28 July 2008

Yeosu and Dolsando

“Tourists don’t know where they’ve been. Travellers don’t know where they are going.”
Paul Thereaux.

I woke, packed, and stared at the clock. My bus didn’t leave until 10:30 and I needed to get on the subway no earlier than 9:30 but I was antsy and ready so I set out on foot. It had rained sometime in the night and Busan had that universal just rained on streets smell and everything was shiny and the air was clear and cool. I had packed only the basics, but after a long inner debate I had decided to take my laptop, which meant the charger and cables and a much heavier pack and fewer clothes but the pack I have is built for the weight and I cinched down the straps snug and it rode nicely. I have only brought the minimum of clothing, planning to wash and wear as I go. We will see how this works.

I arrived in plenty of time at the bus station, which is located above Nopodong subway station. I had bought my ticket the previous day, so I knew where I was headed. I had time for a lackluster fast food lunch at the terminal and then went out to the gates to find my bus. I was waiting around out there and I noticed a Caucasian reading a Lonely Planet just like mine and I asked him if he was coming or going. He said his name was Hans and he was from Holland and he had just arrived in Busan and was backpacking around Korea on the way to Japan. He had been on the road for about a month. I told him about the Beomeosa and recommended he stop there since he was close (which is one stop from Nopodong and therefore on his way into town).

I got on the bus and it left on schedule. I paid a little extra for the express and these busses are very nice. The seats are huge and they recline to about 45 degrees and there is tons of legroom. Only three seats per row, two, then an aisle, then one by itself. It was well worth it. I didn’t sleep very well the night before and I put my feet up and leaned my seat back and tipped my Cardinal hat down and I was out. I woke up and the bus was stopped. It was still on the highway but it was a parking lot. We crawled along for about an hour and then we started going again and after a while we came to a rest stop and everyone got out and went pee and got a snack. I bought a bottle of water for myself and the older lady sitting next to me. She was very nice. I got some little doughnut like things that were stuffed with red bean past and I shared those with her too.

When we got to the station in Yeosu I crossed the street to the city bus stop and started trying to decipher the bus schedule to see which one went downtown. I must have been giving off “I’m lost” signals, because before long a Korean guy came up to me and asked where I was trying to go. The only thing I recognized on the schedule from my book is a place called Jinnamgwan, so I told him that. He looked at the busses coming in and told me which one to get on and showed me where to get off. Nice folks here.

Jinnamgwan is the largest wooden structure in Korea. It is also very old. Yeosu played an important part in one of the most celebrated events in Korean history: the time an outnumbered and outgunned Korean navy whipped the crap out of the Japanese navy in the 1590’s. I took lots of pictures of the English captions in the museum there so you can find out more about it if you want. Admiral Yi Sun-sin used an intimate knowledge of the tides and underwater landscape to trap a superior Japanese force repeatedly. This prevented the Japanese from securing Korea as a stepping stone to conquer China. Unfortunately the Japanese were more successful at this later.

While there I met a nice man who volunteered to help at the pavilion through his senior citizen program. He spoke English very well and wanted to know all about me. He took my picture and showed me around the place. When I went into the pavilion he reminded me to remove my shoes. It really is an impressive place. There were not surprisingly about two hundred fire extinguishers in there. It was a very hot day but under the pavilion it was nice and cool. The 68 huge pillars that support the massive roof were several feet in circumference and made of pine. The view looked out over the entire harbor and far out to sea. It was the perfect vantage point from which to direct a naval defensive.

It had been my plan to walk down to the street where all the hotels were and find a cheap one and check in and get cleaned up before I went out sightseeing some more in Yeosu. But when I asked the man about the two hotels I read about in my guide he suggested that I go to stay at Dolsando Island, which is connected to the mainland by a bridge (the bridge you see in the pictures of the harbor). He told me about the Hyang-iram temple and said that the views from there are spectacular. Well, long story short, that is what I did. I always try to take the advice of the locals. It is rarely a mistake. I am writing now from a small but lovely hotel in the fishing village below the monastery. I ended up paying a little bit more than I intended for lodging (there were hotels in my guide for as little as W20000 in Yeosu proper but a computer room was at least W35000 and I paid W50000 for this one and you can see from the pictures what the view looks like for here and that is cheap for this kind of place. This is a $300 hotel anywhere I have ever been.)

I didn’t get here in time to go up to the temple, which closes at 6PM, so I am going to get up early and watch the sunrise over the ocean and hike the trails to the temple and scenic lookouts in the morning. I think I will catch the bus back to Yeosu (it’s almost an hour down to the Southern tip of Dolsando where I am. The road is very curvy and hilly). I think I will take the ferry out to Geomundo tomorrow and stay overnight there tomorrow night.

Both rural Korea and the coastal region here are amazing. If your favorite color is green like me, you are in for a treat. There are a thousand shades of it here and in abundance. The bright green of the young rice fields and the frilly pale green of the bamboo lining the roads and the deep green of the camellia and pine on the mountains and all of the orchards and gardens that are tended with such care and economy of space everywhere here. It is a visual explosion of chlorophyll. The shoreline here on the southern coast is craggy and recalls for me those classic Asian landscapes with the mountains in the mist. The waves beat on the shore. The ocean was a deep blue today, and the mist made the islands and mountains in the distance look ethereal.

I was sitting out on the deck of the hotel which overlooks the sea writing but the mosquitoes drove me into the bar. The hostess and her husband just invited me to share their dinner, but I ate before I came. They don’t speak any English so I showed her the pictures of the ridiculous spread they gave me for dinner and I think she understood. The one thing that really bothers me about the language barrier is the potential to seem rude. The people here are so heartbreakingly kind that it pains me to think that I might accidentally insult someone.

There are 123 pictures and funny captions in the latest photoblog. I am going to try to get some sleep. Tomorrow is another big day.

27 July 2008

Shadows

It has been a month now and it's time for a look inside. I need to write about what I intended this journey to mean for me before I forget. I meant to become a better person. I haven't. It seems it doesn't matter how far you move, you can't move away from yourself.

Still...there are unavoidable positive effects. Anything good that has come from this on a personal level has probably been forced upon me, because I haven't applied myself to positive change in the least. This is sad in a way but also reassuring. I want to change and, speaking as an ecocritic, places change us. I guess, knowing that, I am very lucky to be where I am. This place is beautiful. Not just pretty, but profoundly, movingly special. It feels old. Like there are so many stories and so much history that it is somehow above the present. Beyond it.

It makes you feel pleasantly irrelevant at times, living in old cities, living surrounded by five million people, most of whom look at you as a curiosity. At the same time there are people here who care about me, who quietly expect more of me than I do of myself. This is the opposite of irrelevance. I remember the words of a philosopher I have forgotten that said if we found ourselves to be the last person alive we would no longer have rights but we would still have responsibilities. I never understood that till now.

Last night Min Ha asked me why I came here. I told her that I wanted to do something before I died. She has come to feel about this place much the same way I came to feel about my home. It came to feel like an old pair of shoes. Comfortable, but worn out. Covered with the stains of too many mistakes, out of fashion, taken for granted through the illusion of familiarity. What a tragedy. If you lose your home what have you got?

I don't know if I can ever come back. That is the greatest paradox. How do you come back home? On the way here I talked to a seasoned traveler who said that it was a simple matter to get bumped up to first class on international flights because they are almost always overbooked in coach. He also told me never to do it. Because once you fly first class you will never again be happy in the back of the plane. I know what he meant. I have crossed the ridge on a new vista. Home will never look the same again now.

I have plans. I have told myself that after my vacation things will be different. Again, luckily, a lot of the good things I want to do for myself are unavoidable. There will be more walking and less drinking. There will be less fried chicken out and more fried rice at home. There will be less coloring book and more intensive speech and penmanship training. There will be more sitting still. Less talking. More listening.

It has been a hard landing. You don't know how hard. But I have landed on my feet. The struggles of the early days seem almost laughable now. I have learned to make my way in this place. The daily practicalities of survival are finally comprehensible. Now comes the real work. If I am to remake myself, and I intend to, then this is likely my last best opportunity.

Photo by Stuart Dunvley.

26 July 2008

A Saturday Morning Walk on Market Street

Today's post is a caption rich photoblog edition and it can be accessed right here. Sorry for all spelling and grammar errors. I try to edit this blog for errors but the interface on the photoblog is not as user friendly. Enjoy!

24 July 2008

English Language Books in Busan


After several failed attempts I have finally located a bookstore with a substantial section of English language books. Young Kwang bookstore is located just outside of Seomyeon station, exit 9, down a side street across the road from Lotte department store (Next to Han Bank). Just inside the door they have a small rack of magazines (I bought a copy of the Economist. If you can only afford one magazine that is the one to get). Further back there is a larger rack that had mostly fashion and hobby stuff, but they did have National Geographic and Food and Wine. It was strictly buy-to-read. Everything was wrapped. Down in the basement I found a room full of English language books, including an excellent contemporary fiction section and a great set of classics. I bought a novel, Waiting by Ha Jin, which I had seen reviewed a couple of months ago. I can't wait to read it.

