Monday, June 29, 2009

our friendly neighbours to the north.

somehow my updating has slowed down to a weekly thing. i suppose because our weekends are the most exciting part of our time here, and thus prove to have the most content to write home about! regardless, thanks for checking in and i’m going to try to be more consistent in getting updates on here.

we vetoed seoul this weekend and instead headed north to an area called yeoncheon, which lies right on the north korea/south korea border. which is oh-so-exciting these days, isn’t it? to be honest, as much media attention as the good ol’ NK is getting back home, it really barely registers as news around here. south koreans seem generally undisturbed about the north’s threats – they’ve been living with this “fear” for more than 50 years.

a korean friend of ours offered to be our gracious tour guide, and she drove us up to taepung observatory (which was an hour+ car ride from the last subway stop). in my naivety, i was expecting some sort of wilderness-platform-lookout with public access and a number of stairs to climb. obviously, i was mistaken. i quickly realized how wrong i was as our 4-door kia approached a barricaded military checkpoint. however, our happy korean friend effectively got us past the armed guards, which required confiscating our IDs and a somewhat-lengthy sign-in. as the area we were headed into was “top secret” (her words), the GPS in her car showed no directions on the screen. the car climbed slowly uphill until we reached our destination.

the view at the top was nothing short of astounding, complete with three rows of barbed-wire fence overlooking kilometres of uninhabited fields. there were also tourist-friendly coin-operated binoculars and telescopes to enhance your viewing experience. apparently, you can often see north koreans working in the farm fields on the other side, but we saw no life to the north. the military on guard at the look out were understandably very serious about their jobs (and made me really nervous!): no pictures allowed, and they criticized my shorts for being too short. i'm not sure why the concern about the latter was really necessary, it was more than 35 degrees outside! nevertheless, mark took some prohibited photos … just so you at home can get the secret gist. or not get it, since the pictures are literally of landscape.

we’re still intending to go on an official DMZ tour, complete with up-close-and-personal encounters with NK military and tunnel tours. there will be more north/south commentary in the future!

Sunday, June 21, 2009

the rainy season is upon us

and as much as i hate to say it, it put a disappointing damper on our weekend plans. pun intended?

originally, we were scheduled to head to ganghwa island for a mini-vaca: a little escape from the gsa (greater seoul area, so you're familiar) for some r n' r. i imagined us re-doing muskoka in korea: quaint log cabin with cozy bunks, lounging on the beach, swimming, sunning, boozing, eating lots of yummy food. and yes, this fantasy is likely a far cry from what would have been, and our "cottage" would've likely turned out to be something typically korean, like a crowded homestay with mats on the floor for sleeping, or a musty canvas tent. but, whatever.

regardless, any kind of cottage dream never materialized, as the torrential downpour massively hastened any getaway enthusiasm. seriously, there was new meaning brought to the term, "when it rains, it pours" - when we woke bright-eyed and bushy-tailed at 5:45am to begin our holiday trek, it was pouring. and the weather forecast called for... more pouring. needless to say, plans got nixed, and the only silver lining seemed to be returning to bed for some much needed naps.

the rainy season folks, will likely stick around until august. the air is sticky hot, and at least three typhoons are expected during the season. dear god.

Monday, June 15, 2009

cases of the mondays

... don't really exist in korea. yeah, it's disappointing when the weekend is over, but i never have the back-to-the-grind dread that i experienced with many of my jobs in canada. maybe it's our 1:30pm start time, or the fact that the week zips by and before we know it it's friday again, but i never begrudge mondays anymore. it's kind of refreshing.

this weekend we continued with our touristy journey to seoul. a couple weeks ago, mark scoured our hand-me-down copy of "seoul's best 100" things to do and made a thorough list of all of the attractions and sites that are must sees. so far:

1. namsan park + seoul tower

2. coex aquarium

3. gyeongbukgong palace

the palace is an amazing historical fortress, and admission is only ₩3,000 (convenient for my champagne taste on a beer budget - thanks mom). the palace was established in 1395 as the residence for the founder of the joseon dynasty, and the grounds are just so extensive it's breathtaking. we wandered around for nearly 3 hours, enjoying the sunshine and taking far too many pictures. inside the palace premises is also the national folk museum, which had free admission. unfortunately, by this point i was hungry, kind of cranky, and just not in any kind of museum-appreciation-mood. needless to say, we took the hasty fast-forwarded tour of the museum.

in other news, we've taken up informal korean lessons with one of our korean co-teachers. i suppose it's more of a language exchange, as she's looking to better her english. we also spent almost an hour gossiping abo
ut travel with her, so i must stress the "informal" part of these lessons. only one session deep, we're still total newbies. however, mark's currently creaming me in the who-can-learn-a-foreign-language-faster competition, as he's already taught himself how to read hangul (mostly while i've been absorbed in my new bookworm habit, now onto the alchemist ...). the only problem is that even once you learn how to read korean, it's still, well, in korean. only one step closer to being literate in this country! as well, i've only gotten as far as memorizing the numbers 1-4 in one of the counting systems (as there's two). hangae, dugae, segae, negae ... then the numbers become more complicated and syllable-heavy after 5. we'll see how this goes.

