Monday, October 26, 2009

Happy Anniversary Korea! The End of My First Year as Spent on Jeju Island.

It's always too long before I sit down to this keypad and try to reconnect with you, any of you who read this. It's a great compliment to me that anyone reads it, that anyone follows my life here with me to South Korea.

It's been a fantastic 21 days since I last wrote. I can hardly imagine a better beginning to my 2nd year here. I celebrated my 1 year anniversary on October 1st and I celebrated well. My 1 year anniversary in ROK was spent on Jeju island, a large Island off the southern tip of the peninsula which is often referred to as the "Hawaii of Korea". It's the most popular destination for honeymooners and attracts business men and wealthy golfers (you must be pretty wealthy to play golf in Korea, those courses take up a lot of precious land). I was able to enjoy the weekend with a large group of friends as we all were enjoying a long weekend thanks to Chuseok, a Korean fall harvest holiday, that granted us an extra day off work. We travelled by ferry from Nokdong. We had originally reserved 3rd class tickets, but quickly upgraded to 2nd class when we saw that 3rd class was a noisy open hall with no seats, only floor which you could place a mat (if you'd packed one)and sit or lay on, while children run amuck about you. It was a clear day as we pulled out of the harbour, and I enjoyed spending sometime at the side of the ship, looking for jellyfish in the water.

We arrived mid-afternoon on Friday, and after some debate, Amanda and I split from the group to try to rent scooters. The scooter-rental shops we contact weren't willing to rent scooters to a large group of foreigners, most of whom did not have international licenses, and some of whom (like myself) had never actually driven one. We didn't have any luck in Jeju city renting scooters, but we were determined to see a little of the west coast before the sun went down. We hired a taxi to drive us to Guemnueng Seokbul-won stone garden. Amanda and I were mainly looking for some good photo ops with the Dol-Harubang ("stone grandfather") statues that have become the iconic symbol of the island. The statues were original carved by the island people for protection and fertility. We certainly got what we were looking for at the garden, and had a great time looking at all the other statues, exploring a cave and a small maze, a replicated folk village and buying a little dol-harubang to take home with us. (check out the pics! link below...)

After the garden, we zipped through the country-side to the south coast of the island, where we would be staying in Seogwipo. In the light of the setting sun, we drove through lush vegetation, Halla mountain rising up on our left and farmers fields lined with lava-rock walls on our right. It was strange to feel that although we were still in South Korea, we were in a foreign place. After we settled into our room, we rented scooters from a shop close to our motel that wasn't nervous about renting to foreigners. It was a bit of rocky start (see, when you don't feel in control you tend to grip hard onto something, which is bad if you're gripping the gas pedal) We grabbed dinner at Mr. Pizza and then picked up some food for the big hike. You see, tomorrow Amanda, Lizzie, Ian and I were going to hike South Koreas highest mountain peak - Hallsan. That night was as early a bedtime as a nighthawk like me could manage.

Our little scooter gang hit the road shortly before 8:00AM and wound our way slowly along the winding mountain highway to the base of our path for the day. I was relieved to see the trailhead started at 700M, so only about 1250 to go instead of the full 1950! The trail we chose was the longest at 19km roundtrip, but it was the easier of the two trails that lead to the peak. We were on our way by 9am. We kept a good steady pace, and stuck together until about the 1500m mark. At this point the trail got noticeably steeper and I started to fall behind the others a bit. At around 1700meters I broke out of the tree line. From then on out, it was a gorgous view already down the mountain to the seaside town and the coast. It was steady stairs all the way up to the peak, where I met up with my co-hikers who had all summitted between 30 and 12 minutes before me. We stopped here for about a 1/2 hour for lunch and to take a few pictures. Did realize it was freaking freezing up there until I'd been sitting for about 5 minutes! We also had the treat of spotting a korean deer, which until this point I didn't really believe existed. The descent turned out to be a lot tougher than the ascent. My thin street sneakers proved to be no match for the constant uneven, jagged lava rocks that are the pathway up Hallasan. My ankles and knees were hurting pretty bad from trying to keep everything stable when my ankles would twist unexpectedly. Still we made it down at 5pm, feeling pretty good. I dropped off my scooter at the shop and Lizzie, Amanda and I treated ourselves to a couple of hours at the Jimjilbong (sauna/public bath house)to relax our weary muscles a bit.