The area around Seomyeon is the busiest section of Busan at night. The streets are closed for the most part and the place is given over to pedestrians shopping and eating and drinking and singing. It is quite a scene. This was the first time I have been down there in the daylight and it really is a neat place. There are a lot of little plazas tucked away here and there with places for people to sit outdoors. To call Seomyeon a subway station is kind of misleading. It is an underground shopping mall about five times bigger than the mall at home. You can find almost anything down there. You can get seriously lost. I couldn't find the exit marked on my instructions and I came up to the surface and a couple of guys pointed me the way. It was across the road. I looked around for a crossing. There were none. The only way to get across any roadway in about a 5 square block area is to go back underground and come back up where you need to be. This is just as well because about six major roads intersect at Seomyeon rotary on the surface.

The books at the bookstore are a bit expensive, but I am going to try to get a swap system going with some readers I know here. It is a comfort regardless to know that it is there. If you are reading this and are interested in participating in such a thing drop me an email.

I got my alien registration card and my passport back in the nick of time. I am going to go to the bank tomorrow and open an account here so that I can get paid before I leave on my trip. This is good. I wasn't looking forward to carting around a million won in cash on the journey. I am also going to be registered at the foreign teacher place tomorrow, so I will be officially official.

I ate at home tonight. This is probably the third time. I had a foam bowl of just-add-water noodles and they were of all things greasy. Good greasy. They had the noodles and a spice packet and a little plastic wrapped block of something that looked like a chewed up pink rubber eraser. This turned out to be meat. Pork I think. And it was good. It was very very spicy. I have been eating spicy food here for every meal and it hasn't bothered me at all. Asian spices don't hurt me like Mexican spices for some reason. The only thing that bothers me a little is the spicy beach chicken. I am going to try to eat in a bit more for economic reasons, although for me to eat at home cheaper than going out the just-add-water noodles are about the only option.

It was a good day. If I walk to work tomorrow I am going to take a shirt to change into. It isn't unbearably hot here, although it is warm. It is the 80% humidity that gets you. It is like walking around wet all day. It was supposed to rain every day this week. It hasn't rained since Sunday. I wish it would pour. I would run around in it.

I really appreciate the emails. When I open my mailbox and there are a couple of notes in there it really makes my day. Don't be afraid to tell me the mundane.

I took some pictures of my bookstore hunt. There are a few of the Krispy Kreme factory in the subway. It is very difficult to walk past that place. If only I hadn't of spent all my money on books...

23 July 2008

Rambling Man

video

Here's a little bit about my day. I usually get up between 6 and 8:45 AM. If I get up in time I put some water on for tea (I brought a small box of PG Tips with me, and this is a must for any care packages, hint hint) and hop in the shower. If not, I put on my pants and limp out the door. Why is it that the times you don't have time for a shower and a cup of tea are the times you need them the most? But usually I shower, check my email, sip tea, feed and play the cat, and out the door I go.

Speaking briefly of the cat. She plays fetch. I have never had a cat like this before. I won a Hello Kitty mini-pillow from a balloon pop stand at Haeundae Beach and she claimed it as her own immediately. She started bringing it back when I threw it. I am actually not sure who taught who to play fetch now that I think about it. She is really a character. Her preferred place to sleep is on or near my loins. She is so cute.

9:00. I catch a bus outside across the street. Now, I have three choices. I can walk about 300 meters one way or 500 meters the other and cross at the signalled pedestrian crossings or I can take my life in my hands and cross the six lanes of angry traffic and go in a more direct fashion to the bus stop. I have done all three. The drivers here, justifiably, feel that if they have to stop regularly in between intersections to let pedestrians cross then if anyone attempts to cross elsewhere they are fair game. In other words, they try to run you down. And even if they are too far away to run you down, they display their rage at not being able to run you down by standing on their horns for the twenty or so seconds it takes them to come abreast of you.

The bus service here is ridiculous. The buses that are an option for my morning commute (57, 86, 87, 49-1, and a few others) come at about two minute intervals. Sometimes they are packed, but that just makes it more fun. In the morning. In the evening, when I and everyone else smells like a goat fart, not so much. I like to have a box of fried chicken on hand to dispel the stench at that point. But I am getting ahead of myself.

I get off the bus about half way up the mountain to my school if I take 86 or 87. The others drop me at the bottom. I have learned to bear this in mind at the bus stop. Better a packed 86 than an empty 57. I get out and start my way up the hill. Most mornings, by the time I get to school, I am soaked with sweat. On the days that I walk all the way it is worse. I have walked a few times, and I like it, but it really kills me. It is uphill the whole way. (I live down by the river, at nearly sea level.) I get to school, remove my shoes, walk up three flights of stairs and sit at my desk for a bit trying to cool off and relax amid the screaming of 100 or so children.

9:30. After I cool off and make my coffee (everyone here drinks a powdered "milk coffee" that comes in huge bags of individual serving packets at the super. I make mine double strength and this gets me to nap time), I make the trip back downstairs to the kitchen to get one of the two huge pots of rice that feed our floor. I huff the rice upstairs and put it in one of the huge rice cookers and start it off and it is done at lunch time.

9:55. After another breather I get ready to start my morning classes. The kids in the morning are preschoolers or kindergarten. They don't start elementary school till they are eight. I have three different classes and I meet with each of them once or twice depending on the day. These are my favorite classes and my most challenging. I have been driven to tears by some of these kids, and I love some of them more than I knew I was capable of loving someone, and some of those are the same people. There is really no way to describe it. I have four classes in before lunch and one after.

12:15. Lunch. If I get out of class in time and have anything physically left I go downstairs and help tote up some of the lunch. I have kind of adopted the soup can. All of the children have partitioned stainless steel lunch trays that they take home and bring back clean everyday. I go around to my rooms first and dip out a small dipper of soup into one of the two large compartments in their trays. The other is already full of rice (they stand in line for rice and then sit down and wait for everything else). Meanwhile the girls are doling out the other items. They get about a cup of rice, a half a cup of soup, and about an eighth of a cup of three other items, two veggie and one meat or tofu. They bring their own drink. I am constantly accused of a) giving my classes the best chunks at the bottom of the soup bucket, and b) giving everyone too much soup. Everyone then meets back at the lunch counter and we dole out what is left to all of us teachers. I put the soup in the soup bowls (stainless) and help pass out the chopsticks and spoons (also stainless. Korea is unique in using all stainless bowls and utensils and there is a myth that it comes from an ancient king who was saved by the silver bowl he was using tarnishing in the presence of poison but I don't think that is the whole story. It is strange though, and nearly a universal custom). We have had: squid stew, tofu pancakes, beef bulgogi, marinated pork, or bean bake for our protein. Veggies almost always include some form of cabbage, radish, seaweed, and hot peppers. Today we had eggplant. Blucky. I have been trying to eat at school more for budgetary and camaraderie reasons but if I depended on it for survival I would be in trouble. My mother has a friend who almost starved to death teaching in China.

11:45. After eating I usually have about half an hour to kill so I go upstairs to my afternoon classroom, which I don't share, and take a nap. It has really helped me stay alert during the afternoon if I do this. I put on my headphones (Kind of Blue is best), turn the fan directly onto myself, prop my head up on a water bottle, lock the door, and I am out. I haven't overslept yet, but today I woke up four minutes before my next class.

1:25. I then teach my last "morning" class and have a twenty minute break before I start my afternoon classes. The first two are beginners, the second two are intermediate, and the last two are advanced. I meet with the first beginners Monday through Friday and they other four Monday, Wednesday and Friday. On Tuesday and Thursday the second two classes are advanced and then I get to go home at 5:00 PM. The other three days I am there till 6:30.

6:30 I catch the bus back home. I sometimes pick up some takeout chicken (OMG it's good!) to take with me. Sometimes I go home and regroup and go to one of the little places on the side streets near my house. I have become acquainted now with the folks at two restaurants in particular and they know that I don't speak Korean and are patient with me as I try to order using my phrasebook. I have stopped looking at the menu and trying to match what I have in my book to something they have on there. I just order what I want out of my book and if they don't have it they tell me. I like sae-u pukkumbap (shrimp fried rice) and manduguk (stuffed dumpling soup), among other things. All Korean meals come with soup (unless the entree is soup then you get rice) and a selections of side dishes (panch'an). A lot of times, these constitute the majority of the meal. Kimchee is always present, as are some form of pickled radish. Also common is a kind of chopped cabbage salad topped with a creamy garlic dressing or thousand island. Sliced garlic, a variety of sauces, dried fish or squid, kimbap (like a California roll with vegetables and either crab meat or spam filling), seaweed salad, pickled vegetables, spicy eggplant (in season now, unfortunately), fresh fruit (usually melon), acorn jelly (think dirt jello, not bad if you don't think about it or chew). Every place has their own specialties and at my regular place there is always something different. Some of these things are delicious in their simplicity. Sliced cucumbers and peppers in a rice wine vinaigrette with cold clear noodles. A red potato salad with chopped spinach, red onion and anchovy paste. Cold vegetable omelette topped with black bean sauce and chopped peanuts. All of it is wonderful.

