Friday, August 16, 2013

Hot town! Summer in Korea!

To my dear loyal readers:

It's certainly been a very long time since I've posted anything on here.  Over 2 months, actually.  In this modern age of instant access to information, that's really unacceptable and I apologize to you who have been waiting patiently for an update from me.  I haven't fallen off the face of the earth, I'm just a horrible person...or at least regular blogger.  I really don't have an excuse other than being lazy and then that laziness becoming a fear of the giant blog post I'd have to write to update everything that's happened.  But, I can no longer run from my obligations.  I recently got an earful from a bunch of you (hat tip to Wadie, Allison, Sue and Alex) that I need to get blogging again, so here I am.

I should note that most of these events took place on the weekend.  I have been filling my week nights with dinners with friends, and Korean language classes two nights a week.  This in addition to lesson & summer camp planning has made my weeks here quite full!

So, how can I possibly post about the last two months in such a way that it won't feel like you're reading a novel?  Without further ado, I give you my summer in Korea: the Coles Notes and picture version! *warning: this may still be a long's been a busy summer!*

Back in May, to celebrate Buddha's birthday, I took advanatage of one of the very few long weekends I will have while I am here in Korea and went to the southern part of the country to visit Busan.  Since the other Incheon-ers had made alternate plans for the weekend, I decided to go down alone and met up with some of the other teachers I met during the Seoul orientation.  While in the city for 2 days, I saw Korea's largest fish market, the UN cemetery commemorating those that died during the Korean war, dipped my feet in the ocean along some of their famous beaches, was amazed by the thousands if not millions of colourful lanterns adoring the temples of the city, sung my heart out at norebang, helped save someone's life (keep it up, Ben!), and relaxed so long at the largest public bath house in Asia that I nearly missed my bus back home!
In celebration of Buddha - so many lanterns!
Some of the finds at the fish market of Busan
Requisite name in the sand picture
Requisite name in the sand picture - Korean version
Those of you in Ottawa might recognize this one.  This is the smaller version found at the UN cemetery in Busan.

A week or two later (it's hard to remember exactly as the weeks have started the blend together), I decided to try something totally new for me - I tried to become a Buddhist monk.  Ok, so it was only for a weekend, and it's a program geared towards tourists (or really any one interested in how a monk lives), but still for me, it was highly unusual.  I went with my friend Natallia whom I had met while making paper lanterns in Seoul (see previous post).  I wasn't really sure what to expect from the experience, but I tried to go in with an opened mind.  And boy, was an open mind sure necessary!  For the most part, I really enjoyed my Templestay experience.  We learned how to bow and participate in a Buddhist ceremony, made a prayer necklace with exactly 108 beads (I'm sure because that's how many times we had to bow while making the necklace), went on a nice nature hike guided by a monk, and tried to meditate (well, some of us tried to meditate, but it was a bit difficult by others who took that time to saw logs very loudly instead!).  For me, however, the most challengeing part of the whole experience was the food.  We partook in a traditional monk meal where silence is necessary and waste is forbidden.  I won't go into the full details of the experience here, but feel free to ask me about it sometime.  It has to be one of the strangest experiences I've ever had.  At the end of the weekend, I learnt 2 things: 1 - I have a lot of respect for Buddhist monks to practice such a lifestyle and 2 - I'm not meant to be a Buddhist.  I really wanted to kill all the mosquitos that kept biting me all weekend!
Inside the temple
The serving set for the strangest meal I'm sure I'll ever eat 
Morning meditation
Our monk guided hike

The following weekend, I once again went with Natallia to go hiking with a group along the Kimpo trail, which follows the river that flows down from the DMZ.  Much of the hike was on a concrete path next to the water that had a lovely view of miles and miles of barbed wire fence. But, the final part of it took us through a really lovely and peaceful rice field. The advertised hike was only supposed to take a couple hours, but I think some one got their info wrong because we were hiking for over 5 hours!  I think a highlight of the day, was being stopped by some South Korean soldiers who (from the translation I was given) wondered why we were hiking there and why we veered off the path to up another road.  Being suspected by the South Korean military of being NK spies always makes for an interesting time!  (Don't worry, nothing bad happened)
The "scenic view" during much of the hike
Random sculptures
A strange yet not unexpected sight on this hike
Being questioned by Korean soliders
The view from the top
A peaceful way to end the long hike
Sporting the latest trends in Ajumma sun protection

With next year being the big year in the soccer world, and with South Korea being as soccer crazy as so many other countries, I thought it would be fun to go with a group to check watch a game of the Asian qualifiers for the World Cup in Seoul one night.  Not being much of a soccer nut myself, I didn't understand how huge the turn out would be for such a game.  Having talked to Fabian about it before I went, he warned me that it would likely be the biggest stadium and sporting event I have ever been to.  He was right. I went to the winter Olympics in Vancouver, but I don't think there was a stadium this huge.  Attendance for that night's game of South Korea vs. Uzbekistan was over 60,000 people.  Easily dwarfing the sold out crowds I've been a part of at hockey games.  Korea won that night's game as well as the following one in Ulsan, which meant that they are now officially qualified for the World cup in Brazil. 대한민국!

