When I initially got to South Korea, I spent the first couple of weekends out on the town in Seoul, staying local and coming home at dawn. Mandy had spent 11 months there so I had plenty of friends and co-workers to meet. But soon enough the weekends were spent out gallivanting the whole of the country.
Our first weekend away was to Sokcho, a beach town on the opposite coast from us. It would be the first time I would dip my feet in the Pacific Ocean….on the other side. (I’m so lame, I know.) Of course we planned our weekend at the beach right when it started raining, but that’s really hard to avoid when it’s monsoon season.
‘Monsoon’ is a scary word when you’ve never experienced one. But in reality it’s nothing more than frustrating and unpredictable rain inconveniencing your plans. It’s most annoying quality is that it comes quick, hard, and without warning. You might be laying in the sunshine soaking in all its rays and then suddenly the dark clouds emerge and let down a fierce and relentless rain. It usually never stops until you’ve become settled and comfortable inside somewhere.
So this particular weekend was one of those; we were supposed to be sprawled out on a white sand beach the whole time, yet instead it all gloom and doom. Luckily we made the most of it by hiking in the nearby amazingly gorgeous National park. We visited a temple with a giant Buddha, roamed around a temple, and took a cable car to the top of the mountain (for absolutely no view in that intense fog), and did it all with umbrellas up the entire time. The moment we came down the cable car, the clouds parted and you could see clear to the top. It was just a nice reminder that timing really is everything.
One activity we did that weekend I consider distinctively Korean was the jinjilbong: a sauna and bathhouse open 24 hours a day. These places are on nearly every corner of every city and it’s an experience like no other. Your entrance fee gets you a jail-like uniform and access to various temperature saunas, accessible to both males and females (hence the uniform). We went into a sauna so hot I couldn’t breathe and I thought my skin was actually melting off. I only made it 5 minutes there. There is also a large hangout room where you can watch TV, sleep, or just plain relax in between sessions. Blankets and pillows included, massage chairs available for cheap.
In the women’s only section you could take a dip in a cold pool or hot tub, shower, and even pay for a legitimate massage. One strange thing (I did not personally experience) was the ajima scrub down. You pay to stand there naked while a little old Korean lady takes a wiry scrub cloth and rubs the shit out of your skin. This process has been described as somewhat painful (and awkward) but results in utterly smooth skin.
The morning we were due to leave Sokcho, the sun had come out and not a cloud could be seen. Not ones to miss literally golden moments, we threw on bathing suits, grabbed some bikes, and headed down to the beach to get whatever sun we could for a couple of hours. Since it wasn’t for long I made the mistake of not putting on much sunscreen. On the bus ride home it was beginning to become clear how burnt I got. It wasn’t until I could only waddle home and then sprawl near naked on Mandy’s bed writhing in pain and constantly slathering on aloe in front of the ac that it was obvious just how stupid I can be. (This wasn’t the first time I’ve made this mistake.) Luckily the picture of my ass and its newly acquired lobster burn line provided lots of laughs for her co-workers. I also peeled for the following 4 ½ weeks. I write this now in hopes that I embarrass myself enough to never do this again. (But I probably will.)
Another outing that was the most ridiculous, fun, and overall best thing I’ve done in Korea by far was Mud Fest. A weekend dedicated to nothing but getting down and dirty, I enjoyed every minute on that foreigner infested beach. Sure there were plenty of Koreans, and naturally those girls were still in their heels, even when covered in mud. Mandy had assembled a group of 11 of us to go together with an organization that sorted out the transportation and accommodation, the rest was up to us.
When we arrived by noon on Saturday we were ready to go, but the mud was not. Apparently, it was too rainy for the mud to stick (damn monsoons) so there was a pause on the whole event. Fortunately, this gave us time to prepare ourselves aka play King’s Cup and get the sober out of us. Soon enough we had our bathing suits on, our dignity checked at the door, and we were strolling down the beach to the land of all that was mud.
Large inflatable structures were erected all over to provide mud slides, mud obstacle courses, and mud wrestling pits. There was also colored mud body painting, mud art sculptures, and of course, mud flinging. A large stage always provided background music and there was never a dull moment. Once covered in mud, all you had to do was run into the ocean and you were clean and ready to get dirty again.