At home for the evening I have been having trouble occupying myself at times. I have been strongly discouraged from doing what I am want to do. I have found several positive alternatives. I have already described the walks that I enjoy so much. I have also recently subscribed to MLB.com so I can listen to archived games. I am listening to last night's Cubs/Arizona game as we speak. (I have to listen to them about 12 hours after they end so don't send me an email telling me what happened. I will be very angry.) My other wholesome entertainment involves a small cat and a Hello Kitty pillow.

Well, I didn't really have a plan for this post but I am glad I got a little description of my typical day out there. I have been meaning to do that for some time. I hope you enjoyed. I still have a lot of other things to tell you about. And still planning out a bit of a trip for this coming week. More on that later. Bye.

Oh, I almost forgot. Today was the monthly birthday party for the July birthdays. Here are some cute kid pictures. The video was a command performance and priceless.

22 July 2008

Analytics

I was curious about this blog: if anyone is reading it and who and where they are coming from and what I found out was quite surprising.

I installed a bit of .html code into my blog from Google Analytics. Now I know next to nothing about this type of thing, but there were instructions for a variety of blog platforms, and since mine, Blogger, comes from Google, the instructions were especially clear. I waited a couple of days and the thing spit out a report. Here is what it said:

On Sunday and Monday of this week I had 156 unique site visits from nine US states and seven different countries with 249 total page views. One guy from Germany spent almost 14 minutes on the site and this was a record: he must have been looking at pictures or something. The average time spent on the site was 2:03 which I don't think is shabby, considering all the stuff that one could be looking at. Of these, 26 were direct hits, meaning that the people who came here clicked on a link in an email or in a bookmark or typed that address directly into their address bar. The other 130 were referred hits, meaning that they clicked on a link in a website.

This latter bit surprised me, because I didn't know right off what website could have my blog listed. I looked into the report for these (this thing has all the bells and whistles) and found that almost all of the referrals came from www.pusanweb.com. After looking high and low on that site I cannot find my blog listed anywhere, but it must be there somewhere because people are clicking from it.

Why does all of this matter? It doesn't. I would have kept writing it if the analytical contraption showed that my mother was the only one reading it. This might sound a bit odd, but there have been times when writing this helped me keep it together. Sometimes it has been hard, and remembering that there is a world outside and that this is an adventure worth capturing in words has really brought me back to where I am and why. So it doesn't really matter that people in Brazil and Singapore read my blog. It just makes me feel good to know that someone is out there following along.

Note: I mainly wrote this post to piss off C-Dawge, who thinks this whole thing is an exercise in narcissism. And he's right. Hi C-Dawge!

20 July 2008

Beomeosa Temple

I walked out the door into a pouring rain to go to the old Buddhist temple in the hills north of town. Undeterred, I took the subway out and found the right bus (90) with the help of my trusty Lonely Planet guide and took a harrowing trip up the mountain. The bus driver used both lanes and actually passed cars going up to the temple. All arrived safely and disembarked. It was then I was actually glad that it had been raining (it having stopped by then), as I was met by the sound of cascading water. The whole hillside was filled with running streams and waterfalls. Water basically runs through the whole temple complex. It made for a very peaceful sound.

I walked up the path toward the temple entrance and was met by a group of people who offered me tea. One, a man named Kim, could speak some English and told me he was a tour guide. I asked him some questions and he was very helpful, accompanying me as far as the main gate and taking my picture there. When I began to walk through he stopped me and showed me the respectful way to enter. Holding my hands in the prayer position just below the chin I was to say 'hananim annyong haseyo,' which translates 'good morning Buddha." He gave me a quick breakdown of the rules regarding photography and sent me on my way. A series of buildings were lined up on the path up to the main courtyard. The first held a group of four large Buddhas, two on each side. They were seated and measured about ten feet tall in that posture. Each held a different set of objects and they represented different attributes of God. See the photo section for my interpretation of the attributes. No pictures allowed in there so you will just have to imagine. On up further there was another building that I don't know what purpose it served except maybe an inner gate. Then I reached the main courtyard.

The path up from the main gate actually led to the back of the main temple. Inside of the main building there was an altar made of gold and mats for sitting meditation and a piano among other things. The courtyard held two of the temples most revered and ancient objects. A stone lantern and a pagoda. Both of these objects are on the Korean list of National Treasures. Surrounding the main courtyard on the next level up were a series of shrines. I don't know why, but I was surprised to see that they were all full of worshipers. Some were sitting in meditation. Some were bowing in a seated position. Some were doing a bow that started in the standing position and ended with the forehead touching the floor. These latter were completely soaked in sweat.

Korean Buddhism is kind of a mix of Chinese, Japanese, Confucian, and Shamanistic influences. Buddhism first came to Korea in 370 AD and has coexisted with the original Shamanistic religion since. Many temples have shrines occupied by both Buddha and shamanic dieties like the Mountain God. There are also traces of Japanese elements like ancestor worship. The shrines were lined with shelves filled with tiny statues with names printed under them. A lot of the bowing was going on in front of these. I believe that they were somehow related to ancestor worship. Large altars held sacrifices of rice and incense and candles and each was mounted by a large golden Buddha. There were at least five of these shrines.

I was kind of milling around in the courtyard when here came the monks. They were dressed in simple grey outfits with shaved heads. A couple looked at me with what I thought was sheepish curiosity. Most were rather young and the oldest was in the lead. They all appeared to be extremely happy. They walked through a courtyard to a door on a shrine at the right and disappeared. It was about this time that a gong started sounding. I looked at my watch and noted that it was noon and thought about how that gong must have been sounding at that time of day in that place for the last thousand years. Quite a thought. The gong sounded huge, and it had extremely deep and complex resonant undertones. I looked around but could never see where it was coming from. I have never heard a sound like that before.

I headed back down the way I came and near the main gate I noticed a little stand with souvenirs. I wanted to find a set of postcards. There were none but the guy pointed me over to the other side of the gate where there was another large temple and a parking lot. He said there were postcards over there. When I went out of the shop there were two men standing by a large stack of grey terra cotta roof tiles. They asked me if I would like to write something on one of them. They would be used when a new roof was put on the temple. I said of course and wrote a little message on there and my name and the date and gave them a donation of 10000 won and off I went.

When I got over to the other side of the gate a woman sitting by a little waterfall made the eating sign to me and pointed me toward a large building just up the hill. I was a bit hungry but I was on a mission for postcards. The building looked far newer than all the others and I thought there might be a gift shop there. When I got up there I was approached by three more older women who pointed me in the door and made the same sign and said "Eat, eat." I looked in and there was a large room full of tables and people were eating. Well, you don't have to tell me twice (OK, I guess they did), I went in. There was a serving line of women in a row of windows like a cafeteria. A little table with large and small stainless steel bowls sat at the head of the line. I turned around to see where I was supposed to pay, figuring I missed it, but there stood the three old ladies (they had likely followed me in anticipating this) and they took my wallet out of my hand and shoved it into my pocket and pushed me back toward the food line. I gave up. I was given a big scoop of rice and four different veggies and some red pepper sauce and some cold soup. I found a place to sit and took a picture of the food for you all to see and then I ate it. It was delicious, the cold cucumber and seaweed soup especially.

I finished up and headed out to find the postcards. I never did. I went down to the entrance and there was a group of women getting in a cab and the driver told me to hop in, too. I tried to pay for all of us but neither he nor they would hear of it. Got the train back to Yongsandong and walked home from there. It is so humid here right now that I am soaked with sweat within minutes. It must be good for me.

In a land of very pleasant people, the people at this temple were the nicest. And that really is saying something. They just made it really special. The women at the tea stand and in the kitchen must have been members of that congregation. I think they do that feed every Sunday. If it isn't raining and the weather is nice there are thousands of people at that place. My guide book said don't even go on Sunday. But they were all pitching in and finding strangers and shooing them in and everybody was just smiling their faces off. A truly wonderful experience. Kim told me to come back next Sunday and maybe I will.

There are some nice pictures.

