Sunday, December 5, 2010
Punggi Ginseng Festival in the Sobaeksan National Park of the Gyeongsangbuk-do Region As I was packing for my first ‘Korean Adventure’ tour I surveyed my available gear. I had a small day pack, a zinnia print ‘Le Sac” swim bag, a large carry-on bag. That’s typical for me - whenever I am going somewhere I often realize at the eleventh hour that I don’t have the right kind of bag that I want for my trip. I decided to take the carry-on bag and my day pack. I was traveling with a friend from work, Bridget, who teaches middle school science. We thought it would take an hour by subway to get to our meeting point at the Express Bus Terminal. As we passed station after station it didn’t take long to realize that we might miss our bus. We still had a transfer and more stops! Bridget had her cell phone with her but neither of us had thought to bring the tour company’s phone number. When we got to the bus terminal is was exactly 7:00, our departure time. We thought that at least we were at the right stop. Little did we know that we had to run up several flights of stairs and go to the other side of the large subway station to get to the right exit gate. We ran as fast as we could, but clearly we were in a deficit situation. As we made our final charge up the steep stairs we saw a woman peering down into the dark stairwell with an inquisitive look on her face. Yes, we were the two already errant travelers. We got checked off and all three of us ran to the bus. We flung ourselves into seats in the large, well-battered old bus and took naps. Later we pulled into a dusty, gritty town where we were on our own for lunch. A young Australian fellow who was a hagwon teacher came up to us and asked if we would like to go to lunch with him. He announced that his name was Simon Bean! “Like Mr. Bean,” he said. “Do you know who he is?” He had a one-man repertoire of anecdotes about his life. He chose a dingy looking restaurant and we went in. The windows were covered with a coating of dust, but reminded me of my apartment windows so it was a familiar sight in any case. Boxes were stacked at random intervals between tables and chairs. An old couple ran the restaurant. The woman brought us a tall water bottle full of cold water. As I unscrewed the lid I noticed that there was no familiar “click” from breaking the seal on the lid. Hmmm, that could easily explain the reason it listed to one side. Still, the water looked clear and was deliciously cold. There were no menus, at least not in English, so Simon ordered bibimbap for all of us. It arrived in little time on mismatched plastic dishes and bowls. It didn’t look great, but it did look OK, so we put lots of kimchi and other spicy vegetables on it and basically just ate a spicy, crunchy, rice-based dish. As Simon continued telling us about his various hijinks Bridget excused herself to go to the toilet. She unrolled some toilet paper by the door to take with her as is the norm. Her eyes were a bit big on her return...no running water in the bathroom. After lunch we still had a few minutes so we walked around part of the town. There were a number of brighter, cleaner restaurants just a few feet further down the street. After we left town we drove through a heavily agricultural area. There were mostly apple trees, each individual apple shielded from direct sun by a bright pink synthetic tissue skirt at the stem of the apple. In some areas I noticed grape vines winding between the apple trees. The clumps of purple grapes with remarkably uniform size hung heavily on the vines. I also noted a number of a very large variety of taro plants. The leaves are quite attractive and almost seemed too exotic to grow in the region. Trucks were parked on the side of the road with boxes of delicious looking apples for sale. I longed to buy a box, but couldn’t picture running through the subway with my large carry-on, my backpack, AND a box of apples upon my return! A short time later we pulled up to a large area covered with rows and rows of white tents. The Punggi Ginseng Festival! There were some very interesting displays with historical artifacts, and drums which seem to be ever-present in Korea. All 35 of us were led to one area where people were peeling ginseng roots. We were seated and each of us received instruction in peeling ginseng roots. I was handed a bamboo knife and went to work on mine. Ginseng resembles a parsnip, except that it has a number of smaller roots branching off of the main root. After quite a bit of scraping to remove the darker exterior skin one is supposed to have a beautiful, smooth, off-white root remaining. Mine looked like it had been mauled by a bear. The instructor diplomatically smiled as he placed my questionable results in a jar and instructed me to pour white wine over it, then the contents were sealed. Next we were taken to a large outdoor stage where some local residents were entertaining us with traditional songs. Little did we suspect that we were to be the next act! A ginseng peeling contest had been arranged for us to participate in. We were each given a new ginseng root and a bamboo knife. We were each asked to tell a little bit about ourselves which I really enjoyed since I told everyone (through a translator) about my wonderful grandson, Jackson, who had just turned four years old. Many of the grandparents in the audience were interested so I started to wave my arms around to get them to cheer. It was so much fun to get the crowd behind me. I, who normally am not very competitive, wanted very much to win the contest. I quickly thought about my chances, remembering the results of my other ginseng peeling experience and thought quickly. I decided that if I just scraped the areas that would be visible from a distance I might have a chance. Meanwhile, on one side of me was my friend and co-worker Bridget who had done a stellar job of meticulously peeling her first root. I decided that my only chance was to work the crowd. I got them to cheer for me, and before I knew it they were cheering and clapping for me with much enthusiasm. The judge decided