Monday, October 26, 2009

I'm Thank You, My Pay

Hope you're all doing well. The past week has been super busy and full of stories. As usual I've been all over the place. I get restless really easily and luckily so do many of my friends here - so we're on the go a lot. I'll do my best to recap.

Last Monday I only had school for a half day due to midterms. I didn't have to teach - just sit there and watch movies that Jin illegally downloaded on my computer. Around noon all of the teachers left to go hiking. We took the bus to Yangju Station (the nearest one to our school) and then took the subway north to Dongducheon (where I had originally thought I would be working) and from there we took a diesel train 40 minutes north to Sintan-ri (the last stop on the diesel train before we would be in North Korea). We walked a few minutes to Yeoncheon-san. Most of the women chose not to hike - they thought it would be too "difficult". It was the smallest of the 3 mountains I have hiked up so far in South Korea. So Jin and I were ready in our full hiking gear for our trip up the mountain with the rest of the male teachers. Jin was dressed like there should've been 8 feet of snow coming. She had on a fleece and a Northface jacket as well as long sleeves. She claimed she was cold - but seriously it was upper 50s/low 60s that day.

Jin and her hiking gear

Jin and me on Yeoncheon-san

My principal explained to me in a mix of Korean and broken English that until as recently as 20 years ago nobody was allowed to hike on the mountain because it was covered in landmines (guess you were right Mom...). Even today, at the top of the mountain you can find South Korean soldiers on the lookout for any strange activity from North Korea. The no-fly zone begins at the mountain, and any planes flying past the line will be shot down (probably from both sides). The view from where we stopped before turning back was amazing though, and it was probably about as close to North Korea as you can get before you need to be either on a tour or you have to be searched by guards or need to have a soldier with you. Another reminder of my proximity to North Korea and everything else that comes to mind when North Korea is mentioned. For the most part its just business as usual around here - but I've learned more and more that it is something that's still always in the back of everyone's mind. Very informative afternoon.

View from Yeoncheon-san (amazing). No fly zone starts on the smaller mountains to the right.

Third peak back is North Korea!

After our hike was over, we all went to a small restaurant for some tofu and makkoli (Korean traditional rice wine). This small town is sort of in the middle of nowhere and literally has dirt roads and there are chickens at the train stop. Vastly different from the big-city life of Seoul and feels further away than a short train ride from my city of 400,000 in Uijeongbu. We all ended up being quite drunk - which naturally meant that we were getting on the train to go to Uijeongbu for more drinking. I finished the night off with about 6 other teachers (Jin and my neighbor Sang-Eun included) where I'm pretty sure Jin has a picture of me eating pig's feet. I'm not going to lie, they weren't too bad. I've surprised myself in the past 2 months I've been here - not only with the foods that I've tried, but have enjoyed! Pig's blood noodle-y stuff - check (although I hated it). Raw cow liver? Check. Raw cow stomach? Been there done that. Squid jerky? Love it. Clams? No problem. Pig's feet? All about it.

Woke up Tuesday morning feeling the aftermath of our night out. My neighbor was about 10 minutes late to get to my apartment, and we couldn't even make it to the bus stop without stopping at 7-11 for some water. Oops. Luckily, we had another half day because of midterms and then it was on to Everland! The whole place was decked out for Halloween. Even though nobody in Korea celebrates Halloween, everybody knows what it is. I was so happy to see all the pumpkins and scarecrows - I almost felt like I was back in the States. Everland this kitschy little place in Yongin - where Anna lives - and is home to the biggest roller coaster in South Korea.


I got so excited when I heard about this because I love a good roller coaster. However, I was totally spoiled growing up with parents who took us all to Cedar Point every summer, and therefore very little can compare to the steel mega-coasters that I am such a big fan of. This "biggest" roller coaster was sort of like the Gemini (for you Cedar Point go-ers). For those of you in the Chicago area, you can compare it to the Viper at Six Flags, maybe a little bit bigger. So overall - nothing too shocking. Jin wasn't able to come to Everland with us, so I spent most of the day with my neighbor Sang-Eun - the only one who could speak enough English to actually have a conversation with me.