19 July 2008

Beaches

Woke this morning to a beautiful sunny day so I got myself together and headed out to the beach. I wanted to go see a couple that are kind off the beaten path: Dadaepo and Songdo. I packed up a towel and some water and my rain slicker (40% chance of rain never developed) and a book. I never leave home without my Busan city map, my subway map, my Lonely Planet guidebook, and my Korean phrasebook. I also stopped at the pharmacy and by pulling up my shirt to show them the scarring from my last trip to the beach made them to understand that I needed sunscreen. They only had SPF 15 which is about 33% of what I considered optimal but I was not to be deterred and got it. Hopped bus 57 intending to go to Yeonsandong station but it turned the wrong way and went the other direction. (I had only ridden it going the opposite way on its return route which takes me to school.) Oh well, I just kind of went with it and ended up finding a department store that I had been to once on my scooter and needed to know how to get there on the bus so now I know so that was good. I got off at a station on line 3 and hopped the train back to Yeonsandong and transferred and was on my way. I rode line 1 all the way to the very end and then hopped a cab down to the beach.

Dadaepo
is out on a point down where the Nakdong river flows into the Sea. The delta of the river is designated a migratory bird reserve and I saw a lot of things off in the distance that I couldn't ID but I think I saw an Albatross flying near the road. Either that or the biggest seagull ever. I need an Asian bird book bad. I had heard that the Dadaepo area was very pretty and it was. It was surrounded on two sides by jagged back rock cliffs and the mountains of Molundae point. I would have liked to hiked over there but it was too hot. The beach itself left something to be desired, however. It is in an inter-tidal zone and the water flowing out of the river has piled up sediment way out from the beach. Huge waves were breaking out there, but inside of those shoals it was kind of calm and muddy. The beach itself was more mud than sand and there wasn't anyplace that was dry. Basically it sucked. I hadn't eaten and it was after noon by this point so I walked back across the mudflat to the parking lot where the Dadaepo Raw Fish Village was set up. And it stunk. I'm no expert but if you're going to have a Raw Fish Village the one thing that you cannot have is the stench of rotting raw fish. That completely puts people off of fish in general. I have never seen such a sorry assemblage of eateries in my life. Maybe they look better at night. I don't know. I got a "hot dog," which in Korea means "corn dog" and it was good. Held me till lunch.

I next rode bus 96 down to Songdo beach. (I bet you are wondering why all the bus info: I am trying to remember where all these dang things go. There are hundreds of routes and not a single blessed map of them exists that I know of. There is a list of routes with some of their destinations online, in Korean.) Anyway, Songdo was much better. I rented a beach umbrella and a deck chair and made myself comfortable. Songdo is kind of a touristy area, but the beach was 90% kids. The wave action is pretty big at Haeundae beach, and I have already talked about Dadaepo, but Songdo is kind of interesting in that it didn't really seem to have a pattern. This was compounded by the fact that the beach was extremely steep and the water dropped off to depth just a few feet from shore. Once about every ten or fifteen minutes a huge wave would come in and knock everyone down and suck them in and then it would be calm for a while. It was easy to tell when this was happening without even looking because the screams of small children would ring through the air. I saw little boys who could not keep their pants up because all of their pockets were full of sand. Little kids would be sitting there minding their own business building a sandcastle and here would come a wave and bam!: kids, sandcastle, shovels, buckets, all of it, would be gone out to sea. Here they would come, crawling back up the beach, only to get blasted again by the next one (the big ones came in sets of two or three). It made for some pretty good comedy but once, during a dip, I was out by the barrier and a little kid about seven lost hold of his tube and went down. I grabbed him and got his tube back under him but he was pretty freaked out and crying and he had swallowed a good bit of water. His dad showed up and dragged him back up to shallow water while beating the water out of him with the other hand. Priceless.

I might note that Koreans are not ones for swimsuits. Little kids swam in underwear or PJ's. Teenagers swam in whatever they were wearing. All kids wear uniforms to school here. The girls wear a blue or grey skirt and a fitted white shirt. They were swimming in that. Adults swam fully clothed. I saw two two-piece bathing suits, not counting Russians. Russian males, regardless of body type, wear speedos. It's enough to gag a maggot. Russian women wear bikinis.

I spent most of my time under my umbrella, darting to the water when I got dry and running back into my shade. I have just a touch of pink on my shoulders. I was starting to get hungry but I didn't want to give up my umbrella to go get something (I had a good spot in the second row which I later upgraded to first row but got yelled at by the Umbrella Nazi for moving and screwing up his list which I can understand why he was mad because he was having a hell of a time with squatters and a group of Russians got mad when he told them to move and ripped the umbrella out of the sand and threw it at him and I would have felt sorry for him but I was kind of mad at him anyway because he had tried to screw me and charge me 10000 won for my chair and it is only 5000 usually and he was just doing it because I was a foreigner and he thought I wouldn't know any better and I just gave him the "I don't understand what you are saying" look until he finally gave up and went away). But anyway about that time here comes, you guessed it, the fried chicken guy. I love that: just in time. It is so good too. Spicy and greasy and crunchy, and they come with a little bag of pickled radishes and some seasoned sea salt. I ate the whole box. It was heavy on wings, just the way I like. So now full and warm I put my slicker under my head for a pillow (I knew it would come in handy) and I was out. There was a pretty stiff breeze coming in off the ocean and I was quite comfy. I slept off and on until the sun got down a bit and I headed home. Caught another bus (26) to downtown, got the subway, and on home. All in all it was a wonderful day. There are pictures!

18 July 2008

I Found It

Now there is a blast from the past. Some of you might recall that back in like 1979 there was a t-shirt iron-on or something at Spencer's in White Oaks that showed a baby boy peering down at and holding onto his penis, apparently having just discovered it. The logo said "I found it." This is not what I found.

I found my camera. I went to the store last night and got some stuff (I did not find chicken base, which Jenny thought sounded very interesting), and when I got home I was putting it all away and there, on the top shelf, was my camera. I have no idea. But this is a good thing. It was going to cost a lot of money to replace it. Electronics, surprisingly, are not cheap here.

Neither is cat food. It is 10000 won or almost $10 for a small bag. Shrimp is about 2000 won ($2 USD) a pound. It would be cheaper for me to feed my cat fresh shrimp. Shrimp is cheaper than chicken, pork, or beef. Or cat food. Way cheaper.

We had what is called "Market Play" at school Friday morning. There are pictures! The kids have been earning play money for good behavior and today was the big day to spend it. I was in charge of a batpingsu stand. It was basically a snow cone in a cup with milk, sweetened condensed milk, gum drops, marshmallows, fruit cocktail, and red bean sauce over the top of it. There were two "shops," stationary and accessories. And a canape stand (whipped cream, peanuts, raisins, and cherry tomatoes on saltine crackers. Very good, BTW. (I might have said this: they treat tomatoes as fruits over here. They are on cakes and in sweets. I have yet to eat one as a hot vegetable in any entree or as part of a salad.) Most of the pictures are of Curie class, my favorites.

I had made a list of everything that I was going to get caught up on and now I can't find it. I am going to the beach again today with sunblock this time and maybe tomorrow if it rains I will go to Beomeosa Temple. It is a national treasure and was built originally in the seventh century. Nearby on the adj ascent mountain is an ancient fortress. I may try my strength against the mountain. On down the range a couple of miles is a cable car that takes you back down. Nearby there is what is purported to be the largest bathhouse in Asia. I might go soak in some burning hot mud for a while.

I am planning a trip for the week I am off at the end of the month. I was going to go to Japan but it is a bit late now to get tickets. I am figuring out something to do here in Korea proper. Immigration still has my passport. I don't want to make a bunch of international plans and then have to scrap it all because of that. They are supposed to send it back with my alien card on the 24th but we will see. More later.

15 July 2008

Placeshifting

There have been rumors that there is a shadow blog, another place where I write down what is really happening, what I really think about it, etc. While I can neither confirm nor deny the existence of such a document, I can assure you that most of what is happening is going into this epistle. I have at times excluded things that are embarrassing to me or would embarrass my poor mother, who reads this. But this doesn't actually in the final account amount to much self-editing. I hate editing of any kind. I do a lot of freewriting exercises with my American writing students with the goal of getting them to turn off their internal editor. Most of our best ideas come from an uninhibited expression. If we sit around saying, "who is going to believe that" or "what if my poor mother reads this" it becomes very hard to "get in the zone" where the sub-conscious can take over and let the brain riff on reality. One workshop coordinator I read called it the "monkey mind": when your mind keeps monkeying with your flow.

I guess I kind of wanted to write tonight about writing, about how fun it is and how it helps. I haven't really had a blog before this, and I have never been a serious journal-keeper. I have done my fair share of writing in other situations, however, and it all seems the same to me. When you are going and the words are coming out and you don't really have or need a plan, that is the best. I have gone back over some of the pieces for this blog several times and made serious revisions, but the first draft I like to try to get down as quickly as possible without going back and changing things. If I am really flowing I won't even fix spelling and grammar mistakes. When I am in that place it feels really good.

