Monday, August 31, 2009

so long sweet summer

so, tomorrow is the first day of september, and it can't help but stick in my mind as the end of summer and the arrival of the (at home) back to school season. here, it means ... not a whole lot, since school's been going strong through the hottest months of the year. it does mean our 5-month korea-versary is around the corner though, and again i marvel at how quickly the sand is passing through the hour glass. i live in this weird paradox of feeling like i just got here and feeling like i've been here forever. it's hard to wrap my mind around.

one thing i miss about being "new" to korea is the awe at all the weird different things this country considers normal. how quickly we've become accustomed to (and, mind you, have respectfully embraced, criticized, laughed at, and abhorred) things like everyday korean style, the ubiquitous sale and consumption of alcohol, drunk-in-public businessmen that accompany the ubiquitous sale and consumption of alcohol, lack of safety for pedestrians, lack of safety rules in general, cheap ice cream treats, cheap cigarettes, caramel popcorn at the movies, being objects of attention because we're caucasian ... etcetera, etcetera ... i really could go on and on (and on).

having mark's sister ali here was sort of a re-awakening to all these wonderful korean things. she left us copies of her pictures, and it was refreshing to see our stompin' grounds through someone else's new-to-asia eyes.

who needs a real-life employee when you can just have a volunteer mannequin direct traffic away from the construction zone? click to enlarge

mondo bugs are everywhere.

pizza school - pepperoni with cheesy crust in my personal fave, but you can get corn or pasta or potatoes on your pizza too ...

mark posing as a ... white guy ... for a random's photo

appealing (and again, life-like!) statues enticing you into a restaurant in myeongdong.

parent-less child going for a stroll, every day sighting.

frosted flakes!

snazzy umbrella bag machines, saves drips on indoor floors. excess waste not considered ...

why use the road for your motorbike, when this sidewalk is just that much handier? it's also common to see cars on pedestrian routes as well ...

so happy september to you all! i'm excited for less humidity and teaching my students a three-syllable month name.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

one fish two fish red fish doctor fish

i'm a big fan of pampering - give me massages or back scratches any day, any time. at home (when in the money) i was a regular client at the cheap pedicure place by my house. now that we're in korea, finding such luxuries isn't as easy. but one thing we knew we had to seek out while being residents of sk was dr. fish.

unfortunately, i can't recall what i'd heard of dr. fish before making the trip to the other side of the planet. apparently oprah did some coverage of its benefits, but that could be wrong. i've also heard mixed things about the hygienic side of such a procedure, but i vetoed doing any research - and potentially finding gross results - before going through with it.

dr. fish is a sort of pedicure/relaxing foot bath that involves hundreds of little fish eating the dead skin from your feet. shanna and dave had done it multiple times while here, so we were reassured by their review. and to be honest, i was just really curious about what it would feel like to have little creatures nibbling at my toes. and heels. and ankles. ok, and calves.

s & d had recommended a place in gangnam, a swanky area of seoul, south of the han river. i was expecting a salon of sorts, something with white walls and uniformed dr. fish practitioners. instead, we were greeted by a posh second-floor coffee shop. the rule was: you buy an overpriced beverage of your choice and only pay ₩2000 (less than $2CDN) for the fish. then lounge, enjoy your free toast and jam, and wait for your turn. the fish were in small trough-like tanks by the windows, and the area around them was raised to allow for comfortable floor seating while your feet dangle.

after waiting about 30 mins, it was our turn. we were required to hose down our feet, and then the four of us shared one communal fish pool (or trough, for lack of a better word). at first, it was seeming near-impossible to even get a foot in with the fish - it was soo ticklish. the sensation is hard to describe. sort of like pins and needles meets dr ho's electric massaging pads (you know, if you've ever tried those ...). nevermind the huge mind-over-matter factor. part of me didn't like the idea of little creatures on my feet. i kept having to erase from my mind what was actually going on. it was also nice that the pool had jets that kept you from actually seeing the fish on your feet.
one trough of fish for four, coming right up ...

bird's eye view of what we were in for.

zoom in on them hungry little fishies

they weirdly remind me of baby birds, with their hungry open mouths. you can see the ones that have already attached themselves to madeline's foot.

at first i was a bit repulsed, but i was won over by the experience in the end. seventeen minutes later, i suppose my feet did feel a little post-pedicure-y. though, it was hard to tell after having to wear flip flops in the post-rain streets of seoul and on the subway home ...

