Archive for the ‘Korea Take II’ Category

Isle Denial

Islands are funny little bodies of land. I harbor a very stereotypical view of what an island is (probably due in part to my chilly west-central Wisconsin upbringing). I cant help but to picture the quintessential sandy nub with a handful of palm trees – all bearing ripe fruit – ready to sustain a wayward traveler. Idealistic notions aside, islands are so neat. They are these tiny little models of greater society that don’t feel tiny (until you have been there too long, or the island really is tiny). If you are inland a bit, it can often feel like you are in any ol’ place, with a built modern world – operating just as it would anywhere else. You can imagine my surprise then; each time I visit a new island (tropical or otherwise).

A few weekends back, I visited the island of Jeju. In case you aren’t in the know, Jeju is the most famous (and largest) of the 3,000+ islands that litter the South Korean coast. Jeju is so popular that the flight route between Jeju and Seoul is the busiest in the world (10.5 million passengers in ’14). It goes without saying that the island is insanely popular (with Koreans and foreigners alike). Despite the hype (and my recent proximity for the past year), this was my first visit in the 2 years I have lived here now.

Koreans love to parallel Jeju to the Hawaiian Islands. Having had lived in ‘The Islands’ myself, I was skeptical of the comparison. Its true that Jeju had a very different feel from the Korean mainland. Given its southern position in relation to the peninsula, it is considerably warmer on the island yet it still maintains a temperate climate (four distinct seasons). Nevertheless, the southern location is enough that the island can sustain multiple varieties of palm trees (all introduced in the last 60 years). The island is also of volcanic origins – lending to similar feeling landscapes and even coastline as compared to the infamous ‘Sandwich Isles’. Like the volcanically active island of Hawai’i, Jeju even boasts a few black sand beaches (which I have yet to see).

This travel opportunity was brought to me by a group of adjussis (older, married Korean men) whom I have been hiking and traveling with for the past couple of months. Early on Saturday morning I convened with an anxious and excitable  Poly (like the parrot) who was my introduction and point of contact with the pack. We were at the ferry terminal (conveniently located across from my school) an hour before our departure and in the company of a few hundred of our closest friends. After some heeing and hawing we were corralled onto the large ferry and soon underway.

It wasn’t long before we made our way from our resting room, over to the cafeteria where a large box of sashimi and soju (a strong clear Korean alcohol ~ 40%) was procured. Breakfast is served. Our 5 were joined by 5 adjummas (older, married Korean women) and soon a full 9AM party was in swing. After sneaking away to take some photos from the top deck, I retired to our shared resting room where I claimed a bit of floor space and a vinyl-rectangular Korean style ‘pillow’. Having attended a birth-party the night prior, I was pretty beat with only 5 hours of rest. Sleep came easy and the wake-up call too soon. Again I made my way to the top deck to snap some photos as we sailed into Jeju Port. By now it was early afternoon. The sun was hot and the landscape shrouded in a balmy amber haze. I spotted tall Washington Palms adorning the otherwise industrial, aquatic landscape.

Once on shore and after bidding adieu to our complimentary adjumma company, we made off to meet up with our hired driver. It took a bit, but finally we were in the comforts of our posh black Hyundai Starex (van). Our driver, a slight attentive man reminded me of my Uncle John of Kansas – albeit a bit younger and more oriental in nature… Lunch was some sort of fish soup with a side of baked fish and other nautical dishes. An hour later we were driving along the coast in search of our accommodation. The 3rd floor hallway leading into our room overlooked the sprawling volcanic peaks of Halla Mountain, the patio off the backside of our room offered a view of the sea. I was afforded only enough time to brush my teeth before I was whisked back into the van. Only to be dropped off with Poly a few kilometers down the coastal road. Him and I embarked on a 12k afternoon trek as the others tried their hands at fishing.

Our hike was segment 17 of the Jeju Olle Trail, which is a 400+k route that circumnavigates the island primarily following the coast. The circuit is divided into 21 portions. Our route was fairly domestic, passing restaurants, coffee shops, convenience stores and even Jeju International Airport. Nevertheless it was nice to be on a coast so different from that of my surrogate home – Yeosu (which is a peninsula). Towards the end of our walk, we were rewarded with a salty sundown complete with all the colors you would expect in a sunset on an island likened to Hawaii. Our hike finished right in downtown Jeju City. Being dinner time, we made straight for the open air market in pursuit of some fresh fish. After a pit stop at a chocolate shoppe, we finally settled on a restaurant that would kill and fillet our fish right there. Soon we were joined by the hapless fishermen, and throwing back soju shots paired with cuts of raw fish (basically breakfast for dinner).

