Okay, okay, so it’s actually the Africa Cultural Center, but I’m Canadian and I staunchly refuse to change how I spell words like “neighbour”, “cheque”, “colour” and “favourite”. I’ve already been forced to adapt my Canadian “zed” to the American “zee” at Kidsclub for our children’s sakes – when I sing the alphabet song and I accidentally end with “x, y, zed” the kids look at me like I’ve lost my mind. Haven’t I sacrificed enough?! Anyway, I digress…
Twice a year, the kindergarten students at our hagwon are treated to a full-day excursion. The first such trip during our year contract was an exhausting day at Everland, the largest theme park in Korea. Although it was great to get out of school for a day, by the end we were so exhausted it felt like we’d crammed an entire month’s worth of work into a single 8 hour day. We were excited, but also a little apprehensive, of what the second field trip would entail.
Our new supervisor Sue decided that we would spend May 14th at the Africa Cultural Centre (http://www.africaculturalcenter.com/). I honestly had no idea until that point that such a place existed in Korea – what would the Korean take on Africa be like? Our kids have a vague notion of where the continent might be on the map, but have generally had little to no actual exposure to African people or the culture in any way. Unfortunately a lot of stereotypes against African people and black people in general are alive and well here in Korea, and I was more than a little nervous at how our kids would react to an up-close-and-personal encounter with someone from Africa.
Our co-worker Sarah had actually spent four months living in Zamibia during university, so she was particularly curious at what sort of memorabilia, artifacts and cultural items would be available – would they mish mash items from different areas, or wrongly label something from the East coast as from the West coast? I was envisioning a cringe-worthy display to show Asian kids examples of all the ridiculous sterotypes of the “backwards” continent of Africa. Needless to say, my hopes weren’t exactly high for the educational outcome of this trip.
A week before the trip Sue dropped a bomb on the foreign teachers – although we’d all assumed that elementary classes would be cancelled during the afternoon of the 14th, Sue informed us that this would not be the case. Surprise! Oh, and one of the foreign teachers would have to stay behind to teach classes all afternoon while the other two got to enjoy a field trip with the kids. Double surprise!! She said she’d let us know which one of us was staying behind sometime during the following days. The three of us fumed and grouched around for the next little while, wishing she would just tell us who wasn’t going so we could at least console the person!
Sue then showed her incredible steel backbone by announcing, two days before the trip, that she was passing the responsibility of the Big Decision over to the foreign teachers. It was now up to us to decide who would go and who would stay – how cowardly. After waiting for her to make up her mind she was putting the whole thing onto our shoulders. So who should to go, and who should stay behind all day with Mr. Park and teach classes? How do we decide – rock, paper, scissors or maybe we draw straws? In the end, Dave – the kind-hearted soul that he is – decided that he’d take one for the team and stay at Kidsclub. He later sorely regretted his decision and wished he could have taken back his gallant act of selflessness, but it was too late. Okay, I know that this must sound like we blew a piddly school trip way, waaay out of proportion, but our perks at this job are few and far between so we all really want to enjoy them when they do come around.
So Sarah and I arrived at work early Thursday morning to get the kids packed and ready for the day trip. Dave’s perk was that he could sleep in until noon, and come to school for 1:00, and I was a teeny, tiny bit envious of that. We had one large shuttle bus for the teachers and the students, and after getting everyone settled, seated and buckled up we took off for Uijeongbu (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Uijeongbu). Unbeknownst to me at the time, Uijeongbu is actually the site of one of my favourite classic t.v. shows, M*A*S*H. It definitely looks a little different now than it did during the Korean War! The area is like a mini Nowon, full of tall high-rise buildings and restaurants, but there is still a very strong American military presence. It was hard to imagine bombs exploding and army tents full of triage patients dotting the landscape a little over 50 years ago…
We arrived at the African Cultural Centre just after 11:00 and we herded the kids up a steep path to the main concourse. To our right was a huge covered performance area, and to the right was a large sculptural garden and a museum. After a quick bathroom break we brought the kids into the performance area and took our seats in the middle of the front row. I was responsible for the four little rug rats in Strawberry class – Andy, Cindy, Jenny & Scott, and spent much of the next little while trying to keep them from climbing all over me like monkeys.
Once the hall was filled with screaming children from other schools the lights dimmed and the performance began. The dance company was called Aanika, and were originally from the Cote d’Ivoire, or Ivory Coast, in West Africa (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/C%C3%B4te_d’Ivoire). Four African men in tribal clothes came out carrying drums; they set up at the back of the stage and began doing some interactive drumming with the crowd. They would beat out a rhythm, and the kids would have to respond in turn, and they loved it. Then a woman came out dressed in a long white skirt and a bandeau top and she danced to the music created by the drummers. She was joined by four other female dancers, and the five performed a traditional dance around the stage. Then they moved down into the crowd and began marking people’s faces with mud. Some of our kids were actually terrified and pushed the women’s hands away – they had never been touched by a person with dark skin, and were also scared of having this strange substance put on their faces. I was a little embarrased by their reluctance, so I made a point to have my face painted so they could see it wasn’t painful or scary at all.
I apologise for the photo quality of the performance shots - many of these shots were either taken by Andy, or while Andy was trying to take the camera from my hands.
After the women finished they retreated backstage and two men came out – one dressed in long shorts, and the other in full costume to resemble a chicken – he was covered from head to toe in rows upon rows of black and yellow beads and his face was covered by an elaborate mask. The whole outfit jingled and jangled as he moved, so he created his own music to accompany the drummers in the background. He and the other man performed an intricate dance to similate a farmer and his chicken, and it was truly spectacular. They jumped, danced and wove their way around the stage in beautiful motions while we watched with awe.
Once the performace ended the kids quickly started moaning and groaning about how hungry they were, so we decided it was high time for lunch. We set up big blankets in a large common area just outside the performance shell, and the kids unpacked their lunches. Some of the parents had sent special lunches for the teachers, so we enjoyed a fantastic smoked salmon salad (that’s right, smoked salmon!!) and some chicken caesar wraps from Costco. What a great lunch!