Teachers at my school having fun in the pumpkins :)
Sang-Eun and me

We spent most of the time going on the smaller rides. While this place is an amusement park - it doesn't even come close to comparing to what we know of amusement parks in America. Most of the rides are not roller coasters, but rather the spin and make you want to throw up kind of rides. They're not my favorite, mostly because they make me sort of dizzy, but I dealt with it and enjoyed myself regardless. When it came time for the big roller coaster, I dragged Sang-Eun on with me. We only had to wait in line for about 20 minutes or so, and then it was our turn! As soon as we got onto the ride, Sang-Eun grabbed onto me and started freaking out. Once we got to the top of the hill I put my hands up and was ready to go. Sang-Eun was still clinging onto me, and by the end of the ride she was practically in my lap. All the women on the ride were having heart attacks because it was going so fast (or so they thought). Of course, the ride takes your picture, and the one of me and Sang-Eun was so funny that I'm regretting not buying it. She's curled in a little ball and I have my hands up and I'm smiling away. Classic. The guys wanted to go on again - of course Sang-Eun wouldn't go. So I dragged another teacher on so we'd have an even number and prepared for Round 2. This time we practiced our poses for the camera.

Practicing for our roller coaster pic

Ready to Safari!

We also went on a Safari "ride". Everybody gets on a bus and they drive through a sort of zoo-like area of the park. There's giraffes, elephants, and lions and tigers and bears oh my! The bears do tricks which is pretty cool. They stand on their hind legs and walk alongside the bus. Or they stand up and do a little dance for some food.

We ate some food inside the park and then went home for the night.

Wednesday was uneventful - although nice because it was only a half day. Thursday was my first day teaching in awhile. I've had a lot of time off for various tests the students have had to take. Friday I had to teach as well. My last class of the day was the taekwondo team. I know I'm not supposed to have favorites, but I do. And it is the taekwondo team. Most of the students in my classes don't pay much attention - and I'm finding this is true across the board for my other fellow English teachers. But the taekwondo kids are extremely disciplined and respectful and so I pretty much just play games with them the whole time because they actually listen and participate. One of the students speaks pretty decent English in comparison to the rest and was able to understand my explanation of the game enough to translate it back to his classmates. This is my one class all week where I am not accompanied by a co-teacher to help me with translations or discipline. It works out though, because the kids are really great.

After school Friday I headed to Gangbyeon Station in Seoul where I was to meet up with Sara, Anna, and Adam. Rebecca was supposed to come with us, but she caught the swine and had to stay home all weekend :( At Gangbyeon we tried to figure out how to buy our bus tickets for Seoraksan/Sokcho, but were sort of lost. Even though we've lived here for 2 months, sometimes we still run into times where (especially in Seoul) we are lost or can't figure things out. So I ventured off to find tickets while Adam, Anna, and Sara sat with our stuff. I must have looked extremely lost because a Korean guy stopped me and in perfect English said "uhh...can I help you? You look really lost..". Hm. My bad. It was extremely fortunate though, and he accompanied my friends and I to the bus terminal and even helped us buy our tickets to the correct city by speaking with the teller in Korean. Lifesaverrrr! That kid has some good karma coming his way. Random acts of kindness like that always inspire me to do the same and pay it forward. We had some time to kill before our bus left, so naturally we sat outside a 7-11 and drank and ate Korean food.

We arrived in Sokcho around 10:30pm. From there we took a taxi to our hostel and called it a night. The next morning we woke up bright and early to get our hike started. After stopping for a quick convenience store breakfast, we were on our way! I had expected the hike to be difficult, but overall it wasn't. Seoraksan national park was extremely crowded, however, and that made things a little frustrating at times. Fall is the peak season for people to hike because the leaves are so amazing. The hike was very uneventful, but still beautiful. We saw a big buddha statue, an amazing temple in a cave, and of course some beautiful fall leaves. Here's pictures:

Prayers on tablets

Big Buddha!

Adam, Sara, and Anna in the cave

One of the most beautiful temples ever.

