As a way of reviving the old blog, here is my guide to getting a teaching gig in South Korea.

Teaching certificates

First of all, you’ll need a Bachelors Degree and a TESL/TEFL certificate (essentially the same thing), which are offered by tons of companies and schools worldwide.  The most prestigious is the CELTA, which bears the Cambridge stamp.  Classes are available full-time, part-time, and online year-round; full-time takes around a month (check the link: http://www.cambridgeenglish.org/exams-and-qualifications/celta/ways-to-take-celta/).  I obtained mine through Oxford Seminars, which took three weekends and offered a job search service as well.  If you have the cash, you could even take your course in an exotic locale, such as Barcelona, Tokyo, or Buenos Aires, they’re everywhere.

Teacher Recruiters

Next, you need to find a recruiter.  I highly recommend Teach Away (http://www.teachaway.com), a Canadian outfit that places teachers on just about every continent.  They didn’t charge me a dime, and were very professional. Once I was in South Korea, they were available for counseling on the inevitable difficulties involved with living and working abroad.  Several recruiters will charge you for the placement and though there may be benefits involved, it’s far better to save the dough, no?

Types of Jobs

Now for South Korea, there are three types of teaching gigs available: the Public School program, EPIK, Private Schools called Hagwons, and University positions.  Jobs at the universities are the best, but you need at least two years of experience teaching English as a Second Language (ESL).  Not only is the pay higher and the hours lighter at universities, but you get stupid amounts of vacation time – enough to teach at a temporary job or sail around the Philippines if you want.  Many of my teacher friends went this route after two years in EPIK.

Public School: EPIK, GEPIK

EPIK, which stands for English Program In Korea, is a safe route, but be aware that they significantly downsized a few years ago.  Their goal is to eventually have Korean English teachers teach English IN English.  If that last sentence was confusing, let me explain.  Korea English teachers have traditionally taught their classes in Korean.  The students learn grammar, reading, and writing, but come out with virtually no ability to speak English because they never practice it other than repeating after the teacher.  This isn’t always the case, schools in Seoul of course have the funding to get the best teachers, but in rural Korea it is very much the norm.  Hence, you guys.

In EPIK, you are placed in a public school, teach about 18 hours a week from 8 – 5, and the focus is SPEAKING.  You’re there to get the kids to talk, and in a society where children are taught to be silent in class, this can be an exercise in pulling your hair out.  Therefore, teaching effectively means making the lessons FUN and INTERESTING for the kids.  For compensation, you will be set up with an apartment, round-trip airfare, a nice salary and five weeks vacation time if you go rural.  Seoul offers lower pay and less vacation because that’s where most people go; the incentive is to entice people out to the countryside.  A word on that later.

EPIK places teachers all over the country by province.  Once you’re in a province, they put incentives on contract-renewal to keep you there.  Renewing for the same province is largely hassle-free, but if you want to change provinces, go to Seoul or Busan, you’ll have to re-apply to EPIK all over again, and take a pay cut rather than a raise.  Also, there is GEPIK, which deals with the province around Seoul, Gyeonggi-do.  Teach Away covers the different programs on their South Korea page: http://www.teachaway.com/teach-english-korea/epik-english-program-korea-public-school-jobs-korea

GEPIK claims to offer higher salary and more vacation.  I would actually recommend GEPIK as one of the best public school options.  If you live far out in the sticks, as is the case in most provinces, you’ll be taking a bus to Seoul or another big city almost every weekend.  Gyeongi-do offers quick access to Seoul, but pays higher than jobs in the city and is most likely highly populated which means more English-speaker friends to relieve culture shock and boredom.

At EPIK orientation, you’ll spend a week in lectures, make friends, eat kimchi for the first time, and pick the top three spots where you would like to teach.  In my experience, I put Daegu, the third-largest city first, then Jeju-do, the semi-tropical island south of the Korean peninsula, and thirdly Gangwon-do because I liked the hiking and snowboarding prospects.  I was placed in Gangwon-do, in a tiny mountain town with four other English speakers…for an entire year.  If you don’t want to end up super rural, don’t put anything remotely rural on your choices.  I had a friend from South Africa who was the only English speaker in a tiny farming town for her year.  Rural is mainly for folks who are serious about learning Korean or already speak the language.  If you are only semi-interested in learning the language or not at all, you really need to go urban.

Private Schools: Hagwons

The third option is the Hagwons, private schools that operate in the afternoon and evenings, because in Korea you can never spend enough time studying.  From middle school onwards, Korean children spend almost all day in a classroom.  High school seniors are in school from 8am to 11pm.  I am not kidding at all.  I left work long before the kids when I taught at a high school during my second year.  Anyway, hagwons have weird hours: from 2 to 10pm usually.  You’ll get to sleep in, but at work you’ll be teaching constantly with little downtime.  Whereas EPIK jobs give you several free periods throughout the day, at hagwons you work straight through.  In some cases, hagwons can be more lucrative than EPIK, but you need to be very careful in selecting your employer.

Hagwons are the largest source of South Korea’s ESL horror stories.  This can be anything from employers refusing to pay, paying very late, firing for no reason, holding a teacher hostage by locking up their passport, the list of scams is endless.  I would only take a hagwon job through a reliable recruiter like Teach Away.  Even then, you ought to cross-check on Dave’s ESL Cafe (http://forums.eslcafe.com/korea/viewtopic.php?t=139678).  That being said, there are plenty of legitimate and honest hagwons out there.  Research extensively, and don’t fall for false advertisements, there are loads of them.

Rural vs UrbanRural Pros

Once again, be careful about going rural.  It’s not an all-out terrible experience, but it can get dull when you’ve hiked the three hills in your town a couple hundred times.  There are not many young people in small towns – most of the twenty-somethings migrate to cities for university or work.  It’s great if you want to plow through all the great TV series you missed, but not if you want a normal, active lifestyle.  That being said, here are the pros about rural:

1. Food is straight from the farms.  Fresh ingredients and unbelievably cheap prices mean you can eat out good almost every night.

2. Outdoorsy stuff.  Rural means mountains, lots of em, everywhere.  Hiking trails and rivers for fishing are in high abundance.

3. Skiing/Snowboarding in the winter.  This is where Gangwon-do really shines because of the many ski resorts.  South Korean winter is long and harsh.  My little mountain town got almost two feet of snow one week.  A swift cure for the winter blues is to hit the slopes.  In some towns you can catch a shuttle from downtown to the resorts.  If you live in Seoul, it will take several hours on a bus to get there.

4. Authentic Korea: many people in the cities said they felt the experience wasn’t exactly genuine; more of a Korea-lite.  Personally, I think the language barrier can effectively null this benefit, and urban Koreans are usually far better at English, which helps you meet them in the middle for learning the language.  Nevertheless, going rural is the full challenge.

5. Smaller cities can be fun too.  In Gangwon-do, there are a handful of small cities.  Gangneung had the beach on one side and the Olympic Ski Resort on the other (expect to hear that name in 2018).  Sokcho is even more on the beach, and the other side is Seorak-san, South Korea’s most amazing mountain range will killer-long trails.  Chuncheon is in a nice lake district, and Wonju is up in the mountains near a ski resort.  Each of these cities has a lively community of foreign English teachers, nearby attractions, and less of the hustle, bustle and smog of Seoul.  I lived in Wonju for a year, and it has a shuttle to a ski resort in winter, but I’d recommend Gangneung or Sokcho for the beaches.

Rural vs Urban: Urban Pros

1. More stuff to do.  A metropolis like Seoul not only has a larger population of foreigners, but more entertainment like live sports, live music, amusement parks, clubs to join, martial arts classes that aren’t mainly kids, good gyms, you name it.  Life in the city gives you plenty to do during the week and the weekends.

2. Transport.  Seoul and Busan have great public transportation.  In fact, Seoul has one of the best subways I’ve ever used though the frequency of the trains can be pretty slow at times.  This is a big jump on the small cities, which have cabs and buses, but good luck trying to figure out the bus routes cause the info is all in Korean.  Many people in the small cities end up buying cheap cars.

