Tuesday, 26 October 2010

Korea - The first Japanese invasion

Hello everyone!

I arrived back from the east on the Sunday to find that I had no internet, no hot water and no working washing machine. Marvellous, especially as I hadn't showered since the Friday morning. There was no water in the minbak, that's my excuse and I'm sticking to it. I visited the people who own the apartment block - they run a betting shop, not dodgy at all - and they indicated to me that they would come and fix it immediately. And they did. Well, at least the hot water and washing machine. 2 out of 3, I guess Meatloaf was right.

Except it was soon 0 out of 3. Five minutes had passed when I looked up at the plug they had replaced. I couldn't see it. Instead, plumes of white smoke were flowing into the room. Bugger. I grabbed the most important stuff (wallet and passport) and sprinted downstairs. I don't know the word for smoke in Korean, but it turns out they very much understand me shouting 'FIRE'. I still have that habit of exaggerating, and it worked here. Up the stairs we sprinted, and the man jumps onto my kitchen cabinet before ripping out the plug. What was left of it, at least. Over half had been melted away. Dangerous.

Awesome way to start the week, which itself was littered with peaks and troughs. On Wednesday I was due to have a date with a Korean girl who I met at Global Gathering. She had been very responsive - until the day. It seems many Koreans are like that, and not just with me. I was in Seoul anyway but gave up after a couple of calls and texts, so was on the bus home when I received a text off a mystery number saying, 'lets drk some makggeoli near bucheon stn if u want to'. Easy enough to work out that it was written by a Korean. Maybe the girl? So I headed back to Bucheon, and waited at our meeting point.

There were many pretty girls there. Key fact at this point - I have no recollection of what she looked like. Do I risk making an ass of myself by walking up to a stranger who may have nothing to do with me? I'm not averse to doing that, but decided to call the number. Three rings and an answer...from a guy. What?! I recognise the voice, and the fact that makkoli was the drink of choice suggested to me that it was one of my co-teachers. Except the new meetup spot was Jailbar. And my co-teacher knows nothing of Jailbar. Hmm...

I head over, and then I see a familiar face. It was my Korean friend Chris who I had got dog with! Why did I not think of him?! After all of that, we had a good night, and I had a bad head the next morning.

What has kept me excited this week is the arrival of a friend. Remember I went to Japan in May and met a friend from my TEFL course called Fumy? Well she was returning the favour, and was coming to Seoul for the weekend with two friends, Lucy and Katie. Nice! We had problems with communication, as I didn't have the right extension to call a Japanese mobile, but we soon managed to meet up and were on our way. Ddak galbi with octopus chucked in - welcome to Korea! Later we tried to locate Dr. Fish - an establishment where you put your feet into water and the fish eat off your dead skin - but to no avail. But Lucy managed to fall into someone's vomit. Come to think of it, that doesn't really constitute any sort of success...

I required the gym on the Saturday - going as much as possible before I leave and never get to experience paying £1 for a gym session ever again - so left them trio to their own devices. They went on a culture tour, and I met up with them for food in the evening. We had a plan - it was Matt's birthday, so we were hitting Hongdae later - but people needed feeding in the meantime. They have one weekend in Korea, so we went for...Indian food. The mildest vindaloo I've ever had as well. Not a fan.

We went to a couple of bars before heading to a club called Gorillaz. Whilst in the watering holes we had met Fumy's cousin, Minami (who I called mini-me all night), who is studying in a university in Suwon. She is Japanese and speaks fluent Korean...but no English. We also met Minami's roommate, a cute Korean girl called Cho-Rong 초롱. She also speaks Japanese...and a little English. I spent my night with four people who all speak perfect Japanese. I've never spoken so much Korean on a night out in my life. I think I exhausted every phrase I knew.

Minami lost her purse in Gorillaz, which ended any attempts I had at pulling her or her roommate. We rectified the night in a noraebang. Not just any noraebang - there is one in Hongdae that is like a Western house, and has massive windows so people outside can look in and watch you perform. 6.30am food, on the subway at 7am and, after dozing and briefly missing my stop, in bed a little after 8.30am. Haven't done that in a while.

