School field trips

I’ve been waiting for this day since I first heard about it, the teacher field trip.  One of the great differences in South Korean and US schools are the field trips.  The students go on two field trips a year.  A weekend long trip and a day trip.  Most schools have teacher field trips. Our school went to Chan Gwan mountain last week.  We started classes 10 minutes early and taught 4 classes back-to back, ate lunch, and at 12:30 we got on a tour bus for an hour+ drive to the base of a mountain.

Each person had a snack pack on our seats including a bottle of water, several oranges, dried squid, dried octopus, a few almonds, and korean sausages.  The sausages look like a pink goo paste and are not on my list of things to try. My lead teacher kept offering me shots of soju and his unwrapped sausage, I declined the sausage. In explaining why, they made me homesick for Kramarczuk’s Polish sausage.  The staff sang karaoke versions of traditional songs during the 1 1/2 hour long ride.  Most of them were able to sing well. There was no ironically bad singing on this trip.  Everyone was trying to impress the principal.

Okay, so we arrived at the base of the mountain a little bit tipsy.  Each teacher was then given a can or two of beer, and sent up the mountain. (2:30 pm)  We hiked up the very steep mountain.  We stopped twice to rest along the way.  Each time, we lost teachers who went down to rest and wait.

After hiking up the path we summited at a beautiful field of paintbrush grass and a lookout.  We stopped for group photos and to drink the beers that were brought up, and then we rock hopped down the eastern ridge of the mountain. The mountain was seaside and the coast was dotted with islands.  It took me quite a bit longer to get  down than to get up since the eastern side so was so rocky/ muddy.  It was a cool, sunny, beautiful day.  I wish we could have lingered.

(Side note) There is a huge difference in how Americans and Koreans hike.  Every hike I’ve taken here I’ve been startled by their style.  As a rule of thumb, they dress to the nines in high tech gear and carry full, five course meals in the packs. They travel in large, quick paced groups, talk or sing loudly, and listen to music/ watch TV on handheld devices as they hike.  At first I found it off putting, I like a little solace when I hike, but it is hard to find solace on a Korean mountain. Now, I just try to go with the flow.  I avoid the popular hikes like Wolchulasn during peak hiking season.

When we got to the base we took off for dinner at a grilled beef restaurant.  It was awesome.  I love our teacher dinners.  We sat with a few teacher friends, grilled beef, abalone, garlic and mushrooms.   Of course, there was beer, soju, rice, a variety of kimchi’s, perilla and lettuce to wrap it in.  It was delicious.  We poured shots for our supervisors, who kindly returned the favor.  (I take small shots, maybe .3 oz, that soju is 20 proof.)

I teased Eun Kyong, the special ed teacher, because she looked beautiful climbing the mountain, and fabulous after, while I looked harried, sweaty, and disheveled. She and Eul Ji, the 3rd grade teacher, always look good.  Dinner was followed by rice soup, of course.

After our meal we hopped back on the bus for more karaoke.  This is when things got serious.  I particularly loved Benji, my fabulous co-teacher, and the principal singing and dancing on the bus.    I wish you could be here to really appreciate a Korean party bus.  Big screen televisions, light shows, speakers, frilly curtains, a sober bus driver, and noreabang, Korean karaoke.  It is a thing unto itself.  The bus took us home where Mike and Remi met me, at 8:30 pm, and walked me home.

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A visit to Seoul

They call him "Chopstick Jim"

A few weeks ago, my (Mike’s) dad came to visit. Dad’s a pretty lively guy, so I thought it would be nice to go up and have him help me take a look around Seoul, Korea’s lively, super-populated capital city.

My first challenge was finding a nice neighborhood in the massive sprawl. Something nice but not too expensive, something exciting but not a 24-7 party. Dad likes adventure, but he’s not much for disco. After consulting one of my favorite websites for travel, hostelworld.com, I found a place called The Golden Pond, near the Hwaewa metro station, on the northeastern edge of downtown.

