Sunday, August 29, 2010

are you in?

It’s 8 am and the air is already thick with humidity leaving my skin unpleasantly sticky. The tiny female farm workers with triangular rice hats are quickly pacing the streets with their long bows over their shoulders and scale-like presentation of fruit and vegetables for sale. The street corners are packed with people sitting on tiny plastic stools hovering over their hot noodle soup breakfast. A swarm of motorcycles whiz past practically every second nearly taking a limb or two of mine with them.

Good morning Vietnam!

I can’t quite describe the excitement I felt my first day in Vietnam; it was unlike anything I’ve ever seen, yet I felt completely comfortable. I was in a new world and eager to take on the roller coaster journey that is backpacking. With Mandy by my side, we awaited the arrival of our third partner in crime, Jimmy.

Before I begin to describe what we have seen and done, I need to (at least vaguely) describe the absurdity and brilliance that is our group. We’re all from the Bay Area originally, but all received drinking degrees form Chico State. And if you think I’m a loud ridiculous hot mess, you should see these two. I ain’t got nothing on them. So imagine three outrageous Americans who never travel without snacks, ipods and speakers, or miss a happy hour and I’m sure you’ll think Vietnam might not be able to handle us. I’m not so sure either.

Our first few days in the capital of Hanoi were slow while we waited for Jim. The standard aimless wandering, sorting through endless piles of the same souvenir crap, and tasting the local street fare. If anything could describe Southeast Asia (or South America for that matter) it’s this phrase: same same, but different. It may sound weird at first but there is so much truth to it for anyone who’s traveled here.

Basically, it means no matter how often you change location, seek out something unique to buy, or figure out what you want to eat, it’s all really the same from whatever you’re trying to distinguish it from. Whenever a vender decides to sell something, for some reason they set up shop directly next door to their competition and offer the exact same goods for the exact same price. Whether it’s purses or shoes, a noodle stand or bakery; no one bothers to differentiate themselves from their competitor. And even though restaurants boast their delicious and unique fare all over chalkboards out front, it’s pretty much the standard menu you’ll find all over the country. Sometimes neighbors even have literally the same exact menu. Even when you cross country borders, you’ll find pretty much the same stuff to buy and the same things to eat, really only vaguely different. I’m not saying each country and city isn’t at all unique. It’s just a phrase that encompasses the overall feeling foreigners get when they spend months criss-crossing all over the place.

Same same, but different.

(They even have a t-shirt with ‘same same’ on it. I would get it but it’s kind of ugly and while I’m holding out for something better along they way, I know it’ll be same same.)

This phrase also applies to tour operators and even though I know this, I still always scour cities for the best price and most trustworthy person. But in the end, it never makes a difference because they all work together and hire the same locals to do the grunt work of showing the tourists around.

First, it needs to be said that I hate tours. Well, not entirely. They’re convenient and mindless but really only acceptable in small doses. It’s often inevitable for the things I want to do most, which is what most tourists want to do most. I had gotten used to them in South America but like it less and less the more I do them. At least I have the main questions nailed down.

What’s included? What are the sleeping arrangements? How many meals do I get and are drinks included? And I’m a vegetarian. Will this be a problem? (They always say ‘of course not’ to the last question but what they mean to say is ‘fuck off, you’re not going to eat much’.)

The first tour we took here was a day trip to the Perfume Pagoda: a Buddhist temple nestled deep into a cave at the top of a mountain. It’s located in the countryside outside of Hanoi which is great for escaping the hustle and bustle of that dirty city. We had to drive a few hours only to clamber into a small boat rowed by a tiny local woman for another hour. The scenery was majestic though.

The wide river curved and bent a steady stream and tall, green mountains popped out of the ground and created a horizon designed for National Geographic. All the rowers I saw were petite women who covered their entire bodies in fabric to avoid the sun and topped their head with the quintessential cone shaped rice farmer hat.

Not only is Vietnam unfortunately hot and humid, but during monsoon season it’s particularly bad. And I swear this day was supremely worse than any other. All you had to do was sit in a boat and still you would sweat through everything you had on. My ankles even had beads of sweat sprouting out, something I didn’t know I could do.

