Tuesday, 26 January 2010

Korea - The first ice festival

Hello everyone!

I had about 3 hours sleep Friday night/Saturday morning. I was up by 8am, but there was good reason for it. Today we were heading to an ice festival! We were off to Hwacheon, which is in the northeast of the country, as it was the final weekend Lee could do anything before having to leave. It's a reasonable distance from Seoul - the reason we had to leave Siheung so early was because we had to get across to the other side of Seoul to catch the bus. Needless to say, I wasn't feeling too hot, but I wasn't the only one. Indeed, others, such as Josh, seemed a lot worse.

It takes us long enough to get to Bucheon, let alone the far side of Seoul. It took a total of about 2 hours to get to the bus stop, and we covered in excess of 30 subway stops just getting there. Josh had to get off at one point, thinking he may be about to be sick. But we did eventually get to the bus station, and waited for our bus. The next one was sold out, so we had a bit of time to kill before leaving.

We grabbed a coffee, and, living up to the British stereotype, went hunting for a bar just after 11am. We were actually quite surprised to find nowhere open. I guess they need downtime at some point, as most places are open until 6am. We (half) gave up, getting cans from a small store. They sold Corona...in a CAN. Messed up. Where does the lime go??

A lot of military men were hanging around in the station, fully decked out in uniform. There were five of them all strung along five consecutive phone booths. Michelle took a photo of them, which could have been dangerous, but ultimately they ended up posing for pictures so it was all good.

Throughout all of this Josh hadn't shown up. We were concerned that he may have gone home, and these thoughts increased when he wouldn't answer his phone. We walked past the army men into the main area of the station. Who was waiting there? Who d'ya think. It was a great surprise. He had left his phone at home, hence not answering.

Our bus left just before 12. Like the cinema, the Koreans stick to the seat reservations that they have been given, meaning that many of us were split up. One guy, Chris, ended up having a Korean girl sleeping on his shoulder, which was quite funny. Me, Josh, Michelle and Lee were all sat near each other though, so we freely swapped horror backpacking stories (Serbia anyone?) and then dozed for a bit.

We weren't entirely sure of where Hwacheon was, and soon the bus was flying through the mountains. A bit too quickly for our liking, to be honest. The views were very nice though. More time passed, and we began to get concerned that this place may not exist, or that we'd got the date wrong. Our fears escalated when we drove by an open space with approximately ten tents on it, where people were ice fishing. Was that it?? Surely not.

Indeed it wasn't, and almost four hours later we arrived at Hwacheon station. We had been travelling for over 7 hours. Needless to say, we weren't exactly full of beans, but we bought our return tickets and were about to head off when a little Korean girl came into our circle. 'HI!!' she beamed. She then said hi to each and every one of us, with me being the last person in her order. She then looked at me for a while. 'EEL!' she shouted. Now my Korean isn't great, but I know that 'eel' is 'one', so I repeated it for her. She grinned. 'EE!' she shouts. 'ee' is 'two', so I again mimic her. We soon realise that she is making me count to ten, which I manage to do, and she grins before moving to interrogate someone else. Her mother soon intervened to get her away, but she was an adorable little girl.

So the Ice Festival. Worth the hype? I would say so. We had missed some of the activities, such as getting into a freezing cold tub of water to catch fish with your bare hands, but for some reason I don't feel too bad about missing that. Can't think why. It was cold enough anyway. There were so many people ice fishing. I have to admit, I didn't initially realise that the fly swatters they were waving around had fishing lines on the end of them, so until closer inspection it seemed like some bizarre interpretive dance routine. Though everyone else seemed to understand...

But are there really that many fish swimming under the frozen lakes of Korea? It turns out there are; they just ain't put there naturally. Either side of the area were large trucks, which were crammed with small fish. Next to the fish tank was a really cool sculpture of frozen water coming out of a large pipe. We got pictures once a small Korean boy had finished urinating next to it. They go anywhere! Other sculptures were just as impressive, such as this large tiger face. You could walk through the mouth into a neon-lighted passage, which was strange.

It's nice to semi-skate across the ice, never being sure of your footing. If you didn't want to walk you could always use the robot teddy. A mechanically-powered teddy carrying people across from one side to the other. Very creepy, the sort of thing you would see in a (bad) horror flick. Sign of the future? Watch this space.

As well as walking around, taking in the sights and people of this bizarre place, we also went on a 'bobsled'. First thoughts here would be a Winter Olympics-style chute, no? Not quite. It was more like a water slide, which shot out onto the ice. It looked like good fun, especially as we are more built than most Koreans in the queue. It got better when we were told 'foreigners for free!' Three goes for free. Being a foreigner gives us great privileges at times, and as a result we were talking up how far we could slide across the ice. From up high we also got great views of people falling over, which was hilarious.

Alas, the hype was ill-judged. The rubber dinghy you sat in did indeed go down a chute resembling a water slide, but the inside was the same texture as a dry ski slope. Not conducive for flying across the ice. It was interesting, but we only used one of our three free rides before moving on.

We had to get back to the bus stop as the last bus was at 7.30. We wanted to try to get on the 6.30 bus as we had arrived in time, but it filled up quite quickly, and we weren't allowed on. We thus had an hour to kill and, due to the swelling number of people wanting to head back to Seoul, we had to spend most of it outside in the bitter cold. I think it's safe to say that most of us lost some feeling in our feet at some point, even with the beer trying to take our minds off it.

We achieved this by playing a very long game of...well, I don't know what you call it, but I have done it with my students. Give a topic (ours was food for this), someone says a word, the next person has to say a word related to the topic beginning with the final letter of the previous word, no repeating, yadda yadda.

The bus duly arrived - sometime after 7.30 - and parked a little bit away from the parking booth allocated to it. This wasn't good news for us. We were at the front of the queue. The problem is that Korean people don't seem to understand the notion of a queue, thus all sprinted towards the bus to get on. Luckily, there was someone directing, and she quite sternly told the queue jumpers that we were getting on first. Nonetheless, people were still jostling and pushing each other to get on the bus. I think accepting being in a queue is a very British trait.