3. Like going to the movies?  Cities have theaters, small towns in the sticks do not.

4. Nightlife.  Expect little to no nightlife in small towns.  Even in small cities it can be pretty limited.  In Wonju, every nightclub bans foreigners because there used to be a large, US army base nearby and the soldiers got too rowdy.  In fact, that is a big reason to avoid Wonju.  The other cities in Gangwon-do are much better.  In Seoul there are several large bar districts, usually by a university, and no bans on people who aren’t Korean.

5. Busan.  The second largest city, Busan, has just about everything Seoul offers, and is right on the coast to boot.  There’s a lively bar district near the beach – in one joint the bartenders perform all kinds of stunts like blowing fire.

6.  Getting to the airport.  Needless to say, this is far easier and quicker if you live in Seoul.  Many teachers go abroad for their vacations because why wouldn’t you?  Japan and China are right next door, not to mention Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos, and the Philippines.  Warm beaches in the middle of January will cure those winter blues like nothing else.

7. More Koreans that speak English.  It’s great to make Korean friends, and far easier if they speak a degree of English.  Then you can teach your languages to each other over drinks and get good answers for your questions about everything from Korean grammar to kimchi.  When they don’t speak a word of English, and your Korean is basic, you may grow tired of the conversation quickly.  I once spent a 3-hour bus ride next to a guy who could only say, “Los Angeles…long beachy.”  Don’t spend a 3-hour bus ride next to a guy who can only say, “Los Angeles…long beachy.”

8. South Korea for a foreigner is an exciting, fascinating, and very weird place.  Weird in ways that are hilarious and get posted all over Facebook between you and your friends.  Weird in ways that give you a completely new perspective on life, the world, and everything.  The weirdness and excitement just comes out more in cities, because there’s more people to make it happen.

So get out there and have yourself an adventure.

When I started writing this blog, I had it in mind to post at least once a month or whenever something interesting happened.  As you can see, I’ve neglected it for the better part of a year.  Aside from my own laziness, I was fairly unhappy in my situation during my first year in Korea and didn’t want this blog to become nothing more than a series of complaints.  Although my apartment crisis was finally resolved – I moved to a clean, renovated one-room apartment two weeks after I returned from vacation – I don’t think the people at my school ever really understood the problem nor did they forgive me for raising hell about it.  Two of my co-teachers would chronically flare up over petty issues and it seemed nothing more than goading in retaliation for my repeated protests over the apartment.  In one case, a co-teacher instructed me to submit some lesson plans I made to the principal.  Shortly after I did so, she confronted me in the teachers’ office, hysterical, saying I had bucked the chain of command and I should have given the lesson plans to her first.  It went downhill from there, and I began tallying a list of similarly outrageous incidents.

As I said, I was unhappy with my situation and therefore I had only negative things to say about Korea for a long time.  In August, however, I started a new contract and moved to Wonju, the largest city in Kangwon Do.  I’ve been here for six months now, and I have nothing but good things to say about my current school.  My social life improved considerably as there are around 50 expats here in Wonju and several friendly English-speaking Koreans that share the bar stools with us.  My co-teachers are wonderful.  They’re courteous, helpful, eager to improve their English, and they have left my lesson planning entirely up to me.  The key point here is that they don’t interfere.  At my first school, I had to submit 12 typed lesson plans each month to be reviewed by my co-teachers and the principal.  Not entirely unreasonable except for the fact that they kept asking me to change the lessons half-an-hour or less before class started.  Here in Wonju, I’m having a completely different experience than in Pyeongchang.  Now that life is good, I want to write again.

As I go, I will be recording events  in a less than chronological order because there is a lot of backtracking to be made and individual topics to relate.  A good place to start would be the Full Moon Party, where I left off.  We took a ferry over at dusk and arrived after nightfall.  A van drove us into town from the pier to the entrance fee booth.  Wristbands buckled on, we moved toward a line of carts selling all sorts of different alcohol buckets (as in a small plastic bucket you made sand castles with as a kid) and the skies erupted.  The pouring didn’t last long and there was immediate shelter on our left, but everyone began vocally and mentally knocking on wood about a rainout.  Mabs and I walked through narrow, twisting streets of what seemed like the remains of an old colonial town.  Today, of course, it’s all renovated bars and restaurants, every one of them packed to the brim.  We waited until we got to the beach to get buckets.

The beach at Hat Rin is a half-mile sickle that could be mistaken for a carnival.  Giant neon displays, one of them resembling a ferris wheel, spread along its palm tree edge.  A dancing stage sat alone in front of a laser-blasting DJ cockpit, disco ball shredding and refracting the light.  At the other end, revelers lined up to hop over a massive, flaming jump rope.  Carts selling buckets and beers were everywhere.  The end of the beach near the stage rose up to rocky cliffs on which was a multi-tiered bar called Mellow Mountain.  I’ll leave their wares to your imagination.  It was on Mellow Mountain that Mabs and I struck out on our separate ways.  I’d run into a Chilean girl and was having a chat about Santiago, this and that.  We were out on a long porch, the beach the lights and the ocean before us.  The clouds had finally emptied themselves after several squalls and the party’s namesake was now thankfully visible.

The chilena and I parted before too long so I went searching the upper decks of the bar.  I saw several people decorated with neon paint, some in tatoo designs, and a lone middle-aged couple who stuck out conspicuously among all the young backpackers.  At the very top, I ran into three guys from the boat: two Austrians and a Belgian, who set a full bucket down before me and said, “You were on the boat.”  The four of us went down to the disco stage where I stupidly shrugged off my rainbow sandals without even thinking where I’d left them.  The rest of the night was a bit of a whirlwind.  I noticed that many people were building something close to the stage and at midnight they lit it on fire.  It was a huge, flaming sign that said “Full Moon Party, Haad Rin, Ko Pan Ngan.”

I have to sign off here.  My office has been annexed for a teachers’ meeting.

Peace

It’s taken me way too long to sit down and write this one, but we’re having field day at school and I’ve got no classes.

I left Bangkok on one of the shittiest buses I’ve ever ridden.  That bus ride still clenches itself in my mind as the most uncomfortable seven hours of my life.  The seats were Thai-sized so my knees were drawn up and pressed against the back of the seat in front, the air conditioning was an insignificant trickle that was absorbed by the heat before it even reached my face, and it was bumpy.  A warning to all: if you’re traveling in Southeast Asia, do NOT buy bus tickets from the first travel agency shop you walk past, go to the bus station.  They run these scams by which you get the longest, most uncomfortable ride in your life so that out of sheer exhaustion you’ll stay at the first hostel they take you to.  Sure enough, there were guys walking around on the boat to Ko Tao asking everyone where they were staying and promoting their own hostel.

As I said, the bus ride down to Chumphon took about seven hours, and once we arrived there (at 2a.m.) we had to wait until 7 to get on the ferry.  There was a covered rest area where you could take a nap, but it quickly filled up.  I was more interested in putting back a few beers so I stayed up with this middle-aged guy from north England and a cute girl from somewhere I can’t remember.  There was internet access, food and TV in the little station so I found plenty of ways to pass the time.  And oh yes…it poured rain.

The boat left at dawn.  It was a 40-ft passenger ferry with a deck up top.  I settled down for a nap but I saw the hostel-brokers making their rounds and went up on the deck to avoid them.  With just a little sunlight, what had been simply darkness became tropical foliage, limestone boulders, and the endless blue sea.  There was a nice breeze blowing and the familiar, long-missed smell of salt began to help me forget the ordeal I’d gone through to get there.

Ko Tao remains one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever seen.  It’s a small, crescent-shaped island, very mountainous in the center, and covered in lush, bright green foliage.  Although the beaches aren’t white sand like in the Caribbean, the water has that effect of being so clear that it turns aquamarine and turquoise near the shore.  Palm trees stick out at angles toward the sea, and here and there the expanse of sand is interrupted by the occasional boulder.  There were hundreds of multi-national sunbathers, of course, and a few of the girls (probably Europeans) went about topless.  These sightings occurred almost daily.

