Sunday, November 21, 2010

Babies, Buses, Big Cities

The weekend before last, I went to visit my friend who just had her first baby. She is from Colombia, and has been married to a Korean man for 9 years. They live in the neighboring city Jeonju, so I took a day trip to meet the cute little boy. Her mom is here visiting for the first time from South America, and I got to practice Spanish all day. It stretches my brain to talk about a 3rd language in my second language, saying things like "Quiero comer bibimbap" or "Yogi significa aqui". When I left her house that night, I was in Spanish mode and kept trying to speak to Koreans in Spanish.

I was in Jeonju waiting for a bus, and talking on my cell phone about meeting friends for a late dinner at my favorite noodle shop when I got back to Gunsan. I wanted to take the bus that went to Iksan, then Gunsan, which would say 익산, 군산 but I was distracted and got on the bus that said 익산, 논산. Now don't those look almost the same? I can read Korean but I made a mistake and was wishfully thinking that my bus was coming soon. Of course I didn't know there was a problem when we stopped in Iksan as usual, but later I realized I didn't recognize the next city AT ALL. Every one got off and the driver asked me where I was going, and when I said Gunsan, he shook his head. His next stop was Daejon, 2 hours from Gunsan! I jumped off the bus and went into the station, but by then it was 9pm and there were no more buses for Gunsan, Iksan, OR Jeonju. My stomach sank as I thought I might have to stay the night in this random town.

It is times like this when I find international living and not speaking the language most frustrating. I felt completely helpless in a strange place and couldn't talk to any one in detail about what to do. The ticket agent said "Daejon" and even though it would take me even farther from home, I thought perhaps I could catch a bus later from there since it was a big city. I bought the ticket and went back out to my driver. "Daejon?" he repeated. "No, Kicha, kicha!" he said, waving me away. I thought that he was recommending a closer city for me to go to, so I went back to the ticket lady to tell her "Kicha". She reluctantly gave me a refund, wrote something on a paper, and waved me toward the door saying, "taxi". The taxi took me to train station, and I realized that "kicha" meant train, and they often run later than buses. Luckily I caught a train back to Iksan, a taxi to the bus station, and a bus to Gunsan, with no harm done besides being tired and spending 3 times more time and money to get home.

Another girlfriend also recently had a baby boy, her second child here in Korea. She is British, and I give her major props for having kids in a foreign country. But I'm glad some one is, because I like having kids around in this community of friends. Besides the language barrier, there are many cultural differences in child bearing customs. For example, C-section rates in Korea are much higher than in the U.S. or England, with the majority of mothers opting for them even without medical necessity. Both of this friend's babies were over 9 pounds (probably unheard of in Korea), and both times the doctors recommended a Cesarean, and both times she had uncomplicated, natural births. When the babies are born they take them to the nursery, where they flash either a chili pepper or a peach light to announce if it's a boy or a girl. Why, I have no idea, but you can probably guess which one is for boy and which is for girl.

When I went to visit my friend the day after #2 was born, I was surprised to find her in a private, apartment-like room on a separate floor from the nursery. In Korea, the moms are kept separate from the newborns for the majority of the time, except when they go downstairs to feed. If they don't want to nurse they can pump breast milk or the nurses will bottle feed the baby for you. Also, it's customary for Korean moms to seriously rest for about a month after birth, staying warm and not lifting anything heavy. Moms are also supposed to eat 미역국 (miyuk gook), a seaweed soup every day for a week or two.

The clear broth is cleansing for the blood, the iodine helps the uterus shrink, and in general it is nutritious and considered good for producing milk. Then in turn, children are supposed to eat miyuk gook on their birthdays, to commemorate their mothers. Well, miyuk gook may be the ideal, but on Friday night my girlfriend and I opted for a pizza dinner instead after the kids went to bed. I got to bed early so I could wake up early for a 15 kilometer training run in prep for a half marathon in 2 weeks from now.

After the run, I headed to Daegu for my first time, which is the 3rd largest city in Korea after Seoul and Busan. On the map you can see Gunsan (Kunsan), Jeonju (Chonju), and Daegu (Taegu).