There is a shadow blog, of sorts. I have a small notebook that I use to write down things that I think of to put in here and things I think of that I can't put in here. At first, before I had one I would write blog entries and then agonize over whether to publish them to the web as is, publish them to the web after editing out the iffys, or not publishing them at all. There have been some entries in each of these categories. I have not been vetoing as much since I got the little notebook.

One of the things I wrote in there recently was a bit about memory. I have been here three weeks today. At first I was living in two places, here and back home. The memories of things like smells are the first to go. I held on so desperately at first, and then, when I was sure I could feel things slipping away I started to panic. There were things that I just couldn't bear to let go. Then last week I was reading a novel The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime (which I highly recommend) and one of the characters talks about how when she would get down she would think about when she was younger and going to Cape Cod and taking a sightseeing boat out into the bay and watching the humpback whales feed. So I was feeling a bit down and I tried it. I thought about a particular stretch of dirt road I am intimately familiar with out in the Salisbury/Tallula area. I found myself remembering details of the road that I don't think I ever consciously recognized while I was there. And it helped. I felt so much at home there in my imagination. I have taken to doing this periodically now when I feel sketchy. It is a simple trick of the mind and becomes easier with practice. This morning after I woke up I imagined that I was in my bed in my old apartment in Springfield. It wasn't hard with my eyes closed. I have even done this sitting on the crapper. That toilet could be anywhere. They are all the same.

I do remember thinking several times just before I left: "My God, you are going to be all the way across the world in a few days. Will you remember how you feel now? How scared you are? The looming sense of the unknown?" I wish I could have told myself what I know now: one really doesn't leave. The placement of my consciousness is an act of the will either way since I can choose to put myself wherever I want within space (and space/time for that matter). We do this all the time: stressing over the future and reliving in horrific detail the mistakes of the past. I doubt we really spend much time at all in the present where and when. I think this is essentially the great project of the Buddhist monastics: to completely abandon the past and future and the elsewhere for the here and now.

After my little experiment of mental place-shifting I thought of a quote from one of my favorite poems, "Little Gidding" by T. S. Eliot, where he writes: "We shall not cease from exploration / And the end of all our exploring / Will be to arrive where we started / And know the place for the first time."

13 July 2008

On One Thing, At Least, Being Universal


Nothing else has reinforced how different this place is on the scale of the baseball game I attended last night. It was surreal. When you are really familiar and comfortable with something like a sport, something that you have spent a goodly part of your life spectating, and then see it turned inside out, it is quite shocking. I kept saying to Clayton: "I feel like I am a parallel universe."

Not even the field looked familiar. The infield dirt was black. It wasn't unpleasing to the eye, it just looked weird. My high school gym used to have a basketball court covered in orange carpet. One of the Division I football stadiums has blue astroturf. It is disconcerting. The pattern tells the brain that something else is expected. The park itself was a bowl tipped up so a large proportion of the seats were behind the plate. Smallish, maybe 30,000 seats. Packed. General admission. No sky boxes. If you want a good seat or care to sit in the loony section above the cheerleader deck (located about halfway up the bowl behind the home dugout, you needed to get there very early. I got there very early, but that Korean teacher with the tickets got there right before the game and I sat behind the left field foul pole in what would have been $50 tickets at Busch. Ours, everyone's in fact, were 7000 won ($7). You know, everything else considered, it really was delightful to go to a ballgame and not have to take $200. I bought everything I saw that I wanted (except a Giants hat), left full and pleasantly buzzed, and spent about 40000 won. Nice.

The crowd was enthusiastic, drummed up (literally) by a crew of professional cheerleaders, the chief of whom was an odd fellow in a Giants uniform complemented by knee-high white zipper boots. He jumped and gesticulated and fist pumped and did the Elvis pelvis and the electric slide, all with an Asian chic that made you think he was the love child of a samurai warrior and Richard Simmons. He was assisted by four young cheerleader types (whose attendance was apparently underwritten by Gatorade) and a set of drummers who pounded huge base drums nearly the entire time. There was both a song for each home player's at bat and a set of syncopated cheers for every situation (including a failed pick off throw by the opposing pitcher ["Ha!Ha!Hahahahaha!"], slugger up with man on second ["Oh home! Drive me hooooome!" (apropos on multiple levels)], and, quite astutely, the suspected balk). This went on pretty much the entire game.

The line-up. Fairly typical, but with one culturally induced problem. In the Korean league, each team is allowed two foreign players. In the case of the Giants, they have a fat white American pitcher and a Mexican named Ramirez. Ramirez is easily the best hitter on the team. He bats eighth. The obese and utterly talentless Korean third baseman (who couldn't even cover a relatively stiff bunt late in the game and struck out with men on base four times) bats fourth. This is a Korean thing. Their league, their guy bats fourth. The Mexican bats eighth. This third baseman, whose song is sung the loudest and with the most heartbreaking enthusiasm, is so crappy that they actually attempted to steal third with one out while he was up. They failed. He whiffed. Inning over. (There is a slight possibility that this was a hit and run, I know. But given this guy's utter inability to make contact, that would seem an even stupider call.)


The food: No peanuts. No hot dogs. No cracker jacks. You could take your own beer in but it didn't cost any more to buy it from a vendor if you didn't. The fare included the ubiquitous boxes of fried chicken (a little spicy, but not bad) that they serve at the beach and every other place where crowds gather, smoked ham hocks sliced on the bone (I made friends with a group of men in front of me and we traded liquor [I had brought along some 112 proof Chinese corn likker I had bought at breakfast and poured them some...they thought they were getting 42 proof soju...OMG! the look on that guy's face...it brings tears to my eyes {btw: sorry for all the embedded parentheticals}] and they fed me some of this from their own chopsticks god love 'em...it was tasty, too), and the various preparations of squid (both dried [think cat food jerky], grilled whole, and pan fried whole. There were also "ices": bowls shaved ice topped with red bean paste and fruit. I didn't try those. We had brought a generous supply of our own liquor and bought more (I got 10 beers for what I would have got two at Busch stadium. And I know what you're thinking but don't worry, I didn't drink them all. I only drank eight).

The game went into the ninth tied at zero. The crowd was, by this point, pretty well rubbed up. The home starter got into a jam in the top of the inning and was pulled after throwing a mere 169 pitches. The pitcher that came in gave up the go-ahead run and the Giants came to bat needing at least one run to keep their hopes alive. Let me at this point paint a picture of the assembled onlookers. Every man, woman and child in the park (including me and excluding Clayton, who is a Canadian and a hockey fan and thus has what he termed "dignity") had an orange plastic grocery bag inflated, tied shut, and lodged firmly atop their heads, the loops of the handles secured beneath the ears. This is apparently the Korean version of the rally cap. The bags had been sent out during the eighth and passed row by row to all the reaches of the stadium and hurriedly affixed to all heads alike in the manner heretofore explained. (They are handed out in the eighth of every game, no matter the score. The spectators use them to clean the stadium before they leave. Did I tell you I love this place?)

The throng, a bobbing sea of orange screaming in unison a cheer of unknown wording to the tune of "We're not gonna take it" by Twisted Sister, stood to watch the proceedings. The Giants got a runner and an out and a couple more runners and another out and if Cardinals announcer Mike Shannon were in attendance, which thank God he wasn't, he would have said "Old Abner has done it again," (see note) because it is his oft pronounced observation that the likelihood that the home team's slugger will come up to bat in the bottom of the ninth with the bases loaded and two outs and one run down is disproportionately large. And that is exactly what happened.

The crowd was in a state of delirium at this point. Most of them were obliterated anyway and the combination of grocery bag blowing and cheer screaming had reduced their condition only further. This was not improved by Ramirez running the count full. And as he stepped to the plate for the final time I recalled the words to the most famous of all baseball poems, "Casey at the Bat," and thought to myself, "No, please God, no. Not this time." Because the other statistical anomaly of baseball is that if the home team's slugger comes up with two outs in the bottom of the ninth and the bases are loaded and the home team is one run down and the count is full then that slugger will strike out. And that is exactly what happened.

Note: Abner Doubleday is the mythic inventor of baseball, which he did in a Cooperstown, NY cow pasture in 1839 despite being in attendance at West Point at the time. Mike Shannon, a rare metaphysical determinist and an idiot, believes that Abner somehow had the forethought to...never mind.

11 July 2008

Hasty Pudding

Sorry for the long delay between posts. I spent Tuesday and Wednesday evenings in recuperation mode. Moving very little. Thursday was me birthday and the teachers had a little party for me after school, which was nice. Thursday morning we went to the Busan Aquarium, which is actually under Haeundae Beach. The kids loved it and it was nice to have a break. We go on these field trips quite regularly. My first day, if you recall, we went to the horse track. Thursday evening about eight of us went out to my favorite samgyeopsal restaurant, which is near the school.