that we were the two finalists. I got the crowd cheering again. Bridget’s results far outshone mine, but I kept the crowd cheering for me. The judge diplomatically called a tie, to my delight. The prize was a huge carry bag full of foil pouches of ginseng extract! Next we were given time to walk around the festival. We bought deep fried ginseng which was yummy and greasy! We saw a chewy type of rice candy made in the traditional manner. A cauldron of sweetened hot rice was poured onto a length of heavy cheesecloth. The mass was folded into the cloth and then laid onto a board on the ground. Two people, each with an enormous wooden mallet stood on opposite sides of the wrapped rice mixture. Alternately they would hoist the mallet over their head and pound down onto the mass. When it was deemed “ready to eat” we crowded to the stand with many other people to buy some of the delicious, fresh confection. Another tent displayed traditional clothing and various fabric dying techniques. Several little boys were sitting at a table each with a hammer-sized rubber mallet in hand. We watched them for awhile to see what they were doing. A base cloth was laid down on the table. Cosmos petals were laid in a design on the fabric. Another cloth was laid over this and then the boys went to work, pounding joyfully with all of their might. The result was fabric that was beautifully patterned and colored by the flower petals. I wondered how this ancient art was developed and pictured a harried and tired mother of sons giving them each hammers while she was dying clothes. Well perhaps that isn’t how it started, but the zest with which the boys wielded the hammers seemed to say a lot. We continued, sampling candies and fruits on our way to the meeting place that we had been assigned. I noticed a bonsai exhibition and couldn’t resist taking a little time to look at it. It reminded me of the time I spent at the Japanese Gardens in Portland, doing Ikebana displays. The bonsai was beautiful and I enjoyed a little time to linger over the exhibits. On the way to the bus we passed an elderly woman that was so bent over that her back was perpendicular to her lower torso. To move forward she had to be guided on both side by her relatives. In the countryside I have seen elderly people who are severely bent over. I think it could be attributed to the starvation and lack of nutrition during the long Japanese occupation in Korea. Next stop - a ginseng farm! We were each paired with a woman who was a ginseng harvester. (This was women’s work...not for the men). We went out into the fields, covered by low, long lengths of plastic to shield the plants from the direct sun (ginseng grows naturally in the woods). We were given gloves and a metal claw and off we went. My mentor was quite impressed with my enthusiasm to get into the dirt and dig like a gopher. I unearthed two fine roots so we went back to the central area to show off our results. At about that time the mayor of the region arrived. He welcomed us, amidst a number of photographers commemorating the event for the local newspaper. He gave a very nice speech which luckily was translated for us. Then we got back on to the bus and went to Seonbichon Village, a recreated traditional village where we were to eat dinner and spend the night. It had been sprinkling as we drove over there, but the clouds ripped and we ran to our rooms hopping over puddles which were forming on the sandy wet soil. We were soaked though. I was glad that I had used poor taste and brought my little suitcase because I had an extra set of dry clothes inside including a down vest!). We got our rooms which we shared with a young French college student who was studying in Seoul. The doors were paper covered on the interior, and outside of those delicate doors were heavy wooden doors on the exterior. We got blankets and pillows from the closet and organized them on the floor. We had ondol heating (heating under the floor) and were curious to see what we thought of it. Then we slogged through the dark night in the rain to go to the dining room. The food was slow to come but tasted alright. We all hurried back to our rooms in the diminishing rain. When we got back to our courtyard a number of Korean university students had checked in. They shared the courtyard that our tour had been assigned to. They were friendly and humorous and very fun-loving as they drank and danced the night away. They invited those in our group who were still awake to join them in singing and doing traditional folk dances. I was however, sawing zzzzzzzzzzzz’s and only learned of the fun in the morning. The next morning the serious hikers left for a half day hike while I joined the less fit group to go to the Sosu Confucian School and Buseoksa Temple. The temple was up quite a hill! It is one of the oldest standing temples in Korea, built in 676. Beautiful heavy wooden beams were used in its construction. The view from the temple was lovely, and it was pleasant to walk around the temple buildings and look at the various plants and trees, both familiar and unfamiliar to me. There were some very interesting drawings on the back side of one of the prayer rooms. The painting showed several men in a boat with long thin wavy throats and distended stomachs. Later I learned that it was a painting of “death eaters.” The feeling was odd and erie. I wanted to photograph that panel, but my camera battery gave out on part way up the path to the temple. Then after buying produce and herbs from local women I headed to lunch. We were served bibimbap again, however this time it was delicious! The rice was hot and fluffy, the vegetables tasted as if they had just been picked, and the fish was fresh and had a mild flavor. Being well fed we wandered back to the bus and drove about 40 minutes to pick up the hikers. Then we returned home. When we got back to Bundang we could hardly believe that we had packed all of these adventures into just two days and one night! We couldn’t wait to look at the offerings on the ‘Adventure Korea’ website so that we could decide which trip to book next!
