Posts Tagged ‘South Korea’

Post Work Wanderings

Although it wasn’t the beginning to my summer holiday, it was the last day of the semester for my students. Thus, I felt some liberation and decided to make the most of my evening.

On my way home I decided to swing by a hillside neighborhood called “Angel Alley” it is characteristic of old Korean style homes built into a steep hill and interconnected with complicated narrow little streets. Well, steep walking paths really. The old walls of the houses are now spattered with an array of intriguing murals. Anyway, I had never been to the top, so set that as a goal. After checking out a modern little cafe, I headed up and was surprised to find a neat old air-raid siren-tower. After snapping some photos, I was approached by a middle aged Korean man who had been getting his exercise on. He told me his older brother is living in Kansas (my mums old stomping grounds) and was insistent on taking photos of me using my phone. I was happy enough to oblige. At one point we climbed atop a lookout point, where he gave me his binoculars and happily snapped away as I looked out over the bay.

After  parting ways and more scoot’n through uncharted waters, I found myself at an empty high-school complex. At one point I peered over a low wall down onto a grassy mound surrounded half by concrete and half by overgrown gardens – all surrounded by this wall. Vowing to look into it later, I scooted on until I got as deep into the school as I could on two wheels.

After parking, I pressed on. Seeing an odd monument buried in the wooded growth of the hillside just behind the school, I headed that way. Leading off behind the mystery monument was a trail going back through an old barber-wire fence with concrete pilings (very similar to the once I had seen at concentration camps in Poland). Despite the humidity, I followed the trail up and up eventually coming to a straight-away that opened to the summit. There on a large man-made terraced table of earth and stone was a small sleeping deer. Kicking myself for not bringing my camera, and unable to snap a photo on my phone as the deer ran off, I moved into the clearing. I had been at this spot a few times in the past year (its the nearest attainable hike to both my schools) and didn’t stick around long before blazing down a new trail to me. This hike is one of my favorite in Yeosu. It is small, terribly achievable and despite being right smack dab in the middle of civilization, it feels quite remote. The best part though is the vegetation. Maybe due to its immediate proximity to the sea – there is great diversity of lush exotic vegetation. It feels almost prehistoric with multitudes of intriguing ferns and vine-cloaked trees…  With little trouble, I navigated back around to the monument at the backside of the school.

I drove back out the way that I had came (the only way to go via scooter honestly) eventually parking in-front of a gate to what looked like a private residence. Peering in, I could see that the mystery gardens that I had spotted earlier were indeed housed within the property. On my way to the staircase leading up, an old weathered Korean man approached me. Obviously the owner of this property, I asked if I could check out the grassy mound (using the little Korean I know). He was quite genial and waved me on. The mound looked just like any traditional burial site except that it was about 6x the size. The knoll was probably able to accommodate 3 VW Beetles parked on-top of it. The south side of the mound (facing toward the house and gate) had a stone arched door-frame with old Chinese characters etched over the head. The doors were made of steel with a  locked sliding bolt keeping them shut. Just to the right was a large tree growing out of the periphery of the dune. Everything that wasn’t grassy mound or tree was concrete. Walking around the side, I found a set of overgrown steps leading up onto the mound. I clambered right up on and over to the other-side. From here the concrete circumference broke way to a small geometric French-style garden. After a brief walk-though, I figured I was just about finished there when the old man came up the steps to join me.

From what I could understand the mound houses a water cistern and was built by the Japanese at some point within the last century presumably. I did not ask about the gardens, but did inquire about the iconic KBS (Korean Broadcasting Service) building visible on the next hillside over. I had noticed earlier in the evening that it was in the midst of being gutted. The old man said that the station had been moved to Suncheon (the next city to the north) and that the site was slatted to become apartments. Not much surprise there. I thanked the man as he walked me to the gate. By now the sun was getting low in the sky, so I decided it was about time I head for home.