Myself, Fumy and Minami went for food in Insadong on the Sunday. Samgyetang, which is the baby chicken stuffed with rice in a soup. It was nice not to have to meet in Myeong-dong, which is the classy shopping area of Seoul. I spent more time there this weekend than I have done for the rest of the year combined, and it is way too busy to be enjoyed. It was wonderful to see Fumy once more, and very nice to meet her friends (though we had met Lucy in Tokyo already). Though expensive, it was a nice weekend, and a great way for me to forget about how crap my apartment is. I do now have internet. Only took them a week...

Love you all


Monday, 25 October 2010

Korea - The first penis (park)

Hello everyone!

I could have stayed in Jeongdongjin for longer, but instead headed south along the coast - on the railway that is too close to the sea - towards Samcheok. I disembarked in a remote town called Singi at 2.30, and waited for a bus to take me to my next destination - Hwanseondonggul 환선동굴. Try saying that when drunk.

This bus didn't bother showing up, and I was very tight for time as the final bus from the above-mentioned place going to Samcheok left at 7.30, so I flagged down a taxi. The driver of said taxi immediately railed at me and pointed at his fuel gauge. Which was empty. He took me most of the way before I got guilty and told him to stop 1km short of the entrance.

Let me break it down for you. Hwanseon is the name of the place, and it is a big cave. The biggest in Asia, apparently. Not sure if I believe that, though the locals are fiercely proud of this place. Many signs pointed out that 'Samcheok is world renowned as the cave city'. Funny, I knew Samcheok for a different reason, which will become evident later. In the meantime, I took a monorail up to the top and explored inside.

It was quite big. You can only explore 1.6km of it, but it supposedly is over 6km long. What interested me more was the names they gave to various bridges and areas of the cave. Honourable mentions go to the 'Bridge of Love', 'Bridge of Galaxy' and 'Bridge of Hell' (which was wonderfully followed by the 'Bridge of Confessions'), but by far the funniest was the 'Valley of Desire'. In a cave. How?!

I made it to Samcheok with time to spare, but the point of interest was south of this town, so I gambled and headed down the coast on a local bus to find a nearby motel. The plan was to go to the place early so I could get back to Seoul relatively early on the Sunday. This plan backfired when I missed the stop for the park. Samcheok is quite small, but the biggest town in the area. So now I was in the middle of nowhere.

I saw a sign that said 모텔, which is motel in Korean, so I hopped off into the dark. I walked up to the motel entrance...to find that it was closed. Awesome. I found one more motel that was...also closed. Time to think. Well not much time, it was getting cold. Then I had an idea. There were numerous signs that looked like this - 민박. This is a guesthouse of sorts, where people rent out one room in their house if they like you. I wandered over to one of these places. 30,000 was the quote. I bartered, and as the only ATM in the area was shut, I proved to her that I only had 20,000. I kept the extra 5,000 I had hidden, as I needed to eat. My room didn't have a bed - it was a place where you roll out lots of duvets and pillows provided in a wardrobe and get as comfy as you can.

I got a lot of stares in this area. I'm guessing very few foreigners have been here. English was minimal - none - so it was a good test of my Korean skills. The real test came the following morning when I needed to get to the park...as I had no money. Time to break new ground and hitchhike! I've read that it is very safe to do in Korea. The first person I flagged down? An army truck! They were going the wrong way, which was a shame, as that would have been very interesting. Soon after, a man in a Samsung uniform was more than happy to take me to the park. He did make an abrupt stop at some roadworks, which initially concerned me. He got out, putting on a hard hat in the process, and shouted at them, before returning to the car and saying, 'My job is good'. Hero.

So this place I was going. I've kept it secret from you thus far. It is called Haesindang 해신당. From the outside, it would seem like a normal park, but it is what is housed inside that was intriguing to me. The picture can tell all...

Yes folks, a park FILLED with phallic sculptures. All shapes and sizes, all colours and creeds, it is a homage to the male anatomy. The story behind the park is a strange one - girl loses her man to the sea and curses them or whatever. A park dedicated to penis is not usual in any part of the world, but particularly here.

It is a bizarre place, especially when you consider that Koreans are more conservative than us when it comes to topics of an adult nature. Very funny, though, and an interesting end to a very interesting, enlightening weekend.

Love you all


Thursday, 21 October 2010

Korea - The first North Korean submarine

Hello everyone!