Thursday, November 18, 2010
The Seoul Drum Festival The Seoul Drum Festival was scheduled on several days during Chusok week, at the end of September. Besides local performers there were also percussion teams from France, China and Japan. I went to see it with some friends on Saturday afternoon. It was held it a large park in the city called Seoul Forest, Lawn of Dream Forest. After we came up from the subway we only needed to follow the people to find out way to the park. There were two large areas that had stages, and there were many smaller tents, reminiscent of booths at the fair. They were set up for interactive activities for adults and children to enjoy. One could bang on a wide variety of drums. The children were having a ball. The noise was intense after awhile so we went to one of the stage areas to watch a number of Korean rock bands play. They were pretty good and so we were enjoying the warm afternoon, sitting on the grass, and people watching. We saw some other Americans there and it was interesting to us to note how much we miss the distinctive style that especially the young people have in our style of dress, walk, and “hanging out.” That made us all think of having some food to eat. American junk food would have been great, but we would have probably eaten kimchee straight since we were so hungry! We looked around, but there were no food or drink booths! I felt that someone was really missing an opportunity to make a bundle, however Koreans are rarely seen walking around with food or drink. The only exception that I can think of is during the summer some people will have ice cream bars. Even where street food is sold I don’t often see Koreans eating it on the street. Of course, when we realized there was no food we were immediately starving! We decided to go outside of the park and back to the street vendors that were by the subway stop. As we were leaving the park we realized that the parade was just beginning a few blocks away. Of course there was a lot of drumming, but there were many groups of local people who wore traditional costumes and did dances to the drumming. It felt exciting to be a part of the parade, even if we were only spectators! As the parade eventually passed we were back on our mission to find some food. There was a tiny restaurant across the street and so we ran across the street to check it out. We discovered that it was a chicken restaurant, which we had all wanted to try. Some people were getting takeout while some sat at tables outside and were clearly enjoying the food. I went over to a friendly group of younger men at the next table to see what they had ordered. They let me taste what they had ordered so we ordered the same things. The food tasted great! Food always seems to taste best when I am very hungry, and if I don’t have to prepare it myself. We ordered beers too and so we were feeling quite festive. After we finished eating, we took turns going to the bathroom, each unrolling some toilet tissue from the holder just inside the entrance of the restaurant. This is very common to see in neighborhood restaurants, and now I know the benefits of two-ply tissue over one-ply. Then we visited with the men at the table next to us a bit more. We didn’t speak any Korean and they knew only a few words of English, but we had lots of fun taking photos and visiting. We wanted to get back to the park so I ordered a round for everyone, we took ours “to go,” and headed back to the park. We went to the large performance area and saw a great traditional performance with the large wooden drums. Then to our surprise the US military gave a performance that was just fantastic. We were clapping our hands off. After a few more performances I mentioned to my friends that I was really getting cold. This was the first time since I had arrived in Korea that it was cool at night. My friends seemed relieved because they were feeling cold as well. We had really enjoyed our afternoon and evening but were ready to get on the subway and head home.
Sunday, October 31, 2010
Friday, October 22, 2010
September 23 - Chusok and storms The day before Chusok I took the subway down to Home Plus to do some shopping. I had just been to EMart the day before and loaded up on supplies, but couldn’t carry everything that I needed, thus the additional shopping trip. I enjoy shopping here, even though it can be confusing, because it is so interesting to see what delicious treats I can find. It is also sometimes a surprise to realize that what I thought I purchased turns out to be something quite different! I got some persimmons, a seasonal specialty, some yellow kiwi fruit among other things, and some delicious jiaozi. Of course I didn’t know how good it was until I came home and prepared them. I am also a big fan of red bean bao which I probably overindulge in. I was curious to see how many people were doing last minute shopping for Chusok, a harvest festival which includes visiting families and honoring ancestors. I was told that it is the biggest holiday in Korea. The morning was quiet, perhaps a bit more so than normal. I was told by a Korean woman that all of the women are busy cooking for a couple of days before the holiday. I did see some women who carried packages wrapped furoshiki style in sheer fabric of pink or yellow. These gifts come in gift boxes and can be any sort of fruit including boxes that contained three large cantaloupe-looking melons. In the stores there were candied persimmons, assorted toiletries, seaweed, tuna and so just about anything that an enterprising company will assemble into large gift boxes. That afternoon Ruby and I took a walk and it was cool and sprinkling outside. A few people were out walking or biking but most noticeable was how quiet it was. But, as time passed more and more older people showed up on the walking paths. This was quite a contrast to Saturday, a few days before, when many school children were visiting the river parks with their classes. The excitement of being free from school and anticipation of the holiday charged the kids with energy. Yesterday was Chusok. Again, it was noticeably quiet. No wonder, since from my apartment I could see the highway and freeway clogged with traffic that was moving at a crawl. Part of the tradition of this holiday is to go home to one’s parents home, which here means the husband’s parents. Nowadays though the young couple will stop by her parents home after having