On arriving, I was pleased to find a quaint little neighborhood not unlike what I’d left in Mokpo. I’d been expecting a shoulder-to-shoulder madhouse from the pages of a National Geographic article on global overpopulation. But the neighborhood up there has a distinct small-town feel, and it’s a bit edgy and young, tucked as it is between two universities. Dad had found it first, of course – he’s intrepid and never fails in a travel challenge –  and when I found him he had settled in to the bed and was working a sudoko puzzle. After a brief hello, and a good night’s sleep, we were ready to conquer Seoul.

In the morning we ate at the Dunkin Donuts. Yes, Dunkin Donuts are everywhere in Korea. They serve a nice cup of coffee – (all espresso, though, no drip coffee. Drip coffee is an American tradition that never caught on outside North America) – but the donut selection is not quite the same as America. They have bagels, a couple of chocolate donuts, but the rest of their display case is filled with things like grapefruit chewisties, glutinous rice snacks, and bean-paste filled things. Eatyourkimchi.com has a nice run-down, if you’re interested in more details.

Then we headed out to see a couple of the five great palaces of the Joseon dynasty. First up was Changyeong Palace, which was a secondary palace of the ruling dynasty until a fire destroyed the principle royal residence in the 1590’s. Being great adventurers, we tried the first gate we found, which turned out to be a service entrance, and as we began to admire the beauty of the grounds, we were chased down by a nice woman from the back office and told to leave. Chastened, we went down the road, and paid the entrance fee (about 2 dollars) and walked in the main gate.

This brought us to the main palace grounds, which are a rectangle divided into a series of courtyards by a succession of large gates, with a central corridor lined with markers like small headstones. These large, football-field sized spaces eventually lead into the large pagoda-styled building that hosts a relatively modest throne. Outside the palace walls are some more residencies, and beyond that, through a

A reflective pond near Changyeong palace

peaceful grove of trees, right near where we’d tried to sneak in, lay a small lake with an island, lined by electric lanterns that at night would have been a beautiful, romantic place for the royals and their coterie to gather, drink, and write the poetry that was considered essential for the ruling class in those days.

Down the road was Gyongbuk palace, known to all English teachers who use the national curriculum as the star of chapter 5 in the text book – Where’s Gyongbuk-gong?

Changing of the Guard

We arrived at the exact time they were doing the symbolic changing of the guards. A colorful progression of men in shiny silks walked across the yard accompanied by the beating of drums and the sounds of long pipe-style instruments that reminded me, for their wavery droning, of bagpipes that had been removed from the bag and used as solo instruments. But they still had a distinctive Asian sound as well, a sound designed to carry up into the village and up the mountains. The soldiers carried long flags on their backs and solemn faces. It was an impressive display for the hundreds of tourists lining the central walkway that led from the main gate through a large dusty courtyard to the  inner gate that led to the palace grounds themselves. On the one side we could see the tall blue buildings of modern Seoul, while to the back stood the mountains that provided ancient Seoul with it defense.
Inside, we mingled with the tourists and hordes of local

Middle School kids asking for help.

school kids on field trips. Korean school kids act funny around tourists. They are encouraged to talk to foreigners, first of all. Which meant that the average foreigner was approached perhaps a dozen times by kids, whose minimal English skills didn’t lead to much of a conversation. Your typical question would be: Hello. Where are you from? Do you like Kimchi?

Their simple questions were often baffled by Dad’s more complicated, above elementary school grade answers. Where are you from? They asked, and he’d say something like, “Well, I call Minnesota home – have you heard of the Twins?” They were sports about it, though – giggling their schoolkid giggles, then running off to their group, and then, unfazed, off to talk to more foreigners later.

Straight south of Gyoengbuk Palace is the Great South Gate, which was a huge stone fortress from the days when Seoul needed defending. A few years ago, it was burned to the ground by an arsonist, and is now a large, tented construction site as it’s being rebuilt. But just above where the Great South Gate used to stand is the neighborhood dominated by Namdaemun markets, nearly a square mile of shops delivering everything from t-shirts and suits to cameras, pig’s feet and red bean waffle fish. It’s a staggering display of consumption that puts the Mall of America to shame.