Last week I did a lesson on comic strips. A nice way for them to breeze back into normal school life after the midterm exams. I let them choose their own topic for their strip, and some of them were very inventive. Some - mainly the ones that covered suicide in graphic detail - were not so appealing.

One of my classes is with an English teacher called Mr. Lee. I don't like him. The other teachers don't like him. And the students HATE him. One of them sensed that this lesson was an opportunity for revenge. His comic strip, pictured below, centred around one main character called Comer. We all knew that this was Mr. Lee. He called me over to check a spelling. hittler.

Many teachers would have put a stop to this theme straight away. I am different. I told him that there was only one 't' and that it needed a capital, and laughed. We all did. Which drew the attention of Mr. Lee. He demanded that the student tell him what was so funny, at which point I intervened. I asked the student if he was willing to read his comic strip out loud to the whole class, including the teacher. I've never seen a kid run up to the front so fast. Mr. Lee laughed - until the Hitler part. And the subsequent 'the students are my soldiers' box. I rewarded the student with candy for showing such cojones.

I only taught this lesson for two days. Friday was the school's field trip. Well, only for the first two grades - the third grade just get extra classes. So we went to Lotte World, which is an amusement park. And department store and cinema, of course. It has a Disney feel to it, which was nice for our students. However, we weren't the only school who organised a trip that day, meaning that it was packed. Sardines in a tin came to mind. I went on one ride with the teachers - the monorail. And we queued for 30 minutes. Craziness.

We actually spent most of the day at lunch. The VP was there, and made me drink a lot of makkoli because I stayed in the park too long when I was supposed to have met up with him. Interesting punishment. From here I left Seoul and headed away for the weekend. I went alone, as no one else was particularly keen on the destinations, but they were two places I really wanted to see in Korea before I left - Jeongdongjin and Samcheok.

Both are situated on the east coast, and both have quirky attractions. I will cover Samcheok in the next blog, so the focus here is on Jeongdongjin. I arrived, via a bus change in Gangneung, late on the Friday night. It was pretty cold, as one would expect in mid-October. Jeongdongjin is famed for being a place for romantic couples to watch the sun rise. I...didn't bother waking up for it. What I did see was a cruise ship on top of a cliff. It's a hotel. I went up to explore and sank a Singapore sling in the sky bar whilst being deafened by the noraebanger on stage.

What I also saw in Jeongdongjin was a U.S. warship, which you can explore, and a North Korean submarine. Interesting story, this. In 1996 the North sent a team of spies to land in the South. The sub hit rocks and surfaced near Jeongdongjin. To prevent defection and to maintain secrecy, the 16 soldiers killed the civilians and engineers on board before burning the evidence of their plans. They then came onto land and fought the Southern soldiers. All bar two were killed. One is in prison in Seoul: the other was never accounted for. He could be right behind me...

30 people were on board. How they managed to fit that many into such a small space is a horrible miracle. The computers were very dated, though as this was used in 1996 that is understandable. From here I trekked to a temple and an art park, before heading over to the train station.

The train station is an attraction in itself. It holds a Guinness World Record. As far as the stoutmakers are concerned, it is the closest active train station to the sea in the world. It pretty much is on the beach. It they get any strong wave here, this station will no longer exist. It was, like most other things in Jeongdongjin, very intriguing. A fascinating little town, and a place I would recommend to anyone who needs to fill a weekend in Korea.

Love you all


Tuesday, 12 October 2010

Korea - The first Global Gathering

Hello everyone!

Due to a minimal amount of lessons this week, thanks to a combination of midterms and me being nice and letting my kids study instead of having my class, I had the opportunity to explore in the afternoons. Well, some of them. Thursday afternoon was spent chasing shadows as our football team got annihilated 6-0. We were terrible, which meant that playing a third half was a bit unnecessary. I didn't realise this, so had ran myself into the ground during the normal game. I fell into the ground when through on goal as my legs gave way. That was our best chance to score in the whole match...and I fell over with no one around me. Classic.

As usual, we went for food and drinks after. No English teacher there, so I spent my evening trying to talk to, and getting trashed with, the vice-principal. Who doesn't speak much English. The next day I was told that the VP had once again asked my co-teacher why I am leaving. They really seem to want to keep me. I'm beginning to think it's not just because it's better for them financially...

