Monday, March 31, 2003

The last few weeks have really motored by, and I apologize to all for the lack of updates from my end. Our weekends have remained quite busy and the weeks, well they just seem to roll by with very little to report.

Last weekend saw Amy and I head over to Jeonju to go and visit Joanna again. The bus trip was uneventful and once again dominated by scenes of the beautiful Korean countryside rolling by. Roughly four hours after setting off we pulled into Jeonju and were met downtown by Joanna. We had a little time to relax and catch up and Joanna filled us in on the strange goings-on of her latest roommate. He is 35 years old, a devout Buddhist and most likely a full-blown schizophrenic. Joanna insists he has lengthy conversations with himself while at home and his room is covered with cut up Korean movie poster collages (his “Art”). It's real ‘A Beautiful Mind’ kind of stuff. Harmless I’m sure and just one more thing to chalk up to the Korean experience.

That evening, Joanna had a dinner appointment, so Amy and I spent a few hours exploring the downtown core. As we wandered we remarked on the interesting differences between our two cities, Ulsan and Jeonju. The people in Jeonju dressed much more down to earth, in a kind of hip-hop style. By contrast, Ulsan styles is much more conservative, with the most popular brands being Gucci, Ralph Lauren and Versace. I suppose it all boils down to economics. Ulsan is the richest city (per capita) in South Korea, largely due to all of the industry concentrated here, and it would follow that the people here have much higher tastes. Personally, I felt much more comfortable in Jeonju.

After a couple of hours, we met up with Joanna again and headed out for a night on the town. I clearly remember our taxi ride across the city as the taxi driver was listening to coverage of the war in Iraq on his radio. What was interesting was the reporting was all done to a deafening background of rockets launching, explosions and gunfire. The near hysterical pace at which the Korean reporter was shouting the news only added to the canned sound effects. All in all, it sounded overly dramatic and made me wonder just how most Koreans perceive the war, if this is all they hear about it.

The past week, I’ve spent mostly in front of the television – glued to the constant coverage of the war. We get CNN in Ulsan and I’ve been alternating between that and Korean Arirang TV and Japan’s NHK (both English-language channels). Many are concerned here with the pace of events in the Persian Gulf, and wonder whether it may foreshadow a similar campaign on the Korean peninsula in the future. There has also been considerable debate over the Korean government’s decision to send a battalion of Army engineers to Iraq to aid in the reconstruction of the country after the fighting has ceased.

This past week has also marked the arrival of the Hwang-Sa or ‘Yellow Sand’. Every March, as the wind patterns shift, sand from the Gobi desert begins to drift eastward over the Korean peninsula. The sky has changed to a murky brownish/yellow tint that partially obscures the sun. It’s meant that the air quality in Ulsan over the last few days has been fluctuated from bad to terrible and neither Amy nor I have wanted to spend much time outdoors. We’ve also taken to wearing our super-sexy facemasks while walking to school. Luckily these winds will last only for a couple of weeks.

Anyway, I hope to write more shortly. Hope all is well with everyone.
The last few weeks have really motored by, and I apologize to all for the lack of updates from my end. Our weekends have remained quite busy and the weeks, well they just seem to roll by with very little to report.

Last weekend saw Amy and I head over to Jeonju to go and visit Joanna again. The bus trip was uneventful and once again dominated by scenes of the beautiful Korean countryside rolling by. Roughly four hours after setting off we pulled into Jeonju and were met downtown by Joanna. We had a little time to relax and catch up and Joanna filled us in on the strange goings-on of her latest roommate. He is 35 years old, a devout Buddhist and most likely a full-blown schizophrenic. Joanna insists he has lengthy conversations with himself while at home and his room is covered with cut up Korean movie poster collages (his “Art”). It's real ‘A Beautiful Mind’ kind of stuff. Harmless I’m sure and just one more thing to chalk up to the Korean experience.

That evening, Joanna had a dinner appointment, so Amy and I spent a few hours exploring the downtown core. As we wandered we remarked on the interesting differences between our two cities, Ulsan and Jeonju. The people in Jeonju dressed much more down to earth, in a kind of hip-hop style. By contrast, Ulsan styles is much more conservative, with the most popular brands being Gucci, Ralph Lauren and Versace. I suppose it all boils down to economics. Ulsan is the richest city (per capita) in South Korea, largely due to all of the industry concentrated here, and it would follow that the people here have much higher tastes. Personally, I felt much more comfortable in Jeonju.