I hate to keep harping on this sunburn, but this is no ordinary sunburn. My peelings are peeling and I am down to organs in places now. It quite smarts. (I have noticed various Britishisms are creeping into my speech. This is likely more as a result of the content of borrowed fiction than my personal associations, but, regardless, it is annoying. I will attempt to correct them where better Americanisms suffice.) I had planned to go on a beach outing this Sunday but if things do not improve dramatically in the next 36 hours that will likely be impossible.

Stuart (Sarah's boyfriend, here on a software project, if you aren't keeping up) has a birthday on Tuesday so we are having a kind of joint celebration tomorrow at the ballpark. I am really looking forward to it.

That is really all at this time. I should have lots of exciting weekend tidbits soon. Also, a new camera is in the works. TTYL=Talk to you later.

08 July 2008

The Blessed Intercession of Holy Women

You're not going to believe this one. Maybe you will. I'm personally starting to believe that there is something seriously wrong with me. I have always been a bit ditsy, and I do come from a place where you don't lock your doors (at least I didn't), but this is just beyond what even I am typically capable. First the camera, now...

This afternoon was going to be hectic enough. I had finally amassed all of the documents necessary for my alien registration card (doctor, employer, customs, visa, two pictures, etc) and Jenny was going to run me down to the subway so I could get clear down to the port where the immigration office is before it closed at six. This alien immigration card is kind of the holy grail of all documents for ex-pats: it is required for internet, power, cell phone, bank account, and pretty much everything else. I had talked to my friend Brian and he said he couldn't get any internet at home till his came through which as of last week it hadn't and he came over three weeks before me. I kind of lucked out because my apartment building is owned by the school director and I told them I would die without it and they hooked me up on their wad. But I digress....

I grabbed my bike helmet and told Jenny I would meet her downstairs and went down to lock it up in my scooter so I would have it when I got back to be safe on the ride home and when I got downstairs my scooter was gone. As in stolen. I shouldn't say stolen because technically I did kind of donate it to humanity as I kind of left the keys in it on accident, but it is bye-bye. Forever.

After a few moments of quiet reflection I decided to push on with the alien registration project. I told Jenny the bike was gone and how it happened and said "Stupid, Stupid, Stupid, Stupid" over and over. And then I realized that my apartment key was on that key chain. I told Jenny and she gave me a weary look I have become accustomed to from employers and she made some frantic phone calls while driving like mad to the station.

Just so you know, I am smiling while I write all of this. I'll tell you why in a minute.

I got down to the station at about 5:30 and ran down to the line I needed and went to slap my wallet on the turnstile (it reads your card through the wallet, kind of neat) and nothing happened. This caused a major backup to my posterior so I turned around and swam back upstream and tore my wallet apart. No card. (This is inexplicable. Am I in the bloody Bermuda triangle here or something?) I ran back to the card dispenser and finally figured out how to get it to speak English and got all the way to the end of the process when a beautiful female voice said in English with a Korean accent: "exact change please." I replied with a voice in English with quite a different accent and strode off to find a change machine. After it was all sorted out I made the 5:42. Yeonsangdong is about 20 stops from Jungangdong, where I was to get off. I sweated it the whole way down there and climbed out of the subway at 5:57. So now my fat ass is jogging, which it doesn't like to do under the best of conditions, but with my pack slapping up and down on my now soaked shirt and thus my 3rd degree sunburnt back and shoulders, every step was agony. Jenny had given me a slip of paper with the directions written on it in Korean but I still ended up getting pointed to the wrong place and had to jog back about 300 meters the way I came (don't laugh, that is a lot for someone with my blood pressure) and by this point I was pretty steamed.

I got into the office (after going to the wrong floor) at 6:06. I got another withering look from the lady packing her bag but I think that the look I gave her in return must have been genuinely pathetic because she motioned me over and began putting me through what must have been the most rapid alien registration in the history of aliens. They took all me records, including my passport (at least I can't lose that for a while), and a goodly bit of me money and ushered me kindly and firmly out of the door.

When I got back to Yeonsandong station I called Jenny and she told me that the landlord had put a new set of keys in my mailbox and that she would see me tomorrow.

Now why is all of this so funny? Why am I in such a good mood? Well, this might seem strange, but I am actually relieved. That damn scooter was nothing but trouble. It took me places I didn't need to go and allowed me to go there way too fast. I kept thinking as I was riding around that it was simply a matter of time before I got splatted. It wouldn't even necessarily have been my fault. The drivers here are insane. Add in my inexperience, general disorientation, bravado, and occasional self-induced handicaps it was a disaster waiting to happen. It also gave off an evil aura of unused potential. It messed up my Zen, you might say, by always presenting the opposite of the here and now. I have grown used to using public transport and self-propelling myself here and there and this takes some planning. It eliminates energy and resource wasting jaunts here and there for stupid stuff you don't need. It is a wholly different mindset and I had forgotten how much I liked it. It is hard to explain what I mean. I am just more present without the constant potential to be instantly absent. Now, I am out a bit of money, but I think that the experience of driving here and surviving to tell about it was well worth it. Besides, the convenience and efficiency of the public transportation system here makes driving almost not even worth it. I was still looking at going to try and get a license, which was far from a sure thing, and this would have involved insurance, which is not cheap, and, to reiterate: I am relieved that the thing is gone.

There is another reason I am laughing. You all know that my feelings about the Christian religion run a bit to the sceptical side. That said, I have seen this happen before firsthand. Ever since I let it be known that I had the scooter, my mother has been sending not so veiled messages that she was worried about it. And when my mother, a born-again saint of God, worries about something, she starts praying about it. And she gets all of her friends at the bible study to praying too. And these people are serious prayers. My mom prays pretty much every waking moment. And if there is a God in heaven and these women got latched onto this scooter (and I am just speculating that they did), then he heard very little else for the last two weeks and he probably sent someone by to look at the keys hanging out of that thing out of pure self-preservation.

So, would anyone like to buy a slightly used bike helmet? Cheap?

07 July 2008

The Cracks

I have never been this sunburned in my life. I couldn't even sleep last night. I am so miserable. How could I have been so stupid as to go to the beach and not put on any sunblock. I think that the antibiotics I am taking made it even worse. If I thought they could do anything for me I would go to the hospital.

Enough whining. I had a good day at school, even though Mondays are my long day. I don't have a single break other than lunch. I was nodding a bit in my afternoon classes.

Got some nice emails today that cheered me up. My friend Jim sent me a picture of a buck growing antlers. My uncle sent me some landscapes he took out at the farm and some fireworks pictures that were pretty kewl. I went to the electronics store nearby. I found a camera that I will probably buy when I get paid. It makes me mad that I lost my other one but there is no point in crying about it now. I will just have to be more careful with the next one. I am also going to be more careful on the scooter. I actually scared myself last night.

On the way home tonight traffic was blocked off on the main road to my house. There are footbridges periodically over the major roads (and tunnels under them) for pedestrians to get across. There was an old woman on the road under one of them. She must have jumped. The police were there working on her. She was real bloody. It kind of made me sick. I can't handle that type of thing very well. Suicide is a real problem here apparently. Old women and high school students.

I know this hasn't been the cheeriest post and I'm sorry but that is the way it is today. I read before I came over here a post somewhere about the stages of culture shock. I think I am entering the second stage now. I have tried to stay upbeat, and I do love this place and I am having fun, but there are times when I am very frustrated. Little things get to me. I came home tonight and tried to make myself some noodles but I couldn't read the directions and it ended up being too watered down. I still don't have any sheets. I asked if I could buy them and turn in the receipt but that wasn't ok and I feel bad asking Jenny to go to the store with me because she is so busy. I have gone to the store to try to buy things but it is hard to read the labels and I can't even find basic stuff like chicken stock.

Another problem is the limited number of English speakers I have to hang out with. Don't get me wrong, I like them all a lot, but you can't spend all day every day with the same people, especially if one of those people is me. I actually feel sorry for Clayton. He has had to bear the brunt of my neediness. I am trying to give him a break for a while but that means hanging out here by myself or going out and getting in trouble and neither of those things is appealing right now since I am so miserable from this sunburn.

This has turned into quite a rant. It makes me feel better to write about it. I know I will feel better tomorrow.

06 July 2008

The Third Wave


Bad news first: I lost my camera. I have no idea where or how, but it is gone. I don't know when I will be able to get another.

Anywho, this has been a great weekend. Yesterday (Sat.) I spent the day by myself touring. I rode the subway down to Bujeon Market (see the day's pictures, which, thank Buddha, I got off the camera before I lost it). This is the biggest food market in Busan and it was pretty cool, there are labels on the pics, so I won't go on about it. If you have questions, please mail.

