Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Feel the air up above, a pool of blue sky

...See the waves on distant shores awaiting your arrival
Dream the dreams of other men, you'll be no ones rival...
A distant time, a distant place that's where we're living
A distant time, a distant space, so what are you giving?

Pearl Jam, Unthought Known

Few things go together as well as Pearl Jam and nature.

Last weekend I went to Busan, which in the space of 48 hours became one of the best cities I have visited. And that's saying a lot after my first day.

I left Daejeon as early as possible on Saturday since I wanted to have as much time in Busan as I could. I arrived around 10:15 AM (it's about an hour and a half from Daejeon on the KTX, making Busan totally do-able as a day trip. And I think it shall be one quite often in the future). Unfortunately, when I got to Busan the rain that had kept me awake during Friday night had followed the train south. But no problem, a little rain can't deter this Seattle girl - plus, I had the trusty umbrella that I bought in Seoul two months ago (the first umbrella that I have ever owned, believe it or not). Despite the rain I still decided to stick to my original plan to go to the ocean - oh, how I have missed the ocean. 45 minutes later when I got out of the subway in Haundae, the most famous of the beaches in Busan, the rain had let up a little bit but was still coming down pretty hard. I walked around a bit, and then decided to get some lunch at a cute little sandwich place called Breezeburns and then go to the aquarium in hopes that the rain might ease a little.

Ease, it did not. When I came out of the aquarium it was so windy that the rain was pouring down sideways. And then my umbrella broke. There I was standing on a sidewalk in Haundae with my broken umbrella, a backpack on my back, and clothes that were getting increasingly more soaked every minute. I saw 2 choices in that moment: find my hostel and call it a day, or buy some new, dry, warm clothes and hope for the best. I chose the second option, and that is how I ended up at the world's largest department store spending 90,000 won on a pair of corduroys, some socks and a sweater that has, in a matter of only a few days, become my favorite item of clothing.

From that point on, the day got much better. By the time I left the department store the rain had all but stopped and I was dry and warm and even had a new pink (the only color they had) umbrella. By now it was about 4:00 so I decided to go find my hostel and drop off my backpack before the fireworks show at 8:00. When I was looking for a place to stay in Busan, I grudgingly decided to go the hostel route - I am not much of a fan of hostels, especially after a bad experience at one in
Dublin. But it turns out that Busan is a pretty expensive city and while I am willing to pay a little bit more for a motel there were none available in the areas in which I wanted to stay. Luckily, the Busan Hostel proved to be one of the best parts of my trip. They had emailed me very helpful directions, which involved taking the subway and then a bus. The bus ride from the subway station was about 20 minutes and all uphill. We passed the UN cemetary and a couple of parks, and then I saw my holy grail: the ocean. I got off at the very last bus stop, as the email directed me to, and walked up to what looked like an apartment complex. I found the hostel, met the owner who was really nice, spoke good English and confirmed that yes, indeed, the fireworks would still take place that evening regardless of the rain.

The view beside the hostel was absolutely breath-taking. Normally I'm not one for nature, but there is just something about being in this part of the world that every once in a while makes me feel so alive. Maybe it's because I still can't quite believe that I'm livng in Asia, maybe it's because I'm in awe dreaming of all the places I want to travel to, or maybe it's because it's so much easier to live in the moment when you're taking a year out of your life to really live and don't have the weight of a million responsibilities on your shoulder.

After checking in and leaving some of my things at the hostel, I headed back out on the bus to the beach where the fireworks would be. I'm always so proud of myself when I successfully navigate public transportation in this country. Truly, the journey is usually more important than the destination sometimes. After a dinner of fried chicken and beer, I made my way to the giant inflatable soju bottle set up on the edge of Gwangalli Beach for a night of fireworks competition between countries. Despite the fact that the beach was crowded, that I was shoved several times by Koreans that don't have the same personal space boundaries as Americans, I LOVED the fireworks. In general, I have loved the festivals I have gone to in Korea. Rarely do I feel more at ease than in a crowd. I love being in a sea of people, and as counter-intuitive as it may sound, it is comforting at times to be surrounded by people speaking another language. I think that's probably why I love Seoul and Busan so much - crowded they are, but they are also full of experiences, independence, and life.
After the fireworks ended, I walked around for a little while, enjoying the peacefulness of the ocean contrasted with all the neon of a Korean city.

The next day, I got up early and headed to Yonggunsa Temple. It was incredibly beautiful and none of my pictures seem to do it justice, so just go to the link if you want to see it. I spent two hours exploring the temple, pouring water on the statue of Buddha that was underground (!!), and sitting on the rocks by the ocean, enjoying the peacefulness of listening to the waves.