spent the appropriate amount of time at her in-laws. When I went to take Ruby to the river for our walk I realized that it was raining lightly so we returned back to the 23rd floor to retrieve my umbrella. Since the rain was light I chose my small umbrella over the more unwieldily large one. By the time I crossed the street, pushing Ruby in her stroller, the rain had stopped, but on the corner near the river I found myself standing, while waiting for the light to change, in a cloud of golden dragonflies. They were almost swarming around my head, but in graceful lazy arcs. I have often observed them by the river but have never been ‘visited’ by them before. By the time the light changed and I crossed the street the rain was falling steadily. I hated to give up our walk so I forged ahead. I noticed that some ginkgo fruit had fallen on the sidewalk. I like to gather things on my walks to put in my apartment. It is a way of bringing life and nature to my home. There were very few people out, mostly westerners and the rain would come and go in squalls. Eventually the rain really started to fall. I was astonished at how quickly Ruby and I were soaked. Her stroller was wet, and she was wet. Water was trickling down my legs and into my shoes because it was raining hard by then. When I came into my apartment we dried off, laid the clothing on the drying rack to dry, and watched the rain come down. The sky was very grey and the rain was falling harder and harder. Since I had been in a cleaning mood, which has become rather rare for me, I decided to try my luck at the exterior windows, which are dressed in a pretty thick layer of grit and grime. By standing on my couch and reaching out of the high window as far as I could I was able to make a number of great swipes across a rather large part of the window. It a very short time I realized that I ran the risk of the open window that I was leaning out of slamming hard against my arm since the wind was picking up. That’s when the lightning began! I decided that would be a definite signal to close the window and give up the window cleaning. Within moments the lightning was cracking over and over, and seemed to be just overhead. It was so strong that the metal fillings in my teeth started to feel strange! In only moments there was a wall of water falling and the visibility was zero. I couldn’t see past my window because the grayness and rain was so dense. I knew that there was a typhoon again in Taiwan, but didn’t expect to be on the edge of it as we had been a couple of weeks before. I was busy so didn’t worry about the storm, although I was quite happy that I didn’t lose power. This morning Ruby and I headed out for our walk and it wasn’t until I got to the river that I realized that the heavy rains and wind had really caused significant damage to the area. The typhoon a few weeks ago caused a large number of trees to fall down, and a number of signs to fall off of the walls of buildings, but this was different. There were some areas that looked like someone had been digging the sod up in the park next to the river, but I later realized that it was a combination of the water and the force that was behind it that caused the damage. Flooding water had come up the far side of the river and with it came debris, and the tearing of many grasses that were stuck in masses in fences, and the netting around the golf area. The force had even removed metal railings and even asphalt in a number of areas. I remarked how easily the pigeons adjusted to the mashed down grasses on the side of the river. I actually think that it made it easier for them to get the grain that they enjoyed eating. As I was watching them placidly eating I noticed how varied the pigeons are here. Some were grey while other were white, or black. Some had a green iridescent coloring, while some had auburn streaks. The combinations of black and white, and grey markings was really lovely to look at. I tried to see patterns in the coloring among birds, but each looked unique, like fingerprints. The magpies seemed unfazed, and were going about business as usual. The water was too brown and still moving too quickly to see any carp. The absence of the egrets was most evident. I didn’t see one. I must say though that I only saw two ducks and normally there are quite a few. I wonder if they were hiding out until thing calmed down a bit. It was strange to see the debris everywhere, decorated by the effluvia from our daily lives. One area was dotted with chunks of styrofoam, while a sliced pineapple top was resting in the matted grasses. Up on one of the railings that was still standing, packed with broken grasses was a single small glass bottle, resting right on the top. It was so precarious that I thought it was interesting that it stayed thought all of the rain and wind. Behind another clot of grasses I saw a single fish, dead and resting on its side. It was about six inches in length, and I couldn’t identify it. I marveled that there weren’t more fish that had washed up into the park. This is the first time I have ever lived so close to a river, and have enjoyed it everyday. I am astounded in the changes that I have seen there in less than two months. Sometimes the river water is clear, sparkling and one can see the river bed due to its clarity. After the last storm it looked slick and shiny, almost oily due to the strange light. Today it was swift and brown. I have looked forward to my walks on the river. As the days darken earlier and earlier I judge how far and how long I can walk in the darkness, lit by old fashioned looking globes of light. The very grasses have become dear to me. I was sad that the wildflowers seemed to have vanished, but curious about all of the sand that was swept to the shore. The air was cooler today than any day since I arrived, barely two months ago. I had to wear a jacket to stay warm. As I pushed Ruby back to our apartment I smelled a bit of bitterness and decay in the air, that seems to accompany autumn, as I walked under pines and birch trees. At the base of the ginkgo trees were their yellow fruits scattered on the sidewalks. As I walked across the carpet that they provided a lovely crunching sound accompanied my footfalls. This is my new home. It is a place that feels calm, even during the storms. The people who I meet are friendly and curious. For the first time since being here, today when I came in my door it felt like home.
