Thursday, 29 April 2010

Korea - The first half-marathon

Hello everyone!

I've now been in Korea for 5 months. FIVE! I was in a bit of shock when this little thought crossed my mind the other day. Time is flying. In my original plan, I would only have one month left before leaving for South Africa for the World Cup. The price of flights from Seoul to Jo'burg scuppered that utopia quite quickly, but even if they were cheap I would probably have stayed out here. I love it here, and am having a great time. I still have so much more to do and see as well! The two stereotypes we have back in Britain regarding Korea are munching on dogs and mocking Kim Jong-il. I'm yet to do either. Plenty of time, though. Mmm, German shepherd...

I celebrated this mini-anniversary in an unorthodox way - I ran a half-marathon. This was on the other side of Seoul, in a place called Hanam, and started on the Sunday at 9am. It was remote. No subway went near the place. It was going to be impossible to get there from Siheung on the day, so I decided to splurge a little bit and get myself a motel as close as possible. What I plumped for was the one acceptable-looking motel down a backstreet, called Motel Napoli, and indeed it didn't seem to possess the 'love' element of its near neighbour, the Hotel Cream. These establishments were in Jamsil, home of the Olympic Park.

This is a part of Seoul I had not seen before, and I was surprised by it. It was spacious, clean, green - everything other parts of Seoul isn't. The weather was good (it didn't last, as I'm typing this when the afternoon temperature is 6'C), so I spent my early evening sat in a beautiful park reading a book, and then pondering stuff. It was when I was sat on this bench that I began to think that I was at home, and very content, in Korea. May have been the blossoms. It's a shame that there are no nice green areas like this in Siheung, save for one tiny park.

A half-marathon is 21km. More like 21.0975, actually, but if you can run 21,000metres you should really be able to squeeze out an extra 10. Either way, it's long, so you are supposed to carb-load the night before the race. I hate doing this, it makes me feel sick beyond recognition, but it does help tremendously. I went to get some bibimbap from a local cafe-style place. An old Korean lady sat nearby heard me order and didn't know the type of bibimbap, so hung around whilst I was waiting for it. We tried the ever-fun 'I-speak-bad-Korean-and-you-respond-in-bad-English' game for a while, and then, when it arrived, I offered her some of my meal. Sharing culture, you see. Not this time though - she didn't like the look of the leaves, as I seemed to have ordered a salad version of bibimbap.

I like to think, and act, as if I know what I'm doing when it comes to ordering food. I eat out enough to practice, really. I know what the basics look like on the menu - bibimbap looks like 비빔밥 - but if there is more than one version, it becomes a guessing game. I was out for dinner on Monday and had similar issues, and I normally end up picking a random/cheap choice from the menu and eating it regardless. Seems to work quite well, as all Korean food is awesome.

Bibimbap crushed, I then went to a corner shop and bought some more rice-related food (it was kimbap, that triangle on the right) and ate that as well. And a doughnut. And a bagel. I don't know where I put it all. But come Sunday morning I was ready for action. After another bagel. Gotta keep those carbs topped up. I got on a bus to Hanam from Jamsil, then immediately realised that the bus right in front was going directly to the specific part of Hanam that I needed to go. And that my bus wasn't. Never been a fan of doing things the easy way.

The bus was taking its sweet time as well. I ended up gambling an getting off the bus in the middle of nowhere, which looked exactly the same as the middle of nowhere anywhere else in Korea - grey four-storey buildings on either side of a narrow road with lots of colourful Hangul signs all around. I was hoping for a taxi, and one duly popped up. Sweet.

I was directing him in Korean - again, I like to think I can do that, whereas in reality I'm just a nuisance for them - when he had to stop at a red light. On the right was a large banner with Korean writing and the current date. 'Ma-ra-tonn?' my taxi driver enquires whilst pointing at me. 'Half' I say, before saying the Korean equivalent - 'ha-puh'. He breaks into a big grin and starts chatting away in Korean. I smile and nod, say 'neh' a lot, and pretend to know what he's saying. Then, without warning, he loudly utters this gem of a quote - 'I have confidence in you!' Remember his English was non-existent before this point. To say I was blown away was a gross understatement. I just burst out laughing. He carried on: 'You best!' I didn't even have the chance to correct him. 'You do your best!' he cried, and then sped off through the traffic light, which was still glowing bright red, and weaved his way through other cars to get me there quicker. What a hero.

By the time I had got myself together and done a brief warm-up, it was game time. It was a lovely day, the kind of day I have been craving out here. Just not today. 9am, and it was already warm. Of course, the 'Korean time' I mentioned in previous blogs kicked in, so we didn't start for a while. Lots of shouting on microphones in Korean, then BANG, and we're trotting over the starting line under a plethora of confetti. Away we go.

