Saturday, September 25, 2010

Jeju Island

Last Tuesday was the start of the Chuseok holiday, and my friend Aaron and I left Gunsan in the morning and took a bus 2.5 hours south to coastal city of Mokpo. Ferries leave from Mokpo to Jeju, a large island off the coast. There are domestic flights to Jeju from many cities, but even a month ago flights from Gunsan were already sold out since it was a holiday time. Most of the ferries were already sold out too, but luckily we were able to book tickets to come back on Friday. I was excited to go but a little apprehensive about the weather and my travel partner. My worries proved completely unfounded as everything went without a hitch and we had an awesome time.

We got from the bus terminal to the ferry just as they started boarding. There were many Korean on the boat, but SO MANY foreigners too. It's so strange how I've gotten used to seeing only a handful of foreigners in Gunsan, so when I see more it's a little overwhelming. It amazes me that I could talk to all of them AND they would understand me! Incredible. You have the option of booking luxury rooms, family rooms, seats, or general seating Korean-style on the floor. You have to take your shoes off and there are just hoards of people lounging, sleeping, playing cards, etc. We hung out on deck most of the time, chatting with other passengers (met one from Spokane!) and watching the scenery. I was SO happy to be on the water... I felt relaxed and at home and the 5 hours flew by.

We watched the sunset over the water and got into Jeju City at dark. Surprisingly, there were no free taxis outside the terminal, already busy with the holiday crowds. We hopped on a bus and I was so impressed with the patience of the driver as English-speaking passengers tried to ascertain where the bus went. All the transportation and service people on Jeju proved to be incredibly helpful and friendly over the next few days, not at all jaded by the tourists. We made it to the City Hall area for dinner and drinks before calling it an early night at our hotel.

We got up early the next morning headed to the trail head for Hallasan. Hallasan is the highest mountain in Korea and sits within the only National Park on the island. There are two different trails to the peak, so we decided to go up one and down the other. It was drizzling and foggy when we started, but we hoped for the best and plowed forward. Actually, Aaron hoped for the best and I grumbled in disappointment. He said he would start charging me 100 won (about 10 cents) every time I complained about something, and it made me remember that if I can't say something nice, I shouldn't say anything at all.

The rain stopped and by the time we got into the valley, it was fairly clear. It was steep and grassy in a glowing green, reminding me of a cross between Peru and Scotland.

When we climbed out of the valley though, we got back into the clouds, and as we neared the top we couldn't see anything. In fact, we could hear a crowd of voices, but it wasn't until we were about 30 feet away that we realized we had reached the peak. Usually you can see into the crater at the top of this extinct volcano, but today this was our view.

We headed down the rocky trail, and decided to just appreciate the hike for the good exercise. It was over 18 kilometers, so a pretty decent day hike. We went back to the city for tea and then a Mexican dinner. How I miss ethnic food! We got chimichangas and burritos, with nachos as an appetizer... and the nachos even came before our meal, so novel! In Korea, all the food is served at once, so staggered courses felt like a treat. Then we caught a bus out of the city to a beach on the north side of the island. There was a designated camping area... but there was no one else there. We had this beach completely to ourselves. It was my first time sleeping outside all year! It was a beautiful spot, but crazy windy that night. I woke up about 20 times as the wind violently rattled the tent, but felt decently rested and got another early start.

The coast is striking because there is so much volcanic rock, the black contrasting with the tropical blue-green of the water and the white surf. We took the bus to Manjangul, which is the largest lava tube in the world. It was cool to walk through part of it, but just a dark tube so no point in posting pictures. Then to the far east side of the island to Seongsan Ilchulbong, a volcanic tuff cone right on the water. The rock is so porous that water soaks through and there is no crater lake.

You get a nice view of the sea and west to Hallasan mountain. This is also a popular spot for the haenyo, the traditional female divers of Jeju that use no equipment as they dive for seaweed and seafood. We weren't there at the right time of day to see them though. For lunch we tried a regional fish soup called 갈 치 국 (gal chi gook), a red-pepper based soup with the local hair-tail fish.

