Monday, December 30, 2002

It's been a while since the last full update, but the holidays have been busy and we've been out and about exploring as much as we can.

The weekend before Christmas, a group of foreign teachers and us headed north out of Ulsan to visit Gyeongju. Gyeongju was the ancient capitol of the Silla Dynasty founded in 57 B.C. It is a city teaming with temples, palaces and burial tumuli (big mounds with royal tombs inside). In fact, there are so many mounds all over that the city looks like it has a bad case of the chicken pox. The Korean government has passed a law that no tall buildings are allowed in Gyeongju so the cityscape is refreshingly clear of the ugly skyscrapers that the Koreans seem to be so fond of building.

While in Gyeongju, we visited two remarkable sites - the Seokguram Grotto and the Bulguksa Temple. To get to the Seokguram Grotto we had to wind our way several kilometres up a big mountain. Seated in a carved cave was a 3.5 metre tall statue of a seated Buddha surrounded by its guardians elaborately carved on the stone walls. It is estimated that construction work started in 751 and took 30 years to be completed. The granite Buddha is argued by some to be the most perfect Buddha image of its kind anywhere. It was a fantastic sight - at the centre of the Buddha's forehead is a large diamond, and supposedly when the sunrise from over the East Sea (Sea of Japan) strikes it, it radiates light throughout the cave.

The Bulguksa Temple is one of the most famous temples and is the oldest surviving Buddhist monastery in Korea. It was very picturesque and we all enjoyed wandering around its grounds. Much of the original temple has had to be rebuilt however, as it had been razed several times by successive Chinese and Japanese invasions over the centuries.

By mid-afternoon we were all feeling well and truly "templed"-out. I felt at peace with myself, my karma was aligned, and I was bloody starving and my legs were killing me... so we headed off for lunch at a nearby restaurant. After lunch, we climbed back into the bus and returned to Ulsan.

Last week was a short week with Christmas arriving mid-week. Amy and I and a couple of other foreign teachers headed back to Gyeongju for a Christmas buffet at the Hilton hotel. We awoke on Christmas morning to a unexpected surprise. We had a white Christmas in Ulsan! Snow was falling, so it really helped us get into the Christmas spirit. From what we've heard, that will probably be the only snow in Korea this winter, so what better day for it to arrive!

We motored on up the road to the Hilton and arrived at the hotel at about noon. Lunch was served and we stuffed ourselves with turkey, roast beef and seafood from the buffet. And yes, there was kimchi to be had as well. The only hiccup of the day was we somehow ended up in the children's party... we were the only foreigners in a sea of Korea families. It wasn't so bad though, and the bingo was fun...

Anyway, the week flew by and on Saturday my sister Joanna arrived from Jeonju for a short stay with us. We are planning some adventures for New Year's so we'll hopefully have some good stories next week!

As a side note, I've archived all of the emails on the web at http://jburslem.blogspot.com - if you've missed any of the updates you can find them here!

Friday, December 27, 2002

Well it's the moment you've all been waiting for... yes, after much deliberation we have chosen a name for our scooter. Thanks to everyone who submitted a name, there were some great entries. So, without much further ado, the winner of a crisp, new 10,000 won bill is:

1. The Red Devil

We felt that this name fit partly because the Korean soccer fans are called the Red Devils, and well... it's red. Oh yeah, maybe cause you have to drive like hell to survive over here too.

Honorable (runner-up) mentions go to:

2. Crouching Tiger
3. Fast like Lawnmower

Thanks once again to everyone for submitting their names, we had a great time pouring over all the entries.

Thursday, December 19, 2002

Not a whole lot to report this week, I've been fighting a wicked cold/flu bug that has knocked me on my ass for a few days. I think a lot of it is due to an adjustment to a new environment and spending 5 days a week teaching lots of living, breathing germ factories. I seem to be on the mend now, but I have to say there's nothing more nerve racking than going to a foreign hospital and being pumped full of all kinds of drugs and pills that you have no idea what they are! "I think that's Tylenol...''

