Thursday, January 26, 2006

Shamans and pig heads on Mt. Inwangsan

Last Saturday I hiked Mt. Inwangsan (from Dongnimun Station) past the construction zone and up to Guksadang, a shamanic shrine where shamans continue to perform rituals to this day. Seoul is home to millions of people, neon signs, noise and pollution, but it's nice to know that a short hike up a mountain can bring you to a different side of Seoul. One with a better view that is much less frequented by busy Seoulites. By the time I came to Guksadang the noise from the city had faded away and was replaced by a man inside the temple beginning to chant. It was quite a contrast to go so quickly from crowded subway to shaman chanting. From Guksadang I went up to Seonbawi (Zen rock) where mothers still come to pray for a son. From here I had a great view of the city from above including the Seoul fortress wall and the Seoul tower. When I walked further up the mountain I came to the natural springs and the ancient Buddha head rock carving and saw, hanging from a stick, what I first mistook for a bag of garbage. It actually was a pig's head stuck in a black garbage bag with only it's fake-looking ears hanging out the sides. I think it was a food offering for the spirits...shamanists believe that the dead still need food. After enjoying the view and the peace of quiet for awhile I walked back down the mountain alongside the Seoul fortress wall and back into the organized chaos of the city streets.

Click here to view video.

Shaman chanting at Guksadang Shrine on Inwangsan Mountain, Seoul.

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Temporarily imprisoned in Seodaemun Prison

Saturday I went to a prison near Dongnimmun station that the Japanese used during the Japanese occupation (1910-1945) to imprison, torture and sometimes kill Koreans that were opposed to the invasion. It was much more graphic than I was expecting. The huge close-up picture of a tortured man's face will stay in my mind much longer than the many mannequins depicting various torture scenarios, due to the very real and very raw look of anguish on his face. Not that the mannequins weren't made to look very real within the several blocks of cells, complete with blood spattered on the walls and recordings of screaming and yelling voices. Not recommended for everyone.

There are a couple of solitary cells in one of the buildings that you can go in to experience for a moment (albeit under radically different circumstances) what life was like living in a 3X5 cell. I went in and shut the door behind me and tried to imagine this "room" being my home for an indeterminate amount of time. It was of course, impossible. I went to open the door and my luck for attracting improbable and unusual situations had struck again and I had unknowingly locked myself in the cell. I knew someone would eventually make their way into the building where I was (and of course they did) but the 20 minutes when I was waiting gave me a horrifying taste of what it must have been like for the Korean prisoners to live in this freezing cold and dark cave. After I realized the door was actually locked and there were no other voices in the building, I felt claustrophobic until I told myself I should feel lucky to be in this cell under these circumstances. I sat down and looked at the walls and ceiling. I was looking at the same walls and ceilings that past inhabitants must have unintentionally memorized. I believe a place has a personality that is altered by interactions with people and the experiences they have while there. This room was no exception.

Friday, January 20, 2006

Guitar-playing visitor in class

John joined Kitty Class one day while he was here and the kids absolutely fell in love with him. They bombarded him with hugs and their unique American-Korean version of, "G'day mate!", as soon as he walked in the door. He taught them two new words: "guitar" and "pick", played songs for them and they loved it! Kitty Class all made cards before he came that were decorated with kangaroos, wallabies, strawberry ice cream and rainbows. We also performed Yellow Submarine for John as he played the guitar. It was fun to share with someone a glimpse into the my life of teaching children English as a second language in a foreign country. They ask about him everyday now.

John playing Yellow Submarine while Deborah and Ali dance (and Wally the Wallaby)

John and Kitty Class (that's William attacking John)

A card from Zack to John with wallabies (not kangaroos) to make him feel at home

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

25 in the Winter Soraksan Mountains

On Friday the 13th, John and I caught a bus to Sokcho so we could do some winter hiking at Soraksan for his last weekend in Korea. We arrived at 2:30 am, went to a jimjilbang for few hours and then woke up for an early start. We went to Sunrise Park in Sokcho but the sun was hidden behind rain clouds that gave us the impression it would be a bitter cold day of hiking with wet and frozen clothes. Fortunately though, the drizzle eventually stopped around midday. I had never done any winter hiking before but once we strapped on rented metal spikes to our boots it was a quite exhilarating.

We made our way into the mountains and arrived at the hut where we would stay the night shortly before sunset. Nothing beats a cold beer after a long day of hiking. Especially when it's drank in a small shack surrounded by beautiful, snow-covered mountains and served to you by a friendly Korean man who keeps bringing oranges, chocolates and dried squid (I passed on the squid but John tried it for the first time). After our drink we were led to where we would be sleeping...a cold, hard wood floor with no heating or blankets. My cold breath came out as thick as clouds as I laughed and thought what an interesting night this would be. My anticipation was short-lived though;we were taken to a room over a fire pit after the reconsideration of our host. It was a small, 4-ft high room with only enough space to comfortably fit three people. We returned to the shack for a dinner of ramyeon, kimchi and a bottle of celebratory soju. John and I shared tales of our travels and occasionally toasted a shot of soju with the three other Koreans eating with us until it was lights-out at 9:00pm.

