with a meal at La Cigale Montmartre, a french restaurant in an area of Seoul called Itaewan.

This place was truly french and the food was superb. I dined on mussles cooked with ham and garlic and a lime dacquiri. We lingered over the meal, enjoying the food and each others company. It was a relaxing and comfortable night.

It truly was a memorable Christmas and as Kristina pointed out, a Christmas with an international flair. You have a Canadian, and American and a South African celebrating Christmas in Korea at a french restaurant. It doesn't get any better than that.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

The new men in my life

So I was recently informed that I was doing a poor job at keeping up with this blog. Frankly I wasn't sure if people were still reading it, but apparently they are, so I promise to start writing more frequently.

About a month ago something happened, which at the time I thought was a little strange, but it turned out to be a huge blessing. One day I was standing at the bus stop, waiting for the bus to go home from work, when an older Korean man approached me and speaking in very good English, asked me if I was a teacher. This in itself isn't unusual as here people often speak to you in strange places and they usually fall into one of two categories a) someone who is curious about you and wants to practice their english skills or b) someone who wants to recruit you to their church. The first group of people I am more than happy to speak to and, well with the second group I usually quickly pledge my allegiance to Satan and make a hasty retreat. This man, however, proved to be neither.
He introduced himself as Mr. Bak and told me that he is a retired Engish teacher who volunteers at a nearby seniors center. He teaches an English class and explained that he had an American girl helping him but she returned home so now he is looking for a replacement. Although he never actually came out and asked if I was interested, it's not the Korean way to be that direct, I knew that was what he was wanting. I immediately thought that this might be an interesting experience but also wanted time to consider the idea so I asked him to call me the following week so that I could check with my school. It didn't take much thinking for me to realize this was an opportunity to befriend some older Korean people who I was sure would have some interesting stories.
I agreed to spend an hour every saturday there helping with this class. On my first day I arrived not really sure what to expect or what the students reaction would be to me. I went into the clasroom and met my students, 8 men ranging in age from 70 to 84. Most of these men spoke decent English, enough for us to have a simple conversation, and they immediately started asking me questions about Canada and my life in Korea. I was expecting things to be uncomfortable because age is a big deal in Korea and usually when you have someone younger and older together things get very formal. Not with these men though. Right away they started joking around and teasing each other and bragging about who has the most girlfriends.
I felt instantly comfortable with these men and they started telling me stories about their lives. They all fought in the Korean war and one man told me that during the war they were all taught to say 3 words "I am South Korean", and this saved many of them from being killed by American soldiers mistaking them for North Koreans.
After the class finished they took me downstairs to the cafeteria for lunch where many of the other seniors in the building came over and started talking to me. At one point one man came over and started naming all the American states and which point one of the men in my class became angry and said "She's not American, she is from Canada". Without blinking an eye the man stopped in midstate and started reciting all the provinces instead.
Since that first class, I now go every saturday. What was supposed to be only 1 hour has instead turned into 4. All the men in the class put their money together and bought me a good Korean text book. Every staurday after our English class, I eat lunch with these men and then 2 of them spend 2 hours helping me learn Korean.
Meeting Mr. Bak that day at the bus stop was truly a blessing. I look forward to my saturdays with these men. They have become my friends, they have let me into their circle, and allowed me to see Korean people in a different light. I feel like I have 8 grandfathers and they have made it very clear that if I ever needed anything, they would be there to help. They even promised to be at the airport on my return from Canada, holding a sign with my name on it to welcome me back to their country. I have been given a unique opportunity that many westerners here don't get and for that I am very lucky.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Beijing part 3 - The Great Wall

It was my last day in Beijing and I had only one goal in mind - to visit the Great Wall of China. Afterall, that was the main reason that I went and I couldn't leave without seeing it. From Beijing there are 3 sections of the wall that you can travel to. The 2 closest and more popular are Badaling and Mutianyu and then further away was Jinshanling. The jinshanling section is more rugged and is better for the hiker and more adventurous sort and I heard that Mutianyu wasn't as scenic as Badaling, so my decision was made.
There are many companies offering tours to the wall, most of them were expensive and included stops at shopping districts and other attractions that didn't interest me. With the guidance of the people at my hostel I opted to find my own way there. Keep in my mind it was a 2 hour bus ride away but it seemed easy enough to find that bus.
I headed out early in the morning, hopped on the city bus over to the bus station where I was told to get on bus 902. Well, when I got there, there were about 30 buses in the parking lot all with the number 902. After asking a few people I finally found the 902 bus that I needed, got on and sat down. Slowly people started to get on but it wasn't too busy and I thought this will be a nice 2 hour bus ride. We stopped at the next staion and more people got on, and more people and more people until eventually the bus was so crowded that people were practically hanging out the windows. Many of them looked at me strangely as I was the only foreigner on the bus. All I could say was that I was thankful that I had a seat. Eventually we arrived and I disembarked with the other cattle and followed the crowds up to the front gates. I had to walk past all the tacky souvenir stands selling the t-shirts saying I climbed the Great Wall and I couldn't resist buying a memento.

