Transportation


Last Thursday was the field trip to the transportation safety education center (this is the term I’m using since my coworkers were confused about an adequate translation). This was actually the shortest and most uneventful field trip yet. The center is located in Omomkgyo which is only 20 minutes away.

I was thankful for this short duration as the continuous repetition of “Wheels on the Bus go ‘Round and ‘Round” was quickly draining my cognitive reserve as well as my consistently mellow temperament. Our driver was the same one that will give some of us a ride back to our apartments on Monday, Wednesday and Friday and I really enjoy his constant smile and cheerful attitude but his head-bobbing and waving of hands to the simple repeated children’s tune was slightly off-setting. Another 15 minutes more and I would have burnt out my typically gigantic well of patience and the fun factor would have taken a significant drop for all parties involved.

The field trip started with viewing a cheesy Korean anime about magic traffic light people who taught about how not to get hit by cars or other forms of transportation. It was all in Korean so I pretty much just dialed out for a bit, didn’t seem like I was missing much as even the kids quickly lost interest.

After the film we partook in some practice exercises and had numerous street-crossing demonstrations. I understand the necessity of instilling in these kids a healthy respect of the dangers of traffic here. This is a city of almost 12 million touting one of the highest population densities and where pedestrians don’t even have the right of way. Add on to this the ever-present scooters weaving between pedestrians on the sidewalk and red lights that seem more like a suggestion than a rigidly enforced rule sometime.

Couple this environment with a society that treasures their children and places a huge emphasis on their protection. I completely understand why so much extra education is geared towards being aware of the dangers presented by vehicles. Unfortunately this knowledge did nothing to alleviate my boredom. Common sense lessons in basic safety are devastatingly dull, especially in a foreign language.

Luckily enough the field trip concluded with a round of chaotic soccer and a trip to the large big-toy playground and the conclusion was quite entertaining. Huzzah!

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Finally got a moment of respite from the marathon teaching that was last week. This is shaping up to be a great work week as we had Monday off for Korean independence day, some of you may have taken note of this is you saw Google’s homepage giving props to the flag. Thursday and Friday all my afternoon classes have the singing contest so no real intensive classes then and on Friday all morning classes have the pajama party, my kindergarten coteacher and I are in charge of cooking classes so we’re teaching them all how to make  canapés for the entire session.

Enough about SLP though I still need to recap my Busan vacation at the beginning of this month. Our (I was accompanied by 4 of my coworkers) train going down to Busan actually left at 10:30 instead of 9:50 as we originally thought so we made it to the departing station in downtown central Seoul in no time. We were riding on the KTX and I had never ridden on a bullet train before so this was quite a novel experience.

To travel from Seoul which is near the Northwest corner of Korea all the way down to Busan on the opposite end of the country takes only about 3 hours including the numerous stops at stations to pick up more passengers along the way. You really don’t comprehend exactly how fast you are moving as you look out onto the landscape in the distance. Then you focus on the scenery passing by in a closer proximity to the train and suffer a wave of vertigo as everything just becomes a blur of movement.

Upon arrival we hailed a cab and cruised out to our hotel. This is peak vacation season and we had just managed to snag one of the last hotel rooms available. The price was really cheap but the hotel was located in an odd spot of town where very few foreigners visit. It did kind of feel like I was in an odd ’80s communist era hotel but the beds were comfortable and the AC was efficient so I can’t complain.

We spent a total of three nights in Busan. During the day we hit up many beaches including the most popular beach Haundae. This was by far the most crowded beach that I have ever been on in my life. A sea of parasols and beach mats covered most of the available square footage and the always present lifeguards on jet skis not letting swimmers past 6-7 feet deep roamed the waters like sharks waiting outside a reef. The sound of families, soju intoxicated college kids and fellow expats was a constant drone. While exciting and spring-breakesque this wasn’t really my idea of the perfect beach.

Vacation seaside frenzy.

