Saturday, 11 June 2011

Korea – The first surprise visit

May 23-28

Hello everyone!

It would be very boring to be travelling straight home. That’s not what I do. I decided to pop back to Korea for a week. There are many reasons for this. The flight, going via China, was pretty cheap. It was also the closest I was going to be to the Korean peninsula for a while. But most importantly, a lot of the good friends I had made during my year teaching in Korea were still living in the country. It would be a great opportunity to see them all and briefly re-live the fun and frolics of 2010.

Not that I told many of them of my arrival. I told no more than five people that I was returning to Korea, and swore all of them to secrecy. The reason for this was so that I could spring a surprise on Kelly, one of my best friends and the girl who persuaded me to come to this part of the world in the first place. I have a history of springing surprises on people, usually family members. From turning up at my Gran’s 80th birthday when most thought I was in Prague, to my Dad thinking I was some sort of annoying carol singer because I had come home early from university, I like creating an element of surprise.

Kelly was the first person I surprised. The video is at the bottom. As you can see, she had no idea. Still, once she had got over the shock she was more than happy to see me. The surprise was meticulously planned. Kel is a rather busy girl, meaning that Matt had to organise meeting up for dinner (with ‘a friend who has travelled to many of the same countries as you’) almost two weeks in advance. We then arrived early at the venue, and made sure that our target would sit in a seat that faced the restaurant, so that she wouldn’t see my approach.

The week mainly revolved around me racing to see as many people as possible, and having coffee/food/beer/soju with them. Monday was spent in Bucheon, an area I used to visit frequently to see Kelly, Matt and co. Tuesday night and Wednesday were spent in Siheung, where I used to live and breathe. And occasionally teach. Wednesday night was spent in Suwon, where my reliable drinking partner Tom now lives. Thursday was initially spent in Seoul before going to a satellite city called Gwangmyeong for food with some of the teachers from my school who have moved to new schools. Friday was Seoul and then Siheung, and Saturday was spent in Itaewon in the capital. As you can see…BUSY.

After the main surprise I opted to inform people through Facebook that I was back in Korea. It was difficult enough organising one surprise and, as you can see from that list of places, I needed to know if people were around and wanting to meet up. This led to an impromptu gathering in an old stomping ground, Von Tees, that night. I felt that my alcohol tolerance had slipped somewhat during my time in India, and that was severely put to the test during this week.

I spent a month without alcohol in India, and drank it only on rare occasions during my whole time in the region. That may sound like the proud confession of an alcoholic, but ask yourself the last time you went a month without a beer or a glass of wine or a jello shot. Whilst this abstinence has undoubted benefits, there are drawbacks: drawbacks that were brought to my mind as we sat in an apartment at 4.30am singing and dancing to the sounds of a strummed guitar. That isn’t the actual time in the photo – it was the time until Jaryt had to teach. Needless to say, he overslept.

That is, however, the amount I time I spent asleep. The decision to go to bed at 5am didn’t rear its ugly effects until I woke up. At 8.30am. To go to school. Even though I am no longer employed by Sorae High School, I was still going to the site at a very early – in my state, ungodly – hour. Still, suited and booted (in trainers for now – I bought shoes the following day), I wolfed down a coffee and walked through those gates for the first time in almost 6 months. The first time I had ever worn a suit to school, interestingly.

This was brought to my attention when I was met by the current replacement teacher, an American girl called Sarah. She was the only one who knew of my visit. Unwittingly, she was also wearing a suit. No video for the surprise, this time, and no pictures either (most pictures in this blog were last year or taken by someone else). Most people will blame that on me struggling to keep my eyes open, but my co-teacher had also moved office, and I was unsure of his new location. The surprise on his face was similar to Kelly’s. His first utterance was also similar. Not ‘Oh wow!’ or ‘Hey!’ Oh No. What do I get?

‘Why are you here?’

Brilliant. Good to see that people appreciate me returning into their lives. I guess it’s just a shock to them. I have no idea how I would react if someone did that to me. I hope I haven’t started a trend and people keep popping up on my doorstep over the next few years. Neither of them swore – I don’t know if I would be the same. Once people got over the shock, they seemed pleased to see me, and I was delighted to see so many of the people who made last year the best of my life in a job that was too good to be true. It was also great to see that Sarah is enjoying herself as much as I did.

The reaction of the students was the most fascinating insight into this day. Sarah had been telling me how they seem to react indifferently to her, or how they often misbehave. There are reasons for this, but if anything is going to stun a teenager into silence I guess it would be the return of their former teacher. Well, a brief silence, then a gasp, and then riotous cheering. Seems that they still love me as much as before, which is wonderful. Very few of them also answered, ‘I am fine thank you’, meaning that I did leave a legacy aside from the knowledge that foreigners drink a lot after all.