So to our long journey home. It didn't take nearly as long, especially the bus ride, partly because we carried on our game, but switching our category to musicians and bands. We were the only people talking on the bus, which may have been linked to the bus stopping after just over an hour, pulling into another bus station, and everyone being ushered off onto different buses. Except us. We were told to get off...and then told the bus we needed wasn't there. Oh dear. This could have been catastrophic. However, we were soon pointed to another bus (which seemed to be the same one as we had been on before), and it left. With no one else on it. We had our own bus!!! Aaah, to have the space to sprawl out over two seats, magical.

In time, more people got on the bus, but we carried on with our game and were soon enough back at the station. I think it's Gangbyeon, but can't remember, I wasn't paying too much attention. We got back reasonably quickly, and went for a couple of drinks back in Siheung. I slept for a long ol' time after that day, but it was great fun, and the kind of adventure which I like.

Not much else of note happened this week. On Tuesday evening I went to Bucheon to an Italian restaurant, as it was someone's birthday. The main thing of note here was the birthday cake - it was made of ice cream. Bit strange that, and as good as it was, I'll take a sponge cake with custard any day of the week. What I wouldn't take is what Kelly bought from a street vendor on the way to the Italian. It looked like a muffin, and the outer layer was cake mixture, albeit smelling strongly of egg. But there was a white bit in the middle. Oh, wait, that's where the smell is coming from. There's an egg in the middle. It was OK, but I'll stick to meat-on-a-stick as the food of choice from street folk.

The other event of note happened on Thursday. The day before I was looking through my phone when I came across a number with no name. I decided to text it, to see whether I knew who it was, and expecting that to be the end of it. A response, saying it was a girl called Anna, and that she didn't know who I was. That made two of us. I then did something I simply would not have done at home - I called the number, and asked if she wanted to meet up, saying some rubbish about wanting to put a face to the name. Remarkably, the woman agreed. Must have been charmed by the accent, but I had no clue who she was. In effect, this was a blind date.

So Thursday evening we had agreed to meet at Bucheon station at 8. I got there on time, and stood outside the large e-mart store. I couldn't see any Westerners, but there was one woman sat down across the station who may have been. She looked up, smiled, and walked over. Did I recognise her? Not a chance.

Did she recognise me? Well, her first words, 'Aah, Matt from Wales, how could I forget?' suggested that she did. We went to a galbi place and then onto a bar, and it was good fun. Nice to see that I have grown some stones since coming out here, at least. She's been here for almost a year, so was telling me all the places I should go to. Including one, called samcheok, which has a park full of penis statues. Hmm...

This week I have been talking about countries of the world with my kids. I asked them to describe America in one word - obesity was such a funny response, I didn't know their vocabulary extended to ripping it out of the Americans! I also played a game where they had to point out a country I shouted out on a blank map. That got competitive - kids throwing each other out of the way and almost breaking the TV screen in their desperation to tell me where they (wrongly) thought Pakistan was. Good stuff.

One week of winter camp to go, then back to the grind...of doing nothing! :)

Love you all


Thursday, 21 January 2010

Korea - The first pig skin

Hello everyone!

So we're now into January. This blog starts from January 11, I haven't updated in a while because...well, I'm lazy.

Monday night I went to meet two Matt's, Schroeder and Nordstrom, and their friend Debbie for dinner. Matt S is leaving on Thursday to head back to the States for a few weeks before starting another year out here. His place is amazing, complete with massive lazyboy-esque chair, which he said he got off the net for just 150,000. I'll start looking.

We went to what was described as a 'meat' place. Out here, that can mean anything. I recently found a multipack of crisps, with one of the flavours being 'meat'. I didn't partake. This place was really nice, actually, and we were seated near a Korean business group who had numerous bottles of soju lined along the table. The pork we had was really really good, really tender, and on the outer ring of the grill was what resembled a dripping tray. They put lots of vegetables in it and then poured raw egg all around it. Genius idea. Like cooking our own meat at the table, we were now in charge of our own omelette.

There was another new experience to this meal, however. Matt had also ordered 'pig skin'. I assumed it would be similar to crackling, i.e. quite crunchy. No sir. They put a giant square of skin onto the grill and we cooked it, not having a clue when it would be 'ready'. The waiter eventually told us it was time, and we cut it up and tried it. I bit down, expecting a crunch that never materialised. It was a bit like eating rubber. It then slid quite easily down my throat. I thought it was ok, not outstanding and not really tasting of anything significant.

We all paid for it the next day. I felt as rough as a badger's...yunno. I told my co-teacher what I had eaten, and his first question was 'Did it have hair on it?' Thankfully not, but the fact that they may serve it like that at some places was chilling to the core. Mr Kim told me that the place where he is from in Seoul, Mapo, is the best place to get pig skin, and that we should get it at some point. Not convinced, myself.

Winter camp was progressing, and I was getting to know my students a bit better. I no longer need them to have their name cards on their tables, for example. They have also started to bring me presents - all unhealthy food, but consequently all very nice. I now offer candy as a reward in every lesson to keep them onside. Numbers have dropped, but I was told that this would happen.

I went out on Tuesday as well, and felt that my week was beginning to resemble the first few days out here when I didn't ever need to cook. A few of us went back to the curry place that I went to on my first Saturday. On the bus I noticed a rather old man drawing pictures on the frosted windows, in the same way that a child does on a long car journey. I started chuckling to myself, and he noticed and did the same. 'Animation,' he said. I gave him the thumbs up and said 'Cho-a-yo', meaning 'good'. The usual then happened - he started talking in Korean, expecting me to understand, and I laughed and made clear that I had no idea what he was saying. While waiting for people to arrive a large Korean man walked straight into April as if she didn't exist. Manners are not the strong point of Koreans.

This time I studied the menu in more detail, and found that they had my old favourite - vindaloo. For those who are not familiar, vindaloo is generally the hottest curry on a menu in any Indian restaurant in Britain. If you want something hotter, you have to put in a special request, and hope you have lots of toilet roll at home. I do love a vindaloo, but this one was about as hot as a tikka masala. A bit disappointing, but still very nice nonetheless.

