Friday, 26 March 2010

Korea - The first mansion

Hello everyone!

The following events take place between March 20 and March 26

I've spent most of this week running. And running. And complaining about the state of my legs, then running some more. As a result, I haven't really done too much of note. I am up to 14km now, so have to find another 6km for the race on April 25. My target time is 1hr 40mins, which is pretty quick, but I am on track. What I didn't know was that treadmills automatically turn themselves off after one hour. I don't know if that's a Korean thing, as at home I ran outside. It's too dangerous to do that in Siheung, or any built-up area, and still a bit cold to venture further out to run in quieter regions.

It is still cold. It is also STILL snowing. Monday morning was beautiful, but within one early afternoon hour it had transformed the school into a mystical white kingdom. One of my students suggested that the events of 'The Day After Tomorrow' were unravelling in front of our eyes. Of course, she wasn't quite so lyrical, but she got the point across when saying the word 'DIE' quite loudly. The school did look rather nice under the white blanket, but it emphasises the fact that I need new shoes. The soles on mine have decided to part from the rest of the shoe, so my feet got rather cold and wet.

I forgot to mention a bizarre occurrence last time out. I was in school on the 15th, when suddenly a load of sirens started blaring from the near distance. No one else was reacting, but I was still a little bit unnerved, so asked Mr. Kim about it. He said that on the 15th of every month the military do a training exercise to be prepared for an attack. The sirens used to be taken seriously - he told me of many times when all of his class would hide under their desks - but it is now not a particularly serious issue.

Monday I wasn't feeling too great. This is undoubtedly due to the weekend I had. Friday was Britt's birthday night, so we went to get some food and a few drinks. We wanted to try a different bar, as we go to the same two or three places around Siheung. We ended up in a bar directly above our regular boozer, Von Tees. I have no idea what it was called, but it was an intruiging place. The seats were lined with velvet. There was a corner of velvet sofas under very dim light. The speakers were of a quality that would be branded as unacceptable in North Korea, let alone the South. A few drinks turned into a few more, and soon it was 5am, and we had a big bowl of kimchi jjigae, the spicy kimchi soup, in front of us. Oh dear.

Suffice to say, football didn't happen. Again. Because of the running, I won't be playing for a while, I think. What also didn't happen, which I wanted to check out, was the St. Patrick's Day parade in central Seoul. It started at around 2pm - I woke up at 2.30pm. Juno had invited me to a welcoming party for new recruits, so I decided to drag myself over to that. It was in Sinchon, a very nice and rather Western area of Seoul I had yet to explore. As I got lost finding the welcoming bar, I got to explore it rather more than anticipated. I saw a giant shoe outside a department store. I would have taken a photo, but would have had to get in line, as lots of people were doing the same. I didn't do that as I was running late, but there was another reason.

Yellow dust. The sky was yellow when I left Siheung (it was, even though it hasn't come out on the photo). There were many more white masks on show than usual. There were also less people, as most opt to stay indoors when the dust arrives. It was an eerie experience, but by the time I got to Sinchon most of it had dissipated. I spent a bit of time there, meeting new people and the like, before getting another response to the mass text I had sent asking if anyone was out in Seoul. Ellen told me that a few people were in...Sinchon?! Nice. What really sold it to me was the allure of all-you-can-drink. For 15,000W. That's about 8 quid. For ALL YOU CAN DRINK. There is no way that would be legal in Britain. People would die.

With that scandalously good offer, I shouldn't have been surprised at the amount of people there. It was packed. I paid my 15,000, was given a blue cup, and headed in. It was stopping at 11, so I had approximately 90 minutes to get my fill. I found Ellen, Natalie and Deb sat down, surrounded by Korean guys. This 15,000 wasn't solely beer, either. It was anything they had, which included cocktails and bottles of soju. The latter did serious damage. Soon after I arrived our seats were transformed into a rickety stage, where people were encouraged to engage in beer-drinking contests (I hid) and sexy dance routines (I hid). Nat was brought onto the stage, which was rather funny as she then was auctioned off. I didn't have enough money to make a bid.

Shortly before the end of the event, we saw someone grab a bottle of soju. Lightbulbs in heads and all that, I walked up to the bar and got us three bottles of soju. Three bottles, for four people. Deadly stuff. We had one at that place, and took the other two with us to Hongdae. Our destination was a drum 'n' bass night in a club called Mansion. After spending ages trying to explain who Ryan Giggs was to the taxi driver, we headed in. It was 20,000 to get in before 11.30, and 30,000 after. We got there at 11.32. We paid 20,000. Kudos to the girls for that.

It was great fun in there. I had drank too much, however, as I was struggling to stand upright and still. Luckily the music was really good so I could keep bobbing around in my unique way, and pretend that I had control over my body. We were in there for a long time. After Mansion is a bit blurry - I've been told that we went to a restaurant, and there are incriminating pictures suggesting that me and Jon went to another bar and got more tequila - and the next part I remember was being on my own in Hongdae at around 8am. Nice. Probably time to go home, I think, so I hop on the subway. And inexplicably get off after one stop and change onto line 6 - a line that goes absolutely nowhere near my place. I got towards the end of that line before realising that I needed to get off.

