Tuesday, 29 May 2012

Dobongsan

A few minutes ago every tree was excited, bowing to the roaring storm, waving, swirling, tossing their branches in glorious enthusiasm like worship. But though to the outer ear these trees are now silent, their songs never cease.
- John Muir

Climbing Half Dome at Yosemite National Park in California was one of the best experiences of my life. It wasn’t so much the climb itself; it’s what it meant to me at the end of my four month journey. Standing on the top of the dome looking out over the Sierra Nevada, I felt overwhelmed. Everything clicked into perspective for me. I paused there for a long while, I sat thinking about all of the friends I had made, all of the things I had seen and I made a decision to never live a life without a constant search for moments just like that.  I well up when I think back to that moment, my heart starts to pound. I remember how good it felt to have reached the top. It was a challenging hike that takes you up steel cables on the edge of the slippery almost vertical granite edge of the dome. I arrived back at base camp eight hours after I had set out. I was sweating, I was so thirsty and so hungry, my legs were so covered in dirt and filth that you could barely distinguish my skin from the sand, my hands were dirty from the climb, my face dirty from the sweat. I pulled off my shoes and my socks were stained with blood, blisters had burst and nails had been bent backwards. I just wanted to lie down and sleep. I felt like dying. I have never felt so alive.

I’ve been looking for an equal experience ever since and I have yet to find it. However, this weekend Nathanael and I hiked a mountain on the Northern border of Seoul that was strangely reminiscent of my Half Dome hike. It didn’t put anything in perspective for me and it wasn’t a life affirming moment, but, it was a challenging climb that involved steel cables and an ascent of steep almost vertical rocks.

I was pretty tired when my train pulled into Dobongsan station. I had woken up at 6:30am in order to catch an early bus to Seoul. I met Nathanael outside the station and we crossed the road towards the entrance of Dobongsan National Park. As you enter from the road you are welcomed by an array of hiking and camping equipment stores and food outlets. The streets were crowded with Seoulites (I’m calling Koreans that live in Seoul ‘Seoulites’ because I can) dressed in their noticeably bright hiking attire as if they were climbing Mt. Everest. Huge backpacks, gloves, hiking boots, rope, sunglasses, hats, hiking sticks and a vast variety of other useless accessories that must get in the way of the hike more than aid it. We skipped past the crowds, picked up some kimbop and headed into the park.

On arrival we were pulled over to the information centre by a very talkative Korean park ranger, whom with great enthusiasm told us all about the national park, he told us about all of the different trails we could take and talked about their difficulty level. He also let us know there was an accident on the trail that we wanted to hike the previous day but that it shouldn’t deter us. He reached out and checked to see if he thought we were strong enough to handle the difficult hike and I guess he concluded that we were. He gave us a map and sent us on our way.

The trail wasn’t noticeably obvious as it veered off to one side of a temple near the entrance of the park. Once we had figured out that we were on the right trail it was a preferably easy uphill climb up for a kilometre or so. There were lots of other hikers on the trail that we kept passing by on the way up and there were several rocks that you could climb up and sit upon, looking out to the city in the distance.

We were going pretty steady. We stopped off at a temple to top up on water and we kept going up. There was a point in the trail which seemed to come upon us quite suddenly in which the trail turned steeper. We eventually walked up some stairs and stumbled across a viewpoint (or photo opportunity) that looked out over the rest of the park, there was a beautiful mountain temple off in the distance, it was shrouded in trees and it reminded me of Balamb Garden (obscure Final Fantasy reference). We kept going. We kept passing Koreans.

We eventually came across the cables that the park ranger had told us about. They were nothing like the cables on half dome, these were hammered into the rock but they twisted and turned their way up the mountain, you had to use the cables to literally pull yourself up to the next rock. The first cables were easy and brought us to the first of the two peaks. It was getting to the second and highest peak that was a challenge. The cables went up and down and twisted round some pretty steep rocks, sometimes twisting vertically downwards forcing you to swing your body around as you held on for dear life. Much like up on Half Dome it wasn’t my own ability that I doubted. It was the other hikers. If they were to have slipped and fell they would no doubt have fallen into me, knocking me off of the mountain and down into the valley. Much like Half Dome there is a problem with the amount of hikers trying to climb a dangerous mountain at the same time. Half Dome seems to have sorted that problem out now and although there is still debate over whether the newly initiated ticketing system to climb the Dome works it has undoubtedly saved lives. News of the hiker who fell into the valley and needed helicopter rescue the day before Nathanael and I climbed Dobongsan was at the back of my mind. However, we made it safely to the top without a single slip. The view was astounding, you could see the whole of Seoul from the top, it was a hazy, humid day but the view was still awe-some. I felt accomplished. I had missed doing this sort of thing over the cold winter months. We sat down and dined on our kimbop on top of the mountain before we headed back down.