I could see the wall off in the distance and it was exactly how I expected it to look, a crumbling stone wall meandering through the hills for miles into the distance. It was beautiful. I climbed the steps up to the wall (about 1000) until eventually I was standing on it. I couldn't believe that I was there. I started walking and at times it was very steep but I was motivated by all the old people running past me. I stopped often to take pictures, more to catch my breath than anything else. The place was very crowded but not so crowded that you couldn't appreciate where you were. The view were stunning and the weather was perfect. I climbed for about for 2 hours before deciding to head back down and try to find my bus home.

I knew where I had gotten off the bus but I wasn't sure if that was where I got back on. There were many people standing there and andit seemed that there was a continous stream of 902 buses coming but nobody was getting on them. Then I noticed on the side of the buses was a sign with the final destination on and I knew the name of the staion I wanted to go. Eventually a bus came with that station written so I took a breath, climbed on and hoped it was the right bus. I wasn't lucky this time to get a seat and had to stand in the aisle jammed in with half the chinese population. I start looking out the window desperate to see something familar so that I know that I am going in the right direction. Slowly people start getting off at various stops so after about 45 minutes I am able to get a seat. At this point I have seen signs indicating that I am headed back to Beijing so I figure evenn if I don't get to the rights station I will at least be in the city and can find my way home. I didn't need to worry as I arrived back to where I started exhausted but relieved. It had been a great trip to Beijing but I was ready to go back to Korea.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Beijing - Part 2

Having arrived at my hostel I was now faced with the dilema of what to do with my time. It was late afternoon, so too early to call it a day, and yet I was exhausted from the early flight and the stress of finding the hostel. However I felt the need to make the most of my time in Beijing so I sucked it up, headed back out the door and walked towards Tiananmen Square. Halfway there I came upon an entrance to a park, Zhongshan Park and decided to spend some time wandering through it. It turned out to be a really beautiful park with some lovely gardens and these giant rock formations. On top of that it wasn't very busy. It was a peaceful and tranquil spot in the midst of a bustling city. At one point I could hear the screams and shrieks of children and as I wandered towards the noise I found myself at a pavillion with kids riding on bumper cars. It was a little strange in the middle of this beautiful park but it reminded me of my childhood at the local fair. I wandered the park for an hour and exited to find myself on the edge of Tiananmen Square. I decided not to enter the square and save it for a day when I was less tired and could appreciate it more. I headed back to the hostel figuring I would spend the evening poring over my lonely planet making plans for the rest of my adventure.

Back at the hostel there were a few other patrons wandering around so I sat at one of the tables, ordered some noodles and started making some plans. Within a few minutes 2 older women sat down with me and we started chatting. It turns out they were 2 sisters who were on a 6 week journey that had taken them to India, China and then Singapore and Australia. We ordered a bottle of wine and sat there late into the evening laughing over stories of our various adventures. By the time we said good night we had made plans to spend the following day together and I went to bed feeling exhausted but happy.
The next morning came early and I woke up excited about the day ahead of me. After a hardy breakfast I headed out the door with Sherry and Carol, headed for the Beijing Zoo to see the Pandas. We decided to take the local bus and I was a little apprehensive about what the buses might be like in China but figured they can't be any worse than the ones in Korea. They actually turned out to be much nicer, the bus was hardly busy and the drivers were very competent and respectful. It was very different from Korea, where you sometimes feel like you are risking your life every time you step aboard. After about 20 minutes we were there and we followed the throngs of people into the zoo. It was holiday in China so everyone with a child had decided that a day in the zoo was in order. My only concern here was to see the pandas and I had no interest in the other animals so we headed straight to the panda pavillion. It was packed with people but we manged to fight our way to the front of the crowds and peer through the glass. It was worth it, they were so adorable. We spent about an hour here, taking pictures and staring at these cuddly creatures.
Remove Formatting from selection
We finally decided to head off to our next location - the summer palace. I had been told by many people that this was a must see in Beijing and it definitely is. This was the summer hideout for the those at the Imperial Palace seeking refuge from the summer heat. Located on the shores of Kumming lake it was like a giant park consisting of temples, palaces, gardens and pavillions. Of course today it also consisted of thousands of people but that didn't take away from the beauty of the place. We wandered for hours marvelling at the architecture and the scenery. At one point we climbed high atop a hill to the Buddhist Temple of the Sea of Wisdom, which was about 1,000 steps up but worth it for the views. After a few hours wandering here it was late afternoon and we were all exhausted and felt it was time to head home. We made it back to the hostel, changed our clothes and headed out to the night market in search of food. When we hit the night market we all knew that we would not be eating here as the smell alone was enough to make you vomit. The night market consisted of various stalls selling a variety of snack items like, octopus and scorpions on a stick, bug larvae and giant shishkabob beetles. It all looked yummy. It was fun to wander and look at all these interesting foods, knowing that never in a million years would I eat any of it. After a while here we headed to a normal restaurant and had a lovely meal of duck and rice. Day one was finished and I hit the bed, thoroughly exhausted.