In comparison to this the next day was quite a difference as we went out to Songjeong beach and had another day of soaking up some rays. This beach is far more family orientated and much less crowded. Had some decent nostalgia stirred up upon seeing all the kids making moat-encircled sand castles by the water line. I decided to invest in one of the intertube rentals for $5 and was rewarded with a nice cool vantage point mostly above water gently bobbing in the sea. Spectacular.

One other great thing to note about this beach is that it was the only one I saw with an area roped off for surfing and had quite a few amateur Korean surfers trying to catch the small breakers coming in. I flashed a “shaka” but think this hawaiian greeting was lost in translation. I was kinda tempted to go hit up the surf shack on the other side of the road to rent a board but it wasn’t destined to be as we didn’t discover this part of the beach until nearer to sunset.

Bobbing on the intertube with my shades on was vacay bliss.

The next day I was feeling like I had my fill of beaches and decided to enrich the cultural aspect of this trip by visiting one of the local Buddhist temples. Haedong Yonggungsa is a unique temple to Korea in that it is the only Buddhist temple in this country that is located right on the coast. I had originally planned on visiting Beomeosa which is one of the “5 great temples of Korea” but its isolated location up in the mountains in Northern Busan and associated 1.5-2 hour one-way transit time was kinda discouraging. I didn’t regret my decision to opt for Yonggungsa the moment I stood at this tranquil viewpoint with the ocean breeze caressing my face.

The only seaside temple in Korea.

This is the first large Buddhist temple I have ever visited and I was quite impressed. The only one I had seen before this was the very small and quaint temple located within Boramae park two stops away from my hood. This temple had numerous sentinel-like sculptures leading up to the entrance to the temple steps once you finally made it through the long alley of stalls selling everything from sweet red-bean pastries to Buddhist amulets & bracelets and even iced apricot tea (I was intrigued).

A long set of steps followed leading down past small alters with old wax encrusted pillars and stonework lanterns cut from a white rock. A few smaller outdoor side shrines branched off until you reached a vista point and all of the sudden you could all of the sudden perceive the main temple complex pictured above and the panoramic sea view pictured below.

The sun was strong but the setting so serene you didn't notice the sweat.

Finally doing some culturally enriching sightseeing instead of just beaches and bar debauchery!

While here I felt a strong sense of fulfillment and pride. My father raised me Roman Catholic (no longer practicing) but always strongly urged me to visit as many temples, synagogues, cathedrals and mosques to truly gain an appreciation for the cultures that created them. The stories concerning the origins of this place as well as the values reflected in the architecture, layout religious artwork truly seemed to impress upon you some empathy for the civilization that created it.

This was the main one out of many different buddha statues. Some were small stone ones with rub-worn stone bellies due to generations of hands searching for good luck. Others were giant ebony totems right by the breaking ocean waves.

The general mood of the people was a joy to behold. From the old, stoic grandmother making her practiced bows in the inner shrine, to the sightseeing tourists soaking up part of their own culture and snapping dozens of photos  every few minutes, to the small children running around smiling and laughing everyone seemed very at peace. No one was rude or pushy in the lines like at the subway stations. Everyone just seemed to appreciate where they were and the moment they were living in.

First full paycheck is in the bank! Last week I received my ARC (Alien Registration Card) which is kind of like a green card in South Korea and was able to open up a bank account. Now I just need to register my cell phone and I’m back on the grid! Being without a cell phone, car, bank account or computer for a month and a half was a rather surreal time, haha.

This last weekend was uneventful for the most part but quite enjoyable. Friday night I stayed in Daelim with some of the coworkers. The guys all met up at the indoor screen golf establishment across the street from our apartment building. Screen golf is interesting, I mean it’s definitely not the real deal and the fake plants and piped in birdsongs add a certain faux chesseyness to it but all in all I was kind of impressed. I was allowed to bring in a cheese pizza from the local “Pizza School” (much more tolerable if you add fake bacon bits, oregano, hot sauce and garlic powder) and some Chongha (kind of like Soju but less alcoholic and not as harsh tasting). I didn’t play this eighteen but enjoyed the spectating and smack talking. A pyramid of empty Cass cans at the end of the night was our testament to not worrying about crashing the cart.