We had a three day weekend due to Buddah’s Birthday which gave me an excuse to do very little on Sunday. Outside of skyping my friends and family at home and watching a stupid amount of Fringe I really didn’t do much at all. I’ve watched so much ‘Fringe’ in the past month that I’m beginning to believe that I’m living in a parallel universe where hybrid shape shifters are trying to tear apart the foundations of reality, at least, in my dreams.  I’m waiting for my money to transfer from my Korean account to my English so I can book the last of our flights for the trip and sort out some of our accommodation.  Sunday would have been perfect but banks don’t open on the weekends. Obviously. Lazy if you ask me. However, it’s Tuesday now and the money has cleared. Tonight is the night.

On Monday, Nathanael and I went to the local temple to see what this whole Buddah malarkey was about. Apparently they give you lots of free stuff on Buddah’s Birthday, so we had a free bowl of bibimbop (a rice and vegetable based Korean dish) and we talked to some of the Koreans at the temple. There were banners and flags strung up over the temple and offerings of fruit to the statues of the Buddah, a rather strange ritual that felt rather anti-Buddhist, the whole idolisation of the Buddah seems to make him god-like which as far as I understand is the complete opposite of the ideology they’re shooting for. It felt like The Wicker Man without the human sacrifice. I really will never understand religion.

It seems that it is not traditionally just Buddhists who attend Buddah’s Birthday celebrations. We sat down and talked to a woman who openly informed us that she was catholic. I had never talked to a Korean about religion before and I’m constantly becoming more aware that this is a culture in which Christianity is taking a hold very quickly. There are four churches in our small town and only two Buddhist temples. Nathanael has also taken note that we are probably living in the Bible belt of Korea, as up here there seems to be more Christianity than in other provinces. The lady politely asked Nathanael and me what our origins were and we took that to mean she wanted to know our religious backgrounds. She seemed rather shocked when I revealed that I didn’t have a religion. I honestly thought this country was more secular than it has revealed itself to be, however, she was a nice lady and it was good to be able to talk to a Korean in a little more depth than I usually get the opportunity too.

Nathanael and I got to talking about religion on the way back from the temple. He made an observation that it seemed like it was okay to be a Christian and a Buddhist in this society. This country is obviously steeped in Buddhist history and divorcing yourself from that as a Korean is probably quite difficult. However, I can’t see how you can be a Christian and a Buddhist. It seems like a cop-out to me. Pick a side. They both have very opposing views on a variety of issues including the afterlife and I get the idea that the only reason a Christian would take part in Buddhist rituals would be down to tradition, a sense of obligation. I feel like this is a nation whose culture is evolving so rapidly that it’s struggling to keep up with itself.

It was pleasant to spend time at the temple on a Buddhist festival day and the chanting was rather soothing. The dogs that my visitors (especially Natalie and my father) had made friends with up at the temple were nowhere to be seen up at the temple during the festival. Probably escaped. I don’t know.

I cooked dinner Sunday evening, and, Nathanael, Russell and Deanna all came over. It went semi-successfully. I made fish and chips and used a little too much salt, and didn’t get the breadcrumbs perfectly down. There was an issue with bones in the fish as well. Better luck next time. However, all things considered this has been a pretty good weekend and I hope to have more like it before it’s time to leave.

Making the most of the time I have left is top of my priority list, and planning for the next chapter of this crazy journey. I just played badminton with Mr. Chae. I was surprisingly good at it, makes a change. Whistle while you work and all that. Goodbye.

Monday, 21 May 2012

Chuncheon Mime Festival

I opened my door on Friday evening to find Bob was back in town. He had a good trip down in the South of Korea and he had come back to spend his last weekend here in the mountains with me. It was good to catch up with him and on Friday evening we went down to the local fish restaurant for dinner. Bob didn’t fancy trying the live octopus that I had recommended so we opted for octopus soup. However, when the octopus arrived it was still wriggling with life but luckily once the waiter put the octopus into the soup the heat killed it (much like lobster). The initial panic of eating live octopus subsided and we enjoyed a wonderful dinner. There was debate as to whether we should be eating the heads of the octopus and after sampling it we concluded that we probably shouldn’t. We headed back home after dinner, Nathanael came over and we spent the evening talking and drinking rice wine.

