Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Surviving Jirisan

Because the letter “j” in Jirisan is pronounced with a decided “chuh” sound, this tallest mountain cluster in mainland Korea sounds like the word “cheery san.” A more likely misnomer never existed.

The first time I heard about the Jirisan mountains was after one of my co-workers, an avid hiker, returned from a trip with a severely injured knee. She could barely walk and hobbled about the office, only now and then referring to her trip, with a certain bitterness, as being the hardest hike in Korea.

"Oh, cheery-san, horrible cheery-san," she would moan as she limped through the university grounds.

I was interested in hiking, certainly not the dreadful cheery-san, but an easy, pretty little mountain would do. I received a FB message from someone I'd met at a party. His name was Warren, and he was a dedicated hiking leader. The message was an invitation to me and a number of other people, to trek though Jirisan. The problem was that as I read this word, I mentally pronounced it "jeer-esun."

In blissful ignorance of the actual destination, I replied to Warren's message by asking a few questions. What was the difficulty level of the hike? I was fit, but had not done mountain hiking since visiting Hawaii five years ago. Would this be a problem for me? Oh no, Warren quickly responded. It was an easy hike; even small children would be skipping along the trail.

Warren was an optimist.

And so was I.

I boarded the bus for Jirisan at 11:30 pm on a Friday night, as part of a group of about 40 hikers. The ride to the mountains took several hours and then, still sleepless, we began our hike before dawn. Our hiking group was comprised of all different nationalities, though mostly everyone was communicating with each other in English. Before leaving the bus, Warren, our group leader, suggested that we should all form mini-groups of five so that no one would get lost or left behind. This resolution was disbanded shortly after we started the trail and everyone immediately determined their own individual pace. While reasonably fit, I had not trekked a mountain in almost five years. The earliest section of the hike was easy, with a wide, smooth, clearly-marked path. Inspite of being tired, the autumn chill and excitement tempered my mood, so that my body felt alert and I climbed the first few hours with ease.

Going up the mountain was only a slight challenge. We set out in the pre-dawn, and as I had no torch, I kept my pace slow, but silvery threads of moonlight shone down through the trees and cast sufficient light, so that I managed to reach one of the lower summits before dawn and waited, with a cluster of other hikers, to see the sunrise. We could not see much in the way of bold colour change – Jirisan is infamously famous for holding back on its sunrise displays, but the subtle softening of the sky as it digressed from a rich black to mother-of-pearl grey to pale, almost-transparent blue was still lovely to witness. The lifting of darkness revealed clouds halo-ing the mountain tops below us, so that the mountain peaks appeared to be islands floating in a creamy, misty lake.

The path had pretty vistas, but continued to lead further and further up the mountains. It lead through forests with trees that still had the remnants of brilliant scarlet and gold leaves. There was a thin, silvery stripe of water running through the mountains and, at places, stone fountains built for easy access to the mountain springs. As I went along, the path grew more narrow and steeper. It was also treacherous considering the large number of rocks and boulders strewn in the path. I began to worry that, like my co-worker, I would also twist my leg as I shakingly set it down on the large, sharp rocks that decorated the latter part of the trail.

Midway through the hike, I came upon a clearing that had a cabin for those who chose to spend the night, and wooden benches and tables for those who were hungry. Also around this area, there were mounds or cairns, where rocks had been carefully piled by hikers passing through.

I fell further behind the group and only maintained any sort of momentum at all out of shame as the wizened little adjuma who appeared on the trail in front of me leant down and grabbed boulders in the path with both her hands and then leapt over them, like a determined gnome in a fairy tale.

After about 6 hours of climbing the mountains, my legs were starting to shake. I'd already begun the twisting descent of the trail and was feeling a drain to my energy. I was tired, never having slept the night before, and though I "exercised" nearly every night by dancing, different muscles in my legs were now being called to use, muscles that I'd never even noticed as a part of my body until they protested for me to stop torturing them and rest.

But at this point, I was alone, behind the others on the trail. I was slow, so much slower than the other hikers, a large number of whom hiked several times a month. So I stubbornly pushed my body forward.

The real challenge of the trek was not, as I had originally anticipated, going up the mountain. No, the hardest point was coming down the mountain. The path was strewn with a series of rough-edged, grey boulders, both large and small, and these were a constant threat for either stumbling and twisting an ankle or sliding off. The fact that I was not wearing athletic footwear did not help. I am not so dim as to not appreciate the value of athletic footwear; it was just that the brand new sneakers I had brought to Korea turned out to be a half-size too small. To compensate for this, I bought a daisy-patterned pair of Vans which were a half-size too big. On the positive side, they had been on sale for only 20,000won ($18). On the negative side, the soles’ level of traction was equivalent to satin, which meant I could potentially slip and fall to my death. But since I’m more of a glass-half-full kind of girl, I decided to concentrate on the daisy pattern and not falling. My optimism, however, failed to quench the physical pain that ensued during the last hour of climbing down the mountain. Every step down resulted in a shock of pain in my knees. It felt as though invisible men were pounding them with mallets, without any intention of stopping before each knee had turned into a quivering mass of jelly. I did not complain, nor did the people around me complain, but I noticed that several hikers’ legs were shaking and did not stop shaking until we’d ended the hike.