The next morning I woke, ready for another day in Beijing. I headed out alone this time and decided to visit locations closer to the hostel ie. Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City. I hopped on the bus to Tiananmen Square and emerged from it to yet again, giant crowds of people. I made my way through the security checks and stepped out into the square. The square itself had little to see but was still impressive as it was surrounded by 1950 style soviet buildings - communism at it's best. It was an overwhelming feeling to stand in that square and think back to the events of 1989 and the bravery of those people who stood up for democracy. Unfortunatly the crowds here were stifling, which made it difficult to appreciate the significance of where I was standing.

I slowly made my way across the street to the Gate of Heavanly Peace with the giant picture of Mao and into the Forbidden City. The Forbidden City was given it's name because it was off limits to commoners and foreigners for over 500 years. It is the site of the Imperial Palace where at one time the Emperors ruled the country. I followed the crowds through the main gate and walked and walked and walked. I kept looking for the ticket booth but somehow missed it. I started following a tour group, went through a turnstile and ended up in the main courtyard. Somehow I had gotten in without buying a ticket. I found out much later that the tickets were rather expensive and the security was fairly tight - you needed to show your passport to buy your ticket. Somehow I bypassed all this and got in for free. The place was huge and the avid enthusiast could spend days exploring it. I did it in 3 hours. It was overwhelming, filled with courtyards and temples and gates. I had rented an audio guide so I was able to hear what the various buildings were used for. It was definitely worth the money to get that. After 3 hours of being transported back into history I exited the Forbidden City and made my way to my next locaton Jingshan park.

Once again this was a small but peacefuly park at the the edge of the Forbidden City. The park sits on a hill which was created from the earth that was excavated to make the moat around the Forbidden City. Legend has it that the park was built to act as a shield for the palace from evil spirits and also as a barrier to the dust storms from the north. In the center of the park was another pavillion with about 1000 steps up to it. I made the climb and was rewarded with fantastic views over the Forbidden City. The park was peaceful break from the crowds and at one point I came upon a group of older people practicing Tai Chi. I left the park feeling refreshed and ready to face the crowds again.

From Jingshan park I headed over to Lake Beihai and Beihai park. This place was mostly filled with picnicers and families. There were people on the lake with rented paddle boats and at one point I even saw 2 men swimming. At this point a kindly old lady approached and in very poor english asked where I was from. I said Canada and she said that she lived in Australia but was from Beijing, then she gave me a big smile and walked away. It was very sweet. I stayed an hour in Beihai park before heading to my final destination - Bouhoa bar street.
This area is a long street that runs along the edge of the lake and contains over 200 bars and restaurants. I had been going all day with very little to eat and thought I might find something here. Most of the places that I passed were either very busy or looked really dodgy. I had been prewarned about the cleanliness of restaurants in China and was reluctant to enter many of them. After another hour of walking I gave up on finding somewhere to eat. I was tired of being constantly harrassed by the rickshaw drivers and I was exhausted so I made my way back to my hostel where I knew the food would be good and there would be someone to talk to. I had a lovely plate of noodles and headed to bed early ready for my next days adventure to the Great Wall.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Beijing - part One

I've decided to break my posts about Beijing into a few different blogs because there is to much to say in one sitting.