Half an hour passes with no return subway, so I end up getting a taxi to an interchange station, and get to Bucheon at around 12. I was still drunk, and still hadn't slept, so text Kelly to see if she wants to meet up. Bless her heart, she agrees, totally oblivious to the fact that I haven't gone to bed. She realised that pretty quickly when I saw her. We waited for Matt to pop around, witnessing a Korean TV drama being filmed while waiting. Well, I hope it was a drama, as it involved a man faking his death repeatedly.

We had lunch, at which point the night caught up with me. With the race beginning to appear on the horizon, I have decided that next weekend will be my last for drinking until I have done the half-marathon. I know, I wouldn't believe me either, but the idea is nice.

Love you all


Friday, 19 March 2010

Korea - The first baby Guinness

Hello everyone!

I keep telling myself that I will rein in the spending and save a bit of cash. I keep failing. This week I have eaten out every night, from Monday to Thursday. I've tried some new things, one of which is called kam ja tang. This was in a large bowl, similar to the jjim dak and ddak galbi. There were large bones with pork on them, in a dark broth. These bones are actually the spine of the pig. The broth contains mushrooms, potatoes, a bit of ddok, and various other vegetables. Despite it's strange appearance, it was really good. The meat itself was surprisingly tender, and it was nice to eat potatoes as that is a rare occurrence out here! I didn't get a picture, as I didn't have my camera, but it looks similar to this (thank you, google images).

I got this with three people I hadn't really met before. Remember the guy I randomly met on the bridge? I went with him, his girlfriend, and another friend. They are all from Hull, and live pretty close to me. The other guy, Mike, actually lives really close to me. He lives in my apartment block. On my floor. So there ARE other Western people in my place! I had thought there were, as recently I left a cardboard box in the wrong place, and when I returned from school there was a note on it in perfect English telling me this was the wrong place. You may think a Korean just translated it, but the fact that the box was described as 'this bloody thing' was a strong hint that another Brit was about. He didn't write it though, strangely.

I met them on the Thursday evening, and even this late in the day didn't feel too great. That is entirely down to the night before. March 17. St. Paddy's. I was pretty busy that day, what with various teaching and lesson planning, not to mention running 12k. Slight aside, I didn't know that treadmills automatically turn themselves off after an hour?! Hopefully that won't mess up my training too much. As a result of those activities, I was shattered by the time I finished my working day at 9.40, and had decided in my mind that I would skip any socialising and get to bed. I checked my phone, and had a call from an unknown number. Worth finding out who it is, I guess, so I call it. It's a guy from Bucheon called Paul, who then asks me when I'm coming down. I guess I'm easily persuaded. Bags dropped at home, and to Bucheon I go.

People were in Cafe Nicolia, a small continental-esque restaurant. There weren't too many people there, and Matt and Phil left soon after I arrived. In the snow. Yes, it is STILL snowing out here, even in the middle of March.

Anyways, I started chatting to the people there, and got on the Guinness. Soon faces were being painted and everyone was having a jolly old time. The owners didn't mind when we started modifying their chalkboard menus to say things like 'alian moo' and 'bum waffle'. They also gave us free hats, which was nice.

The snow had begun to relent at this point, and we headed over to The Park to find more people. There weren't many. Not surprising, as it was after midnight on a weeknight. Their deal was to give out a scratch card, with prize potential, if you bought two Guinness. I did just that, and duly won their top prize - a big green t-shirt! We stayed for a while, then moved across to RnB, where they gave out a free drink if you were wearing green. That t-shirt came in handy!

We hung around talking to people for a while, and the time soon passed 4am. That was fine for the people who work in hagwans; less so for me. I got to bed at around 5am. I had told Mr. Kim to call me at 8.15 if I wasn't in school, as a kind of back-up alarm. My alarm went off at 7, which I snoozed. My phone then rang at 8.25. Uh oh. Especially as I was teaching first thing. The one thing I did before leaving my apartment was to wipe off the face paint. I had said during the night that I would wear it to school, but we all say silly things when inebriated. I bolted out of my place, and flagged down a taxi.

'Sorae high school', I say. 'Teacher?' he says as he drives off. I say yes, and then he says, 'You smell bad of beer'. Great. What a confidence boost. Incredibly I was only 10 minutes late. I may also have been still drunk. I had expected to be hungover, so the previous day had modified my slideshow to show my classes why I didn't possess my usual energy and vigour. We played hangman to elicit 'St. Patrick's Day', and I showed them some Guinness, before getting on with the lesson. It's strange that I've been late twice now, and, rather than being told off, I was instead commended for my prompt showing after the phone call. Seems like I can get away with murder at this place (touch wood). Even passing out on my desk, which is what I did once that lesson was over.

My lesson plan this week has been on describing people. I have decided that my Tuesday class, 1-13, will be my guinea pigs, upon whom I try a lesson for the first time. I normally survive on the grounds that they are all girls and just laugh at whatever I seem to do, and then I can tweak the lesson to make it vaguely productive. I'm getting them to describe various aspects of people, and then ending with them playing Guess Who. It works pretty well, mainly because they are encouraged by the lure of candy if they get it right. I think English teachers are single-handedly encouraging obesity in Korean children.