About 10 of us were at this meal, and four of us then moved on to a mokkali bar. My views on mokkali were warped by the chocolate mokkali I had on Boxing Day, so I wanted to know what the real stuff tasted like. As usual, food had to be bought in order for us to enjoy the drink, so we plumped for a kimchi pancake. It didn't look particularly appetising - rather, its appearance resembled vomit. But it was actually really good, and we got through quite a lot of it. We got through a lot of mokkali as well, that stuff was good. So good, in fact, that I missed the last bus to get back to Siheung, and had to fork out almost 10,000 on a taxi to get home. Worth it, though, a very chilled, relaxing night.

After two nights involving alcohol, I came in on Wednesday clearly not at 100%. My elaborate planning for each camp lesson has now descended into spending less than an hour cobbling something together which can just about pass for a lesson, and then playing around on the net and drinking tea. I went out for lunch with Ellen, to a really small Korean place. Difficult to describe, really, but similar to a cafe that predominantly deals in food, I guess? I wasn't expecting it to be great, but it was arguably my favourite meal of the three days, and certainly the cheapest. 5,000 each, Ellen got a spicy soup. I thought it was moderately spicy - she struggled, and ended up demanding water. I had a risotto dish, in that it was rice and lots of stuff in it. Very filling, I didn't need to eat for the rest of the day.

My students finally got something productive done this week, now that I've taught them stuff they really should know. They also picked a celebrity that they wanted to interview. Some of these were quite interesting. The quietest one of the lot, Enju, picked Eminem as hers. One of the cleverer students, Jay, picked Mika as his, which concerns me a little. Chan picked John Lennon, which has become quite funny when he asked numerous questions about his death. 'How did you die?' 'A stranger shot me...with a gun.' Brilliant.

The light at the end of the tunnel, when thinking about students in this school, is a 3rd grader called Sophie. She lived in Kent for four years, so her English is incredible. She is entering an essay writing competition on Saturday (the fun kids have out here, eh), and wanted help on how to write summaries and essays. It is something that is more challenging, and consequently I enjoy planning tasks for her. Most of the summary articles were plucked off BBC and CNN, but it saved me reading long-winded articles. She is good to talk to as well, something which even Mr Kim struggles with sometimes.

Over the past few days I have encountered various problems with my flat. I have to say, life is awesome out here, but my flat is very underwhelming. It was no great shakes when everything worked, and now various appliances have decided to have some fun at my expense. My 'bathroom' sink doesn't like water to pass through it, and my heater plays a game where it fluctuates wildly between 30'C and 10'C (I have it set to be on 24'C), and it then puffs and makes a tremendous noise when it hits one of these numbers, before rapidly moving the temperature in the opposite direction.

This normally wouldn't bother me. From my time in Manchester, I'm used to rationing heat to extremes. But Manchester was never this cold. This week has seen comfortably the coldest temperatures I have ever experienced, and possibly ever will experience. It almost dropped below zero on Thursday - zero in fahrenheit. That's like -18'C. That was in the daytime as well. The snow still hasn't melted from Boxing Day and early January!! As a result, I do actually need to get myself a heater, so Wednesday night was when I was going to sort this out once and for all, with the help of Mr Kim.

We went to a large Home Plus/Tesco in Bucheon, but not the one I had been to before when I had big ol' culture shock. I had a few other items I needed to make me feel more comfortable in my place as well, with a pillow and bedsheets being a high priority. There is only so long I can sleep in my sleeping bag for with an itchy duvet on top and be happy about it. We found a good heater for 30,000, so snapped it up. When we got back, more issues needed resolving. I'm taking the same attitude towards bills that I had in Manchester - see how long you can get away without paying them for. This was until they had slapped a bill on my door charging me for November, when I wasn't here, as well as December, totalling 200,000W. Mr Kim spoke to the owners of the block at length about this, mainly because Bradley had actually paid the November bill.

The owners run a betting shop nextdoor to my place, and whilst all this was going on I entertained myself by looking at three maps they had on the wall - one of England, one of Spain, and one of Italy. It didn't take me long to work out that they were maps of the top flight football teams, and the team names were all in their respective geographical positions on the maps - in Korean. Good test of my hangul, that.

When we went up to my flat, they then tried to fix my sink - by taking it apart. Literally. They took the bottom of the sink away with them, and told me I couldn't shower until it was fixed. I hadn't showered since yesterday morning, so wasn't impressed by this. I was also unimpressed with my heater, which didn't seem to be emitting any heat at all.

They came back the next night, and my neighbour, who speaks minimal English but more than anyone else I've met on my block, came in and had a look at my heater. Well, he laughed first that I didn't have any slippers. Whenever he sees me, he gets concerned about how cold I must be, and shows it by laughing. Intruiging, that. He then got his own from his own room, and plugged it in - and it worked. Not hard to work out the problem here - Tesco had sold me a broken heater. Down with capitalism!

Not quite. Luckily my built-in heater, obviously feeling threatened by the impending competition of a newer, slimmer model, began to behave itself, so I could survive for a bit whilst the sink was fixed up. The problem with it was that there was really long hair blocking the pipes. It was too long to be mine, meaning it must have been Brad's, and then my face hair must have completely blocked it up. Concerning that my facial hair, which is often non-existent after several days, was arguably a partner in crime regarding this offence. But it was soon fixed, and I could stop having chav showers. Deodorant is expensive out here as well, so I was doubly glad about this.

Soon it was Friday, and the end of my two-week project. I was initially concerned when I arrived at school - not because of the project, but because of the sight of a giant digger picking up the snow on the dirt field. Well, if the sun won't assist in its removal, I guess a JCB will do the job. I put a bit of work in to ensure that the final speaking activity ran smoothly, by typing up and printing off their questions and answers, and handed them their individual sheets. I also gave a copy to their partner, and made each partnership stand at the front and do their Q and A. They talked into the paper, but at least they did talk and pronounce everything correctly, so I was pleased about that. All I have to do now is come up with something to occupy another two weeks.