I stepped from the Beijing International Airport into grey clouds, a slight drizzle and with a vague sense of apprehension. I was apprehensive because 1) I didn't know how I was going to get from the airport to my hostel and 2) I had heard various stories about the dodginess of China. I didn't know what to expect but thought it would be a harsher version of Korea. I was right - it was a MUCH HARSHER version of Korea.
I solved my first problem by hopping onto the express train from the airport which would take me into Beijing and one of the subway stations. I knew that my hostel was somewhere near Tiananmen Square so figured I would take the subway there and then walk. I had no problems using the express train, it was when I exited the train and attempted the subway that the problems ensued. I could see where to go to get on the subway but didn't know where to buy the tickets or how much they cost. There were some automatice ticket machines, all in Chinese and no one around who spoke English. After 5 minutes of standing around feeling lost, I finally found a ticket booth, bought 1 ticket and hoped it was for the subway. It was.
I had a subway map so I knew where to go and I knew that I had to change to 3 different lines. The first line was only 2 stops and when I got on I thought - no problem. The train wasn't that busy and it was a piece of cake. I got off and switched over the next line for another 2 stops. This train was a little bit busier but still not too bad. Then I switched for the line to Tianamen Square. It would be 5 stops and this is when the insanty began. The crowds waiting to get on the train were scary and they had guards waiting at the doors trying to control the traffic. When the doors opened it was like a vacum sucking you in, you had no choice but to move with the crowd. Somehow I arrived at my stop and managed to fight my way backt through the crowd and out the door. I was at Tianamen square.
I thought my hostel was close by but really it was 2.5km away. Armed with my trusty Lonely Planet I found the road I needed and walked and walked and walked. Just when I thought that I had to be going in the wrong direction I saw a little red sign with my hostels name pointing down a small alley. I must have looked confused because this little old Chinese lady tapped me on the shoulder, pointed at the sign and pointed up the alley. So I headed up the alley and within 5 minutes I was standing at the gate to my hostel.

My hostel was located in one of the old hutongs of Beijing. Hutong is the name given to the alleyways that crisscross throughout the city. There are over 360 hutongs in Beijing, all with seperate names. Each hutong is like a little community. Within the hutongs are the buildings or Siheyuan - which is what my hostel was. Bascally each Siheyuan has a door that leads out into the alley, when you step through the door you enter the courtyard of the building. When I first arrived at my hostel I questioned where I was staying but as soon as I stepped through the door it was like I had entered another world. It was breathtaking.

The main room of the hostel was the original courtyard of the Siheyuan. A roof had been put over it with a fountain in the middle along with tables, chairs, couches and 2 computers, typical hostel lounge. It was all decorated with Chinese art and decorations and along the sides of the courtyard were all the rooms. It had a very cosy, homey feel and definitely one of the best hostels that I have every stayed at.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Ramblings of a weary traveller

I often wonder what people love about travel in all honesty, it can be very exhausting and a little disheartening.
I read this quote somewhere and as an experienced traveller it's meaning really rings true. I am now back to work after 2 weeks holidays, the first part of which I spent in Hong Kong. I came back from Hong Kong feeling a little let down and disheartened. I was really looking forward to my visit there and was a little disappointed in what I saw and experienced. I was ready for adventure, a mind blowing cultural experience and instead I got a big city that could easily have been Toronto or New York or London. Don't get me wrong, it was a beautiful city and it was refreshing to be around so many english speaking people and to have access to familiar products from home like doritos and diet coke, but after a few days I was bored. I came to Korea looking for a unique experience and although I have done some interesting things here, I still feel like a visitor, travelling where the other foreigners go and eating where the other foreigners eat. I returned from Hong Kong really questioning why I was here. I made some sacrifices to come here. I left friends and family behind. Although I have enjoyed myself there are days when the lonliness can be unbearable. I am rarely alone and yet I often feel a little lonely. I have made some great friends here but I have spent years cultivating the relationships that I have in Canada, so how can they even be compared. I left Hong Kong wondering why being an expat was so appealing and was it really worth scarifice. By the end of my vacation I am able to answer with a resounding YES. Here's why.
On my way home from Hong Kong there was a little airplane trouble and we were forced to spend an extra night. While standing around the airport trying to sort what was happening I started talking to a man who has lived in China for 4.5 years (from Mexico). He was coming to Korea on holiday / business and after talking to me he decided to come to Daejeon. We had dinner in Daejeon and he suggested that I come to Busan (another city in Korea) since I still had a week of holidays. I am not normally that impulsive but I didn't even hestitate to say yes. Our connection was purely on a friendship level so I knew I was safe with my own hotel room and could easily catch another train home should I change my mind. We spent the day at the beach and the night eating Korean bbq. The next day we caught another train to Seoul where we spent 2 days wandering areas in Seoul that I never knew existed and are rarely frequented by foreigners. We ate only korean food and stayed up until 3am drinking copious amounts of beer and having great conversation sharing stories of our travels and experiences. I left there feeling, for the first time, like I am embracing Korean life. I am not just a tourist who eats a bit of rice and then says they have been to Korea.
This is why I love to travel. It's not about the temples and the landscapes, anyone can visit those places. It's about sitting in a dingy little bbq restaurant, down some back alley at 3am , while an ajumma is trying to explain the menu to you. Going anywhere you want without worrying about the language barrier. Knowing that you can make yourself understood and enjoying the process of doing that. To me, this is what it means to travel and experience a culture. Being catapulted away from your comfort zone, being forced to react and recognize your strengths. I feel a great deal of pride in the travel that I have done and knowing that I am capable of going anywhere on my own. I feel smart and competent, adventurous and independant. I feel happy.