Market stalls between the market stalls

Of course, we visited many other places: The National Museum, the Folk Museum, the Electronics Village near Yongsan station, Jogyesa temple, and, I would estimate, 50 to 100 camera stores that appeared around nearly every corner and the top floor of the Yongsan train station.

We even went up to Itaewon, infamous home of all foreign activity in Seoul. For those of you who don’t know, here’s a Korean pop song and video that touches on what the Itawon neighborhood means in the Korean consciousness:

I should say it wasn’t quite that crazy, though it was crowded, and filled with more foreigners than I’d ever seen in one place in Korea. I might not have even gone, but for one of my primary quests in coming to Seoul: a decent hamburger. I’m not sure Dad appreciated this quest, as he’d only been away from America for about 24 hours, but I’d been here about six months by now, and my cheeseburger blood levels were dangerously low. Dad understands this, and accompanied my humor like the excellent co-traveler he’s been on many an occasion.

So we wandered streets crowded with non-Korean faces, shopped for English language books, and found a nice Irish pub called the Wolfhound. Inside the Wolfhound, we had cheeseburgers and Guinness (well, I had the Guinness, dad was happy with water). It was the best burger I’ve had in Asia, by far! On the TV, a rugby match featuring England and France, which held the crowd entranced. It was a nice bit of home.

The next morning, we re-visited the Dunkin Donuts, headed for the KTX train station, and in a few hours were in Mokpo, where Dad continued his adventure!

Quick Weekend trips #3

Wando & Cheongsan islands

Jenni and her father, Brian, came to visit us for a bit in August, and we took them camping on Wando, a small island just an hour or so south east of Mokpo.  It was Korean Liberation Day, a 3 day weekend, so we rented a car and took off after work for the event.  It seems that everyone else had the same idea, so we arrived late, scrounged up a campsite pretty close to a few other tents, and set up camp in the dark. We woke up to find even more tents had been put up in the night, and were surrounded by a million people who brought their entire house camping.  Unfortunately, it rained the whole time but we made the best of it.

We wandered along the coast in the morning, collecting seashells and exploring in a light rain. Wando, like Mokpo, is surrounded by hundreds of islands that create a sound to protect it a bit from the open ocean.  The waves are small and the water is calm and blue. People were out collecting seaweed and mollusks from the beach that they took back to their campsite for breakfast (we watched them cooking them in their camp kitchens later).  After a good hike along the coast and through a wooded area we decided to go into town and check things out.

We found these awesome  smiling statues and took our pictues with them, we went to Wando’s “pebble beach,” but best of all we went to the arboretum.

On "Pebble" beach

We pulled into the entrance and were told that the arboretum would be closing in an hour, but we were welcome to go on in.  An hour turned out to be nowhere close to enough time to see the place.  The arboretum was more like a nature preserve on the side of a mountain.  It contained, 2050 hectares or  just under 5,000 acres. (That’s about the size of two White Bear Lakes. I think. -Mike)

We saw awesome flowers, plants, trees, and large black hovering butterflies that we lovingly termed “humbutterbats.”  It was a good day.  On the way home we stopped in town for Abalone stew.  Abalone are a technically snail, but they look like a clam with only a top shell. Despite being snails, and hideous, they are quite delicious. Back home they’re also quite expensive, but Wando produces 90% of Korea’s abalone, so on the beachfront, a few hundred yards of where the boats bring them in, it is pretty affordable.

We had ours boiled up in a soup with a few other delicacies from the sea like mussels and shrimp. As they say here, mahshi-soyo! It was served with a million side dishes, as well as some tasty soju.  We were confused about how to eat some of it, but the guys at the table next to us were so sweet, they just kept looking over and teaching us stuff. Koreans are very friendly, especially when food and drink are involved.  It was super fun.