When I left the temple, I decided to head back to Haundae Beach and walk around for awhile. The ocean waves surprised me by being bigger than I anticipated and soaking my pants, but I loved it! In fact, walking along the beach reminded me a little of walking along Coronado Beach in San Diego last July, and I felt a little homesick. In a good way!

Before going back to the train station, I decided to take a side-trip to try to find a temple in Haundae that my Lonely Planet guidebook recommended but said most people don't bother visiting. I'm not sure why - it was within walking distance from the beach and unlike most places in Korea, the directions the guide book gave to find it were very easy to understand. After turning down a side alley, walking by people's houses and laundry and climbing a hill, I came to the temple which was very peaceful and had a gorgeous view of Busan. I sat there for a while, on a bench in front of Buddha and his students enjoying just being in the moment.

Too soon it was time to head back to Daejeon. More adventures to come! I feel restless, and as someone pointed out at dinner tonight, we now have nine months left of the year. I don't want to leave Korea with any regrets about not traveling enough, so onward and upward!

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Night-time in Seoul

A posting of pictures...

I decided to go for a walk last night, and ended up following a sign for Namsan Park. I walked up a very narrow, crooked street and ended up at a beautiful park that overlooked Seoul. It was beautiful to see the night lights of the city, and I think that in this picture you can see Seoul Tower in the distance (which I am excited to go to because I think that they have a cable car leading up to it!) I followed the crowds of Koreans to the top of the park where people were exercising on stationary bikes and elliptical machines (a good idea, no? exercise with that view in the cool air at 9 PM).

... In other news, I signed my official contract with the Daejeon MOE today and got the debit card and bank book for my new Korean bank account. After that, EPIK took everyone out to a really nice restaurant. It was a buffet, so we were able to eat as much as we wanted. The Korean government must be spending a fortune on us. Tomorrow, we have a closing ceremony and then get on our respective buses and go to our new cities. There, we will have some sort of ceremony that will undoubtedly involve lots of bowing. We'll meet our co-teachers, perhaps see our schools and go to our apartments. I am SO looking forward to having the weekend to orient myself and get to know my new neighborhood. Perhaps visit Costco, find the local farmer's market, go grocery shopping, buy a hair dryer, etc... I am, needless to say if you know me, excited beyond words not to be living in a dorm anymore!

The best part of the evening was after dinner when I went to a little club called Jazz Alley. You have not lived a full life until you have seen a Korean band sing "No Woman, No Cry" and "Smooth" by Santana. The best part? The bartender's shirt - it was tie-dyed, with a picture of a mushroom and the words "the magic mushroom" on the front. Amazing!

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Gangwha Island

Today, instead of having classes all day, we went on a field trip. I'm pretty sure this was Korean for "ride a bus for a long time, get out for a few minutes to listen to a lecture you don't understand, take some pictures, get back on the bus, repeat." No, I'm being sarcastic, it was actually quite fun. but being herded around in a group
is not really my idea of traveling. that's okay though.

As has become my normal schedule during orientation, I woke up early, showered, got dressed, and headed out to take a walk around the neighborhood and to get some coffee. The weather this morning was wonderful, not to hot nor too cold. I've been trying a different coffee shop every morning. Sometimes it's Paris Baguette, one time it was a little place called Ediya's Coffee, and my favorite is Cafe Bene. Not only can you get an Americano (or latte or drip coffee), but you can get a homemade waffle with fruit, whipped cream and chocolate sauce. I may have tried one. Or two. This morning, however, I walked further down the road to a place called Cafe Gunururu. I don't think I'll be going there again, because it was fairly expensive - my iced Americano was 4000 won compared to 2500 - but it was lovely to go upstairs and enjoy my coffee while overlooking the neighborhood. There was a TV film crew (or TV news crew more likely) filming something on the sidewalk, and it was fun to watch.

Around 8:20, I headed back to board the buses to Gangwha Island. These Korean teachers are pretty organized and they like carrying signs. We had a two hour bus ride, during which I had a really nice conversation with Arlene, a teacher from Nova Scotia also going to Daejeon.

The bus ride was actually quite pleasant, and I have to say that Korea is much greener and prettier than I thought it would be. I was looking out the window at the green trees and rice fields when I started to see soldiers, tanks and barbed wire. That's when the tour guide told us, "You are lucky today. It's really clear. You can see North Korea." She told us that North Korea was 2 KM away, across a river. "You can swim across the river in 15 minutes," she explained. I think I'll pass on that one.

At the island's observation deck, we were able to admire North Korea, as it were. It was really sort of creepy - I looked through a telescope and all you can see on their side are some small houses that all look the same and then vast open areas with nothing. I can't imagine living there, especially at night, seeing the lights of South Korea knowing that it's only 2 KM away but impossible to reach. I also can't imagine living on the South Korean side, knowing that this country is so close by. It was really interesting, but the most interesting part is that this whole thing served to remind me that I need to register with the American Embassy.