Next I got back on the subway and went on down the line to Nampodong. This is an older neighborhood down by the port. I meant to go to another market there, but I got sidetracked by the sea. I walked down to the international ferry terminal in an attempt to find some literature in English but struck out. I walked down past piers and harbors and all kinds of stuff and ended up eating lunch on Shanghai Street. I went to a Chinese restaurant and had steamed pork dumplins and shrimp fried rice.

I walked on to Busan Station and got on a Busan City tour bus. There are two different routes and I got on the south. We went back the way I had come, toward Nampodong. After going to Busan tower we went over the bridge to Yeongdo, a neighborhood on an island south of Busan proper. There is a really cool observation area there called Taejongdae but when I was there it was fogged in. I sat in a little shop and had a delicious libation. On the way back they were playing Korean tunes on the intercom and all of a sudden "Take Me Home Country Road" came on. I had drunk just enough Soju that hearing this caused me to bawl in front of an entire bus full of Koreans. The old lady next to me sat there patting my leg all the way back to the station. I kept thinking: of all the songs....

Tired out, I got home and ended up going out with friends. I lost my camera. I ate some soup. I forgot a lot of stuff.

Today I went to Haeundae beach. I didn't remember sunblock and am fried like lobster. I rented a parasol and a chair for 10000 won. I have been to the Atlantic but this was my first time swimming in the ocean. I was surprised by how salty it was. It burnt my eyes. The waves were huge. A girl we met from New York was a boogie boarder and she taught us about the sets of waves. There is a rhythm to it. She said that the third wave is always the best for surfing. I started watching and she was right. The first two are bigger but the third breaks more evenly. Who knew. There were sailboats everywhere and they were hauling ass. I wish I had my boat. I bought fried chicken and beer from a roving vendor. I met girls from US, Canada, Denmark, Russia. After a bit Sarah and Stuart showed up and when we couldn't take the sun any more we went to their hotel, which overlooks the beach (I am so jealous) we sat in the waterfall jacuzzi, swam in the rooftop pool, drank some maekju (beer), and generally ponked out. Tonight we ate at a restaurant that Roa Ju (a Korean teacher at work) told Clayton served the hottest food in Korea. It was pretty hot, but not unbearable. I rode home at night with a little buzz and had two near death experiences on the scooter (don't tell ma). Clayton rides like an idiot and I have to take even more chances trying to keep up with him. Riding between the lanes of oncoming traffic through a red light intersection. Not good.

Well. I am really tired. This weekend has really flown by. I am actually looking forward to getting back to school tomorrow. I miss my kids.

I wonder where I left my camera.

05 July 2008

New Pics

New pictures, including many related to previous posts, are now available. Click on the Photo Journal link to the right and view album titled "Korea Pics 3."

04 July 2008

Reflections on the Land of the Morning Calm


I have been trying to figure out how to distill the character of this country and her people in a way that doesn't seem patronizing or somehow cheapened by the expression. This has been on my mind since I got here, but it hasn't yet seemed like the right time to try to put it down. A few things have happened over the last day that have really given me a broader perception of the culture, so I am going to give it a try.

Last night Clayton and I took off to look for some cheap sunglasses and ended up taking a two and a half hour walk. There is a small river that winds through central Busan, running north from between Gwangalli and Haeundae beaches until it gets about even with my neighborhood, which it then turns west and runs behind. It is only about 100 feet wide and strictly channelized, but along the river's banks run wide paved walking paths. Between the walking path and the river on each side is a grassy area about 50 feet wide which a variety of recreational installations occupy at intervals. Wading pools, exercise areas with weights, pull-up bars, etc., a roller blade track, small amphitheaters, sculpture parks, badminton courts, and other facilities line the greensward. The banks of the river are lined with rushes and the rise up to street level is lined with carefully maintained shrubs and flower gardens. Bullfrogs croak from lily padded fish ponds circled by gravel walkways with little teak bridges. At midnight last night there were many people out walking, talking, playing, sitting around in small groups on park benches, holding hands. What does this have to do with the national character, you ask? Everything. This is a vertical city. People live literally on top of each other. I have yet to see a single family residence. I haven't been everywhere here, but it doesn't seem likely that they exist anywhere near the city center. But it is as if there was an unspoken contract that says, "OK, we are going to put five million people in 20 square kilometers; however, we are going to make every effort to do so without sacrificing our quality of life."

Now I know I am a cornfield county country boy living in the big city for the first time and if I were someone else I might reasonably question my standing as a commentator on urban planning and Asian cultural identity, but I have been around a little bit and there are some differences between the urban areas of the U.S. and here. First, the social contract that makes this place special has less to do with municipal forethought and more to do with relationships at the personal level. Clayton was saying tonight that he was sometime annoyed by all of the protocol and posturing that is part of the everyday experience here. When you are handed something, say a receipt at the grocery store, it is considered respectful to accept it with both hands. Likewise, the giver of the item will touch the forearm of the right (giving) hand with the fingers of the left hand. Eye contact is also made at this time. It is impossible to preform this act without acknowledging the presence of the other. It is a recognition in the literal sense, a re-cognition, a re-affirmation of the human element in the hum-drum interactions of day to day life. And, more importantly, this idea of really seeing the people around you carries over to every part of daily life here. It is demonstrated in city's cleanliness. Busan has paid street sweepers, usually older men, who can be seen working early every morning with old-fashioned natural brooms and hand-made tin dustbins. You don't have to see that going on twice to have a new take on the cigarette butt. Garbage in general here is treated differently. If you want a bag for your groceries you have to pay. Special bags are sold by the government for garbage disposal, and they aren't cheap. Koreans throw very little of anything away. At the McDonald's down the street the garbage cans are mini recycling centers. There is a receptacle for straws and lids, one for paper, a bucket for unfinished beverages. I would have no problem eating off the floor of the subway. It is immaculate. It is also apparent in the consideration taken toward strangers. When you get on the bus or subway and there aren't any seats, someone seated will take your bag and hold it, without asking or expecting thanks, so you can hold on to the grab rail. Last night a complete stranger approached me with a bottle of beer, poured me a glass, I poured him one, and we drank. I told him thank you and he trotted off. Another stranger walked three blocks with me and helped me buy a transit card. I could go on and on.

So what about the river path? Why are places important? As I was walking down it last night listening to the sounds of a city laughing and playing I was struck by the thought that this could not happen in many big cities in the U.S. Not at midnight. Not down by the river in a marginal neighborhood (my area is pretty gritty). In my country this area would have been a trash-filled, graffiti-covered hole.

What is so special about this place/people dynamic was made clear to me this afternoon in one of my classes. We were reading a story about a little girl whose family had moved to the city. She missed the farm. She and her father were sitting in the kitchen talking and he listened to her share her feelings and offered to take her and her dog for a walk to the park to make her feel better. On the way her dog got loose and a series of helpful bystanders at the park eventually reunited the girl and her dog. The lesson for the day was on setting, how a story is affected by the place in which it occurs. I asked the kids what the most important room in their house was. I got a variety of answers, but I proposed that the kitchen was the most important place because it was where the family gathered together to eat and talk and listen to each other. The kids bought it. I said that this was what happened in the story. The little girl was upset and her father was there with her and he saw it and he listened and he helped her feel better. If she was upset alone in her bedroom and her father was off somewhere watching TV there would be no story. I then proposed that the park was essentially a kitchen as well, but instead of being the "together place" for a single family, it is serves that purpose for the larger community. The school I teach in is on the edge of a large high rise complex, and the view from my fourth floor classroom is of its courtyard. There are tables under trees, tennis courts, two playgrounds, a small strip of shops, and a croquet court where a group of aunties have it out each afternoon. I asked the kids to get up and we looked out the window at the scene below. People talking, playing, eating, laughing, and most importantly, listening to each other. Just like a kitchen. The kids got the idea and I got verclempt.

Two things, intertwined, make this all possible: people and the places they inhabit. First, people gather in places like these because they are clean and safe and well-appointed. They are clean and safe and well-appointed because people care about them and want them to be nice. They care about these places because they care about each other. They care about each other because they have a clean, safe, well-appointed place to build relationships.

This then is the setting for the stories being told here in Busan. It is a magical place inhabited by people that care. And I am in love with it.

03 July 2008

But It's Still Moving!