Finally, around mid-day, I stumbled out of the forest, to the small town at the end of the mountain. This was where our bus had driven and was waiting to take us to the nearby city of Namwon, the city of love.

Ending the hike a rough 12 km from where we’d begun, our group ended in a small town on the other side of the mountain. The group seemed smaller than before, but I couldn't be sure. I had been so tired on the bus ride over and had been sitting at the front of the bus. Perhaps it had not been full on the ride over. It certainly was not full now, as we wearily trooped onto it for the drive to Namwon. In Namwon, we’d been promised festivals, romantic legends, a musical performance, and a type of porridge special to that region of Seoul.

“Well,” said Warren, looking around at our group, “we may have left a few people back on the mountain.”

We waited a while for the dilatory hikers to show, but the rest of our day had been divided into a fairly strict schedule. There was music to hear, drums to beat, porridge to eat! As much sympathy I felt for those few people left on the mountain, my biggest motivation in joining this tip was not in scaling the mountain, but coming down the other side so that I could do the fun cultural activities as promised. Namwon was the proverbial carrot on the stick for me. I then felt happy, with only the smallest possible twinge of guilt, when Warren decided the group would continue on to Namwon and he would stay in contact with the other hikers via cell phone.

In Namwon, we gathered for a much-needed dinner. There were dozens of different food items laid out on the long tables, as we sat crossed legged on the floor in front of them. There was a reddish-orange porridge that was special to the area and a type of fish that was decidedly pungent and delicious, in addition to the dozens of items I could not name but that probably contained some form of seaweed, tofu, rice, or a combination of the three.

After dinner, we were given about 30 minutes to explore the town. Quite frankly, this was done at my demand. We had been told beforehand that we were going to spend several hours in Namwon, but after dinner, Warren attempted to hustle us on the bus, saying that we'd taken too much time in trekking. No, I insisted, half entreatingly, half demandingly. I'd dragged myself hours up and down the mountains in anticipation of arriving at this famous city. I would not leave until I'd at least walked around a bit. Warren kindly relented and I walked through the city with the contentedness of a cat before cream.

The legend about the lovers of Namwon is really quite famous throughout the country -- I've even listened to a Korea opera sung about it -- and I was excited to see its romantic origin, remotely similar to Romeo and Juliet, but with a happier ending.

As I stood looking down the street, I noticed a long black car slowly approaching. It had a floral wreath tied to the hood and drove at such a slow, somber pace that I lowered my head, believing it to be a funeral car. Imagine my surprise, then, when I looked at the trunk and saw a doll-like young bride dressed in a long, red Hanbok and sitting among piles of brightly coloured flowers. There were red and yellow and pink ribbons wound about her hands. Following the car was a young man, his wrists bound by the other end of these same ribbons, motivating him to trot along behind the car at a steady pace.

(different honeymoon car in Namwon)

After we’d spent a while in Namwon proper, having seen the sights and having eaten our pumpkin porridge, we boarded the bus once again and drove to the music and culture center, which was located on the outskirts of Namwon. Trimmed into the ground shrubbery behind this huge building was a series of silhouettes of a man with a guitar-like instrument. We were late in entering the building, so the attendants of the music center quickly rushed us into an upstairs room that had a large, empty wooden floor and a slightly elevated stage filled with instruments. In spite of our tardiness, we were given a complete, if abbreviated, performance for several traditional forms of Korean music. A woman – someone from the group translated for us – requested that we politely clap after all the performances. Another woman then shyly entered the stage and sat behind an instrument that had the appearance of a keyboard but the resonance of a harp. First, she played a traditional Korean melody. We all listened quietly and then politely clapped. And then, in case we were homesick for standard American tunes, she played the Beatle’s “Let It Be” and “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” The latter is a favorite of mine and I clapped with more enthusiasm than was polite after she’d finished her performance.

Next, two other women, beautifully attired in pastel hanbok, came to the stage. One of the women kneeled in front of a large pansori (drum) at stage left and the other woman took center stage.