Our driver picked us up outside of the market, and made for the middle of the city to drop a few of us off at the nightclub “Aroma Night Superdome” which is supposedly the only nightclub in Jeju and one of the largest in Korea. He took us right to the door where a steward was waiting to escort us in. I immediately felt under-dressed as I was still in my hiking attire. We were handed off from one attentive steward to the next before we were seated at a private booth just left of the main stage. It would be nice to get into what all the night entailed but the lengthy description would almost certainly warrant its own post. Ill just say it was definitely one of the most peculiar nights of my life, with a highly mechanical stage, constant rotating performances, lasers, confetti, and a roof that opened into the night sky. I would say we got there around 9PM and finally departed at sometime around 2AM.

After a taxi delivered us back to our accommodation, we took turns showering – watching golf in the downtime between. I would say it was about 3AM when I finally was able to get some shut eye. Being that I was positioned on the floor in the middle of the main room, morning came abruptly and with great commotion. To my dismay it was just after 6AM when I was roused. We quickly packed our things, and met our driver out in the cool autumn air of the quiet parking lot. He took us into town, to a restaurant of his recommendation. It was closed. Soon we were at another and dinning on some sort of fish soup with similar aquatic side dishes as the previous days lunch. After breakfast we went back to the accommodation to drop off one of our members who was feeling quite tired and then started the long drive down and around to the southern coast. It was a beautiful drive with our van juxtaposed between Hallasan and the rugged sea, but it wasn’t long before I had dozed off. I awoke maybe 40 mins later as we pulled into Seogwipo (Jeju’s second biggest city). The driver dropped us off at a busy palm tree lined parking lot overlooking an island dotted sea. Soon we were underway on Route 7 of the Jeju Olle Trail (the most famous of the 21 routes).

As the trail wound its way through stands of palm trees and other tropical vegetation, we had to pick our way through hoards of Chinese tourists. It was a pretty queer dynamic. Me the quintessential tourist with my group of Korean tourists, touring the most touristy of Korean destinations but outnumber 9 to 1 by this flock of opposing Asian tourists. Anyway, after maybe 3K, they were packed back onto their buses and we were free to continue uninhibited. Soon after our breakaway, we stopped at a small market filled with Jeju wares. Here we grabbed a few local brews of makkoli (a sweet milky rice wine), my favorite of which was the citrus.

Our 15K trek was picturesque. Sun, sea, dramatic coastline of basalt and lush vegetation to tie it all together. Towards the end we even passed a small waterfall pouring its cool clear water onto a undulating round stone beach. By early afternoon we were again reunited with our driver, and soon speeding north for lunch in Jeju City. Lunch was yet another fish soup variety served out of a trough in the middle of the table. We had a side of tasty baked fish and the now standard complimentary dishes. A few bottles of the local soju were followed to my dismay (but not surprise) by yet a few more. I personally like water after a day of hiking in the sun, but that’s just me I guess. Despite having ample time, the group was antsy to get a move-on (pretty common theme as it turns out). We went back to the market from the previous night and purchased a few different cuts of raw fish to be consumed on the ferry ride back home. I was looking to buy a handkerchief  with a map of the island on it but was assured I would have a better opportunity to do so at the ferry terminal.

So off we were to wrap up our 27 something hours on the island.

After parting ways with our Uncle John lookalike, we headed into the bustle of the ferry terminal. While the group congregated in some sort of indecision, I wandered over to a brochure stand. Moments later I turned to the sound of my name being called. Low and behold, it was my buddy Phil from Gwangyang (the city just N.E. of me). In the midst of catching up, I was abruptly summoned to the ticket counter. With boarding pass in-hand, we made a stop at the duty-free store. Nothing but cigarettes, whisky and perfume of course.

Despite being exhausted; the ferry ride home was filled with photo shoots on the top deck, raw fish & soju, massage chairs and a fun new card game with Phil and the boys. The 5.5 hours flew by and we could soon see the lights of Yeosu from the ferry’s windows. It was a chilly night as we filed out of the belly of the ferry and onto the wharf. I didn’t have to walk more than 50 yards before I was at my scooter. I said my farewells to Poly and the gang and was soon buzzing to the front of the traffic ques. It was a surreal feeling when minutes later I was on the same route I use to get home from school, my day and some change on the subtropical island already feeling like a distant dream…

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Inspiration

Last night we had one of those seemingly impromptu staff dinners (I am always the last to know of events or gatherings). At one point in the lull between courses of raw fish and wiggling sea-life, I found inspiration for a blog post.  I have made allusions, but I do not think I have ever explained the complexities of a Korean eating experience. Especially one framed in the rigid hierarchy of a staff dinner.