After a couple of hours, we met up with Joanna again and headed out for a night on the town. I clearly remember our taxi ride across the city as the taxi driver was listening to coverage of the war in Iraq on his radio. What was interesting was the reporting was all done to a deafening background of rockets launching, explosions and gunfire. The near hysterical pace at which the Korean reporter was shouting the news only added to the canned sound effects. All in all, it sounded overly dramatic and made me wonder just how most Koreans perceive the war, if this is all they hear about it.

The past week, I’ve spent mostly in front of the television – glued to the constant coverage of the war. We get CNN in Ulsan and I’ve been alternating between that and Korean Arirang TV and Japan’s NHK (both English-language channels). Many are concerned here with the pace of events in the Persian Gulf, and wonder whether it may foreshadow a similar campaign on the Korean peninsula in the future. There has also been considerable debate over the Korean government’s decision to send a battalion of Army engineers to Iraq to aid in the reconstruction of the country after the fighting has ceased.

This past week has also marked the arrival of the Hwang-Sa or ‘Yellow Sand’. Every March, as the wind patterns shift, sand from the Gobi desert begins to drift eastward over the Korean peninsula. The sky has changed to a murky brownish/yellow tint that partially obscures the sun. It’s meant that the air quality in Ulsan over the last few days has been fluctuated from bad to terrible and neither Amy nor I have wanted to spend much time outdoors. We’ve also taken to wearing our super-sexy facemasks while walking to school. Luckily these winds will last only for a couple of weeks.

Anyway, I hope to write more shortly. Hope all is well with everyone.

Tuesday, March 18, 2003

This past weekend was an interesting one for sure. Bright and early Saturday morning, Amy, Megan and myself and our friends Will, John, Leigh and Rick motored out of Ulsan northwards towards a little town outside of Daegu. Cheongdo, famous for little else, is home to an annual bullfighting festival that draws crowds from across Korea and competitors from around the world.

It was a grey and drizzly day and our spirits were a little dampened – the prospect of sitting around outside in the wet and cold was not very appealing, festival or not. Luckily, as we drew closer to our destination, the sky lightened and so did our moods. Navigating in Korea is always a bit of a challenge, but with our trusty phrasebooks, our pigeon Korean and by pantomiming horns on our heads, we were able to stop and ask for directions to the festival grounds.

Parking our cars in a field of identical Hyundais, we walked to the Festival entrance much to the delight and amusement of many of the Koreans that had gathered. I think the sight of seven foreigners must have been a bit of a novelty in this neck of the woods. As we headed onto the site, many new (and some familiar) sights and smells greeted us. This included large pigs roasting on open spits, monks chanting and the sound of drumming coming from the arena.

We headed into the stadium, which was circular and built up on a large mound of dirt. Much like a Roman coliseum, the seating ringed a downwards-sloping incline - down to a dirt arena about 75 yards in diameter. A large video display was off to one side. We found seating close to the entrance and settled in. The crowds filtered in steadily, as a growing line of buses unloaded their occupants.

As we sat waiting for the action to start, two security guards roped off a large section of the bleachers around us. I guess were we sat was then designated as a foreigners’ section and as Koreans tried to sit down, they were quickly shooed off. While the arrangement gave us clear sightlines of the arena, we all felt pretty uncomfortable by being singled out in such a way.

After a brief ceremony to bless the arena, the action got underway. Two large bulls were led out by the nose into the middle of the arena. The animals were huge, roughly 800 kg apiece. Their two handlers let them loose and for a moment they just glared at each other. Then, with heads down, they charged each other, locking horns in the process. And, that’s how they stayed... and stayed.

With the exception of a few brief flurries of activity, which drew great cries from the crowd, the bulls stayed pretty much still – each jostling for position. The handlers stood close by and screamed and yelled encouragement. I think initially we all were expecting a little more action. The match lasted for at least an hour, and unlike Spanish bullfights none are killed. The match is over when one bull breaks off and runs away and is then declared the loser.