Monday, July 26, 2010

2 Americans, 2 South Africans and a Canadian .... adventures at the beach!

For the past month the heat and humidity here has made life uncomfortable. So 2 weeks ago when the oppourtunity to go to the beach presented itself, I leaped at the chance. The thought of swimming in cool water and relaxing in the sunshine was very appealing. I have recently started taking Korean lessons at the Daejeon International Community Center and on my first day there they gave us a sheet of paper with a list of upcoming trips, including this beach trip. For a mere 20,000w they offered transportation to the beach, refreshments, lunch and dinner - you can't beat that. I immediately called 2 of my friends and signed us all up. When I signed up they pointed across the road to a yellow sign and very clearly said be there in that parking lot at 8am.
So, sunday morning 8am, under the threat of grey skys and rain I met my friends in the parking lot and we wait. No one comes. We wait some more, still no one comes. I decide to cross the road to the community center to see if anyone is there. I have to mention here that crossing the road is not an easy feat as it is a major intersection so to get across you have to go down into the subway and walk underground and come up the other side. I cross the road and sure enough there are 2 other english speaking people standing there. I later findout that their names are Andre and Donovan from America and S. Africa respectively. It seems they are also waiting for the beach trip but have no idea where to go and the community center is locked. The three of us now cross back over the road to join my other 2 friends where we wait some more. 15 minutes later after numerous phone calls to a woman who barely speaks english and crossing the road a couple more times, 2 women approach us and herd us into 2 taxis. I climb into one taxi with Andre and Donovan, leaving my other friends standing on the side of the road looking slightly anxious and a little bewildered. I am sure we were all thinking the same thing - where are we going and what have we gotten into. As we have affectionatly started calling it Dynamic Korea - you just have to go with the flow. After driving for 10 minutes we pull into a parking lot where there are 2 busloads of people waiting for us. we manouver our way onto the bus and manage to find seats we realize that we are the only white, english people on the entire trip.
We drive for about 2 hours before reaching our destination, Mongsanpo beach. Mongsanpo beach is on the west coast of Korea, on the yellow sea. They shepherd us off the bus and make gestures of taking pictures and eating. They then pull out this huge banner and make us all stand under it to take a group photo. At this point the 5 of us are doubled over in laughter because the whole thing is absurd. We think how funny this photo is going to look with all these asians and 4 very white people and 1 very black man. Then they pull out these big coolers and start handing out lunch. This is when things become chaotic as Koreans have no sense of how to line up. Everyone makes a mad dash for the coolers while the 5 of us are pushed to the back. It was like a free for all at a bargain basement sale. We just stand there in amusement waiting for the crowd to clear. Eventually we get our lunch, which was a rather delicious meal of rice, chicken , fish and vegetables. We grab our lunch, seperate from the crowd and make our way to the beach.
The beach was really beautiful although the tide was out when we arrived so it was a long walk to the water, but well worth it. Of course we were the only white people on the beach so our every move was being watched and analysed. We managed to get a table which we then had to pay 20,000 to use but it was worth it. It was very similar to beaches at home except every 20 minutes or so they would start saying things over a loud speaker and at one point some man starting driving down the beach in a tractor. We are still not sure what that was about.

We kepy trying to guess what they were saying over the loud speakers and the joke of the day was that they were making comments about the funny white people. At this point Kristina and I went into the water and we discovered what they were saying. We were standing in the water talking when the loud speaker came on and then I hear Kristina say Oh my god and I turn around and there is a seadoo coming towards us, towing a giant raft with people on it. It seems we were standing in the boating zone, and they were not slowing down. We made a mad dash to get out of the way and just made it. We are pretty sure the lady on the loud speaker was yelling at us.

At one point I go in the water and I see the only black guy in our group being surrounded by all these Mongolians. They all want their picture taken with him. They all give me their cameras and pose in various positions . It was hilarious but they were happy.

