Sunday, October 24, 2010

3 Year Anniversary

I have been blogging for 3 years! I started AmberAnda when I moved out of Bellingham in late October 2007. I think my first entry was about leaving the flower shop. Then I did a trip back east to Washington DC and South Carolina, flying there and driving a friend's new car back to Bellingham. Between my first time in our nation's capital, visiting a nudist community, driving thousands of miles cross-country by myself, and staying with BYU students in the heart of Mormon Utah, I had plenty of fodder for my first few blog entries.

Since then I have traveled throughout much of Latin America, sailed in Canada, lived in a yurt on an island, and moved to South Korea. In Spanish, I would translate Amber Anda "Amber on the Go" or "Amber Ambles", though for chunks of the last 3 years I have lived in one place. Whether traveling or staying put, experiencing the exciting or mundane, I have cherished this blog as a steady place to just write whatever I felt like. It's probably telling that I started it a few months after graduating college- with no more assigned papers, I missed having a reason to write in my life. Thank you for reading, whether you have stopped by once or are a regular follower. I appreciate having this means of communication.

Hey! While we're here, I might as well tell you about last Saturday. It centered around one of the most quintessentially Korean things possible- kimchi! This spicy fermented cabbage side dish is ubiquitous in Korean culture, and fall is the traditional time to make it, when the last of all the cabbage is harvested. The main vegetable of kimchi doesn't have to cabbage though- it can be radish, greens, or anything you want really. The vegetable is soaked in salt water, then coated with layers of chili paste, garlic, ginger, brined anchovies or shrimp, fish sauce, green onion, and other varying ingredients depending on preference and region. Since coming to Korea I have eaten it at least once a day, and truly love it. It is full of flavor and just feels... alive. Yesterday I went 2 hours south to Gwangju for the huge annual Kimchi Festival. You can sample chili pastes and powders, try different kinds of kimchi, fusion kimchi foods, watch live music and dance, go to kimchi exhibits, learn new kimchi recipes, meet contemporary Kimchi masters, buy a special kimchi fermenting pot or fridge, among many other things. Check out the mascots- huge napa cabbage next to a daikon radish.

Above is one of the many sampling booths that you had to elbow your way into if you actually wanted to try anything. I went with another teacher friend who I met at the Great Wall of China in July. She lives in Gwangju, and along with her friends, we made our own cabbage kimchi which we got to take home in nifty little pails.

Also, being foreigners, we got our pictures taken a lot by local press, and one friend got interviewed about kimchi. It was fun, and I'm hoping to make more of my own kimchi before fall is over. I actually planted a big bed of cabbage in my school garden, but it still has awhile to go before it will be full-sized. After having our fill of all things kimchi-related, we headed to downtown Gwangju for dinner. We went to an Indian/Nepalese restaurant which was INCREDIBLY exciting for me. I mean, I REALLY like a lot of Korean food, but the lack of variety after 7 months gets hard to deal with. Eating curry, chicken saag, and garlic naan was amazing. It was just nice to get out of Gunsan and see something different, and experience flavors Korean and foreign.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Gym Rat

About 2 months ago I joined a Korean gym. I had been running outside, but the summer was so humid that I wanted an indoor option. Sometimes I would run in the morning and it wouldn't be hot yet, yet in 10 minutes I would be sweating. I had never experienced sweating the the cool weather before. Korea has plenty of "fitness centers" around town, and for the most part they are pretty similar to a small American gym. Luckily this one is right in my neighborhood since convenience is key for consistent workouts.

Hey, have you ever seen these weighted hula hoops with the bumps? The bumps poke you and leave red marks, but apparently it's good for weight loss. I don't understand the science behind it but they are really popular here. Anyway, the gym has one main room with modern weight machines, free weights, treadmills, and stationery bicycles. It has locker rooms, sauna, and one classroom that is open during the day, and holds yoga and aerobics classes in the evenings.

I took yoga for about a month, but have decided this particular style is not for me. I enjoyed it for awhile- a good age mix of students, a tiny, burly instructor, and a good workout- even while not speaking Korean. But in addition to adjusting students' poses, the instructor would also push on us, and more than once I left class with my shoulders or knees hurting, and not in the good way. I would love to have a regular yoga practice here, but going to a class separate from the gym would be expensive and impractical, so I'll have to wait on that. I considered the aerobics class, but that's a different beast altogether- mostly 30 and 40-something women in outfits that look like a jazzercise/cheerleading/punk rock combo. The energy is high, the look is defined, the music is deafening, the pace is fast, and the room is already packed to the brim, so I've stayed away.

What I do really like about this gym is that it's incredibly chill. Every one is there to focus on their workout, and no one bats an eye at the foreign girl panting over by the chest press. I get stared at less at the gym than any other public place in Gunsan, so it's sort of like my safe haven. Two of my foreign guy friends in the neighborhood also go there, but I'm the only foreign woman.

Of course, there are some differences from a gym back home. You keep your workout shoes there, so they are indoor exercising shoes, not the same ones you would use outside. You don't wear shoes in the locker room-they provide slippers. The locker room etiquette is much more open, with loud talking while taking a long shower, or women standing in front of the mirror brushing their hair before bothering to get dressed. It's also common to see a bare leg propped up on a bench while a woman blow-dries her lady-region. It never, ever occurred to that that area would need any more than air-drying. From friends I've talked to, the men's locker room sounds pretty similar.