But that inspiration melted away into the scalding waters of the spa in which I decided to indulge in – post-dinner. From the steam of the sauna, rose inspiration for a new project: The Korean Spa Scavenger Hunt.

Now I imagine I have said it here before, I verbally say it often: Korean spas or jimjilbangs are my absolute favorite aspect of Korea. They are rejuvenating, inspirational and quite inexpensive (about $5-10). I dont want to get into it too much but there are some variations. There are multi story buildings where one can stay the night after a session in the hot tubs and saunas. These are technically the jimjilbangs. Then there are the spa/sauna facilities that are attached to fitness centers and hotels. There are also tourist saunas, that are only meant to entertain for a few hours. The mecca of which is Spa Land in Busan (at the top of my domestic travel list) which has a 4 hour time limit (most jimjilbangs are open 24 hours and offer no (or loose) time constraints)).

So what items would I include on my Korean Spa Scavenger Hunt?

 

Korean Spa Scavenger Hunt

__   An individual wearing a Princess Leia style towel in the sauna

__  7 shower totes

__  2 different individuals with tattoos

__  6 individuals bushing teeth while showering

__  One individual with more than 5 different bottles of shampoos, body scrubs and elixirs

__  One pair exchanging scrubs in the seated shower section

__ An individual with circular rashes on their back (evidence of a recent  Chinese medicine visit)

__ One individual floating spread eagle in the cold bath

__ 2 individuals with evidence of medical procedure scaring

 

I think that’s a good start. What additions (0r corrections) would you make to my list?!?

Its the Little Things

This is something I have been meaning to do for a long time now; I find that my days are filled with bizarre and strangely benevolent interactions. These events are so small that they rarely warrant a second thought, much less a blog post. I intend for this to be an ongoing project in which I update frequently (hopefully) with the little things that make life delightful and fresh. Continue reading

Detour to Dormancy

The Vice Principle let me go 20 minutes early yesterday. Despite the stifling heat, my ride home was euphoric. I felt like I had all the time in the world. While waiting to cross the dicey 5.5-way intersection (that always unapologetically interrupts my commute) I made the impulsive decision to pay a visit to the little temple perched just on the hill overlooking the traffic cluster. I had been up there once earlier in the year but decided the current sweltering temps would add a more authentic feel; something like what a true yogi would experience in the most brutal regions of India.

I parked my bike just off the sidewalk and headed up the small trail that winds its way through the woods. Upon approaching the temple complex, I found everything to be rather quiet. Just what I anticipated, just what I was looking for. I swung a wide arc around the small gate that confined the vocal dog whom I had encountered previously. A statue here, some trickling water there. A mum glass cabinet with a series of burning candles. A few flights of disproportional stairs  and I was finally at the daeungjeon or main shrine.

I found the door to be open but with a slender-weathered bamboo rod propped at a 45° baring entrance. I  took it as message: “Hey we are closed at the moment but who are we to stop you from seeking some solitude and respite.” I considered how many times I had been reprimanded by monks (never) for “trespassing” (plenty). Off came the shades and shoes and away went the phone.

Once inside the relatively cool room, I grabbed a floor cushion, and found a corner to post up in. I took a few calming breaths and considered my situational purpose. Was I looking for Buddha? Nah. Christ? Nah. Zeus? Nah. I decided I was just there looking for myself. True, I hoped for a defining life moment where the painted rafters opened to a somehow night sky where the path of my life was outlined in dragonflies and shooting stars. Even a firm calm voice singing through the afternoon heat, affirming my life choices or telling me to pack up and move on. No matter how quietly I sat neither would happen. I had heard mantras were important when it comes to meditation. I decided to focus on the color green. Soon my minds eye began to turn the pages of a kindergartners educational book on colors. Leafy trees, swaying grass, kale, The Hulk.

Soon I could think of nothing more than how heavy and wet my shirt felt as it clung to my back.

Feeling defeated but not ready to quit, I looked around the room. Naturally my eyes settled on the illuminated golden Buddha in the center of the room. I stared intently at the statues inert face. Maybe if I looked long enough, I would learn the secrets of the universe. It wasn’t long before I was following a group of flies lofting lazily about the room. I considered what it was that brought them there. Was there a deity they pursued or were they just looking to escape the heat? Finally I was just too antsy to go on with it.

I put my shoes back on and decided “finding myself” may have to wait for another day. As I put the old bamboo stick back in its resting position across the door, I considered what it would take for me to purse a life (or at least extended period) of quite purposeful living?

It wouldn’t take much but Id sure have to learn how to calm my mind for more than 12 minutes. Then again I suppose that’s the point.

