Christmas

Life has it undulations. Its ups and its downs. When asked about my first year abroad, I would usually sum it up as the ‘highest highs’ and ‘lowest lows’. That may not be totally true but everything sure felt raw and magnified. For me now though, I feel the highs still roll around but those lows are fewer and far between. There is one time of the year that inevitably takes its toll on someone removed from family and friends: The Holiday Season.

This was my third consecutive holiday season in which I wasnt with family.

In following in tradition with last years Christmas Eve, I hit up the gym. I thought the place was mine, but in the end I had to share it with two other sorry chaps. Post gym I considered doing something memorably epic. A moonlight hike (under a darn-near full moon)? Nah. Too cold and windy. A soak at the local jimjilbang (public baths)? Nah. Too average… Too naked (kidding, I’m thoroughly desensitized). I settled on pirating a copy of the new movie; The Revenant which was slatted to come out on Christmas Day in the States (like two days from my present Christmas Eve). The movie follows a frontiersman in early America whole is mauled by a bear and left for dead by his comrades. Actually he is buried alive. Apart from epic wintry terrain, it was not a terribly festive movie.

At some-point in my viewing experience, the Christmas hour unceremoniously came and went and soon I was headed to bed. With no fireplace, I did not bother leaving cookies out. Asian Santa probably prefers rice cakes anyhow.

I awoke at the time I normally should on Friday morning. I groggily considered what a Christmas morning had meant to a younger version of myself. Maybe I could rouse some of that bygone energy and excitement and start the day off right with a workout. Yeah right. 2+ hours later though and I was following Tony Horton in an abbreviated vinyasa flow, washed down with a Christmas brunch to be proud of: pan fried Korean duck, sauteed onion, zucchini & eggplant held together with Italian Parmesan and two eggs over-easy. Half a grapefruit and a glass of apricot juice – for digestion and a cocoa-peanut-butter date ball and hunk of organic WI toffee for desert. Just as I was finishing up, mom called via Facebook.

There on my video call was the whole fam-damn-ily, gathered in the living room around the light of the Lowes Creek Tree Farm (a previous employer) Christmas tree. In the cold dark night was a fresh layer of snow, and in the warmth and light of the kitchen; all surfaces filled with tried-and-true Baumgartner consumables centering heavily around cheeses, nuts and meats but not without the obligatory spread of holiday sweets as well.

I gave the guided video tour of my small apartment, and then they watched as I opened my gifts. I said farewell to grandma and the out of town relatives and soon after said goodbye to my parents as well. It wasn’t quite noon, but I felt like I had accomplished the Christmas essentials.

A year earlier I had done a sunset hike to combat a hangover and regain some sense of accomplishment and holiday worth. While not hungover this time around, I liked the cyclical congruity and decided on checking out a neat hike that had been recommended a few weeks prior  by an Aussy expat who has been in the city for the better part of a decade.

So I bundled up in my thickest long-johns and warmest hiking pants. Donned my sweatshirt, fleece and bright orange winter jacket and hopped on my old scooter.

The destination was the 347m Daemisan (Daemi Mtn.) located about 8km away on the scenic island of Dolsan. I encountered a fair bit of traffic  being Christmas and all but I was not prepared for the standstill that awaited me leading up to the infamous Dolsandaegyo Bridge. Five months of scooter commuting in Korea has emboldened me as a driver. I showed no remorse as I weaved along the gridlock leaving stalled cars in my wake. Once across and on the island itself, the situation only worsened. To my temporary relief, I noticed that oncoming traffic was considerably heavier, stretched as far as the eye could see. My conjecture was that out-of-towners  had made the long 27km coastal drive down to Hyangilam Temple at Dolsans southern tip. The temple is infamous for its eastern view towards the sea. The location is the ‘hot’ place to be in the gusty pre-dawn hour on January 1st when Koreans gather to watch the first light of the new year. Anyway I assume the onslaught of cars was from those hoping to see the view without sacrificing a cold sleepless night.

I could see that all the traffic from both directions was filing into Dolsan Park with its perennial Christmas light display. Before seeing the wave of cars, I had considered ending my Christmas night there, amongst the light display. On second thought. Better not.

As I headed south, traffic lightened up while the oncoming cars got thicker and thicker. I zipped on, I enjoyed views of quiet bays, lit by the ultimate Christmas tree topper – bathing the island in that ‘golden hour’. As I approached the isthmus that harbors the historic Musulmok Beach, my destination loomed immediately into view. As the road started to hug Daemisan’s western edge, I started keeping a keen eye for a place to park.

Soon I found an overgrown gravel path leading up the mountain just adjacent to an old abandoned motel. Finding a break in traffic I pulled a U-turn. Heading straight up, the path became more a loose guideline and less a comfortable hiking trail. Not knowing just what was up, I eventually forged my own trail stumbling upon a small housing complex. Despite its reticent – desolate aura, I tread lightly not wanting to disturb any Christmas revelers. I did not take long to realize there were no festivities at hand and probably hadn’t been for quite some time. A small decrepit shrine and temple behind the houses marked the property as a Buddhist hermitage and provided ample fodder for my camera lens.

After the trigger happy craze loosened its hold on me; I found myself leaning in the gusty door frame of the hollow temple, looking out over a russet bay, spattered with islands and framed by hills and mountains. It was quiet. It was tranquil. The moment was short lived as I had a lot of unclear hiking ahead and I needed to hurry if I was to witness Christmas’s sunset from the summit.

I followed a tumbling boulder strewn mountain stream-bed, making good time as I leapt from stone to stone. Upon reaching an impasse, I headed into the pines, with their bramble protectors gathered at their feet. From time to time I would come across a deer trail cutting horizontally. I would follow this until I felt ready to take on the steep incline once more.