After lunch we took the cheater’s way up to the top of the mountain with a cable car ride, mostly because of how ridiculously hot it was. Once up there, we walked around this marvelous site adjusting camera settings for the dark cave but inevitably having to settle for the mental picture. Without much time to waste, we were ushered down the mountain, this time Mandy and I deciding to walk (not bad at all really). The best part was running into a group of female monks all with their heads shaved and singing songs. Another mental picture.

The following day was the grand entrance of Jimmy: a loud-mouthed, over-the-top, extremely flamboyant gay guy who is far more effeminate than me. He has even been asked numerous times by locals here if he is a woman. (“Are you a madam?” or “”Are you a ladyboy?”) And there has even been a couple of times locals offered money to see his penis as evidence. You would think the chest hair is a dead giveaway but I guess they figured he was transitioning. Either that or they are used to some pretty hairy women. Eeek.

We saved our first couple of days together for catching up and abusing the cheap local beer. We signed up for our numerous tours and buses and even got hot stone massages. A very painful yet relaxing hour massage, the best part being we were all in the same room and Mandy couldn’t stop giggling. Seven dollars well spent.

Soon enough it was time to catch our night bus to Sapa where we were due for an overnight trekking trip to visit various hillside tribes. We were supposed to arrive at 5 am, but actually rolled into town at 10. We also had no idea what we had signed up for.

Sure there was some walking involved, but we took our entire backpacks thinking transportation would take us from point A to point B. When we got to our meeting spot, because of our lateness, we were hurried to gobble down our breakfast and brush our teeth. Jimmy and I couldn’t even manage to change out of our bus clothes. Ready to begin the day, we were informed to leave our packs as we were hiking 13 km (a little over 8 miles) and not returning for our things until the next day. Still in shock, I grabbed my toothbrush and a pair of underwear because that was all I could fit in my tiny purse. Had I known beforehand I would have rearranged my large pack to have my small backpack, with everything I needed, with me. All I could do though was laugh because no matter how much you read over the itinerary, you always seem to miss the key points.

As we set out for our adventure we were accompanied by a large entourage of hill tribe women and children. We were coached beforehand not to buy things from the children as it encourages them to ditch school and sell to tourists. Also, if at any point we decided to buy something from someone else not following us, the tag-alongs would proceed to dramatically cry and inflict supreme guilt. The moment we stepped out of the hotel, the flock of tiny women were upon us: “What is your name”, “Where are you from?”, “How old are you?”, “Will you buy from me?”. I assumed after a short walk they would dissipate. Boy was I wrong.

Soon enough we were outside of town and walking through the gorgeous countryside endlessly lined with rice farms. While the questions and short conversations did die down, they did not abandon us. Neigh, we were actually walking to their villages which means they were just going to walk home and guilt us into buying their useless crap. It was amusing at first, then annoying, but in the end utterly necessary.

Halfway through our first day it started to rain. Before the rain even started though, Mandy already managed the fall flat on her ass while standing still. She was in for a muddy and painful couple of days. The rain wasn’t bad at first, kind of annoying, but nothing unbearable. Eventually we ended the day at a home stay aka the upstairs open air loft jam packed with mattresses of a makeshift hostel. We had two couples on our journey with us and ended up staying with five other guests as well. As evening rolled into the night, and beers were accompanied by the free local firewater, we got to know each other pretty well. Even our guides, both local girls from the tribes, got involved. Eventually we passed out in our comfortable beds, but still in our hiking slash bus clothes. I was starting to get pretty damn dirty, even by my standards.

The next day we awoke to the sound of rain pouring down. Uh-oh. Rain or shine, this trek was to continue. My clothes really weren’t meant for hiking, let alone in straight downpour. Nonetheless, we set out with positive spirits and our helpful entourage. (While they eventually vacated the afternoon prior, they all magically reappeared in the morning. I wasn’t surprised at all really.)

Their presence was surprisingly necessary as the path had become incredibly muddy from the all-night rain. What was normally a slightly challenging walk became a treacherous hike of doom. I had abandoned my pathetic, broken umbrella for the use of all four limbs to maintain some stability and so I wouldn’t completely eat shit. Even if I did though, I wouldn’t have been half as bad as Mandy. While she had a few slips the day before, she was downright sliding down the mountain the second day. (Don’t ever wear Converse on a hike.)