Whine and Dine

Sometimes I wonder what a younger version of myself would ask the present day me. Maybe I would ask about the state of the Lego collection? Where are all the girlfriends, the cool car? Inevitably, after the childish questions I would want to know about life in Korea. What is it like there? What do you do?

As unsatisfying as it is, it is hard to explain what life is like here. I breath, I sleep, and I eat. This afternoon while in a van filled with other teachers and staff headed out for lunch, I had the cognizance that my life is a bit less than normal. Here I was in a speeding van on the southern coast of a small oriental peninsula, thousands of miles from familiarity and surrounded by people I struggle to communicate with. Honestly I don’t even know what a single one of their names is, and have only a vague idea of what each of their roles is within the school. I didn’t know where we were going or what kind of foreign meal awaited me.

The thought was fleeting. There was no panic or fear because this is what my life is. Its the unknown in which I embrace.

Lunch ended up being 삼계탕 (samgyetang) which consists of a whole (young) chicken filled with garlic, rice, scallions, and spices. The ensemble is served as a boiling stew in a molten, ceramic bowl. Now, I enjoy a whole array of cuisines but the “meat and potatoes” German in me finds this dish just delighting. Ironically I had been craving Korean chicken soup for ages now, it seemed things were finally coming around for me (I had yet another flat tire earlier in the week). 

After quite a bit of obligatory fussing about, the final seating arrangement was sorted, with the Principle in the middle of the table, the Vice Principle to his left and the Head Teacher to his right. I was seated at the far end of the additional table they pulled up with the other riffraff (main office secretaries to my right, a school counselor across from me and a technician to my left).

We weren’t seated long before the mini-chicken calderas began flowing out of the kitchen and into our private dining hall.

When it comes to eating, I like to think of myself as a marathon eater. I can eat a lot over a long period of time. I am that customer that prospective buffet owners like to overlook as the unlikely outlier. I have what your grandma would describe as a “healthy appetite”. Koreans on the other-hand are sprinters. When it comes to eating they go hard and they go fast. I have never actually stopped to observe just how they do it, as I fear getting left in the dust. I imagine their abilities can be attributed to some sort of physical adaptation. Perhaps like snakes, their lower jaws unhinge to accommodate the large amount of food. Their stomachs must be comparable to those of crocodiles – able to withstand anything from lava soup, to fish bones, to certain poison (aka soju).

As soon as a blistering bowl of samgyetang was placed in front of each seated person, the contest began.

I failed to mention up until this point that we are currently in a time period called Sambok. Aka – peak summer heat. The temperature has only been in the low 30’s (Celsius) but humidity has been around 70% or higher. Here in Korea it is traditionally believed that you are to beat the heat with heat. If you were wondering why we were eating boiling chicken soup in the peak of summer, that’s your answer. Samgyetang is the traditional remedy for the sweltering summer temps.

The race of consumption was in full swing. I had already eaten a few bowls worth of soup from my auxiliary eating and cooling dish. Despite the air-conditioning, my shirt clung to my back with sweat. My nose ran. Fighting back tears, I glanced over at the cute little secretary’s cauldron of stew. DAMN NEAR EMPTY! Looking back to mine, my eyes fell upon half a chicken carcass, a clove of garlic and a smattering of rice. A quick glance down the length of the table revealed my standing as dead last. Despite my darnedest efforts, I had failed. I finished the remainder of my meal in conquered taciturn.

Moral of the story: you just cant beat genetics. Literally.

Unrequited Benevolence

I have a bike.

I hate that bike.

I walked out of school Monday afternoon to find that my rear tire was flat on my mountain bike. This has become a common theme,  but I was genuinely surprised. Just a few days before, I had replaced both the tire and tube. With places to be and people to see, I headed off on-foot, eventually catching a bus home.

Tuesday morning In a rare weakness, I took the 3 mile taxi ride to work. It was humid and drizzly and I was running extra late. After school, not being committed to any other means of transit, I was obliged to walk my inutile velocipede (dysfunctional bike) home.

The route is characterized by a large hill where the tiers of my school occupy a bit of its southern slope. My apartment is nestled two valleys northwest. The bike ride goes fairly fast, 20 minutes if the stars are aligned (traffic lights rather) or considerably longer (especially if I am late for my Monday morning staff meeting(Murphy’s Law)).  Despite my intimate familiarity with the route, I found the walk to be quite daunting.

Onward and upward. Through vexing mist and husky humidity.

A third of the way up, and my bike came to a dead halt. The faulty tube had come out of the fresh tire and wound itself around the sprocket hub, derailleur and brakes. I cursed my luck as I unwound the greasy, mud-slicked mess.