Later that night a few of us headed over to Dongdaemoon beach area to visit Lindsey and John at their swanky hotel that they'd splurged on. We mostly hung out in their room. But at the end of the night, a few peeps wanted to try their luck at blackjack in the casino. After sitting with my cranberry juice and a couple of galpals for few minutes chatting (minimum for playing blackjack was 100 000 won) we decided to throw 10 000 won (less than $10) at the slot machines for fun (sorry Mom!). Lizzie didn't have much luck but Kate did well and walked away with 35 000 won. And wouldn't you know it, beginners luck hit me too: I walked away with 60 000won! Thanks to Kate, who dutifully hit the cash out button when I reached my limit. It was a late night, and needless to say, after that hike I slept like a rock.

That casino money came in handy the next morning when Amanda, Jordaan and I decided to parasailing at 50 000won a pop each. It was a great experience, but at that price we all felt really disappointed that our rides didn't last longer than about 5minutes. Then again, we had a 5 oclock ferry to catch and still lots to do. Next we hopped in a taxi to see Biljarim forest, a protected forest of trees that are all 300 - 800 years old, the oldest of which is the Millenium Nutmeg tree, estimated to be nearly 1000 years old. It was a really beautiful walk, and I truly enjoyed every moment of being in that forest. After Biljarim, it was onto see the giant lava tube that is Manjanggul Cave. Manjanggul is an enormous cave created 100's of 1000's of years ago by lava flowing underground to the surface (I have mentioned that the whole island is the remains of Hallasan spewing her guts for a few centuries a long long time ago right?) One kilometer of the tunnel is open for tourista to walk through, until the lava column which reaches from floor to ceiling and is 13 meters high. The cave is dimly lit to protect the interior of the cave, and in many places water drips from the ceiling. The tunnel itself widened enormously in some places, feeling truly cavernous. It was an atmospheric walk to say the least, made just a little more dank and creepy by the fact that I had managed to drop my glasses case in the back of the taxi that had driven us, so the only thing I had to wear were my perscription sunglasses. In a cave. Well done, Lisa. Well done.

We left the lava tubes shortly before 4 o'clock, panicking just a bit. Jordaan had his ferry leaving the dock in Jeju-si at 4:30, and I was on the phone back and forth with an awesome lady from travel services trying to track down the taxi that I had left my glasses in. (As a side note: I am ridiculously near sighted, if I didn't recover the glasses, I would be teaching in my sunglasses until I could order new ones) Luck was on our side in both cases: We literally dropped Jordaan off at his dock at 4:30 on the button and he did make the boat, but not without making quite a run through the terminal. The kind lady from the tourist help line did manage to track down the taxi that had my glasses and arranged for the driver to meet me at the ferry terminal to retrieve them. The ferry ride home was great, relaxing, dozing and looking over everyones photos of the weekend. I had gone with 11 friends, but because we were such a big group we all split off and did different things throughout the weekend, so we all had different experiences of Jeju Island. Hope you enjoy the pictures, which can be seen here:

So thats...the first weekend in October. What day is it? November 10th? Crapsticks.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Catching up...

Let's play catch-up shall we?

I left you in July, but I did forget to mention that second weekend of July, before I went home to Canada for 4 weeks, was spent at the annual Boreyoung Mud Festival. The mud that is found in around this small city is renowned for its cosmetic uses, and every year it attracts thousands of people to come get muddy. We had a really good weekend, despite being in a room far too small for our group of 17 people and despite have sub-tropical storm weather on our second day. We enjoyed romping around in the mudwrestling pits, painting our faces with colored mud and having the press swarm around us like we were celebrities (just celebrities covered in mud).

Of course, after that weekend, I was very fortunate to come home to Canada for four weeks. I had originally thought I would spend 3 weeks in my hometown visiting family and friends, relaxing, having plenty of time to catch up with people before flying to Southern Ont to visit my friends from Uni. Of course things rarely go as planned. I spent about 8 days in Dryden, then 10 days on a holiday within a holiday visiting my little sister and her husband in South Dakota, then 2 more days in Dryden, and then 7 days in Kitchener-Waterloo, which I though was 8 days until I woke up early the day of my flight back to Korea and notice my flight was leaving 12 hours earlier than I thought it was! It was a really amazing trip though, it was so wonderful to see so many people I have missed so much, and really heartwrenching to still have missed seeing so many of you (Parkway crew - I'm so sorry! And Denise! And Roberta! etc etc etc...) Most of you were there for part of that trip so I won't describe it in detail. I'll just give you the link for the photos of the whole thing ( ) and jump back into blogging about life in Korea...