Saturday rolled around quicker than I would have liked, as it always seems too, and we headed out to Hwacheon to cycle on the trail that I had previously been on with my school. The sun was beaming down on the lake and the cycle was pleasant. We even saw a snake crossing the bike trail, I suppose it was basking in the sun before we came along and forced it off the trail. The wind was no problem (as there wasn't any) and despite not having mountain bikes (as the army had rented them all out) we had a great time cycling in Hwacheon. After this we went for some lunch at a local restaurant and walked around the Hwacheon market which wasn’t as bustling as it could have been.

On Saturday evening everyone in town went drinking at the local bar, as usual some Koreans cordially invited themselves to drink with us and after a time we decided that we should head to the karaoke bar. Songs were sang. Obviously.

So skipping quickly along (it seems I’m not making much effort with this particular blog) we awoke on Sunday morning and Bob cooked a great breakfast. We went down to the bus station at 10:20 and caught the bus to Chuncheon. On arrival we noticed there were posters plastered all over the walls of the bus terminal advertising the Chuncheon Mime Festival. I knew this festival was just around the corner but I had no idea that it was this weekend. I had a few errands to run which I did as quickly as I could and we caught the subway to Chuncheon station. We walked from here in the scorching sun along Uido lake (something like that), past the Korean war memorial (seriously how many of these statues do you need, we get it), and along to the statue of the lady of the lake, a beautiful bronze sculpture that overlooks the entire body of water. We soaked up the sun which was actually rather tiring and decided it was time to catch a taxi to the mime festival.

I assumed that the festival would be held around Meyong-dong and low and behold I was right. There was a big blow up lotus flower in the middle of the road and behind that a completely blocked off street. After grabbing a coffee we proceeded down the road. The road was covered in water sprinklers and Koreans in ponchos were spraying each other with water from pistols. I looked up at a banner hanging from the bank which said ‘Chuncheon Mime Festival Water Party’. Fun times. It was exactly what you would imagine from the advertisement, the whole road was full of people getting each other as wet as physically possible, which was refreshing in the midday sun.

After a time a group of acrobats began performing in the middle of the road. The music was blaring out of some high rise speakers and the acrobats had water flying off of them into the cheering crowds. Some other street performers eventually ascended on the festival, these guys were Korean mask performers who were playing with both water and fire, one of the mimes was blasting fire out of his mouth and prancing around in a dragon mask. It was quite the spectacle and the Koreans were lapping it up. Suddenly, I looked up and I saw a giant ball of flames floating above us in the sky. The black ball was held up by a crane and was consumed by fire. It was like something out of a Marvel comics film. The Koreans were throwing buckets of water over each other, the music was loud and the fire was roaring and we decided it was time to get out of there.

We had some ice cream, grabbed a drink, I finally brought myself a new camera and we headed home after a hot, wet and sweaty day in Chuncheon. It was great fun and Bob had a fantastic time. We had a quiet evening, cooked some food and watched a movie and this morning Bob finally headed back to America after spending 8 months on the road.

Now I have a new camera I might start putting photos on this blog. It's been something I've been debating for a while and I'm really not sure how I feel about it, it might happen... it might not... 

I’m hoping I have an easy week at work as if my calculations are correct there is a three day field trip in the middle of the week for grades 4 to 6. That means at least half of my classes will be cancelled. I could be wrong. We’ll have to see how it goes. As usual, I’m in the dark, but you know, you get used to it. At the end of the week I’ll be booking the final bits and pieces for the big trip and then we enter June and the home straight... the countdown begins...

Friday, 18 May 2012

On Living and Teaching in South Korea

When I first started talking to my friends and family about moving to Korea their opinions of my choice were divided. There was one thing that everyone’s opinion on the matter had in common however and that was the idea that moving to Korea was brave. The mantra “I could never do something like that” got thrown around quite a lot. I never thought moving here was a particularly brave decision. If I’m honest I never really considered it a big decision at all, for me it was as easy a decision as deciding to have Weetabix for breakfast, or deciding to grab a Cornish pasty for lunch.