April's birthday was on Thursday, so we went out on Friday to celebrate. There was another wonderful incentive to get myself down to Bucheon, however. Juno, the woman who got me my job, was coming across from the other side of the city. I had spoken to her on the phone, but still hadn't met her as yet, and neither had Kelly. From our emails, I had gathered that Juno was a big fan of Doctor Who (for any naive people out there, its a British sci-fi series), and had got her a present fit for any Tardis lover - a talking dalek.

Whether me and my dalek were able to meet Juno was in the balance at one point. I decided to go straight from school, meaning that I was getting to Bucheon from a different bus stop. It was actually the bus stop that is closest to most of the Western Siheungers I have met out here, so I knew that the 015 and the 1-1 would take me to Bucheon station. I waited almost 10 minutes, and was beginning to shiver in the sub-zero temperatures, and then saw a bus coming. The 1. Logic dictated that the 1-1 and the 1 probably run along a similar route, much as the 31-3, 31-5, 31-7 and 31-9 that run from outside my flat, so I gambled and hopped on. Logic would also dictate that the 015 and 1-1 were surely close, but logic is twisted, or so someone once said.

Needless to say, the gamble backfired. The bus immediately turned onto a dual carriageway. I looked at the map on the bus, and although most of it was in Korean, I worked out that there was a subway stop for line 1, the same line Bucheon is on, at the end of the bus route. It was called Gaebong, a name I didn't immediately recognise, so I wasn't sure which direction the train needed to be heading in. The bus took a while, but I did get to the station, and hopped on an open train, urgently looking for a map. Had I got on the right train? Of course not. I jumped off just in time, and waited around in the cold.

I wasn't overly late for our happy hour place, and Juno arrived soon after with her boyfriend, George. It was awesome to finally put a face to the emails! She is a very nice person as well, very funny. I gave her the present, which she enjoyed. The only problem was that we had all been playing with it before she arrived, so the battery had just about died, which sucked. We stuck around chatting for a while before deciding that we all really needed food, so headed to our galbi joint.

Juno introduced me to a drink that my students had told me about, called so-maek. The clever ones will realise that this is indeed a combination of soju and maekchu, so soju and beer. It was better than I thought it would be. We had combinations of samgyupsal and galbi, which left us all very satisfied. Most of us then headed over to RnB for a while, before heading up to another place. People had described it to me as 'Sky Bar', which made me think of the bar in the Hilton in Manchester, or any bar in a ridiculously tall building. Not quite that tall, and we didn't really have a view, but it was on the 10th floor of a building, so technically true.

The Sky Bar was very plush, and we got a few pitchers of beer and an icy soju cocktail, which unsurprisingly was cold on the throat when each shot was sunk. It was a very nice place, but I had to leave at around 4am, as I had plans in place for Saturday. Probably should have left earlier, as you'll find out next time.

Love you all


Tuesday, 12 January 2010

Korea - The first winter camp

Hello everyone!

New Year, new resolutions, new experiences and challenges, right? Damn right. My plan to learn a new Korean word or phrase has not entirely gone to plan, but I am actually getting a grip on the lingo a little bit. I got in a taxi last Friday and tried my new phrase on the unsuspecting driver. '노무 추워요!' I say. This means 'It is cold!', and it was freezing. What I should realise is that any Korean I engage with in their native tongue automatically assumes that I am fluent. I have perfected the smile-and-shake-my-head-whilst-saying '아니요' - or 'no'. They laugh, I laugh to a lesser degree, and life moves on. I'd like to think that they appreciate me at least making an effort, albeit a restricted one at that.

My new experiences extended to going to a Korean cinema for the first time on Saturday with Ellen to see Avatar. Bit of hype about this film, so I wanted to see it, but also I wanted to see whether what I consider to be a normal activity was executed any differently in a different culture. There are subtle differences to the cinematic experience out here. One is that you have to book a specific seat, no matter how many, or how few, people are seeing the film. This happens in Britain, but only when they know the film is going to be close to a sell-out. Here it happens for every film. One is less subtle - trying to work out the Korean name of the film you want to see. Luckily, Avatar is quite a simple word, even though they don't have the V sound out here. It wasn't hard to find 아바타 amongst the other very long names.

The film didn't start for a while, so we headed down to the arcade area, where I showcased my, ahem, 'talent' at air hockey. We had dumped our coats on the floor at our respective ends to play, and something extraordinary happened while we had our game faces on. A guy comes over to the table, says something, and then beckons another guy over. This bloke has a stool in his hand. They put the stool down by the table, pick up Ellen's coat, and place it neatly onto the stool. Amazing.

We soon headed back up to the cinema, to those seats we had to specifically choose. We were then taken aback by another subtle difference. Back home, when a film starts at 8pm, it means that there are 20 minutes or so of trailers and adverts before the film starts, so you have plenty of time even if slightly late. Here, when a film starts at 8pm, it starts at 8pm. There was one short trailer for a film that I have thankfully forgotten the name of, as it looked so bad. And then something else started. Another trailer, I assumed. I'm not ashamed to admit that for the first few minutes, I didn't realise that Avatar had actually started. No black screen giving the name of the film and its certification. No big introduction to the main event. It just started.

I really enjoyed it, though didn't realise how long the thing was. This cinema didn't have the facilities to show it in 3D, but it seemed good enough in 2D so it didn't matter. It was arguably more realistic for us when watching, as subtitles came up on the screen when the Na'vi were speaking in their native tongue. Of course, the subtitles were in Korean, so we still had no clue what was going on, but I feel that added to the mystique and intruigue.

After the film we briefly popped into E-Mart in Bucheon station, a very large department store which has lots of interesting stuff. I was particularly fascinated by the 'Extremely Very Hot' red pepper paste. It must be pretty hot, especially with the image of a full thermometer and a man whose head seems on the verge of exploding next to the writing. Will have to buy that as some point. I'm less likely to buy the 'Love O'Clock' CD we found, but that was also pretty special.

