Friday, February 28, 2003

Sorry for the the lateness of this update. We've had a busy few weeks - last Saturday morning, Will, John, Rick, Amy, Megan and myself hopped aboard the 7:50am Saemaeul express train to Seoul. It was a wet, grey day in Korea and the countryside slipped past quietly as we dozed and rolled northwards to the nation's capital. We arrived in Seoul at about 1:30pm and made our way on the subway to our hotel. Riding the subway in Seoul was an interesting experience, with a very visible police presence at most of the subway gates, most likely as result of last week's terrible subway arson in Daegu.

From our hotel, we made our way over to the Itaewon district, home to the largest US military base in Seoul and a very foreigner-friendly area. You can buy all kinds of knock-off goods and custom-made leather jackets for dirt cheap. We had an excellent meal of Pakistani food (no less!) and had a wander through the markets, and then made our way to a palace north of the city - only to find it closed up for the day. Undaunted, we moved on to the Yongsan Electronics market, where you can find all the latest gizmos and gadgets for sale. I was interested in what was on display, but did not find myself moved to buy anything.

Saturday evening, we embarked on night of drinking and dancing that saw us move from Itaewon over to one of the university districts and visit several establishments for some fun and frivolity. The evening was memorable enough if for only the insane cab ride we had back to our hotel at 4:30 in the morning. I swear this driver was pushing 140 km + through the deserted streets of Seoul, running red lights and taking corners like a Formula 1 driver. Will, John and I slid around in the backseat, and fueled with a little Dutch courage, we egged him on with shout of "Bali, Bali!" or "Hurry, Hurry!" - I'm amazed we made it back in one piece.

On Sunday, we went and checked out the Korean War museum. It was a sobering experience, as the conflict between North and South still simmers even 50 years later. In fact, just last week, a North Korean Mig-19 made a provocative flight into South Korean airspace. The museum was an impressive stone structure that straddled a large pool of water, and was surrounded by vintage and modern displays of weaponry; including tanks, artillery pieces and aircraft.

Inside, you could wander through a chronological display of the 1950-53 conflict. The displays included multimedia projections and dioramas of the major incidents in the war. Prior to our visit, I hadn't known much about the Korean War, as it is often overshadowed by the later conflict in Vietnam. It was an intense, violent three years, and the capital Seoul actually changed hands four times between the North and the South. The frontlines seesawed up and down the pennisula, until they settled roughly where the DMZ lies today, just shy of the 38th Parallel. The most unsettling thing for me, I think, was the images of the street combat outside Seoul's train station. The very same building we had deboarded into the day before. Interestingly though, while much of the displays were in Korean, and therefore unreadable, from what I could gather - the conflict is painted very much as a 'Korean' struggle, and very little is mentioned about the US and UN troops that contributed so much to that war.

50 years on and the conflict remains unresolved, and while the current nuclear chess game is being played out on CNN, the shadows of the past continue to loom large over the pennisula. While most people don't like to talk about the North, there seems to be a definite feeling sometimes we are living in war zone. Maybe it's the groups of young, uniformed soldiers who wander the streets, or maybe it's the occasional overflight of military jets - I can't quite place what it is exactly, but it's there. Having learned more about the devastion wreaked on this country as a result of the last war, I can only wish there isn't another.

Monday, February 17, 2003

Sorry for the lateness of this last update. Life seems to steamroller along here, as days turn into weeks, which turn into months.

As the weather slowly turns warmer, and winter fades into spring in Korea we're spending more and more time outdoors. I've begun to recruit some bodies for Ulsan's first Ultimate Frisbee team and we held our inaugural practice down by the Taehwa river recently. I use the term 'practice' loosely - it consisted mostly of tossing a disc around and slipping and sliding on the muddy fields.

Valentine's Day just passed, and Korea celebrates it kind of uniquely. On V-Day, it is only the women who are supposed to give their boyfriends/husbands gifts. One month later (on March 14th) is White Day, where the men reciprocate. I loaded up on chocolates from many of the girls that I teach, and Amy also gave me a big stash of sweets. The chocolates themselves come in strange little packages, with miniature coffee cups, chip/cracker boxes and cigarette packs all concealing little candies.