Using my paycheck I was able to pay for two epic upcoming events in the next month. The first of these is the Boryeong Mud Festival on the South East Coast here in Seoul. Featuring tons of mud-wrestling, jousting and the like it draws a rowdy crowd of foreigners and Korean for one outstanding weekend of debauchery. I’m going with my coworkers and we reserved a package with a group that is renting out a ton of buses with complimentary beers and has reserved three entire hotels just for people who are part of their group. $100 bucks seemed like a score for the accommodations and busing.

Fingers crossed for sunshine.

This was until my coworker totally outdid herself by making the travel and housing arrangements for Summer vacation. Four of us are traveling down to Busan mid-week of our on week vacation in August. For the total cost of $179 we are taking the KTX (traveling at over 300+ km per hour it is the second fastest train on the planet) and staying at a swanky hotel the first night (Tuesday). The next two nights we have a sweet guest house with full amenities and four bunk beds right near the beach for easy access. The ride back will be a little longer in the commuter train but I know I’ll be so tired it won’t even register past my earphone aided power/recovery nap on Friday back to Seoul.

Add onto all this that I moved apartments on Sunday from the lowly fourth four surrounded by Koreans to the 7th floor which is all SLP employees. I managed to luck out with this because the previous tenant left a ton of stuff which I will definitely utilize in my time here. Now I just need to get over to the lighting store and get some paper lanterns to add a little ambience to the place. Once I have it outfitted to my taste I’ll post some pictures. Until then enjoy this video courtesy of Gold Panda.

http://pitchfork.com/tv/#/music-videos/970-gold-panda/

  

Oddly ornate Western architecture.

   There has been a ton of adventures and small stories to put down this last week. Rather than spend a ton of time documenting all of them I figured I’d put it down in a series of installments. Hence all of the post in a day or two since they’re covering a pretty packed 5 day period. Did my best to keep them somewhat in time-linear order though.

   So this weekend all of my coworkers were going out to stay at a pension (kind of like a house you can rent for the weekend) on the East coast. They had placed the reservation before I arrived and were apologizing profusely about not being able to invite me since it was already booked. This crew is way too nice, haha.

   Since they were all leaving early Saturday morning they were taking it pretty easy Friday night. I on the other hand kind of was wanting to go see some of the city. It was a 3 day weekend and for some reason or another was feeling the itch to go do some dancing and have a drink or two. Hung out with one coworker and watched a Werner Herzog documentary about the people who live and worked in Antarctica. Great flick. Headed out for the subway at about 11:30 to catch the last train into Hongdae.

   I knew that the subway stops running from midnight to about 5:30 so I was going out late on the off-chance I might stay out until the first run. Subways here cost no more than $1.40 at most whereas a cab back to my apartment would run me around $15 (which is still far less than the equivalent cab ride would be back in Seattle). I know some people back at home might be a little alarmed when they here I went out at midnight for a night on the town by myself (Dad, I know you are cringing as you read this) but this is a really safe part of town and my coworkers gave me a summary of how to make a night of it when going out solo.

   I also like the immersion aspect of going out with no one else. With other foreigners I can feel somewhat insulated by the numerous aspects of Seoul and Korean culture that seem so alien to me. By myself I was forced to observe more carefully and be a little more bold in talking to people whose grasp of my language was unknown to me. I could have gone to Itaewon and been surrounded by other foreigners but I kind of like the challenge of being forced to adapt and be on your toes socially.