my dr. fish experience gets 4.5 dead-skin-eating swimmers out of 5. overpriced beverage included.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

the DMZed (it's better canadianized, non?)

alright, so i'm overdue in the re-cap of events-a-happening-lately, so this report's a week+ late, but bear with me. last weekend, we were still busy showing mark's sister, ali, the best spots in and around seoul, and despite her having left to return to canada last wednesday, i've somehow been too preoccupied to update ...

so here we go ...

last saturday, we went on a tour of the dmz, which was simultaneously awesome and incredibly intimidating. although we'd been to an north korean observatory before, the tour of the joint security area has stricter rules for visitors, as it's the only part of the dmz where sk and nk meet directly. most tourists to the spot are foreigners, as we're lucky enough to only have to pay for the experience, and not have to go through the lengthy and difficult process south korean visitors would have to. that being said, access is completely restricted for any citizens of afghanistan, cuba, iran, iraq, lybia, pakistan, sudan, syria, and of course, any north koreans. how interesting.

so, we'd been briefed on more or less what to expect, including strict guidelines on dress code (of which none of the following were permitted):

3. Dress code
-Dress code violators will not be permitted tour to the JSA.

1) A hole jeans or faded jeans (Basic jeans are o.k)
2) Top and sleeveless
3) Mini skirts, sports wear, short pants and slippers
4) Military style look
5) Any form fitting clothing of any type including tight knit tops or pants.
6) leather clothes

taken right from the panm
unjom tour's website ...

well, after we'd cleared up that none of us would be wearing our a-hole jeans or leather chaps, we were set to go. we met our tour group and boarded the bus in downtown seoul, and set off for the 1+ drive to the border. our tour guide, mr. kim, informed us that there would be no pointing or gesturing at the guards once in the military area. we were only allowed to take pictures in and of designated areas. once we got to our destination at camp bonifas, our passports were checked, along with our shoes (no flip flops or sandals permitted), and we had to leave all possessions on the bus. and yes, if you click on that link, you'll also see that camp bonifas is home to the most dangerous golf course in the world, which we also got to see! bonus! the only thing that was allowed to be in our hands when departing the bus were our cameras (all cash in pockets, hats on heads) - this was to make sure we'd be more or less hands-free if we needed to make a run for it (in the back-to-the-bus way, not in an over-the-border-defecting way). we were warned that if we pointed or gestured in any shape or form, it was out of our tour guide's hands (pun intended?) and we'd be shot. mr. kim was a pretty light hearted and funny guy, but he made it clear that although we all laughed, he wasn't joking - and he would not be held accountable if we got gunned down by the military. we had to sign visitor's declarations before entering, and one section specifically stated:

d. visitors will not point, make gestures, or expressions which could be used by the north korean side as propaganda material against the united nations command

oh, and also:

1. the visit to the joint security area at panmunjom will entail entry into a hostile area and possibility of injury or death as a direct result of enemy action.


mr. kim also told us some pretty horrific stories about groups in the past where tourists had been reckless with the rules and "accidents" had happened. that being said, he also kept referring to something called the "ex mother instance," and it wasn't until the with-pictures slideshow was presented that i realized my terrible interpretation of his accent was really the axe murder incident. whoops. don't worry, that wasn't tourist-related, just north koreans soldiers attacking the american miltary.

the soldiers all stand at attention, just feet from the border. they use the building as a shield, and are thus positioned at the corners as such. i know it's honorable and all, but this must be a pretty fucking boring job...
this is building t-3, and we were permitted entry to the building next door, t-2

north korean soldier creeping us through his binoculars

inside building t-2: this table is in the centre of the room, and the microphones on the desk indicate the border between north and south. in this room, we were allowed to wander freely and thus enter north korea, but we were warned not to get too close to the armed unmoving guards (of which there were two). oh, and yes, also, no pointing or gesturing.

being terrified of the wax-like soldier (ali even mentioned they'd put mme tussauds to shame...) - this was shortly after mr. kim warned us not to get too close to them as they're quite hostile (nevermind masters in martial arts, and armed). please note smile of fear on my face.

mark's brave and right up close to him. they wear sunglasses to prevent any distracting eye contact, or "eye communication."

the concrete slab that indicates the line between north and south; north on the right, south on the left.

needless to say, we made it through the tour in one piece. i even ran into an old friend from university in our group. small world, what! and i know we've recommended it before, but let me harass you again to check out vice's guide to north korea because if you can't make it there yourself (or even if you can), that documentary is awesome.