When we came to the dock, I ran past the crowd of placard-waving hostel brokers and settled at the first good-looking place I came to.  It was a good room, but far away from all the action.  The dock is in a small community called Mae Hat; the bar stip and scuba shops are along a much longer beach to the north called Sai Ree.  A 20 minute walk brought me up to Sai Ree where I got my first view of the foreigner-dotted beach with angled palm trees and light green clear water.  On one side is the water, and on the other is another kind of liquid.  Cocktail bars side to side with scuba shops run halfway down Sai Ree where there’s a short break and a couple of bungalow hostels.  Then it picks up again as you get closer to the northern hills, developing into a densely constructed downtown area with, that’s right, more bars.  There’s a couple of 7-elevens and barbershops too, I suppose.

After scoping the beach, I went to a scuba shop I’d heard about from an English guy on the boat: Phoenix Divers.  I signed up for an immediate Advanced course starting the next day, and went back to the beach.  There wasn’t much else to do but order a piña colada, have a seat facing the water, and write a bit.  Here’s a bit from that entry: “Bob is playing on the radio.  Two Aussies with tattoos and mohawks are having a little banter at the table next to me.”  For dinner, I got a green curry nextdoor and ate it on the porch as the sun went down.

I didn’t stay out too late that night.  In fact, I left the bar at 11.  My hotel, however, neglected to mention that they closed up shop at 10.  My key was in the office behind a locked door.  I asked a bartender around the corner for help but no amount of shouting through the window could rouse the owners.  I spent the night in a hammock on the beach.

The next day, I reserved a bungalow at a place called AC.  It was across the narrow street from Phoenix Divers and had a deal with them on accomodation:  Go diving with Phoenix, get a discount on your room.  As the Lonely Planet guide says, you really do get into the hostel grounds by hopping across some stones in a creek.  And there’s a waterfall next to the cave-mouth entrance.  It’s all conspicuously man-made, but you’ve got to appreciate the effort.

For the first two days, I went on five dives to earn my Advanced Open-water Diving Certificate.  The first two were uneventful: master buoyancy and navigation, but the three dives of the second day were some of the best I’ve ever done.  First, a 90-meter deep dive where curious sharks came close enough for us to see their outline in the hazy water or darted below us.  I had actually done a deep dive five years ago on Bonaire; a wreck dive.  But I’d left my dive book back in Georgia.

The second dive that day had many available options and being the trigger-happy cameraman that I am, I chose underwater photography.  I took some good shots of urchins, eels, and various fish; nothing special except perhaps for the puffer fish hiding in a tiny cave.  Back on board, I was putting away my equipment when a Canadian dive-master about my age jumped down from the top-deck and shouted “whale shark!”

I don’t think I’d even recovered from my surprise when the boat (painted to look like a pink cadillac) whipped around and sent everyone lurching and grabbing for the rafters.  We made a beeline for a cluster of diving ships only a few hundred feet away while everyone frantically threw on their flippers and masks.  Once we arrived, I saw many people churning a slow-moving circle in the water.  The boat never stopped as we jumped off one at a time and kicked towards the other divers.  As I took my leap, I reflected that it was a lucky day to have rented a camera.

At first, I couldn’t see the shark anywhere, just a hundred kicking legs sticking down from the surface.  It came into my field of vision quite suddenly and I was amazed at its size: almost six meters long.  The body was gray with random dark splotches, the fins, tail and streamlined shape just like a shark except for that unmistakable broad, flat head.  A streaming cloud of eel-shaped fish swam alongside its mouth (probably picking off bits of plankton).  It was only about ten feet below the surface and swimming lazily along in the warm mid-day water.  In the process of trying to watch it, the divers unavoidably swam into and kicked each other with much adrenaline-fueled apologizing.

Back at the dive shop, the staff put my pictures on a CD, and I promptly posted them up on Facebook in order to gloat in the envy of my friends.  That evening, I went on a night dive with my dive-buddy, Mabs, from Wales, and our French Swiss dive master.  We didn’t see the whale shark, but we saw some snaggle-toothed barracuda and tried to get them to feed by shining our flashlights on unsuspecting little fish.  No luck with that, but amusing nonetheless.

With the diving class done, Mabs and I went to the strip for a boozy night out.  The bars along Sai Ree begin blaring techno around 11, and all along the beach there are Thais and Westerners fire-twirling to the beat.  Most of the twirlers use either a single stick flaming at both ends (which is my favorite), or a set of flaming bolas that they swing around in interlocking circles and arcs.  Occasionally, you can find them swinging a thick-coiled flaming rope.  Instead of dodging the random motorcycles that are constantly moving up and down the drag day-in and day-out, I preferred to get from bar to bar by wading along the cool beach now turned purple from the mixed neon and moonlight.  Looking up, I could see that the moon was almost full.  I had been watching it ever since I arrived in Phnom Penh; eagerly awaiting the party on Ko Phan Ngan.  We were going there tomorrow.

February 26, 2010

I stayed in Bangkok long enough to ride the Sky Train, see the Royal Palace and several Wats, and have a fancy dinner on the riverfront.  The last item on that list is a must for anyone visiting Bangkok.  We ordered the best Tom Kah I’ve ever had, half a pineapple full of rice and veggies, and a red, seafood curry that came in a coconut.  Top that off with a bottle of Argentine vino and you too will be saying “Thank you, Buddha.”

The Royal Palace of Thailand is only a few blocks away from Khao San (aka Western Tourist Land) and is easily reached on foot.  Be prepared though; walking means having to repeat the phrase “no thanks” indefinitely, in many various and experimental forms.  The Khao San area is crawling with tuk-tuk drivers and a menagerie of aggressive salesmen, many of whom are out to scam you.  Eventually, it will drive even the most serene monk to fits of insanity.  You can either float up to a cloud in your mind and think happy thoughts (and try to stay there), or you can have some fun with it.  Me, I speak Spanish pretty well, so I pretended to be a Spanish Speaker who didn’t understand English.  It was fun, but I quickly learned that talking to them, no matter what language, only encourages them. One guy actually got on his tuk-tuk and drove after me after two encounters of “No, gracias.  No hablo inglés.”  Over a week later at the Beijing airport, I was trading stories with some friends from orientation (we unexpectedly ended up on the same flight from Bangkok to Seoul), and I recommend Andrew’s method.

Andrew’s Method is to reply to tuk-tuk drivers and scammers with the craziest thing that pops into your head.  For example, “I like dead cats.”  This is great because it’s funny to you, but the scammer will most likely have no idea what you are talking about.  Not that it will deter them, that takes more work.  Here’s a sample of the conversation Andrew had:

Tuk-tuk Driver: Hey man, tuk-tuk.  You want ride?

Andrew: I like dead cats.

Tuk-tuk Driver: Ok, let’s go.  I know good temple.  You know Wat Pho?

Andrew: Can you show me some dead cats.

Tuk-tuk Driver: I take you Wat Pho 50 baht.

Andrew: I’m going to kill you when nobody’s looking.

Tuk-tuk Driver: OK, let’s go.  Come on.

As you can see…Tuk-tuk drivers don’t really listen to what you say.  They just repeat a sales pitch and if your mouth is moving it means money.  Sometimes they will put their arm around you or take your hand and try to help you up onto the tuk-tuk before you’ve even agreed on a deal.  On my last day in Thailand, a guy reached out to shake my hand, and didn’t let go until I yanked it away.  Personally, I was more impressed with the children at Angkor who could recite the name of the past five heads of state, the names of all states/counties/provinces, and the exact population number of any country the tourist could be from .  The point is: either say “no thanks” fifty gazillion times, or have some fun.  One time I dodged a knick knack seller by giving an English lesson.  She offered me a wooden frog: I said, “This is a frog.”  She put her hat on my head and held out her hand for payment: “This is a hat,” I said.

Personally, I wouldn’t recommend staying on Khao San for more than a few days.  It is the Bangkok version of Itaewon minus the G.I.s.