After the hour-ride to Jeonju, it's about 3 hours to get there- so a bit of a haul, but I wanted to see the city and a friend was already planning to go. And he lured me with promises of Mexican food and microbrews. Daegu is a big city, but it's pretty compact so it doesn't feel like you have to trudge through a bunch of sprawl to get somewhere. There is a subway, but it's only 2 lines making a t-shape. The main downtown is in one area, with many pedestrian streets linked together. Even though the street is closed to motor vehicles, people still drive cars and scooters through it in typical Korean style, but it is more peaceful than your average city street.

Along with the shopping, restaurants, bars, hofs, and clubs, there is also Western food! Now, I'm far from the kind of traveler who goes abroad only to eat American chain food, but I do like having a variety. I love Korean food, but I miss other foods and flavors. For dinner we went to a Canadian-owned restaurant/bar with an awesome menu. Mostly Mexican, with some different burgers and Greek food too. We shared a huge plate of nachos (!!!!!) as an appetizer, and I had a chicken gyro with lettuce, olives, and tzikiki and a delicious pale ale, a REAL microbrew from Canada. We left there stuffed, but managed to find room for a dessert cocktail from a street stand bar. I have never seen these in Korea, it's like a walk-up coffee stand, but for drinks, and you get a to-go pouch with straw. Brilliant.

We walked around, shopped, played foosball, and went dancing before calling it a night. On Sunday I had my first restaurant Sunday brunch in Korea, it's been over 8 months. I occasionally make a big brunch at home, but there is no cafe to eat Western food in Gunsan, and somehow I never have in Seoul. If you want to go out for brunch in Gunsan, you can choose from ramyeon, kimbap, udong, or fried rice. We went to a cheerful cafe where the clientele was about half Korean and half foreign. There was french toast, pancakes, and eggs on the menu, and I wanted it all. Luckily they had a 2 person set meal, so my friend and I shared a gigantic plate of classic pancakes, nut pancakes, brioche french toast, scrambled eggs, home fries, sauteed mushrooms, and coffee for 18,000 won or less than $9 each. It was heavenly. Afterward, we walked around and shopped for winter clothes like long underwear, arm warmers, down vests, and socks before wandering past medicinal herb shops.

We got to the bus station around 3, in perfect time to catch the 3:20 bus back to Jeonju. Only, the bus was sold out, and the next one wasn't until 5:40. We were really hoping to get back to Gunsan in time to have part of Sunday evening to relax. The train station was across the street, so, learning from my last bus fiasco, I thought we might as well check the train times. The station was packed, and after waiting in a long line, we found out that all the trains to Iksan and Jeonju were sold out. So we walked back to the bus station to get a ticket for the 5:40 bus... but by then, THAT one was sold out too! It was insane. I think there was some kind of festival or holiday I didn't know about, because I can't imagine why the transportation would be so full. We bought a ticket for the 7:40 bus which was the last one of the night to Jeonju.

With over 4 hours to wait in Daegu, we decided to go see "The Social Network" which just came out in theatres in Korea. Getting back on the subway, we trekked back downtown to a huge, 9-story Lotte. It was also packed there, with that hectic, impatient holiday-shopping feeling. We couldn't even get an elevator up to the cinema, because they were all full! Finally we took the escalator after navigating through a sea of shoppers. It was 4:13 and the movie had started at 4:10... and they wouldn't let us in! I guess they don't want late-comers disturbing people already watching the movie. Which is ridiculous, because Koreans talk, text, and answer their phones all through movies, so the peace is usually disturbed anyway! Obviously, today was not our day for good timing. By the time we got back to Jeonju at 10:30, it turned out the last regular bus of the night had left at 10:20, and there was just one last "midnight" bus at 11:40. Finally, I got home to my apartment in Gunsan around 1am, 10 hours after attempting to leave Daegu. So much for my relaxing Sunday night. That was not the most interesting story, but I guess it's just to say that some days are like that when traveling. Everything seems to go wrong, but ultimately it's your attitude that determines how much of a disaster it is. It can always be much, much worse.

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