Then we moved the kids to the other side of the performance shell, where the drummers themselves were set up at three different stations. At the first, one man was sitting in front of a large xylophone, and there were little xylophones scattered around on the ground. The kids sat on the ground and he taught them to use the mallets and beat out a simple song. He also spoke a few Korean phrases, which the kids loved to hear. After maybe ten minutes our group moved over to another man sitting in front of a bongo drums. Again the kids sat down on the ground and beat out simple rhythms along with him. It was really adorable.
Finally we brought everyone to a large area with rows and rows of huge water drums laid out on their sides. The kids lined up two by two in front of the drums, and another one of the drummers led them in a rousing performance of water drum beating. It was hilarious to see our little kids beating furiously on these huge drums with wooden sticks. I could tell they were having the time of their lives.
After a nice rest in the shade we walked over to the sculpture garden and the museum. They had an amazing array of bronze and wooden sculptures, paintings, pottery, carvings and other artifacts on display, but I think the effect was lost on our students. I had a great time looking at everything and taking pictures, but they just wandered around not really looking at anything. We walked into one room that was completely filled by a full-sized, stuffed giraffe! I had never seen anything so big before.
I slowed down to really soak in the sights, and was joined by my favourite student of all time, Andy. He is the most amazingly smart and funny child, and I definitely love him more than I thought I could love a student. He’s very inquisitive and always wants to learn, so we walked around the museum together, hand in hand, while he asked me “Teacher, what is that?” “Teacher, what is this?” We found a small room filled from floor to ceiling with beautiful African masks, and had a great time acting out the sounds some of the animal masks would make. Then we saw something that was both amazing and incredibly heartbreaking – an adult lion and his lioness, stuffed and on display in full aggressive poses. Of course, neither Andy nor I had ever seen a lion so close before, but to see these beautiful creatures displayed in such a way was very sad. We wandered around together for a little longer, then we rejoined the rest of the group just outside the museum, and made our way back to our base camp.
Our last activity for the day was to pose for pictures with the entire African dance troupe, or as our itinerary stated take “Pictures with the African”, (shudder) so we rounded the kids up and took the customary dozens of pictures for posterity. By now our kids definitely seemed a lot less frightened of being so close to dark skinned people, so I saw this as a definite sign of improvement. One of our most fearless students, Scott, actually walked over to one of the drummers who was relaxing at a picnic table and climbed up onto his lap. He played with the drummer’s dreadlocks and stroked his face – it was definitely a very touching moment.
All in all, the trip was a great experience. I think it opened our kids’ minds a little, and allowed them to experience a different culture in a very interactive and personal way. I was very sad that Dave couldn’t have been there with us, but his sacrifice meant that I got to have a great day with our kids, and that meant the world to me.
After a long and sometimes painful five month drought, the start of May brought the wonderful news of a day off from school for Children’s Day! On May 5th, Korean parents all over the country are free to spend an entire day with their children – obviously an occasion that only happens once a year, considering the work schedules both parents and children endure over here. Although some schools also give teachers and students May 4th off for an extra long weekend, as always, Mr. Park could be counted on to be much less generous. We were so happy to have an entire day off from school we really didn’t care – a whole Tuesday with no kids, no Mr. Park, and no work!
We were originally toying with the idea of visiting an amusement park or maybe the zoo, but it quickly dawned on us that a whole lot of parents in Seoul would likely be considering the very same options for their screaming children. I shudder at the thought, even now. We weren’t really keen to just sit around on our butts here in Seoul, but didn’t want to spend a small fortune for a day trip, either. I had just read an article in 10 Magazine (http://10magazine.asia/) about things to see and do in Incheon, an area only known to me for its airport terminal, and our friend Amber read the same thing and suggested we go check it out.
So Dave, Sarah, Amber, Sally, Mike and I woke up early on May 5th and headed out to the far west side of Seoul. Incheon (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Incheon) is a long, loooong way away by subway – almost an hour and a half – so we needed to make sure we left early enough to actually spend a decent amount of time there.
One of the sights I was most intrigued to visit was Incheon’s Chinatown – the only one of its kind in Korea. We arrived at Incheon station right around noon, and right outside the subway station was an enormous Chinese gate marking the entrance to Chinatown. We walked along the busy streets, and perused the many souvenir shops and restaurants, taking lots of pictures along the way. It almost felt like we were outside of Korea!
The Chinese Gate:
Dave & I:
Mike & Mr. Bronze Soldier:
Mike, Sarah, Dave, Amber & Sally enjoying a ridiculously large bowl of noodles:
Amber & Sarah:
Dave (I think):
Next we walked up two sets of steep stairs to Jayu Park – what a beautiful area! Trees, grass, bushes and flowers of every colour as far as the eye could see! It’s not something we experience very often in urbanized Seoul. We spent quite a bit of time just walking around the park enjoying a little piece of nature. The park was crowded with lots of other visitors and their kids, many of whom would yell out “Hi!” “Hello!” “Where are you from?” as we walked by.
Stairs to Jayu Park:
Beautiful Jayu Park:
Sally, me, Sarah & Amber:
Dave & Mike:
We also found a strange, rabbit-like creature popping up all over Incheon. Apparently his name is Worldee (?), and he’s the official mascot of the city. Here are just a few places we saw him:
In a flower bed:
In graffiti form:
On the top of a light post:
On an electrical box, apparently channeling his inner “Titanic”:
On the wheel cover of a police patrol car:
And on a sewer grate:
We also got a little history lesson while in the park, as we learned the Wolmido beach area was one of the original landing sites for General MacArthur’s army during the Korean War. There was a huge statue of MacArthur at the centre of the park, and also a massive stone monument commemorating 100 years of friendship between Korea and the United States. It made our American friends feel very proud.
Then we decided to head down to the beach to get some lunch, but we grossly underestimated how far it would be to walk from Chinatown to the area of Wolmido. We walked and walked under the hot sun for what seemed like eons, but was really only about an hour, before very conspicuously following a bunch of older Korean hikers to Wolmido beach. The area was similar to how I imagine the boardwalks and oceanfront areas in California – there was a big amusement park with all kinds of rides, lots of little shops and restaurants, and mobs of people just strolling along enjoying the views of the ocean.