Then to the south side, where we saw two different waterfalls before heading to our next campsite. This side of the island has more of a lush jungle feel, and is even more laid-back. At our next beach we set up camp as the sun was setting, again the only campers until a Korean couple came much later that night. We were pretty tired from a full day of walking around with our packs, and walked with aching legs into the small "town" area for dinner. We had 똥 돼 지 (ddong dweji), which is pork BBQ from a local black-skinned pig. It was SO delicious. Amazing flavor, good side dishes, Hallasan soju, and us being ravenous all contributed to this being one of my favorite meals in Korea. After the meat we decided to share some bibimbap (rice with veggies), as it is common to eat a rice or noodle dish as a sort of "dessert" at the end of the meal. I'm usually too full for this after eating BBQ, but today it was perfect and we joked about our morphing Korean eating habits.

It wasn't as windy on the southside and we slept better that night, with the sounds of the waves and birds so nearby. In the morning we had the beach to ourselves for a good hour. It was already sunny and warm at 8am, and the water was clear and warm too. In my mind, it was an ideal place to swim. But there were big signs prohibiting swimming, saying "The beach is only officially open for swimming in July and August." I am about 99% sure that this has nothing to do with safety-- no rip tides, stinging jellyfish, or sharks-- just that those are summer months and "appropriate" times to swim. If any one has any light to shed on this prohibition of swimming on a perfectly good beach, please let me know!

It's September, barely the shoulder season, and warmer than any beach I've ever been on in Washington state. I thought maybe they didn't want to pay lifeguards to staff the beach all year. Aaron had brought a mask and snorkel, so I enjoyed my favorite clandestine moments on Jeju of swimming in the early morning and watching fish. At 9am sharp, a loud voice started shouting in Korean over the loudspeaker. I doubted they were saying good morning, and I quickly scrambled out of the water. So much for my lack-of-staffing theory. By that time tourists were pouring in, and they looked scandalized that Aaron and I were in bathing suits. This is the one part of Jeju I can't reconcile- how can it be this tropical paradise with great weather and numerous beaches and yet discourage swimming 10 months of the year?

We took in more of the coastline seeing cliffs and basalt columns. It was a hot day, my muscles were sore, and I was a little tired of carrying my backpack. But it was a GOOD tired. The kind of tired where resting and eating feels amazing, where you are so appreciative of every little thing. We walked up to another waterfall, stopping at a corner store for snacks before the entrance to the falls. I sat there in shade, completely blissed out. "I LOVE sitting here. I am SO happy about eating this kimbap. This iced coffee is EXACTLY what I want. I'm so GLAD I have plenty of water!" The few days before Chuseok, I was having a rough time and not exactly grateful for everything. I think it took coming to the island, and unwinding into the beauty of the land and water to shake my mind from its negative thoughts. Sometimes tiring yourself out is the only way to release the pent-up energy you need to let go of. Traveling allows you to focus on visual beauty and also on meeting your basic needs, and somehow this combination is very therapuetic.

I have to give Aaron props for being an awesome travel buddy. He is waaaay more laid back than I am, and is able to accomplish something without over-analyzing it or getting stressed out. I do more research though, so we were a good balance to each other. By the time we got back to Jeju City, we had time for a late lunch before boarding the ferry for the 5 hour trip back to the mainland. Those 3 days felt expansive and clearing, and we got back to Gunsan with most of the weekend still left! Happy Chuseok indeed.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Gearing up for Chuseok

This week is a one-day work week! It's Korean Thanksgiving, or Chuseok, on Wednesday. On this holiday, people go back to their hometowns to spend time with family. They visit ancestors' graves and make offerings of food. Then they eat a large meal with many side dishes. The signature Chuseok food is songpyeon, traditional rice cakes. There are many different kinds, and can be plain or include sweet sesame filling, nuts, fruit, or red bean. We made songpyeon as a staff today at work since we had no classes. We made the green kind, which is rice flour with mugwort for color. You make balls, shape them, fill them, pinch the ends together, then steam them for about 20 minutes.

Oh, notice how I'm wearing a hat? Yeah, still pretty upset about the haircut. Sigh. Anyway, you can see the difference in color before and after cooking the green songpyeon.

The grocery stores feel the same way that they do right before Thanksgiving in the U.S. Crowded with people and big displays and a sort of palpable buzz. Here they sell lots of boxes of fruit, mushrooms, spam, tuna, and other assorted gift packs.

For those of us who don't have family obligations for Chuseok, it's the perfect time to take a little trip! I'm going to Jeju Island tomorrow, which is off the southern tip of Korea. I first read about it on my flight from Seattle to Seoul in the in-flight magazine, wondering if I would ever go there. It is touted as the polynesia or Hawaii of Korea. Beaches, lava rocks, traditional female divers, striking cliffs, and the tallest mountain in the country. I've heard good things and I'm pretty excited.