My 25th year on this Earth came quietly as I was sleeping deep in the mountains in a snow-covered hut far away from pollution, traffic, and the conveniences of modern society. I woke up on Sunday in between a good friend and a Korean woman and "25" didn't sound as bad as I thought it would. We raced back towards the base of the mountain, running down the ice-covered rocks and across slippery metal bridges (I had overcome my fear of downhill on ice after one day but also managed to forget that fear is a beneficial instinct that aids in survival) . Icicle branches were surrounding us as the sun started to peak over the mountain tops. Instantly, the ice started to melt and crack and we were caught under a shower of falling ice. The sun reflecting off the thousands of branches combined with the unexpected ice falling from the trees gave the mountains a mystical look and feel. We made it back to the base and had Soraksan wine that was made on the mountain with our lunch. It was like fresh squeezed grape juice with a kick. The perfect way to end a hike.

It was a weekend of firsts for me: first time winter hiking, first day of being 25 and my first time being chased by the cops before I left Sokcho. Yes, sorry Mom, I did say chased by the cops. It was the small offense of jaywalking that started the "situation" and I discovered that my instinct was to run. It wasn't that busy of a street, only a couple cars here and there. Unfortunately for me, a cop car was one of them. They drove by, turned their siren on and pointed at me with stern looks on their faces. I think it was the looks that caused me to run. They were not forgiving looks. I instantly thought of all that could go wrong if I stayed and waited for the car to turn around: the cops don't speak English, I don't have any ID, they take me to the police station and they can't find a translator, I get yelled at in Korean, I get a huge fine, I miss my bus back to Seoul, by the time I get out of the police station the buses are no longer running, I spend the night in the streets and have to take a bus back the next morning and end up missing work on Monday. And to make it worse, my friend from Australia has to endure this all with me.

Who knows what would have really happened. Maybe nothing. But I didn't feel like finding out so I yelled to John from the middle of the street, "I'm running!", and we took off in a mad dash until we found a small alley behind a hotel where we hid out and caught our breath for awhile. Nothing like a bit of adrenaline to add some excitement to your day. Damn! I feel like a 17 year old kid today... running down mountains and getting chased by the cops. Not such a bad way to feel on the day you're turning a quarter-century old!

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

DMZ: A Step Into the Divide

It's been a non-stop whirlwind tour of Seoul and Soraksan starting last Friday night and finally ending last night when I fell asleep exhausted at 6:30pm and didn't wake for 12 hours. I didn't think it was possible to do so much in so little time, especially considering I was working the entire week, but I think John managed to get a good taste of Korean culture for such a short visit. We wasted no time and started his trip off with a tour of the DMZ and a step into North Korea.

We woke up at 5:15a on the 7th to go on the USO tour of the DMZ. We began our tour by signing a release that says our trip to Panmunjeom (the truce village between North and South Korea) "will entail entry into a hostile area and possibility of injury or death as a direct result of enemy action". That statement alone let you know you were not on an ordinary tour. It was absolutely freezing at what has been called "the most dangerous place in the world", but I think the bitter cold weather of the day fit well with the aura of the place. It would be a completely different experience to go on a beautiful Spring day with birds singing and flowers blooming all around.

We passed through South Korea's Freedom House, which was built to host reunions between North and South Korean families, but has never been used for its intended purpose. On the North side is the building Panmungak, which in an act of one-upmanship was actually made taller than the Freedom House. Next we visited building T2, the small blue building that is situated in between the North and South, and set foot in the most isolated country in the world while South Korean soldiers guarded the North door. This is where occasional meetings take place between officials from both sides.

We were taken to the location of the 1976 ax murders where two U.S. soldiers were killed by North Korean soldiers while trying to cut down a tree that was obstructing the view from a UN post. After this incident, soldiers on both sides were no longer allowed on opposing sides at the DMZ. Near this site is the Bridge of No Return where prisoners of war from both sides were returned. If someone voluntarily chose to go to the North Korean side, there was no chance of return.