These local hill tribe women, tiny, fragile, and a few with small babies on their backs, clambered to help us silly foreigners down the mountain. Personally, I had a woman with a 2 month old on her back, and umbrella in her hand, and cheap broken plastic sandals on her feet and she was far more stable than I was solo with my $100 Chacos and both hands free. I’d slide and her foot would be there to stop me from tumbling any further. She was a mountain of strength for which my clumsiness couldn’t stand a chance to overcome.

This is also how I discovered mudboarding: the next big thing in extreme sports. If you slide with intention implementing the same technique of snowboarding, it could be fun and challenging. Just prepare to get muddy.

While difficult and dirty, this was one of the best hikes I’ve done. By the time we made it to the huge waterfall, the crème-de-la-resistance, it had stopped raining and our hard work was rewarded with a well-earned view. By then, each helper woman from our entourage went to their clumsy foreigner to pester them to buy something. I had bought a bracelet the day before but needed to buy another, as there was nothing else I wanted and had to give something to this incredible woman, six years my junior.

After lunch we were given the luxury of a van ride back into town and finally were allotted time for the much needed shower. (It had been a solid 60 hours in the same clothes, sleeping and trekking included. Eww.) Before doing so we tipped our guide as she was better than we could have hoped for and felt she had much deserved it. It seems we were the only ones who did and what must have been a huge sum to her as she insisted on taking us to the market to give us a personal tour, even though her duty was over. She even bought us gifts, which was super endearing.

I’ll give a short background on our guide, Dao, mostly because I think she needs to be interviewed about her life and turn it into a book. (It’s very Amy Tan slash Oprah Book Club.) She claimed to be from one of the hill tribes, calling them her family, but also spoke of a husband she had run away from less than a year ago. Apparently she hated the family she had been forced to marry into and hated her life in China. “Everyday I dreamed of coming home to my family,” she said wistfully. One day, they had left her all alone and that’s when she escaped. Literally. She has been in hiding ever since and hopes they don’t find her. She is terribly afraid of what they might do to her, and her baby. That’s right, she has an 8 month old child we had the liberty of meeting for only a few moments. I didn’t ask too many involved questions as it wasn’t my place and it was obviously a time of her life that was painful. She speaks highly of the Vietnamese and Korean friends that helped her get across the border and start a new life. I assume the family she is with now is not of her blood, as it seems the first obvious place to look. I can only assume she was sold by her biological family. Was she beaten? Tortured? Forced into slave labor lifestyle? I don’t know; I only know her story would make a great plot for a book if she ever wanted to sell the rights. And she speaks wonderful English so I reckon she just might. (By the way, she is only 20 years old.)

By the evening we were back on another night bus returning us to Hanoi, this one far more miserable than the last. We arrived at 5 am, and had one day until our next tour. Ha Long Bay was our destination and the number one thing I wanted to see in all of Vietnam. Of course, tours are never what they seem but that story will have to wait. This is plenty of sweatiness and pestering old ladies for one blog.

“Why you no buy from me?!?!?”

Monday, August 16, 2010

fortunate fool

Right before I was due to leave South Korea, I was able to visit the honeymoon island of Jeju for an entire week. Much like Hawaii, this tourist hot spot is where people come to lay on the beach, hike all that nature has to offer, and in general, vacation. Mandy and I did our best to see all the beautiful waterfalls, traditional villages, and lava tubes we could.

We even discovered a new and random museum based on trick art. This surprising gem has artwork of all types that play “tricks” on your mind (aka optical illusions) and encourage you to become apart of it. It’s interactive, fun, and leaves you with a camera full of perfect facebook profile shots. It’s hard to describe; it’s best just to see the pictures. (For this you’ll have to check out my tagged pictures on facebook.)

In general, it was a great final week preparing me for the backpacking adventures I was leaving for shortly. One particular day I went for a hike by myself on Mt. Hallasan, Korea’s tallest mountain. I took my sweet time going up and down this dormant volcano thinking I had nothing to be back in time for. When I got to the base though I still had a good half hour walk to the bus stop but decided to reward myself with some orange soda.