On the bus back an old man brushed past me. Fair enough, I'm used to them going beyond personal space. What I was not used to, and certainly not expecting, was what followed. He turns back towards me, starts blabbering in Korean...and then pinches me on the arm. He keeps talking, then pats me on the shoulder and walks back to the exit of the bus. What the WHAT?? But he was obviously not content with this, as he then came back over again and started talking in Korean and bumping into me. "I think he likes you," says Ellen. It's a damn interesting way of showing it. I didn't know whether to feel happy or angry, excited or petrified.

Sunday I actually had to do a bit of work, as school was recommencing the following day. Well, sort of. It was reforming in a new guise - the winter camp. During the holidays, Korean students don't get lots of presents from Santa, or lots of special meals, or even a significant period of downtime - they get extra classes. And who puts on the English classes? Yours truly, of course.

My winter camp lasts for 4 weeks. Just about everyone else I know only has it for 2 weeks, though Dalyn, whose school seem to hate him, has to do a camp for 8 weeks. For most public school teachers it is different as you get to dictate exactly what happens in the lessons - no textbooks, no co-teacher watching over you in the corner. However, as my job here is to make up my own stuff, for me it is more of the same. Apart from that I have to make new stuff up for each day, rather than do one thing for the whole week as I have done thus far. Not cool, but this is what I thought I would be doing on a regular basis, so I really can't complain. I can't moan about the hours either - no 8.30am starts here. I have to be in by lunchtime, and my two classes are from 3.30 until 5.30. It seems different to most other camps, which seem to be the same class over a long period in the day.

So over the Christmas break I had been gathering ideas from the internet and other teachers about what to do. I assumed that, in picking my class, the students would have a reasonable grasp of the English language, allowing me to become a bit more creative. I decided to spend my first two weeks on a project - to make my students create and perform a newscast and interview - and then plan the other two weeks as time progresses.

Monday morning rolls around, the first day of camp. I get a phone call at 9.30. It's Mr. Kim, or 'B-G' as he has begun calling himself. "School is cancelled". Really? "Have you seen the snow?" I must admit I had not seen the snow. I looked out of my window, and saw where the main road was supposed to be. There were cars driving down it, but I was struggling to see the wheels. There was LOADS of snow. I thought that Koreans made it to work or school irrespective of weather conditions, illness or anything that would make a British person pull a sickie. "It's the first time in 10 years that the school has closed." Good timing on my part, then.

Most other schools actually stayed open. Ours was closed because a sufficient amount of teachers, including my co-teacher, couldn't get to the school in their cars. I actually thought that this was a bit of a cop-out, considering how many cars were still on the roads. The roads were bad, though. I've found it pretty funny watching Britain come to a standstill when there was actually less snow than there was here. The British transport bigwigs should maybe come over here to see how actually to keep transport moving in bleak midwinter, they might learn a thing or two.

Anyway, my main thought at this point was that I had to make the most of this opportunity, especially as Mr. Kim said that school would definitely be open the following day. How you can make a prediction that bold, I don't know. What if it snowed some more? But that was for another day - I wanted to see Seoul under a thick, thick blanket of snow, so I put on numerous layers and headed into the city.

I did have an ulterior motive to come in to the city as well. I was eager to find a unique birthday present for my brother, and consequently started my tour in Dongdaemun market. It was very picturesque, if a bit chilly. I had a walk around, without finding anything of note that I would be happy to send back as a present. The day was beginning to draw to a close, so I opted to head over to the City Hall subway stop to find some nice snow-capped scenery before the light faded.

This day has helped me piece together various important districts within Seoul. I got off at City Hall, where the Deoksugung Palace is, and walked down a long street. I was soon in Gwanghamnun Plaza, where the Snow Jam had been a month previously. From there, to the right at the bottom of the street is Insadong.

It was very beautiful, though some pictures were taken more for my amusement than anything else.

School was indeed back on on Tuesday, and thus my winter camp was all set to commence. I got to school for about 10.30, and was soon back in my usual routine of doing nothing. People keep telling me how long these blogs are. I know they are, but it's because I have so much time on my hands during the school day. It may become different as this winter camp progresses.

My first lesson was devised in a way that would allow me to find out their names, and give them English names if they didn't already have one. I find it easier right now to call a student 'Hannah' than 'Gwon Ji-hyun', for example. It turns out it was very fortunate that I took a lesson to do this, as it allowed me to assess their ability - and my previous assumption, that they would be clever, was way off the mark. Not knowing the difference between 'his' and 'her'? Time to alter the lesson plans. Significantly.

The two groups were larger than I had wanted them to be. I wanted a group of between 12 and 16 per class, but there were 24 first graders in my first class, and 27 second graders in the other. The overwhelming majority are girls - read into that what you wish. So my lessons have gradually altered as the week has progressed. I have been showing them lots of video clips of interviews with famous people, with the ultimate intention of them interviewing that person. I've spent lessons drilling question denominators like 'What?' and 'Where?' into them, so hopefully they have understood and will be able to make up their own questions, but you never know.

I had a chance to blow off a bit of this steam with the other Siheungers on Wednesday, when we went for drinks. But my issues pale into insignificance when compared to what others face. Josh has had to take over another guy's lessons, so is teaching up to 9 lessons a day, but the biggest and most urgent problem was being faced by Lee. Him and Michelle had gone to Taiwan over the holiday period with the knowledge that he had a job starting in early January. It had already been deferred from November, but had now been guaranteed to him, and as a result spent most of his money in Taiwan. He came back to find that the incumbent had had yet another change of heart, and was staying on, meaning that Lee can't get a job anywhere else because his visa was for that school only. It's a horrible situation, and is a reminder that many TEFL teachers get screwed over in their jobs. It sucks as Lee is a really nice guy as well, but will now probably have to head home. This story has made me feel incredibly lucky that (touch wood) I was placed in such a good, and secure, job.

This week went by rather quickly, and soon it was Friday, which generally means me getting drunk. No exception this week. Me, April, Kelly and Phil went to what is now becoming our regular galbi place in Bucheon. Phil is fluent in Korean, which makes things a bit easier if we have a problem. The vent, which is just above the grill, slipped and fell down onto the grill during our meal (luckily there was little meat cooking at that point), and Phil was able to tell the waitress exactly what the problem was. I would have just pointed at it and done a crying face motion, and probably have got nowhere with a solution.