Out last night for Perry's send-off. He had stuff to do in the evening and Sarah and Stuart (her BF, here working on a software deal) had stuff to do so we didn't even get on the subway till 10:30. We went down to Kyungsung, a neighborhood near Suyeong with several universities and lots of bars as a result. This might be a good time to comment on the education system here. High School is really the end of a Korean's education and it is hell. The entrance exams for college are taken at the conclusion of high school and they are gruelling. College, once entered, is pretty much a joke. So, like I was saying, we went down to this "hoe" (pronounced kind of like "whey" with more "h") restaurant down there (one or two alleys west of Subway station). Hoe is kind of a Busan specialty and these places are all over. You know it is a hoe place if there are tanks of live fish out front. The food you eat is alive when you walk through the door. We ordered a platter that had three kinds of fish, served raw. The heads of the fish were on the platter as decoration. Every place you go gives extra stuff, called "service," and this place was no exception. Jellyfish salad, sea slug (started moving when brought into contact with wasabi... like eating a briny pink rubber band), sea urchin (looked like snot and tasted like the ocean), shrimp (steamed whole), quail eggs with the hottest peppers I have eaten since I got here, salmon roe, live baby octopus (they chopped it up right before they brought it and it was still moving... a lot. It latched onto the plate and when I got it off there it latched onto my chopsticks. Tasted great.), and a bunch of sauces, veggies, and etc. After the main course they brought out three different cooked fish dishes, salmon with a mustard sauce, marinated tuna, and something else. One of the raw fish on the platter was a flounder, I am not sure what the other two were but one head looked a lot like a bass. Might have been sea bass. The last thing they brought was a soup that had been made fresh with all of the things left over after they cut up everything we had just eaten. All of the bones, skin, and guts were in there. You only spoon up the broth. It was really good but it was too spicy for me so I didn't eat too much. I was under the impression that these places were prohibitively expensive but the platters we got were 15000 won and they were meant for two people each. There were six of us and we were stuffed.

We moved on down the alley and came to a club called Old 55, a foreigner bar. There was a Canadian band cranking out original blues numbers at volume and then a hippy chick got up with them and started doing Cranberries and Alanis and stuff like that. We were pretty blasted when we left the restaurant (Ro Ju, a girl from work kept making everybody drink a layered Soju bomb with beer and coca-cola. I had had Soju bombs before. The coke just made it even more drinkeable and as a result even more devastating.) At the club we had pints of Cass, a local pale ale that isn't bad cold. The best thing: I saw an expat who was even fatter than me! I seriously thought I was the fattest person in the whole damn country but this guy had a massive gut. Yes!

We cabbed it home and moved some furniture around. I got an arm chair, an iron, a vacuum cleaner, some dishes, an umbrella, and a better desk. We drank a couple bottles of soju when we got here and finally got to bed about 3 AM. Hurt bad this morning but I had a great day at work. Went to Mcdonald's for lunch and had a Big Mac that didn't taste like a Big Mac. I did my laundry today for the first time. I couldn't read the label on the machine so I just pressed in some random settings and hoped for the best. It washed my clothes for two hours. I hung them up out on the roof. About 5000 people can see my underwear from their windows. I went to the store tonight and bought some veggies. I am spending a quiet night at home tonight and it is not easy. I am better when I stay distracted. Maybe that is why I am sitting here writing about my underwear. I might go down to the subway later to get my picture taken in a photo booth. I need pics for my alien card.

Crisis today at work: one of the Korean teachers quit and it threw a wrench in the class schedule. Two foreign teachers left this last week and Sarah, Clayton and I are now pulling the load four teachers were before. We can't pick up the Korean language classes, thank gawd, or I would probably be getting more classes. Jenny, my supervisor, was in bad shape. I got the impression that the director didn't want to hire another Korean teacher and that the supervisors were going to have to take up the slack. Jenny has so much to do already that she will be there till midnight doing office stuff if she has to teach all day. We had a meeting today and they asked for some stuff that I will have to work on. I get a week off at the end of this month and I am going to try to go to Japan. Jenny used to be a travel agent and she said she would help me with tickets. It sounds like everyone else in the country is off that week so it might be hard to get tickets to certain places. Jenny said don't even try to go to Jejudo, it will be a zoo. I will do that this winter.

Perry left tonight for Thailand. He is going to spend a week there. I guy I met at the bar last week said that Thailand is the spot and he is planning on retiring there. I might have to go sheck it out. I will get the lowdown from Perry when he comes back next week.

01 July 2008

Very Superstitious

Last night, after a grueling day at the office, the staff from the school all went out for my official welcoming party and Perry's official goodbye party. We went to a place in Suyeong (a party neighborhood near the beaches) for samgyeopsal (sam-geeop-sall), a traditional Korean feast of fatty pork (think huge slices of thick cut bacon) cooked on a tabletop grill of some sort served with all sorts of fixin's, to which I will return in a moment. The grills are usually round recesses covering a small bucket of charcoal and topped with a domed metal griddle which drains into a little ditch around it's edge. Some of the fixin's, like mushrooms, onions, bean sprouts, and especially garlic cloves go right into the ditch to be roasted in the draining bacon grease. There are usually a couple of cold salad-like deals (there has usually been a shredded cabbage salad with carrots and cucumbers topped with a creamy dressing similar to thousand island or peppercorn that I love), always kimchi, some little sliced peppers of hades in even more hellacious pepper oil, and my favorite, a red bean and garlic paste that adds a sweet kick to the whole thing. A small bowl of seasoned sea salt is nearby to sprinkle on the pork as it sizzles. I could eat that out of the cellar. (BTW: My blood pressure when I went to the hospital last Thursday for my Korean alien card was so high they are making me come back, so I should probably steer clear of the salt cellar...but, one little pinch won't hurt). Also provided are a basket of leaves to wrap it all up in, usually lettuce and sesame. This place differed in that the griddle was a slanted slab of granite heated to operational temp by gas from below. It was much larger than the traditional metal griddle and this helped with the crowd. The only negative of the whole night was that the ventilation in the small private room could not stand up to the smoke generated by the three tables all going full blast and some people, especially Perry and Sarah, who were by the windows, really go fumigated good. As it was we all reeked of sizzle when we walked out, which isn't all bad. Periodically throughout the meal someone would scream something in Korean and we would be obliged to fill our glasses with soju (the unique Korean 40 proof neutral grain spirit that will seriously mess you up) or maekju (the local beer, called Hite, is pretty bad unless you are eating Korean food, with which it goes well for chemo/culinary reasons I am still trying to figure out) and made a toast to Perry or I. This was the first time I met the owner of the school. She was a very happy person in her 60's. At one point our supervisor advised us that it would be proper to go over to her table and have a drink of soju with her individually. She could really put it down. Neither of us could speak a lick of the other's language so our exchange consisted of big-smiling, mmm-mmming, back-patting, hand-squeezing, and head-bowing. It worked. She knows I respect her and I know she is proud to have such an intelligent and handsome megook (American) on her staff. At least I think that's what she meant.

After dinner we walked down toward the main drag and walked down into a basement establishment I felt with no small trepidation might be the source of more soju, but it was another local tradition, the karaoke bang ("bang" is used to denote public gathering places of various purposes. PC bang for instance provides computers with internet to chain smokers for 1000 won ($1) per hour). I sang "Superstition" by Stevie Wonder well enough to give myself way too much confidence and attempt "Let's Stay Together," by Al Green. After massacreing that I redeemed myself by grabbing the spare mike and busting out some harmonies on a slow girl-ballad I can't recall. Later I jumped in and saved Clayton on "Wonderwall." The Korean teachers and administrators and especially the owner could all sing very well. I thought it was a blast. If you went out to dinner and got moderately wasted one of these places would be a great place to sober up before braving the subway.

This was exactly what we did. The Suyeong station was nearby so we hopped on and had planned to get off one stop west at Mangmi junction and walk about ten minutes up to the school to get our scooters, but Perry was talking to one of the Korean teachers (Lana, who no longer works at the school but was friends with Perry and so was invited) and didn't tell us to get off even though I kept saying "this is it, this is it," so we ended up going all the way over to Yeonsan-dong station and taking a bus all the way back over to the school. It took an hour to get home but should have been much less. Not all bad though: I got a lot of photos of both the evening festivities and night street scenes that I will post shortly.

Well, time to go to work. I didn't eat breakfast yesterday and never really recovered. They feed us lunch at the school and it is some real Korean home cooking. I am trying to eat it for a variety of reasons, but it really doesn't appeal to me much or hold down my appetite. I can't even begin to tell you what we had yesterday: it defies description. Rice is always present (it is my job to go down the the kitchen and get the huge pot of rice for our floor and put it in the warmer and start it). There is usually a miso-like soup and a green-vegetable (usually seaweed of some kind). The kimchi at school is the strong variety, fermented for a long time. I still haven't acquired that taste. So I am going to get something to eat. probably fruit. Speaking of fruit, I have been eating raw fruit, vegetables, and fish since I got here and have had no intestinal problems at all. This culture almost revels in the swapping of spit. The water purifier/cooler at school has a spigot and the whole floor shares a few small tin cups for drinking. At these communal eating deals, all of the bowls on the table are shared. Bryan told me that the only table taboo he had ever encountered was that it is impolite to lick your fingers when eating chicken. You are always provided, by the way, with a small warm wet washcloth at the beginning of each meal. You are only given water if you ask: "Mul juseyo": "water give me, please." Gotta go!