There are two villages located within the DMZ: Taesongdong in the South and Gijeongdong (ironically called "Peace Village" by North Korea) in the North. Gijeongdong is known as "Propaganda Village" in the South because it merely appears to be a modernistic village, while in reality only a few people reside there and there isn't even glass for windows on any of the buildings. From Checkpoint 3 we got a look into Propaganda Village, which is also the location of the world's tallest flagpole, erected after South Korea built a flagpole in Taesongdong. In another contest of "mine-is-bigger-than-yours-is", North Korea's flagpole is 160 meters high and the flag weighs about 270 kg (575 lbs.). It must be taken down when it rains because the flagpole cannot support the added weight of the wet flag. I thought it was funny that in the South Korean model of Propaganda Village the South Korean flag is the same size (or maybe even larger) than the North Korean flag. (Ha! But our flag is bigger in the model!)

We also went into the 3rd tunnel that was discovered in 1978 that was dug by North Korea with the supposed purpose of a surprise attack on Seoul. We put on hard hats and climbed in the 1,635 meter tunnel until we came to a small door leading to North Korea that was blocked with rolls of razor wire to block anyone from defecting to the other side.
Visiting the DMZ was definitely something I needed to do while living in Korea and it gave me visual images to link with the historical facts I've learned. But as I was told so bluntly tonight by a young Korean man, "You will never understand Korea's history. It's very deep and very personal." I agree and appreciate his statement but regardless, I will continue to learn all I can about the country I currently call home.

Blue T2 building in front of Panmungak building

The Bridge of No Return

South Korean soldier in front of Propaganda Village with the tall North Korean flagpole towering above all the buildings

Thursday, January 12, 2006

Sunset at Haeundae beach, Pusan on Boxing Day

Beomeosa Temple in Busan

Tongyeong harbor

Sunrise at Cheonghakdong a.k.a. "The Village of the Taoist Masters" on New Years Eve Day

Friday, January 06, 2006

Worldwide friends, beef-flavored caramel and CHARLIE

Almost one year ago to the day I was arriving in Ireland to begin traveling around with a bunch of Aussies (and one unlucky Kiwi who heard a ridiculous amount of sheep jokes throughout the trip). Tonight one of them is coming to check out Korea for 10 days and I get to play Seoul tourguide when I'm not teaching. It should be a very busy 10 days considering how much there is to do in this massive city but we're going to try to see as much as possible. I already have the itinerary for the weekend booked full so there will be no recovering from the international flight by sleeping in tomorrow. Sleep when you're dead, right?

I had someone from Japan visit and stay with me yesterday. It was interesting talking about differences between Japan and Korea from a Japanese perspective. He said that most Japanese people don't know anything about Dokdo (Takeshima in Japan), which is surprising considering how passionate most Koreans are about the disputed island. He brought many packaged Japanese foods for me to try. I can now say I've tried beef flavored caramel. Yes, BEEF flavored. Imagine eating a chewy bouillon cube. Yum.

This week went by quick in the classroom. My dreaded 4:30 class has become tolerable and even fun. Maybe it's because their English has improved and they no longer look at me with blank stares whenever I talk. Maybe it's because I'm becoming a better teacher (let's hope). Or maybe it's just because Charlie wasn't in class today. Charlie's mother claims he's not out-of-control, he's just "a very curious child". She also dresses him in frilly little girl coats. I believe that fact alone makes her opinion null and void. I try to like him, I really do. But I can't say I don't appreciate the days Charlie doesn't make it to class. Harry, from the same class changed his name this week to "Tony" because his classmates kept calling him Harry Potter. I'm probably to blame for starting the Harry Potter nickname but what 8 year old boy doesn't want to be Harry Potter? How weird would that have been if I could have changed my name in grade school? Who knows what I would have been going by? There's a "Mac" in one of my classes that refused every name suggested and insisted on being named "Big Mac". He settled for Mac.

I'm going to meet John from Oz now at the subway station! It reminds me of my first day in Korea... what a strange place it was. How long ago that first day seems.

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Incredible kindness of strangers

As promised, a tale from the road...

An overwhelming theme I observed when traveling solo last week was the incredible kindness of strangers I encountered everywhere I turned. A true, big-hearted kindness that transcended language barriers and gave me more reason to believe in the inherent good intention of mankind. How refreshing!

In Tongyeong, on my way to the ferry terminal I met an old man on the bus who spoke about as much English as I spoke Korean (and that's not saying much). We walked together to the ferry terminal in an understandable silence. He walked with me until I reached the ticket counter where I bought a round trip ticket to a nearby island after finding out there wasn't a ferry going to my intended destination of Yeosu. I thanked him, we waved goodbye and I took off for my island cruise.

An hour and a half later when the ferry returned I walked out of the terminal to find my newly acquainted friend waiting for me with a car and his son for a driver. Hmm, he might be here to help me to the bus station so I can get to Yeosu. I did tell him I wanted to go there. How nice!Damn, I wish I spoke better Korean! Oh well, I'll just see what happens... He then says "tour Tongyeong?", so I throw my bag in the back seat and I'm off for a tour of the town with the locals. The old man obviously had great pride in his country and city and was going out of his way to share it with an outsider. We went first to the Tongyeong Fisheries Museum where we had a quick look at miniature constructions of Korean fishing boats, stuffed and plasticized sea creatures and some live fish in tanks and then we went back to the car where his son was waiting.