It was a beautiful location for a run, definitely worth the hassle of the previous 18 hours. The race was called the Hangang Marathon, which translates as the River Han Marathon. It wasn't lying. We ran along the river for pretty much the whole way. The sunlight shimmered off the water, the air was still, and the only noise was the pitter-patter of thousands of feet. And my iPod, of course. I have missed running outdoors, but one of the positives of the gym is that I can work out how fast I'm going. I have no perception of speed outside, so had no clue if I was on track.

I realised I was going slower than I should have been when I saw the first km sign they bothered to put up. I felt like I was getting close to 10km. Bit of a shock when it said 7km. Especially as the heat was rising and we had moved onto the road. A hilly road. I didn't anticipate the number of slopes on this route. It's by a freaking river, it's supposed to be quite flat, right? No chance. The road bobbed up and down for another 6km or so before we did a U-turn and headed back.

It was at this point that I hit what professional sports people describe as being 'in the zone'. It was bizarre, and stimulated by a song by Lifehouse. Really bad American pop band, and I have no clue why the song was on my iPod, let alone my playlist. But I felt my legs loosen, my blisters stopped pestering me and I got quicker. And quicker. I pretty much sprinted 14-17, and soon it was the final km. Once I realised where I was going, I started to sprint. A lanky man in black leggings, who I'm pretty sure from his accent afterwards was German, was in the distance. I had been using him as a pacemaker earlier in the race, and struggling to keep pace with each enormous stride. Target = locked. My knee began to feel awkward, but I was going to finish. And I was going to beat this guy.

Sure enough, with about 100 metres to go, I sprinted around him, and just about everyone in my vicinity. They obviously didn't know about my sprint finishes. I saw the clock was at 1 hour 50 on the final straight. I had passed under it at about 2.10, so I knew a PB, my realistic aim, was in the bag. Sprint, keep kicking, it doesn't hurt, blah blah FINISH!! I checked my momentum by accidentally running into another runner, then swore at how much my knee hurt, before moving to get my goody bag. They give you milk, which as everyone knows from Anchorman, is a bad choice on a hot day.

1 hour, 48 minutes and 19 seconds. Got to be happy with that. The overly-ambitious target was 1 hour 45, but considering my knee has been flaring up of late, I'm very content with my time. What I was less happy about was that it took me over 3 hours to get back to Siheung. Still, it was a lovely day, and we went to the park to chill and enjoy the spring weather.

What's that, you say? A weekend without alcohol? Don't be stupid. One of the first things I was given after the race, just after the milk, was some makkoli, and we didn't stay sober in the park. Dream on, folks. For once, I feel I may just have deserved it though. Roll on May!

Love you all


Monday, 26 April 2010

Korea - The first orientation

Hello everyone!

There's a famous expression that goes something like this: 'What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas'. A similar idea exists with certain excursions we make throughout our lives, and this one is no different. What happens at orientation, stays at orientation.

But that wouldn't make for a fun blog, would it? So away we go...(I didn't take any pictures, so you're stuck with other people's facebook pics and my creative Google Image searching)

I want to make clear at this point how I felt before going to orientation. I didn't want to. I've been here for almost five months. I don't need to know how to use Korean money. I don't need to know how to use the subway. I don't need to be told how to make a lesson plan. If I still needed to know these things at this point, I wouldn't be here. I would have been fired long ago. Or swallowed up in a mass of kimchi and funny-looking letters. I didn't need to be whisked away for three days to learn about stuff I already knew.

So why did I go? Well, for one I had to, as part of my contract with GEPIK. Also, three days off school?? I'll take that. Finally, I'd heard stories about what happens at orientation. Drinking. And not much else. So a chance to socialise, and be paid for doing so, was too good to pass up. So Wednesday morning, rather than teaching my first class, I was sitting on a wall outside Bucheon station with an Australian, Dan, and two Americans.

Our bus was supposed to arrive at around 8.40. So we waited. And waited. And waited... Eventually one of the guys called up GEPIK, and we were told that the bus had turned up - and subsequently left. Good start. After pondering if it was worth going (we said yes, as we had to register up there and couldn't go AWOL), we hopped into a taxi to a different subway station, and then got on a subway down to Osan station. That's MILES away from Siheung, by the way.

The bus for Osan people was still around when we got there, so we started chatting to other people and then hopped on. First thing I noticed was that I hadn't yet met another Brit - mostly Americans and Canadians. Secondly, and less surprisingly, it seemed as if everyone was older than me - but the age range was a lot bigger than I anticipated. Lots of middle-aged and upwards men and women. But anyway, we were soon on our way, and after a longer-than-expected bus ride, we were at Anseong to begin our orientation.

After checking-in, the first port of call was the auditorium for a welcoming lecture. Aah yes, not all fun and games at orientation. We had to attend a variety of lectures and group meetings. Was like being in uni all over again, except for this time I was turning up. The first one wasn't too bad (mainly because most of it was us watching traditional Korean dance) but the first afternoon lecture, about the Korean curriculum and school rules and such, was similar to some of the lectures I had to experience in Manchester - excruciatingly dull. We played noughts and crosses for a while, before doodling on our information packs. I unwittingly drew a face that, when modified with a short moustache, was the spitting image of a Mister Hitler. Whoops.