I am down to just 3 months left in Korea. There are a multitude of hillsides and cryptic garden compounds to be discovered in this world, but I will greatly miss discovering them here in Korea. Both because of the freedom that I have (mostly in terms of transportation) and the kind forgiving nature of Korean people. I am naturally quite curious, and honestly cannot think of a single time that that curiosity has gotten me into trouble here in Korea. To the next adventure…


May Day

Back in 2013 I started the annual tradition of summiting the nearest mountain in the pre-dawn hours of my birth-day. The idea being that I wanted to watch the sun, rise over my new year of life.

I’m honestly not sure where the idea came from, but at the time I was living at a camp nestled on the southern slopes of Oahu, Hawaii’s – Waianae Mountain-range. I was in convenient proximity to a whole string of mountains, so… Why not?

I did not know it at the time, but the idea of watching the sun,rise over a new year, is totally Korean. In-fact thousands, nae. Probably millions of Koreans gather on all the various mountaintops across the peninsula to watch the sun, rise into the cold January sky on the first day of the new year. Coincidentally, this new years day is also a universal ‘birthday’ across Korea as each Korean ages one year regardless of their actual day of birth. Essentially any person born within the same calendar year  is the same age. Thus:  Age = Current Year – Birth Year + 1. Actual birthdays are acknowledged here but not necessarily celebrated outside of childhood.

Saturday night (April 30th 2016) found me at a local beach on Yeosu’s east coast. A friend is departing Korea, so a hoard of us gathered for camping and night-time revelry. I was unsure whether I would sleep prior to my early AM hike but setup a tent in what I anticipated to be a dark and quiet corner of the tent village. As the humid spring night wore on, the debauchery increased as the temperature played opposite. A bit after midnight I decided that a ‘nap’ may be in order.

With sunrise at 5:39AM, I had an alarm poised for 3:30. The cool-wet air paired with the babel of the campfire and infrequent firework explosions all played against my plans for a nap. In no time at all, I was packing up a sandy damp tent and making for my car (recently acquired). Heading into the night, I had little plan as to what mountain I would scale but figured any of the many peaks scattering Yeosu’s east coast would offer a spectacular sunrise over the water. Not wanting to bushwhack as I had the year prior, I decided on 마래산 (Maraesan Mtn.) – a peak that I am recently familiar with, having climbed it twice this month already. Twenty minutes of driving and I was able to get to a ‘trail-head’ (service road more like) and was soon trekking a steep paved incline with cameras and tripod in- hand.

Feeling the pressure of the imminent sun, I stopped for a few photos but did not dare to take the time to setup my tripod too many times. A bit after 5, I could hear the distant litany of Buddhist ritual. Visiting a Buddhist Temple last year, I had learned of the Jonggo (bell tower). Each Buddhist temple in Korea has one and they house a series of percussion instruments used for rousing the various creatures of the earth. Not moments after the resonating last note from the old bell; birds, and insects started their pre-dawn petitions.

Once upon the dark summit, I setup the GoPro on the tripod and pointed it east. Taking a seat in the lorn-Korean style gazebo, I tried to focus my mind on meaningful meditation.

Alas. The desire to document the awakening world proved overwhelming and I was soon snapping away photos on my camera and phone. The photo-shoot for-one was interrupted around 5:30 when I was joined by an early rising hiker. Embarrassed out of taking selfies, we joined our silent gazes toward the opposing mountains of Namhae-do now shroud in a gradient crown of pink to orange.

Just as Google had said, the sun’s fiery crimson face peeked around the dark mountains exactly at 5:39. I alternated between watching with fascination and snapping intermittent photos as the sun rose into the sky with visible speed and bravado. The hiker did not hang around long before heading down the opposite slope. I hung around soaking in the warm motility that only an early sun can provide after a chilly night.

The rest of my day was spent playing host to a friend that was visiting from out of town. I scooted her around to all my favorite sites before shuttling her and Hayangyi (my cats first car ride) to the bus terminal. Not long after, I headed to the other side of town for the inaugural jog with the newly minted Yeosu Running Club. Our seaside jaunt ended with a rare Korean style of chicken BBQ. After dinner I decided to swing into Starbucks to see if I could get that free tall-beverage. They were unapologetic in saying that I needed to register online (I had tried previously but my very functional Korean phone number was denied). One of the running club members took pity and was good enough to get me a coffee. Bless his heart. After scooting home (and apparently loosing my wallet somewhere along the way…) I decided that I didn’t have a full enough day, and took a dusky hike with the cat up the mountain behind my apartment. After talking to my parents for a bit, it ended up being a full 38 hours of wakefulness.