Korea – More Impressions September 4, 2010
The river, which runs from south to north just across the street from my highrise is an endless source of delight to me. There are two parallel paths, one for bike riders, walkers, roller bladers, joggers, and so on, while the other one is reserved for walkers. It isn’t unusual to see as many as 15 bike riders who seem to belong to a bike group flying by in single file formation. The bike riders, for the most part have fancy, upscale bikes and the riders are dressed in gear that would make Nike proud.
People are friendly and I have had conversations with a number of people, either on the walking paths, or on the grassy areas in-between the paths. It is almost as if one can meet anyone there! I met a young man from Canada who admired Ruby. He told me that he also has a dachshund here with him. We shared a number of stories about the (lack of) adjustment of our dogs. It is always comforting to talk to another dachshund owner, rather than an owner of any other type of dog since dachshunds have their own set of (disconcerting and annoying) traits. It made me feel so much better just to know that I am not the only one going through the steep curve of adjustment that these dogs have. Pee-peeing deliberately in inappropriate spots, barking, baying and howling are a few of the difficulties. I have also lost a nice black top, my favorite raincoat, and two pair of house slippers to the rampages that Ruby has been on. Another man that I met had been admiring Ruby from afar and eventually struck up a conversation with me a few days later. He wanted me to translate Korean recipes for him into English for a cookbook that he is writing. He had lived in Harlem for a number of years while going to graduate school. Of course that would be a violation of my contract, although I’m not sure why, so I was happy that I didn’t run into him again! Most recently I met a man, ostensibly because Ruby is so cute, that was a retired Army officer. He started to walk along with me. His English was somewhat stilted but he was able to converse. As we walked along he told me a number of things about his family. Eventually he told me that his wife played golf everyday, and that he was interested in falling in love”! I told him that Ruby was enough to keep me busy!
A couple of times I saw a woman close-by to my apartment on my walks. Yesterday we smiled and nodded (fake bow) and she said ‘hi’ to me, in a soft shy voice. She’s about my age and it was interesting to see that our acquaintance is growing!
What I must say is that the Korean people that I have met are mostly very nice, thoughtful, helpful and humorous. Speaking of humorous, it reminds me of another incident involving two Korean men. My friend, Bridget, who arrived at almost the same time I did into Seoul, and I were coming back from shopping. We had so many bags that Bridget got stuck in the turnstile in the subway station. Two rather elderly men, one carrying a cane, came to her rescue, took her bags and showed her how to climb under the turnstile since her subway card had already locked her out. Amidst much laughter we finally got through, but the fitter of the two men wanted to help Bridget carry her bags….I must add that Bridget is significantly younger than I am, has a petite figure and is blonde. Being blonde is a real attraction here! So we toddled along after them with the rest of our groceries. We saw an exit sign and pointed to it, but the men were very definite that we should follow them another way. They were chuckling and giggling and as we were following them down the narrow hallway we started to wonder where they were taking us. As we began to be a bit worried we quickly conversed and both of us thought that there was some chance that they were taking us to the toilets, or who knows where. It was either loose the bags and ditch our guides, or take our chances! I guess that was a lesson for us in being overly suspicious…not a good trait. These two sweet old men were leading us to the elevator. They were chuckling with laughter because they were so pleased with themselves for helping us! Amidst much laughter and many thank yous we headed off into different directions towards home.
Another interesting thing about the walking paths is that at one point there is a sort of wading pond. It is very pretty, lined with stones in some places. The design is hard to describe, but perhaps it is like an octopus. It provides narrow, shallow places for the children to play. Curiously it is only filled on some weekends. There are lifeguards that organize the chairs, and generally watch over the area. Many small children bedecked in floats of bright shapes and colors bob around with eager and anxious parents guiding them or encouraging them in the pool. The most interesting part of the whole experience though is that many families come for the day or the afternoon and bring their tents, lawn chairs, coolers, blankets, sun hats and so on with them. For some reason I have noticed that not too many people wear sunglasses here. Anyway, it is so comical to see the tiny swimming area almost swallowed up by the plethora of the many colored tents! I feel a bit envious as I watch the families eating yummy looking treats that mother has prepared.
Another thing that I love about the river is the sound of the outdoors…birds, water splashing and gurgling , the wind rustling through the trees and tall grasses, some kind of cicada while really create a cacophony of vibrating noise. I’ve seen what I believe to be a number of egrets, magpies, sparrows, ducks; and many fish that look like carp while are large and brownish. Today I decided to start photographing the wild flowers that I see at the edge of the walking path. So many! Most of them are tiny blossomed, but range from bright blue to sunset pink, and include yellow and orange flowers as well. Today I saw what resembles a cabbage moth, but in more abundance are a smallish very pretty orange butterfly spotted in dark brown or black dots. There are many of them and it is so pleasant to watch them dancing from flower to flower.