The furthest I got into the central city was to a place called Siam Square.  It’s a huge shopping mall, but was a welcome relief after two days on Khao San.  Unlike Phnom Penh, Bangkok is a glitzy modern metropolis in the central area.  The traffic is everything you’ve heard and worse – try red lights that count down from 120 – but it’s a place that I would like to return to and properly explore.  You get a feeling in Bangkok, that this is a lively place where the surrounding cultures are colliding and fusing to churn out all sorts of goodies.  It reminded me a bit of Brazil.  But back to topic: I went out to Siam Square to ride the Sky Train.  Not only does Bangkok have highways and subways, but they built an above ground train system as another desperate bid to ease commuters’ daily thoughts of suicide.  I’m afraid to say that it’s not quite the “ultramodern” marvel that Lonely Planet made it out to be – and I’m quoting the Yellow Bible here – but it was nevertheless…cool.  The train travels about 60 feet above the roads on a thick gray concrete support.  I was expecting a monorail or something flashy, but it’s really just an above-ground subway.  Beats the hell out of taking a cab though.

The Royal Palace of Phnom Penh, a beautiful collection of white and yellow sandstone buildings, was one of my favorite sights in that city.  But the Palace in Bangkok goes above and beyond.  While not as classy in some respects, it is far bigger.  The temple area sports an enormous blue, yellow, red, and gold pavilion, the Temple of the Emerald Buddha, as well as a 50 ft. Golden Chedi (a stupa-like spire), a temple housing ancient Buddhist scriptures, and a model of Angkor Wat that is three-times the size of the one in Phnom Penh (and Angkor is not even IN Thailand).  The Temple has what appear to be golden, gem-encrusted pillars all around, but closer inspection reveals them to be covered in gold paint and small pieces of colored glass.  Not really sure how that came about.  Fortunately, the rest of the building was more tastefully done than a Chinese restaurant in Gainesville.

Inside the temple, the floor is covered in red carpet, the ceiling and walls are an enormous painting of events from Thai and Buddhist lore, and the jade statue of Gautama sits on top of a high, golden, extravagantly decorated altar.  A sort-of triple lamp shade hangs over his head, and he is dressed in one of three seasonal outfits: Dry Season, Rainy Season, and Winter.  The King changes his clothes at the start of each new season.  During my visit, he was robed-up for winter and only his head was visible.  Winter my ass, it was over 70 degrees outside.  It does not count as winter if you can sunbathe.  In any case, that should give you a good idea of what the hottest temperatures are like.

The actual Royal Palace – the mansion where the king lived – was quite British actually.  King Chulalongkorn, following his father’s advice to westernize, built a white Victorian palace with tall iron-and-gold gates, lampposts,  gleaming Thai spires, and one hell of a balcony.  If I remember correctly, there was a large clock as well.  It may have been posing much, but King Rama V kept his country independent when neighboring countries all around were singing the colony blues.  Interesting story I heard about Rama V: he went all over the world courting the leaders and marrying the most highly connected women he could find.  With all the political connections he developed – by being the biggest pimp of the century – he kept Thailand from going under the colonial sway.  Cheers to the King.

Which brings me to the current monarch, Bhumibol Adulyadej.  It is a capital offense to speak ill of the king in Thailand, but luckily for me I’ve got no criticism.  Rama IX is one of the most popular monarchs ever due to his numerous humanitarian projects.  He also frequently runs about in disguise to avoid the human tsunami that accompanies all of his official visits with the public.  There is an anecdote where he was riding on the subway in disguise, when suddenly everyone around him bowed down with a high-brow wai (palms together against the forehead).  He looked up and saw his daughter, the princess, and immediately bowed before her to avoid being recognized.  I always appreciate heads of state with a sense of humor.  Ask a Thai, and you’ll hear quite a bit on how much they love their king.

Another site I recommend for anyone visiting Bangkok is Wat Arun.  The monastery has a tower that gives one a great view of Bangkok – and sunsets.  Like the Temple of the Emerald Buddha, it looks very impressive from afar, but when you get up close you start noticing some cheap decorations.  My theory is that the porcelain plate craft flowers that cover Wat Arun are the donations of the community, in this way decorating their sanctuary inexpensively.  The majority of the structure though is sandstone and has many skillfully carved figures.

Getting to Wat Arun is a bit tricky; you have to cross the river and take a boat down.  Luckily, I had a tour guide in the form of a girl I met while hopping the bar scene in Khao San.  Aree’s English was good enough for basic conversation, and she insisted on taking me for a temple tour.  Also, she got me there following a penny-pinching code of transportation that the shoestring writers at Lonely Planet would be proud of.  First, we took a bus that cost about 20 baht per ticket.  It was hell on wheels and the seats were not made for an almost 6’0 guy, but it got us quickly over to…  a crowd of dudes on motorcycles.  I was thinking in my mind, “No, we’re not really going to…”  and that’s when Aree jumped side-saddle on the back of a bike and took off.  I had never ridden on a motorbike before, and Bangkok traffic is not where you want to try it out.  I jumped on one and held ontl the chubby driver’s windbreaker for dear life for the entire one….one minute drive it took to get to the pier.  I felt like a baby.

Continuing the buffet of transportation, we hopped on a ferry for 16 baht to Wat Arun.  To give you an idea of how cheap this was: $1.oo = 33 baht.  The back seat of the boats are always reserved for monks, and the rest of humanity crowds into the interior holding onto whatever they can.  Lucky for me, the ceiling was low enough to grab onto something.

After Wat Arun, we went to see Wat Pho, which is home to a giant reclining Buddha about 6 meters high and the length of a football field.  The temple was closed, but that didn’t stop me from looking through the windows.  In the sanctuary, Aree showed me how to pray like a Buddhist, which involves some yoga-like kneeling, head-to-floor bowing, and since it’s for Buddha, you’ve got to keep your pressed palms against your forehead with the thumb knuckles fitting into that cleft at the top of your nose.  Only Buddha gets a wai this high.

We were both hungry after, so I acted like a gentleman and bought the lady dinner.  This would be the curry in the coconut dinner on the riverfront.  The next day I said goodbye and boarded what was probably the most uncomfortable bus I’ve ever ridden on for seven hours.  More on that in my next segment because it’s almost 10 after 5, and even if I didn’t really want to go home, I’d soon be kicked out of the office.

Peace

While touring the temples at Angkor, my tour guide, Chhai, spoke briefly about his life under the whip of the Khmer Rouge.  He was 17 when the militia told everyone they had three days to leave their homes and report to a randomly assigned commune out in the country.  Some people had only a few days walk to get there.  Chhai’s journey took a month.  When I asked how he found enough to eat during that trek, he didn’t respond.  He spent almost four years slaving away in the rice fields.

His little brother, Polo, was a bit luckier as he was born during the regime and was still a toddler when it fell.  Polo drove us all over Angkor for two days in his tuk-tuk, which is a covered wooden carriage pulled by a motorbike.  I got up at 5:30am the first day in order to see the sunrise over Angkor Wat.  It was a bit cloudy, so the view wasn’t quite as spectacular as in the postcards.  Small children were everywhere selling packs of them, and the best picture looks like the Wat is exploding.  The moat in front reflects the colors of the sky to surround the temple in solar paint.

I spent the first day walking through the main city, Angkor Thom, with Chhai.  The walls surround about four square miles, most of it forest now, with several temples, terraces, and an enormous swimming pool for the king’s concubines and children.  The most interesting one is called Bayon.  It’s a multi-tiered Hindu temple peppered with those iconic towers in the shape of a closed lotus.  However, King Jayavarman VII, the Great Builder, ordered the bulding to feature over 200 giant carvings of his own face in a serene expression of divine contemplation.  Or perhaps, enlightenment.

Jayavarman VII practiced both Buddhism and Hinduism, so the 60-plus  temples constructed during his reign feature Siva and Indra alongside Gautama.  However, a later successor by the title of Jayavarman VIII rejected Buddhism and ordered the removal of nearly all images of the bumpy-headed guy seated on a lotus.  You can see where he’s supposed to be, but the images were scoured away.