View from the top - beautiful but foggy

2 of the 4 guardians guarding the palace

After hiking we stopped for some beer (standard post-hike ritual). Then we headed back to our hostel to clean up for the night. Post-showers we went to a restaurant that had pizza next to our hostel. Pizza was decent for being made in Korea. Of course, being the Americans that we are, it wasn't enough and we ended up with a massive bowl of fried chicken as well. Adam left us girls early and went back to the hostel to sleep. The 3 of us made friends with some Korean boys, and as was to be expected, before we knew it we were in a noraebang with our new friends singing away. This was one epic noraebang session. No holds barred. We sang everything from Spice Girls, to MMMBop, to Shaggy's "Wasn't Me" (which I haven't sang in forever), to Summer of 69 to K-Pop. Basically if it came out before or while we were in middle school, or was in Korean, it was fair game for karaoke. The K-Pop songs were the funniest because the boys sang the Korean parts and us girls sang all the English words. Great system. We finished off the night with "Its Raining Men". The Korean guys knew every word to the song and even busted out a tambourine at some point. Hilarious. We offered to help pay but of course the Koreans were gentlemen and paid for our time in the noraebang. When we said "thank you", our new friend responded with "I'm thank you, my pay". Whatever that means. We said bye and went back to the hostel for the night. In the morning we woke up and went to the beach (yes...the beach) for a few hours, and then got on a bus back to Seoul.
Loungin on the bus
The bus was only supposed to take 2 1/2 hours, but because of the traffic it ended up taking FIVE HOURS. It was really miserable, even tho the bus was nice and our seats were practically lazy-boys. We were starving by the end but made it through.

Today in school I did a Halloween lesson with some of my students (they're going nuts for the candy from the states!). I also did a "If I had a million dollars.." lesson to teach them the conditional tense. These kids seriously crack me up. One girl said she would buy cosmetic surgery with her million dollars. Another kid said he would build a house out of kimchi (the spicy pickled cabbage that Koreans love and eat with literally every meal) and put the "free girl" in his front yard. By "free girl" he meant the Statue of Liberty. So hilarious. I proposed other hypothetical situations to the kids to get them speaking using the conditional. Who would you date? Who would you be if you could be anybody in the world? What would you do if you were the President of Korea? I'm sure you can use your imagination based off what I've told you about the kids to guess what they said. The top answer I got for who students would want to be was Mariah Carey. What? Really? Other popular answers included God, Obama, and Amy Teacher (that's me). I was honored to be up there with God and Obama but I think these kids might have their priorities out of order. The kids had some pretty intelligent answers to being president: they would unify North and South Korea, lower taxes, and lower education costs. Unification was always said first by the kids - proving again that these two countries don't want to be divided. A few kids even said if they had the opportunity to go on a date/have dinner with anyone they would choose Kim Jong-Il (North Korean president for those of you living under a rock). Other kids had some different ideas and wanted to eliminate tests in school and make Korea part of the United States. Ahhh they crack me up.

Here's a few K-Pop songs that we sang in the noraebang on Saturday night. They're both by a girl group called 2NE1. The first song is called I Don't Care. The other song is called Fire. Both of these songs are extremely popular here right now and I love them :) There's a street version of Fire on YouTube as well - same song just a different video. Check it out if you're bored!

Up next: Halloween rager. I think this is the first time that I will truly be missing Madison. Halloween just won't be the same without riots, tear gas, and police on horseback. Sigh...

Meghan!! Happy Birthday (on the 29th!). I haven't forgotten about you and I will be sending you a birthday package full of presents and squid jerky very soon! It will be late but keep your eye out for it. I hope you have a fantastic birthday - miss you!! :)

Also, are people still reading? I'm not talking to myself am I? Haven't had any comments in me some love please :)

Sorry this was kind of a long entry. I'll be sticking around Seoul for the next few weekends. Who knows where/when the next adventure will be. I'm looking forward to it though. The feeling of living out of a suitcase and being constantly on the go is something that I absolutely love. Many people would prefer to stay in the comfort of their own homes, but its just not for me. I learn something with every monument I see, every person I meet, and every city no matter how big or small that I visit. Traveling, in my opinion, is the best education, and I hope everyone has similar opportunities at some point in their life.

Did I mention I went to the beach this weekend? My. Life. Rocks.