Over the past weekend, Amy and I ventured out of the city on a bus to the Seoknamsa temple. We were guided by a very well-meaning Korean college student who managed to talk our ear off for an hour or so before finally showing us which bus we had to catch. I'm sure he just wanted to hear himself talk English, and we were willing to oblige at first, but after a while I was very close to punching the poor guy because he wouldn't shut up. Thankfully our salvation arrived in the form of the #317 bus.

Seoknamsa is a beautifull Buddhist temple set in an idyllic valley between some towering mountains. A stream bubbled down from the hills and made for a tranquil spot for meditation and relaxation. After wandering around for an hour or so we ventured down to a carbonic spa, where you can soak in these hot, mineral water baths. The tubs come in three temperatures, warm, hot and the burning fires of hell. It was a nice way to pass the weekend.

My parents arrived on Sunday as they are on their way back from a lengthy trip throughout South East Asia that has included stops in Hong Kong, China, Vietnam, Cambodia and now South Korea. It has been nice to have them around for a few days and today we put them on the bus north to Gyeongju so they can go exploring up there. Tonight we're going to celebrate my birthday with a visit to Ulsan's Outback Steakhouse (which will make for a welcome change from Korean food) and tomorrow, they will jump a train to Seoul and then fly on to Vancouver.

Life in Ulsan is good, the weather has been amazing, we had our first night of rain last night in about four weeks. Made for a welcome change from the clear blue skies and sun... I have to rub it in a bit!

Teaching is going well, we've juggled the schedule a bit to lighten the load for both Amy and I, so it's a bit more manageable now. It doesn't look like we'll be getting a new foreign teacher until well into the New Year now, which is kind of a drag, but what can you do....

Hope all is well with everyone, keep the emails coming!

Sorry for the lateness of this update, it's amazing how fast the weeks fly by here. I can't believe we've been in Korea now for almost two months!

The weather in Ulsan has finally turned colder. It's still sunny and clear, but the days are freezing! We're having to bundle up in many layers. It's hard to complain right now as I'm sure that once the hot Korean summer arrives, I'll be begging for the cold again.

We finally got our first full paycheque from work, which was a really good feeling. The best part is that all of our pay comes in cash and being that the highest bill in Korean won is 10,000 and our monthly salary is about 1.9 million won, you end up with huge wad of cash! You definitely feel like a high roller, move over Jimmy Pattison...

Our first purchase was a slightly used, but in good condition, scooter. Man, is it fun! Those of you still slogging it out on public transport, I would highly recommend buying one. It's most excellent. There no feeling quite like burning in and out of traffic on a bike powered by a lawnmower engine.. The bonus being that in Korea, you can ride it anywhere, down the streets, on the sidewalk, in and out of shopping malls. Well, maybe not shopping malls, but pretty close.. We get pointed at, and laughed at a lot but that seems to be par for the course in Korea. You get used to it.

Come to think of it, in honour of Benny's memory, I would like to propose a naming competition for our new scooter. She (or he) is Cherry Red, packs a whalloping 50cc's of raw power and handles like a stuck pig. That being said, she is reliable, easy to use, and in the words of one web site a "fiesty machine".

So, here's the deal, you come up with the winning entry and I will personally send you one crisp new 10,000 won bill. Yes that's a whole $12.89 (CAD) or $8.26 for you American folks.

On Sunday, Amy and I mounted our trusty steed (name TBD) and sped across the city through the rain to our Director's house to make Kimchi. I tell you, there's nothing like having your arms in a bucket of fermenting cabbage rubbing chili paste onto the leaves to pass a rainy afternoon. Actually, it was a lot of fun. I may even throw in some Kimchi for the winning scooter name.

On the horizon, this weekend Amy, Joanna and I are heading up to Seoul to see DJ Sasha in concert. I'll have a full report next week, having braved the Korean train system and dodged Korean ravers.

Anyway, hope you are all well. Anxiously awaiting your best scooter names.