Perhaps feeling that the crowd was not participating enough, one of the Korean singers then led us in a sing along, which can generously be dubbed "an interesting performance" considering that most of us had trouble saying "bibimbap" in Korean, much less doing a listen and repeat of the turbulently high-pitched lines in traditional Korean opera. One of the few girls who possessed dual proficiency in English and Korean later explained the meaning of the song to us. Apparently, we’d been attempting to sing a song that was not just romantic but rather risqué: please come to my bedroom, please climb on my back, please be my monkey of love we’d sung with quavering seriousness. That’s traditional Korea for you. At least they used "please."

The ride back from Namwon to Seoul was uneventful, except for the fact that at this time Warrent revealed the stats to the hikers who remained. Out of the 40 people who started the hike, 18 had been left on the mountain. All the time I had believed I was one of the slowest hikers was not exactly true. I was merely one of the slowest out of the fast group. What's slightly more alarming is that out of the 18 left on the mountain, only 16 eventually made it back by themselves. Two of the hikers had to be airlifted off the mountain, due to exhaustion and the intense muscular pain of the hike.

(The lovers of Namwon: TLA or just another hiker being carried off the mountain?)

Vacation Buddha School

"Don't eat the radish!" my neighbor whispered fiercely to me, a slight murmur that delicately broke the air as we ate breakfast in silence at the Bubheungsa Temple in Gangwon-do.

"I wasn't going to eat the radish," I hissed back, which earned a stern look of disapproval from the Korean-to-English translator. The monk in charge kindly pretended not to hear.

The monastic breakfast was a complicated procedure, and intense considering it was meant to replicate simplicity and man's commune with the farmers and fields that created it. First, we quietly arranged the set of bowls and utensils we'd been given. I unfolded the brown place cloth and laid it in front of the thin mat on which I sat, cross-legged. Next, I carefully arranged the four bowls. The rice bowl I placed at the front left, next to the soup bowl. The side foods bowl belonged directly behind the rice bowl, and across from it was the rinsing bowl.

Small portions of the food were then ladled by servers into our bowls. Next, the communal bowls of food were passed around a second time, where we could take a second serving if we were so inclined. However, we had to be very careful not to take more food than we could eat. In order to honor the farmers and spice harvesters, we were bidden not to leave a single grain of rice in our bowl, not even a speck of spice was to be wasted.

Even the actual process of eating was something of an art. To eat in a polite and proper manner, we were to hold a bowl with our left hand and tip it upwards so that our mouth was modestly covered the entire time. Our right hands held the wooden chopsticks to bring the food into our mouths. Because of this, our breakfast took a while to consume -- nearly two hours. For some people, such as myself, it was difficult enough to eat using chopsticks, much less while hiding my face and scooping out every speck of food.

It was not until every white grain of rain, every red flake of spice had been consumed that we could wash our bowls with the drinking water and scrub them clean with the bright yellow slice of pickled radish. Following that, we drank the water and then, finally, ate the radish. It was a very neat way of doing the dishes. To prove we'd sufficiently cleaned our plates, our bowls were rinsed a second time with water which was dumped into a large bucket. If the communal rinsing water was tainted by anything - even a single flake of spice - we were to take turns drinking the dirty rinsing water until the bucket was empty.

Eating was only one element of the weekend I spent at the Bubheungsa Temple. Another basic necessity of life also treated differently was attire. Upon arrival at the temple, we exchanged our worldly clothes for outfits traditionally worn by practitioners of Buddhism. The deep-pocketed vest and balloon-like pants were cut in a slouchy fit, so that the vanities and temptations of our bodies were hidden beneath their loose folds. Though unfashionable, they were made of soft linen and were some of the more comfortable items of clothing I'd ever worn. They were died a natural terra cotta colour, like soft dirt, and a Korean man (not part of the group) told me this signified the colour of earth dying. I'm not sure what that means, but it sounded somewhat poetic.

Other spiritual elements, such as meditation, were also part of the temple stay experience. On Saturday, the group of temple stay participants gathered together to take a meditative walk through the woods. The monk bid us to think only about the physical process of walking. So, I slowly placed one bare foot in front of another in the velvety-soft dirt path, focusing on nothing more than the wind and my breath, which did not seem so very different. As there was a rather large group of participants in the meditative walk, we attempted to keep a certain pace and distance between us. Dressed in our faded, matching clothes, we solemnly marched through the woods in pairs, like a raggedy wedding party.

A different sort of practice that was taught and then practiced throughout the temple stay was full-body prostration. While spending time in the temple buildings, dedicated Buddhists, as well as temple stay participants, bowed their entire bodies low until their foreheads touched the ground, and then leaned back somewhat upright on their heels. They repeated these deep prostrations sometimes upwards of 100 times in a row. Whenever I entered a temple, I bowed my head briefly to show respect for the Buddhists and their way of life; however, I refrained from making the full-body prostrations because they conflict with my Christian faith. Most participants viewed the temple stay as a "culture vacation," but gods are gods, and I wasn't about to mess with them.

