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

James Dean

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.