To be honest, the only scheduled activity I paid attention to on the first day was our group meeting, where we were further split into partners and told that we had to give a demo lesson, about 10 minutes in length, in the next group session the following day. Would we get into trouble if we messed up? Of course not. So did we put in much effort? Of course not. Don't get me wrong, it's probably great for people who have just moved to Korea. But I'm not a newbie anymore.

After dinner we had the option of doing some cultural activites. It was merely an option, so most of us didn't bother with it, instead opting to drink, socialise and swap stories. All whilst playing a large game of Ring of Fire, naturally. They told us that they didn't sell soju on site, so we stuck to clearing out their beer fridge. They told us at the start to be sensible, but what did they honestly expect 180 Western teachers to do with their night?

A few of us bumped into some Korean guys who were at the site for a different thing, and we talked and traded soju with them. They may not sell it, but we all knew that, and came prepared. They were all engineers of some sort, and on a course at the same site. Good fun. We persuaded them to buy 10 bottles of soju for us for the following night, then took all their numbers. We were going to hold them to that. Time I got to bed? Best not to ask.

There was only one lecture that I enjoyed, which was the first one on Thursday morning. A Canadian couple who live in Bucheon gave one with some lesson ideas, which was interesting but also quite fun. Especially compared to the next two. The highlight of our co-teaching lecture, taught by a Korean whose English wasn't great, was an activity where each group was given an 'IF' statement and had to make a poster with answers. Our group, consisting of a Welshman, two Canadians and a subdued American, was 'If I was President of the United States I would...' We decided to have some fun with this, and came up with three answers. The reaction to each comes after.
1) Make all school meals serve kimchi - loud cheers
2) Invade Canada (this was my choice) - louder cheers interspersed with boos
3) Bomb North Korea - stunned silence with a couple of nervous laughs
Needless to say, the third choice bombed. Ahem. I'll get my coat...

The other 'lecture' was a South African woman who, instead of giving us 'teaching tips' as the title suggested, just talked about her life. In excruciating detail. Ironically, her lesson plan in the info book had this tip: don't lecture too much. Hypocrite.

In the afternoon was our demo lesson, which me and my partner Marvin had planned during the borefest that was the morning. It went fine, I just did the Katy Perry routine. Others in the group were taken aback by my energy levels, at which point I shook the large coffee in their faces. All you need to teach, a solid lesson plan and a large cup of black magic.

After this we had to choose a Korean culture class. Compulsory this time. Our choices were another lecture (boring), mask making (gay), or learning sogo. Simple process of elimination left me with the latter. A sogo is a traditional Korean drum. This was pretty fun, actually. They taught us a traditional Korean drumming and dancing routine. It took us a while to get it, but ultimately we got it and performed it majestically.

We had dinner and then were shunted like cattle into the auditorium for 'recreation'. Compulsory recreation, not something that's ever likely to catch on in our culture. You can't force people to have fun. Sounded like it was imported from the North, that idea. We all had to sit in big circles, six in total. We hadn't even settled when a short Korean man, who I've since found out is called 'Sexy Paul', waltzed onto the stage. He was the attempt of an au pair, MC, whatever you might call him. I'll go for mentalist. One of a kind, this guy.

He starts by trying to enthuse his dormant audience. His struggle with English and the use of a microphone made his voice rather difficult for us to understand. But he wanted to play some warm-up games. 'Turn to the person on your right'. I do this, and am looking at the back of an older, bald Englishman. 'Massage their back'. Erm, what? 'Do this on back (insert massaging mime here)'. Fine. We do this for a bit, until he introduces the wildcard - the 'shock'. The 'shock' is, of course, the motion of jabbing your fingers in the sides of the other person. By the time we had got to the triple, the 'shock-shock-shock', my fellow Brit was not impressed. Is this a key facet of Korean culture? I don't know.

But then the kicker. We played another game, and the winner had to...well, they do say 'say what you see'...wiggle the other person's ears. Sorry Sexy Paul, bridge too far and all that. It was getting a little bit too intense, but luckily he then initiated a giant rock-paper-scissors game to steady the ship. After that there was a dancing contest, during which our team's nominated dancer, an American who looked and seemed for all the world like a geek, chicken-danced and spun his way around our circle. We couldn't actually keep straight faces, it was marvellous.

Once this rather bizarre hour was completed, we got back to doing what we do best - Ring of Fire. About twenty of us. I'm not going to explain the rules and such, but for those who know the game, doing the 'waterfall' with twenty people is tough. Especially as I was near the end. That's a lot of maekchu. My Canadian friend Kristen and I momentarily left this game to find our Korean soju providers from the night before. They had indeed brought soju - only two bottles, but better than none - so we got on that for a bit before resuming play.