After walking around the island, we went to lunch. I must say, as someone who has continually been faced with white rice and beef (and canned fruit if I'm lucky) in the school cafeteria - don't worry, I've been spending some of my millions of won going out to eat because it's either that or starve - it was like heaven to see heaping plates of fresh vegetables: lettuce, spinach, mushrooms, bean sprouts, pickles (they have sweet pickles here.. that is one Korean food that I really enjoy). It was called BiBimBap, and is quite possibly what I will live on for the next year. Everyone was given a bowl of rice and could choose to add beef and an egg (I had the egg, but passed on the beef). Then we went to our seats, where we could use our chopsticks to add whatever vegetables and sauce we wanted to our bowls. Since I am not quite adept at using chopsticks, my food may or may not have gone flying over the table.

After lunch, we went to what was called on the schedule "a manufacturing experience." Turns out that meant weaving mats. I was not very good at it, but it was interesting to try, especially when the Korean women who worked there guided my hands without speaking. Needless to say, since I am artistically challenged they had to come help me a lot.

After weaving our mats, we got back on the bus and headed to the Gangwha Dolmen. None of the tour guides really explained what it was, but it looked like a stone formation in Ireland, so I'm assuming it was used as some sort of burial chamber.

Finally we got back to the university around 6:30 PM. Two more nights in this dorm and then I get to go to Daejeon and have my own apartment! And buy my own food, and explore my new neighborhood. Can't wait!

Monday, August 22, 2011

see the waves on distant shores awaiting your arrival...

I’ve been in Seoul for about a week now, and here are some of the things I have done: taken the subway by myself, gotten lost and found, visited a palace and the Korean Folk Museum, wandered the streets by myself in Insadong, Itaewan and Myeongdong, had a waiter tell me that I have a “gorgeous tattoo,” bought things at a store, ordered things in a restaurant by pointing and smiling, hiked up a gorgeous mountain, eaten Korean barbeque, visited a farmer’s market in Seoul and met people from South Africa, Ireland, England, Canada and the US. I have also almost been run over by cars and motorbikes that drive on the sidewalk, been stared at because I am the only white woman on the subway, gotten ice cream when I wanted an Americano, been frustrated by the never-ending selection of white rice and beef served in the orientation university’s cafeteria, and been coughed and sneezed on by people who, shall we say, seem to view basic hygiene differently than Americans.

But I’m still so glad that I came here. It’s an adventure, a chance to explore a small corner of the world, an opportunity to meet people from all over the world. It’s all that and so much more than I know now. Tonight when I was frustrated with the squid served with dinner, I decided to go out to a restaurant specializing in “beer and chicken” where I pointed to what I wanted and smiled like the clueless foreigner I am. Afterward I went to a cafĂ© where I again smiled and pointed, this time to a homemade waffle covered in whipped cream and strawberries (yum!) I guess that regardless of my thoughts about Korean food (and it’s probably not fair to judge it by the quality of what is served in a cafeteria), I won’t starve. Especially since there’s a Costco in Daejeon!

It's also oddly comforting to be in a country where I don't understand any of the language. It can be frustrating and maddening, for sure, but it's also fun to walk down the street and not have any idea what anyone around you is saying. There's a certain freedom in that. When I travel to places like Boston, San Francisco or even Ireland, I sometimes am mistaken for a local and asked for directions, and I take pride in that and am almost afraid to do things to mark myself as a tourist - even things that would make life easier for me, such as taking out my camera or looking at a map. Here, none of that applies. There is no way I can be mistaken as a local who knows her way around, so why not just embrace my foreign-ness? It's also pretty safe for being such a big city, so why not stand bewildered in the subway station wondering how to swipe my T-money card until a Korean man takes pity on me and helps me through the turnstile?

Right now, I am in Seoul at orientation, and I absolutely cannot wait to get to Daejeon, the city where I will be living. I am excited to see my apartment, to go grocery shopping, to find the nearest farmer's market. I already have a few ideas about things that I want to do and see: I want to have fish nibble the dead skin off my feet (yes, that's a real thing), I want to stay in a buddhist temple, and I am so looking forward to exploring the mountains around Daejeon and the surrounding areas.

Tomorrow is a "field trip" (Orientation makes me feel like I'm in high school) to Gangwha Island. More later on what exactly that is! We're going to have Bibimbap for lunch, which our Korean teacher has assured me doesn't have beef - or if it does: "We will just pick it out for you. Please don't worry."

Monday, May 16, 2011

All changes, even the most longed for, have their melancholy; for what we leave behind us is a part of ourselves; we must die to one life before we can enter another. (Anatole France)