A name-day well spent. Wear Sunscreen.


The Hen House

About a month and a half ago, my co-teacher approached me desk with concern. My heart thudded with dread… What had I done wrong? Was this the end?

She informed me with worry in her eye that I would be traveling to a second school a few days out of the week. Just as well I thought. She mentioned that I would be at an all-girls middle school. Perfect.

As I scooted up the wooded drive, I left gasps and excited exclamations in my wake as the girls hiked their way up to school. Once in the teachers room, I was immediately introduced to the Vice Principle – a relatively tall, roughcast, yet amiable man. In short order, I was introduced to the head honcho. While he appeared older than the VP, he had a trendy look. Short spiked hair, green slacks paired with a light colored polo covered by a sport coat. Our interaction was brief, but my impression was that of a kindhearted man.

Back in the teachers room, some played it cool, while the majority of the teachers were eager to meet me. At one point I was stood in the middle of the room  while the staff clapped me on. Deflecting attention, I passed on the sweet breads that I had brought to share and headed to my new desk.

After brief school tours by both the VP and my new co-teacher, I was off to teach my first class of mademoiselles. While chatty and excitable, the girls were quick to quiet down when I called attention. I tried my best to follow the structure of my predecessor, (a Canadian gal who had been here for 3 years) but apologetically stumbled about. The girls were patient and helpful.The rest of my classes followed in a similar fashion.

Passing times were filled with girls excitedly popping in and talking over one another “teacher do you like KPOP?” “teacher my name is Ji Won” “ooo teacher, your eyes are blue” “teacher, Min Su loves you”. While I did my best to spread out my attention, zero names were remembered, and zero proposals accepted.

In true Korean form, the school campus is built into a hillside. Unlike the boys middle school that is nestled within an old neighborhood, this school neighbors only a few orchards and a small temple that I found on my afternoon wandering. Despite the inherent institution-ness of the compound it is tranquil and calm, with a familiar feel. It didn’t take me long to draw a parallel to the myriad of dated environmental education centers that dot my home state of Wisconsin. Like those, the school hails from the 60’s yet its clean and harbors that camp-retreat type atmosphere.

The peacefulness of the school was only compounded by the ideal blue-skied balmy spring day. If I could get paid to relive this day, I think I would harbor no other life aspirations. Smart (excitable) diligent students and kind coworkers are going to make upcoming Tuesdays and Wednesdays optimal.

The day ended with the Vice Principle making plans to take me hiking and an invitation to join the girls on a island trek next month. Just as I was headed out, the student welfare teacher handed me a steamy container of dukbokki (a slurry of soft rice cake, fish cake, and spicy red chili sauce called gochujang). While I have little love for spicy fish cakes, I have no reservation in saying “life is good”.


Yesterday was one of those painfully perfect spring days.

As I buzzed up the large hill the separates daily life and work, I was struck by the magnificent cordon of pink cherry blossoms contrasted against the greens of the expertly trimmed hedgerows lining their trunks. The air was classically cool paired against the warmth of the spring sun, its eastern rays illuminating each individual pink petal as they fluttered across the open road.

Korea is characteristic of four distinct seasons, but in actuality the year is really two severe halves with contrasting brief interludes of seductive bliss. Climate is largely the contributor to  this ephemeral euphoria. Spring and autumn cools are a welcomed respite from the heat and humidity of summer or the ripping chills of winter.

Its the trees that really add insult to injury if you will. In the fall, the mountains and hills are ablaze with dramatic autumn brilliance. But its the one week of spring that really makes you feel the ever gliding shadow of the sundial. For a fleeting moment, the roadways and walking trails are embraced in the ethereal bounty of light pink blossoms. The billowing cherry trees are supported by the starkly fragrant magnolias which arrive just a week or two earlier as well as the vibrant yellow forsythias lining walkways and spilling over walls.