After the museum we drove down to the port to eat lunch. We were a very unlikely trio--an old man, his son in a wheelchair, and me-- walking through the fish markets in search of a kimbap restaurant. When we found one, a soju-intoxicated man joined our table and proceeded to have a one-sided conversation with me in Korean that lasted through lunch--he seemed to think I fully understood (maybe it was all the smiling and nodding that gave him that impression). After lunch we stopped at a temple for another quick walk-through on the way to the bus station.

There wasn't a single bus to Yeosu, my friend informed me. "Jinju?" he asked. Jinju, Jinju...what do I know about Jinju? It's North of here. I know next to nothing about it. Okay, sure, I say. Jinju it is! The old man then bought my ticket for me and refused to take my money. I didn't have time to argue about it though, my bus was leaving in a mere 8 minutes.

I rushed to my seat on the bus, sat down, relaxed and reflected upon the events of the day. An old man and his son devoted their entire afternoon to driving me around their town, showing off their small corner of the world... without even knowing so much as my name. Amazing.

Jinju eventually led me to Changhakdong, a.k.a. the Village of Taoist Masters, where I spent the night on the mountain. Story to come later though, I've rambled on too much already.

Monday, January 02, 2006

Couchsurfing and Toothaches

A new year has come and it's back to work again today. Although I didn't really miss the school, it was really good to see Kitty Class-- they all ran up and hugged me, told me about their Christmas and how they are all six years old now. In Korea, everyone adds a year to their age on January 1 (Korean age is one year older than American age).

I started out my break last Saturday by taking the KTX train to Busan to arrive just in time for Christmas Eve. I showed up at Haeundae Beach and met Mayo, who let me crash on his couch for 4 nights and introduced me to the nightlife in Busan on a very atypical Christmas Eve in Korea. I met Mayo through, which has serious potential to be the adventurous budget backpackers best friend. To sum it up in a sentence, couchsurfing allows you to meet people from all over the world who are offering their couch (or extra bed, floor or broom closet) for travelers, and in return at some point you return the favor to another traveler. Think 'Pay It Forward', worldwide vagabond-style. I can only imagine what my mom was thinking when I called her on Christmas morning and told her I was sleeping on the couch of someone I only recently met *gasp* online. (Probably the same thing she was thinking when I called home from London earlier this year and whispered that I had lost my bag on the flight from Sevilla to London. Why was I whispering, she wanted to know? Because I don't want to wake up the people I met on the flight who invited me to stay on their couch for the night...but that's a whole other story.) Couchsurfing was great, Mayo was a very gracious host (and a great vegetarian cook also!), and Busan was fun. It was my first Christmas away from home and it was a day quite undistinguished from other non-holidays; I had to keep reminding myself throughout the day that it was Christmas.

My parents sent me a Christmas package the week before and I unceremoniously opened my stocking and presents directly after class on the day I got it. I couldn't help but open the wrapped books--I'm a huge book-nerd, what can I say? And after the books I thought I might as well open the others, it's not like I'll be home to open them on Xmas anyway...Smartwool socks! I love them and I was needing another pair of the greatest socks ever! Grandma's honey cookies were also a huge bonus. If I close my eyes while I'm eating one it almost feels like I'm in Kansas... Thanks Mom, Dad and Grandma! And thanks Granny for the money I will no doubt be putting towards books. You are all the greatest! I can't wait to try some of Tanya's soup recipes, I'll have to go out and find myself a cheap blender now.

From Busan I moved on West to the port town of Tongyeong, then up to Jinju, West to Hadong, Sangyesa, Changhakdong, back to Jinju and home to Seoul on Saturday. I inevitably amassed many tales from the road but will post more on them later... I have yet another cold and a frickin toothache that is sending me in a frantic search for an English speaking dentist. Preferably a dentist that doesn't use silver or gold fillings that are oh-so-common here in this country of rotting teeth. There is an undeniable overabundance of silver fillings in my school and the country. Okay, okay so not everyone has rotting teeth but it looks like many of my students were put to bed with bottles of sugar water and their parents have yet to discover the wonderful invention of the toothbrush. I've been told that parents in Korea don't spend much time or money on the first set of teeth because they eventually fall out and then they'll inherit a completely new set that can be properly taken care of. Correct me if I'm wrong though. Happy New Year to all! I wish everyone a year free of toothaches and colds and bosses that suck.

Where I work (1st & 2nd floor) and live (4th floor)