After grabbing a quick bite to eat, everyone was eager to hit the midway. They decided to go on the Viking Boat ride, but I had to decline since I had a bad experience on one when I was a kid. During a summer camp trip to Marineland I was persuaded to ride the Viking Boat, only to become extremely sick from the motion and I spent the entire ride crying and begging someone to stop the boat. Never again, Viking Boat! Since Mike is a big guy, especially by Korean standards, he also decided to stay behind since he wasn’t sure if he’d fit into the seats. So we watched from the ground as Dave, Amber, Sally and Sarah whooped it up, screaming their lungs out the whole time. I lived vicarously through them and enjoyed it, too :)
The Viking Boat and the Wolmido midway:
Then it was off to the boardwalk, where we moseyed around for an hour or so. The girls decided to relax on the rocks for a while – there was no actual beach to be had – and Mike, Dave and I wandered around on our own. We found a stand selling fresh coconuts, of all things, and bought one – unfortunately coconut milk isn’t as tasty as I thought it would be. I happened upon a group of girls offering free face painting, and had a beautiful blue flower painted onto my cheek.
Sally, Amber & Sarah:
Flags (notice the conspicuous absence of a Canadian flag…):
My pretty flower (thanks, Mike):
By this point it was late afternoon, so we decided to head back into Seoul for the second portion of our holiday – Cinco de Mayo celebrations! The long subway ride back into Seoul felt doubly long since we were all exausted from a day outside in the sun and tons of walking, and most people fell asleep. Unfortunately Mike fell asleep holding his brand new ceramic tea diffuser, which slipped out of his fingers and shattered all over the floor of the subway car…
We met up with more friends at one of our favourite restaurants in Seoul, called On the Border (http://www.ontheborder.co.kr/). It’s an American chain that is actually very popular on this side of the world, and they offer a fantastic menu of quasi-Mexican foods perfect for our Mexican fiesta! When I made our reservation I was told that anyone wearing something Mexican could have buy-one-get-one-free margaritas, so I was more than a little excited for that. I picked up a cheap woven hat in Incheon that I hoped might pass as Mexican, and enjoyed a few extra drinks with my dinner! We had a great time, but shortly after dinner Dave and I decided to call it a day – it was only Tuesday after all, and we had to work the next morning. All in all, we had a very happy Children’s Day!
Although less than a quarter of the population is official Buddhist, Koreans and foreigners alike channeled their inner zen from April 25th to May 5th to celebrate Buddha’s birthday. The city created a really great website for the event – http://www.llf.or.kr/eng/. The highlight of the festivities happened on April 26th, when a huge street festival and lantern parade dominated one of the major intersections of downtown Seoul.
We arrived at Anguk station, near the traditional Korean area of Insadong (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Insadong) at about 3pm, and met up with our friends Desirae, Sarah, Amber, Chris and Mike.
Here are Desirae, Dave, me, Chris, Sarah and Mike – Amber took the picture:
Our first stop was Jogyesa temple (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jogyesa) which is one of five traditional Buddhist temples located right inside Seoul. It’s amazing to find these huge temples tucked away off main streets behind enormous skyscrapers and rows upon rows of high-rise apartment buildings.
The temple itself was very similar to the one we’d seen during our Temple Stay, with brightly coloured wooden ceilings and stone sculptures. Outside the temple there was a massive canopy of lotus lanterns hung overhead that apparently spelled out a Buddhist blessing when viewed from the sky. The best part of the temple was the three giant golden sculptures of Buddha inside the main hall. They were an absolutely spectacular sight.
Next we perused the street festival, where both sides of the street were lined with hundreds of booths giving visitors the opportunity to explore all kinds of different Buddhist activities. There were tea ceremonies, acupuncture seminars, lotus lantern crafts, prayer flags, woodblock rubbings and lots of other great finds. One of my favourite booths featured an interesting combination of dentistry and face painting – why the two go together, I really don’t know.
We wandered around for a bit, taking in the sights, then made our way down to Jongno Street, which is where the lantern parade was to take place later in the evening. There were quite a few stationary paper floats to whet our appetites for what was to come. We all wondered what would happen if it started to rain – how would these beautiful paper creations survive the torrential rains that often came out of the blue?
Then Dave and I met up with Anthony and Angela for dinner at a traditional Korean restaurant; well, Anthony, Angela and I had dinner at a Korean restaurant. Dave just sat and watched us eat, then he got some Burger King afterwards. He still hasn’t quite taken to eating a lot of Korean food :)
We set up camp at the corner of Jongno Street and Jogyesa Temple Street just as the parade began. Thousands of people lined both sides of the streets and watched as many more thousands paraded through the streets – it was a massive sea of people. Buddhist monks dressed in traditional robes holding lotus lanterns followed brightly coloured floats and dance troupes. Rows and rows of women in beautiful hanboks walked by, with the gentle swish of their silk robes the only sound in the air. We watched the parade continue for more than two hours, and we never got tired of the floats, the lanterns, and the swarms of people that filled the streets.
The quality of these pictures is fairly poor, since I couldn’t exactly ask the parade to stop and say “cheese”, or “kimchi” as they say here, and it was night time. Not the ideal situation for picture-taking…
It’s experiences like these that remind me of the beauty and spirituality that still exists in the midst of all the crazy, high-tech obsessiveness in Korea. This country still amazes me every day, sometimes in a bad way, but more often in a good way. I know I could never have stood and watched a Buddhist celebration like this anywhere in Canada! Although it’s sometimes been incredibly difficult to live so far from home and everyone I love (besides Dave, of course), I know the once-in-a-lifetime memories I’ll take away from times like these that make it all worthwhile.
Over the past few months I’ve become a regular reader of several of the expat magazines that are published in Seoul. It’s yet another one of those things I wish I’d known about when we fir0st arrived. The magazines provide a wealth of knowledge about things to do, places to visit and general information about life as a foreigner in Korea.
One of my favourite magazines is called Groove (http://groovekorea.com/index.htm), and is published once a month. The last few issues have consistently had an ad for a theatre show in Seoul called Cookin’ NANTA, and featured four chefs dressed in white hats and coats with food literally flying in the air all around them. I was intrigued, especially since the ad’s tag line read “More fun than should legally be allowed!” Could a theatre show about Korean cooking really be fun??
It turns out Angela and Anthony had been thinking the very same thing. We decided to bite the bullet and check it out, even though the price tag was pretty high considering our frugal monthly budget. Groove magazine offered a 20% discount for groups up to four people, so we figured the time was right. I made a quick call and reserved for four seats on Sunday, April 19th – let the fun begin!
The show was at 5:00, but tickets were handed out on a first-come-first-served basis, so we met at the theatre just before 4:00. Dave and I splurged on a cab ride from our house to the theatre, and it was well worth the extra money – we rarely ever see the city above ground, since we’re joined at the hip to the metro system, and it was wonderful to take in the sights of the city during the day. We had reserved VIP seats, which were an extra 10,000 won, and ended up getting seats B11-B14 – not bad! Here’s the theatre layout: http://nanta.i-pmc.co.kr/en/cultinfo/seat.asp. The seats were on a pretty steep grade, so we were literally ten feet from the stage.
*NB – I had our new camera on the wrong setting, so the pictures are all a little blurry. Sorry.*
Just before 5:00 the lights went down and a large projection screen was lowered in front of the stage. It explained, in very basic English, Korean, and Japanese the story behind NANTA. A wedding ceremony was about to take place, and four chefs had to race against time to cook all the food in only an hour. The messages on the screen told us to actively participate in the performance as much as possible by cheering and clapping, which we then practiced by singing “Happy Birthday” to one of the actors back stage. My inner skeptic kicked in – I had a feeling then this was either going to be a really cheesy or a really amazing show. The screen was pulled up, the theatre went black, and the show began.
The lights went up and the stage was set – directly in front of us was a small hand-held drum, a low table with over-turned metal cups, a bowl filled with water, and a large drum. Four figures walked slowly onto the stage holding candles that quickly filled the stage with smoke. Each person took to their station; the man at the large drum began slowly worked up a beat, while the man in front of the cups began chiming away with a pair of chopsticks. The woman seated in front of the bowl of water turned over a smaller bowl and used it to build the rhythm. The third man at the hand-held drum then joined in as the music grew with more and depth. It felt so solemn and even a little spiritual to watch – they were all so intent in their tasks and the sounds they created were really amazing. Now I was even more confused…this wasn’t exactly “fun”, per se, and where were the chefs??
The prelude ended, rock music started blaring from the speakers and the four people stood up and ripped off their robes - underneath were stark white chef’s coats. A ha! Now it all made sense. The cast was made up of five different players:
1. The Manager
2. The Head Chef
3. The Sexy Guy (he has a moustache and goatee now)
4. The Female (how creative)
5. The Nephew
Although this was a non-verbal performance, the actors still used a few English and Korean words here and there, plus a lot of sounds to get their point across. The Head Chef, the Sexy Guy and the Female had just arrived at work and had begun to set up their kitchen stations when the Manager walked in. He unrolled a huge scroll that listed all the foods required for the evening’s wedding reception, and there was one catch – all the food had to be complete within an hour. Just to add to their stress, the Manager had invited his bumbling, half-wit nephew to join the team of chefs for the day.
The first step was to make a soup, and the Head Chef pulled out a large rolling cart to the middle of the stage and began boiling water. This was all real, mind you, and we could smell all the spices and vegetables he was throwing into the mix. Meanwhile the Sexy Guy, the Female and the Nephew worked at stations behind him cutting up vegetables and kept time with their knives hitting the cutting boards. They would spontaneously break out various other items – brooms, plastic water jugs, pots and pans – to expand the rhythm.
Then they pulled two people from the audience to try the first course. The man and woman were outfitted in mock-traditional Korean wedding outfits and were given bowls and ladles. The four chefs then stood in a line beside the happy couple and belted out one of the most hilarious renditions of a Buddhist chant I’ve ever heard, complete with the Nephew slapping himself in the forehead with a very large wooden pole to keep the beat.
Next the chefs encouraged them to try the soup, and suddenly the sound of a very large fly filled the stage. A strobe light filled the stage as the actors moved in ultra slow-motion to try and catch the fly – their actions were all extremely over-exaggerated, and at one point the Sexy Guy smacked the Nephew across the head and the butt with the large pole from the Buddhist chant. It was so ridiculously funny. The slow-motion came to an abrupt halt, and the chefs followed the sound with their eyes and bodies, and it eventually came to land in the woman’s soup. The Nephew and the Sexy Guy quickly grabbed the man and the woman and whirled them around a few times, while the Female switched the two bowls. Then the audience got a good laugh while the man slurped up some soup which now had a fly in it.
The second course was a traditional Korean barbeque, so all four chefs pulled out their stations and began cutting vegetables like mad. Cabbage was flying all over the place, carrots were being pulverized, and all the while they were making music. It was pretty incredible. There was obvious physical attraction between the Female and the Sexy Guy, but the Nephew also had a thing for the Female, so there were several interludes of broom fighting to determine the alpha male.
Every once in a while the Manager would burst onto the scene to make sure the chefs were hard at work, then he would give his hair a quick comb-through and be on his way. During the second course preparations he came flying out carrying a huge stack of plates. He passed them along to his Nephew, who in turn gave them to the Sexy Guy, who then handed them off to the Head Chef. So began an amazing routine of plate throwing between all four chefs – they spun in circles throwing plates to each other, the Female climbed on top of the Sexy Guy’s shoulders and threw plates around, and the finale was the Nephew catching plates between his fingers in incredibly rapid succession.
The next step for the main course was the preparation of the meat. The Nephew ran out on stage carrying a fake duck, which was honking and spewing feathers all over the place. He exited the stage, feathers still flying, as the other chefs looked at each other with fear in their eyes. A huge butcher knife was quickly passed between them, the final holder stuck with the gruesome task of killing the bird.
The Sexy Guy ended up with the knife, which he hid behind his back when the Nephew came back on stage; he stuffed it into the Nephew’s hands and ran off. The three chefs watched with fear as the Nephew dragged his feet; obscene amounts of honking and feathers came from just off stage, then the Nephew re-emerged, weeping and holding a funeral picture of the duck. It was so funny! Suddenly the honking filled the air again, and the chefs followed the sound with their eyes as the bird somehow escaped the kitchen and flew away. PETA would be so happy :)
Another fight between the Sexy Guy and the Nephew quickly broke out, while the Female ran around them trying to stop yet another outburst. The stage cleared, except for the Head Chef, who gave a deep sigh and started to clean up the food strewn all over the floor. As he leaned up against the sink he suddenly slipped, and fell butt-first into a huge Rubbermaid garbage can. Now this incredibly tall and skinny man was stuck with his legs and torso sticking out of a plastic tube. He tried desperately to will himself out of the can, but he had no leverage and only succeeded in pointing his feet and arms in the direction he wanted to go. I haven’t laughed that hard in a long, long time.
He managed to turn himself over so he could scuttle around like a crab with a huge shell on its back, and made his way to the front row of the audience. He begged a woman sitting there to come up on stage and help him, but although she pulled with all her might the can wouldn’t budge. All of a sudden two little Korean boys ran on stage – one pulled at the Head Chef’s arms while the other pulled on the can. This definitely wasn’t planned, because the look on the Head Chef’s face was priceless – he was trying hard not to laugh and shoo them away. They succeeded in pulling him out, and the audience cheered like crazy. The Head Chef walked to the back of the stage and pulled out a bottle of beer he’d hidden. He was just about to take a swig when the Manager strutted back on stage. The Head Chef tried in vain to hide the beer, and dropped it into the Rubbermaid can. When the Manager got too close to the can the Head Chef did the only thing he could think of – he sat back down inside the can and got himself stuck all over again!
After the Head Chef removed himself yet again from the Rubbermaid can the other three chefs came back on stage and prepared a wedding cake, which they put into a large oven. Next they wheeled two cooking stations to either side of the stage, and brought out long conveyor belts. It was time for the mandu competition! Mandu are a Korean dietary staple (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mandu_(dumpling)), and are very similar to Polish pierogies, except they are filled with meat and vegetables instead of potatoes. The Female and the Sexy Guy walked down into the audience to find some helpers for the competition. My jaw dropped to the floor when the Female motioned to Anthony and Angela to join her – our friends were going to take part in the show!
They were given chef hats and assigned to two tasks – Angela would be filling the mandu and sending the finished product down the conveyor belt while Anthony collected the trays and stacked them at the front of the stage. It was so much fun to watch the two teams race against each other to finish the most amount of mandu. At one point Angela sent the mandu too far down the conveyor belt and the whole tray fell on the floor. Anthony, being the crafty guy he is, quickly scooped the contents back into the tray and added it to our stack. The crowd on our side of the theatre went wild! In the end our team barely lost, but it was still an amazing part of the show.
Angela and Anthony with their chef hats:
The stage clock read 5:55, so the chefs were really scrambling to complete the wedding cake. It turns out that the Nephew had forgotten to plug in the oven, so they pulled out a huge microwave and began drumming in a circle around the microwave using chopsticks. Suddenly a huge, fully decorated cake popped out of the top of the microwave, just as the clock struck 6:00. Hooray! The Manager came on to the stage to view the end results and gave everything a smug nod of approval.
The Chefs and the Manager then wheeled five enormous barrels onto the stage, and each person grabbed a huge mesh sieve. They opened up the barrels and began throwing massive quantities of small plastic balls into the audience. We definitely didn’t see that coming! After throwing out several hundred balls the actors then turned their sieves around to cover their faces like baseball catchers, and taunted the audience to try and hit them with the balls. This insanity went on for a few minutes, and quickly had us all standing up, laughing hysterically and whipping balls at the Chefs and the Manager.
The Grand Finale began with the five actors standing on different levels within the wooden stage backdrop. They pounded out traditional drumming on water jugs fixed to the backdrop, and they were back-lit to create some really cool lighting. Next they jumped onto the stage and took up posts at the huge barrels. The drumming continued at a furious pace. All of a sudden the whole theatre went black. A few moments later the strobe light came on again and the Female and the Sexy Guy had filled the tops of their barrels with water, so that each mallet strike sent a spray of water flying into the air. It was an amazing sight.
This was a truly wonderful experience – my initial skepticism was forgotten within the first two minutes of the show. I was astounded at the actors’ artistic and musical talents, and their ability to make us all laugh so hard we cried! The show has been featured on American t.v. shows like “The Today Show” and “Regis and Kelly”, and even had a stint on Broadway! NANTA is a cultural icon in Korea, as well as around the globe. We are already thinking about seeing the show again; it was just that good. Every expat living in Korea should pony up the 50,000 won or so to experience this fantastic feast for the senses. NANTA is amazing!
Dave, me, Angela & Anthony after the show:
This promo video, while a little long, gives a really good overview of the show. If you’d like to take a peek at clips from the actual show, fast-forward to about the 1:15 mark to see the introduction ceremony, knife drumming and the Grand Finale, or go to the 6:00 mark to see what the show looked like on Broadway. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0XQ-hFrhE_Q
A little while ago a woman named Erin left a comment about my Cirque du Soleil post. She works for a website called Ruba (http://www.ruba.com/) and said that the company was interested in featuring my blog on their website. Ruba features a wide array of travel guide posts from all around the world, and they really liked what I’ve been writing about life in Korea! So I’ve given them permission to post exerpts from danormansinkorea that will show my name as the author, and will have a direct link back to the blog. I’m so excited – I can’t believe people are actually interested in what I have to say! My guide isn’t up yet, but I’ll post here again once it’s been linked. I am officially a :
The doldrums of winter have finally passed, and with April comes warmer weather, beautiful sunny days, and lots of reasons to get out of Seoul! In a matter of a week or so we moved from sweaters and winter jackets straight into shorts and t-shirts (well, at least for Dave). Korea’s version of spring is similar to Canada – one day it’s cold, then the next day it’s hot. One thing Korea is known for is the massive country-wide blooming of millions upon milions of cherry trees. We had been told it was quite the sight to behold, and had been anxiously awaiting a trip that would allow us to enjoy the experience.
The Travel and Culture Group we joined on Meetup.com planned a great trip during the weekend of April 4th and 5th, 2009 to head to the east coast for a two-day bike tour. Dave and I jumped on board, joined by our friends Angela and Anthony. Our intended destination was a small city on the southeast coast of Korea called Gyeongju (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gyeongju), a very popular tourist area known for its extensive cherry blossoms during springtime.
Originally the trip organizer, William, planned on renting one bus for 40 people, but the response he received was so overwhelming that he ended up renting a second bus. In total we had almost 80 people on board for the trip! The organizers on Meetup.com provide their time without receiving any compensation, and have to deal with the aggravation and complaints that can arise when trip details fall apart – as an event coordinator in my Canadian life I have a lot of respect for what these people do. Organizing and running a trip like this is not an easy feat to pull off in your free time!
The plan was to meet up at Seocho station in Seoul at 10:30pm on Friday night and to head out by 11pm. Of course there were stragglers who didn’t arrive until after 11, so our departure was delayed…getting 80 people to do anything at the same time is almost impossible. Before our arrival we were given the choice of which bus we wanted to take – the “party bus” or the “quiet bus” – ideally I wanted to go on the “not-a-raging-kegger-but-not-an-AARP-convention” bus, but that wasn’t an option. Party bus, here we come!
The people on the party bus took the moniker to heart, and brought tons of booze for the three hour trip from Seoul to Daegu, where we would spend the night before continuing into Gyeongju. Cheers went up all through the bus as we left Seoul, and the drinkers settled in quite quickly to their business. I definitely don’t have a problem with drinking, but these people were just stupid. They obviously had very little foresight, because they failed to take into consideration that drinking + riding on a bus with no bathroom + 3 hour non-stop trip = disaster. Within an hour they were begging the poor bus driver to pull over so they could pee, and their complaints grew louder as the trip continued. It was pitiful. The bus driver finally got the hint and stopped at a rest station, and the drunken revelers made a mad dash for the bathrooms. I think they learned their lesson because the drinking cooled down substantially after that :)
We arrived in Daegu (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Daegu) at about 3:30 in the morning, and we were all anxious for a good night’s sleep. Our plan was to stay at a jjimjilbang in Daegu until morning, and then travel by bus for another half an hour or so to Gyeongju. I wrote about the Korean jjimjilbang at length back in December after Jocelyne and I visited the superb Spa Plus in Icheon, but I had yet to sleep in one…Not only do jjimjilbangs give the public access to hot and cold water baths, steam rooms, saunas and relaxation areas, they also offer up separate and common areas for people to sleep. It’s pretty ingenius, really – for around $7-10 you can relax at the spa, enjoy the facilities, then sleep for a few hours before heading out.
The jjimjilbang we stayed at was called Goongjeong (http://www.goongjeon.com/index.html) - I’ve perused the pictures and the place looks pretty fantastic, but our only reason for being there was to sleep so we didn’t really get to enjoy the facilities. We arrived and were given the customary cotton shorts and t-shirt to wear, and then were directed to the change rooms. Dave had never been to a jjimjilbang, and he and Anthony were both a little tipsy, so Angela and I were understandably a little nervous that they wouldn’t find us again. We agreed to meet in the hallway outside the men’s changing area, but when Angela and I returned a few minutes later only Dave was there. Apparently Anthony had wandered off somewhere and Dave couldn’t find him. Let the fun begin.
It was then that we found out just how big and labyrinthine this jjimjilbang really was – we wandered around in circles for about half an hour before deciding that Anthony was a lost cause – the place was just too big to find him. There were massive common areas and smaller closed-off rooms full of sleeping people, plus there was the possibility that Anthony had gone into one of the many pools, saunas or other men-only areas, and we weren’t about to send Dave in on his own for fear we’d never see him again!
We decided to let Anthony fend for himself and found a smaller private room where we would camp out for the night. At the jjimjilbang, as in most Korean homes, people do not sleep in beds, but rather lay out mats and comforters on the floor, and use a small plastic block for a pillow. It’s not a bad way to sleep, but the Koreans also have an affection for ondol heating, which rises from the floor underneath and slowly broils you from the underside. We finally settled down to sleep at about 4am, and by 4:30 we were all up again because we’d broken out in sweats – North Americans just aren’t used to sleeping in these kinds of conditions. Added to this fact were the dozen or so other people in the room, many of whom began to snore unceasingly and mutter in their sleep. After about an hour Dave gave up completely and left the room to sleep somewhere else. I found out a few hours later that he ended up sleeping on the astroturf outside! At least he was cool :)
We were up again just after 8am, having only had about an hour or so of semi-decent sleep, and then had the task of trying to find Anthony before the bus left at 9. Again we wandered around the corridors and common rooms trying to find a needle in a haystack. We finally found him huddled up in the fetal position against a wall, with no blankets at all and looking mighty uncomfortable. What a night. We gathered our things and groggily boarded the bus for the short trip to Gyeongju.
We arrived in Gyeongju just before 10am, and William led the group down a gravel driveway to a large storage unit which housed dozens upon dozens of bikes. I had expected to get a dinky, 20-year old rusted piece of metal with a big basket in the front and pedal brakes, but instead got a fairly new mountain bike with a working gear shift – what a surprise! The group then rode together to the centre of the city where we took some photos before dispersing for the day. William handed out city maps, which were completely Korean, and instructed us to meet him at the jjimjilbang at 6pm – beyond that we were completely on our own to navigate our surroundings. It was a little scary to be turned loose in a foreign city, but also really nice not to be part of a rigidly structured trip where we are herded around like a flock of sheep.
The road to Gyerim:
Group photo just outside Gyerim forest – Anthony, Angela, Dave and I are crouching in the middle of the front row:
Angela, Anthony, Dave and I decided to head into Gyerim (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gyerim) first, where we saw the Cheomseongdae Observatory, which is the oldest astronomical observatory in eastern Asia and dates to the 7th century (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cheomseongdae). From our little pictoral map we had assumed the building was enormous, but it couldn’t have been more than 30 feet high. The building is made of 362 stones which represent the number of days in the lunar year, and the base comprises 12 large granite blocks to symbolize the months of the year.
Cheomseongdae Astronomical Observatory:
The Gyerim area was beautiful – the long stone walkway leading into the forest was flanked on both sides by huge fields of flowers and a hill to the north covered with cherry trees. It made for quite the picturesque sight! We biked through the forest, taking in the sight of dozens and dozens of flowering cherry trees – when the wind blew through them the air became filled with little white blossoms fluttering to the ground.
After Gyerim Forest we decided to bike over to Bomun Lake, which looked to have a lot of sights to see. We deciphered the map and headed along a major thoroughfare towards the east side of the city. Dave and Anthony were pedalling quite a ways ahead of Angela and I when suddenly I saw Dave standing beside his bike with something in his hand. As we got closer we realized that he was holding the pedal and arm from the left side of his bike! The whole thing had just fallen off mid-stride – obviously a quality piece of craftsmanship.
The guys managed to flag down a couple of Korean guys who were also biking towards the lake, and they tried to bash the pedal back into place with a rock, which had little to no effect. They called the number posted on our bikes, and asked for a repair man to come give us a hand.
The repair man was incredibly apologetic; he fixed the bike in about 30 seconds, and then we were off again. It was a long haul to get to the lake area, but it was well-worth the effort. We stopped quickly for a bite to eat, and then wound our way down a path that would allow us to bike right along the lake’s edge. It was absolutely beautiful – water on one side, a lush green park on the other filled with cherry trees.
We had just started on our trip around the lake when, once again, Dave’s pedal fell off his bike. He was starting to get visibly frustrated (understandably) but we found another very nice Korean man who called the bike company again and asked for a repairman. For some reason the company said they couldn’t send someone out to help, so the man led us back up the path towards the restaurant area where he found someone with a tool kit. He fixed the bike himself, and after many thanks from us, we were on our way again.
The pathway along the lake was full of people enjoying the lovely weather and the scenery. It also made navigating through the crowds a little difficult, since Koreans take absolutely no notice of you when you ding the bell on your bike – a well-known signal that means “move out of the way!” At one point Anthony was stuck behind two Korean women and he dinged his bell constantly for a good minute and a half, but they still didn’t even look behind them or attempt to move out of the way. From then on the four of us worked in tandem – we would all ring our bells one after the other again and again whenever we got into a big crowd, and that seemed to get people’s attention :)
The busy paths around Bomun Lake:
It was getting late in the afternoon by this point, so we decided to leave the lake area and head towards the group’s designated meeting spot. Although most people were staying in another jjimjilbang that evening, the four of us had splurged for a private motel room so we could get a good night’s sleep. We were to meet at the jjimjilbang at 6 and then we’d all head out for dinner together.
The road leading up to the jjimjilbang was very steep and unrelenting; after biking for the previous six hours and having had little to no sleep the night before we were walking along side our bikes within a few minutes. The road was absolutely packed with cars, and the entire hill was a complete parking lot. It was then that we had one of the most amazing experiences we’ve had in Korea. As we trudged up the hill people in their cars began waving at us. At first it was one or two, and then it became constant – we felt like movie stars! Little kids were clambering around in cars waving at us, people honked their horns as we walked by and someone in literally every car rolled down their windows and said “Hello!” It was an incredible feeling.
We arrived at the jjimjilbang and meet up with William, who told us there was a bit of a problem with our motel reservation. Oh boy. He had been trying to reach the motel manager for the last hour, but no one was answering the phone, and apparently there was someone already staying in our room. He said we could still go down to the motel and try and sort things out ourselves, but since we don’t speak Korean it didn’t seem like a viable option. Angela, a little delirious from lack of sleep and a lot of time out in the sun, just started laughing hysterically. What else was there to do??
William said we could stay in the jjimjilbang (http://www.hanjeung.com/) with everyone else, and that he’d refund the extra money we’d paid for the motel the next morning. What choice did we have? We accepted the inevitability of spending yet another night trying to sleep in a jjimjilbang, and decided to try and make the best of it. We headed back into the city for dinner, and then took a stroll through Gyerim Forest. It was a cold but beautiful night, and the trees looked like they were covered in snow in the moonlight.
Cherry trees at night:
We got back to the jjimjilbang around 11, and we were all anxious to set up camp and relax before getting some much-needed sleep. After changing into the jjimjilbang garb we headed up to a huge private room that William had rented for the group. We picked a nice quiet corner of the room, turned on Anthony’s iPod, and just vegetated.
This blissful feeling was short-lived, however, when William came in and informed us that the enormous room (which could have easily fit the entire group) had been reserved for women only, and that we’d have to find space elsewhere if we wanted to be with our partners. Good God almighty, if this wasn’t the final straw for me. I was royally p’d off, to say the least. We packed up all of our stuff and headed back into the common areas of the jjimjilbang, which were all fully packed with sleeping Koreans. We tried the same-sex rooms, but they were full, we tried the DVD room, which was hotter than a sauna and also full. We were starting to think we’d have to sleep in a hallway somewhere, we were getting that desperate.
We decided to go outside and have a drink to relax and figure out our next move. We were all angry, frustrated and tired. We’d been promised a nice private motel room with beds, but instead were wandering aimlessly around a jjimjilbang trying to find some small piece of floor where the four of us could sleep.
A little while later Angela and I sneaked into the men’s-only room so we could at least sleep in the same area as Anthony and Dave. Angela and I headed up first and picked out a few empty floor mats, but within minutes we were back outside. The room was at least 30 degrees, and it was full of men snoring louder than I’ve ever heard in my life. We just wanted to sleep!
It was then that I made the executive decision that we were going to sleep in the private room William had rented – to hell with his rules. The room was 2/3 empty, for crying out loud! We picked a couple of mats near the wall, and laid out blankets for the guys. Dave arrived a few minutes later, but said that Anthony was going to try and sleep in the men’s room. Angela was not impressed, considering he went A.W.O.L. the evening before. We covered Dave’s face with a blanket, just in case one of the other girls in the room woke up and saw a guy in the room, and fell fast asleep.