Since I skipped the many prostration sessions, I ended up several hours alone each day. During early Sunday morning, I took a walk by myself through the woods and into the clearing between several mountains. I was not pondering deep, reverent thoughts, nor was I attempting find my inner peace. I just wanted to have fun and take photos. I was so happy in the sweet, piney air and the breeze that lightly ruffled my hair that I nearly skipped along the path. I took some pictures. I sorted through coloured rocks and sprays of wildflowers, discerning which to leave and which to keep. I looked up at one of the tallest mountains and saw the outline of a big cat -- A tiger! I thought -- in the rockface there. I spun about with the dizzy happiness that only inner content can bring. My irreverent, happy-go-lucky attitude is what makes what happened next so inexplicable: A raw, eerie energy swept through the mountain. It was such a strange experience that I can barely describe it, and certainly not compare it in any normal analogy. The best I can do is say it felt like I was seeing a ghost, only nothing was visible. Nothing in the landscape had changed, only this feeling, only an energy.

At first, I was frightened and almost ran out of the forest, back to the safe and well-populated temple buildings, but then I refused to turn coward. How could I explain this to anyone in a logical manner? How could I possibly describe why I'd run away -- because I was afraid of the air? So I stayed and decided I would finish what I'd set out to do: walk along the trail and take pretty pictures. I set my camera on auto mode and, several times, tried to photograph myself against the dramatic backdrop of towering green mountains. The photos did not turn out; they were all over-exposed, tainting the scene with a lemony-white cast like a halo around the mountains. And here's a detail that makes the over-exposed photos inexplicable: The day was overcast. Shifting through clouds and shadows, from where did all that light come? When I returned to the monastery, I gave a brief version of my experience to the translator. He was not at all surprised; that area was renown for its energy field. And the tiger I saw on the face of a mountain? For hundreds of years, monks have identified it as "Lion Mountain."

At night, the only light came from the stars overhead and the lanterns that hung throughout the temple grounds. There was a line of lanterns in all sorts of colours -- pink, orange, red, yellow, and blue -- marking the pathway from the lower temples to the highest one, and there were multiple strands of lanterns festooned in front of the oldest temple. Some of the lanterns had the image of Buddha peeping merrily out from a lotus and some had images of the temple imposed on them, while other lanterns bore the cartoonish representation of a lion. I felt (probably impiously) they gave the temple a festive air.

The temple stay's main focus seemed to be the "wish fulfillment" program. I am dubious as to how much a serious application of Buddhism includes wish fulfillment and how much the idea was spun into an appealing romantic-religious ideal for Western visitors. For Disneyfied as it may seem, who does not want to believe that wishes can come true? Throughout my life, I've wished on loose eyelashes, falling stars, dandelion fluff, birthday candles, the times 11:11 and 1:11, and reluctant ladybugs waiting for release. As it turns out, all I really needed to do was write my dearest desire on a slip of paper, place it inside a small cloth pouch, and hang the pouch in a temple. Oh, and hit an old bell! A very important, or at least very fun, part of the wish fulfillment was to lift a wooden gong and swing it with considerable relish against an ancient, sacred bell while simultaneously making a wish.

Of course, I was tempted to wish that everyone thoroughly clean their breakfast bowls the next morning so that I would not have to drink the dirty water, but that seemed a rather short-term investment for a wish. In my heart-of-hearts, I've really only ever believed two things were worth wishing for: true love and adventure. The only problem is that I've already wasted enough wishes on falling stars for a true love that's never arrived. And adventure is something I'm creating for myself. So, since neither of those two stand-by wishes would do, I returned to an even older wish, one that I remember whispering to a reluctant ladybug when I was seven years old: I want to be a writer. I want to be a good writer and earn a sustainable living from it.

God only knows if my wish will come true.

Countdown for Breaking Cultural Mores

The following is a compilation of various mistakes made within my first four weeks of daily life in Korea, and - just in case you're unaware - nearly everything in Korea is written in Hangul characters rather than the Roman alphabet.

8. Buying fabric softener instead of laundry detergent.

7. Buying hair conditioner instead of shampoo.

6. Buying lotion instead of shampoo.

5. Stealing toilet paper from my workplace for nearly two weeks because I couldn't find a store where it was sold and also couldn't find anything else to buy that might possibly be mistaken for it.

4. Clasping my hands in a prayer-like position and bowing to thank every single Korean I met over the course of three weeks. It wasn't until someone asked me if it was a tradition I'd picked up in Thailand that I discovered typical Koreans don't actually clasp their hands to express gratitude.