I understand why somebody might think that the decision to go and live in a foreign country that has hardly anything in common with the one you are accustomed to is a brave one, but after living here for nearly ten months I’ve come to the conclusion that I was right. There are no brave people here. The expat community is full of disillusioned misfits, credulous dreamers, and wannabe students. It’s full of people desperately clutching onto their adolescence, people aimlessly trying to make sense of their lives, and people living for a pay check, day by day, just like they would back at home.

This isn’t to say that every expat living and working in Korea falls into one of these categories but the vast majority seem too. It’s led me to question my motives. Do I really slide into one of those overly simplified categories? Do people really come here just to put off their impending adulthood for another year or two? There are no responsibilities here, apart from the responsibility to educate. You can distance yourself not just from your work but from the whole of society, you are not expected to fit in. I came here to travel and that’s my honest answer. I came here to see what life was like on the other side of the planet, what did it smell like? What did people do for fun? Are they happy? Are they just as confused about life the universe and everything, as I am? Yes, I wanted to teach but it was a secondary necessity to the experience of living in Asia.

Education is important in Korea. Yes, education is important everywhere but here kids are at school for long hours and they are pressured to work incredibly hard from a very early age. A Korean child (on average) will enter kindergarten at three years of age, they will enter first grade at six and graduate elementary school at twelve. After this follows three years of middle school between thirteen and fifteen and three years of high school (although I’ve also heard it can be two) from sixteen to eighteen, university education is four years minimum. Students at my elementary school can be seen around the corridors from as early as 8am and most of them won’t leave until 5pm / 6pm. They will also have after school classes (hagwons) for further education from around 7pm until 9pm. You might say that South Koreans have an addiction to education. I’ve even read about a curfew in Seoul for hagwons, in which students are prohibited from studying at hagwons past midnight. It’s educational masochism. Last year over 75% of South Korean students attended a hagwon. Top grades are praised as the only road to professional success. From the outside looking in this might appear enviable, I caught a glimpse of my fifth graders maths books the other day and they were doing equations of the sort that I had never even seen before.

So, why would the South Korean government hire native English teachers with no educational training, no English test on entry and no experience of living and working in a foreign school system? Nearly every other country (especially in Europe) has much stricter entry requirements for their English teachers at the very minimum a CELTA certification. Things are changing and this year’s intake of EPIK teachers are under stricter regulations (a minimum grade average and a TEFL certification as standard) but when I applied for the program just one year ago all I needed was a bachelor’s degree of any grade in any discipline. This has always seemed strange to me, for a country that is so obsessed with its education standards. Because, do you know what you get when you tell a group of recent University graduates that they can come and work in South Korea for over two million won a month, free housing and a paid flight? You get people teaching English who can’t spell ‘beautiful’ or who don’t know the difference between there, their and they’re. Why would the South Korean government allow this? The least they could do would be to give each new teacher a grammar and spelling test. They don’t.   

What has happened is that a mish-mash of personalities have ascended on the “Land of the Morning Calm” and they are all trying to make sense of what they’re really doing here. I wonder if before they packed their bags and jumped onto a plane they were asked “why are you moving to Korea?”, or “how will you teach without speaking Korean?” and I wonder what their answers were. I wonder if they were told, “you must be so brave,” or “that’s such a great opportunity” and I wonder what they were thinking. Because they are here now and a lot of them have been here for many years. I’ve been here for ten months and I have yet to make sense of it all. It feels like I’ve been in this dream state and I won’t wake up until I finally get home. I fear that I’ll never fully understand how things work here, and maybe I’m not supposed too.

I sometimes wonder what my students will be doing ten years from now. I wonder if they’ll remember me and I come to the harsh conclusion that they probably won’t. Because there are so many of us and we come and go with no thought of the consequences. If a student has a different English teacher every year (which some of them don’t, granted) then they could have over twelve different native teachers over the course of their school careers. That’s a lot of teachers. Why would they remember me? Because I’m fun? Because I try and listen to them and help them? That’s wishful thinking and I have no conclusions, I’m just full of questions. I sit on the bus on the way to school and I watch the trees and the hills fly past my window and I wonder if I’ll miss it. I wonder if my students will miss me. Then I’m back at square one, questioning my motives again and wondering if I’m one of those disillusioned misfits or wannabe students and I hope that I’m not.