The Thursday afternoon lesson didn't exactly follow my plan, firstly as I taught the wrong class due to a scheduling error, and then because I ended up showing them videos of 'Macho Man' and 'Gay Bar'. At their request. A senior teacher walked past and looked in as all the boys were clapping along to the rather provocative video of 'Gay Bar'. They then turned and laughed at her. I think I'm the only reason why she didn't dole out some serious corporal punishment on them. Friday was parent's day, when the old folks come to school in the afternoon, thus meaning I only had to teach one lesson, rather than four. To say this job is cushy is a gross understatement.

Love you all


Monday, 15 March 2010

Korea - The first eel

Hello everyone!

My lessons this week, where I am repeating my 'How are you?' crusade, have suffered a degree of disruption. This isn't a complaint. My hardest day is going to be a Wednesday, when I teach back-to-back for the first four periods. This week, however, I was informed first thing on Wednesday morning that there were no lessons that day. The reason? The students had their monthly exam test things. So my busy day turned into watching Taken and browsing every internet page in the world. As well as drinking walnut tea. I can say I've tried it, and now will forever stick to Tetley's. The only bits that should be in a cup of tea should be broken biscuit pieces from dunking, NOT actually part of the tea.

Again, I have been running a fair bit this week, actually breaking the 10k barrier a week before I felt I needed to. My reward was, with Ellen's assistance, to destroy a massive ddak galbi that evening. That stuff is so so good, and I had no hesitation in skipping breakfast the next day, simply because I wasn't close to being hungry.

Thinking about it, it's actually been a pretty quiet week, which is good as I'm actually saving decent sums of money, as opposed to spending lavishly and realising I'm making a small profit. The one time I spent a sizeable sum of cash this week I ended up not actually doing anything, and getting rather annoyed. Tuesday was Kelly's birthday, so had organised a meal in her favourite bulgogi place for 7.30. I was done with my day at 6.30, so headed straight for Bucheon. I was in a different part of Siheung, however, so wasn't 100% on which bus to take.

I was stood in the torrential rain/snow/slush, guarded only by an umbrella my co-co-teacher had given to me out of pity, and soon saw a bus with Bucheon station written on it. That'll do, I think to myself, and after fiddling around with my cards in my pocket, find my transport card and hop on. I'm sat on the bus for a long time. Too long really. I listened to the entire Ellie Goulding album on one bus ride. We're going down increasingly remote and small roads. I kinda figured that it was going the wrong way a little while before the bus terminated in the middle of nowhere. Feeling a bit miffed, I shouted at the driver that it said Bucheon station on the front, and we both got out to check. Both felt vindicated. It did say Bucheon station on the front. But the arrow was pointing away from the station, and towards Hasang-dong. I'm guessing that's where we were.

Another passanger quickly pointed out a bus going to Bucheon station, and I hopped on. Listened to another whole album whilst getting there. It was a little after 8 when I rocked up to Bucheon station, so I called Kelly to explain my thus-far horrendous journey and get directions to the bulgogi place. 'Say Bucheon hospital'. Easy enough.

Except, as ever with taxi drivers, it wasn't. Firstly, and understandably, they didn't know what 'hospital' was. Even after I said 'ambulance nee-nor nee-nor'. I called Mr. Kim, who told me the Korean for hospital (it's pyong-won, not that I'll ever forget it now). I said it to my driver, and he didn't understand, so I passed the phone over. I can only hear the driver, and more than once hear him say 'Siheung'. Erm, what? He passes the phone back, and I decide to clarify with Mr. Kim that he'd said Bucheon. However, the driver, obviously aware that I need to watch the pennies, had hung up, and soon set off. He got to the first crossroads, where I always go straight on, and...turns right. Up above I see a sign for Siheung, tell him to stop, try to explain myself, and end up just getting out.

I try and fail with another taxi, and am getting increasingly frustrated. A third taxi lets me in, and I say 'Bucheon pyong-won'. Look of confusion. I then take a risk. I know the district Kelly lives in is Jung-dong, so I add this into my intsructions. He speeds off. That's better. Even if he has turned left at those fateful crossroads.

He stops after about 5 minutes. On that same road. And points to a building with a green cross on the front. Oh dear. That's not it. And now I don't know where I am, the meter is steadily rising and already above 4000, and I am very very frustrated with life. I get him to take me back to the station. He's nice, chopping off some of my fare, but I had spent almost 10,000 on a journey to hell and back. In the slush. It's March!! Snow, you were nice when you first came, but let the flowers grow now, OK?! The fact that my alien card had disappeared, probably on the floor when I was fiddling to find my bus pass, didn't help my mood.

Recalling all of this to Kelly the following day may have actually been the highlight of her week. Looking back, it is pretty funny, and almost entirely my fault, but it was a bit of a reality check for me. No, I really can't speak any Korean. I just know words I can drop into a conversation to impress people.

So other than that the week was pretty quiet up until Friday. Friday night I met up with Matt at Bucheon station, and we then met two of his Korean friends. One of them, called Chris, was very good at English. His girlfriend, Chae-Won, was less so. Minimal would be the word, I guess. We went for food, and I was intrigued by the prospect of what we were about to eat.


Yes, I was going to stuff one of those sea snakes that can electrocute you down my trap. What was I expecting it to taste like? No clue. Slimy, perhaps. We waited a while, consumed a fair amount of soju, and soon a big hot plate was brought to the table. On it were three long, reasonably thick, strips. One was covered in what looked like barbecue sauce, the others were accompanied by other seasoning. Here we go...