사랑 당신은 당신을 놓친다
(ok i stuck that in a web translator...)

i'll leave yo
u with some pics from our palace sightseeing:

also, happy birthday dad - RIP p.j.m.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

touristy and dorky things

last sunday, mark and i were feeling super touristy and took the subway to the myeongdong area of seoul, to explore namsan park, home of the seoul tower. visitors are able to take a sweet uphill trek to the tower (we had no rough estimates of how long this feat would take. 3 hours? all day? koreans are hard core). despite my recently developed hiking prowess, it was sunny and sweltering; we opted for the cable car. apparently there's also a botanical garden and a small zoo, but we didn't get that far. we didn't even get up to the observation deck of the tower, as the views from the base of it were breathtaking enough (and we didn't want to pay the additional fee ...)

the tower has adopted a romantic tradition similar to one the great wall of china has, and that's to attach a small key lock to the perimeter fence of the tower to proclaim your undying devotion to the apple of your eye. the great wall's ritual apparently involves throwing the key to the lock over the edge, but the korean version has hefty warning signs prohibiting key tossing, and many of the locks were combination ones anyway.

needless to say koreans really really love each other.

there wasn't a space of chain link that didn't have a love lock on it. it was view-distracting! i wish i could have read more of the love scribbles, but obviously most were in korean. i did come across handful of english ones; one that a teacher seemed to have dedicated to her class (and to god. errr ... ) cute.

sweet love lock jumps.

upclose and very very personal.

this weekend we were scheduled to go to a baseball game on saturday, but after a near two hour trek were disappointed to find it sold out. and scalpers scarce. instead, we hit up the largest underground mall in asia, COEX mall. as much as i wanted to go on a shopping spree, having an entourage of males (in)conveniently discouraged that. instead, we hit up the large english section in the bookstore, and went to the arcade. strangely enough, i am loving video games in asia. who would've thought? ... no seriously, who?

on a completely separate, and somewhat dorky, note, i've (proudly) become total book worm as of late. to bring you up to speed: as much as i hate to admit it, my former love of reading has dissolved in recent years into a terrible habit of starting and not finishing books, with at least seven "on the go" - meaning, on my bedside table with bookmarks halfway through them. ugh. however, not all is lost! in the past month i have quickly absorbed kate grenville's the secret river, khaled hosseini's the kite runner (long overdue, i know), and cormac mccarthy's the road. my dreams were most influenced by the latter. all excellent though, and highly recommended! our bookstore venture brought home paulo coelho's the alchemist and jodi picoult's my sister's keeper. ok, so the last one's girly, but whatever.

ok, total dork post complete.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Goodbye Conor Teacher

So today, one of our fellow foreign teachers, Conor, is leaving Korea and heading back to Canada. As you might imagine, it's always a sad time when another teacher finishes their contract and leaves as we all become friends and get used to having these people around. Conor has been my main soju drinking buddy (other than Alex) when we go out for our weekly dinner with some of the other teachers; Conor and RJ took Alex and I out for our first dinner in Korea; our first noraebong experience in Korea was made extra comical by Conor, when he got really drunk and passed out and we had to carry him to Mark & Bridget's (teachers we replaced) couch to pass out on; and I'll miss listening to Conor and RJ shoot the shit about sports and other funny stuff from my far end of the teachers' room at school. One less guy to talk sports with is never a good prospect. Conor's experiences in Korea have been varied, many good ones of course but some of his low lights have been some of the weirdest and funniest stories I've heard from a foreigner since being in Korea. Some are definitely worthy of blog mention: for instance, being attacked by a machete-wielding Korean when answering the door at his apartment (long story) or my personal fave: being punched in the face twice by one of the owners of our school, Mr. Lee. Mr. Lee has since developed a healthy man-crush on Conor as seen in these pics (crotch touching and all)...

If you didn't know, Korean men are quite friendly, specifically with other men. You will frequently see Korean men walking down the street holding each others hands, but I assure you they are just exchanging long protein strains (a la Bill Clinton and Bob Dole in The Simpsons treehouse of horror VII, fwd to 16:30), or something like that, because homosexuality is kinda a faux pas around here.
Conor and angry Fred (looking pretty happy to spend some time with Conor).

The same night that Mr. Lee was cozying up to Conor, I was also accosted by one of the Korean middle school teachers, who insisted on wrapping his arms around me and continually licking his fingers and attempting to put them on my lips. Maybe this is some Korean custom that I am still unfamiliar with, but I'm leaning towards it just being another occurrence of overly-friendly drunken Korean men. I thankfully escaped without having to "kiss" his fingers, by sneakily distracting him with free shots of soju courtesy of the very hammed Mr. Lee.

That's him on the left showing his kissing fingers.

But as amusing as all this stuff is, this post is actually more about appreciating your time in Korea than awkward drunken man love.
Fred getting possessive.

Conor was counting down the days 'til his contract was up, which becomes a common practice among teachers nearing the end of their stay. We would talk about how excited he was and what he wanted to do when he got home, but as his final days crept up, he said that he was beginning to feel nostalgic and would be sad to finally leave his home of the last year. Maybe it was the stack of goodbye letters and drawings that he had received from all his students (many asking him to stop smoking in broken english or via illustration) or maybe it was just the booze talking, but either way, it got me thinking.

Many things haven't really gone as we expected since arriving in Korea, so at first I got the feeling, as I'm sure many teachers do, of what the hell am I doing here. But as the days turned to weeks and I became more comfortable and things started improving, I realized I am more than happy to be here. Even though I get sad sometimes when I think about home and the things that I'm missing out on (and the multitude of reasons that I love Canada), I have to always remember to appreciate this opportunity that many people will never get the chance to experience and take advantage of everyday in Korea.

Last night was Conor's goodbye party (which the bosses are claiming is also our welcome dinner, 2 months late), so we wished him well on his travels and thanked him for all the sweet gifts he gave us (big plant that Alex loves, little plant, speakers, Korean language books, mini ironing board etc)...
But most importantly he reminded me to cherish every day of this experience, because once it's time to go home, I'll miss Korea - its people, its culture, its food, and, of course, its booze.