In addition to returning to these individual locations and people that are close to my heart, it was interesting to come to Korea with a slightly different mindset – one that has been used to accepting Indian values for the past ten weeks. I’ve never noticed so many legs. The shorts are SO small. I often found myself staring, simply because I hadn’t seen female legs so publically shown since…well, considering the cold snap at home…for a long time! The air is very hazy. There are too many restaurants. Everyone has an electronic gizmo that they can’t stop staring at or listening to. People don’t often smile, or have any emotional expression at all.

But there was one overriding emotion striking me throughout the week. I felt as if I was at home. It was like returning to Cardiff after a term at university. Sure, some shops have changed, but you know the streets as if you had an in-built GPS in your brain. Sure, some words have been forgotten, but you know enough of the language to get things done. I only had one problem with the language. ‘Neh’ is yes in Korean; it is ‘no’ in Hindi. So when I bought a bottle of water on the first day and said thank you in Korean, her response of ‘Neh’ confused me a bit. Had I done something wrong? What was WRONG?? Then I saw her face was bursting with a smile, and I remembered. I was home.

Except I’m not. I came back to see friends, colleagues and students. But some of my friends have left Korea. Some of my colleagues have left Sorae High School. All of the students are now in the second grade, and will be in university in two years. People move on. It was fantastic to be back, but it is time for me to do the same. Korea has made me as a teacher and as a person, but I won’t be back for a while. I want to maintain the happy memories, and then make some more elsewhere.

Love you all


Wednesday, 1 June 2011

India - The verdict

March 6-May 22

Saturday night was a final overnight train to Delhi; one which I didn’t get much sleep on due to intense paranoia about having my belongings removed from my side. Strange, as it hadn’t happened on any train up to that point, but this route has a reputation for theft, and also I had made it so far and didn’t want it to happen on my final ride. One final weary day in the capital, buying final souvenirs and saying final farewells. A final rickshaw ride. A final chai. Airport. Gone.

There are incidents of note that I have missed out here – the fact that I wasn’t allowed into the airport for a while because I forgot to print my e-ticket, for example – but funny anecdotes aren’t the purpose of this blog. I left over a week ago, yet whenever people ask me for my opinions on India, I find it difficult to give them an answer. I splutter out a few words that could apply to any country – rewarding, challenging, wondrous and the like – and then ponder internally what I really make of the world’s 7th largest country.

India is in the shape of a diamond. A rough diamond. I actually think this is a good starting point for my thoughts. India is not a polished country. Some aspects of it leave it in the Dark Ages. The amount of garbage stacked on the sides of every road is a case in point. Yet other aspects, particularly the effect of the communications industry in Bangalore and the new metro in Delhi, have ushered it ahead of much of the world technologically.

There are many negative aspects to travelling around India. Rickshaw drivers, you may have realised, are not my best friends. It is common knowledge that they see a foreigner and the rupee sign lights up in their eyes. However, they are a vital part of the transport economy here, and occasionally you will find a genuinely nice and honest driver, such as the one who drove us in Udaipur and bought me tea. They are often great to talk to about cricket, and also still cheap in the grand scheme of things.

Leading on from that, the amount of time and effort I put into haggling became a source of irritation and despondency. On my final day I was offered a wallet from that popular French brand with the crocodile logo. You know, Lockoste. Spelled like that. For Rs750: over £10, and over $15. However, bartering is an entertaining sport when you are in the mood for it, and often you can land yourself a bargain beyond belief.

The point I am trying to make here is that every negative is contrasted by a positive which often outweighs it. For every tout who is trying to scam you, there are a hundred wonderful locals who want to get to know you for the simple reasons of curiosity and engagement. Getting sick is a small price – well, OK, a moderate price – to pay for some of the most amazing food I have ever had the pleasure of eating. The chaos can seem overwhelming, but ultimately buses and trains and people will get to their destination. If you think with your glass half-full, things don’t seem nearly as bad.

The only thing I can think of that is negative with no positive balancer is the number of flies buzzing around annoyingly. But let’s not focus on the negatives. You don’t visit a country to try to witness negatives, after all. The reasons people travel to places are filled with relentless, often blind positivity. And there are so many highlights to reflect upon.