...and it's good. REALLY good. Tastes like a normal grilled fish. Plenty of meat to it. I was surprised, but I don't really know why. Maybe I thought it would taste more like octopus or something. Proves once again that you shouldn't prejudge the food out here. Speaking of that, this guy Chris knows where to get dog. And likes it...

We then went to a couple of bars, with jailbar being our final destination. Turns out the Korean girl actually lives in the same district as me, and through lots of hand gestures and minimal English we talked for a while. We all headed to jailbar, where we met Kelly and a few others. They were pretty drunk, and we soon followed. Anyone who partakes in soju cocktails when extra bottles of soju are poured into them would. It was strangely quiet there, however. Not much in the way of sexy dancing.

Most people left within a short time of us arriving, so we made our own fun by sitting next to two Korean girls and talking to them for a while. Their English wasn't great, but probably in the top 10% of Koreans I've ever spoken to. More soju was drank, and I was soon on my way back. I guess I got a taxi. It wasn't as fun as last time, but at least I didn't throw up!!

Love you all


Sunday, 14 March 2010

Korea - The first jjim dak

Hello everyone!

So the new school year started on March 2. As I only teach first graders, this means that I can just be incredibly lazy and repeat the lessons I have taught for the past few months. Well, except the Christmas one. So this week is the British lesson I gave before. The sing-a-longs of Yellow Submarine I have been doing have been, well, deafening in some instances. All the kids seem very excited, and excited about me - I got a standing ovation from one class. One also shouted 'I LOVE YOU' before running away giggling. As before, I've had to field the normal girlfriend and age questions, but have been honest about the latter this time. They seem shocked that I'm Korean age 23.

The new office I've got going on is taking a while to get used to. My new co-co-teacher is the Chinese teacher, so any problems I have are supposed to be now directed to her. I don't think I've ever used hand gestures as much in my life as I have in the past few days. Of the eight teachers in this office, only Mr. Kim and one other teacher speak English. I didn't realise that the other one, Mrs. Park, was an English teacher. Who I teach with. She came over to my desk just before I was going to teach a lesson and said, 'Are you ready?' Ready for what? 'For our lesson!' I just about managed to survive without letting her know that I had no clue that she was Mrs. Park. After what happened to me on the Friday I don't really remember the new teachers, unsurprisingly.

Most teachers have been telling me that I should have kept the braids. When they ask me why they went, I hold my nose and make a smelly gesture. Easier than explaining that I didn't feel it would be great for kids who are just starting at a new school to see the one non-Korean waltzing around with freaky hair and a cheesy grin. I can't do that with hand gestures.

I am getting into the swing of going to the gym straight from work. Other commitments mean I can't do it on Tuesdays - rather, I go sit in a coffee shop for half an hour and prepare. The guy is beginning to realise that I'm going to become something of a regular, so is giving me free food with my coffee. Love it.

The curbing of excess is not coming along as smoothly, however. Indeed, this week was part of a stretch where I ate in restaurants, normally accompanied with a few beers, for 6 days out of 7. This was April's final week so socialising was obviously high on her agenda. Monday was my third curry of the week - no honey naan though. Wednesday I went for dinner with Brenda and introduced her to the other Westerners in Siheung.

Tuesday was a new culinary experience. We had something called jjim dak. Like dak galbi, it's served in a giant dish in the middle. It is chicken, and cooked in a different way (the internet says it's 'braised', whatever that means). It comes in what seems like gravy, which has vegetables in it, and is laced with soy. It was really good, even though most of the chicken had gone as I was late in getting there. After that we went to Woodstock and all said our goodbyes to April. Great woman, will miss you!

People are beginning to leave with a greater degree of regularity now, which is a strange feeling. Dalyn also left this week, and the Saturday was Michelle's final big night on a weekend, as she was leaving the following Saturday morning. We stuck local, going to a bar called WITH, before ending up in a noraebang. The 50 Cent rap battle we had going on was truly epic. I had a shred of respect for the man now, after attempting to sing P.I.M.P. with Jon and then both of us realising that we had no clue what the verses were. He talks rather fast, that man Fiddy.

So for the second week running, the only daylight I saw on a Sunday was in the morning before going to bed. At least I didn't waltz home with face paint on this time. I made the amateurish error of turning off my alarm, so got woken up by a text at 6.30pm. Oh dear. At least I don't need to plan any lessons for next week!

Love you all


Wednesday, 10 March 2010

Korea - The first face paint

Hello everyone!

I normally play football on Saturdays. If you read the end of my last blog you will understand when I say that I didn't make it this time. I woke up at around 5.30pm, and would have happily stayed in bed for the rest of the weekend. However, I had plans, so forced myself out of bed, into the shower, and on my way into Seoul.

One of the girls in Siheung, Michelle, leaves in a couple of weeks, and wanted at least one more big night out in Seoul before leaving. We went to a Nepalese restaurant, called Everest, in Dongdaemun. The food was absolutely fantastic. Samosas; chilli chicken which, for a change, was pretty spicy; chicken sagwala; the works. Arguably the best food we ordered was the honey naan bread. It was incredible. Need to wash your hands afterwards, though; it's sticky stuff.

We stayed there for a while. I was encouraged to man up and start drinking again. I am easily persuaded. The only problem was that the waiter, thinking it was water, kept topping up my soju and lemonade...with water. Not cool. We stayed for almost three hours - time flew by - and soon we flagged down some taxis to get to the nightlife district, Hongdae.