   My first stop of the night was at “Roots Time” which is a small reggae bar. There were only two other girls in their at the time and by the time I left I would be the only patron. My coworker had warned me that it was either really packed (the max occupancy is probably only 20 people with no standing room) or pretty dead. Tonight was a dead night. I did enjoy listening to some good old school roots reggae, flipping through their vinyl collection and chatting with the Japanese bar tender who is an avid reggae fan. He was pretty stoked when he saw my Motorhead t-shirt but we shared a laugh about the fact that if heavy music and reggae are your favorite genres then epic shows in Seoul are going to be few and far between. Had one beer, chatted for a while and then left.

Big ups to this tiny bar.

   I had trouble finding the specific bar (Sk@ bar) I had been to and had a great time dancing and meeting Korean college kids at so ended up at Zen Bar where a lot of foreigners frequent. The fact that I just had gotten my haircut and don’t yet have an ARC made the bouncer pretty wary of me. I think he thought I was enlisted as he grudgingly let me in with a very firm, repeated warning of “No fighting.” Talked with a Korean tattoo artist for a bit but this stop was fairly uneventful.

   After hitting the streets I was still sober, being solo is nice in the fact that if you are somewhat intelligent you probably limit your intake of ethanol…and ready to find Sk@ bar. Asked an Irish chap on the street and got some great directions. Went there and danced pretty tough, met some Korean and Italian kids and had a great time. On the way back to my station I actually ended up sitting in between two Korean guys the same age as me, one of whom was born in the states and had just moved over and the other who had just got back from living in Texas for 4 years. Great coincidence, we shared some stories, laughed about cultural differences and the night ended on a good note as I waved goodbye upon disembarking at Daelim station.

   Oh, I also saw a painting of “The Little Prince” above a DVD store. My godfather Lugino bought me this book as a child and it was one of my favorites. Brought a smile to my face seeing a familiar literary reference. I guess there’s also a themed town based of the book and a semi-recent movie remake of it. Props to the Korean people for respecting Antoine de Saint-Exupéry so much.

The heart-warming story of life's circle via interstellar travel.

   I know that Korean Immigration probably wants to ensure in some ways that the teacher’s coming over are responsible and dedicated individuals with a genuine interest in teaching. That being said it is such a relief to be done with all the paperwork associated with getting my E2 visa and the forms for my recruiter and employer!

  Last Thursday I dropped by the Korean Consulate to drop off my passport (little unsettling handing it over after just getting the replacement) so that I could obtain my visa. Internet research and my recruiter had both stated that I had to go in for an interview and pay $80 dollars for a multiple-entry visa. Turns out that the policy had changed (this happens quite a bit with Korean Immigration)…in my favor! They no longer required an interview AND the multiple-entry status was automatically included for American citizens so I only had to pay 45 bucks for it, thanks Immi.

   Dropped by on Monday and my passport was waiting for me on the other side of the “Visas” counter. While I had called 30 minutes beforehand I was a little off-put at the fact that the girl running the booth barely glanced up to confirm it was me picking up the visa (my passport had big stick note with my name on it), all’s well that ends well. This is the first visa I’ve ever been issued seeing as how my rugby trip to New Zealand didn’t require one, and Mexico as well as Canada didn’t even require a passport back when I was frequenting them.

   I’m ashamed to admit this but back when I went to college in Bellingham I stopped going up to Canada when I turned 21 (drinking age is 19 for our awesome neighbors to the North). Mind you I did do quite a bit of skiing at Whistler as well as attend college weekend (Uni students from WA, OR, ID, CA and MT all converging for one epic weekend), the novelty as well as conversion rates were a little less lucrative compared to Bellingham bars and the legendary Mt. Baker ski resort.

   I promptly emailed my recruiter that I had the visa in hand and he quickly responded that my flight reservation was made, you rock James! I’m flying a direct flight from SeaTac to Incheon May 16th so it’s only an eleven hour flight, bonus. In addition to this my little brother’s friend Vicky from his college days at Green River Community College works for Korean Air and is going to get me a honeymoon cake (tried to wikipedia this but to no avail, anyone know what this is?) for my flight and I’m feeling the hospitality of the Korean people before I ever set foot in the country. Kamsahamnida Korea!