Eventually we all made our way back to the hotel, showered, and went out to watch the fireworks over the ocean and continue the shenanigans out in the streets. Sunday was more of the same, but the majority of us stayed sober. Most of us had a fierce hangover and we were due on the bus by 4 pm anyways. Not that any of this stopped us from getting muddy all over again. This time though, the sun was shinning and we were making sand castles. It was a perfect mud festival weekend.
Another big weekend for me was when I did a temple stay at a Buddhist sunmudo center. I went to clear my head, learn to meditate, and hopefully learn to kick a little ass. You see, sunmudo is a form of traditional Korean marital arts and while I knew it was going to be difficult, I had no idea just how broken and beat-up I would get. And I loved every back-breaking minute of it.
It started with a 4 am wake-up for chanting, meditation, and then breakfast. One lucky day I experienced a traditional Buddhist meal which was very peculiar in that they eat fast, quietly, and leave absolutely nothing behind. Every grain of rice must be eaten and during the special meal, you must even drink the water u wash your bowl in. (It wasn’t as gross as I assumed though, I swear.) Then there is sunmudo training, 108 bows, tea and conversation, lunch and then some free time. One afternoon I was able to learn archery and now I have so much more respect for Robin Hood. Later there is community work, dinner, and finally more chanting, mediation, and sunmudo training before bed at 10 pm.
Life at a Buddhist temple is not quite what I had expected. Sure there was peaceful mediation, but this serene environment was a bit shaken up by the swarm of summer school students there who were not attending by their own free will. These kids of all ages tended to be “problem” children and their parents had decided they needed discipline. And discipline they got. I saw a couple of kids get thrown to the ground, hit, and even kicked for acting out or fighting. This seemed out of place with Buddhist principles, but not for a martial arts master who needed to instill some obedience and authority. Also, physical punishment is so accepted in Korean culture that teachers are openly allowed and sometimes encouraged to hit children when they misbehave.
But don’t think this is all I saw at my temple stay; it was merely an interesting observation. I spent my time with the other hard-working adults there on their own accord, most of them Korean, all of us struggling. Some workouts were harder than others. The worst was the morning we did our exercises at the temple on the top of the mountain. It started with sprinting up and down the uneven steep stone stairs that were already difficult to walk and graduated to hopping and leaping. The way down was always on all fours with your face first and legs unbent. Naturally, I thought my clumsy self might die so I couldn’t complete that task entirely but they never came down on you if you didn’t, which I greatly appreciated.
It’s also important to note here that this was by far the hottest and most humid environment I have ever encountered. Simply by standing outside for a few minutes meant you were covered in sweat. I basically spent my whole three days there living in a sauna, with the exception of my air-conditioned room, which I adored. (Side note: the vast majority of hotels are traditional Korean style, which means no bed and only mats for the floor. I’ve actually grown quite used to it.)
My stay at the Buddhist temple didn’t yield the soul-searching fulfillment I was looking for, but I gained a new appreciation for this devout way of life and a knowledge that I’ll never be someone who could live in silence. I’ll always seek out a friend, a confident, and a fellow troublemaker. (My roommate totally joined me when I suggested we leave to get some ice cream. Two days in a row.) But I do still look forward to studying more about Buddhism and meditation. I have actually done it some since I’ve left and I do appreciate the concentrated quiet. The 108 bows on the other hand, I think I’ll leave that at the temple. (Everyday they spend a half hour praying getting up and down on their knees 108 times. It doesn’t sound so bad, but I suggest you try it once. Don’t forget to add the sauna.)
While I hope I have painted a decent picture for all you folks about these events, if you search the internet enough you are bound to find some real ones. Because Mud Fest was such a big deal, hundreds of photographers were there and I felt like Britney Spears without underwear the way they were taking pictures of me. Once one person took a photo, five or six more paparazzi would be on you and there was no doubt that at least one of my shots made it somewhere on the internet. And as if that weren’t enough, the weekend I did the Buddhist temple stay a photographer was there taking pictures the entire time, not a moment missed. Let me remind you, this was the sweatiest I had ever been in my life and I was genuinely trying to perform the tasks as well as concentrate on meditation. I must have been his damn muse because he was seemingly always up in my face zooming in on God knows what and I can only pray these photos never actually surface. From these two weekends in a row I have decided being famous is probably the worst thing that could ever happen to someone in a swimsuit and who is very sweaty.
Since this was a lot of adventure to share, I’m saving the shenanigans of my final week in Korea for the next blog. And don’t forget I’m including the hilarious conclusion to my escapade at the airport. (You shouldn’t wait long. It’s already written. I just like trilogies.)