Friday afternoon I ventured into Seoul to check out the HiSeoul festival. It wasn't much of a festival - mainly because most of the shows are in the evening or on the weekend. Still, some of the art was cool, and I saw a man move along a tightrope on a cylinder. And then swing on it from side to side. Crazy man. The main event of the whole festival was a massive fireworks display on the Saturday evening. But I wasn't going to see that. We had other plans...

On the Saturday, a group of us ventured over to a park on the river Han. We have been here before for the Seoul World DJ festival, and were back for a similar event - Global Gathering. It's lots of DJs performing, so not my favourite kind of music but still a lot of fun and dancing to be had. Even though the price of a ticket was a whopping 77,000W for the day. Well, for most of us - Jon blagged his way in for free.

We enjoyed the glorious sunshine before heading in. There were three international acts of interest - Justice, Fatboy Slim, and Armin van Buuren. I saw the latter two when I went to Sziget festival in Hungary a year ago, but they were both very good, and I have heard nothing but good things about Justice's DJ set. We snuck in some alcohol, relaxed as the sun set on a beautiful Korean autumnal day, and then readied ourselves for Justice. But not before Jon distracted a security guard so I could steal a Nokia flag from atop a bus and then run around with it.

Justice were amazing. The atmosphere was incredible, even though there didn't seem to be as many people as at the World DJ festival. Everyone had a blue wand, illuminating the crowd in a glow of shock neon blue. After this we ended up at the Jager tent - a popular place both last time and this - before returning for Fatboy Slim. I was near the front for that, having lost people by talking to random Koreans sat on the floor by the tent, but it was fantastic. A two hour blur of dancing and happiness. It was a great festival, though whether it was value for money is another question entirely as I managed to blow 100,000W inside the place very very quickly. Maybe should start thinking about saving money. Though thinking it and doing it are two very different propositions.

Love you all


Tuesday, 5 October 2010

Korea - The first gaegogi

Hello everyone!

It has taken me longer than normal to get over my bout of man flu. It was up and down all week - some teachers suggested I should go back to the doctor's on Wednesday and Friday. No chance, I'm not paying money to have stuff injected into my bottom. I was told on Friday that I sounded worse than I did on Monday (when I had no voice?), so took their advice and opted against going out that night.

I probably would have been OK to do so on Saturday, but played tennis during the day. In the cold and the rain. That didn't help. Back to bed. As a result, I was determined to be proactive on the Sunday, so woke up early and headed into Seoul. I went solo due to a combination of me going to places that may not have been of interest to others, and the fact that my friends had probably only just got in from Seoul.

My first port of call was the Seoul National Museum of History. It wasn't the easiest place to find, because my book told me the wrong subway exit. Once I jogged through the rain to get inside (for free), I saw lots of traditional Korean stuff. There were fun activities for kids, but I also remembered why I don't go to museums at home. I was longing for the exit pretty much as soon as I went in. That's not a view on the museum - it was interesting - it's just that museums as a whole don't really appeal to me. Coming from a history major, that really doesn't sound good...

I was in there for a while. After abandoning my plans to go into the nearby palace, Gyeonghuigung, because they were constructing a stage in front of it, I moved over to the Independence Park in Seodaemun. This is a really nice area, but the reason for its construction is a bit more sombre. It is to celebrate the Korean martyrs who fought for independence from the Japanese. The centrepiece of this area is the reason for my visit - Seodaemun prison.

The Japanese occupied Korea from 1910 to 1945. This prison was where many Koreans were housed. It struck me as an Asian Auschwitz - not quite as harrowing, but still a very disturbing place. It was actually constructed before official occupation, in 1907, but was done so under immense pressure from their aggressive neighbours. It has been renovated to be more of a museum, but the key parts of the prison remain. You can see, for example, that the cells are tiny.

Until recently I've been wondering why Koreans hate the Japanese so much, and have been asking them about it. My naive attitude was that perhaps they should get over it, much like the West has with the Germans. But there are differences, and this place highlights some of them. The most disturbing part of this area is the execution building, as shown in this sneakily-taken photo (bad Matt). Behind it there is a tunnel where they removed the corpses. They did not do so in public because they had been so badly maimed. The Japanese tried to cover this up, but it was discovered in 1992. Bad Japanese.

That night I went for dinner with Tom, Matt and his Korean friend Chris. Chris is the guy who introduced me to eel, and tonight was another new culinary experience for me. It's one that a lot of people in the Western world will frown upon. We ate dog.