We watched several more matches, this time Will and John and I left the safety of our roped off bleachers and headed down to the pits that surrounded the arena. From ground level, the action was much more intense. You could see the raw power in the bulls as they wrestled each other. Clouds of steam came off their bodies as they snorted and stamped the ground. Their foreheads became bloody as they gored each other with their horns. Despite this, the bulls rarely receive any permanent injuries from their bouts.

After several hours, we wandered back into the festival grounds to find some lunch. The activity we had seen in the morning had multiplied and the grounds were now swarming with people. The food stalls were all open and hawking their wares, which included parts of cows I would have never dreamed you could eat. Stalls had sprung up selling everything from creepy-looking dancing dolls to folk remedies for disgusting skin conditions. It was interesting just walking around and seeing what was on offer.

Later, we went back into the stadium and the fights were now in full swing. The stadium was packed and people had settled in to see the action. The wandering vendors were now offering soju and beer for sale. About mid-afternoon, the matches were halted. As this was the first day of the weeklong festival, local dignitaries were ushered on stage to say a few words. The arena filled with banner-carrying children and overhead, parachutists with fans on their backs buzzed the stadium. Thousands of coloured balloons were released into the air to officially kick off the event.

Wanting to avoid the crowds, we left the festival soon after. All in all, it was an interesting day and an experience I think I will remember for a long time.

For some pictures of the Cheongdo International Bullfighting Festival, check out www.burslem.ca/bullfight

Monday, March 10, 2003

Life in Ulsan has settled into a frustrating holding pattern, waiting for the weather to turn. Spring feels like it's just around the corner, as the days get longer and the evening are shorter. But, the temperature some days still remains frigid and when the wind is blowing South or East down from the Siberian air mass, it's bitterly cold. I read recently about an interesting phenomena in Korea during the transition from winter to spring - supposedly, the weather will follow a fairly predictable seven day cycle known as samhan saon (literally 'three cold, four hot'), where you get 3 cold days and then 4 progressively warmer days. This pattern repeats itself throughout much of March and April and is remarkably consistent from year to year.

Another interesting weather phenomena is just around the corner as well. As the winds shift, they will pick up a fine yellow dust from the Gobi Desert and blanket the Korean pennisula for several weeks in late March. I hear from some of the other expats that the air quality gets so terrible that most people just try to stay inside. Already, we've got our friend Will scrounging a couple of painting masks for us from the Hyundai Shipyard. It may be overkill, but I guess it's best to be prepared!

Anyway, enough ramblings about the weather. Our weekends continue to be busy. Amy, Will and I (or "Layme", "Camel" and "Cando") had our first go at being the hares for last weekend's Hash run. Basically it meant driving to an open spot up the coast from Ulsan and hiking out into the woods - all the while laying a trail of flour behind us, including all kinds of false trails, dead-ends and switchbacks. Hopefully, we would find our way back to where we started. It was an unpleasant day to begin with, grey skies and rain, so trudging up and down through the fields and hills hefting big bags of flour was a challenge. But we enjoyed ourselves as best we could and managed to lay down a pretty decent trail.

Sunday turned out to be a far cry from the day before, it was a beautiful hot and sunny day (enough with the weather comments, already...). There was a good turnout of hashers and our hash was well received, though it turned out to be much shorter than when we had laid it the day before.... Oh well, people seemed to have a good time and we rewarded with the obligatory down-downs at the end of the run - as were Megan and John being that they were hash virgins

Much of the enthusiasm for the shorter hash run was in no doubt due to the large majority of people who were recovering from the Hyundai Foreigner's Compound's annual Mardi Gras party the night before. It was a fun event with lots of masks, beads and of course, beverages consumed by all. We were also treated to some delicious Cajun cooking and it was a relief to have a meal that didn't come with a sidedish of kimchi!

This past weekend was notably understated, and was spent mostly just relaxing. Saturday night however turned out to be yet another chapter in the continuing saga that is "Amazing Soju Adventures" or "Things that happen when you drink Soju." The evening saw us starting with a couple bottles over dinner, which turned into several more bottles as the tableful of Korean guys next to us insisted on buying us more, and finished with a couple more bottles and some drunken crooning at a singing room until 5:30am with the Korean guys from the restaurant. Sunday was mostly spent recovering from the night before, but I did make it out in the afternoon to another ultimate frisbee game.

That's about it from our end now... though next weekend's adventures will likely include a bullfight, so stay tuned!