My favorite two temples were Tha Prohm and Preah Khan.  These are the two that have yet to be completely reclaimed from the jungle, and they could easily be the set of an Indiana Jones flick.  This is mainly the work of the parasitic “spung” tree that only grows on stones.  They have very smooth off-white trunks that reach fairly high, and their massive roots clutch the temple walls like tentacles.

Angkor Wat (“Wat” means “monastery”) was once home to quite a few monks and over a hundred statues of Buddha – most of which were destroyed by Jay the Eighth.  It was far more massive than I could have imagined.  I knew that it’s walls surrounded a square mile, but it’s one of those things that you have to see to believe.  Like Machu Picchu and Rio de Janeiro.  The main citadel is a giant stupa of sorts.  It has three levels, which I assume to represent Earth, Heaven, and Nirvana (or something to that accord).  The first has an enormous carving that runs the length of the wall depicting scenes from the Ramayana.  Chhai, knowing what part of epics boys like, showed me the battle scene between Rama and the army of demons.  I reckon there were something around 500 pairs of Rama and a demon locked in various poses of combat.

The second and third levels are almost identical.  They contain a grid of four square-shaped swimming pools.  Well, Chhai said they were swimming pools, but I imagine they may have had other purposes Angkor Wat being a monastery and all.  Moving along, the pools are open to the air and fill with rain water.  Columned walkways run along the sides.  The King’s staircase to the top level was still being restored – as much of Angkor still is – so we walked around to the back entrance where I was just in time to climb the steep staircase using hands and feet.  The view from the top allows one to see the entire coutyard stretching back to the main entrance.  About the length of five or six football fields/pitches.  One can also get a good view of the forest with palm trees rising above the canopy.  Unfortunately for me, I visited Angkor Wat during the very first rain storm in two months.  During the dry season.  It started out light and nice, but Chhai and I had to walk all the way back across the coutryard and the bridge huddled under his small jacket.

I went out with Polo and friends the night before I left.  After flying thousands of miles away from Korea, I still ended up chugging beer at a noraebang.  Cambodian karaoke has a noticeably Indian tune overlapping the East Asia tones.  Several of the singers in the videos could have passed for Hindis to Western eyes.  Now I know why they call it Indo-China.

The bus ride to Bangers (as it was dubbed by an Australian my coordinator met), was an exhausting 12 hours.  The border crossing could have easily been accomplished in a shorter amount of time, but our guides insisted that we wait for the designated van to ferry us over to the bus rather than jumping on a passing tuk-tuk.  In retrospect, it’s probably much faster to just bus to the border, cross it yourself, and find a bus to Bangkok.

It seemed like we were on board a scam trip: one where the drivers and guides make the journey as long and uncomfortable as possible so you’ll collapse at the guesthouse they take you to (which is paying them a commission).  However, the bus dropped me off at Khao San Road, the backpacker hangout, which was exactly were I wanted to be.  I found Stuart sitting at a roadside bar, checked into a hostel, and we brought on the vodka buckets.  With some creamy Thai curry as well.  Have now recovered from the previous night’s alcohol fest and will be meeting some Canadian dive instructors – who work at Ko Tao – for dinner and beers.

Out

January 17, 2010

A french press coffee with bacon and eggs on a thatch-covered dock at the hostel this morning was a good way to wash away all the frustration involved in getting here over the past two days.  Friday started off nice and breezy with the heating system giving out.  Luckily, the hotel across the street (where I stayed in December) has a jinjobang on the side.  It was a bit sparse compared to other bathhouses I’ve been to in Korea, and I was in such a hurry to get over there that I forgot the bag of shampoo, toothbrush and other accessories I packed for it.  My misgivings were correct.  Most jinjobangs provide lots of toiletries but all I got was a towel.  A bar of soap and hot water were the only essentials, I told myself.  A message I sent to one of Stuart’s co-teachers got his boiler repaired, but I was stressing about that possible delay  all morning.

The last day of winter camp went smoothly.  We focused on cooking Tteokkboki, a spicy stir fry of rice noodles and veggies.  Despite two hours to finish packing after school, I still missed the last bus to Seoul and had to do the Jangpyeong shuffle to catch another one.  Jangpyeong is a hub in Pyeongchang County and you can usually catch a bus to anywhere else from there.  Seoul involved a freezing cold search for the hostel; crossing and re-crossing the highway to get to a PC bang (internet cafe) so I could check the directions.  As usual, the hostel was a bit bare compared to the love motels that run at the same price.  I’m still not winning on that search, but I hope to find a hostel in Seoul that somewhat follows the model of Loki Cuzco.

Made it to the airport with plenty of time.  Chatted with a Korean who wanted to practice his English on the bus.  Feasted on sizzling bimbimpap with two sushi chefs on their way to Japan, and then I was 30,000 feet over the east coast of China.  We landed in a sunny and smoggy southern city called Guangzhou where I came face-to-face with the infuriating and sketchy Chinese beaureucracy.  My plane was boarding and I was still standing in line at immigration, I could see a crowd of Westerners had been herded to a corner marked “transfers” and the navy-uniformed immigration po had been checking this guy’s passport for the past 20 minutes it seemed.  Two of his mates waited on the other side chuckling, but I was considering the possibility of missing my flight.  Suddenly, a guard came over and asked for my passport.  He turned his back on me and didn’t say anything, then I was following a thin, spectacled bloke in loops around the desks and queue ropes to an elevator that took me up to the metal detector.  They helped me bypass the line to get to my plane on time, for which I was confused and grateful.  Another American told me that the crowd at the “transfers” corner were all North American English teachers working in South Korea.  After showing their passports, there were told to wait indefinitely in that corner.  Several possibilites came to discussion obviously, but I’m still in the dark as to what that was all about.

Arriving in Phnom Penh, a clerk at the visa desk said he couldn’t give me a tourist visa because there were no blank pages in my passport.  Here is were I lost my temper.  Normally, I’ve been doing a good job of playing nice and getting things done smoothly, but the fatigue of the trip had wore me down.  However, as it usually goes, you kick up a little stink, and someone comes along who knows how to fix things.  A middle-aged Cambodian in a uniform went and talked to the clerk, then returned with a form wherein I could give my permission to put the tourist visa on a page with only a faint stamp from Mexico City.  Irked me that the clerk didn’t bother to mention this, but I still felt annoyed at myself for lashing out at him.

The taxi driver said he knew where Happy Guesthouse No. 11 was, then asked me for the street address.  No worries though, I just pointed on the map and he took me almost to the front door.  Riding through Phnom Penh was a world away from hyper-developed South Korea.  Reminded me of Peru.  Half the traffic was motorcycles and cycle-pulled covered carriages (I think those are the “tuk-tuks” I read about).  The city is third-world and run down like the southern parts of Santiago and Lima.  It’s flat as a pancake, and several buldings have the colonial French look of second-floor porch balconies. There are also some very modern-looking buildings right next to cramped slums.  The Lonely Planet writers aren’t kidding when they say there is a wide gap between rich and poor.

The hostel is much like Loki in its ammenities, and it sits peacefully on the Boeng Kak lakeside.  Hammocks, fans, bamboo and palms.  Bar, all-day restaurant, and internet (obviously).  The weather is perfect.  It’s about 80 F, 30 C, and there’s a great breeze coming in over the lake.  Gravitated toward beer and Brits, as I usually do, and slept pretty well in my single room for $5.  Now that I’ve got bacon, eggs, toast, coffee, and tropical fruit in the belly, I’m off to see all the tourist trail highlights:  The Royal Palace, the Silver Pagoda, the National Musuem, all within walking distance of each other.  I think the day will begin with Tuol Sleng though, so as not to end the day with a depressing look at the darkest side of humanity.  Watched The Killing Fields for the first time last week.  However, the most immediate necessity is some bug-spray cause I’m being eaten alive!

Peace

December 11, 2009

Unfortunately, this blog didn’t stay as steady as I’d hoped.  So much has happened since my last post, and I always figured that I would have time at some point to catch up.  Now, it is highly possible that I will be leaving South Korea in January, and I need to give a general summary of what’s going on.