3. Spitting out a half-chewed octopus while dining in a crowded restaurant.

2. Laughing loudly in a public restroom stall after pushing every single bidet button on the high-tech toilet.

1. Attending a company dinner (as the only foreigner) where I helped myself to communal noodles while using the wrong end of the chopsticks.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Losing Nemo

Last weekend, my friend Michelle and I decided to hit up Seoul's largest fish market, Noryangjin. After a 20 minute ride on the subway, we exited at the station suggested by our guidebook. The guidebook gave no further directions, nor was there need for any. The smells there could wipe you out. The air was saltier and fishier than that near any beach. Following the smells, we entered a long concrete building where vendors were setting up for business. Men and women wearing knee high rubber boats and plastic aprons in vivid pinks, greens, reds, and yellows were pouring plastic bags of fish into large aquariums. Other vendors had set up early and were smugly sitting behind their aquatic displays, waiting for business.

Everywhere, there were fish. I saw octopus, eels, stingrays, sea worms, sea squirts, crabs, assorted crustaceans, and probably hundreds of different fish, including small sharks. It was like a dark version of Sea World. You could admire all the unique sea creatures, and if you liked, you could eat them. Some of the fish were already dead, such as the octopus stung through the head on a wire, like grisly party garlands for The Little Mermaid. Most of the animals, however, were alive and writhing in their crowded tanks. The mutant crabs, larger than the circumference of my head, seemed the liveliest and the most intent on escape. I would not at all have been surprised if I'd seen a few of them scuttling along the subway platform, hoping to hitch a ride back to Incheon or to whichever oceanic community from which they'd come.

I peered closely into one particular tank. The man nearby pulled out a fish with his net to allow me closer inspection. "How much?" I asked curiously. "10,00 won," the man said. "8,000!" I countered, an automatic haggling reflex. With that, the man flung the fish to floor and, excitedly shouting something in Korean, bludgeoned it to death.

No returns, no exchanges.

For all the meat and seafood I consume, this was the first time I'd ever actually witnessed something die in order to become my meal. The fish I'm used to eating comes in neatly pressed little squares or sticks, cute geometries that in no way resemble an actual fish. I began to doubt my pro-omnivore position. Vegetarianism all of a sudden seemed, well, less vicious.

A nearby woman scooped up the fish and brought it into her restaurant. There were various restaurants set up along the side of the fish market. Some made arrangements of sashimi, which is raw fish similar to sushi, while others boiled up fish stew, and still others just grilled or baked the seafood to simple perfection.

Michelle and I followed the woman into her restaurant and seated ourselves on mats by a low table. After a ten minute wait and handing over several thousand extra won for food preparation, the fish was delivered to our table. I took one bite and decided to retain my omnivore status. It was undoubtedly the freshest, flakiest, most tender fish I've ever tasted. Most of it I ate without seasonings, though the restaurant lady was eager for me to douse the fish in soy and wasabi, so I ate some of it that way, too. Either way, it was delicious.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Do Not Ask for Whom the Bell Tolls, Quasimodo

Sitting through a three hour stage performance of The Hunchback of Notre Dame being sung in Korean is equivalent to being five years old and watching Hamlet. I spent hours without understanding much of anything. And then everyone died.

Monday, September 7, 2009

If You Are What You Eat, Then What Am I?

If she knew what she wants, he'd be giving it to her. If she knew what she needs, he would give her that, too. If she knew what she wants, he'd be giving it to her now. The lyrics from a 1980's Bangle song played unhelpfully through my head as I ended up in yet another awkward restaurant predicament.

I'd been walking alongside the Han River, having taken a short hike above the city that ended in a well-developed path along the river. The path was marked by a vivid green covering similar to astroturf. A replica of an old-fashioned wooden watermill and a pretty, man-made waterfall were alongside the river. I enjoyed walking there, but then again, I also enjoying watching romantic comedies starring Meg Ryan, so my tolerance (and appreciation) of too-cutesy is rather high. At any rate, I was getting hot and restless in my river stroll, so I decided to come up on one of the riverbanks and see what was in this area of Seoul.

I passed by a place that had an open door with a jumble of shoes in front of it. Curious, I poked my head inside the door frame and saw that it was a traditional Korean restaurant with low lying tables that had hot plates nestled in their centers. I was about to withdraw when a woman noticed me. “Come, come, come,” she gestured, saying something in Korean. “Um, that's o.k. I was just curious,” I mumbled, but she understood me no more than I understood her. “Come, come, come,” she gestured again, getting the attention of a number of other people in the restaurant, who all then stood and motioned for me to step inside. So I did.

The people assembled around me appeared to be the owners, along with assorted family members and the cook. One of the women laid a mat on the floor for me, gesturing that I should sit. Someone else handed me a menu. They then conferred in Korean, presumably asking each other what they should do with me. Finally, the husband stepped forward.