After getting a bit drunk and mocking my accent by making a video of me counting from one to ten in Korean (that video will never be seen by anyone if I have my way), we played a brutal game of drinking storytelling, where each person says one word in turn and contributes to the story. The content of the story quickly developed the stories into ones of an adult nature, mainly to trip up Kelly into drinking, so best not to repeat any of them on here. Soon after we headed along to R'n'B, where there were some amateur MCs performing. 'Amatuer' is a good word to describe their talents, but it was quite funny, and I ended up chatting to them on their table for a while afterwards anyway. Got myself the girl MCs number as well - happy times - but they all live in Itaewon, which in this weather is a bit of a trek to meet up. I'll use it soon, I'm sure.

Me and April ended up in the Park, the other drinking place by their places in Bucheon. There were some strange, bordering on idiotic, Americans hitting on April, sometimes literally. I ended up playing darts with some random Americans, including one whose number in my phone is saved under Nickelback due to his scruffy appearance, until about 5.30, before heading home.

I don't actually remember if I did anything on the rest of the weekend, so for now I'll peace out and hope that my camp students have become masters of the English language over the course of the weekend.

Love you all


Thursday, 7 January 2010

Korea - The first Korean New Year

Hello everyone!

This post is essentially going to be about two nights - Boxing Day and New Year's Eve. Needless to say I got pretty drunk on both, so details may be a bit vague or just plain wrong. But here we go...

Boxing Day was on a Saturday, so a good night to go out. Me, April and Kelly were joined by Dalyn as we ventured into Seoul in the late afternoon. Dalyn hadn't joined us on Christmas Day as he was ill, which must have been pretty rough. Being away from home at Christmas is strange, but to be ill would be horrible. It was impressive that he actually came into Seoul with us.

Impressive, but also a bit silly. You see, it was pretty cold, and the light dusting of snow had stuck. Add into all of this a Siberian wind and you can imagine that it was pretty cold. Not ideal if you're ill. But Dalyn wasn't the only one feeling the effects of the winter chill. I had naively forgotten to bring a hat, a scarf or my one glove. I opted to combat the cold, at least on my face, by rolling up my top over my face, as you can see. It may look like a flu mask, and a lot of people wear them out here, but it's one of the two jumpers I was wearing under the jacket.

We walked past one of the palaces before heading to our destination - Insadong. Insadong is described as one of the main tourist attractions, and reminded me of Las Ramblas in Barcelona. The main part is a long, straight street, with lots of people, and almost as many people trying to sell stuff. Though there were a few Westerners wandering around, there didn't seem as many as the books suggested. It's a very pretty place.

We soon headed inside to get ourselves some Man-du. I have had the two main ingredients of this dish - water dumplings and spicy soup - but separately, so this was a new experience. These water dumplings were also rather large, and they sit in the soup. Once you pluck one out of the bowl you can split it on a plate before dipping it in soy. The cutting process isn't easy, as you have to use a combination of a spoon and a copstick or both sticks, but I'm getting used to it. What I'm not quite used to as yet is the cold rice tea that occasionally accompanies a meal, or is brought at the end. It tastes like a liquid rice cake, and I don't really see the appeal of it. But, this aside, mandu is the perfect dish to have on a cold day, and warmed us up brilliantly.

I was still waiting to be paid, so had no money in my new Korean bank account, and had used up my spare cash over the past two days of heavy indulgence. As it was a Saturday, the one place that would accept my British card, inside the bank, was not available to me. This put me in a pickle, and left me no choice but to pay on my card, quite an expensive thing to do with international charges. The idea was that if I paid for everyone, and then they gave me cash, then I would have enough loose money for the day. I tried the more obvious one of the two, my Mastercard, and got concerned when told that it hadn't worked. My Mastercard hasn't worked once since I came out here, and its something that I really should address. I pulled out my Nationwide card, more in hope than expectation - what chance does a debit card have if the credit card doesn't work? Amazingly, it did, and we were soon on our way.

Having become warm in the tearoom, it was then a bit of a shock to be back out in the cold, especially as the temperature seemed to have dropped further still. We went to buy ourselves a sweet treat, on April's recommendation. They were called 'hot sweet things' - no special Korean name here. And the name has a Ronseal quality to it - it does exactly what it says on the tin, per se. They were very very hot, to the point where you have to leave them for the first minute to avoid burning your face off. They were very very sweet, with the cinnamon goodness soon oozing out of the middle. A bit sticky, but very nice.

Whilst eating this I began to lose sensation in my fingers, to the point where I decided that gloved were now a necessity, not a luxury. We bought hotpockets, but I opted to keep mine for later, meaning that the urgency to buy gloves was increasing. My head was also beginning to freeze, making the purchase of yet another hat rather tempting.

I ended up buying both, and with a bit more vibrancy about us we went to walk around the backstreets of Insadong. It's pretty picturesque, and reminded me of a continental European city. Neat little coffee shops and restaurants were dotted inbetween small rustic buildings. The English on some of their signs was a bit unorthodox, particularly the menu that proudly proclaimed itself as a 'Happy Virus Menu'. Having walked around for a bit, we started dreaming about how good a Baileys and hot chocolate would be on a cold evening such as this, so we ventured into one of these shops. After all, it did tell us that 'It will be a nice memory'. You have to be tempted by that.

Baileys was always going to be difficult to get hold of, and harder still to explain to a Korean waitress, so we soon gave up on that. However, the menu contained an option that intruiged us - chocolate makkoli. Makkoli is rice wine, and supposed to be a pretty decent drink to have in the winter. Alcohol in hot chocolate - mission accomplished!

Or so we thought. Dalyn opted for a standard hot chocolate, but the rest of us were bold and chose the choco makkoli, so ordered three. The waitress looked at us in shock, and soon walked off giggling to herself. Slightly unsettling, but we soon realised why she found it funny. The cup was tiny, similar in size to a petri-dish. But the liquid was in a pot. A very large pot. And we had three of them.