This past weekend, Amy and I had our first Hapkido test. We showed up to our Hapkido school in the afternoon on Saturday, to discover a field of shoes outside the front door. There must have been close to 100 kids packed into the gym! So much for remaining anonymous. The test kicked off with a display by the black belts who would run up walls and leap and tumble headfirst over a row of 8 kids crouched in a line - it was quite impressive! Next came the introductions of the Hapkido Federation officials who were on hand to witness the test. Then, one by one, each group came up to demonstrate the routines they had learned. We went up as the first group of white belts, and there was much made of the fact that we were foreigners and we were learning this Korean martial art. Or, at least that what I think was going on, as there was a lot of pointing, nodding and applause from the other students and parents who had gathered to watch. We ran through our routine of kicks, punches and rolls and then before we knew it, it was all done. We were now Yellow belts!

Sunday, Amy, Will and our friend Leigh headed out for yet another Hash run which this time departed from near the Ulsan airport and snaked it's way through the surrounding hills and valleys. Having completed his third run, Will received his hash name and 'Camel' now joined our ranks. The three of us, Amy, Will and I were pegged as the next Hash hares, so that means two weeks from now, we will have to go out and lay the course for the group. I'm sure that will present an interesting challenge!

Late Sunday night, our Director came over to our house and drove Amy and I to the airport to go and meet our new teacher. As some of you already know, Amy's good friend Megan is joining us as the third foreign teacher at our school. We were both quite excited to have her come and join us! Her plane arrived from Seoul at approximately 8:00pm and she was jetlagged, but generally quite excited to be in Korea. I can remember the very same feelings of apprehension, excitement and bewilderment when we first arrived. The next few weeks will be a crash course in Korean culture!

Next up, Seoul this weekend! More then...

Thursday, February 06, 2003

Well, we've made it through Lunar New Year here in Korea. Amy and I had a decent break off work, we had Thursday, Friday, Saturday, Sunday and Monday off. It was nice just to relax and unwind a bit and not have to worry about teaching in the evenings.

Thursday, Amy and I headed out on our scooter for a long drive on our scooter out to the Carrefour, which is kind of like a big French Walmart. We meant to stock up on groceries for the weekend, after multiple warnings that the city will literally shut down over the holiday - which it indeed did. We managed to load up, and must have looked quite the sight doubling back home on the scooter with arm loads of groceries. The poor Red Devil was maxed out, engine screaming at 50 km/hr carrying the two of us and our loot down the highway.

Friday evening, we met up with a group of foreigners and headed out to Concert, one of the larger nightclubs in Ulsan. It was quite impressive, the place was the size of an aircraft hanger, and is run by the Korean mafia. Mr. Kim, our host, was considerably gracious and spent the evening plying us with Western whiskey and beer. We returned the favour by getting raucously drunk. The highlight of the evening was when I was "booked" by a Korean girl. Apparently, you can pay the bouncers to have them escort the girl/guy of your choice to your table. All I knew was all of a sudden I was being pulled to a nearby table and introduced to this waiting girl. I don't think I was worth the money, because I promptly got up and staggered back to our group. Sorry.

Saturday was a write-off, as we were recovering from the night before - having got home at about 5:30 in the morning. Sunday, Amy, Will and I went out on the bi-weekly hash run and whiled away the afternoon by going to see Catch Me If You Can, the Tom Hanks, Leonardo DiCaprio flick.

All of this was a big buildup to early Monday morning, when Amy, Will, myself, John, Ali and Rick (more Exxon engineers) and two Korean girls, In-Sook and Mi-ra, departed for Muju resort, a local ski hill.

We drove for a couple hours, past Gyeongju and Daegu, to the resort village in Muju. We rented snowboarding gear and headed up the mountain to check into our hotel room. We hit the slopes at about noon and snowboarded until about 9 o'clock at night. Korean ski hills are moderately difficult, the elevation is minimal and the runs are fairly easy. The most challenging thing is just dodging the chaos of thousands of Koreans on the ski slopes. There doesn't seem to much order to it all, just swarms of fashion-coordinated people everywhere. Much like hiking, the thrill in skiing or snowboarding for Koreans seems to be in coming up with fashionable outfits. Riding down the hill seems to be secondary to standing around and looking cool. Oh, and stopping midway down the slope to answer their mobile phones dangling from their necks.

As night descended, so did the temperature. Incredibly, they sell hot soju to warm you up on the slopes, so most people were three-quarters tanked on the runs. When in Rome...

Our apres-ski consisted of soju, beer and spirits consumed in our hotel room to much silliness.

Will, John, In-Sook and Mi-ra stayed on at the resort for another day of skiing, while Amy, Rick, Ali and I headed home on Tuesday. It was a fun couple of days, and neither of us were looking forward to returning to work.

Pictures will be forthcoming!