*picture at top: the direct meeting point of the south korean and north korean borders, picture taken from freedom house pagoda on the south side of the border. in the distance, main north korean building, panmungak.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

po-'hang time' episode 3

After hanging out in the middle of nowhere for over half an hour, we grabbed some bibimbap at a tiny Korean restaurant near the bus stop. All of the other people who had gotten off the bus with us had now disappeared and we were starting to get a little nervous. After lunch, and maybe an hour since arriving at the country bus depot, a cab driver dropped off two old ladies who seemed to be communicating to us that the bus we thought we were waiting for wasn't coming. The cab driver insisted that we go with him and he could take us to the mountain. We decided to take this random and potentially dodgy opportunity and it ended up being the smartest choice of the day. After he took us through some back country roads barely big enough for a car and along the coast to check out a nice beach we finally arrived at our planned destination.

Map of Pohang and all its attractions

Map of Bogyeonsa (said mountain) with all waterfalls listed (in Korean)

We began our hike alongside a stream and before we knew it started seeing nice little waterfalls. The more we walked the bigger the waterfalls got. After an hour and a half of hiking with a little stop to wade in the water near one of the falls we were thinking of turning back. I was still hoping for bigger falls so I made Alex and Ali continue on for a bit more. We eventually got to a big suspension bridge that led us to a big waterfall within a giant gorge. This made the whole trip worth it. All the bus issues had been forgotten. We passed the spot where a chain to keep people from getting to close to the falls once hung and got up close for an obligatory photo shoot.

After we hiked back down the mountain, we decided that our best bet would be to take a cab back to the hotel if we ever wanted to see civilization again.

The rest of our vacation went off with pretty much no hitches.
We decided to spend the following day relaxing at the beach, and passed a good quality 7 hours sunbathing without a cloud in the sky. Needless to say, Alex and I got burnt to a crisp (while Ali just became more bronzed). Nothing out of the ordinary, but we could barely walk or even move the next day. We were a regular pair of Korean-made lobsters.

All in all, the vacation was quite the success in my books.

The view of Pohang from an observation tower in a local park

- mark

Monday, August 10, 2009

po-'hang time' episode 2

We get on the bus a couple minutes after it arrives and when we get to our seats we find a Korean woman and her children already comfortably seated. We try to communicate that she's got the wrong spots, but when she takes out her tickets we see they have the same seat numbers as ours. They've clearly been double-booked. This wouldn't be a huge problem, but with the next bus not for another 5 hours, I was moderately worried. We stepped off the bus while they tried to figure out how this happened (everyone speaking in Korean). After deciding it was just good ol' human error, they conclude that it would be easier to kick the foreign non-Korean-speaking passengers without the three small children off the bus (I suppose the decision was clear). The driver indicated for us to take our luggage and thus wait for the next bus (instructions/solution translated via random Korean passerby). Needless to say I wasn't very impressed. I stood with one foot on the stairs of the bus and repeatedly said "NO" in Korean as angrily as I could, as they continually motioned for us to get our luggage. After delaying the bus for ten minutes, the bus driver started getting pretty antsy, so they decided they might be able to squeeze us in. Ali and Alex got to sit in regular seats and I got to sit in the VIP section next to the driver in the jump seat over the stairs. Then, after we made some stops and found that we weren't picking up more passengers, I got to relocate and join the ladies for the remainder of the trip. Possible bus crisis averted!

We're on a Bus

Needless to say, we eventually arrived in Pohang safe and sound. We took a cab to our hotel, quickly changed into our bathing suits and hit the beach, which was steps from our accomodations.

Once on the beach, it was apparent that Koreans have interesting fashion choices in beach attire. Most of them were fully dressed, either under umbrellas or in tents set up on the beach. Now it's odd enough that they wear all their clothes on the beach but they also swim in all their clothes. We saw Koreans swimming in shorts, t-shirts, hoodies, dress shirts, jeans.

Tents, umbrellas and Koreans in full dress

We felt somewhat awkward in our bathing suits, but I was mostly just happy to be relaxing at the beach. We hung out and explored the beach a bit, then went for dinner and hit the sack early.