This is where the night takes an unexpected turn. Literally, I guess. Four of us - me, Josh, Jon and Tony - got into a taxi, with me in the front, and told the driver our destination - Sangsu station. He repeats it to us. Again. Again. Again. 'Yes!' we exclaim. We even get one of the Korean guys, Kiki, to come over and tell him, just to make sure. Taximan repeats again. Again. And finally drives. The journey is supposed to take ten minutes, and cost a little under 10,000W.

We are bullish and excited to get to Hongdae at this point, even though we are stuck in traffic. About fifteen minutes after we started, and after repeating 'Sangsu yok' many more times, the driver picks up the pace and drives down...the same road as before?? We are on the other side of the road, admittedly, but should it really have taken him quarter of an hour to turn the car around? And if so, why didn't he tell us to get a taxi across the road, like most cab drivers do?

Even so, we figured we were now on our way. Even though Jon, who lives in Seoul and gets taxis frequently, didn't really know where we were. More time passes. Another game of repeat-the-word ensues, and we begin to get slightly concerned about the mental state of this driver. Especially as he starts jabbing me in the leg for no apparent reason. Concern increases when we see signs for Seoul Forest. Two points: one, Seoul has a forest?!?! And two, we then started talking quite loudly and brashly about what he was going to do to us, in true horror movie style. Naturally.

Soon we are driving under a metro track, so a subway stop is close, and soon enough he stops and says 'Sangsu yok'. The fee is a little over 10,000W. Jon immediately says, with a degree of authority, that this is 100%, absolutely, definitely NOT where we wanted to be, so I get out and ask someone where Hongdae is. They point, strongly, intimating that it is quite far. I then notice a sign that says 'Seongsu station'. Oh dear. I can see what's happened here. Still, the Korean guy told him, so how did he get it so badly wrong?

We get back in and tell him just to go to Hongdae. With hindsight, that wonderful thing, we should have just done that at the start. How far away was Hongdae at this point? Not a clue. It seemed quite far when he soon turned onto the motorway along the river. Hongdae wasn't really near the river. At all. The driver kept repeating it, though, so at least he knew where he was going this time. We hoped.

At least our driver wasn't letting traffic, and there was traffic, impede him. His driving resembled that of a young teenager on a computer game who doesn't understand that crashing at speed is rather a bad thing. Me being in the front, I was the one who could see the speedo rising. And rising. And rising. He levelled out at around 140km/h, while weaving between very tight gaps and switching lanes with alarming regularity. I don't think the seatbelt would have mattered. The driver noticed that my hand was gripping the side of the door. He then took his hand off the wheel and commenced jabbing me in the leg. A few shouts along the lines of 'LOOK AT THE ROAD YOU (insert numerous expletives here) IDIOT' from the whole car before he resumed driving. Only after turning on his TV and watching the Winter Olympics, of course.

We were getting close to the one hour mark, and still not anywhere near. The fee was now over 20,000W. It would be easy for him to blame the error on us for not speaking properly, so it wasn't fathomable to bail or demand the ride be cheaper. Jon soon began to recognise our surroundings, however, and, after just over an hour elapsed and 27,000W on the meter, our harrowing and sobering taxi journey was at an end. When he rounded it to 30,000W I wanted to punch him, but thought better of it.

After all this we all decided we needed something quite strong, partially to calm us down and partially to celebrate that we were still alive after spending time at the hands of this maniac. We got to the destination, Byrd's Bar, and were welcomed by a large cheer. It was a nice place, quite dark and with kooky, alternative art, and was reasonably quiet, in that we were the only ones there. Like the Woodstock bar in Bucheon, you could make music requests, and they would see if they had the vinyl or MP3 of your choice to play it. I like places like that. Sense of power over the mood.

Beer in, time for that stiff shot. The three of us interested settled on tequila. I haven't done tequila properly since coming out here, so forgot that you lick the salt before shooting. Amateur hour. We managed to negotiate with the cute woman behind the bar to knock the price down from 6,000W to 4,000W. Turns out she was the owner, and turns out that she wanted in on the fun as well. She brought out four larger shot glasses, and poured tequila up to halfway in each. She then poured lemonade to the top. Fair enough. She then sprinkled in some brown granules. What is it? 'Coffee??' someone said jokingly, which we all laughed at. She said to put a napkin over it, slam it on the table, and drink it. Done. Woah. They were coffee granules. That is bizarre.

She kept pouring these free shots out for us, and gradually more people wised up and came to sit at the bar to get their fill. One person who didn't for a while was Michelle, as she was...having her face painted?? Kiki was painting the Korean flag onto her face. I'm assuming the painting set was his, as he had a bag with him. Michelle then painted a British flag on him, and then one by one we were each persuaded to be a canvas to people's artistic aspirations.

I had giant red lips painted on me. As someone has since pointed out, it looked as if I had just firmly bitten a cow. Or gone mad with the ketchup. It was then suggested that I looked like the joker. Wow, did the group seize on that. Get that white paint...

Scary, scary stuff. We drank the place dry of Korean beer, and after moving the tables around to set up our own impromptu dance floor, decided to head to a noraebang. Well after 5am. The owner, who was actually the bar girl giving us significant quantities of tequila and coffee granules, came with us, and once we had invested in basic necessities - beer, crisps - we started our singing.