“Oogle,” he carefully enunciated, pointing at the menu. “Oogle?” I repeated, confused. It didn't sound like a typical Korean word. “Oogle, oogle,” he repeated, tapping his finger in staccato against the menu. As the menu was written entirely in Hangul, this did not clarify things. My thoughts tumbled different letter combinations and sounds, trying to make sense of things. “Do you mean 'noodle?' ” I finally asked. “Yes, noogle,” the husband happily repeated. “Yes, yes! Noodles. I like noodles,” I said, recognizing it as one of the safest possible options. “Noogle, noogle,” the various family members and the cook all told each other. The cook went into the kitchen. Then she came back. No noogles.

The husband chivalrously continued helping me with the menu. “Ifffs,” he said, pointing at another item. This one had me stumped. “Ifffffffs,” he repeated, drawing out the word more slowly for me to understand. I considered an option. “Fish?” I asked. “Yes, ifffs,” he replied. “Fish, like fish that swim in water?” I asked while puffing out my cheeks and pointing at my water glass to verify. The family took this as a negative indicator and after some conference, moved on to a third item on the menu.

“Beak,” the husband offered, pointing again at the menu. “Beef!” I shouted excitedly. We were finally getting better at this game. I was ready to bust out the Pictionary by this point. The family interpreted my excitement as a gesture of interest in beef, and so my meal was decided.

What I was served most likely did have some relation to beef, but what exactly it was difficult to determine. The main dish was a sort of soup with large chunks of bone, possibly hooves, that had small portions of gristle and fat attached to them. The soup also had onions, green leaves, sprouts, and glass noodles in it. In case this didn't fill me, I was also given six side dishes, including one that had the appearance and taste of paraffin wax, though it quivered like jello whenever I poked it with my chopstick. Although I'd been given a set of chopsticks and a spoon before the meal was served, it seemed to my hosts that I needed more help than that. One of the women arranged all my food for me and mimed the appropriate way for consuming some of it. Another woman ran to the kitchen and brought back a fork. I picked up my chopsticks to eat with them, anyways. This made the family and cook burst into a fit of giggles, which they politely but ineffectively tried to smother. A woman went back to the kitchen and returned with a second fork, which she set next to the original fork on my table. Perhaps they'd decided forks should come in a set, like chopsticks.

The food was to die for (in a literal sort of way, mind you) as there were altogether far too many items that I could only identify as “gelatinous,” but everyone there had been so kind and so eager to help that I ate away at it for as long as my stomach could handle it. When I left the restaurant, I was given a big handful of candies and smiles from everyone. Sometimes doing all the wrong things works out alright.

Changdeokgung Palace Photos

The Royal Treatment

[Actual Date: August 23, 2009]

"Do you remember that show," asked Michelle, "where those people started out on an island for a three hour tour and ended up trapped for the rest of their lives? Well, that's how I'm starting to feel."

Michelle and I were rounding on the 2nd hour of our 90 minute tour through Changdeokgung Palace. We were required to go on a tour instead of self-guidance, even though it was completely in Korean -- meaning that, for the next several hours, unless the tour guide thanked someone or asked for the location of the nearest bathroom, we couldn't understand anything she was saying.

To make matters worse, it was at least 80 degrees outside with a humidity rate that would melt iron. Neither Michelle nor myself had ever been so hot. We melted, we dripped, we pooled from place to place. In truth, we ambled along at such a slow pace behind the tour group that even the young pregnant woman out strolled us, and eventually, we were left behind by the rest of the pack.

It was nice for a while. We had the place to ourselves, and the greater number of my photos looks as though we had stumbled through a recently deserted palace rather than touring a UNESCO landmark in the middle of Seoul with a group of 40 other tourists a kilometer or so ahead of us.

We didn't mind having the place to ourselves, except that the palace grounds were the size of a small forest and we were a little disoriented. ("Disoriented" is a good word, since using "lost" in every single blog entry would be repetitive, and probably downright copyright infringement on the ABC television series.) Eventually, though, we found a second tour group and latched onto them. This group had a guide whose intent seemed to be taking us up and down six kilometers of woodsy hills beyond the palace buildings to ensure we'd get full value out of the $3 entrance fee we'd paid. Three hours after beginning our (first) tour, Michelle and I made it back to the front gate. No longer lost and wandering through the palace grounds, we were now free to become disoriented anywhere we wanted within the entire metropolis of Seoul.

Summer Days in English Camp

[Actual Date: August 22, 2009]

This post is exactly something I would not want my students to write. It has no plot, no development, no conclusion. But it does have a thesis: Kids are cute.