Halfway up and all I could think was that I wanted to lock myself somewhere cold enough that my weeping pores would never again leak saline tears. I was so preoccupied with my sweaty misfortunes that I hardly noticed the passing-by umbrella toting student. I stopped yet again to bend down and rectify the irksome tube. Upon standing, I found the young doe eyed high school student silently staring at me. In an outstretched arm she held her umbrella towards me. I respectfully declined trying to explain the I was drenched in 85% perspiration and perhaps only 15% precipitation. Unswayed and likely confused she offered to walk me to the next bus stop. As we walked, we chatted a bit, and I learned she went to the all girls school on top of the hill. She was dismayed to learn that I needed to get all the way to Munsu-dong (the area in which my apartment is). As we neared the bus stop she again offered her umbrella. I didn’t have the heart to explain that I really didn’t have a spare hand to hold an umbrella. I declined as respectfully as I could. Nevertheless she seemed quite disheartened as she turned to continue back down the hill.

15 minutes later, I had crested the hilltop was was heading down. Now in addition to my own self pity, I had the guilt of turning down the students generosity. It dawned on me just how benevolent the girl really was being. The simple smell of rain and umbrellas are out. Snow also induces umbrella use. Shoot, even too much sun and Koreans are using their umbrellas.  For the girl to be without hers for the remainder of her 20 minute walk home, would have been a sacrifice indeed.

Yesterday morning, despite a freshly rolling mountain bike, I opted to take my other-less-problematic bike to school. It was the homestretch. I was cruising down the southern slope toward school. In roughly the place where I met the charitable high school student the day prior, I hit a pothole the size of Shanghai. Knowing the back tire was done for, I immediately stopped, got off and walked the remaining 20 minutes to school effectively landing myself in the exact same predicament as the day prior.

Karma for not accepting another generosity or a sign that public transit exists for a reason?

Today I took neither of my freshly patched bikes to school nor did I take a bus. Waking up 6 minutes after my class was supposed to begin, I again undertook the shameful taxi ride to school.

Heres looking toward a less eventful weekend and brighter (hopefully less humid) week ahead.

Williwaw

I enjoy the little things in life. That morning commute where traffic is in my favor, the wind is at my back and humidity levels are low. Those times my cat stretches out and I pet her soft underside without getting bit. Those patches of forest whose sights and smells remind me of other times, in other locations. But the biggest “little thing” that I enjoy is natural disturbances. Those times when Mother Nature is really angry and she just doesn’t care who knows it.

One of my earliest memories is from an evening in the summer of ’92. I was just over 3 years of age, my sister just over 1 and crib bound. It was late in the evening and I woke to find an empty house apart from my sleeping sister. The sky outside was ominous, 7 shades of Armageddonon. Eau Claire, WI was on the brink of one of its classic summer storms. My parents had taken the opportunity of us sleeping children, as a chance for a pre-storm walk around the block.

While in my fragile impressionable state, I was undoubtedly terrified at the time. Yet, there seems to be no long-term psychological damage sustained. Amazingly. That could be attributed to the fact that this was a recurring habit of my parents. It wasn’t long before I was joining them on their ritual calm-before-the-storm walkabouts.

All of this came to me yesterday evening in the residual aftermath of Typhoon Chan-hom (a typhoon in China but just the fringes of a tropical storm here in Korea). After 28 hours of heavy winds and rain, I decided to break from my hermitage and head to the hills. The rains had stopped but the winds were making a formidable last-stand. Clad in nothing but shorts and a t-shirt, and armed only with my GoPro I made the 335m ascent to the summit of my favorite mountain – Goraksan (due mostly to proximity but also because of its ancient mountaintop stone fortresses).

The winds came in angry gusts, bending over small trees and exposing their panicky-mint colored undersides. I could not help but draw parallels to how T-Rex had similar affects as he (she?) moved through the forest in the original Jurassic Park. As I came into the clearing of a hillside earthen mortuary, I got an unobstructed view of the agitated summer sky. Like a portal into summers past, I was instantly reminded of that conceivable Armageddon in the summer of ’92.

In a seeming act of neglect, it appears that my parents unintentionally instilled within me an appreciation for the fearful acts of nature and the beauty that sometimes precedes or follows.

And for that I am deeply grateful. How many Wisconsin boys have stood upon a fuming- cloud shrouded mountaintop and watched the passing fury of a typhoon whip by in the form of swirling clouds, contradicted with defiant rock? When “the view” is unseen, I would argue that one can see their future, there in that void. Passing by. One hurried cloud after another.