The one song of particular note was the classic 'Sk8erboi', sung with all the gusto and energy of Avril in her pomp. It was hilarious. Our time was soon up, and we got outside...into daylight. It was after 7am, and probably a decent bet to call it a 'night'. Many opted to stay with people who lived in Seoul, but me and Tony did the honourable thing and got the subway home. Tony's face wasn't painted, but I think mine more than made up for that. Sitting on the subway was a glorious experience, everyone looking at me with varying degrees of fascination and trepidation. Not least of all Tony.

We get different buses from Bucheon, so on my own at around 8.30am I realised I hadn't eaten in the best part of 10 hours, so hit up a dodgy takeaway joint. Consider it from the waitress' perspective. You've just opened your store for the day, and suddenly in barges a sole drunk Westerner, with a scary face, shouting 'Ee-goh! Ee-goh!' and pointing at the menu board. I feel very sorry for them. Probably in response to this, I was given fish sticks (insert gay fish-Kanye West joke here) with the skin still on, so they were black. They got eaten, but won't be ordered again. Unless I start shouting 'Ee-goh' a lot.

It's good to see my detox and half-marathon diet going so well. The new school year starts on Tuesday, maybe things will calm down then. Wouldn't bank on it, though...

Love you all

The Joker

Korea - The first visit to jail

Hello everyone!

We got back from Thailand in the wee hours of Monday - as expected, it felt cold, but it's almost resembled spring this week. It got up to close to 15'C at one point! T-shirt weather, for sure. Anyway, I had to go into school to prove I was back in the country - for some reason, they're under the impression I like travelling and may be the kind to do a runner - so I decided to get this out of the way early. The look on Mr Kim's face when he saw my hair was priceless. His quote, 'What happened to you?' was also pretty funny.

I didn't tell anyone that I had got braids whilst away, instead choosing to see people's natural reactions. Most were shock, but mixed with smiles and then a general acceptance that it does kinda suit me. In fact the only person to openly criticise was my mum, who over Skype told me that I 'look like a seven-year-old girl'. And you think that will inspire me to send a Mother's Day card?

I made cutting down on excess was a priority upon returning. The reasons are three-fold: money now needs to be more carefully watched; if I keep up the amount of times I eat out and drink heavily I'll become very sluggish and chubby; and I have a half-marathon I need to prepare for. Needless to say, I didn't try very hard in the first week back, and drank just about every day. However, I did have the week off, as the new school year starts in March, so I did get some miles into my legs. Being a regular at the gym means that the man on reception seems to be giving me a discount each time I go. I'm telling myself that it's because I try to talk to him in Korean, but he probably just thinks I'm 'handsome'. He ain't the only one.

I seem to get the word 'handsome' a lot. I went to help Ellen decorate her new classroom in the middle school. Within seconds of walking in some female students approached me and I entertained them with who I was, and as I walked away they all shouted 'handsome!' in my direction. Ellen heard this, and seemed a little put out that it had happened within seconds of me coming into her school, but I think the levels of adoration would be much higher if she came into my school. They are older and are in their maturing age, after all.

I helped for a while until I had to leave to do an exteral lesson. I did some external teaching during the week, but I'm not going to go into detail about that, as it could get me into trouble and then incriminate me if I try to play dumb. I've probably just done that by writing this sentence, but I highly doubt that any of the teachers here know what incriminate means. Besides, I haven't told them how to find this blog.

I did also have to go to my school to move my possessions into a new office. This school year I am now in an office with seven other teachers. Not that I needed it, but I wasn't offered any help during this process. Every teacher was glued to internet streams: every student was walking around or in class glued to their portable TVs and cellphones. Kim Yu-Na was in the middle of her routine at the Winter Olympics, after all. She did rather well, what with getting a world record and gold medal, so everyone in school was very happy. It reminded me of being in school in 2002 when the World Cup was on, and swarming around the select few who had portable TVs and radios to find out what was happening. Excellent stuff.

I had planned on going for a run after moving things around, but was told that I was going to the teachers' initiation dinner instead. Well, I guess I can do that. However, I normally shower at the gym (it's an incentive to go, and I'm hoping it will help cut down my extortionate bills), so needed to pop home to shower and change. Quick point about those gym showers while I'm on the topic - as I'm now a regular, there are people in there who feel they see me enough to come and talk to me. In the shower. I never thought I'd say this, but I'm actually now quite comfortable with it. Well, relatively. It is nice that they take an interest in foreigners, and are confident enough to try to talk to them. I think they like it when I try to mumble something back to them in Korean as well.

When walking back I walked over the bridge and noticed a man cycling towards me. People normally do this, but this time it seemed different. Mainly because the person had an auburn-coloured beard. That ain't Korean. Feeling sociable - I knew I had to be in a sociable mood for the new teachers who were soon to bombard me - I said hi, and he stopped. He wasn't Korean, I got that bit right. English, in fact. And lived in Siheung?! I can't remember exactly, but he said he lived pretty near to where I lived. His name was Matt (good start), and we exchanged numbers and agreed to meet up soon, as I had to get back to school.