Above is a photo of my homeroom class after watching the Korean martial arts comedy, Jump. The thing I love about this photo is how it absolutely captures the personality of all my students from the cool young girls waving a solemn peace out at the camera to the rowdy boys who like to roughhouse each other with or without any sort of provocation.

Now, the kids do have a tendency to divert lesson plans by intermittently shrieking, "Teacher, teacher, teacher, teacher!!!" with the same volume and intensity an average adult would use to communicate he's on fire -- but at other times, the kids are cute as kittens.

As a case in point, I've also attached a short clip of the youngest kids I teach. They wanted to show me a dance they're practicing for the club act, although their performance was cut short when snacks arrived. They're performing a scene from Sister Act II. You'll never appreciate Sister Act until you've seen it re-enacted by seven-year-old Korean kids.

Seafood Surprise

[Actual Date: August 21, 2009]

I went out to dinner with my teacher friend from Yonsei, Michelle, and ordered a heaping plate of seafood surprise. I'm not sure what the dish is actually named, only that I was trying to order noodles and –surprise! – jiggly little bits of seafood were included at no extra cost. Of particular interest was a baby octopus. As you can see from the photos, it was not as tasty as it looked. (And if you can't clearly see the photos, let it be known that it did not look so tasty in the first place.)

Just to amuse myself, I try to imagine how I must appear to the Koreans. Imagine the same scenario in the U.S.: A foreigner wanders into a restaurant without knowing any of the language, not even knowing enough words to order food. She sees someone else's plate of food and points to it. When her own food then arrives at the table, she pokes at it and giggles. Before eating her meal, she proceeds to take about a dozen photos of it. That weirdo foreigner is me.

Moral of the story: Never make fun of dumb foreigners. You may become one of them . . . if you are lucky.

Meeting Superman

[Actual Date: August 19, 2009]

"A miracle is within you" was the message delivered by Dr. Lee Seung-bok. This also happens to be the guiding principle and title of his 2005 memoir. Of all the speakers featured in Yonsei's summer English camp, no one was more inspiring than Dr. Superman Lee.

Dr. Lee has always been ambitious and strongly motivated. As a teenager, he dreamed of becoming an Olympic gymnastic champion. And it was more than just a child's dream. He earned a coveted position on the 1988 Olympic team for Korean men's gymnastics and was in competitive training, a serious contender for winning a medal. Then he fell. Dr. Lee did not explain his accident, except to state the obvious: It left him a quadriplegic.

By hard work and sheer willpower, Dr. Lee built strength and a certain degree of mobility in his upper body, allowing him the use of his hands. The same hard work and willpower he took with him to medical school. His own rehabilitation as a quadriplegic had been rough and, he gently hinted, the health care professionals had not treated him well. He was determined to help others suffering from similar injuries.

Today, Dr. Lee is one of the most prestigious doctors working at John Hopkins Hospital. He has accomplished his goal of working in rehabilitation, as well as serving as a physician on the medical staff of the Olympic gymnastics team. His honesty, simple confidence, and strength of spirit are amazing. There's no doubt: Dr. Lee's nickname is Superman because he's a genuine hero.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

A Yabba Dabba Do Time

Ever since reading Jean Auel's imaginative depiction of prehistoric man in her novel Clan of the Cave Bears, I've been interested in all evidence of prehistoric life. I was excited, then, when I realized that Gangdong-gu, in the suburbs of Seoul (several subway transfers and then a short bus ride), held key artifacts from Korea's biggest Neolithic settlement.

A total of 29 dwelling pits exist in Amsa-dong, as well as 4 storage pits, all semi-circular in shape, buried 50 to 100 centimeters into the ground. Of course, the 9 thatched huts made of weathered straw are recreations, but the large pits over which they stand guard are quite genuine and have existed there for over 6,000 years. Radio carbon dating indicates these pits were originally dug between 4000 to 3000 BC.

The Neolithic site was first discovered in 1925, after a flood caused many pieces of the ancient pottery to surface, but excavations did not begin until 1967.

The museum's offerings are sparse but several beautiful vases, with bottoms rounded like bullets, are on display, as well as a collection of pottery shards featuring a comb-tooth pattern, various fishing instruments, and some jewelry constructed of bone and shell, in addition to a miniature polymer clay diorama of the prehistoric lifestyle once prevalent in the area.

The best thing about Amsadong, though, is that it is quiet, very nearly deserted.

You can walk through the little pathway among the pines hearing nothing louder than birdsong. You can stroll past the row of huts with no one else in sight. My favorite feature of Amsa-dong is inside the 1 thatched hut that allows for entry. Inside this hut, archelogists have built a small glass case that encapulates 2 clay vessels half-buried in the rubble. They lie there, as they have for the past 6,000 years, undisturbed by the touch of time or man.