I'm trying not to let the negativity of the last couple days permeate my week any more. If I wanted to focus on the negative, I would point out that it is supposed to rain all week. On my BEACH holiday! When I am supposed to finally go CAMPING for the first time this year! And that I'm going with my ex boyfriend, because we already had tickets and plans and well, neither of us wanted to go alone or waste the ticket money, so... It's pretty ironic considering it's the "honeymoon" island and prime destination for couples. Instead of getting frustrated, I'm trying to take a lighthearted approach. I'm working on my attitude adjustment. And having a few days off will probably help. Wish me luck!

And Happy Chuseok!

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Road and Other Rage

I thought I was a patient, open-minded person.

I really did. But I am having a low point in Korea today. I am trying not to take it personally that simple, simple tasks are so difficult and traumatizing today. First, I got the worst haircut of my life. The haircut itself isn't bad as long as you are going for a suburban mom look (even when you are single and urban). Even though I don't speak Korean, I showed the woman how much to cut on my hair, no more than half an inch. I don't know how to say "trim" in Korean, but I thought showing her would be explicit enough. She proceeded to chop about 2 inches off my already short hair that I have been trying to grow out.

Why I didn't say something... I don't know. I should have. I am just as angry at myself as I am at her. It's hard in a foreign language, and I don't want to be rude or demanding. I thought she wasn't really taking that much off, but by the time I walked out of the barber shop and ran my fingers through my hair, I was totally deflated. I burst into tears which I have never done before. Over the last few months, I have felt longish hair and been able to put my hair in a ponytail for the first time in 5 years. It's so superficial, I know, but I was really excited about it. To have all that length chopped off is devastating, especially because my hair doesn't grow very fast. Here's a picture of how I feel about this hair cut.

Then after that I rode my bike to a friend's house for a Korean lesson and movie watching. I was crossing the street and I KNOW riding a bike is different at home than in Korea. In the US, you can't even turn right on a red light in all states, and if you can, you have to first stop behind the crosswalk before pulling forward. Here crosswalks and crosslights are just a suggestion. You think you have the right-of-way yet it's a cruel joke. But my US-trained mind saw the green walk light and started crossing. Meanwhile a car sped through the crosswalk. Luckily, we both saw each other in time for him to slow down and me to swerve, but he still hit me and I was thrown foward off my bicycle. It's the first time (and hopefully last) that I've ever been hit by a car. I wasn't hurt but just very angry. The driver seemed concerned as I yelled at him, "I had the green light!! Why don't you look before speeding through the intersection?!" I was more scared than anything, and sat on the sidewalk crying for the second time in 2 hours. I moved my bike out of the road for the honking cars and walked it to my friend's apartment.

I'm just tired of it taking so much mental energy to maneuver like 5 blocks to my friend's house. I have to say, when you drive on the right side of the road, always staying to the right is a VERY logical idea. Imagine the Burke-Gilman trail if people didn't stay to the right, and just walked and cycled and roller-bladed all over the trail with their headphones on. It would be unnecessary chaos. And that's how riding a bike and walking in Korea is, ALL THE TIME. I am trying to be culturally sensitive and not impose my subjective standards on other people. Some friends recently reminded me that 1) Korea was occupied for Japan for a good chunk of the last century and in Japan they walk on the left. So Koreans are used to walking on the left but driving on the right, so road etiquette is a bit scrambled. And 2) Public transportation is really good and the average Korean hasn't been driving their own car for that long, not like Americans who have been developing their road rules and driving culture for almost a century. Culturally, Koreans are fairly new drivers. Okay, okay, I'm taking a deep breath trying to be positive. Happy thought- it's finally cooling off and I can wear a beanie for the indeterminate future.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Halfway Point

As of today, I have been in Korea for 6 months. As soon as you start teaching here, people are already asking if you plan on staying a second year. "Uh, I've only been here a few weeks so it's hard to say," I would reply. Now that I've been here half a year, I finally have a more defined impression of things.