Other Westerners I've never seen before also seem to be coming out of hibernation of late. There is also a guy who I met in the gym, called Geoff, and a couple called Mark and Polly who moved here in the last week. It's a very strange feeling not being the newbie, and actually giving advice to new people and sounding as if I have a clue what I'm talking about. That's a skill I got from Politics being part of my degree, I guess.

So this initiation dinner. I can't see them ever doing this in Britain. About 60-70 teachers went to a restaurant where they served duck. It's called o-ri out here, and it was cooked in a similar way to galbi, on one of those table barbecue things. I was sat next to Mr Kim and some of the other teachers from my new office. I soon discovered that the other teachers in this office, with one exception, were not new English teachers. Not even English teachers. And couldn't speak English. That will make the rest of the year interesting. At this point Mr Kim disappeared for a long period of time, so it was left to me to try to talk to the people on my table. Try being the operative word. I need to keep reminding myself that most people out here won't speak English - if they did, I wouldn't have this job, and consequently wouldn't be having this awesome experience. And why should they have to learn English? I'm the only one there who can't speak Korean. The impetus for language learning should be on me, not them.

During the dinner each new teacher had to go to the front of the restaurant with a microphone, introduce themselves, and then down a beer which had a soju shot in it - that somaek stuff Juno introduced me to. Even if they were driving. Hilarious, but bettered by the two new vice-principals, who brought out an industrial-sized bucket of beer and some rather large petri-dishes. Put two and two together, folks. Everyone had to do one. Me being the affable foreigner, I was given three.

The duck was fantastic. I probably ate about four ducks during the dinner. The problem was this was all we ate. I had no base to soak up any alcohol, and was feeling, how can I put it, 'fresh', at the end. Mr Kim seemed drunk, but hadn't driven over, so it was left to another English teacher to get me home. I was up for staying, actually, but I did have another plan. A couple of hours down the line, I was in Bucheon. This wasn't really part of the plan, but I was waiting for Alicia and Tom to finish teaching and come across, and Kelly told me that her and her friends were out, so I joined them while I waited.

We were in a bar that sold beer in towers, which instantly reminded me of fresher's week in Manchester. It took a bit longer to drink this one. We started talking to some Koreans in the next booth, and they fed me something. Pretty soon we were moving on and in a different place, where I met another person who lived in Siheung. I had seen Brenda before, but we had never really chatted, and it turned out that she didn't know anyone in Siheung, so hung out almost exclusively in Bucheon. I've been in that position, so I told her I would introduce her to people next week. We played pool for a while, my eyes not exactly focusing, but soon I got the call I had been waiting for.

Myself, Ellen, Alicia and Tom were going to jail bar. I have mentioned it in these blogs before, but as a refresher, it is a bar that is themed as a prison, with each booth being a jail cell. There is also a stage, where people get summoned to do often-provocative dances, and at some point an auction takes place, where the dancer is 'bought' and has to spend time in the company of the buyer. As far as I understand it, anyway.

We had to wait a while for a table, and then the other three made up for lost drinking time. Four jugs of soju cocktails between four of us? OK then. I was obliged to keep pace, but was already drunk at this point. We were the only Westerners there, so got a lot of attention, and soon enough I was summoned onto the stage to, ahem, 'perform'. Justin Timberlake came on, and I started a very spontaneous routine. All those teenage years I spent avoiding doing anything dance-related was coming back to bite me here, so I'm thankful that I don't remember too much of this, or the aftermath. However, I do recall the memorable moment, when I fell over, tried to turn it into a breakdancing spin by putting my arm out, missing, and crashing to the floor of the stage. Cue collective 'ooh' from the cells. I didn't win, surprisingly.

The alcohol got the better of me at this point. I'm told that I disappeared, probably to remove some of the soju cocktails from my body, and then must have just left. An intermittent image involving my head, an open taxi window and soon being kicked out reasonably close to my flat flashed back the next day. Use your imagination, or don't (mum). Quality night though, and another normal weekend in Korea was just beginning...

Love you all


Tuesday, 9 March 2010

Thailand - The first film set

Hello everyone!

Myself and Kelly weren't seeing eye to eye on Saturday morning. To be precise, mine were staying shut, whereas she was imploring me to get up. As I hadn't got back until after 3am, I felt like squeezing out as much sleep as possible. Besides, we didn't have to leave until 8, so why was she demanding I get up at 7.15?

Turns out there was a decent reason, actually. At 8am we were indeed leaving - leaving Ko Lanta. Which meant we had to get to the port at the top of the island. We were being picked up from the bungalow at 7.30, something I had not accepted in my mind. I was soon persuaded to get up. We almost missed it anyway because we had a very special driver who insisted on stopping at various points along the way to talk to people, but we were soon on our way.

Our destination, at least for a few hours, was Ko Phi Phi. Phi Phi is two islands - Phi Phi Don, where people stay and party; and Phi Phi Leh, where people go on a day trip to gorge on the scenery. We arrived and immediately set about finding a way of getting to the latter. Our ferry for Phuket, our next destination, was to leave at 2pm, so we had just over four hours to explore and enjoy the delights of Phi Phi. We got talking to a tour guide, who offered us our own longtail and driver for 1500. I thought we could get it for cheaper, but time wasn't exactly on our side to find a better deal, so we snapped it up and were soon off to Phi Phi Leh.