On the other side of the river is a rather large local neighborhood, which is far more interesting than the high rise area that I live in. Cars are parked in a jumble all over the streets and sidewalks, buildings of different shapes and sizes sit side by side, some having a persimmon tree out front. People dress very conservatively. Some of the younger women wear sports clothes, but for the most part the colors are subtle. Jeans aren’t seen very often in this area. One day when I was walking over there with Ruby I noticed that a woman very close in age to me was walking down the street in a very nice floral suit. I was wearing Nike sportswear – walking gear. It was funny in a way because what I thought of was how out of place I looked here, and how out of place she would have looked in the US. A few of the young people dress in an upscale stylish manner, but in this area it is less common. What I like is seeing the local people shopping, eating, visiting, children playing. It is a far better place to shop for local produce than on this side of the river. Produce is very expensive here…think about it! A place where one buys lettuce leaves individually! For the most part, fruits and vegetables are at least double in price. I had a bad cold, a sore throat, and was extremely overheated one day as the humidity has been so high. There was no way that I could resist the cool ripe halves of watermelons displayed at the market. That half melon cost me almost $12.00. I didn’t forget its price but I did enjoy every bit of it in the next few days. A squash similar to a pale zucchini is about $1.50, carrots are about $1 each. Needless to say, I don’t throw out any spoiled produce, like at home. It is purchased and eaten carefully.
There are a number of intriguing local restaurants over on the other side of the river as well. They mostly look like family style places, many of them have the low tables to sit at and some have an elaborate network of pipes from the ceiling to each table, I believe it is to cook some of the food at one’s own table. At the small places there is a curious thing. Little cups, about the size of a small Dixie cup that appear to be stainless steel are stored in sterilizers. One helps oneself to the cup and gets their own cold water from a dispenser next to the cup sterilizer. At each table is a small stainless steel lid that is parallel to the table, and if one lifts the lid you will find that the bottom of the dish is recessed into the table top and that is where one finds the same steel chopsticks and soup type spoons. The paper napkins are tiny, and very thin. When I remove at least three in order to cover my lap, upon reaching down to use one realize that due to their thinness and lightness they have ended up all over the floor. I guess the best solution that I have heard to date is to bring one’s own napkin along.
I have been to the city twice. Without sounding disloyal, there are some attractive spots, but in general Seoul seems to have a large sprawl of undistinguishable apartment buildings and neighborhoods. It is very popular to have large banners or advertising signs plastering the front of building after building. It tends to add rather a junky air to the style. The hillsides and mountains are thick with trees and are quite impressive to look at. I am looking forward to autumn so that I can tell how many of the trees are deciduous, and how many are evergreen.
Some of the food I have eaten in restaurants has been delicious and very cheap. It seems to be an odd contrast with the fact that food in the grocery stores and neighborhood markets is quite expensive. I have only had only one horrid, and overpriced meal, which was in a known tourist area. Still it might vie for being one of the all-time worst meals that I’ve ever had in a restaurant. The sashimi was still frozen (!)…odd for something that should be fresh. The tempura had come from something akin to a COSTCO box, and the rice was $10 a bowl…I guess I should have asked! Well, that is another part of traveling that luckily rarely happens. There is a lot of fresh seafood here, and I am also quite fond of the handmade noodles that I have found only two blocks away.
Another curious thing is the take-out industry. I believe that every restaurant is equipped with elaborate bags and sealing mechanisms for one to take their food home in, as well as a number of large Styrofoam containers meant only for one use – to deliver take-out in. Young men zoom up and down the pedestrian lanes, make u-turns against the lights in the street, and park their motorcycles in the entryway of the apartment buildings as they are delivering food like mad in the evening hours. What most surprised me is that MacDonalds has their own motorcycle delivery men! I have enjoyed the convenience of take-out a number of times, but have yet to figure out phone order/delivery. The language complication makes that far more difficult.
Korea – First Impressions
Flying into Inchon Airport was really beautiful. I didn’t realize how many little islands surrounded the Korean peninsula until then. There were big textured mounds of green covering hillsides. We landed and went to the gate. I went to baggage claim to find my two suitcases (one overweight) and my two Rubbermaid tubs. My baggage was almost first down the carousel. How often does that happen? I remember far more times when it seemed that my bags came down almost last! I had two carts and was doing my best to load them with my aforementioned items as well as my laptop case and my carry-on luggage. A Korean Airlines employee came over and helped me to load my luggage on one cart and then drove the cart over the area where I was to collect Ruby. She was delivered almost straight away and then I carried her less than ten feet to a desk where a woman examined Ruby’s rabies immunization documentation, her health certificate from her veterinarian and took a look at my passport. That was it! I was free to go. Certainly this was a far different situation than both Lydia and I had experienced in China when we brought Ruby and Eva in.