After many hours of soaking up the sun and copious amounts of beer it is time to go. We head back to the bus find our seats and head home. We had a slight altercation on the bus as we decided to change seats so that we can sit together. It seems the people who had originally sat there weren't so happy to move and proceeded to yell at us until we moved back to our original seats. We knew dinner was at some point but we didn't know where or when. We drive back to Daejeon and then they come over the microphone and make an announcement, in Korean of course. I make a joke saying that they are saying that everyone but the white people get to have the dinner. Little did I know how true my statement was. We pull up to the restaurant, get out, climb up 3 flights of stairs and enter a room full of tables. Once again it became a madhouse with people running in all directions, pushing people out of the way to find a seat. The 5 of us just stand there in dazed bewilderment with no where to sit. At this point we decide we have had enough and opt to leave rather that stay for dinner. We say goodbye to the coordinators and head out to a more civilized restaurant and have dinner with just the 5 of us. Despite the chaos, we had a great day and it all just added to the adventure.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Teachers trip

Yesterday was the last day of school before the summer break. It was saturday, yes they make children here go to school every other saturday until 12. Since it was the last day of the school all the teachers celebrated with a trip. We were told a few weeks prior that we would take a trip to Seongnisan National Park where we would spend the afternoon climbing a mountain. I am not too keen on mountain climbing, especially in 90d heat and humidity, nor I found out were any of the teachers that I shared an office with. So, we prayed for rain. Our prayers were answered because it rained, and it rained, and it rained. It rained so hard at times that there were streets that were flooded and creeks overflowing - but our trip got changed and no mountain climbing.
At 11:10 we all ventured out to street in front of our school, huddling under our umbrellas to wait for our ride. Our chariot came in the form of a big, purple bus complete with kareoke disco lights and microphones at every seat. When I saw that I knew it was going to be an interesting day. Fortunately they opted to turn on the disco lights but leave the kareoke machine alone and we headed out to our first destination - Sangsoo Herbland. Along the way they handed out goodies including bags of snacks, bottles of water and a big piece of Deok (which is korean cake made from rice - of course). This is when the fun began and the Vice-Principal cracked open the beer and walked from seat to seat pouring each person a shot of beer followed by a piece of dried squid. To refuse would be considered rude - so I dutifully drank my beer and ate my squid.
We arrived at Herbland, which turned out to be a giant herb farm famous all across Korea and even other parts of Asia. We were given a brief lecture - it was in Korean of course but I am assuming it was on the types of herbs that they grow there and what they can used for. After the lecture we were taken on a tour of the facility and luckily everything was marked with english signs so I was able to tell what we were looking at. It was a very large place and the smells of the lavender and rosemary was overwhelming , but in a nice way. The tour was followed by lunch of their specialty dish of flower bibimbap.

Bibimbap is a popular korean dish that consists of white rice topped with bean sprouts and other vegetables and then a bean paste is added. Sometimes egg or meat can be added as well. It is all mixed together and is very delicious. In this case special flowers grown at the herb farm are also added. It was very, very good and as you can see from the picture below I am getting better at using my chopsticks.
After lunch we boarded the bus again for our next destination - Chungju writing museum. Of course on the bus ride to the museum the Vice principal once again made the rounds with the beer shots and dried squid. At the museum we were given a tour guide who showed us displays of ancient writing tablets and explained how the monks made books and papers centuries ago. Again it was in Korean but there were some english signs so I was able to understand some of what it was about. I expect that if I had been able to understand the tour guide it would have been very fascinating.
We left the museum and headed to our final destination - Beupjusa temple in Songisan national park. It was a 30 minute bus ride, which of course involved more beer and dried squid and when we arrived the rain was pouring down. We tumbled out of the bus, put up our umbrellas and started the 20 minute trek into the park. Despite the rain it was a very pleasant walk through the forest. The temple sits at the base of Songisan moutain so along the walk you can see the mountian peaks showing through the trees. Since it was raining it was all very misty and quite beautiful. We finally emerged through the trees to the temple compound and it was breathtaking.
One of the first things you see is Palsagjeon which is the only 5 story pagoda left in Korea. This temple was built in the year 553 but was destroyed by the Japanese and had to be rebuilt in 1624. The temple was built with the hope of unifying the 3 kingdoms of Korea. It's sad that 14 centuries later millions are still hoping for a unified Korea.
Amongst the wooden pagodas and ancient buildings is this giant golden statue of Budda. It;s called the Golden Maitreya Statue of National Unification and was erected in 1990 on the site of the original main hall of the temple.
We wandered the temple for half an hour and then walked back to the bus to head for dinner. Our dinner consisted of Korean bbq - which is an interesting experience. First it is served at Korean tables, which means you remove your shoes and then sit crossed legged on the floor. It gets very umcomfortable after awhile but I am starting to get used to it. The tables are long and about 20 people would fit at the one table. For every 4-5 people at the table there would be cooking spot. We were then given plates of raw duck meat which you place on the BBQ and then let it cook. As well you would be given mushrooms and other vegetables which you could put on to cook with the meat. You then take your chopsticks and eat the meat rigth off the bbq. It's delicious. Most people take lettuce leaves and put the meat inside the lettuce and eat it that way. It doesn't matter how you eat it - it's very good. The dinner was followed by a dessert of potbinsu which is a type of Korean icecream made with crushed ice, bean paste and fruit mixed in. Also very delicious.
After dinner we climbed back on the bus for the trek home. At this point most people were exhausted and fell asleep . There was one male teacher whow as very drunk at this point and decided to round people up to go drinking after we got home. He went from seat to seat convincing people but when he got to my seat, looked at me for a minute debating whether to try to talk to me. In his drunken state he couldn't remember the limited english that he had so just said any words that came into this head. All I understood was family and schedule, however I knew what he wanted so I agreed to go. It turns out all the teachers had agreed just so that he would go away but once we got back to the school nobody went anywhere. We all headed to our respective cars and buses and went home. It was a fun but exhausting day.