Amsa-dong Information
Admission Price: 500 won
Subway Line 8, Amsa station, then Bus 2.

Sorry, Buddha Is Closed

Kyongju (or Gyeongju) is, almost inarguably, Korea's most famous historic town, containing such a large variety of significant cultural relics that the area is commonly referred to as "a museum without walls." Perhaps this is due to its location, sufficiently isolated from the devastation war and conquest brought to so much of Korea's architectural history.

As a possible contradiction to my hypothesis of preservation, Kyongju was not always a sleepy little town of ruins; it was once the capital of the Silla empire, the dynasty that politically controlled Korea between the 7th to 9th century. The city itself, more than 2,000 years old, is now registered as a UNESCO world heritage site.

The Chomsongdae Observatory, an astronomical tower built in 647, is the oldest standing observatory in East Asia. It is constructed of 361 stones, which is equal to the number of days in a lunar year. The four square sides of this tower are precise in facing the four geographical directions. Some historians consider the possibility that this acted as a meridian for the Silla people.

A tiny cave in the middle of the mountains near Kyongju houses one of the world's loveliest Buddha statues. Made of white granite, it is considered a masterpiece in Asian artwork, but you can only see this image if you visit the Seokgulam Grotto because photos are forbidden.

An equally famous stop in Kyongju is Tumuli Park. This area of the city appears to be filled with perfectly-formed hills. In reality, these "hills" are tombs older than the pyramids of Egypt. When the tombs were excavated in the 1970s, they were to found to have jewelry and intricate weaponry inside them, as well as physical remnants of the deceased royal subjects. My favorite (is it macabre to claim a favorite tomb?) was the Chonmachong tomb. This dates from the 5th or early 6th century AD, and visitors are permitted to go inside it, ala Lara Croft.

Altogether, there are 155 royal mound tombs of the Silla dynasty, a treasure trove of history and rich ornamentation. These tombs are spread throughout the region so it is nearly impossible to see all of them in one day. The biggest tomb, at 80 x 120 meters, is a joint tomb (a "his" and "hers" burial plot, so to speak) called Hwangnam Daech Ong. It rests just behind a small lake.

Another famous lake in the area is Anapchi Lake in Wolsong. The garden islands of Anapchi Lake were originally designed by King Munmu as an ideal setting to hold parties and conferences. Usually, man-made lakes and islands seem too contrived to capture my imagination, but when the garden lake was made by royalty in 674, it lends it a greater appeal.

Here is the point where I confess: My visit Kyongju was as part of a tour. I usually hate tours both for the high pricing and for the general blandness that accompanies them, but this tour was remarkably cheap and, let's face it, convenient in dragging me from site to site on a bus. That is both the downside and upside to tours. They smooth out everything, so there is little to no adventure left, hence why I am only spouting facts and presenting pretty pictures from this trip, rather than writing about it as an adventure.

And up until this point of the trip, things were amazingly smooth, inspite of the "breakfast and dinner included" that consisted of the same dry bread and peanut butter for ALL the meals. Still, like I mentioned, the tour came at a very low cost, so I took the cheap breakfast with a grain of salt . . . and a grain of rice and several bowls of noodles at a restaurant down the street from our lodgings.

The only real hitch in the trip was during the last leg, where we were told about a beautiful Buddha, carved into the white rockface of a mountain centuries ago. It was "a masterpiece of late Silla period" and "a sight everyone in Korea must see."

So, even though some of the tour group stayed at the base of the mountain chatting and luxuriously sipping their too-sweet Korean coffee, I stretched out my weary limbs, cramped from the long bus ride, and began to ascend the trail. I would see the tour leader at various intervals. "Not much longer!" she'd cheer. "It's definitely worth it. I've seen it before," she called out from a temple half-way up the mountain, where she'd decided to end her hike, opting out of seeing the must-see Buddha a second time.

I continued the ascent, inspite of an "accident" where a cranky old adjushi used both hands to push me to the ground so he could step over me on a particularly narrow section of the trail. "That's rude, sir!" I yelled back at him, while scowling viciously from my unwanted dirt seat. "I don't care if you don't understand what I'm saying, you're rude!"

Most disappointingly, when I finally reached the Buddha, it was closed. The only "must see" quality about it was that it was, in fact, rather impressive that anyone could manage to close a statue carved into the side of a mountain. It was securely closed, too, so that even if a person tried to quietly sneak onto it for a closer look at the Buddha, she would get chased away. Hypothetically speaking, of course.

Here is the best view I got of the Buddha, obtained by using my zoom lens while balancing precariously on a rock head far above the actual sculpture.

Fortunately, they could not close the views.