The next day we decided to do some exploring and visit one of the local mountains which had a bunch of nice waterfalls. We asked the man at front desk how to get there and he said a cab would be too expensive and recommended the bus, as it would be cheaper and pretty easy.
He even drove us to the nearest bus stop (nice!), told us it the bus ride would be "many minutes" and that we would know when we got there.

And, so our second Pohang bus adventure began.

This is my apprehensive pre bus trip face

We boarded the already-packed bus and got on our way. A couple of minutes into our trip we hit some serious traffic. After almost a hour and a half of crawling (and literally being passed by pedestrians) plus several near accidents and an old Korean woman falling headfirst into my chest, we arrived at a random bus stop in the middle of the countryside where the bus driver informed us to get off.

Thinking we'd arrived at our destination, we quickly exited and found ourselves ... at a bus depot in the middle of nowhere. Apparently, we were now supposed to get on another bus, which left in approximately one and a half hours, and left us kickin' it in the Korean countryside for (what we hoped was only) 90 minutes ...

to be continued in part 3


Saturday, August 8, 2009

po-'hang time' episode 1

Editor's note: this is "part one" in a three part series. It's that gripping.

When we found out a month or so back that we would have a nice little vacation at the start of August, we were pretty psyched. Not because we were on the brink of some teaching-induced meltdown (as Alex may have led you to believe ...), but more because we hadn't had the opportunity to do much traveling in Korea, minus our foray to spy on the North Koreans and our trip to Mudfest, of course.

We had many ideas of where we could go and how we would spend 5 days in a row with no teaching, but as we attempted to plan our trip it got more and more difficult. See, the time we had off coincided with the vacation of every other person in Korea, and booking accomodations was proving to be difficult in itself. First, we were thinking Busan, but after being rejected by multiple hotels that were full and triple the regular price we decided to get some help from one of our Korean co-teachers. Mina, one of the teachers at our school, became our official travel agent. She brought brochures of beaches all over Korea and we somewhat arbitrarily chose one of the pages based on the pictures (as the pamphlets were conviently in Korean) and decided to go there. We settled on Pohang, the largest beach town on the east coast, which also happened to be home to POSCO, the biggest steel manufacturer in Asia. I think it made Alex feel at home since she lives close enough to steel town back home. Either way, the prices were about five times cheaper and they had all we really wanted: a beach.

I did some more research and found some other good stuff to do in Pohang and we were rarin' to go. My sister would also be joining us as she had just arrived for a 2 week visit. Fresh off a trip to Mexico, I knew she would be eager to hit the sunny beaches of Pohang.
So we got Mina to book us some bus tickets, cuz it's easier than doing things ourselves, and we packed our bags for our next adventure.

She told us to call her if we ran into any problems in our cross-country journey, but we weren't too worried. Although, lately we've had some minor issues with taking buses places (like when our names were nowhere to be found on the bus list for the Jisan Valley Rock Festival ... but, with Mark and Bridget's expertise it was miraculously resolved: through kindness and free bus tickets). I had my fingers crossed for no such issues with our trip to Pohang, but things have a funny way of not working out smoothly when you really want them to ...

to be continued ...

- mark

Friday, August 7, 2009

dear bank card ...

i know i'm overdue for a vacation re-cap/play-by-play of our wonderful holiday beach getaway, but my heart's not into story telling right now, so you'll have to wait. in the meantime, you can enjoy the picture of the toronto skyline on a korean store for ... who knows. any guesses?

oh, and also, i got trapped in a bank vestibule tonight for a minute that felt like a super-panicky long amount of time. and yes, i'll use the word "vestibule" as the whole scenario reminded me of the episode of friends where chandler gets stuck in an ATM with a victoria's secret model. except in my situation, there wasn't a model. or anyone else, for that matter.

i didn't know the bank machines (not the bank itself, but just the machines) closed at 10pm, and i naively ignored the announcement that was going off as i entered. i put my card into the (then functioning) machine only to have it immediately power off, and all the lights go out. i frantically tried to press cancel, with little luck. both exits also immediately locked and i was trapped in the dark with no cell phone and no korean language skills. traumatic!

luckily, my panic subsided and my logical thought process returned and i reached up to undo the manual lock at the top of one of the doors and miraculously escaped. unscathed, and only minus one bank card. of course, this was only after idiotically banging on the glass windows trying to capture the attention of foreign, unknowing passerbys. oh, and probably recording a really hilarious (in hindsight) CCTV security video of a near-hysterical white girl frantically running around and banging on easy-to-self-unlock doors.