I got back to my room at around 6am. Needless to say, my 100% attendance disappeared on the Friday. It was a meeting about contracts, so not really important. I did miss check-out, though. In a rush to get to the farewell lecture, I dropped my key on the desk in the lobby. At the end of the farewell ceremony there were a few loose ends for the GEPIK leaders to tie up, such as missing keys. My name was duly called out at this point, and everyone in the vicinity turned and grinned at me. That's not a good feeling. The key thing also flared up on the bus before leaving, at which point I, with a degree of hostility it must be said, answered her question enquiring if I had returned the key with a harsh 'yes'.

So, an analysis of orientation? It was great fun, I met some great people, I learnt absoutely nothing productive about teaching, and I drunk way too much considering I had a race that weekend. This will sound harsh, but of the 180 or so teachers there, the number I will see in the future can be counted on my two hands. If I had just arrived, that would be different. It proved to me that I have settled. I'm happy to make new friends, I love doing that, but with the distances involved between people, it's not going to be a regular thing. But we all had fun, and no one had to go to school, which is all that matters.

Love you all


Monday, 19 April 2010

Korea - The first pink azeleas

Hello everyone!
First weekend excursion this weekend, down to the south of the country. We went to a place called Yeosoo, which looks like this - 여수 - in Hangul. It's the furthest I've ventured in Korea thus far, and was a 5-and-a-half hour bus ride from central Seoul. I didn't bother reading up on the trip too much before going - I was sent a link on facebook by Annie on the Monday, and had paid up my 67,000W on the Tuesday. I figured that it would be a nice change of pace to get out to the country, that it would reduce my alcohol intake as I have the half-marathon on the horizon, and also that it would be great fun. One of those trips that I will look back on in years to come and remember how great it was. It didn't disappoint.

I knew there was some hiking attached to the trip. With hindsight, I should have realised that hiking would be a substantial part of the trip, and that running 18km after school on Friday wasn't going to put me in the greatest physical shape for a weekend of being more active than usual. 18km done though, and with less pain in my knee than expected. We left Siheung at around 9.30 to head into the city to catch our bus and meet the rest of the group. There were about 70 of us in total, spread over two buses. The leader was a Korean called Warren. He seemed a bit eccentric.

We left just before 12. I figured that I would get tired at some point and get a few hours kip before we got to Yeosoo. The aim was to see the sun rise from some hill, which was going to happen at around 6. The problem was that, due to a combination of me not being able to shut up and being on public transport which I always fail to get sleep on, I probably maxed out at about 10 minutes. We all struggled to get any meaningful sleep which, as you can imagine, made us all feel really upbeat and cheery when we rolled to a stop shortly after 5.30am. Pitch black outside, and not exactly warm either. We hopped off the bus and all stood around whilst Warren belted out instructions that we didn't really listen to. Really should have listened to him telling us to stretch.

En masse, we set off up a hill. A rather steep hill. Certainly not the gentle introduction that we all needed. I've done stuff like this before, and my muscles weren't actually that stiff from my run, but I realised that it was a difficult section. A lot of people struggled with it, but we all survived and moved onwards and upwards.

The view wasn't what we were expecting either. I'd been expecting flowers, and there were loads of them. This mountain is the 'third largest mountain covered by the pink Korean azaleas'. Scratching the barrel a bit there, if that's the selling point. Should have just said its a nice mountain with a temple on it, that would get enough people here. But the backdrop beyond off of these flowers wasn't quite so aesthetically pleasing - a power plant. It was pointed out that it wouldn't look out of place on Sim City, and it was a fair point. Odd that a place of such beauty was tarnished in order to put in a power plant, but I guess there isn't much room for stuff in Korea. After all, most buildings are over six storeys tall and have different amenities on each floor. You have to look up as well as around when searching for a bar in Siheung.

The sun rose. We missed the immediate sunrise, but it was still nice to feel the sun's rays on our weary bodies. It soon became warm enough to start removing layers, which was good. Supergroup, as we had named ourselves, soon made it up towards the top of the mountain. There was a concrete ruin at the top, which seemed like an army pillbox. When we were jumping across it, Jon suffered the misfortune of his jeans ripping in a rather central area. Harsh. But funny. Our sense of time was very warped at this point. It felt like it was mid-morning, but it reality the clock had only just passed 7am. This bizarre feeling accompanied us around all day.

After seeing the token temple, we meandered back down a beautiful stretch of the mountain. Cherry blossoms initially lined the trail, with flakes of the flowers dropping down airily to the floor. The sun shimmered through the trees and off the small stream which we were following. The stream got a bit larger at one point, and me and Jon decided to try to jump across it. It was a reasonable distance. Jon just about cleared it. As you can see from the picture, I...well, didn't. One very wet left foot.

At the bottom we decided that we needed some food, and stopped in at a small outdoor restaurant. It felt like it was time for dinner - in reality, the imaginary chime of the clock in our minds had just struck 10. Because our table was so big and desiring food, our waitress brought out a special complimentary treat - a bottle of makkoli. For those who can't remember what this is, it is a rice wine, slightly stronger than beer, and with a nice but slightly sour taste. It helped to wash down some of the strange side dishes, amongst which we found a flappy fish tail, and stuff that looked like a part of the male anatomy (sorry Mum!).