Sokcho Beach

"Adventure is a path. Real adventure - self-determined, self-motivated, often risky - forces you to have firsthand encounters with the world. The world the way it is, not the way you imagined it. Your body will collide with the earth and you will bear witness. In this way you will be compelled to grapple with the limitless kindness and bottomless cruelty of humankind - and perhaps realize that you yourself are capable of both. This will change you. Nothing will ever again be black-and-white." --Mark Jenkins

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Busan: No Reservations

Hi everyone! Last week my friends and I decided we wanted to go to Busan. We decided we would just wing it - with the exception of our train tickets to Busan we were not going to make any reservations - Anthony Bourdain style. We didn't book a hotel or plan anything out for the weekend. I went to Busan with Sara, Rebecca, and David - all from Wisco- and then met another friend down there. We had some trouble reserving our tickets for the train initially, but thanks to Rebecca becoming a Korail member we will never have trouble booking tickets again. We all met at Seoul Station around 7 to get some dinner - McDonalds of course. Then we spent the rest of the time making sure we had everything in order, namely reading material and alcohol for the train ride. Our train didn't leave until 9pm so we were there in plenty of time. We hopped on the train with our boxes (yes boxes!!!) of soju in hand and prepared for our 2 1/2 hour ride on the KTX bullet train to Busan.

Waiting for the train on the platform with 2 boxes of soju to get me through the train ride

Travel buddies Megan and Patrick

Me and Rebecca on the train

The train ride there went by very quickly. We arrived into Busan just before midnight and the first thing we noticed was that even though it was the middle of the night it was significantly warmer than Seoul. We hopped in a cab once we got off the train and went to Haeundae Beach - the area in Busan we were staying. Busan is located on the southeast coast of South Korea and most of the action is around the beaches. Busan is sort of the Miami of South Korea - although its not warm all year round, it does have more mild weather and has better weather than Seoul. We had the cab drop us off where we estimated a good place to be to find a love motel - super sleezy places intended for Korean businessmen to take their mistresses but a travelers dream because it has all the amenities of a hotel but not nearly as expensive. We decided on a pink hotel lit up with neon signs. Can never go wrong with a pink hotel. It ended up having a room available and so we booked it for 2 nights and went to our room. The room was pretty big - a king size bed perfect for us girls and had a couch we made David sleep on. Only issue was that the shower/whirlpool had a door, but the wall of the bathroom was a huge window looking out into the rest of the hotel room. Awkward. Overall though it was one of the nicer love motels I've stayed in, but just to remind us what the room is really intended for we had a condom vending machine at the door:

A condom dispenser with an AIDS lollipop. Um?!

After putting our stuff down we decided to explore the area - it was close to 1am by this point but things are open pretty much all night in Korea so we had no trouble finding things to do. We walked down by the beach and ran into the PIFF pavilion. Busan just finished hosting the Busan (Pusan) International Film Festival. Josh Hartnett was in town for the event and it was a huge deal for the film festival to draw in such a big name American actor. The beach was amazing even at night - it was full of people sitting around and drinking or just hanging out.

Me, Sara, and Rebecca on the beach

Haeundae Beach, Busan

We walked around on the boardwalk and ran into a little area with coin-operated bumper cars. So dangerous. I have no idea why they think its a good idea to have those readily available for whoever might stumble past but we definitely took advantage of the situation. All you have to do is put in a 500won coin and the music on the little cars start playing and you can just bump into whoever else is driving around. So fun.

We went back to our hotel around 3 or so, but the boys decided to hit up the casino. The next morning we woke up pretty late - our room didn't have windows so it was totally dark and we just kept on sleeping thinking it was the middle of the night still. We all took showers with limited lighting since we didn't want to give a free show to the other people in the room. So there I am showering away when A HUGE FREAKING SPIDER pops out of nowhere and is hanging out in the shower with me. Now, I know people probably think I'm exaggerating when I say that this spider was huge, but for once I'm not. This was a fat juicy hairy black spider. I didn't know what to do. So there I am in the in the see-through shower while I'm being held hostage by a giant spider blocking the exit. Terrifying. Naturally, I started screaming at the top of my lungs and having no other defense against the spider, I unhooked the detachable shower head and used it as a high pressure water gun to shoot the sucker to the other side of the shower so I could grab a towel and run for it. I ran out of the bathroom and sent in someone to kill it. I could hear the crunch it made as it was smushed. Absolutely disgusting. I steered clear of the bathroom as much as possible from that point on.