The next day we went off to Cheongsando island, home  of the slow walking festival.  “What?” you say, yes a slow walking festival — Korea has it ALL.  Cheongsando is a medium sized island whose culture of a slow, traditional life has been celebrated and promoted by the Korean ministry of tourism. It is part of the international  cittaslow movement, a pretty cool idea indeed. We spent 4-5 hours wandering this beautiful island, hiking mountains, making crafts, searching for shells while the tide was out, eating yummy panchang and drinking the rustic fermented rice beverage known as makkoli.  It rocked.

The only minor regret was my impulse purchase of freshly harvested mung ge sashimi.  It looked good, and was next to a mollusk I had already eaten sashimi style, so we went for it.

Mongae fish – not as tasty as they look.

Ummm… it was bitter and slimy, and had bits of organ in every bite.  A group of Korean tourists were watching, wondering how we could possibly not enjoy every bite.  We offered it to them and they shared amongst themselves.  We agreed in the end that it was an adventure worth having and it was nice to make people happy with free food.

Later that night we got some beer, sweet potato pizza, fried chicken, and fire works and returned to camp.  There was a happy drunk guy at the pizza joint who told us that he had played Martina Navratalova and Jimmy Conners in mixed doubles at the 1982  Wimbeldon.  Who knows if it is true, happy drunk people say many things.  Either way, his autograph is on my wall.  We went to camp to have one last happy night of camping before Jenni and Brian set off to Jeju.

Yeokchansa temple

Jeju

In September, Liz came to visit. We took her to Jeju island for our four day Chuseok weekend. It was another wonderful outing.  We took the ferry from Mokpo. The 9:30 leaving Mokpo is a huge car carrying ferry that takes around 5 hours, the 9:30 am return is a small hopper that is fast, but super bouncy.  If we go again I think we might take a plane.

Jeju is a huge island which takes about one hour to bus/cab from north to south.  It has a large, dormant volcanic mountain in the center.  It is beautiful.   We stayed at the jeju highland pension on the southern side of the island, near the Yeokchansa temple, which is one of the largest temples in Korea. It was stunningly tall, with a five-story atrium with a giant buddha and two dragons clutching white globes coiled around the columns inside. Murals of less major boddhisatvas lined the corridors, each telling its own story of enlightenment, and suffering.

The next day we went up to Loveland, and a more surreal experience and different from a serene buddhist temple you won’t find. Loveland is designed to put newlyweds ‘in the mood’ for their conjugal duties, but it’s mostly a kitschy ode to nudity, phallocentric fantasy, and erotic tastelessness. None of the pictures we took are family-safe, so you’ll need to use your imagination. But we will admit that we were highly amused, in a junior-high sort of way.

We ended our trip to another Korean sauna, this one on the north side of the island. We were surprised to find that the hot-rooms here were equipped with televisions. It wasn’t as relaxing as the Busan saunas. Part of the reason to sit in a sauna, as I see it, is to sit quietly and think about the heat, and televisions kind of ruin the mood. We were able to find a room with no Koreans in it, so we did shut off the TV and enjoy a few minutes of solitude in the rock salt room. This was a hot room whose entire floor was covered in rock salt chunks. We lay down and covered ourselves in the rocks, which created the nice impression of a warm, salty hug. I know that sounds strange, but in the moment, it felt quite nice.

Since these trips  Jim, Mike’s dad, has been to visit. I (Mike) went up to Seoul for a father son weekend with him. We loved having him around and took him to Bigeumdo for a day trip.  He knows we’d get a bigger apartment if he ever wanted to move here.  😉  We’re both looking forward to more adventures to report back to you.

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On a side note, I am happy that South Korea doesn’t have daylight savings time.  I don’t have to change my clock.  Unfortuntaly, we are now 15 hours ahead of MN.   We miss you and will wake up even earlier to Skype with you on the weekends.  Smooch, Akasha