We were soon back on the bus, and drifting in and out of consciousness. Our next destination was Odongdo Island. Being an island, it was by the sea, so we got a nice look at the southern Korean coastline. It was a very nice place, and the locals seemed a bit more liberal and relaxed than what we're used to in Seoul. How liberal, I hear you ask. Well, we sat on top of two very wobbly plastic creatures and when an important man from inside the building came out, rather than telling us to get off, he asked if we wanted a photo. There was a group of older Koreans happily singing along quite loudly as they walked across the bridge. It was a fun, vibrant atmosphere down there, which we appreciated. We climbed up the hill on the island, and halfway up noticed what resembled building work, with a sign that blatantly said not to carry on in that direction. Feeling adventurous, and armed with the knowledge that we could play the innocent foreigner card, Jon and I clambered along the metal girders, picking up some rogue hard hats on the way.

A couple of minutes of scrambling later, and we emerged on top of a rock. To our right was a sharp cliff face with a small cave at the bottom. Directly in front of us was a drop of several metres to the cold-looking sea. And to our left was...Warren?! And about ten other people from the trip. Geniuses think alike, I guess. Great views, though the melancholy vibe was interrupted by a helicopter swirling around the boats beneath us. We scrambled along the rocks to get back up to a different part of the trail, and reconvened with the others at the top.

We returned the hard hats on the trek down, and were soon back on the bus. Only after Jon had scared a little Korean kid and we had come across some rather sexist noodles. Segregation of noodles into pots for men and women? Incredible. And stocking up on makkoli, of course. The stuff we were buying was 2,000W for a big bottle, so we weren't exactly breaking the bank. Another semi-comatosed session on the bus and we were at our next location, a place called Suncheon Bay.

We went to an eco-reserve. Not quite as impressive as the other places, has to be said, but still good fun. Mainly because me and Jon, on yet another bottle of the rice wine, decided to race to the temple at the end. It was a reasonable distance, and pretty hilly as well. My legs finally decided to give up on me at this point, and I don't blame them. Good practice if this race has any inclines, though. The views were pretty cool, but I was too busy trying to stretch out my legs to fully appreciate them.

After this we were back on the bus and on our way to the beach! How very exciting, as I've yet to see a Korean beach. According to the itinary I should have read but didn't, we were supposed to be at the beach for 7pm. However, they have an expression out here called 'Korean time'. If a time is set, it is very uncommon that it is strictly adhered to, due to the business of the average Korean person's life. 7pm could mean 6.45pm, 7.05pm, even towards 8pm. Kinda like 'Fergie time' if you believe in such a thing. Anyway, the point I'm trying to make is that 7pm was ambitious.

We rocked up sometime after 9.30. It was pitch black, so we couldn't really build too much of an image in our minds, but it seemed quite nice. It was more like an enclave, with a small strip of sand that constituted our 'beach'. We dumped our stuff in the rooms (I'll get to that bit later), and then set about cooking. We had about six barbecues set up, and destroyed a ton of beef, pork and bulgogi. The organisers provided beer and makkoli, but as Jon and I were the only people consuming the latter, we got a pretty good deal out of that. I played chef for a while but soon got bored of being responsible, so went and chilled by our makeshift campfire.

Most people decided that they were tired after a long day of hiking and travelling, so went to bed straight after we ate. A group of about ten of us stuck the course. I didn't realise that the sand would be cold, which was a bit silly of me. We optimistically decided that we would stay up for sunrise, which was supposed to happen at around 6. How we were still awake at this point was a mystery, so staying up through the night (again) was ambitious. Overly ambitious once we realised that it had just passed midnight.

I don't know what time we finally called it a night, but I was pretty much the last person into our room. Aah yes, the rooms. There were about 70 of us on the trip, so the organisers hired out a place and we all piled in. Most rooms were big enough for between four and six people, but there was one larger room, in which the the remaining 25 of us would sleep on the floor. When we initially dumped our bags, we realised that it was a bit on the cosy side. When I returned the floor wasn't visible due to the mass of bodies. It resembled a mass grave, but with more blankets and pillows. There was a small spot of wooden floor by the door, so I set up shop there and drifted off.

For about fifteen minutes. Then BANG! A dull thud against my skull. Someone wanted to use the toilet, and hit me on the head when opening the door. They apologised, and I drifted away again...BANG! Oh right, of course that person had to get back in the room, and in the two minutes they'd been away had totally forgotten that I was in close proximity to the door. You may ask why I didn't rotate so that my legs were by the door. I considered this, but one of the heaters for the floor was directly under my ankle, and very, very strong. It felt like my ankle was on fire. The lesser of two evils was thus my head being thwacked constantly throughout the night. Not a fun night of sleep, though I slept through sunrise. Everyone did.