Because like most of the expats that are working here (at least, most of the expats that I know) I’ll be leaving soon. The education system will stay the same and my students will be moving onto schools where pressure will be applied even harder than it is here. I’ll be exploring the temples of South East Asia when a new teacher will be taking up my mantle. Hopefully they will know the difference between there, their and they’re and hopefully they’ll try and have as much fun with the kids as I have. It’s not really my place to have an opinion though I suppose. But, as long as my kids have had fun, that’s what important to me, and as clich├ęd as it sounds as long as I’ve managed to make every student in this school forget for just a moment that they are a ‘student’ and remember that they’re just a kid then it doesn’t matter if they remember me or not. Maybe moving to another country is a brave thing to do after all. So, here I stand, wilful and wild-spirited amid a wasteland of wild air, long legs and screaming children, happy that I did this, excited about what I’ll do next and proud to say that I don’t think I’m one of those disillusioned misfits, at least, not anymore. 

Monday, 14 May 2012

Mosquitoes and Vaccinations

I was on the bus to Seoul at 7:20am on Saturday morning en route to get my travel vaccinations. I had already received my Hepatitis A and Typhoid jabs before coming to Korea but needed a Hepatitis B shot and a Japanese B Encephalitis shot. I found a clinic in the foreigner friendly area of Seoul called Itaewon that specialises in travel medicine for expats in Korea and booked an appointment. I slowly made my way from the Dong Seoul Bus Terminal across the city on the subway to Itaewon. My appointment was at 11am and I had some time to kill when I arrived which I spent walking around listening to my iPod and scouring the shelves of ‘What the Book’, an English language bookstore in the area.

The clinic was on the fifth floor of a tall apartment building to the north of Itaewon. It was busy inside and the only customers in the clinic appeared to be foreigners. The receptionists spoke very good English and took some of my details down. They took my height and my weight and checked my blood pressure and then proceeded to take me through for a travel consultation with the doctor. The doctor was a friendly middle aged Korean man with fluent English and we discussed my requirements. He recommended that I got the vaccines that I had assumed I would need and also recommended I take some malaria medication as it is endemic through the entire country of Laos.

The doctor mentioned two malarial medications, Malarone and Doxycycline. Malarone is expensive but pretty much side effect free and Doxycycline is cheap but has numerous side effects including sun sensitivity, headaches and upset stomachs. I asked the price difference and decided to opt for the more expensive drug. I’d rather not have my holiday thwarted by an onset of the shits. I'm not at all queasy about needles and I quite enjoy the tension in the air in those few moments before the needle penetrates your skin. One in each arm this time. Lovely. I left the clinic after having my vaccinations and went to the pharmacy to pick up my malarial prescription.

Arriving home, I realised that the drugs I had been given ‘Lariam’ didn’t match up with what the doctor had been telling me about. I scoured the internet looking for an explanation but it seemed like that tablets I had been given were ineffective against mosquitoes in certain areas of Laos that I would be visiting. I spent my whole weekend worrying about this and came to the following conclusions:

1. Don't take any antimalarial medication and rely on DEET spray, mosquito nets and other preventive measures (long sleeves etc). The other major risk in Laos and indeed much of South East Asia is dengue fever for which there is no medication, it's also transmitted in the same way a malaria so all of these precautions must already be taken to avoid contracting dengue.

2. Take Lariam and hope that I don't get bitten in Bokeo and risk the possible debilitating side effects.

3. Take Lariam and avoid the Bokeo region of Laos.

4. Get Doxycycline and take it for the duraction of the travel and risk the side effects while still taking preventive measures for dengue.

I emailed the clinic to ask what had happened and this morning after much twiddling of fingers they emailed me back. It appears that the wrong prescription was written out for me and I had been given the wrong drug. Lariam and Malarone are two completely separate anti malarial drugs. They told me that when I go to the clinic to receive my Hepatitis B booster I can get a refund on the Lariam and pick up the Malarone. Problem solved. Looks like I’ll be taking Malarone, a preferably side effect free drug that is taken 1-2 days before entering Laos, once a week whilst in Laos and for one week after leaving. Perfect. You see how fun it can be to plan a trip like this?

On Sunday Nathanael and I went for a hike up the 591 meter Changan Mountain, which was refreshing. It’s been a long time since I went hiking and it felt good to be amongst the trees, and the bugs. Spring must be here because the bugs are out in full force; I even caught a pair of mosquitoes having it away in my apartment a few nights ago. Unacceptable. After hiking we had some lunch at a local Korean restaurant and then had a waffle whilst swinging on the swings in the Sanae school playground. A relaxing Sunday. I watched Game Change in the evening (the HBO film about Sarah Palin) which was brilliant. School is much the same as it ever was, we are over half way through the semester now, and time is starting to escape me.