A flash of beige to my left! I had disturbed brother deer, also trying to make the most of his quiet Christmas evening. I stopped to watch him bound downhill, before blundering onward.

Cresting a particularly steep bit of terrain, landed me right plop  on the casual step laden edge of a hiking trail. I accepted its invitation with gratitude and continued on at an uninhibited pace, stopping only to snap photos of sunbeams streaming through the pines. As the trail started to plane out, I noticed a cave opening on my right. Stepping in, I found it to be quite dark. Despite having a flashlight app on my phone, I proceeded into the dark unaided. Ahead I could see a faint glow and made for it. As I approached, I could see that the cave made a 90 degree turn towards the left. Upon rounding the corner, I was awarded with a nicely framed view of the sea hedged with Namhae Islands dramatic mountains.

A few minutes later and I was at a small rest area complete with various seating, a restroom and a two story Korean pagoda. A short series of stairs beyond that, and I found myself at the mouth of an ancient stonewalled stronghold. While last years Christmas hike surprised me with its fortress at the summit, this time I was already in the know as my Australian friend had told me beforehand. According to him, this and the Goraksan one are two of 7 located in Yeosu. They were built during the 3 Kingdoms Period (lasting till 668 AD) to defend not against seafaring Japanese but against the Koreans in the neighboring kingdom (Yeosu sits on an ancient as well as modern domestic division).

I entered into the fortress from the east, and found its confines to be quite overgrown apart from a small path. Following this, I pursed that sunset. I was disappointed to find that the western edge of the fortress was flanked with Korean Red Pines growing on a fairly step incline. I wandered down amongst the pulpy sentinels until I had a (less) obstructed view of the sun. I watched as it made its descent towards Yeosu’s hilly coast. The persistent wind had command of my ears, but that beautiful fiery orb held my attention.

I lingered in that spot until the nippiness of the gusts convinced me otherwise.

I picked my way back, with eyes down toward the overgrown trail. Nearing the entrance, I glanced up and stopped dead in my tracks. Not much shocks an audible response out of me. Holy #%*& I exclaimed!! There, robust and silvery was the second biggest full moon I had ever seen. She sat perched upon that 1,500 year old stone wall like a prosperous overindulged owl. Not one of my photos did the magical scene any justice. With the inverse rise of the moon, and the downward pull of the sun, darkness crept on fast.

Begrudgingly I made my way back, but could not pass up the opportunity to scale the two story pagoda. There against my better judgement, I sat with feet dangling over the edge watching that full moon as it traversed upon its unwavering trajectory. My mind wandered back to almost exactly 3 years prior.We were coming back from the wedding of a family friend, it was New Years Eve and I was driving my family east along I-94. The full moon that rose over that frozen Wisconsin landscape was the largest I had seen. It was truly magnificent, and had lived in my mind unrivaled until now.

But alas, night had fully set and with it the increased chill. I packed up and moved swift down the moonlit mountain. Roughly 2/3 through my brisk descent, and around a slight bend in the trail I stopped. 10 yards in front of me sat the dark hulk of an obstruction. As I focused on what it may be, I heard a rustling of leaves to my right. Halfway between me and the roadblock emerged a second black mass. Though it was dark in this tree cluttered section of the trail, I could make out a white mask around its dark eyes. Once fully upon the trail it stopped to stare in my direction.

The most basic mammalian instinct flashed through both our minds. Fight? Or flight? With DiCaprio’s predicament in ‘The Revenant’ still fresh in my mind, my decision was easy. After a few moments pause, the newcomer played it cool and turned to walk toward the still immobile obstruction. As it closed the 5 yard gap, both took off running down the trail at a surprising clip given their stout appearance and  bulky frames. I followed soon after but not without the irrational thought that raccoon type mammals the size of a medium dogs were watching from the shadowy depths of the forest.

I didn’t have to worry long before I was in a fresh clearing of terraced soil. I stopped to admire a jumble or shipping containers welded to make some sort of cafe or art space. It was a 15 min. hump up the still buzzing road before I was on the back of my scooter and wishing it weren’t just a few degrees warmer.

I had decided before the day even began that I would end up at a public bath house (‘jimjilbang’ they call ’em). After the sweaty hike and frigid temps, I was now craving it more than ever. I made an impromptu decision to head toward the area where my school is. There on the coast is a ritzy hotel named The MVL. It looks like a building that belongs in Dubai, with its large curved edges billowed out towards the sea just a few meters away. A friend used to work there and had said, they had a nice sauna.

To say that I felt a bit uncouth was a understatement as I stepped into the glistening sterile lobby with my gaudy orange winter coat and Star-Trekky hiking pants. After paying the exorbitant entrance fee, I wasted no time getting into the water (shedding various organic litter picked up from the mountain as I went). The sauna space was grand although it lacked the quantity and variety of pools that I have experienced elsewhere. Being Christmas night and all, the space was mostly empty with only a few other patrons hanging about. The atmosphere was tranquil and refreshing.

After having visited each or the pools of various temps, I noticed a man coming in through a set of glass doors facing out to the sea. I stepped out into the chilly Christmas night clad in only my dripping wet birthday suit and made a b-line straight for the steamy bath in the corner. It was here, enjoying the sweeping views of the night sea and Odongdo Island from this open air 5th floor balcony, that I decided the price was worth it. I idly watched a passenger ship, decked out in obnoxious LED lights as it operated just off the coast. I didn’t think much of it as it stopped with its bow pointed out toward sea. Not a moment later, and the sky was ablaze with color. I could not believe it, an eye-level firework display from my own private bath.

A Christmas miracle indeed.

 

 

 

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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…

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.