Sunday was not nearly as active as the Saturday. We skimmed rocks on the beach for a while before heading to a restuarant for some Korean food. We'd had breakfast about two hours before, so hardly touched it. On the bus, Warren randomly came over. We talked for about two minutes, and then he decided to pass out right next to me. Bizarre. It started to rain just as we got off at our next location, which was somewhere on the outskirts of Jirisan national park.

We went to a market. I got conned into buying green tea icecream, which wasn't great. The guy selling it was an interesting one, full of tricks and fancy flicks. He gave me my cone and then quickly did something, and all of a sudden my cone had no icecream in it. He'd given me two cones and then whisked the inside one away. Har di har har. We also saw a tub of fermented wasps. Maybe their local version of kimchi? We wandered around some cherry blossoms, and then were finally on our way home.

The only problem with our location is that it takes us forever to get back to Siheung, so we had to add on an extra hour or two to our journey. We got stuck in traffic as well, so pulled up at a service station. Bit different to Britain, this. No Burger King or Little Chef in sight. Instead, this is the domain of the humble street vendor. We bought one of the nicer treats, which was potatoes covered in sugar. Those things are gooooooood. And expertly modelled as well. Back at midnight, and straight to bed.

Great weekend in all. Very different to the usual, and we all had a great time. I'll definitely fit in another hike or two as the year progresses, but the way my legs felt on Monday, I might leave it until after the races. I fell asleep on my desk in school on Monday, and still haven't fully caught up yet. Though I'm writing this after orientation, so there are reasons for that... Sorry for this being so long, but it was a fun-filled, exciting weekend, and I wanted to get that point across.

Love you all


Thursday, 15 April 2010

Korea - The first trip to Chinatown

Hello everyone!

I have a busy few weeks lined up, so I'm going to knock out a quicker blog this week. Here is a vague schedule of my life for the next month or so:
April 16-18 - Yeosoo
April 21-23 - Orientation
April 25 - Hangang Half-Marathon
May 1 - DMZ
May 5 - Children's Day, so a day off, with plans in the pipeline
May 8 - Seoul World DJ Festival
May 15 - Half-Marathon in Seoul
May 16 - South Korea vs Ecuador football game
May 20-23 - Tokyo
And breathe...
Hopefully this means the titles of my upcoming blogs won't be quite so far-fetched and desperate. As if anyone cares that I got my first new shoes in Korea...

Right, to business. 1st graders were on a trip to Pocheon, so I had three days of no lessons. We had decided that this would be a good time to get me another alien card, having lost the thing just over a month ago. You need this ARC card to re-enter the country if living here, so it was a necessity for the Tokyo trip. This is done in Incheon, so off I go with Sun, my new Chinese-teaching admin woman. Her English is actually pretty good, which makes life a lot easier than it was with Miss Kang. The fact that she has an English name gave that away to me.

I wasn't ready when the machine took my photo, so I now own arguably the most horrific ARC card in Korea. It strongly suggests I should get a haircut. I was planning on going the whole year without one, but I don't know if they would let me back into Britain. Or any country, for that matter. In jest, I suggested we should go to Chinatown, as it is the biggest one in Korea and supposed to have really good food. I didn't expect such a positive response, and soon we were driving over.

Whilst in the car, at just after 11am, my phone rang. I answered, and then heard a muffled reply in a strong Korean accent, saying 'how are you'. I recognised the voice instantly, and a shudder shot down my spine. It was the guy from jail bar who wouldn't let go of my hand! Aargh! I had to be polite, as Sun was sat next to me. I said 'Who is this?' twice, then hung up, saying I didn't know who it was. I hope to every religious deity that he doesn't call back ever again. Don't want to be dealing with that.

Chinatown is really nice, but it was pretty cold - as proved by the fact that it briefly began to snow again on Tuesday afternoon - and as Incheon is near the sea, the wind was whipping up quite strongly. We walked around for a while, through some narrow streets and around an American memorial - they launched a famous counter-attack here during the War - before admitting defeat and heading into a Chinese restaurant for lunch. Specifically, Sun was after jam-pong, which is a rather hot Sino-Korean noodle soup. Hot food was on the agenda, as I have had a stinking cold all week. Slight aside, but I'm glad I have this in Korea, as I now have no inhibitions with bringing up phlegm in the middle of a street. Well, less than normal anyway, I try not to do it on a busy street.

The food was really good, and it was pretty hot. Just what I needed, as they don't really go for horseradish sauce, my usual cold cure, out here. But jam-pong was nothing on the pot of tea they provided with it. I've never had jasmine tea before - to be fair, certain people (Frost) in our Manchester house went down in all our estimations whenever they whipped out lavender, or rosemary, or any other blatantly gay tea - but this stuff was insane. It tasted magical. Controversial, but possibly as good as Tetley's. Possibly.