This weekend was certainly a memorable one. Amy and I hopped the "Seoul Train" early Saturday morning and headed up to Korea's biggest city. Five hours later we stepped onto the platform of Seoul Station and wandered into the big city. First impressions, Seoul is huge. Have I mentioned that Seoul is massive? There are people everywhere.

We walked out of the train station and right into a large mob of angry Koreans heading off to the US embassy to protest against SOFA (Status of Forces Agreement). SOFA was negotiated in the sixties and is the framework for the governance of US military forces stationed in South Korea (there are over 37,000 US troops here right now). Most of the country is majorly pissed off right now, as two US soldiers were recently acquitted of running over and killing two young Korean girls in their armoured personnel carrier (APC). There have been large protests across the country demanding an apology and a renegotiation of the terms of SOFA, which currently allow US soldiers to be tried under US military law for crimes committed in Korea - a fact that many understandably feel is unfair and biased.

Anyway, Amy and I did our best to keep our heads down and avoid any problems.

We then went to meet Joanna and her friends Mark and SK at the bus station and on the way back we were accosted by a very friendly older Korean man, who spoke incredibly good English. Turns out he had immigrated to Chicago after the Korean war and was back in Korea to visit some old friends and relatives. He proceeded to show us some pictures of him as a 15 year old youth posing with an American GI and holding a very big gun. It was a fascinating perspective listening to him relate stories of post-war Korea and just how much it has changed since he had left. In just forty years, the country has gone from war-torn devastation to one of the most technologically advanced countries in the world. I wonder what some of the younger generation who were off protesting against SOFA would say if they stopped to think about what their parents and grandparents had gone through only a few generations earlier. Maybe they wouldn't be so quick to condemn the USA and Western nations.

From the bus station we head to Itaewon, a district in Seoul dominated by a large US military installation and row upon row of vendors selling knock-off Nike, Tommy Hilfiger and other Western brands for cheap. We had dinner at a decent Mexican restaurant and went for beers at a pub nearby. It's amazing how quickly you can forget you're in a foreign country there, where just about everywhere you look you see another white face. It was kind of a surreal experience.

Anyway, despite all of this rambling, the purpose of our adventure to Seoul was to go and see Sasha in concert. We ventured onto the subway and made our way out to the Sheraton Walker Hill hotel where the party was taking place. We arrived at about 11:00pm and lined up to get our tickets. The venue was fantastic and very cool. The crowd was about half Korean and half foreigner. The music was loud and the lighting was intense. A very good vibe indeed. The whole party was sponsered by British American Tabacco and Smirnoff, so they were handing out free packs of cigarettes faster than you could fill your pockets (something I'm sure would have made Health Canada have a coronary) and the drinks were strong enough to run a small automobile.

After a couple of opening acts, Sasha came on at about 1:30am and proceeded to play until about 5am. It was a solid set and really got the crowd moving. We all danced until our legs ached and our feet were sore. The only downer to the evening (and morning) was when we left, our bags and coats that had been orderly checked in at the beginning of the night, we now found lying strewn across the floor in big piles. They were several panicked moments as we frantically searched through the heaps to find purses, wallets, jackets and bags and luckily we all found our stuff eventually. Some were not so lucky, there were several people in various states of hysteria either sobbing or swearing up a storm at the concert organizers. All in all, it was pretty FUBAR.

As we left the hotel exhausted in the early hours of the morning, we made our way back to the subway and back to the train station. Amy and I jumped the first train to Ulsan at 7:30am and fell promptly asleep. We awoke as the train drew into Ulsan, and we got home as fast as we could. I've been sleeping ever since....

Well another week down. The weekend was a lot of fun, Amy and I headed out to the beach here in Ulsan. It was an interesting bus ride, we ended up going in entirely the wrong direction from where we wanted to go. But, we got there in the end. Not without Amy nearly vomiting from all the jerking and bouncing on the bus and me nearly wetting myself. The last time I ever drink several coffees before getting on a bus for an hour and a half. The lessons you learn are sometimes small, but invaluable!