The seemingly pesky shop owner made it his business to find out everything about me, including what town I was staying in. I was then informed the final bus of the day had already left 15 minutes ago and it was a good 30 km walk back to where I was staying. (I’m not sure how long that would take to walk. Anywhere from 6-15 hours I’m told.) Taxi services were offered but even if I was willing to pay the outrageous price, I simply didn’t have the funds on me. I insisted on walking and just as I stepped away a teenage boy strolled up and offered his translation services. I told him I didn’t need help; I simply missed the bus and needed to walk. The two Koreans talked it out and then decided to try and find me a ride. They asked around for a bit and just as I thought there was no hope, a man with two young daughters getting ice cream said he was from the city I needed to go. Because that’s how my life usually goes. Just when I’m shit out of luck, a stranger comes in and saves the day.

The man didn’t speak much English but we managed a decent conversation and he not only dropped me off at the hostel door, but gave his number in Seoul and the number of his sister in Jeju and offered her home stay services, free of any charge. I’ve found Koreans to be overall a helpful and kind group of people, a quality I’m relying on for the return of my camera. (I’ll explain later.)

And finally: the concluding chapter on my adventure at the Jeju airport. In a previous blog I mentioned secretly hiding out in the airport to spend the night, even though it was not permitted. I neglected to mention that I thought I was actually Tom Cruise from Mission Impossible and was crawling on all fours, using windows as mirrors, and running up and down staircases and elevators trying to remain elusive to my enemy aka the security guards. It worked for a few hours until I settled at the bottom of a darkened stairwell, one flight above the basement. I was sure the lights being off guaranteed me no one’s interest in that area, until I finally put my head down to rest.

Just then, two construction workers started making their way toward me and without any time to think I dashed, without my shoes, purse, or backpack, down to the dark basement corner. I was convinced they saw my huge pile of things I left in the hall, but somehow they didn’t and continued making their way toward me. I crouched down as low as possible and was amazed to find that they were within a foot and half of me and still hadn’t noticed anything off kilter and continued talking normally. I actually thought I might get away with it.

But when they tried to open the door and I was blocking it, they looked down and literally screamed for their lives. The look on their faces was classic: they thought they were seeing a ghost for sure. They bolted as quickly as they could up the stairs shrieking the whole way and the alarm sounding as well. Just as I poked my head around the corner, one was standing there and when he saw me, he literally jumped into the air and continued running to the main floor. I was both scared to be caught, yet utterly amused by their reactions. I made my way with my hands up saying, “I’m sorry, I just wanted to sleep. I have no where else to go”. I was hoping by showing how pathetic I was would win sympathy.

When they could see me in the light and realized I was not a ghost but instead a peculiar yet harmless white girl, they no longer seem scared. Or even angry. Security was contacted and I showed my flight papers for the morning. It was obvious I didn’t speak Korean so they didn’t bother talking to me, just figuring out amongst themselves what to do with the dirty hippie girl sleeping in the stairwell like a homeless person.

It was already 2 am at this point and there were no taxis or buses available, so I was clear to stay. After some shuffling around, I was settled on the main floor in a chair being watched by one guard. But no one seemed mad; they even kept offering me a fan or a more comfortable chair. I slept the best I could on that cold, hard floor and when 5 am rolled around and the lights came on, I was excused. They took my name but not my passport information and I’m sure the story of the American “ghost” in the hall will live on much longer than any report filed about my disturbance.

A couple of days after returning it was our last night in Korea; sad for me but traumatic for Mandy who’s been living there for an entire year. A full evening of Korean culture was planned: baseball, galbi, and noraebang. Baseball games in Korea are vastly different from those at home. To be honest, they are much more fun. For starters, you can bring your own food and booze. (Score!) But my favorite part is all the cheerleading.

You see, whenever your team is up to bat everyone is standing and singing along with the conductor who is leading the cheers the whole time. Everyone is placed on their prospective team’s side for this because they have “boppers” which are two inflatable tubes you hit together to make noise and wave them in the air according to the chant you’re singing. They sing popular songs that have been re-written in Korean to support specific players and baseball in general. From ‘Macho Man” to Kelley Clarkson, I never knew the words but always enjoyed singing along. It makes the whole event more interactive and fun. (And don’t forget all the soju and beer you can drink the entire time.)

After baseball a big group of us met up for beef galbi, a traditional Korean meal. In the middle of the table is a bbq and the meat is delivered raw and it’s up to the table to cook it themselves. Little aprons are even available to complete the experience. An unlimited number of sides are given and this is where I get to feast.