Now before you start burning effigies of me in the street, let me defend myself. I've never shied away from eating food - my idea is that, in terms of food, you should try pretty much everything. In addition to this, it is part of Korean culture. I am a guest in their country, so should introduce myself to as much of this wonderful culture as possible, even the parts which may not be acceptable at home. They are acceptable here, and this is where I am. Finally, if you eat pork, bacon or beef, don't be a hypocrite. Cows are sacred in India and Muslims don't eat pig, yet you do all the time. That may horrify them, but not you. So you may not want to eat dog, but many Koreans do, and I do too.

We went to a local establishment in the middle of nowhere. There are different ways of serving the meat, but we had it in its most common form - a soup. Verdict? It's really, really...good! Very tender because it is cooked in the broth, and has a similar texture and taste to lamb. A bit fatty, but a lot better than what I was expecting. This was all washed down with copious amounts of soju, and I arrived into school on Monday on very little sleep and a banging hangover.

We were given two different warnings about the effects of eating the pooch. Firstly, Korean people often eat it for 'sexual stamina'. Along similar lines, I can tell you that I was pumped for most of Sunday night and Monday morning after eating it. I did feel as if I wanted to deck someone. Secondly, it cleans out your digestive system. This we found to be very true. Very true.

Only a three-day week of lessons for me, as school have midterms starting on the Thursday. Why am I leaving again?

Love you all


Friday, 1 October 2010

Korea - The first flu shot

Hello everyone!

Last blog was a biggie, so I left out one final thing I did during the Chuseok vacation. On the Friday I went with a friend to the 63 building. We made the mistake of trying to do things when all schoolkids are on vacation for the longest time in the year. The line for the 63 building was pretty much out of the door, so we opted against that and headed to Noryangjin fish market.

Big. Fishy. Wet. Everything you expect a fish market to be. We tried talking to various people before one took it a stage further and offered us a medium-sized flat fish for 20,000W. He realised that we needed persuading, so he threw in two extra fish as 'service'. Oh, and he let me hold a live octopus. That sealed the deal for me. I could feel the suckers on my finger. I will eat a live one before I leave, though.

So we accept his offer. The fish is whisked onto a chopping board from the net, at which point it starts flapping slightly. Well, until the old man slams a metal tool down onto an area just under the head. Dead in an instant. Bye bye fish. We weren't expecting him to do it quite so publicly, so we were a bit shocked, but I guess he's been doing this for years, so it's just work for him.

Five minutes later we were eating said fish as sashimi. The big one didn't have much taste unless heavily dipped in one of the sauces, and I know why the little fish were offered as service - they are pretty much inedible. I'm marking this experience down as exactly that - an experience.

School was back in on Monday. I didn't teach though. The nature of this job is similar to my life as a student, and I feel I have picked up freshers' flu. Sunday was spent coughing my guts up, so I warned my co-teacher in advance that I might not be on top form the following day. I walked into the office to be greeted with, 'Wow, you look terrible'. Great start to the day. My throat seemed swollen and my voice was non-existent, so I was whisked off to the doctors. This surprised me, as I have always been told that the choices are hospital or...hospital.

This wasn't the only surprise. Upon arrival in what seemed to be a children's clinic I was told by my admin colleague that I would be given a shot. Fair enough. I roll my sleeve up as I enter the more secluded room, and a nurse preps the needle and swab. Quick dab on the arm before entry, nice and simple. Except it wasn't. She ignored my kind offer of rolling the sleeve and instead hustled with the bottom of my shirt and top of my trousers. Confused, I moved the trousers down slightly. No sooner had I done this then I felt dampness on the top of my left bumcheek, quickly followed by a sharp scrape. Injection in the bum.

WHAT?!?! Now I'm no doctor, and a very naive person at times, but to my knowledge I have NEVER had a flu injection in my rear end. We have arms to do that. ARMS! Having asked teachers and students about this, it is normal in Korea. Having asked other foreign teachers, it is not normal in English-speaking countries. It doesn't seem to have worked, anyway - I am writing this on Friday and was told by another teacher this morning that I sound worse. Lucky I don't need sympathy.

In the meantime, in two months time I will be into my final 24 hours as a resident in Korea. Time really does fly.

Love you all