Despite spring being my “birth season” (I just made “birth season” a thing) I never had much affinity for it. Sure you get blossoms and flowers, but I generally always saw spring as a messy slosh of a time back home. An uncouth transitional period. That just isn’t the case in my surrogate home: Yeosu, South Korea. Sure you get some rains, but there isn’t the heavy thaw and meltdown here. Winters are cold, but lack the white stuff down here on the coast.

Coming into my current 12 month contract, I knew that it would likely be my last in Korea. With 7 months left, I have already finished my last full autumn and thankfully my last Korean winter. The culmination of springs beautiful brevity paired against the knowledge of no certain repeat, has made me a bit anxious to say the least. I have been filled with the awareness that I need to consume this fading season. When I read online that Starbucks would offer a seasonal cherry blossom late, I made the emotion literal and stopped by the local cafe. Even at this very moment, my fridge is filled with limited edition cherry blossom sparkling water and sakura beer from Japan. Crazy much?

While on the northbound train headed for Seoul this past weekend, I saw Yeosu featured in the complimentary travel magazine. The highlight was about Yeosu’s annual azalea festival that happens in the outer reach of my peninsular city. To my dismay, I read that the event happens for only a weekend. The very weekend I was traveling up to see friends! Not entirely put off, I decided to make use of the 60 degree weather yesterday afternoon.

After school, I drove my scooter along the coastal road that would lead me to Yeongchwi Mountain (영취산). After about 20 mins, I pulled into the local elementary school and parked amoungst meteoric trees in full bloom. The school is situated on the north eastern edge of the mountain. On foot, I followed small farm roads headed up, headed west. Yeongchwisan has two peaks with a trough between. The deeper into the agricultural valley I dived, the lower the sun set into that mountain trough. Feeling pressured against time, I always chose the steeper fork in the trail, stopping only to shed my blazer and pop some gummies into my mouth.

20 minutes of sweaty hiking, and the wooded  mountain trail dumped off onto a paved narrow service road. Following this, I had a clear view of the southern peak half shrouded  in evening sun and completely covered in purple azalea blossoms. Only a few minutes of trekking, and I could hear the din of voices in the distance. As I approached, I found myself at the end of the road and cradled in Yeongchwisan’s trough. A large group of boisterous middle aged hikers chattered away in liquor induced blossom excitement. After snapping a photo,  I decided to poke my head into the food tent. A friend had mentioned that I may be able to find Korean flower pancakes (화전) there. As per usual, no one knew what I was talking about. Instead of a sweet rice based dessert, the serving women assumed I was talking about pajeon (파전) which is a savory  batter of eggs,  flour, green onions and other treats – fried into the semblance of a pancake.

A kind patron with excellent English heard my plight and offered for me to join him and his friends for pajeon and makgeolli (막걸리 – a milky rice wine).  I tried to explain that I was really hoping to make it to the blossoming summit before sunset (which was looming dangerously near) and that I should carry on. Alas, he was insistent and his English was quite good. One thing led to another and I was a few bowls deep in makgeolli and we were on to our second savory pancake with sides of tofu and steamed mussels. Next thing I knew, the sun had set and the serving women were ushering us into their cars. Once we were ferried  back to civilization, my new friend Danny offered for me to join him and his nephew for dinner. Despite being a bit full, I was equally tipsy and decided dinner would be a good opportunity to sober up for the scooter ride home.

The menu was potentially a new one to me (I have had quite a variety of foods here and find it difficult to differentiate it all) : fried eel with sides of fermented plum, various kimchis’ and other veggies. When I thought that I probably couldn’t eat another bite, the server came out with three large servings of  eel soup (영취산 ) . By the time my hosts had walked me back to my scooter, it was already 9PM. We parted ways as full, happy newly-forged friends.

Last nights floweret-flaying rain has carried through to the morning. Out with the blossoms and in with the leafy greens it seems. Spring has sprung.


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.




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.