Chinatown is a pretty cool place. It was nice to do something productive, as opposed to watching TV in the office all day - I do that enough when I actually have work to do. It got better still on Wednesday when, just after I had finished putting together my lesson for the next week, I was told at 10.45am that all the teachers were leaving. Nice. I picked up my washing from upstairs (yes folks, I do wash my clothes in school, it's so much easier) and headed off to test my knee at the gym. It did 12k no problem, but has been killing ever since. I had been told that there is a nice outside running place a short bus ride away, so hopped on the blue 22 and was soon at Incheon Grand Park.

At first it seemed like a normal park, albeit a bit bigger. That was until I walked past some cages with colourful birds in them. And two ostriches. Was this a zoo?? It certainly seemed so. It didn't look as if there was anywhere to pay, so I walked around for a while. I did get told off once by three workers. I was leaning against a small wooden fence to get a decent shot of the ass (delightfully described by the board as a 'miniature ass'), when the three wise men started shouting. Once they had my attention, they pointed at a tub. Of brown paint. Then pointed at the fence, but you knew that. Luckily, the damage to my combats was minimal, but it was nice of them to tell me.

Owls, vultures (which I saw take a poo), 'polish' fowl, coyotes, baboons - a very eclectic mix of animals. As if it's natural to have a desert coyote pacing wildly around at the very edge of its cage all the time. The ostriches were the most impressive. After surveying them all in their not-so-natural surroundings I ventured out into the park proper, to see this running route. It will be good, and will look amazing in the next week when the cherry blossoms decide to, you know, blossom. Just these pink ones for now. Bit of an incline but still a decent route, and there were a few Koreans jogging around as I walked it. This was when my knee decided to tell me to stop moving around, so I soon headed back into the relative warmth of my flat.

My delightful first graders returned from Pocheon that evening - I saw some of them whilst on my way to stuff my face with ddak galbi - and were back in school the next morning. They looked shattered. It didn't sound like they had too much fun. 'Matt, it too cold'. Shut up kids, at least it wasn't cold enough to try and SNOW. This week, Thursday to Tuesday, I'm teaching them about random world celebrations, such as Oktoberfest and La Tomatina. Any excuse for me to get out the squishy tomato I bought over Christmas and chuck it at the walls, and threaten to chuck it at students, again. They mistook a leprechaun for Peter Pan, which was quite funny.

Right, signing off as the flowers and hills of Yeosoo are calling me! The bus leaves at 11pm and arrives for sunrise. Sleep may be off the agenda for this weekend. Good weather please!

Love you all


Tuesday, 13 April 2010

Korea - The first shabu shabu

Hello everyone!

I didn't realise it was Easter until my mum told me about it on Skype a couple of days before. Easter isn't a big deal out here, which is surprising as a lot of the population are Christian. No two week vacation out here, oh no. I initially took a degree of pleasure in telling my students that British teenagers weren't in school, until someone pointed out that I wouldn't be in school either. Fair point.

Due to cancelled lessons and other scheduling mix-ups, some of my 14 classes are way behind the others. Most are on the music lesson. I walked into one of my classes early, to find all the girls practising their dance moves to Korean music. Most of them got a bit sheepish when they saw me watching them, but suddenly a group of them asked me if I wanted to see their routine. Co-teacher Kang wasn't around, so why not? Nine of them went and stood in formation at the back. Bit of finger clicking to the music, then BANG. People moving, spinning, bobbing all over the place. All perfectly choreographed. Whether they understand what some of the more provocative moves - for example, all thrusting out their chests with a smile - suggest is questionable. It helps that, even though they are 16-17, they look about 12 years old to me. I just saw it as innocent dancing, though obviously when explained to Westerners they may be a bit concerned!

The ones that have had all their lessons this week got to learn about Easter, and what we do for it in Britain. The first time teaching it was an unmitigated disaster, as I ran out of material with over FIFTEEN minutes of the lesson left. I played hangman for as long as I felt ethical, and then gave them the option of watching the Simpsons or trying to beat the other classes at the Scream-Katy-Perry-Very-Loud game. They chose the latter, and are in the lead. Deafening.

I soon got the Easter thing sorted, mainly by showing them Youtube videos of bizarre Easter stuff. A load of rabbits attacking a guy who dared to chomp on a chocolate Easter Bunny, for example. I only needed it until Friday, anyway. This week is field trip week, so Monday morning the first graders left for Pochang, and won't return until Wednesday evening. I did enquire about going, but was told no. It seems like the school is empty, as the second graders have gone to Jeju for the week. So that means I have had three days of bliss, which I will talk about in my next blog.

I did have the privates, of course. I have acquired another class on Tuesdays, taking me to three each week, and around 400,000W extra to play with each month. That's over 200 British, folks. The new group is four middle school kids. I found out that Ellen teaches one of them, and immediately asked him what he thought of her. Very good teacher and always has a smile, he said. Good stuff. This is already the cleverest of the three private classes. We were talking about that big tower in Dubai, and I asked them if they wanted to go there on holiday. Yes, said one. No, said another. Why? 'Because it's in the Middle East' Erm, go on? 'There's Bin Laden', he says. Wow. Not quite, kiddo. But still, it's rare that Korean students show that much initiative, so we went with that as a topic for a while. They all agree that Bin Laden is a bad man. Clever kids.