I’m glad that all of my travel medicine problems are solved and the only thing left to buy is a mosquito net for hanging over my bed at night. I’ve booked my flight home from Germany now so it is finally official that I’ll be arriving back in the UK on November 17th. So, I guess I’ll see you then. Hopefully I’ll be disease free. That’s the plan, anyway. 

Friday, 11 May 2012

Cycling

I was mistaken.

I thought that the schools teacher sports day activity, (which seems to be less of a ‘day’ and more of a bi-weekly occurrence) was fishing. I was told that we’d be going to Hwacheon to an island famous for its fish. I was excited. I haven’t been fishing since I lived on Cape Cod back in 2009. I was wrong. We weren’t fishing at all.

We loaded out of the school into some of the teachers cars at 14:00. It seems that when its teacher’s sports day everybody forgets that they have a responsibility to the education of the kids at the school and instead just kick back and have fun, abandoning the school and leaving it to its own devices. It’s way over my head.

The drive to Hwacheon from Damok was shorter than I remembered; I rode with the maintenance man who is one of my favourite co-workers. Outside of the English that I have personally taught him he doesn’t speak a lick of my lingo but we get along really well. He has a great taste in music, we listened to some Spanish guitar music which sounded like Rodrigo y Gabriela but probably wasn’t. From what I’ve experienced in my time here (this is just an observation and isn’t grounded in any fact) it’s rare to find a Korean who listens to classy world music that isn’t pop. Cheesy pop.

We arrived in Hwacheon and parked up by the giant lake which soars out in front of the town of Hwacheon. It appeared that we weren’t fishing but that we were cycling. Mr. Chen (who is actually called Mr. Chae but I think Chen sounds better) was pulling bicycles out of a shed next to the tourist information office. “That’s better than fishing,” I thought.

We all sat on our bicycles and started riding down a very flat well constructed bicycle trail which was reminiscent of the Cape Cod Rail Trail, a place where I used to cycle for miles on a daily basis. The trail was divided into two sections, one for one direction and one for the opposite direction and it went on for about 5 miles. That’s a guess. Most of the teachers seemed to lag behind but my sport obsessed vice principal cycled up next to me at a pretty high speed, I turned to look at him and jokingly put on an “I’m going to race you” face and I started peddling harder. To my shock and surprise my vice principal  loved this and we sped off down the trail. We ended up riding the whole trail together (the only two out of the whole school to actually do it). It is a beautiful bike trail and it reminded me of how much I enjoy riding, the wind in my hair, the sun on my face and the wheels on the ground. It's peaceful. There were statues of the famous otters, some nice wooden bridges and there was plenty of wildlife.

At the end of the trail we both stopped and took some photographs, I never spend any time with my vicey-p and I’m glad we had this opportunity to bond. He speaks better English than he lets on and we had a great time together. We arrived back to the bicycle shed with applause; somehow they must have known we cycled the whole trail. No idea how. When I don’t have anything to get home too I really enjoy going out with my school.

Then, we went for dinner, and to my surprise only two bottles of soju were consumed by the entire school. I guess a lot of people were driving. We had some great food; my co-teacher told me what it was called. It was something ‘galbi: ribs’ but I’ve completely forgotten what. I got the bus back from Hwacheon and listened to some old pop-punk music that reminded me of my own school days. Watching the hills rolling by my window I thought about what the people I went to school with are doing now. Time distorts everything.

Time is however, moving quickly. There’s another teacher outing next week as it is Teacher’s Day here in Korea on the 15th. This may sound odd but it appears that the UK is one of the only countries in the whole world that doesn’t have a teacher’s day. I’m not sure what we’re doing or what to expect. I’ll keep you posted.

I’m off to the hospital this weekend to get vaccinations for the big trip. Always remember the only thing better than a cow is a human. Unless you need milk. Then you really need a cow. 

Goodbye.

Monday, 7 May 2012

Bob Visits Korea

I'm afraid this is going to be another one of those, we did this and then we did that posts, forgive me...