My apartment has been an issue ever since I arrived in Pyeongchang.  Aside from being old and in bad repair – and a boiler that was installed in 1991 – there is a severe black mold infestation in the walls, and the Pyeongchang Office of Education has fought tooth and nail to keep me there despite the health risks.  Back in April, the pipes in the apartment above burst and soaked down into mine.  The teacher I replaced did not even live in the apartment during the last two months of her contract because the air gave her headaches and made her eyes burn.  My initial complaints got me as far as a promise to get a new apartment in February when the lease runs out.  Later, they agreed to put the lease on the market.  Obviously, no one is buying.

On Monday, November 30, I moved into a motel room that costs 30,000 Won a night.  It’s been nice living in a place without mold where the hot water doesn’t run out after three minutes, but it’s becoming a financial burden and the Gangwon-do Office of Education recently informed me that I will not be compensated.  I’ve asked them to give the apartment a professional cleaning, and the main office agreed, but the Pyeongchang office is stalling.  Yesterday, I told the main office that my cut-off point is the end of this month.  At that time, if the situation has not improved, I will submit a letter of resignation and look for greener pastures in the Spanish-speaking world.

I have to admit that my situation is pretty rare, and most people I know were given decent apartments.  What I’ve been told is that it is impossible to get me a new apartment before February due to government policy, budget issues, and paperwork.  Suffice to say, they cannot get authorization to pay for a second apartment when they are bound by a contract on the initial apartment.  If anyone out there knows a solution for this in South Korean law, then please tell me.

It’s been a good run in South Korea thus far.  I ate some pretty amazing food, hiked through beautiful mountains, visited many different cities around Gangwon-do, made about five trips to Seoul, and I went snowboarding at Yongpyong last Saturday after a year-and-a-half hiatus from the slopes.  My school was great, and no one there ever gave me much grief beyond communication difficulties.  I’m still going on vacation to Cambodia and Thailand in January and February, and I saw three seasons of Lost back-to-back.

Is my situation horrendously unethical?  Well, yes.  There’s nothing I can do about it, but I was flown half-way around the planet with the promise of an apartment provided by the school, and what I got was a place that is simply unfit for human habitation.  If you’ve never read anything about mycotoxicosis (mold poisoning), then look up an article online.  I guarantee it will make your stomach turn.  I got off pretty easy considering I lived in that place for three months.  The worst it got to was headaches and waking up in the middle of the night with my sinuses clamped shut.  Regarding the whole situation, I have to warn people to be wary of teaching at public schools in rural South Korea.  However, the truth is that ESL teachers have had problems everywhere in this country.  There is no shortage of both horror and success stories.

I’m going to attempt to retrace my steps a bit and post about all the good times and the fun things I did while I’ve been over here.  There actually were quite a few laughs.

Till then, hang in there.

October 19, 2009

In East Asia, the primary date table was once a lunar calendar that measured months by the phases of the moon rather than the Earth’s revolution around the sun.  Naturally, holidays that occur on lunar calendar dates do not coincide with the same date each year on the solar calendar.  South Koreans celebrate two such lunar holidays: Lunar New Year’s Eve and Chuseok, a harvest festival that occurs either at the end of September or the beginning of October depending on when the full moon shows her face.  Chuseok is often compared to Thanksgiving because it is centered around a family feast of traditional food, but Koreans prefer to have three days off instead of one.  Unfortunately, the three days of Chuseok fell on the weekend this year: October 2nd, 3rd, and 4th respectively.  It began on Friday, so I was off that day, and my school decided to cancel Monday as well, but no teacher’s off-days were the same; some got Thursday off.

With a four-day weekend ahead of me, I decided to do some real tourism.  My previous two weekends in Gangneung and Sokcho amounted mostly to bar crawls and trips to E-Mart the next day.  What is E-Mart?  A multi-story grocery/department store with imported Western food like…cheese…and salsa.  Korea doesn’t do cheese for some reason.  But I digress.  I was itching to see a city on the southeast coast called Gyeongju.

Shilla, one of the three ancient dynasties of Korea, built its capital at Gyeongju, thus peppering the place with relics from that era, especially on Namsan (South Mountain).  Lonely Planet has this to say about Namsan: “Among the relics found (so far) are 122 temple sites, 64 stone pagodas, 57 stone Buddhas, many royal tombs, rock-cut figures, pavillions, and the remains of fortresses, temples, and palaces.”  During my six-hour hike on Sunday, I probably saw about 7% of these, many of which required taking a side road off the main course.

Getting to Gyeongju, however, required a bit more than going to a bus ticket window and saying, “Gyeongju hana juseyo.”  Chuseok causes a tidal wave of people traveling out of Seoul to spend the holidays with Mom and Pop in the country.  Bus tickets are scarce, so I took the train.  A 10am bus from Pyeongchang took me to the nearest big city, Wonju, where I boarded the standing section of the train.  I was able to move to a seat after the first hour, but by then I was making conversation with a young Korean man seated on the floor with me.  He was an English teacher in Suwon and seemingly overjoyed to practice his trade with a native speaker.  Like most traveling yuppies that day, he was going back to his hometown in the country, and expecting a big, boozy reunion with high school pals.  We parted ways as the train passed his home, and I moved from the floor to a chair.

The train stopped in Andong, and I had two hours to kill before taking another train on to Gyeongju.  There wasn’t enough time to do any real sightseeing, so I cut it to barbeque and an ATM trip.  On my way back to the train I noticed an advert for a Soju Museum.  And thus marked Andong for a visit in the future.

Arriving in Gyeongju around 7pm, I reflected that taking a bus down on Thursday evening would have given me more time for sightseeing.  Stuart threw a Mexican food dinner party that night, and I had been delayed by the burritos.  In a way, they were worth it.  I was afraid that I would arrive at the hostel too late to meet up with anyone for Friday night fun, but there was a crowd of foreign girls outside as I came walking up.  We went to a traditional Korean music show, during which I learned that they were exchange students from Eastern Europe: Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Russia.

The show’s highlight was the drumming group.  Five guys drumming at high speed with various drum sets.  It sounded like a tribal dance out of the Congo, but with a hint of Asia.  There was a funny silent skit between an eldery couple: a sort of courtship/fighting/flirting with the audience thing with musical accompaniment.  The other shows were good, but marred by the background music.  There must be a completely different view of taste over here when it comes to pitch and harmony, because some of this music is pretty rough on my ears.  The drumming and the gong-banging is great, but then there are these twanging string intruments, and a whiny, screeching, high pitched clarinet sort of thing.  It sounds like someone slaughtering a herd of bagpipes.  Frankly, the North Korean music show we saw the next night was much more harmonious than the traditional music show.  Of course, it wasn’t even in the same category: a concert on stage with lights, amplifiers and glamorous girls.  Most of the music was probably from the 20th century rather than the 2nd.  So…yeah, I miss South American music.

I went to Bulguksa with an American guy named BJ (just BJ, it doesn’t stand for anything), and Rory, a bloke from Kent.  Both of them teach in Seoul, so we traded stories on teaching in the country versus the city.  Bulguksa itself is a large Buddhist Temple compound with many separate buildings.  It is hailed as a masterpiece of Shilla temple architecture, and thus one of many UNESCO sights in Gyeongju.  I’ll let the pictures speak for themselves.

After touring Bulguksa, we hiked up to the Seokguram Grotto, another UNESCO sight and masterpiece of Buddhist artwork.  The attraction is a stone carving of the Sakyamuni Buddha surrounded by guardians and lesser deities.  The Buddha sits on a dais inside a dome carved into the mountainside.  It is said that the architect of this relic, Kim Daeseong, calculated Pi out to seven digits when carving the rounded interior of the dome.  The 3.5m tall statue is inside a small, closed pavilion, and a glass barrier prevents tourists from entering the dome.  Not surprisingly, photography is not allowed.  Wikipedia, however, managed to snag a photo, so search “seokguram grotto” on Wiki to see the statue.