Thanks to certain teachers at my school, I had actually been drinking when I turned up to this class. And turned up late. I have a one hour window between my two privates, 6.30 to 7.30. All the English teachers from school were going for dinner at 6, and wanted me there. I figured I had time, so finished up my first lesson early and popped into a taxi to the restaurant.

We ate something called shabu shabu. I don't find it particularly easy to explain, but you are given a large broth with mushrooms, noodles and other stuff in it, lettuce leaves, and very thin strips of beef. Beef and lettuce both go into the broth and cook, then you pull out the result and eat it. It's very good, though I was always thinking that I wanted a bit more time to appreciate it, rather than wolfing it down in the knowledge that I had to leave soon. The picture is probably the Japanese version, and acquired off Google.

As I've explained before, almost every Korean meal is accompanied by soju. Mr. Kim pretty much forced me to have a shot, and then Mr. Kang followed suit. How was I supposed to keep this not-drinking sacrifice alive when even my colleagues are forcing me to drink? Didn't have a prayer. I wasn't drunk, though. Unlike the weekend.

Shabu shabu - the Korean version of London buses? I had it again on Friday, but this time we had a vegetarian version. I also got to see the whole meal, which I didn't on Tuesday. After having the broth and it's contents, they empty the wok and pour in a load of rice, salad and a raw egg, and you stir it up into a risotto. Both courses we left it alone for too long, and loads of the food got stuck to the pan. We could tell the woman was not particularly happy.

I wasn't particularly happy either, as my knee had given out whilst running earlier that evening, so I was in the mood to go out and drink away the fear of it getting worse and stopping me from doing the race in 2 weeks time. A large group of us went to jail bar. I've talked about this place before. Soju started to flow, and soon I was on a table of two Korean girls pouring away. They left soon after, obviously realising that their night couldn't be topped after I talked to them. Or they got scared. Choose wisely.

We soon moved over to our bigger table. A Korean guy who had tried to talk to me earlier followed us, and kept on talking to me. And then holding my hand. The only way I could escape his admittedly limp and rather camp grip was by picking up my drink. I've been accused of 'leading him on' and 'not telling him to ', but I was in a sociable, chatty mood. It explains why I probably drank soju with half of jail bar's Korean population that night. Seriously, the guy was a freak. Look at him!

Apart from birthdays, when anything goes, I can't remember a time when I have drank quite so much of a spirit in such a short space of time. It was reckless, and was always going to end in the obvious way. Bin - led to a taxi - home. I've missed out a bit there, in case you're eating. I could blame it on tiredness - the most sleep I'd had on any day in the week was 5 hours - or on any number of excuses, but not this time. Was stupid, and paid the price. Ha, I'm finally growing up!

I caught up on sleep, and arose 13 hours after hitting the hay. And then back out again, naturally. Remember that all-you-can-drink place from a few weeks ago? Well, the cards they had given us at the door gave us free entry on any Saturday in April. With hindsight, it was always very naive and optimistic of us to think that the place held all-you-can-drink nights EVERY Saturday, and perhaps even more naive to believe that going once will get you all-you-can-drink for free next time out. After Tom had scared me by asking if I remembered crying the night before - well I've been known to do that once in a while - before laughing in my face (good one), we located the place, Hana, to find a civilised set of tables laid out. Language exchange, they told me. Maybe later, I replied.

Kelly said she knew a bar nearby that had live music, so we headed across. Down the stairs...and silence. Not only was there no band, there were no people either, save for two behind the bar. Oh, and a dog trotting across the floor. Adorable little thing. We directed the others over, thinking that we just wanted to get some liquid gold in us. Was a nice place, but when they turned the music on (no band in sight) it was a bit loud, and I ended up shouting at people to make myself audible. I haven't found my voice since.

Naturally, a few drinks perks us up, and we end up in Hongdae. Eventually. No taxis would take us. Well, silly me, of course every taxi driving around Seoul at midnight on a Saturday night is taking people to Incheon?! Very strange, and it took us over 15 minutes to actually get in a taxi. The place we ventured to next gave a shot of tequila on arrival. I needed that like a hole in the head. Points of interest were the girls' interesting dance moves, the number of Koreans who seemed to be in Alice in Wonderland attire, and the fact that someone from the bar took my camera because I had left it on the table. Right in front of where I was sitting. Genius.

As with the last time I went to Hongdae, we ended up in Mansion. Only after Jon led us on a slightly merry dance trying to find some of his mates and then calling one of them a 'complete and utter twit'. Such an underrated word, twit. It was good fun, some hip-hop guy performing. More strange dancing, white russians that were topped up with vodka rather than milk, and lots of other shinanegans. Bizarrely, I felt fine on Sunday.

Just another normal weekend in the Far East!

Love you all