What an island it is. The physical aspects of it are incredible. Large, steep cliffs protect pockets of small beaches and caves and lagoons. Palm trees dot the inner areas of the island. The colours of the sea, sand and shrubbery are vivid and inspiring. It was a jaw-dropping sight, and probably the most spectacularly beautiful of all of our destinations. It was as if a team from Hollywood had built it from scratch.

Phi Phi Leh is a film set in its own right. It was the setting for The Beach. The only thing I know about that film is that Leo Di Caprio is in it, and it involves a beach. What a beach, though. Even though it was digitally enhanced by editors as it was deemed too small, and even though it was packed full of longtails, larger ships and tourists, it was still a fantastic backdrop. You can see why they filmed here. We were given an hour by our guide to explore, so we wandered around, mouths wide open.

It is a great island, and better for the fact that you can't build on it. The beach was picturesque, even with the tourists, and the cliffs were magnificent. Even so, we couldn't stick around, and headed back to Phi Phi Don. We decided to try to reach the tsunami evacuation point, up the top of a hill. Yet again, our perspective failed us, and we were left cursing why we were putting ourselves through so much exertion and not even halfway to the top. The fact that this was the hottest day we experienced, 38'C, didn't help the cause.

We made it to the top, towering almost 200 metres above the shore. It is amazing how they have rebuilt this place after the tsunami. You can see from the pictures that most people and buildings are congregated on the small strip of land in the middle. Ko Phi Phi got attacked by waves from both sides within a 5 minute period, cutting the island in two and destroying anything on the strip. It's mind-blowing to think that someone may have been up here that morning, and all of a sudden seen a giant wave speeding towards the island, feeling helpless and scared. Definitely worth the hike up.

After another pad thai session we got on our boat to Phuket. Phuket is arguably the most famous of the Thai islands. Or infamous, depending on how you look at it. We weren't in that part of Phuket, however: we had opted to stay in Phuket Town, not really near the beaches. We'd seen rather a lot of the beach, and I was quite happy for my enduring image of Thai beaches to come from Ko Lanta.

After our minibus driver, a Liverpool fan who knew where Wales was due to his love of Ian Rush, had dropped us at our hostel, we started chatting to two guys sitting outside our room. They were both English, which at least made a change from Scandinavian. One of them told me he was on a gap year. Aah, same age as me then, I assume. Oh no. No, this guy is on a gap year BEFORE going to university. I felt quite old at that moment. Nonetheless they were cool guys, and we went to get some dinner before going to a place that a lot of people recommended; Phuket Town market.

It's a night market that only exists on weekends. It was similar to the market in Bangkok's Chinatown, although not quite as busy. There were bands, breakdancers, lots of food stalls, lots of colour and vibrancy - and even a Volkswagen anniversary show. We got some snowcones, which were very nice and quite a contrast to the heat, which was still prevalent even in the wee hours. We stayed out for a while and had a few drinks, and then the lack of sleep from the previous few days finally wore me down, and we headed back.

On Sunday, our final day, Kelly went to church. We agreed to meet up at 12, as the bus for the airport left the bus terminal at 1. I thus had time to kill, and ended up walking around the town with a Canadian girl called Cybil. What a name. She was really interesting, as she had actually visited Korea! She had also taught in Japan for two years on a scheme similar to the GEPIK one I'm on, so it was fascinating to compare how we felt about the two countries. We didn't actually realise that we had gotten lost for a long time, though I wasn't too bothered - I needed to burn my face to get rid of the shocking tanline across my forehead.

We got back sometime after 12, and waited for Kelly to bail. It never crossed my mind that she could have left without me, as I had a trump card - her passport. She duly came back, very worried that she couldn't find it. Saviour? I think so. I got a final pad thai and we headed for the station, at which point I realised I didn't have any tools to eat my food with. I got off the bus, found a nearby restaurant and offered to buy cutlery off them. I paid the princely sum of 1 baht for two plastic spoons. Awesome.

Phuket's airport was full of foreigners, which I wasn't a great fan of. As I've said before, I quite like being the oddity, the stranger who people stare at. We checked in, but were not allowed to avoid check-in at Bangkok as both tickets were in Kelly's name. We made sure that our bags were going to be passed through, and were given a receipt to show in the capital's airport. Our flight was fine and we moved on to Bangkok, where we went for a final beer in a cafe as we had a 5 hour layover. We then went to check in, and pulled out our passports, flight details and...umm...where is that receipt for the bags? It had been in my pocket, I was sure. We asked her if we really needed, and she responded with an emphatic yes. Uh oh. This would not be good. I kind wanted my clothes and souvenirs to get to Korea with me. We had a think, and split up to look. I went back to the cafe and asked the manager about it. Every member of staff was set on the case, even those busy serving customers. A minute or so later, a cheer from the kitchen! An A4 piece of paper had duly been found, with our receipt - and lots of disposed food. Lovely.

Still, problem averted. The flight was decent, apart from their refusal to let me use the bathroom twice as the turbulence sign turned on whilst I was at the front of the queue, and we were soon back in Korea. Our Thai adventure was over.

What a holiday. What a country. Whether I deserved a vacation was debatable, but it was a fantastic adventure, full of fun and tall tales. Surely one of the highlights of my year, and any time I feel down in school I'm sure I can just scroll through the photos and remember that the money I'm earning is going towards trips like this. Fantastic.

Love you all