The Grotto sits high up in the mountains where one can see the Sea of Japan.  The Buddha faces east over the sea, and thus is seen as a protector of his country.  FYI: Korea and Japan did not get along for the better part of human history.  At the entrance to the park – because there are some windy mountain paths between the ticket booth and the Buddha – there is a red pavilion with an enormous bell.  They say that the ring can be heard for miles.

We headed back to the hostel after Seokguram, then to dinner, then to a large central park for the North Korean music show.  When it got too cold, we headed bar-ways.  I remembered seeing a western bar on my way from the train station, so we retraced my steps and discovered: Oolie Boolie.  I’ve no idea where they got that name, but it sounds slightly Australian to my ear.  The important thing was that Oolie Boolie has by far my favorite menu in South Korea.  You can order liquor by the bottle or by the “grass,” and slurp down such fine whiskies as “Johnny Waker,” or perhaps try the “West In Dies Yellow Bird” cocktail.  It was a treasure trove of Engrish.  I was there with Rory, a French girl, an American who works at the international tribunal in The Hague, and Shinya, a Japanese-Canadian who has been traveling through Asia since New Years’s Day.  I couldn’t even begin to recount all the stories he told me that night, but suffice to say: the man has lived.  He did tell me this one yarn about how, while hiking in rural Thailand (or was it Laos), he came upon a village and learned that the next bus back to civilization would be along in three days.  As he pondered what to do, a local asked him if he would like to teach their children English in return for food and lodging.  So he did.  Shinya’s advice to me on backpacking – especially in Southeast Asia – was not to try and whirlwind it (see as many countries as you can in a small amount of time).  He said the best way was to pick one country and enjoy it for all it was worth.  With the time on his hands, he’s done that with just about every country over here except Korea.  And now he’s here.

According to Shinya, the Japanese – and I can say that the Koreans do as well – have a very anti-PDA culture.  It would be rare to see a husband and wife kiss goodbye at the train station or the airport.  Rory reported that a Korean girl we was dating waved goodbye in his face a full arms-length away when he tried to give her a goodbye smooch.  I find it interesting that on the other side of the planet, in South America, public make-out is completely acceptable.  Probably in certain areas of Europe as well.

Rory and I went for the Namsan hike on Sunday.  Shinya planned on going too, but he slept in late.  He made it to the mountain eventually, and our paths crisscrossed without a meeting, as we figured out that evening.  We began at the Samneung Tombs: three burial mounds of Shilla kings, and headed up from there.  Along the way, we kept having to take side-paths to see the various Buddhist carvings and statues.  Some had little cabinets where the devout placed offerings of fruit, memorabilia, and…soju.  Giving a drink to the ancestors is a popular custom over here, as you’ll see when someone opens a bottle of soju and pours out the first few drops into a bowl or a plate.

We passed a hermitage on our way to the granite ridge up top.  Some people come and live with the monks for a spell at these small communities.  It’s something akin to a church retreat, I suppose.  As we were stopping by each piece of Buddhist artwork along the way to take pictures, we felt slightly awkward as the Korean couple behind us set their packs down and began bowing in reverence.  The didn’t seem to mind us though.  When we reached the top, we could see miles of green rice paddies running along pine-tree clad mountains.  Finding a shady spot, we sat down and devoured two rolls of kimbap apiece.  Kimbap is like sushi, except made with cheap ingredients like tuna salad, imitation crab, chopped vegetables, and kimchi, of course.  I’ve come to like it more and more, and it makes an excellent hiking lunch.

After a detour down the slope to see a Buddha and a pagoda (during which Shinya passed us), we climbed back up to the central ridge and pressed on towards a hermitage on the far side.  Before we arrived there, we inadvertently took a side-path to a particularly dramatic Buddha.  The path became a narrow trail against a cliff and turned a sharp, 90 degree angle around a jutting boulder.  As we came around, we found an old woman feverishly chanting under her breath.  She was seated on a rock and facing a circular carving of Buddha on the boulder.  Since the path turned so sharply, the Buddha was framed by the boulder on the left, and a panoramic of far-off mountains and rice fields.  Later on, after receiving a postcard from the head monk at the last hermitage, I realized why the sign by this carving said that on a misty day, the Buddha has the appearance of floating on the clouds.  Hope, that postcard is yours.

The last hermitage was called Chilbulam (hermitage of seven Buddhas).  It showcases Namsan’s largest relic: seven images of Buddha (and perhaps some Bodhisattvas as well) carved in two stone pillars.  Once again, I’ll let the pictures do the talking.  As we arrived, a young man came up and offered us coffee and a piece of candy.  Then, the head monk, a young woman with her head shaved bare, gave us each two high-quality postcards, one of Chilbulam, and the other of the aforementioned Buddha on the cliff.  As we left, we exchanged the usual Korean words of parting: “Go in peace,” and “Stay in peace.”

The path led us down to a traditional Korean village at the edge of the rice fields.  The rooves were grooved and curved at the edges like temples.  When we plopped down at the bus stop, we checked our watches and concluded that we had been hiking for over six hours.

That night was another boozy gathering on the hostel rooftop.  Traveling yarns weaved in with teaching experiences, politics came soon after, and I was well ready for bed when the drowsiness came.

The next day, I had lunch with Shinya after we bought our bus tickets.  He was going on to the west and caught the bus right after we ate.  I, however, had three hours to kill before I could make the journey back to Wonju, and from there to Pyeongchang.  I wandered toward downtown taking pictures of the burial mounds, and decided to explore Tumuli Park.  I wasn’t disappointed.  The park is a walled collection of gardens and the grassy burial mounds of kings, one of which has been turned into a museum.  On the other side of the wall, I saw traditional Korean rooftops peeking over.  There was the old part of town that I had been expecting to see.  Unfortunately, it would have to wait, along with the history museum, until my next visit to Gyeongju.

The trip back to Wonju took over three hours, and I was long past the last bus to Pyeongchang when I arrived.  In this situation, one has to ride to Jangpyeon, and from there catch the late bus to Pyeongchang.  I had about an hour to kill, so I made a B-line for a restaurant I had yet to try: Chicken and Beer.  I’d seen it many times before, heard favorable reports, and now there would be spicy chicken tenders to wash down with lager.  In retrospect, I should have gone for the sweet tenders.  The spicy chicken had me breathing fire in minutes.  Not even the drawings of impossibly slender beach babes on the wall could take my mind off of the inferno I was tasting with each breath.

Arriving in Jangpyeon, I caught the last bus to Pyeongchang at 9pm; arrived home around 10.  On Tuesday morning it was off to work again.

Peace

Coming soon: My first trip to Seoul

September 20, 2009

“In Heaven, the police are British, the cooks are French, the engineers are German, the lovers are Italian, and everything is organized by the Swiss.  In Hell, the police are German, the cooks are British, the engineers are French, the lovers are Swiss, and everything is organized by the Italians.”

-anonymous

Last week, the School Festival was held at the new fine arts building.  It began with a show by a B-Boy group.  If you’re wondering what a B-Boy group is, imagine a boy band  crossed with break dancing.  Some of it is synchronized, like a boy band, but there is also a lot of individual improve.  It’s not Mozart, but it’s impressive, and apparently a popular part of Korean pop culture these days.  The group, Extreme Crew, has done several advertising gigs including a beer commercial (there was a clip from it during their introduction video).  They put on two shows, with a break-dancing lecture in between.  The lecture involved bringing students up on stage to try out some steps, and, as you can imagine, I was forced to join.  If you’re the only white boy in a crowd of Asians, you will be singled out at some point or another.  So, I had a good laugh with everyone, strutted my stuff, and won a box of cookies.

While onstage, they asked me where I was from.  Their first guess – like everyone’s first guess – was New York, and I think I disappoint the Koreans every time I have to deny this charge.  I decided to play it simple and say “Atlanta.”  At least Atlanta brought several rappers into the light of day.  Gainesville’s only claim to fame is having taking millions of chickens “out” of the light of day.