Once the spider drama was over, the 5 of us went to a burger place near the beach (my first since I arrived in Korea!) and had some lunch. After that we went to the beach and layed out for a few hours. The water was freezing and it was even a little chilly to be laying out in swim suits, so we just sat on the beach in our clothes but when the sun came out it was soooo nice. Here's some pics from the beach:

In front of the "independent filmmakers lounge" from the PIFF

On the beach!

Haeundae Beach, Busan
Eventually the boys decided to go back to the casino to try to "win their money back" from the night before, and us girls decided to give the Busan seafood a try. Now, I've never really liked seafood very much, but I decided to be a good sport about it because I've been all about trying new things since I got here. Busan is supposed to have really good seafood so I figured this would be the place to give it a go. We found a place that had several people sitting outside which is always a good sign. Our choice? Fresh clams. They were fresh out of the tank, and cooked right in front of us. We really didn't have a clue how to eat them. The other girls enjoyed them, but I wasn't a big fan. Ah well. I tried.



View from the restaurant

How do we eat this?!

After dinner we stopped at Starbucks to pick up some cheesecake, and then bought some wine and beer for the night. We made a quick pit stop at our hotel to drop some things off and pick up others. We met up with the boys and then hopped in a taxi to Gwangali Beach. Once a year there is a huge fireworks show at Gwangali Beach in Busan and people from all over Korea come here to enjoy the show. Everyone brings blankets and sits on beach eating and drinking and watches as the fireworks are lit off the Rainbow Bridge. I have seen a lot of things and been a lot of places and I have to say - this is one of my favorite things I have seen or done. The whole atmosphere was amazing. Sitting on a beach on the edge of a huge city surrounded by mountains watching fireworks.

We arrived about 2 hours before the show was schedule to begin, and it would have done us good to get there even earlier. We managed to find a spot on the crowded beach to put our stuff down. We passed the time by lighting sparklers which entertained a lot of the children around us. The fireworks show was the best I have ever seen - every second was like a grand finale, combined with the lights display from the bridge. All of the high rise hotels and apartments shut off their neon lights to make the beach darker, and at some points we weren't even watching the fireworks in front of us. We would turn around and watch the buildings sparkle from the reflection of the fireworks. The show was set to music of course, blared over several loud speakers set up throughout the beach. Throughout the show we ate our cheesecake and drank our beer and wine.

Playing with sparklers on the beach :)
Gwangali Beach
Rainbow Bridge

Waiting for the show to begin


The show lasted about 45 minutes and once it was finished we shoved our way through the masses of people and found a small carnival that had been set up on the beach. Rebecca and I decided to take a chance on a ride called "Crazy Flip". It pretty much just spun us upside down a bunch of times. Nothing too crazy but still fun.

After the carnival we walked through the fish market where you can choose your own live fish. Here's a bit of what we saw...



Of course, what's a fish market without some live octopus (octopi?)

We stopped at a traditional Korean restaurant near the beach and had a quick meal. We went to a bar for a drink, and then headed back to Haeundae where we made lots of new friends and hung out until the wee hours of the morning, as usual.

Experimenting with our Asian style :)

Checked out of the love motel around noon and went to Starbucks on the beach. We spent an hour or two on the beach before hopping in a cab back to Busan Station where we were lucky enough to catch the next KTX to Seoul. Grabbed dinner at Seoul Station once we were back and then headed home. I highly highly recommend Busan for anyone to decides to come to Korea, it was definitely worth the trip and we will be going back again once the winter is over for some more fun in the sun. So that's all for now - I need to try to get the sand out of my hair, shoes, iPod, etc. Hiking Monday, Everland (amusement park) Tuesday, no classes Wednesday (still have to go to school but no teaching necessary). I'll get paid to watch movies and skype with all of you! I hate to brag - but I really do have the best job ever. I have yet to take a vacation day but out of the past 20 possible days for me to teach - I have taught 8. Life is good :)

Film Festival!

I'm on the beach and you're not. Ha ha!

"I dig my toes into the sand. The ocean looks like a thousand diamonds strewn across a blue blanket. I lean against the wind, pretend that I am weightless. And in this moment I am happy." --Incubus