I headed out of the baggage and customs area and found a sign with my name on it! That was “Shawn” who was there to collect me. We waited for another family who had two cats who were also on the same plane that I had been on from Seattle. Then we went to get another woman who had flown in from Los Angeles. Less than an hour later we were heading to the bus, my luggage going every which way and sliding into the traffic because the bags are so hard-sided. This happened twice but they were none the worse for wear. We took one of the KIS school busses across a beautiful new bridge. The water and islands as well as the peninsula were so fresh and green looking. We drove for about an hour to arrive at our apartments. “Joseph” took Bridget and me in to the ‘Paragon B” while Shawn took the family to their apartment. After having been traveling for about 18 or 10 hours it was difficult to pay attention to all of the details that Joseph had to go over with us. We had to learn how to use the keyless entry into the building, then took the elevator to the 23rd floor where my apartment was located. The entry is also keyless, but is operated by a numeric key pad. The number had to be reset to a number of my choice. Then I had to practice the sequence of keys and the proper direction to pull the handle. I about passed out when I saw the apartment. It was at least twice as small as I had envisioned! The furniture was reminiscent of very inexpensive things that are available if an IKEA isn’t in the area! Ugly and small! It made me feel a bit overwhelmed and sad. My thoughts where of the nature of “Where am I going to put the things that I just brought in with me, and what am I going to do when the rest of the things that I shipped will arrive?! Then Joseph gave me my $1200 settling money which cheered me up a bit. After Joseph left I started to move furniture. Apparently a cat had lived here before and Ruby wanted to tear the place up to find it! I was glad that the school had given us some start up gifts since my bedding was still being shipped, and it was nice to have dishes, glasses, utensils and some food to start out with. I hopped into the shower (in the tiny, but very clean bathroom to rinse off the travel dirt. Then I sat by the window and fixed cushions for Ruby to sit on so that she could see out of the window. Watching cars from that height certainly must lack the excitement that barking at dogs and cats in the Laurelhurst house had for her. Still, I was thrilled that the windows were low enough that she could see out. Our view is of some other high rises, some lower buildings (some of which are reputed to be love hotels) bedecked with bright neon lights, some roof top gardens, the main freeway north and south complete with a toll booth, and not far beyond that two beautiful ridges of hills covered in the same lovely greenery that I saw when I was flying in, with another mountain ridge visible when it is clear.
The next day was a bit fuzzy since I had a sinus headache and jetlag. We went to the school to check our email and then later went on our first shopping trip to EMart. We were pretty surprised at how expensive everything was. One of the teachers compared prices to those in Hawaii. The quality of the bedding wasn’t very good and the prices were exceedingly high. Still, even in the US things can be expensive too, especially if one doesn’t know about Target or Walmart. To obtain a shopping cart one must put a 100 won coin into a little slot that releases the cart from the next one that it is chaned to. The cart that I had was very heavy and listed badly to the left. It seemed that a number of the carts were like that so I did the best that I could by alternately pushing and pulling it and even pushing it from the left side.
That evening after unpacking my purchases I took Ruby for a walk in my neighborhood. It is a very upscale area and there are some expensive restaurants and nice shops in the area. A few people had their dogs out and I spotted a Bichon across the street. I realized that the dog wasn’t on a leash which worried me a bit because of the traffic. When the pedestrian walk light turned to green the young woman who was its owner had the dog stand on its hind legs. Then the dog put a paw in her owner’s hand and they crossed the street together. What a clever trick! It was really just adorable! As Bichons used to be famous as circus dogs in Europe I could see how one might be trained to do this.
Ruby has really enjoyed her walks. Despite the heat and humidity, tongue hanging out a bit, she gets a big smile on her face and forges ahead. When she gets tired she asks me to pick her up and enjoys her walk from that vantage point. A lot of attention is directed towards her, and I suppose most dogs here. Of course crème colored dachshunds are not often seen so her unusual breed also attracts attention. Many people want to pet her, which isn’t something that she likes very well, although she is learning to tolerate a pat or two. Last night when we were walking by the river on the walking path (there is also a biking path, both of which go all the way to Seoul (which is either ½ hour away or 1 ½ hours away by subway depending on whom one talks to) we saw beautiful golden fireflies above the marsh grasses. Later we also saw some that were either a dark navy or black color with some white bands. There are trees such as pine, willow, and something that has a similar leaf structure and shape to a cherry tree, although the cut edges of the leaves are far more frequent and compact than on the cherry trees that I am familiar with. The cicadas make quite a cacophony in the trees, and their song seems to still as I approached the trees that they were resting in.There are other plants and grasses and some day lilies and a small growing yellow gold color that reminds me of a cosmos. and lovely flowers that looked like a cross between a hollyhock and a hibiscus….saw them in China along the highways in a few places.
Walking along the river is pretty, and quite a contrast to the high rise buildings that line the streets on both sides. Many people walk, jog, or ride their bikes. I saw one young woman riding her bicycle with her dog in a front pack like Ruby’s. It gave me an idea! I also saw about eight men running in formation. It seemed like they must be a running team.
One day Ruby and I were walking past a car dealership. It was very early in the morning…around 6 or 7, and I noticed that all of the salesmen, dressed in grey slacks and white dress shirts were in formation in the showroom doing calesthentics. Very impressive. Another day when we walked by, again, earl y in the morning, they were armed with mops and brooms to clean the showroom, again in their dress clothes. As we walked along I noticed that we were shaded by some ginko trees, which made me feel very happy and lucky! They are one of my favorite trees.