Once we got to the beach we walked out along the seashore, which is very beautiful. The Sea of Japan has clear, brilliant blue/green water and was still warm enough for some kids to be swimming in it in November! We strolled along the seaside and picked out some incredible shells that had washed ashore.

From the beach we walked up a hill to some trails in a small pine forest that wound their way out to some incredible rocks the jetted out into the ocean . Out on the rocks was a huge whale jawbone monument, that represented Ulsan's traditional whaling industry. Banned now, they do have a festival every year where they are allowed to catch a few whales and make traditional dishes that incorporate whale meat. That would be very interesting I'm sure, we'll have to make sure we are around for that!

The rocks had these intricate pathways and bridges that linked them all together so you could walk all the way out to the point. They were covered in people fishing and in the bay you could see several women in wetsuits out collecting shellfish. It was a very peaceful spot, it was nice to get out of the city and connect with nature again.

On the way back to the beach and the bus, we stopped to try a traditional Korean snack sold by the many vendors that dot the path out to the rocks. They were this little snails/limpits that had been boiled in sea water. You got a little cup full of these shells (kind of like peanuts at a baseball game) and you sucked out the meat from the opening of the shell. They were very delicious!

Anyway, Sunday was spent on the hunt for a cable for our VCR which is harder than you think to find! We must have trailed around to half a dozen stores until we could find someone who could understand what the hell we were talking about!

Next weekend I think we'll try and get out of the city, either to Pusan or Gyeongju where there are many Buddhist temples, royal palace and tombs to explore. More to come next week!

This past weekend, Amy and I ventured out of Ulsan and onto a cross-country bus to go and visit my sister Joanna in Jeonju. It was about a 5 hour bus ride that took us through some beautiful scenery and up into and through the mountains that run the length of the Korean pennisula. The bus ride was very comfortable, we took one of the large express city buses and they are equipped with large chairs that you can almost fully recline. The one downside, no bathrooms. This meant a mad dash off the bus to one of the many roadside rest areas along the way.

Joanna met us at the bus terminal and we went on to her apartment. Jeonju is a midsized Korean city, and slightly smaller than Ulsan. We came to the realization though, having travelled through Gyeongju and Daegu on our way to Jeonju, that every Korean city looks exactly the same. Let's just say, that as beautiful as parts of Korea are, the cities are not exactly reknowned for their architecture. Massive concrete apartment towers and tons of neon lighting seem to dominate the urban landscapes of most of the cities and towns.

Saturday night we went out on the town and sampled some of the local cuisine. Jeonju is regarded as one of the cultural centers of Korean cooking. We tried Jeonju bimbimbap (rice and vegetables cooked in a hot pot) and kimchi stew, both of which were very delicious. Dining out is very much part of the Korean culture and the restaurants are often packed in the evenings. At most places you have the choice of either sitting at a table or on the heated floors on a small padded mat.

After dinner we met up with a bunch of other foreign teachers and hit the bars. First stop was to the foreigner bar to prime ourselves with several pitchers of cheap Korean beer. Next, off to the soju bar. Soju is a distilled rice spirit and is wicked strong! Most of the time it is drunk straight in small shooter glasses, but luckily (or unluckily) you can also get it mixed with fruit juice. We consumed many pitchers of peach and kiwi flavoured soju and we all left the place at about 2am well and truly pissed out of our collective minds.

From there the evening culminated in a visit to the Jukebox, a small club that played western music intermingled with Korean tunes (which for the most part are ripoffs of western pop music sung in Korean - it's well fun trying to play 'Name that Tune').

As a side note, Koreans are rabidly patriotic and are still riding the high from the recent World Cup (where the Korean squad placed fourth). It's quite a sight to see a room full of Koreans, who are usually good-natured and reserved, jumping up and down on the tables and punching their fists in the air and acting decidedly un-Korean when the Korean soccer songs were played.