Helping to lift the giant Korean flag during the national anthem
This is what over 60,000 people look like
We are the champions, my friends!

In June, I came across a group tour that really interested me - a Korean wine tour.  I had no idea that they made wine in Korea, so I decided to sign up to try it out.  I met up with the tour group and took the train down to the middle of the country to check out a winery as well as hear a traditional Korean music concert.  As I was travelling solo, I made fast friends while partaking in the open wine bars that were on the train (both there and back) and at lunch.  My verdict of Korean wine? It's no pinot grigio, but it certainly does the trick has I felt very dehydrated the next day.

While Koreans got wine one way, and watch a movie the other way during the trip (suckers), we foreigners had open bar wine both to and from Seoul!
Open bar wine all day long!
Wine foot bath at the winery.  Keep in weird, Korea!
Finishing the day with a traditional Korean music performance

One of my favourite holidays of the year is always Canada day and I was very much looking forward to see how Canadian expats and lovers of all things Canadian celebrated the country here in Korea.  I had heard about a Canada day event being hosted by the Canadian Chamber of Commerce in Korea and another by the Canadian embassy so I decided to don my red and white and check them both out.  The first event was good - they had good Canadian beef burgers, lots of friendly Canadians to mingle with and I got to meet the Canadian ambassador.  The second event, however, I was more disappointed with.  But, my disappointment was counterbalanced with hanging out with some great Canadian friends I've made since I've been here.  I ended the night by drinking soju, lighting sparklers and singing the national anthem along the famous Cheonggyecheon stream in Seoul.  I also made myself a celebratory poutine at home.  Always proud to be Canadian!
The drunk Korean guy in front of the stage kept trying the steal the spotlight.  Hilarious.
Happy Canada day!
O Canada!
Homemade poutine in Korea!

Many of you are aware of my life goal of visiting every country in the world.  Some countries are much easier to check off the list than others.  Case in point: North Korea.  Being one of the most isolated countries in the world, how in the heck would I ever hope to knock that off my list?  Well, that task was accomplished at the start of July when some friends and I took the trip to tour the DMZ (Demilitarized Zone).  This tour had been something I had been looking forward to doing since I arrived in Korea and has certainly been a major highlight of my time here thus far.  After looking at the numerous options available to tourists to visit the DMZ, we booked a full day tour that took us to the 3rd Infiltration tunnel, Imjigak park, the Dora observatory, Dorasan station and (the part I was most looking forward to) the JSA (or Joint Security Area).  It was in this area that you could actually feel the tension as both sides faced off against each other.  You're given a presentation by US military officials about the rules and the history of the JSA and are then escorted to the site where North and South soldiers stare at each other all day long.  I found it fascinating.  We then got to go into one of the conference rooms where both sides meet when they try to negotiate something.  One side of the room is in North Korea, the other side is in the South.  As soon as you cross to the other side of the table that runs through the middle of the room, you can check the DPRK off your places you've been to!  I, of course, was thrilled to be able to do that.  That said though, the whole day was a strange experience when you really thought about it.  Normally, when you learn about a war, it's at a museum and the fighting as long ended.  Where else in the world can you take a guided tour of an active war zone?  Only in Korea!
Our gang touring the DMZ
Inside the 3rd infiltration tunnel
Requisite jumping photo at Dorasan station
The future of Eurasian rail travel??
Imjigak Park
South side of the JSA.  The blue building are the conference centers.  Where the dark pebbled space becomes light between those buildings is the official border between North and South.
The table that divides two enemies - right side: North; left side: South
Standing in North Korea!

Koreans sure do love their festivals, and one that has been growing in popularity over the years in Mudfest.  This event takes place in a small coastal city in the east of Korea.  People travel from all over the country over a couple of weekends to cover themselves in mud, drink and have a good time.  I joined a group and went down to check it out.  I hung out at the beach with old and new friends and covered myself in mud (the point of which is to get nicer and softer skin - mission accomplished) and checked out some of the events and "mud zones" the town had set up.  But, after dealing with crazy crowds of people all day (including waiting in line for 2 hours just to go down a mud slide), I decided that this was really more of a day trip than a weekend thing, and caught an evening train back to Seoul.  It may be my 30 year old side coming out, but I'm just not into dealing with crowds and giant lines anymore...both of which can be hard to avoid here in Korea!
Doing as the locals do
Lines for hours 
I was disappointed the whole beach wasn't made of mud!
People taking full advantage of the buckets of mud
So. Many. People. - As my friend Mel would say: Ain't nobody got time for this!

So that's been my summer in Korea thus far.  I just got back from my summer vacation in Canada.  But that great trip is a post for another day.  And I promise to make it before another 2 months have gone by!

**Note: many photos in this post are courtesy of Anna, Natallia, Catherine, Heather and Reid**

1 comment: