Thursday, March 18, 2010


It's Thursday afternoon, and I'm sitting in my office at school enjoying watching my elementary school's baseball team practice from my third floor window.  (I recently moved offices to sit with the rest of the subject teachers.  It is a nicer office and the women in here speak English, so although I have a half desk and am crammed into a corner space in the tiny room, I am enjoying my new space.  I have a feeling the vice principals were worried about my lonliness downstairs...)  I am enjoying my afternoon, and since I recently told my school I would not resign my contract in August, I have been reflecting on my life here in Seoul.  

Such an amazing city!

There are days, such as today, when I am perfectly happy.  I wake up at 8am, I come to school, sing songs about "Nice to meet you," play charades, give a survey, and watch students draw pictures about their favorite types of weather.  I hang out in the afternoons until 4:40, workout, and then enjoy Seoul.  It's a really cushy life.  Yesterday after work, I attended an exciting basketball game at Sports Complex station where the '88 Olympic games were held.  I saw the KCC Egis' beat up on the Samsung Thunder (I have no idea what an egis is.)  Today, I will get an approximately $5 manicure from the women down the street while other days I indulge in $7 haircuts.  In about an hour, the women in my office will tell me "together time," and I will stand in a semi-circle of nine women while we drink tea or coffee and eat a snack (like rice cakes or fruit).  This weekend, I will watch March Madness with a friend over brunch, celebrate St. Patrick's Day with a parade, and attend a 6month anniversary party for my recruiting class of teachers. I love my life in Seoul, I love my students (particularly the one today who asked me for a thesaurus while drawing her picture about the weather), my job, the fact that there is a fresh market within a 3 minute walk of my apartment, the new cupcake store that opened up down the street with a friendly Korean lady who gives me free cookies when I buy a cheese tart, my great friends, the fact that I can buy food at a restaurant and be rewarded with multiple free service beverages, the generosity of the faculty at Gil-Dong Elementary school, the cheap shopping, the nightlife, and living in one of the largest and fastest advancing cities in the world.  It is a wonderful life, and I am incredibly lucky.

Go KCC!!

It's not the Demon Deacons, but it was still quite exciting...

Rice Cake! Although many of my friends equate this to eating Elmer's Glue, I really enjoy my afternoon rice cake breaks with my co-workers.  This is an example of what it usually looks like.  This one has red bean in the middle (my favorite!)

However, there are things I thing about that I know I will not miss when I leave later this summer.  For example, it snowed yesterday.  If I never see another flake of snow or feel the biting cold of a wind akin to something off of Siberia that will be fine with me.  I am eagerly awaiting spring (and the cherry blossoms!); however, I am quite nervous about the Yellow Dust phenomena that is about to befall me and the city.  Apparently, yellow dust from Mongolia begins to blow in the springtime.  As it goes over China, it picks up pollutants from the factories.  This means by the time the dust reaches Korea, it is a polluted and disgusting dust that burns your eyes and harms your respiratory system.  Great.  My coteachers have told me that some Koreans like to go to Mongolia and plant trees in order to thwart the dust, but I am skeptical.

Apparently, this is what I have to look forward to this spring...

Other things I will not miss include how it is socially acceptable for men and women to cough up loogies anywhere at any time.  (And I mean at ANY time).  It's particularly pleasant to hear while you are eating or right after lunch (yummm).  The fact that it is also socially acceptable to not ever cover your mouth when you cough or sneeze equally grosses me out.

One thing I miss very much from home is my gym.  As much as I enjoy going to my small neighborhood gym, it never ceases to amaze me how many people are there and not actually working out.  Although it's entertaining, recently this has started to annoy me.  While I toil on an elliptical or treadmill, I like to observe the members who strap themselves onto a board named the "inverse motorized machine" and flip upside down for an extended period of time.  Sometimes, they attempt to read the paper while hanging around strapped upside down.  My other favorite machine to observe (an there are several of them) is a machine that has a strap that goes around a member's legs or waist and moves up and down rapidly as so to jiggle your body.  Members also read the paper while jiggling their muscles.  Following their intense workout of hanging out upside down and jiggling, most members head to the sauna (which luckily has a window for more of my observation and entertainment) where I have seen members actually bring in takeout and enjoy dinner while sitting around in the sauna.  Following this spectacular workout, members can enjoy a hot cup of coffee from the machine (and sit chatting on the weight benches) or either head to the showers.  (Although I wear my own workout clothes, the gym has eliminated the issue of getting ready to go to the gym by having shelves of gym issued clothing so everyone works out wearing the same thing.  After you shower, you put on what you came to the gym in and leave your issued clothing there to be washed.)  Because I wear my own clothes to the gym and prefer not to shower communally, I head home after my workout.  I try and make my locker time brief because no matter how hard I try, the cultural issue of walking around naked weirds me out.  Women come out of the shower naked as the day they were born and don't bother getting dressed while they dry their hair or put their make-up on.  They all talk to each other while standing around stark naked.  I always have to remind myself that I am the only one uncomfortable with the situation. 

An example of the hang out upside down to workout method...

The Jiggle Machine!

My last issue involves school lunch.  I am toying with the idea of bringing my lunch, but I am seriously afraid of offending my school.  I am incredibly tired, however, of rice.  Many days this is all I eat for lunch because the rest of the food is so unappetizing.  Every single day there is rice, kimchi (fermented cabbage in red pepper paste.  The cabbage kind is okay, but the raddishh kind is absolutely horrific), and soup.  The soup ranges from hot soup with potatoes and beef (alright) to cold soup with fish and fish bones in it (not alright).  Usually, however, it involves fish and tofu chunks and seaweed in some sort of combination.  The other dishes vary; however, it usually includes something involving mushrooms, seaweed, tofu, or french fries that have sugar on them and are cold.  Some days we get meat which is nice, but the type of sauce it is in varies.  Today wasn't so bad- we had fish filets.  The fish is small and is about 60% bones.  Sometimes on fish filet day I think it might be a joke - like everyone hey look! the foreigner has to pick tiny flecks of fish flesh from between all the bones using only chopsticks! hahaha!  I have no idea how everyone around me can literally take every piece of fish from between the bones cleanly and neatly without dismembering the skeletal system of the fish.  Today was the first fish filet day I didn't swallow a bone (obviously quite an improvement!!), and my fish bones were scattered around my plate.  Here are some examples of what my plate usually looks like:

Luckily, the things I love about Seoul far outweigh my daily grievances.  It is hard to believe that I have only 5 short months left here, and I intend to try and enjoy every single day.  Happy St. Patrick's Day and have a great week!


Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Vacation in Vietnam and Laos!

Greetings from Seoul!

It is cold and cloudy, and I am sitting at my desk for the first day of the new school year.  It's my first day back to routine after two and a half months of essentially traveling around Asia, visiting home, and not working.  Lucky me, I know.  After returning from Cambodia, I spent 10 painfully wintry days in Seoul and keeping my desk warm at Gil-Dong Elementary School before heading to Vietnam on February 12th.  My friend Sam and I arrived in Hanoi that night, checked into our hostel, and were up and ready to explore the next morning.  Hanoi is a lovely city with beautiful architecture, and despite the chill (and lack of warm clothing), we spent the day seeing several markets, shopping, touring the city's old gate, checking out Ho Chi Minh's Mausoleum (Is Uncle Ho real or wax?), and meeting up with friends at our hostel.  There was a palpable energy in the air- the Vietnamese were getting ready for Tet, and after a delicious dinner we joined in the festivities.  There is a large lake in the middle of Hanoi, and people crowded around counting down to the new year with music, talent shows, baloons, and lanterns and lights strung up in trees and on the streets.  At midnight there was a bright fireworks display and thousands of people crowded the streets.  Despite the fact that I was freezing and a mere 3 blogposts ago I said I would never, ever stand outside for another new year's eve, celebrating Tet was an experience I will not ever forget.

The next day Sam and I- with multiple old and new friends in tow- headed out of Hanoi for a three day tour of Ha Long Bay.  We boarded a large wooden boat where each of the 30 or so backpackers with us were given rooms with bathrooms, a good lunch, and a tour of the floating accomodations -complete with a sundeck and a fun common area surrounded by windows so we could watch the limestone cliffs and green islands float by us.  There are about 4,000 islands in Ha Long Bay and the sharp limestone cliffs, emerald water, and lush vegetation is absolutely spectacular.  Moreover, all the boats in the bay are regulated to be the same old wooden style - something I will refer to as pirate ship style.  Although it was cool and cloudy, the mist around the islands seemed only to dramaticize the scene, and I was constantly expecting Jack Sparrow to come sailing out of the fog.  We spent a little time that afternoon kayaking to a lagoon and then on to a small fishing village, but unfortunately, the cool drizzle wasn't that inviting so we stayed inside most of the time.  Luckily, this did allow for lots of bonding time with our fellow tourists, and we spent the rest of the day playing cards, drinking cheap beer, and making new friends.  The next morning, part of our group headed back to Hanoi while the other half of us boarded a small boat that was to take us to Castaway Island where we were to camp for the next night.  Sam and I have a friend from our TESOL course in Thailand who works there for the hostel running the tour, so we were excited to see a familiar face.  That afternoon, the boys wakeboarded (Sam and I were going to tube, but who wants to tube in the cold?!) and we just hung out on the island and the boat.  Late afternoon, our friend, Anderson, took me, Sam, and Sam's boyfriend back out on the boat and we headed over to Cat Ba Island where we rented 2 motorbikes and toured the island.  We stopped to tour the Hospital Cave there - a surprisingly large and secret cave high in a mountain that was used during the war.  The cave, although long vacant, was impressively complete with a swimming pool and a screening "room."  After heading back to the island, we spent the rest of the evening staying warm, bonding with our group, and drinking more cheap beer.  When a nightly swim was suggested, I wasn't going to join in this freezing madness, but I wanted to see the electric blue glow and bioluminescence of the Bay's water at night.  When disturbed, sparkling blue specks shine up from the bottom and wash up on the sand.  Although it was cold, the blue sparkle was worth it, and Ha Long Bay proved to be stunning both day and night.

The next day, our group headed back to Hanoi, and my friends and I spent the next 24 hours indulging in fantastic (and most importantly cheap!) local street food, touring a temple (although it was quite packed due to the holiday), and stocking up on drinks and snacks for our upcoming 24 hour bus ride to Laos.  After one more day of Hanoi, 5 of us boarded an overnight bus headed to Vientiane, Laos.  We entertained ourselves with a box of wine and tried to get some sleep even though we were on terrifyingly windy roads going through mountains and what appeared to be dark, foreboding jungle. It wasn't that bad - my biggest issue was with the fact that there aren't reststops in 3rd world countries. If you have to go, you have to get out of the bus in the dark (that is, when the bus decides to rarely stop), crawl over to who knows where and pee next to everyone else who gets off the bus to pee. It's really awkward.  In the best of situations, there are "bathrooms" that normally look like something akin to a portapotty.  They never have a light and consist of only Turkish toilet (a ceramic bowl on the ground).  To add to their unpleasantness, they smell horrible and everything in the small room is usually inexplicably wet.  

Our bus arrived at the Laos border about 5am, but we stayed on the bus dozing for a couple more hours waiting for it to open.  The border is freezing because it's so high in the mountains, and it was also really windy and drizzly.  After waiting in the longest line ever to get our passports stamped, we were motioned another direction outside to get the tourist visa. The next building was at least a quarter of a mile away down a "road" that was mostly slick mud.  Large animals kept appearing at us through the mist (cows, water buffalo, roosters, you name it.)  When we finally got to the next building, it didn't have electricity so I got a visa by candlelight by two little Laotian men in a cubby.  Although I was freezing and exhausted, I was so entertained by this entire spectacle that I could not stop laughing.

We reached Vientiane about 4:30 that afternoon.  A group of seven of us decided to go ahead and try to reach our final destination of Vang Vieng so we quickly rented a van and spent the next four hours still in transit.  Although our trip was exhausting and excessively long, Vang Vieng made it completely worth it.  Vang Vieng has stunning scenery -  limestone cliffs and vibrant green vegetation line the Nam Khan river, cows and water buffalo roam the backroads, and the town is full of cheap food stands, guesthouses, exciting riverside nightlife, bungalows, and young backpackers.  The highlight of Vang Vieng, and what has put it on the Southeast Asia backpacker's trail, however, is tubing the river.  Lining the river are bars (more like bamboo platforms jutting out over the river), ropeswings, mudpits, and ziplines.  Our first full day in Vang Vieng, we decided not to tube but just hang out around the madness.  We spent the day just hanging out at the bars and watching the boys zipline and ropeswing.  The weather was nice, and we had a great time just being outside and meeting new people.

Another highlight of Vang Vieng is the caves and blue lagoon on the outskirts of the city.  The following day, our group headed out to the lagoon.  The water is shockingly blue and surrounded by lush green plants, mats to sunbathe on, and a ropeswing.  We spent awhile just lounging around the water and jumping in and out of the crystal water.  High into the mountain behind the lagoon, there is a large cave popular with tourists.  We climbed up the rocks behind the lagoon (not an easy feat in flip-flops).  There was a little light around the entrance, but I did not have a headlamp and had long abandoned my shoes in favor of being barefoot.  Anyway, by the luminous glow of my iTouch, I slowly made my way into the cave.  At the part where it gets really dark, however, the girls turned back (we were convinced caving headlampless and barefoot could only lead to injury - and we certainly didn't want to seek medical attention in Laos), and the boys went into the real cave part.  Obviously, it took me about twice as long to get down the steep rocks as it did getting up to the cave.

We spent another day on the river in Vang Vieng and another day at the lagoon (the second visit renting a motorbike to get out there - much more exciting than a tuktuk).  Our last day in Vang Vieng we also rented a little longtail boat and took an hour trip up the river which was lovely.  Water buffalo walked along the river and we passed kayakers (obviously all wishing they had a motor too).  The river was very shallow (it's the dry season) so we dragged the bottom in several instances, but luckily we made it up and down the river.  

As much fun as I had in Vang Vieng, some of my friends had already headed up to our next destination in Laos- Luang Prabang- by the time I decided to head up that way. I said good-bye to my little bungalow by the river and reluctantly boarded an all-day bus for Luang Prabang.  I spent the next eight hours nauseous as our charter bus slowly worked its way through the steep and winding mountainous roads of the Laotian countryside.  Just like Vang Vieng, Luang Prabang was completely worth the trek.  The town is a well preserved World Heritage site with beautiful French architecture, dramatic wats, and a plethora of orange robed monks walking around under large umbrellas only adds to the city's unique charm.  The town is surrounded on both sides by river - on one side the Nam Khan and on the other side the wide Mekong makes its way past the city.  The relaxing atmosphere was a nice change from the parties of Vang Vieng.

The first full day in Luang Prabang my friends and I took a tuktuk to the main waterfalls that are about 30 kilometers outside of town.  After passing through a bear sanctuary and spying on some black bears, we headed to the bottom of the multi-staged falls.  The falls have clear crystal blue pools at the bottom of each stage and all of them are great for swimming.  At the highest point is the tallest waterfall which is quite spectacular.  We spent the day splashing around the falls and jumping in and out of the ice cold water.  The rest of our time in Luang Prabang was spent just relaxing, shopping in the town's fantastic night market, touring the wats, eating (like the delicious riverweed and the not-so-delicious buffalo skin), and I spent an entire day just sitting at a cafe looking at the Mekong while writing postcards.

We left Luang Prabang on a night bus a couple days before our flight to Seoul.  We headed to Vientiane (the capital) on another charter bus full of terrifying windy third world roads.  After a leisurly breakfast in downtown Vientiane, Sam and I headed to the airport to catch a flight down to Saigon (so much for our plan to do Vietnam top to tail!) Once we reached Ho Chi Minh City, we got a guesthouse and spent the rest of the afternoon at the War Remnants Museum (which is quite moving and well done.  I highly recommend this if you are visiting Vietnam).  Unfortunately, our vacation came to an end the next morning and we flew out early the 28th to get back to Seoul. Getting home turned into a small fiasco starting with our check-in process in Saigon.  China Southern had an issue where they could not check my bag or give Sam and I boarding passes past our layover in Guangzhou, China.  Due to more ineptness on their part, my boarding pass to Guangzhou identified me as Ming, Tao.  Despite my gigantic backpack and the full sized bottles of liquids it held (including a bottle of snake wine for Dad), I coaxed my way through Vietnamese security without any problems (probably not a good thing.)  Unfortunately, upon landing in China, we had to stand in line at immigration (Guangzhou airport is apparently poorly planned and all connecting passengers must be escorted to their gates since it involves passing through immigration and technically entering China without a visa).  Immigration took our passports and made us wait in a designated area.  Other passengers kept passing us and heading with escorts to their respective gates; however, here I was with lack of onward boarding passes, the fact that Tao Ming and Andrea Vaughn obviously didn't match up between my one boarding pass and passport, a backpack about the size of one of my fourth grade students full of liquids that I had somehow squeezed past previous security, and proving to be a customs nightmare due to the fact I was holding a cobra in a bottle.  Anyway, none of this impressed the Chinese, and they held our passports from us for about two hours.  Luckily, Korean Air held our flight for us, but I ended up boarding the flight in Guangzhou after literally running to the gate (obviously it was the last one in the terminal) while being paged.  As if all the passengers on the waiting plane didn't already hate me, I was "that" passenger with the big bag that didn't fit in the overhead bin, so my backpack had to sit strapped in a seat behind me strapped in like a person.  It was so nice to finally get home. 

Despite our trip home, I had the experience of a lifetime on this vacation, and I cannot wait to go back to Southeast Asia.  I've been lucky to see so much of this region of the world, but so much of it is still unexplored territory for me, and I will definitely be back one day.

Have a great week everyone!