This weekend felt almost like I wasn’t working in Korea anymore but instead I was travelling it. I talked in a blog post many months ago about the three stages of culture shock; I left the honeymoon period a long time ago and sunk into a rather complaisant negotiation stage. This weekend I finally entered the adjustment phase, after coming out of a long winter it feels like the end of my contract is in sight and I’m sure in the next three months I’ll be frantically trying to cram as much in as possible before having to leave.

Bob arrived in this small mountain town on Wednesday evening and spent the Thursday and Friday chilling out in town and recuperating. He’s been on the road for 8 months now and Korea is his last port of call before heading back to the USA. We went for dinner the first night, had pizza the second and on Friday night Nathanael joined us on our trip to Seoul. I’ve given the Seoul tour more times than I can remember now; this was to be the last time.

Bob didn’t have a set idea of what he did and didn’t want to see which made it easy to set a course for the weekend. Friday night after arriving in town we checked into the Pencil Hostel (a hostel we’ve stayed in many times before). This quaint little converted house is tucked away at the back of the Hongdae area of Seoul down a peaceful back road. After a trip into town for some Korean style Japanese food, we sat out on the decking under the moonlight and drank beers. We started talking to two University students who were on a short break from their studies in Beijing. They were international finance students who had a fair amount of stories to tell, it was obvious that they were very much still in the honeymoon phase of their Beijing odyssey, which was refreshing. It's good to hang around positive people.

The next day I was up stupidly early, I had a shower in the hostel and went for a walk out in the early morning sun. When I got back to the hostel Bob was still sleeping so I hung around for a little while until he started to stir. We left the hostel and met Nathanael who had stayed in a bath house and we headed out to a market whose name escapes me. The market was pretty big, mainly clothes and fabrics but in the middle was a giant food court (I’ll call it a court because my vocabulary is limited on Monday mornings). We sat down and had some kimbop for breakfast, Bob seemed to enjoy the kimbop. When we left the market the sun was blazing and we took a casual walk back across the river to the subway station.

Next we went to the war memorial (something Bob had shown an interest in seeing), by the time we got there the sun was beaming down, the hottest I had been out in it for quite some time. Outside the war memorial there were a group of Korean high school students performing dance routines in front of a giant crowd. We guessed that the reasoning behind the event must have been Children’s Day. It was that same old Korean shit, performing overly choreographed, and suggestively sexual dance routines to crass popular music. We went inside. The war memorial is a great museum and we spent a lot of time here, we even bumped into a traditional Korean royal wedding re-enactment outside and stood around watching it for a while. By this point we were getting hungry so we preceded to Myeong-dong, the popular shopping district, and scored some overpriced sandwiches for lunch. We jumped in a taxi and headed to the palace and watched the changing of the guards before heading back down the boulevard towards the hostel.

We spent much of the afternoon out on the porch playing songs on the hostels acoustic guitar and talking about travel, politics, music and movies. It was pleasant after a day of walking to just kick back and chill out under the shade of a tree. In the evening we had dinner at a traditional Korean restaurant and purchased some Makgeolli (Korean Rice Wine) from a crazy Korean who was wheel barrowing the stuff around Hongdae. Staying in a hostel was a reminder that I won't be living here forever but that everything is temporary. Being around people who were coming and going rather than staying was just what I needed. It reminded me that I'm still travelling as well (in a sense), that Korea isn't my home, or even my place of work, but a transitional period of my life that one day I'll look back on. An experience. Something I need to embrace.

On Sunday we went to Techno Mart in an attempt to buy a camera but this didn’t go very successfully. I tried some blood sausage in the market outside the bus terminal and just after midday we got on a bus back to Sachang. We spent Sunday evening on the roof watching the Supermoon rising, eating pizza and relaxing. Bob is sticking around today but is heading to Busan on Tuesday. It’s been great having him around. I haven’t seen him since 2010 and it’s always good to be around a familiar face.

The sun makes everything seem brighter. With only three months to go until Natalie and I leave on our ‘big adventure’ things feel like they are gradually coming to a close. Nathanael and I are going to go running every other night, climb some mountains and try and make the most of the time we have left here. I still have a fair amount of things to do in regards to planning for the big trip; I’m off to Seoul next week for my vaccinations. Every day I come into work I’m flicking another page of my desk diary over, I remember flipping it for the first time in January and that feels like it was only yesterday. Before I know it I’ll be flipping it over for the last time and I’ll no longer just be writing about Korea. There’s a hell of a lot to look forward to, but, for now I’ve got some kindergartners to dance with.