Next day back to the school for some general welcoming from the admin staff then a scavenger hunt to learn the buildings…. Got our new laptops, had some complications with my name being misspelled, got my iron that was supposed to me in my flat (possibly a subtle or not so subtle hint about dress code), and then we loaded up to go to COSTCO. What a three ring circus!! Packed with people going up and down isles like there was a fire sale! Home to unpack all of our purchases – the very expensve cherries I purchased were from Wenachee Washingon! No wonder they were so expensive.!
Korea has a very sophisticated recycling program. One must purchase a cherry colored plastic bag which is only a little larger and stronger that a normal grocery store plastic bag for about $1. These bags are for general debris that doesn’t fit one of the many recycling categories. The price is to offset the disposal of unrecycleable materials, I’ve been told. There are about 6-7 stations in the recycling area and one can only guess what is to go where by what is already there since the signs are, of course, in Korean. The most interesting recycling area is that of compostable garbage. There is a small unit in the kitchen sink that looks like a shallow garbage disposal. When one finds the lid it is placed over the hole and turned. This spins whatever solid garbage is in this recess until the water has spun out of it. Then one may put their peels, pits, rice scraps and so on into a small covered container (if one remembered to buy one) which one takes, rather soon, to the garbage bin to dispose of. Yes, it does have a definite smell, but I guess it is the smell of doing one’s’ part in the recycling effort. Until the school sends someone to clean out my tiny storage closet I won’t be able to organize my recycling better. It is a tiny area that one can store things in…such as suitcases, however not my Rubbermaid bins since they are too wide. It will eventually also house my vacuum cleaner, drying rack, mops, cleaning supplies and perhaps even a bicycle if I buy one.
On Friday night we went out with the rest of the new staff to a place that the administration chose. We waited for the bus in our usual spot (here we must walk about a block and a half to catch the school bus because it cannot stop in front of the school. It was humorous to me that we went so far to an American style place that served bad pub food. I was really looking forward to some authentic Korean cuisine. Still it was fun to go out socially with the other new staff members and get to know them better. On the way home one of the young teachers showed us a food stand that had tasty treats (I tried a fish cake strip on a stick server with a little cup of fish broth! Yum! And she also showed us a tiny 24 hour restaurant on the corner that has local food available to eat in or take out. I think that I may get to know that place better as it will be very convenient to stop on the way from work to get a quick supper.
Yesterday, Saturday, Bridget and I took the subway (which has a less user friendly system than the one in Shanghai…still need to work on that) to Lotte Mart and dragged heavy bags home….we also found Zara and Louis Vittion, as well as Burberry and other designer shops. Of course I couldn’t pass up the sale that Zara was having and got a very pretty deep golden colored skirt and two of their very nice tank tops. When we went into Lotte we saw little lockers for storing ones other shopping bags in. I had seem this in China so wasn’t too surprised, although I stuffed my Zara bag into my purse, but what did surprise me were several other lockers that had rather large ventilation holes AND pictures of dogs on them! Apparently one may bring their dog to the store, but the pet must be put into the locker at the entrance!! What a surprise. Ruby would go beserk in an arrangement like that!
Last night we took a new walk across the river and to the south a bit. I had heard that there was a more local village over on that side of the river and wanted to check it out. Yes, it was true. It was enjoyable to walk past low apartment buildings, perhaps three stories high, and see some of the local shops. There was a high proportion of automotive shops and building supply shops in that small area, along with many small restaurants. There was a soccer field an the south end which was being enjoyed by some young men. It was pleasant to get away from the high rise, big city scene and only about 10 minutes away!
I finally got my computer out and started to write despite worries about the converter box… (using my own Dell for personal writings) and still no internet connection!
I also decided to try the espresso maker that Lydia had brought me from Italy about 14 years ago. It is very nice to have it since I don’t plan to buy a coffee/espresso maker like I had at home! No space for it! Though the apartment is tiny tiny tiny I am adjusting to it….so quick to clean. It is curious that in only three and a half days I am adjusting to the space. It is also a good motivator to get out and see the area. In the dead of winter though, I wonder how I will feel. No doubt by that time I will be well adjusted!
The aircon has been on 24/7 due to heat and humidity….no rain yet after three days, but very overcast today. In exploring my building I discovered a very nice patio area on the 4th floor that I could sit in with Ruby and read. There is an oversized washer and dryer on the 4th floor also, but only one for 30 floors of people! …but I still can’t find the drycleaner! Supposedly it is in one of the passageways between buildings.
Today is Sunday. I tried to call home using the phone card that the school gave us, but somehow used up half of the time allotted on the card by apparently using the wrong country code! I would double check on my computer but I don’t have internet access yet! I want to go on a walk with Ruby to look for an EMart that looks like is about ten blocks away! It will be a test on me following the map accurately.