One of my favorite words here in Korea is ‘service’ and it means for free. You get it everywhere. When you buy milk at the grocery store, you get paper towels (service). If you buy enough drinks at the bar, they will give you dried squid (service). You never know when to expect it or how random it could be, but it always makes me happy. (I suppose that’s the Jew in me though.)

Anywho, when eating beef galbi (or any galbi for that matter) you get as many of the sides as you want and there’s several salads, Kim chi, radishes, bean paste, a scrambled egg thing, and even some soup. All I buy is the rice for a couple of dollars and then I make as many mini lettuce wraps as I want. Even in a very un-vegetarian friendly country, I can still eat beyond what is necessary.

Galbi is a very social and fun way to enjoy dinner and after spending literally hours there (drinking soju…again) we were ready to head out for the night. We met up with some more friends and went for noraebang. This is another truly Korean experience, yet is nothing more than private rooms to rent for karaoke. Not to stereotype or anything, but Asians love two things: taking pictures and singing. Noraebang is a popular activity for groups of young friends and family members of all ages to go and belt out their favorite tunes without the embarrassment of performing in front of strangers. You can even order food and drinks (or be like me and just smuggle in your own booze). Being that Mandy was born with a microphone in her hand and a look-at-me-attitude, we went to noraebang several times, once even just the two of us. It was ridiculous and entertaining every time.

This particular night, our tiny room was crammed with way too many people all singing loudly and vying for the microphone. It was the most fun noraebang yet. And unfortunately this is where my memory starts to fade. We went to another bar but I apparently fell asleep on the table and even in the bathroom a bit (big shock). After sunrise we taxied it home and it seems that I crashed in Mandy’s bed fully clothed and with her in it. She politely slept on the floor but I was still utterly confused when I woke up in the morning in her bed and her on the floor.

And I was missing my camera.

Now I know I’ve had some shit luck on this trip with my camera, wallet, and phone but I still believe there is a chance it’s coming back to me. I’ve already left the country without it but luckily have a friend still living there who is fluent in Korean and she has offered to make phone calls and keep me updated if it turns up. Koreans as a group are very good about returning things and not stealing and if I stood a chance anywhere in the world, it’s there. But I’m not holding my breath. It’s just a shame it happened my last night. (Plus I lost a lot of photos I hadn’t saved to my computer yet and the brand new camera case my mom sent to me only a week prior. Insert sad face here.)

The next day I did my best to sleep through a God awful hangover and pack for Vietnam. Mandy cooked all of her leftover food for her closest friends and goodbyes were sadly said. Soon enough Mandy and I were on our way to begin the adventure that is backpacking. Hostels, street food, and overnight buses are all on the agenda for the next two months. Let’s hope nothing is so bad it can’t be fixed by a beer and the re-telling of the story.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

weekend wars

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.)

Saturday, August 7, 2010

the world i know

I should begin by explaining I’m writing this blog as secretively as possible. I’m currently playing a game of cat and mouse with some security guards at the Jeju airport and so far they’re winning. Apparently, this airport closes around 10 pm and my plan to spend the night here before my 8 am flight is shot. Luckily, I have found a humid fire escape staircase they don’t seem too bothered with. (It’s better than the bathroom stall I had to stay in for a solid 10 minutes.) Oh, the joys of traveling on a budget. (And without an alarm clock. The ultimate reason I concocted this plan.)

Anywho, this is my first blog about the six weeks I’ve spent in South Korea. And actually, this is my first time in Asia at all so I have a lot to share. There is much to explain about the culture before I divulge my individual experiences.

First, let me explain why I came here. My friend Mandy (originally of the Bay Area but kin to Chico State) has been here teaching English for nearly a year. She was planning on backpacking Southeast Asia for a couple of months with another mutual friend and I decided to tag along, with a pit stop in Korea first. There’s no better way to experience a country than through a local’s eyes. And if you can’t get that, this is the next best thing. I wasn’t going to pass up this opportunity, nor that of backpacking with amazing and crazy friends.