I let April and Kelly try it first, and we soon realised the kicker. It was chocolate makkoli, we got that bit right. But assuming it would be hot, or at least warm, was a bit of an error on our part. It was pretty cold. And the chocolate used in it wasn't fantastic. But there was a lot of it, so we ploughed on, me quicker than the rest.

About halfway down my pot, the chocolate began to hit me, and I felt pretty full. But I don't like to waste alcohol, we all know that, so I kept going. And going. Everytime I had to refill my glass I was hoping it would be the final drops, but the pot had some strange quality that suggested it would go on forever. I finally got to the bottom, feeling fat, tipsy and triumphant. What a triumvirate of feelings, eh.

The girls couldn't finish theirs, and April kept pouring more into mine throughout this ordeal, so I actually drank quite a lot. Upon leaving, after I had paid on my card again to have more cash, we headed back to Bucheon and hit up a couple of places. I remember we tried to get into Mister Africa but the place was full. One place that was open was a bar that had a cow handing out flyers - I felt obliged to get a picture with him. We ended up at a place called Gorillaz, where pitchers of beer and a peach soju cocktail were bought and quickly disptached. We were joined by more people, some who we knew, some who we didn't know.

The drinking culture in Korea is fascinating, and the attitude is rather refreshing. In essence, everyone has to keep pace with each other, and they play games amongst their table regarding how much they can drink, and the speed they can drink it. I don't know what these games are as yet, but I have seen the two consequences, and indeed saw both on Boxing Day. One is fairly obvious, particularly as Koreans do seem to struggle to be able to hold their drink - the one who wins a lot gets hammered and normally ends up being carried out. This happened twice on this night, once very early, with the first guy unable to actually stand, and the later one actually being a girl, who again couldn't stand up. Fair enough.

But the other consequence is that the loser often has to go to another table, full of strangers, and befriend them. Maybe it's a bit like doing a forfeit if you lose. We observed one young man, cheered on enthusiastically by his table, stumble over to a table of three Korean women, sit down and start to chat to them. It seems like an unwritten rule that the women have to play along with this, whether they want to or not. these women didn't seem overly keen, but the patriarchal leanings of this society dictate that they have to allow the man the opportunity to befriend them. One guy then came over to our table. His English was impeccable, and we were all happy to play along and let him entertain us. Turns out he spent a bit of time in Seattle, so was very familiar with Western culture and customs. A very nice guy.

I have to be honest, I don't remember too much after that. Me and April were drinking until close to 6am, when we decided to end our strangely deep discussions about having kids and I hopped on a bus back. The only reason I know this is because I had a text telling me this information the next day.

But the bus ride is where things went south. I got on the right bus to get from Bucheon to Siheung...and fell asleep. I get a shake from the driver, open my eyes and find that I have no clue where I am. What is worse is that the bus driver is ushering me off the bus. I look at the time - 7am. Great. Luckily, the stop for buses travelling in the other direction is across the street, and I'm soon back on a bus heading for Siheung.

I hear Korean in my ear. Oh no. I passed out again! End of the line. Where am I? I keep saying to the driver, 'Siheung' and he keeps shaking his head and ushers me off the bus. Before I get off, I notice the time. 8am. Brilliant. I'm still very drunk at this point, and stumble out of the bus station towards the main road. I then look across and see Bucheon station. I was back where I started. 2 hours later.

While waiting for yet another bus I popped into a local takeaway joint (I was drunk, remember) and looked at my options. Looked, not understood. I tried to order the cheapest thing, whatever it might be, and I tried to order in Korean. 'Hana, juseyo' I say, trying to point at the top of the board above me. I can't reach, so grab a pair of scissors off a table and tap them against my choice. This woman has seen it all before from Westerners, and responds in broken English. 'One?' Rather than appreciating her efforts, I ignored them, and tried to order once again in Korean. The same thing happened, and then, remarkably, I said: 'Anyo Englishee! Anyo Englishee!', which means 'No English!'.

What I got was rice and kimchi in a box, with a slither of egg on top. Thinking that I wanted to have this quickly, I spent most of my remaining 8,000W on a taxi to get home. I ate up, quickly realised how disgusting the stuff was, and then went to bed at about 9am, waking up at 6pm.

I woke up to snow. Lots and lots of snow. I opted against leaving the flat, the hangover was pretty rough. Apart from going for dinner with Brittany and then meeting people for a couple of drinks on Tuesday, I hung low and tried to save money for New Years. I could hang low as school was not open.

Well, my school wasn't. It makes sense that hagwans are open as often as possible, as parents pay a lot of money for that privilege. I did have to go to school on Monday to pick up my Christmas box from la famille. It was when I was hanging around there, waiting for the DHL van, that I noticed that Sorae middle school, just across the road, was OPEN. I found that rather strange, but it's not something I can complain about.

Aah yes, New Year. They do celebrate this one in Korea, but they also follow the Lunar calendar so there is another celebration in February. I won't be around for that, which I can explain away another time, but I was pretty excited for this one. Of course, most people had to work, and those in hagwans get screwed in this respect as, even on New Year, they are working until around 9pm.

Of course the flip side of this is that those of us who work in public school get to start having fun earlier. So me, Ellen, Julian and Codey all met up, had a beer or two, and then began to make the epic trip into Seoul at around 7pm. The latter two hadn't gone to the toilet before boarding the bus to get to Bucheon station, which was a bit naive to say the least. As I've mentioned before, traffic here gets ridiculous between 5 and 9. Codey in particular was struggling to survive, even considering relieving himself out of the back window. The bus seemed to be at a standstill on the hill which separates Siheung and Bucheon, so they decided to take some initiative and get off the bus at the next stop, in the knowledge that there were buses behind us so they wouldn't be significantly delayed.

The problem was that we didn't know exactly where the stop was. As a result, it was rather unexpected when the doors suddenly opened. Julian hopped up and off straight away, but Codey, in a fair amount of pain at this point, moved gingerly towards the door, which began to close. Imagine this as being similar to trying to keep open an elevator. The natural instinct for Westerners is to put their leg out, a movement that is picked up by the sensors and re-opens the doors. Obviously this technology has not quite come across to the Korean peninsula. Codey puts his foot out - and said foot is squashed in the doors. Ouch. The bus driver, oblivious to what is happening behind him, then starts to drive! Lots of shouting soon makes him aware of the situation, and the doors are opened, allowing Codey's foot to breathe, and him to relieve. Rhyme!