Workout clothes are different too. The gym provides shorts and a T-shirt for members, blue for the men, red for women. You can change into a clean set when you get there and put it in the hamper when you leave. There is only one size, which in the U.S. would never work, but here the one size really does fit all. It makes me feel a little bit like I'm in a middle-school P.E. class, but I actually like it. Less stinky clothes for me to take home and wash. Most members wear the uniform, but if they don't, they sport outfits like these ones: shirt, short skirt, flesh-colored tights, and leg warmers.

There is also an assortment of massage-type machines. This wooden one rolls around while you set your legs on it. It feels great on the calves. There is one where you stand and put a big belt around your torso and it vibrates, massaging where ever you move it to. And another one you stand on and it rock/vibrates you from side to side... I'm not sure what it does. There are a few large "inspirational" pictures of people working out, but they are all white people, which I find odd. Why don't they hang up pictures of fit Koreans?

The only other things of note are the funny signs or translations. The weight machines have instructions in English which are dubious, and the TV on the treadmill warns us against "watching too much monitor". And there is a garbage can in the women's locker room with a picture of two rabbits, the boy holding carrots and the girl holding flowers. It says, "It is a strange rabbit who prefers flowers to carrots." Anyway, I'm really enjoying the gym, going consistently, and it will be great to have the sauna when the weather gets even colder.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Getting Out on Saturdays

I'm still really enjoying living in Korea, but after a rough patch including a bad haircut and loathing my city, I know it's time to be more proactive. I'm slowly accepting getting 6 months of hair growth chopped off into a Renaissance page-boy look, and also embracing hats as the temperature drops.

And as for Gunsan, it's more bearable as long as I can get out of town regularly on the weekends. Last Saturday a group of teachers went to Jeonju for the day, which is about 45 minutes away, and the capital of our province. It's still a small city, but much livelier and more cultured than Gunsan. We watched the last soccer game of the season, the drizzle and 0-0 score not dampening our spirits.

We went out for galbi, a type of Korean BBQ, in the university district, with plenty of side dishes and soju. It wasn't much different from a meal we might have in Gunsan, but it was just refreshing to be somewhere different, ya know?

Then we went to Art and Travel, a cafe-bar in the same neighborhood that has Western-style drinks, hookahs, travel photos on the wall, games to play, and hosts open mike nights. There is NOTHING like this in Gunsan. We played Scrabble while listening to poetry and live music, and Cherie and I even got up on the microphone to do an impromptu duet.

On Sunday I went to visit my friend Alex who is a new mama. Congrats to Kenton and Alex! They already have an ADORABLE one-year-old daughter, and just welcomed a son.

This past Saturday I went to Jirisan National Park. This is a place I've been wanting to go for months, as it has the tallest mountain in mainland Korea and many other peaks as well. I thought visibility might be better in the fall when it's not so hazy, and indeed it was better but not great. We still got a few vistas and the autumn foliage was beautiful.

I was with my 3 favorite hiking buddies, and we were making good time up the mountain. We stopped at Jangteomok Shelter for a lunch break. Instead of wraps or sandwiches that we might have hiking at home, as foreigners our fall back food is usually kimbab (seaweed/rice rolls). That plus "trail" food like nuts, granola bars, apples, and crackers. But Koreans always bring a stove and are eating hot ramyeon and kimchi side dishes.

After the shelter, the trail was really crowded. Maneuvering the foot traffic, we finally made it to the peak, along with masses of other people. We snapped a quick picture before descending down another trail. We thought it would take us about the same amount of time to go down as up, 3.5 hours. We had gotten a decently early start, and would have no trouble getting down by dark, and possibly in time to catch buses back to Gunsan.

But the trail was really hard to navigate. I have never seen switch-backs in Korea; they just build the trails straight up the mountain. Then to avoid erosion (I'm guessing) they line the trail with large, uneven stones. What it creates is a steep, inconsistent, and slippery path. It's really quite trecherous in parts. We were taking it pretty slow. Then one of my friends slipped on a janky staircase and slid down, dislocating both shoulders. It was a very frightening moment, though it definitely could have been worse. So after that we took it even more slowly. Soon after, a helicopter flew overhead, sending leaves and residual water pelting down on us. In the distance, we could see it lower a man down to do a medical evacuation.

Then, less than an hour later, some rangers passed us, leading a man carefully by the elbow. He was walking stiffly with a foam sleeping pad wrapped around his torso like a brace. Another helicopter flew over us, and the rangers stopped us on the trail. We couldn't pass until they evacuated this man, so we waited in the incredibly strong double-blade chopper wind and roar. Clearly, this was a fairly dangerous trail. We continued cautiously, watching each step. Eventually it started getting dark, and the last 1.4 kilometers were in the dark with headlamps and flashlights.

We knew that the exit trailhead had restaurants and hotels, so we weren't worried about that. It was just a matter of pushing through tiredness, and not losing patience on a trail where you wanted to move much faster but simply couldn't. When we finally reached paved road, it had never felt so good to just walk, full strides, without watching our feet. We got a room and a hot dinner and all crashed out early, exhausted. We agreed that we weren't sure if we conquered the mountain or it conquered us, but it was definitely an epic day that none of us would forget.