From that point the evening took a turn towards the weird. At about 3:30am the lights came on in the club (early for Korea, where the partying often continues until 5 or 6 in the morning) and all the foreigners were told to leave the bar immediately. We could only surmise that the bar was feeling overwhelmed by the numbers of Westerners, as there were about 30 of us there drinking and enjoying ourselves. There was mass confusion as to what was happening, but we were all physically ushered out of the place. Understandably, there was a great deal of resentment at being singled out as a group and asked to leave.

Unfortunately, as we left, several groups of drunk Korean males began to angrily shout "Miguk" (literally translated - "American") at us and gesture threateningly towards us. There is a large and growing degree of resentment of the US military presence in the Koreas and many Koreans automatically assume if you are white you are part of the US military. To be fair, much of the resentment of the US military is well-deserved, as there is a long history of US soldiers acting unpleasantly while stationed here.

The situation, fuelled by too much alcohol on both sides, boiled over as many of the group with us (largely Canadian) took exception to the insult and resented its derogatory inference. Luckily, apart from some shoving and shouting, the issue was resolved and in typical Korean-fashion was settled with promises to go drinking soju together the next night. It was a sour note to end the evening.

I spent much of the next day nursing a debilitating huge hangover. That evening Amy and I jumped on the bus and headed back to Ulsan. Thanks to some massive traffic jams on the freeways we did not arrive home until about 11:30pm and we're very thankful just to roll into bed.

Anyways, that's it for now. More adventures to come!

Well the past week has been marked by a transition of sorts. On Friday, our co-worker Ambrosia and her friend Sarah decided that they had had enough of Ulsan and were going to head back to the United States. It was a difficult decision, and we were sad to see them go. The situation is made more difficult as we are now short one teacher and Amy and I have to work a bunch of extra shifts. It makes for longer days, but we do get paid overtime for it, so that's good.

On the upside though, we inherited a lot of Ambrosia's stuff, including appliances, furniture and most importantly a mobile phone! Now you can reach us anytime at 011-82-16-254-0167.

On Saturday, Amy and I headed over to our director's house for a traditional Korean meal including Chapche which is mixed vegetable and beef stir fried with rice noodles. It was very tasty and after the meal, we all went out for a stroll up a little hill next to our director's apartment.

There are many huge apartment complexes in Ulsan, most people in fact live in apartment towers and houses are quite rare in the city. This is due in large part to the rapid growth the city experienced after the Hyundai Automobile company decided to locate its manufacturing plant in Ulsan and the city grew very quickly from a sleepy fishing port to a large city of over a million people. Land is also at a premium because much of Korea is quite mountainous, and flat land is mostly consumed for agricultural and industrial purposes.

Saturday night, Amy and I decided to head out to check out more of the bars in Ulsan. We were feeling a little alone and in need of socializing, because our only English-speaking friends had just left us to go home!

We went to the Royal Anchor pub, which is a nice British style pub (memories of the Frog!) located in the old-Downtown of Ulsan. While we were there we met two Americans, Will and Leigh who both work for ExxonMobil on large oil platform projects that are being built at the Hyundai shipards. Both are about our age and are from Houston, though Will is originally from Cleveland. Will had just arrived in Korea about 2 weeks ago and Leigh has been here since about July. We hit it off well and spent the evening chatting and downing Korean beer.

Sunday, the four of us went out on the Hash run, which this time wound it's way from the beach out to the same rock promontory (the Daewangnam) which Amy and I had explored last weekend. It was a lot of fun, and this time Will and Leigh, being hash virgins, were subjected to the down-downs. After the run, we returned to the clubhouse at the Foreigner's compound for some excellent Curry soup. We spent the afternoon in the bar watching the England vs. New Zealand rugby test match (which England won 31-28) with a bunch of crazy ex-pats. The atmosphere was a lot of fun, with a lot of good-natured ribbing between the Brits and Kiwis. We returned to our house and spent the evening relaxing and preparing for the week ahead.