When I walked through the arrival gate at Incheon IA, I felt a strange feeling. The thought "It feels good to be home" ran through my head. Don't panic Mom, I'm not a lifer. But, truth is, South Korea doesn't feel like a foreign country to me anymore. Now, this is where I live. I have my cozy little apartment, and my cat, and my great job.They are all here. I have a great group of friends that I was eager to catch up with. I was suprised but how comforting I found the lush, mountainous landscape that raced past me on the bus ride home and eager I was to sleep in "my own bed" again.

Now, I'm not sure how the H1N1 flu is being covered by the Canadian media, but I just don't get the sense from talking with family and friends back home that people are panicking about it. South Korea is. And Canada has had a lot more deaths linked to it than SK, they're not even in the double digits yet. The Korean government has responded to H1N1 by cancelling all major cultural festivals (booo!) and many
schools have delayed opening for the fall semester.Standard procedure by our Provincial Education office mandated that anyone who had travelled internationally needed to stay in "quarantine" for a week. Sounds scary, but really it only meant I wasn't allowed to go in to work and make the school liable if I infected everybody with swineflu. More days off for me, yay! It was also recommended that I stay away from public places (though being away for four weeks, it was necessary to go get groceries!). The extra days off were put to good use. Immediately there were "Welcome Back" dinners in my social crew for everybody coming back from vacation and "Goodbye" get-togethers for those who left in August when their contracts were up. We had to say goodbye to ALOT of great people (You know who you are!!!) which was tough, especially since my trip home hadn't quite cured me of my homesickness. What makes living in Korea so pleasant is the wonderful circle of friends I've found here, and big part of September was just adjusting to having so many of them leave. On the other hand, I really enjoyed getting back to some great Korean cuisine. I ate so much junk while I was in Canada that I think I OD'd. I really craved kimchi, and bibimbap, and cheomchi jiggae, and samgypsal, and haejanguk and samgaejuk etc etc etc. So it was great to have so many opportunities to eat out with great people.

It was alittle tough to get back into the swing of things at school. I had been on vacation for 6 weeks, and the last two weeks of classes were spent watching movies and prepping for exams. What do you mean, I have to plan real lessons again??? It was a well needed kick in the pants. And once the first couple classes were under my belt, it felt really good to be doing something productive with my days. My students were rowdy for the first couple of lessons, and for the first time in a very long time I felt my temper trying to get the best of me. I've got all but one class reigned back in (and that's because the disruptive students are so eager to be part of the lesson that it goes off on wild tangents). At any rate, I've got the classroom decorated for Fall, and am really looking forward to dressing it up for Hallowe'en, Winter and Christmas. I didn't think much of it at the time, but everyone who comes into the classroom (students, teachers, principals) loves it. I'm hoping the added visual stimuli will enrich their learning and help the lower-level students stay interested.

Two weekends ago, I travelled to Gwangju, a great city about an hour from Suncheon to have a "Girls Night Out" with some ladies in and around where I live. We got there in time for lunch at TGI Fridays (I had a REAL chicken burger with cheese and bacon!) and dessert at Cold Stone Creamery (of course). Next, we headed to our favourite Gwangju love-motel, "The Windmill" to drop off our bags, then it was off to do some shopping. First, we headed to the art district as C was visiting from Canada and was looking for authentic Korean art to take home with her. A sudden downpour drove us into a small shop where we each wound up finding something unique for a good price. I bought a beautiful embroidered hanging of Korean blossoms on black material for only 30 000 won. It was made about 50 years ago, and it's one of a kind. On our way back to the central shopping area, we found an underground market and did some shopping there. Soon it was time to meet up with everybody at the delicious Indian restaurant in Gwangju, the only one of its kind in this province. We enjoyed the buffet and then went back to the Windmill to make ourselves up. The evening was a journey starting at Ethnic Bar, an atmospheric basement cafe lit by pillar candles and oil lamps, featuring a small pond and decorated with huge swaths of fabric imported from Thailand and India. It was such a relaxing place, I almost didn't want to go anywhere else. But the reason why we had come to Gwangju was really go out dancing. So after a quick stop at the foreigner bar Speakeasy, our group headed over to Houze. Houze is a big dance club that really delivers what you want to find when you go to a club. Lasers, disco balls, a crowd of energetic people and DJ's who really know how to work the tables. It was truly a great place for dancing. The Korean guys were stoked to see a crew of foreign ladies, and were total gentleman, which was a great change from the kind of guys would've had to deal with had we been in Canada. Plus, they knew how to DANCE!!!

See pics here:

Last weekend was Chuseok in South Korea, similar to Thanksgiving in Canada. So I hopped on a ferry to Jeju Island with 10 friends to explore the "Hawaii of Korea". I'll post that entry the week is out!