The food is phenomenal. Even the cheap street food is bursting with fire and flavour (though the flavour of the chilli probably masks the otherwise tasteless interior of a samosa). Favourite has to be the double chicken kati roll Chris and I had in Kerala. Home-cooked food was always going to be good, and the volume of quality nosh forced down into my stomach in Delhi and Dharamsala meant that, in spite of being sick for much of the middle month of my trip, I didn’t ultimately lose too much weight. The cheapness of the food undoubtedly helped me in that respect as well. One concern may be that I now think tea tastes strange without being loaded with sugar, but I’m sure I can wean myself off it.

One aspect of my Indian adventure which continued to surprise and delight me was the friendliness and openness of the locals I met. Everybody wants to say hello. Everybody wants to talk. I had reservations about the part of my trip where I was going to be alone for one month, but I never felt particularly lonely due to the sociability of locals and foreign travellers alike. There aren’t as many travellers here as there are in Europe or in Southeast Asia, but there are plenty of fascinating and wonderful people. My time in Mumbai, for example, was made by the people that I spent it with. Similarly, my time volunteering up in Dharamsala was a wonderful experience in part due to the affability and care of the people I lived with.

Volunteering was a delightful period of my time in India. So many smiles, and such a different experience to teaching in a more professional environment. Lots of new experiences during this time as well – from teaching on a mat whilst cows worked behind the wall, through drinking onion juice to cure diarrhoea, to witnessing an Indian wedding (anniversary). It gave purpose and perspective to my trip, and was definitely a highlight.

I don’t normally like summarising ‘highlights’ or trips. Sure, they may be one food which was my favourite, but that doesn’t mean that the rest of the food was crap. The only place I didn’t like in India was Chennai; everywhere else offered something positive and memorable. But people have been asking me for my favourite place, or favourite thing, or favourite experience, so here are the three. If you don’t know what I’m talking about when I mention them, go read the other blogs.

Favourite sight or monument: I loved Merangarh fort in Jodhpur, and the Golden Temple in Amritsar was pretty special. Mysore Palace, in my opinion, is more spectacular than Buckingham Palace. But when people think of India, they think of the Taj Mahal, and with good reason. Breath-taking, and made better by seeing it with Kristina. Even the fact that I developed a split in my trousers as we walked around it can’t degrade the experience.

Most bizarre sight: A cow eating a traveller’s book in Gokarna. A monkey being walked down the street on a leash in Chennai. Seeing snow when I am standing in 35’C heat. Every day had a bizarre experience. A quintessentially Indian experience.

Favourite experience: The border ceremony was incredible to witness, especially with increased tensions after the killing of Osama less than a week before. The ambience and tranquillity of the Keralan backwaters was difficult to beat. Holi festival. The Bollywood movie (Double Dhamaal, in cinemas in June). So many amazing adventures. But it has to be Mumbai and that World Cup final day. Epic.

Things I will never do when I am at home as a result of this trip: Lie and tell my employers that I can’t come to work because I have diarrhoea. Think twice about using a squat toilet (do they even have those in the U.K.?). Complain that it is too hot. Have a three-day period without showering (it really does smell). I’ve grown up a lot on this trip. The main thing, I hope, is that I have learned to be patient. Impatience leads to a bare lawn: patience leads to a garden of paradise.

Will I be back? I never commit to anything, but I would like to. There is much I missed. Kolkata, Darjeeling, Kashmir, Hampi, Jaipur – and many, many more parts of India which are unknown until you traverse through it and talk to people. Due to commitments of others and myself, I couldn’t venture far off my itinerary, which meant that I had to regretfully turn down any offer – and there were a few – from a local to stay in their house, and be fed by their family. Most travellers spent three months in the north or the south. I spent ten weeks travelling its length and most of its breadth. That is how I travel, but you always want more time, no?

India has been the most challenging country I have travelled in. It has been the most spiritual and enriching country I have travelled in. It has been the cheapest, yet most fulfilling country I have travelled in. The variety of the country is unparalleled in our world. It possesses many characteristics of a continent, yet is often united by something as trivial as a game of cricket. In the future, India will become a global power. One has to hope that it doesn’t sacrifice its unique charms in order to achieve this goal.

It took a while, but I fell in love with India. Its people, its culture, its variety. One of the most beautiful countries I have ever seen. As time passes, this affection for the rough diamond will only increase. When I am sitting in a rocking chair, and my grandkid brings me a scotch and says, ‘Tell me about your travels’, I will enlighten and humour him with some wonderful tales. But when I get to this major chapter in my global adventures, I will use a quote from the American artist Beatrice Wood.

And then a great thing in my life was going to India.’

Love you all