Korea is the highest paying country for teaching English which makes it both popular and crowded with waeguks (foreigners). Not only do you receive a decent salary, but your apartment and plane ticket are included as well. So Mandy didn’t have much of a choice when the apartment she was given was the size of a shoebox. Bedroom, kitchen, office, and bathroom in something that’s not much bigger than my own room at home. The shower in the bathroom is even hovering over the laundry machine. (And yes, the electrical outlet is directly below the shower head. How do you Brits like that for outlet safety?)

So keep this in mind when I remind you I’ve been staying with Mandy for six weeks sleeping on the minimal floor space on a mat. She’s been a trooper for putting up with me that long. At least during the day she works and gets her space (from me, but not people in general). I’ve gone to museums, shopping districts, and temples; but mainly I’ve just played housewife. I sleep in, use the internet, skype, watch (bad) TV, run errands, and sometimes cook dinner. Who knew I’d actually be a perfect candidate for domestication?

At least on the weekends we go out and party with friends or get out of town. (The specific trips I’ve done I’ll get into with my next blog. This is just an overview.) It’s been a really good experience though seeing what it’s like to teach English abroad. It seems the obvious thing for me to do; I love to travel and I majored in teaching. (Duh!) People constantly seem to think they’re suggesting this route to me for the first time, yet I couldn’t really give one concrete answer as to why I am so against it. It’s for a faucet of reasons which makes it more complex.

Namely, it’s work. A lot of it. And I don’t want to work that much while abroad, at least not yet. I like to relax and enjoy my time in other countries, which is why I work so hard when I’m home. It’s part of that 9-5, 5 days a week concept that I’ve never really jived with as well. And more often than not it seems, the bosses are demanding and a bit crazy. Since experiencing it now, I know now more than ever I would never teach English abroad.

That’s not to say it’s not for everyone. Mandy herself enjoys it and is even planning on doing another year, only next time in Japan. She loves the children and since she is a person who likes regular hours, organization, and hard work, this is right up her alley. I wouldn’t ever discourage anyone from doing this; it’s a great way to live abroad. It’s just not for me.

With that said, know that there are pretty much only 3 types of foreigners here in Korea.
1. English teachers
2. Americans in the army (HUGE base here. You know that whole North Korea thing? Yeah, that’s why.)
3. People visiting someone either teaching or in the Army.

That’s it. The person traveling here for their own personal reasons are few and far between, and I’m not exactly sure why. Korea is a beautiful country with lots of natural wonders, fevered activity, and many surprises. This place has much to offer and I’ve been more than pleased with the time I’ve spent here.

Seoul, the capital and where I’ve been living, is immensely big and jam-packed with people. People are constantly coming and going and I do get a bit overwhelmed by the constant clusterfuck. During the day when you check out the landscape of the whole city, you see plenty of lush green mountains popping up all over the place. It’s refreshing but also necessary to their way of life. Most Koreans love hiking and do it daily. Before, after, and even during the work day you will find these climbing spots chalk full of hikers.

When you get out of the cities, Korea is breath-takingly gorgeous. It has so much to offer; from postcard beaches to soaring mountains, this place has it all. And in a compact enough space as well. The bus system is conveniently well connected; from the main bus station in Seoul you can get to the furthest point in the country in about 6 hours. Luckily for me, Mandy happens to be a 10 minute walk from this station. (You really don’t understand how lucky this is unless you get just how vast of a city Seoul is.)

You can tell the natural beauty of Korea has been inspiring people for generations. The art, food, and culture all reflect that as well. But it’s the temples that I truly adore. I understand I have many more temples to gawk at while backpacking Southeast Asia, but I am a virgin at this point so you should know I nearly fell over in awe when I laid eyes on my first giant Buddha. And when I say giant, I mean mother-effing giant. Temples are literally everywhere in this country and I have only seen a handful, yet every time I am impressed by their details and stamina over time

On the other end of the spectrum is the crazy nightlife that often goes until sunrise. From noreabang (karaoke) to jinjilbang (sauna) most places run 24 hours a day. Even the convenience stores put out plastic tables and chairs and stay cracking all night long. (Yes, 7/11 is a great place to start the night. Cheap drinks and good people watching.)