I am very grateful to Korea to give me a job and the chance to live here. As a whole, the country is dedicated to learning English, and from native speakers. My Korean coteachers are awesome- such helpful, resourceful, fun people to work with. I really like the food here- a good balance of meat, tons of different vegetables, and spice. I still can't speak much Korean, but I can read and write Korean (hangul) and feel pretty cool using a non-Roman script. Life is simple and low-stress compared to back home, with no car and minimal bills. When you do pay bills you can do it at any ATM which is an easy and brilliant system I wish we had in the U.S. You can transfer money from your account into any account in the country, business or personal, as long as you have the bank name and account number. No mailing checks or setting up PayPal. It's awesome.

But of course it's not all kittens and roses living abroad. Before I left, my mom's Korean friend told me a Korean proverb which is, "You know the number of chopsticks in your neighbor's kitchen." It's true. There are 50 million people living in this country the size of Indiana, mostly residing in new and cheaply-built apartments with minimal insulation. You hear EVERYTHING. I don't know when any one sleeps, because there is always some one making noise. I would probably know the details of all my neighbors' habits if I could understand them. Not speaking Korean is very frustrating, for me as well as Koreans who have to interact with me. I am really, really tired of always being stared at. For a country that has so much international business, American TV shows, American movies always in the theater, foreign models on billboards, and competes in the Olympics and World Cup, it surprises me that I get looked at like an alien all the time. Riding a bike here is liberating and also completely infuriating. Cars don't follow traffic laws and are totally unpredictable, and pedestrians walk in bike lanes all the time. I mean, I don't speak Korean but I'm pretty sure that the PICTURE OF A BIKE PAINTED EVERY 20 FEET translates "bike lane". I could be wrong.

There have been many ups and downs these last few months, but overall I'm comfortable and have figured out how to get by on the day-to-day tasks (thanks largely to coworkers who translate, explain, look up bus schedules, and make phone calls for me) . So my official stance on whether or not to stay another year in Korea is that I would be open to teaching here longer, but not immediately following this contract. I really want to be back in the U.S. for more than a few weeks, plus I'd like to do some other traveling as well. And I would NOT stay in Gunsan another year. Maybe if I were raising a family or doing a Masters online or had something major to inspire me... but otherwise another year here would drive me insane. I know there are many parts of Korea with more cultural action, but here there is absolutely nothing in the way of live music, poetry, literature, independent film, dance, or art galleries. It makes my heart ache.

I've learned a lot in my 6th months here, like that apartment floors get dirty fast, even when I take my shoes off at the door and sweep and mop all the time. It REALLY makes me leery of carpet.

I've learned to make new friends but keep the old; one is silver and the other gold... as my mom always said.

I've learned you can grow an amazing amount of food with no irrigation, especially if the growing season is the rainy season.

I've learned that pointing to your wrist and looking quizzical is no longer a charade for asking the time. I've done it several times here and only gotten puzzled looks. Every one uses their cell phone as their time piece.

I've learned that few foods make me feel as healthy as kimchi, but even a wide variety of kimchi is no substitute for cheese, glorious cheese.

I've learned there are many types of people who teach English abroad, for all sorts of reasons.

I've learned so much more, and there are 100 more things I want to say, ideas to share, images to convey. I want to stay up late with you dear reader, drinking tea and chatting nonstop, scraping out my brain and trying to show it all to you. But it's impossible, of course. For now I will just say that I'm very happy that it is the day it is, and I am where I am. The past week has been cooler, heavenly bearable. I still wear shorts and short-sleeves, but instead of sweating I am perfectly comfortable. The sky is bluer, the air clearer as the humidity decreases. Even when it rains it's nice- cleans the air instead of just feeling like a sauna. I had a mellow weekend of walking, riding bikes, watching movies, and having dinner with the first friends I met from Gunsan. Very fitting for my anniversary.

We rode bikes under the grey sky, the air still thick but a cool breeze blowing. We rode just out of the city, through the fields, the same ones I watched being planted months ago with short plugs of sprouting rice. Now they are 3 feet tall, with seed heads bending just so. When do they harvest? We rode past the little country homes with strong squash vines growing up the sides and tops of the houses. A pumpkin hangs from a gate and a zucchini is visible on the roof, an explosion of food. Then out of the fields and onto the main road where the gritty dust from the factories stings my eyes. This is the long long street of refineries, glass, cement, and paper plants. But gardens still creep out of forgotten crevices, peppers and dandelions, cabbage and flowers. We ride under the fruit canopy of persimmon, pears, kumquats that hang over the sidewalk. We get back to town just as the sky opens, fat drops hitting us as we duck in for lunch. We sip miso soup and watch yellow leaves spin toward the ground. I've never been so ready for autumn.