Part Two of the School Festival was karaoke.  Two to three hours of it.  I remember one guy who did a funny kind of song with some hand movements that were copied by the two silent backup performers in red aviators.  Everything else was a sappy love song.  Kudos to the Principal though for getting up there and singing.  He was briefly assisted at points by the music teacher, who has quite a good voice.

Part Three was synchronized dancing.  Five hours of synchronized dancing.  This whole thing went on till 6pm, which is an hour after school lets out on normal days.  The dancing was mostly covers of Korea Pop videos, but the dance team did a B-Boy show.    Check out the video: Indian Boy, on Youtube sometime.  Again, props to the Principal for getting up on stage with the kids.  He gave everyone a good laugh, and increased my hopes of getting lenient office hours during winter break.

On Saturday, I fed the soul by recovering my lost Spanish music via Itunes.  My favorite hit, Tocarte Toa, was nowhere to be found, but I can always find it on Youtube.  Neither was Chile’s big hit of Summer 08, Incomprendido, available.  However, everything else I had was up there.  I just added some Mana hits and picked out some Samba to remind me of my week in Rio.

I took a 2-hour bus to Gangneung, the party-town of Gangwon-do, for an expat gathering at The Warehouse.  My mission was to get to the most recognizable landmark in downtown: McDonalds.  Instead of getting a taxi from the bus terminal, I opted to take my luck with a bus line mentioned in Lonely Planet.  LP said it ran from the bus terminal to the train station.  I don’t think we ever went near the train station, but we went all the way out to Lake Gyeongpoho.  Luckily, an English-speaking Korean dropped out of the sky and asked the driver to drop me off at some stop with a name I can’t remember for the life of me.  I got off, and there was McDonalds right across the street.  In a minute, a white guy rode up on a bike and sat on the curb.  As I guessed, he was part of my group meeting at Mackey-D’s.

Don’t worry, we didn’t eat there.  We found a cheap grill nearby.

The Warehouse is a dim, mostly wood room on the second or third story of a building not far from McD.  The bar is well-stocked with Western hard liquor, and the shelves running along the windows are adorned with many a conquered liter of Jack Daniels.  Saw many familiar faces from orientation and the Pyeongchang County dinner.  Got a salsa dance from a woman in a red dress.  Eventually, the repetitive electro/hip hop/b-boy whatever started to grate…so we went to a Noraebang!  So we could at least grate our ears with our own voices.  It seems that every night out in Korea ends in a Noraebang.

My hosts ended up being a Canadian couple, Abid and Dorina, who have the best apartment for expat teachers I have yet seen in Korea.  The living room/kitchen was massive: something like 20’x8’, and made of shiny new finished wood (or faux wood; it’s hard to tell when the faux wood isn’t curling up against the walls as it does at my place).  Their bathroom was a palace compared to my lowly hovel with its rust-brown tiles, cracked toilet, moldy ceiling, and tape-covered damage in various places.

We stayed up till sunrise that night: sitting out on the screened-in porch watching the sky over the sea gradually turn orange.  Abid and Dorina’s place is high up near the top floor, so the view was exactly what you would imagine from a sea-side hotel.  For breakfast (or lunch rather), we ate like kings: fresh apple slices, croissants and toast, scrambled eggs and Dorina’s tofu with soy sauce, garlic, and wild onions.  All washed down with real coffee made from grounds.

Back in Pyeongchang, I made Seom Gyeop Sal and decided it was time to write in the blog.  Next weekend: Sokcho Film Festival.

September 14, 2009

As the coordinator in Pyeongchang, Stuart said, I’ve finally come to the one place in the world where I can scream “The South will rise again” anywhere in the country and be unanimously cheered by everyone in sight.

First off, a little warning to everyone.  The reason why Airtran Airways tickets are so cheap is because they do not transfer your luggage to any connecting flight.  They may also forget to mention this in the itinerary.  After a chaotic registration with Asiana Airlines (we were both surprised that I had not brought my bags to the booth), I was rushed through security to jump on the plane right before it departed.  There was nothing to do but sit with my anxiety and the never-setting sun that accompanied us across the Pacific.  To the flight attendant’s credit, they attempted to simulate the darkness of night by closing all the shutters and killing the lights.  This all took place on the 18th of August, which seems quite a long time ago now.

At Incheon Airport, it was confirmed: my bags had been left in San Francisco, and I had only two changes of clothes.  One of which I’d worn on the flight, and the other that I changed into at the airport in order to look presentable at the EPIK registration table.  It’s not like I took it upon myself to change outfits; it had been strongly recommended that I do so in an email.  Of course, it turned out not to matter in the slightest.  At orientation, the staff gave me two extra light blue EPIK-logo polos out of pity, in addition to the one everyone received.  I also managed to get two Footprints t-shirts from a friend.  However, I still had only two pairs of boxer shorts.  There was frequent laundry to be done.

Orientation in Jeonju lasted a total of eight days.  My bags arrived on the last, just in time to toss them on the bus to Wonju the next morning.  It was an enjoyable time nonetheless.  Lectures ran from 9 to 5:30, and Survival Korean class after dinner from 7 to 8, afterwards finding us at a restaurant nursing pints with shot glasses of soju.  I saw one of the Korean films that were playing each night: a war epic about two brothers forcibly drafted during the conflict of the early 50′s that divided this peninsula.  I went to a public bathhouse for the first time.  It’s a little awkward at first to be walking around bare-assed in front of people, but you get over it after a few minutes soaking in the hot tub.  Once you’re all squeaky clean and dry, they thankfully provide you some pajamas to relax in.  The unisex area had three large gray domes of salt rock: a cooler sauna with mats and wooden head rests.  You can even spend the night on a bunk bed, if you choose.

That was over two weeks ago.  I’ve been living in a small mountain town called Pyeongchang ever since.  It has the advantage of hiking trails within a five-minute walk from my apartment, and the disadvantage of extreme isolation compared to my days in the hectic capital of Chile.  However, distance is no problem when you’re living in a country the size of Uruguay.  Seoul is only 2-3 hours by bus, and Wonju, the nearest source of a real nightlife, is only an hour away.  I was there last weekend for a boozy night out capped by Noraebang.  “Norae” means “singing,” and “bang” means “room.”  Yes, it was a karaoke joint, but the private rooms with a bunch of friends and a round of beers is much more fun than you’d think.

The weekend before found me in nearby Jeongseon for a barbeque with more orientation friends: Niselle and Genola from South Africa.  We set up the tiny charcoal grill on top of the washing machine on Gen’s back porch, which in retrospect was a terrible idea.  The porch is enclosed by a roof and sliding windows with bug screens.  We even put down sheets of paper underneath it to keep the washer from getting dirty.  I did have an inkling of where this would lead, but at the time I was unaware that we also had the choice of taking the grill up on the roof.  Before the conflagration though, Gen and I had to figure out how to light the coals.  When burning paper didn’t work, Gen put a portable stove eye under it.  It was a perfect shot for There, I fixed it.com.  That got the coals burning after a few hours, and we were cooking the meat when we put in two large cylindrical coals, whose particular function we had not been able to discern.  They immediately lit up in sparks, scorching the meat and making us feel incredibly stupid at the same time.  It was shortly after that the paper underneath caught fire and filled the apartment with smoke.

We doused the flames with tap water, and I was asked to carry the smoking grill up to the rooftop, to which I replied, “you can go up on the roof?”  All parties agreed that the roof should be the designated area for all future grilling endeavors as it is a large concrete patio.  As I set the grill down, I noticed another much like it only a few feet away.  They say that conflict is the spice of life, but I would humbly submit “trial and error” as a close second.  With the smoke cleared, we had the reward of a scrumptious feast followed by drinking games.

The next morning, Nis and Gen decided it was time to get their toilets fixed.  Both had become clogged.  After much gesticulating with the plumber, they learned, to their absolute horror, that you cannot flush toilet paper in South Korea.  My experiences in South America had, thankfully, already prepared me for this fact of life, which I had begun to suspect after seeing the ominous small wastebaskets next to each and every porcelain throne.

And with that, I’m done being creative for the evening.  I’ll write about the school where I teach next time.

Peace

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