Monday, July 5, 2010

5 months in ...

So, I have been here for almost 5 months and I thought I would give my thoughts on Korea and the things that I have come to like, dislike and just find amusing. On the whole I have come to enjoy living here. It's very exciting to live in a new culture and having new experiences every day. Here are some of the things that I have come to really like about Korea.
1. Buying ice cream - when you buy ice cream in the grocery store in Korea it comes packaged in an air sealed freezer bag that keeps it frozen until you get home. I could be wrong, but I have never seen this in Canada. What a great invention - it lets me buy ice cream, take the bus home, and still have it be frozen solid.
2. Outdoor exercise equipment - All over Daejeon, and I suspect Korea, are outdoor exercise machines. You see them everywhere, in parks, on sidewalks and in school playgrounds. It varies depending on where you are but basically they consist of bikes, stepping machines, weight machines etc. They are free for anyone to use and quite often I pass by on the bus and see some old man pedalling away on one of the bikes. They are a great way to avoid paying for a gym membership.
3. I have mentioned this before but I will say it again - banana milk. This stuff is so delicious. Here is a picture of what it looks like. It costs about $1.00 and basically it's banana flavoured milk.
4. Lack of credit cards. It seems that credit cards aren't used to often here in Korea as everything gets paid through wire transfers at the ATM. Since I neither like or use credit cards this makes my life very easy here. Basically if you want to buy something online, order plane tickets, reserve seats on a tour they will give you their account number, you go to the ATM, type the info in and voila it's paid for. It's made my life much easier here in Korea as I have been able to buy books, reserve tickets and plan holidays without use of the dreaded visa.
There are many things that I have found amusing or interesting about Korea and I will mention a few of them here.
1. The need to be the first person on the bus. I ride the city bus at least once every day and every time it's the same. There are always a group of people standing at the bus stop waiting with me, and it always very orderly and civilized until the bus appears. Suddenly it becomes a mad dash for the door. I have seen people run and body check others out of the way just so that they could be the first on. I'm not sure what the reasoning for this is - it's not like the bus is going to leave without them. I have a theory though, that it's an ingrained survival instinct. You see riding a bus in Korea, especially a crowded bus can sometime be a life endangering experience. Korean bus drivers are sadistic and there is a rumour going around that they purposely try to knock down as many people as they can (probably get extra points if it's a foreigner). If you are unfortunate enough to have to stand then you hang on for dear life because that driver will take corners without slowing down and and will quite often slam on the brakes for no apparent reason. So I think people try to get on first so that they can get situated with a death grip on the pole before the driver takes off at breakneck speeds. I have included some comics from a website that I found that depicts life in Korea because some of it is very accurate.