Well, Amy and I have finished our first week in Korea. School is going well and we're getting more aquainted with the city. Amy and I went down and checked out Ulsan's train station and bus station over the weekend. I think the plan is once we get some money rolling in we're going to go and do some travelling around Korea. The train to Seoul takes about 4.5 hours and cost about 30 bucks. There's also a fast Catamaran ferry to Japan that takes about 3 hours.

While downtown, we also went and checked out the huge Lotte department store which has a massive Ferris wheel on the roof. Unfortunately, it was out of order because of the recent typhoon that has made it a little structurally unsound, but they are fixing it now. Shopping in Korea is a little interesting, but you'd be amazed how far you can get just with mumbling and pointing. It's also a little draining with the incessant music that they insist on blaring from every corner.

So I think that we're adapting slowly, picking up bits and pieces of Korean as we go. I learned to say left and right this week (wengcho and orungcho) and the all important "May I have one beer, please." (Matchu han-pyung chuseyo).

Amy, Ambrosia and her friend Sarah and I all headed out to the bar on Friday and Saturday night. Saturday we went out with the Korean teachers that we work with after they had come over for a spaghetti party. We hit Ulsan's old downtown to a popular bar here called Asshole. Great name, and the bartenders there, Jo Jo and Chris, are very friendly and kept us amuzed all evening.

Sunday, the four of us went out to the huge Hyundai compound to meet up for the Ulsan hash run. Driving past the acres and acres of petro-chemical refineries, I was reminded of scenes from a James Bond movie. There were also row upon rows of parked cars ready to be loaded into ships bound for the US and other parts of the world. When we get our digital camera, I will have to take a picture to show everyone because it is really something you have to see to believe. The meeting point was across the road from the Hyundai ship yards, where they build these massive container, freighter and cruise ships. The whole operation is huge and really puts Vancouver's little port to shame.

The hash group is made up of a lot of foreigners, mainly Brits and Scandanvians who work on the ships. They are an older group, with lots of their kids participating with in the run, but are all very nice. They invited us to use the Hyundai Foreigner's Compound there at any time, and they have a gym, squash courts and swimming pool which will no doubt come in handy once the hot and humid Korean summer is upon us.

The run was excellent and wound it's way through the hills that surround Ulsan. Lots of nice viewpoints that look out over the ocean, where we could see lots of marine traffic heading in and out of the port at Ulsan. The whole run took about two hours and was followed by the down-downs (for those of you unfamiliar with Hashing, the down-downs are when you have to chug a beer after the run, usually for some sort of infraction or if you are a hash virgin, which we were). It was a lot of fun, and after the run we headed back to the clubhouse for more beer and some soup.

Anyway, we're off to work today. Hope all is well. More to come soon.
Well, we've arrived in Korea. Long flight, crappy food - but what else is new. First impression of Korea - looks like Richmond. Long flat fields by the sea, surrounded by a big city and mountains in the background. It's quite pretty actually. Seoul is huge but we didn't get any time to spend there, just jumped a bus to another airport and flew on to Ulsan.

Ulsan is pretty nice and our digs are pretty good. We share the top stage of a house with another American girl Ambrosia who is very cool. Our pad is underfurnished right now, but Amy and I are planning to get some furniture and fix it up once we've settled a bit and have some cash to spend. Only problem is that they definitely don't design these places with large Westerners in mind. The doorways are much smaller and I have to duck a lot to get around. Feels kinda like living in a hobbit home.

We're in a nice part of town up on a hill and overlooking the river. Today, there was a huge market where they take over the streets. Lots of interesting stuff for sale, Ulsan being by the sea means lots of fresh seafood, including squid, eels, octopi and tons of fresh fish. Nothing really weird, and I'm still on the hunt for a monkey! We're going to check out the school where we're teaching later today - it's about about a 20 min. walk from home.

I don't think the culture shock has set in much. Maybe it's living in Vancouver and being surrounded by Asians there, but it doesn't feel all that different here really. I mean, it's a little weird not understanding the language, but everyone is very helpful when you are trying to buy something or get somewhere. You can get a long with nodding your head and gesturing I guess.