Ellen and I were watching this from the comfort of the backseats of the bus, and the traffic soon cleared. We met up with Julian and Codey at the station, where they told us that they were, ahem, caught in the act. Westerners setting a good impression, I know, but when you gotta go, you gotta go. We then met Kelly and her friend Phil at the station soon after, and headed up to Hongdae.

Hongdae is the partying area of Seoul. I'd love to go into more detail about what it is like, but this was my first and thus far only time I had ventured up there, and there are gaps in my mind. There are a lot of places to go, and a lot of people there, though not as many Westerners as I had anticipated. We initially went to a bar called Gogo's, which had an indie-rock vibe to it. Our target place for the night was a club called Via, just down the street, where we could get in for only 5,000W as we knew the special password. Less than 3 quid to get into a major club on New Years, not bad at all. Especially when it was 2-4-1 on drinks.

Kelly and Phil had gone to nearby Sinchon for a bit, and were planning on meeting us at Via. The original four of us got there to find it pretty much empty, however, so we headed back to Gogo's. Gogo's was where we celebrated the striking of the clock for midnight, and it was a lot busier so probably a better place to do so.

We had been joined by others at this point, one of whom, Alicia, had her camera out. I haven't seen the pictures, and am not 100% that I want to, but I do remember a few of us being upstairs in Gogo's, where there was a mini-stage and a pole. Put two and two together here, folks. I did indeed swing around the pole for a bit. I did also slide down the pole and end up on my rear end. I've been informed there is a picture of that, and if I seem acceptable in it I will put it on here. But still, not my proudest moment.

Back in Via I got talking to a Canadian girl called Michelle for a while. She was cool, but drank vodka with water, which I found odd. Reminded me of ripping Mohammed for drinking whisky and water all the time, utterly pointless. Her and Alicia headed back to Gogo's after a while, and it was strongly suggested that I go with them. Of course, I did, but for some unknown reason I got held up, and when I got to Gogo's I couldn't find them. I kept looking for a while, but instead ended up talking to random people, as I often do after a few. In particular, I remember talking to a South African called Malcolm about cricket, and Makhaya Ntini, for a long long time.

I soon realised that I hadn't really eaten since lunch, and began to fear how this may affect me as the night progressed. I found a street vendor and went for a timeless Manchester night out snack - the chicken kebab. It was good as well, that's how drunk I was. I normally can't stand them after eating them regularly from Kebab King in freshers year.

Eventually I headed back to Via to see if anyone I knew was still there. As I went through the entrance I saw a familiar face - Josh, who I hadn't seen at all throughout the night. He offered me to come along with him and his friend Jon to a different place, so we headed over to another club called Cocoon. This was a hip-hop club, so not exactly my place of preference, but we were meeting one of Jon's friends there, so (very) reluctantly paid the 20,000W entrance fee.

We stayed there 5 minutes.

It was heaving in Cocoon, the dancefloor seemingly resembling a herd of cattle in a pen. Realising that the chances of finding Jon's friend were slim, me and Josh cut our significant losses and moved on, while Jon went on one last search. Outside, we started talking to three American soldiers. One of them said that we was soon leaving for Istanbul, which happens to be one of my favourite places on this little planet. We started talking in the cold for a while, until Jon resurfaced. I hadn't even realised that Josh had wondered off. We didn't see him again that night.

At this point it is worth me mentioning the cold snap that had hit Seoul on this particular night. The snow that had fallen over the previous days had, unlike in Bucheon or Siheung, begun to transform into ice. It was very slippery. I didn't use the word 'melt' here for a reason. Snow simply just doesn't melt at these temperatures. It was between -13'C and -16'C on New Year's Eve. What I found out a few days later was that this stunning fact actually didn't factor in the wind chill. Including this, I have been told that it resembles -27'C. You do need to drink a lot in order to not feel that, so I guess my antics had value!

The final place we went to was called Oi Bar. It's a hookah bar, but we stuck to beer. It's furnishings are unique. The inside is built to represent a cave. It reminded of the caves they have in Star Wars, looking as if part of the desert had been transported across to Korea, yet it also had numerous water features, giving the place a strange glow. You had to take your shoes off and place them in a plastic bag before entering, which added to the mystique. It's actually quite difficult to describe, but it's a very cool place. We sat on cushions, which is something my legs struggle with when I'm sober, let alone when I have been drinking for almost 12 hours. Jon had friends who were already there, and they were all very nice people. The atmosphere of the place is very chilled, and that is reflected on how people act in there.

Well, most people. We were talking about something, and one of the girls then said something off-the-cuff, almost in jest, along the lines of not wanting American troops to be here. Not the thing to say as an American soldier is walking past. Cue argument. Me being me, and drunk, and the subject being politics, I couldn't help but wade into the argument. I became fully entrenched in an increasingly heated debate when he called me English. Oh dear. He then turned to a Kiwi in our group and called him an Aussie, so geography was obviously not his strong point.

We debated for a while before the soldier's friend persuaded him to go away. He was drunk, admittedly, but very passionate. Perhaps a bit too passionate to carry on our discussion, at least. 6am soon came around and Oi bar was closing, so I went to the toilet before we made our respective journeys home. I find a urinal, unzip, and then hear a voice. The soldier had followed me into the toilets to carry on our discussion. I gave him one minute of my time outside the toilets, and then left him abruptly to catch up with Jon.

Jon was staying at a place in Seoul, meaning that I was facing a long trek back. Public transport doesn't function between midnight and either 5am or 6am, I haven't worked out which as yet. I got back to my place at around 8.30am, and passed out. It was a fun way to bring in the New Year. As for the first day of the New Year...that didn't really happen for me.

I've now been here about 5 weeks, I'll give you all my thoughts on that next time!

Happy New Year! Love you all,