2. Misused english language - Koreans like english slogans and you see t-shirts and signs everywhere with them. Unfortunately they are often wrong, sometimes making them really funny. At other times it is very obvious that the person wearing the shirt has no concept of what the slogan means, or I am sure they wouldn't be wearing it. More than a few times I have seen men wearing shirts stating it's just PMS I am not a bitch. The worst, though is when the students at my school show up in shirts that their parents obviously didn't understand the meaning of. I saw a third grade student wearing a shirt saying I love my hooker or the worst one was a 4th grade boy with shirt saying I am c--t (think a very nasty word for female genitalia). I have seen other slogans like Kitty Litter Revolution or Love the World's Butt. One time I saw an old Ajumma wearing a shirt with glittering letters on it stating I'm a Gangsta. When I took a second look I got the dreaded Ajumma stare (see below)

It's not just t-shirts either. I have eaten in restaurants called Eat Me or Sexy, Honey Bar (which surprisingly was not a strip club). I have seen menus with foods such as Potatoe meet onions (these were french fries who would have guessed).
Finally one of the last things that I find amusing in Korea is this fear that they have of the sun. Most Koreans hate the sunshine and strive to keep their skin as white as possible. It's funny to see the foreigners out in their shorts and tank tops trying to get as tanned as possible standing next to the Korean who is covered up with only thier eyes peaking out. How they stand it in the heat, I don't know but they do.

So,these are a few of the things that I have come to like about Korea. I have decided to skip the dislike section as I will leave that for another post.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Hwaseong Fortress

A few weeks ago on my trip to Jeolla Nam Do, I met a lady who lives in Suwon. It was big joke on the trip because her name is also Cheryl M and she is also Canadian so I kept referring to her as the other Cheryl M. Anyway, Suwon is a city just south of Seoul and she told me about these fortress walls that surround it. Since I love fortress walls I decided that I must check it out. When I looked it up in my trusty Lonely Planet book I discovered that not only did it look beautiful but it was in fact a Unesco World Heritage Site. I decided that I must pay it a visit. I called up my friend CJ, and sure enough she was game for the adventure.

We caught a train to Suwon and 1 1/2 hours later we were there. We knew we had to go to a place called Paldalmun which was the south gate into the fortress, with steps leading up to the walls, but we weren't exactly sure how to get there. We headed for the tourist info booth where we met a very kind man who spoke no english. Somehow we managed to explain what we wanted and he gave a small slip of paper with the bus number that we needed to take. We were off - but where to catch the bus. Outside the train station was a row of taxi's but no buses to be seen. I did however see a man in a straw hat, with a map and I assumed that he was going to the same destination - so we followed him. Sure enough he led us right to our bus. We were a little concerned that we wouldn't know where to get off the bus but it turns out you couldn't miss it as there was a giant stone gateway in the middle of the road. Also the straw hat man got off here so we knew we were in the right place.
Hwaseong fortress was built in the late 1700's by King Jeongjo to house the remains of his late father, Prince Sado. Prince Sado was locked by his father inside a rice chest where he died. It was punishment for disobeying his command to commit suicide. Parents were so unreasonable back then. High above the fortress are the walls that total a distance of 6km around the perimeter.

At Paldamun we climbed the very steep stairs up to the walls where we began our journey under black skies and the threat of rain. Despite the grey skies the weather was very hot and humid and within no time we were exhausted but determined to walk the entire length. Off in the distance we could see a fairly large mountain with a pagoda at the top and we knew at some point we would have to climb it. We journeyed on toward the mountain ever fearful of the sky that was getting darker and darker.

The wall itself was very beautiful and well maintained. Every so often there would be look out stops with pagodas and cannons all strategically placed for the soldiers to keep watch for the enemy, the Japanese. Given the height of the wall we had excellent views over the city. After about an hour of walking we noticed the sky getting even darker and we started to feel a few drops. At this point there were some stairs taking you off the wall and I noticed some shops selling umbrellas. Since I wasn't smart enough to bring mine I thought I had better go and buy one. We still had at least an hour of walking. I bought a lovely pink umbrella and we climbed back up the stairs and continued our walk. Sure enough, simply because I bought an umbrella, the skies cleared and the rain stopped. We continued on with that mountain looming in front of us.

We had been walking for almost 2 hours when suddenly we were there. At the mountain. There were stairs straight up to the top and it seemed like an endless climb. To make it more difficult the stairs were cut from stone on the side of the hill so they weren't exactly even or evenly spaced. Somehow we made it to the top, did our Rocky dance to the amusement of others there, and looked out over the city. Down below was the fortress and we knew we had reached the end.

We walked a little further where we found the stairs down and signs to the entrance into the fortress. Outside the fortress there were crowds of people and some sort of festival going on. We got there in time to see this crazy man doing tricks on the tightrope. We watched for a little while and then decided that we were too tired and hungry to stay any longer. We made our way back to the road where we caught the bus back to the train station and the train home to Daejeon. Soemhow we managed to right bus to the train station as this time we were without the services of straw hat man.It was a fun day and definitly worth the time and effort.

Since I have complained about them a few times I have included a picture of a squat toilet. This way those of you who have never seen one will now know what I am talking about when I complain. I have actually gotten used to them and they are not so bad.