This country is fueled by a liquid known as soju. It’s an alcohol similar to vodka, but grossly cheaper. At around a dollar a bottle you can get wasted for super cheap here. Of course there is a catch. (There always is, eh?) Soju, for most newcomers, can rip your stomach and head to shreds. It takes time for your body to get used to this elixir and this was something not told to me until after my first night out. Or really, after my first god-awful hangover in Korea. Some advice: upon arrival to Korea, don’t go crazy the first night, especially with jet-lag. And don’t eat Kim chi (spicy pickled cabbage) if you’re going to drink. Chances are it will return with a vengeance and it’s not pretty… or tasty.

Still, most people here prefer to drink soju and get stupid drunk every day of the week. From old men to the working stiff, soju is a big part of culture here. And unfortunately, so are drinking problems. Now I could get all serious about how sad this really is. Or I could direct you to the hilarious website and you can see what I’ve been experiencing my entire time here. From metro trains to street corners, on garbage piles and strangers, Koreans very regularly get so drunk they fully pass out in the most random of places nearly everyday. And luckily someone started taking photos and encouraging others to do so. I’ve created my own personal collection as well.

One reason this happens so much (other than the price of soju) is because of the work culture here. First, it needs to be noted Koreans are workaholics. I’ve been told they have the lowest amount of sleep compared to all other nations, children included. Kids not only go to regular school but take more specialized classes such as English, music, art, math, science, and chess and this generally consumes their weekends as well.

This tradition of work consuming life continues into adulthood as they work early mornings, late nights, and fill spare time with activities such as hiking or exercising on the multitude of public equipment all over the city. Even when work is over, colleagues are expected to go out for drinks and/or dinner together. One will bring out the soju and inevitably all will get plastered before heading home to their families (or passing out on the street). If someone declines invitations for such outings, they are seen as rude and anti-social and inevitably this will affect their work environment and even future promotions. No joke. So that is why it’s so unfortunately common to find businessmen/fathers passed out on the metro ride home late at night during the week.

These high expectations aren’t only for men and children; women also have societal pressures that seem exceptionally strong. There is a huge emphasis placed on physical beauty here which translates to high fashion and consumerism, body image issues, and even surgery. That’s correct; Korea has a very high rate of women going under the knife in the name of beauty. Common surgeries include nose and boob jobs, but most popular is getting eyelids done (to look more western). As if that weren’t enough, women are obsessed with getting whiter skin so most lotions contain a skin whitening agent. Several times at body shops they’ve tried to get me to join this trend. They obviously don’t understand how hard I’ve worked to get this tan.

So here I am: an oversized, heavily tanned, loud, and unfashionable foreigner which translates to impossible to meet men. Let’s be honest: Korean men don’t really go for western women. They’re louder, more opinionated, and if they’re traveling, far more independent than the girlfriends they’re accustomed to. As for foreign men though, it’s the opposite. They’re allowed to be as brash, ugly, and different as possible. Getting a white boyfriend is definitely seen as having higher status and the Korean ladies will giggle, dance, and kiss the night away if they think it will help their chances of scoring that (not-so-attractive) white guy. These men are known as ‘Korean lady chasers’ and are oh-so-common.

Once a couple is formed, the females proceed to fully whip their men. That is to say, it is really popular for couples to wear matching outfits (Koreans only generally). I’m serious, and it’s very common. Sometimes it’s only a shirt, sometimes it’s the entire outfit from hats to shoes. Most people insist this is cute. I’ve decided this is the ultimate way for women to mark their territory. It’s a subversive way of pissing on a fire hydrant and saying “this one’s mine. Back off”.

On top of this, women can actually get their boyfriends to carry their purses for them. Not for a moment while they try something on, but instead for the whole evening. I’d say that’s just lazy but really it’s the female’s way of keeping her man in line, reminding him who is who’s bitch. Although this is something I’d never dream of torturing someone with, it’s entirely entertaining to observe.

While there is much more to share, I hope this provided a decent overview of culture and life here in Korea. My next blog will cover some of the specific adventures I’ve had. From a mud festival to living at a Buddhist temple, I’ve got lots more to divulge. Hope you can handle the suspense.

As for my adventure hiding from airport security, well, let’s just say I’ll never make a good spy. I wrote most of this blog until my typing was so obviously loud I had to finish this the following day. There is a pretty hilarious story about my capture and since you’ve read enough for now I’ll give the ridiculous details later. It really shouldn’t surprise me I end up in situations like that often. At least my absurdity can provide entertainment for both you folks and the locals as well. I always leave an impression.