Daylight came far too early the next morning, especially since many of the women in our room decided to get up at 6:00 to go with William on a quick trip to a nearby temple. Dave woke up early and went up to the men’s room to sleep a while longer, and Angela and I managed to fall asleep again until about 8:00. I think we could have slept for much longer than that, but the group was heading out for the day at 9:00 so we didn’t really have much choice.
We relaxed on the deck and enjoyed the morning sunshine, and then we tossed our bags back on the buses and grabbed our bikes. The bike rental company had come the night before and brought a replacement bike for Dave, so he was now the proud recipient of a bumblebee yellow mountain bike. We hoped he’d have better luck with the pedals this time…
All 80 of us headed out in a long line down the main road towards one of the largest Buddhist temples in Korea, called Bulguksa (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bulguksa). William had said to follow the road until it ended in a “t”, and then turn left, but shortly before we arrived at the “t” I noticed a large group of people had turned left onto a small side street and were heading into a residential area. Dave was near the front of the pack, so I immediately started thinking that he was riding down this side street. I stopped at the entrance to the street, and a woman rode up to me and said that a guy hadn’t turned around and was still riding the wrong way. Dave. Awwww, man….
As the rest of the group rode on without us, I rode down this side street to find Dave. I kept riding and riding, but didn’t see him. I decided to head back to the entrance off the main street and wait for him there. So there I was, by myself in the middle of no where, with no cell phone and no Dave. I had the maps, but had no idea what to do next. After about 15 minutes of sitting around, Dave rode up from the main street. He had been waiting for me at the “t” all along – he’d never even turned down the side street! While I was riding around looking for him, he went all the way back to the jjimjilbang looking for me. We missed each other by mere minutes. Well, at least we’d found each other again.
We assumed the group was going to go up to the temple, and then head back down the same street to go back into the city. We waited at the “t” for a good half an hour before accepting that they weren’t coming back that way. I checked our map and saw that there was an alternate way out of the temple that would lead to the south end of the city, and we figured that was their likely path. The road up to the temple was steep, so we walked our bikes up and met a few people from our group. They had gone to the early morning temple trip and were going back to the jjimjilbang for their bikes, but said that the group was still at Bulguksa.
The temple grounds were packed with cars and swarms of people – how were we going to find Anthony and Angela again?! We wandered around a commercial area right outside the temple with restaurants and souvenir shops, and ran into a few more people from our group. They said they hadn’t seen anyone else in quite a while, but that we should head up to the temple itself and look there.
We rode up to the temple gates and did a quick scan of the area – not a foreigner in sight. Fantastic. We were about to head into the temple when one guy from our group named John appeared out of no where. He said he’d arrived with our group, but had become separated from them inside the temple grounds. All of a sudden he found himself completely alone, and he was just as happy to find us as we were to find him. He’d been looking for any sign of a foreigner for about 15 minutes, but had had no luck and assumed that the group had already left. Foiled again!
We decided our best option was to make a hasty exit from the temple and try to catch up with the group, who could have been no more than 15-20 minutes ahead of us. If we biked as fast as we could we might catch up with them before too long. Even though we were literally at the gateway of one of the most beautiful temples in Korea we turned around and sped away in the hopes we’d find our friends again.
We made our way back towards the city centre and found the terrain quite enjoyable – it was either slightly down hill or relatively level for most of the ride. Our poor, aching bums and legs definitely appreciated the easy pace. We followed a major thoroughfare all the way from the far south end of the city directly into the centre; the views definitely weren’t spectacular, but we were really trying to catch up with the group more than take in the sights.
We completed the 20km bike back into the city in just over an hour and a half – we were booking it! The day was getting warm, and we hadn’t eaten since early in the morning. Back in Gyeongju proper we biked around looking for somewhere to grab a bite to eat. Dave was adamant about not eating Korean food, so our choices were limited. By chance we stumbled across a place called “Mom’s Choice” that advertised a menu full of fried chicken and hamburgers – heaven for Dave! He dug into some mozzarella sticks and a chicken burger, and directly after that meal he crossed the street and ordered a pizza. He was definitely craving some Western food :)
At this point it was almost 3:00, and our plan was to meet our buses at 3:30, so we made our way back to the rendez-vous location and waited for everyone else to show up. In the end, it turned out that the entire group was still at Bulguksa when we arrived earlier in the day, and by rushing off to catch up with them we actually ended up being ahead of the group. It just seems to be the way things work sometimes…
On the whole it was a great weekend – the scenery was beautiful and it was fantastic to get some fresh air and exercise while enjoying the sights. These trips never fail to deliver a hefty dose of obstacles and setbacks, but it definitely forces us to be extremely patient and to roll with the punches! This crazy, confusing, and often beautiful country never ceases to amaze me.
More cherry tree shots!
I’ve added more pictures to the Lunar New Year post, and to the ten thousand Australia posts – scroll down and check them out! Videos should be up next…..keep your fingers crossed :)
Dave’s one lucky guy. His birthday is on January 25th, which was also smack in the middle of the longest holiday weekend we have during our entire Korean stay. Although the holiday is for the Lunar calendar, which no one in Korea actually observes, the country takes two full days off of work to spend time with family and friends, which for us meant a four-day weekend! WOOOO HOOOO!!!
We’d toyed with several different plans – visiting a ski resort, maybe hopping over to Japan for a few days – but everything was either really expensive, or booked up, since literally the entire country travels somewhere during Lunar New Year. We’d been told that the volume of traffic leaving Seoul would be like the Chuseok holiday back in September, but even worse, and that many families spend the holiday at ski resorts or out in the country.
Our co-teacher Sarah said that she was planning to head down to Busan (also known as Pusan, depending on your reference – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Busan) to enjoy a few days away from Seoul, so we decided to join her. Busan is at the almost the southern most point of the country, and is the second largest city after Seoul. While metropolitan Seoul has about 24 million people, Busan has a measly 3.6 million – it’s like Seoul’s little baby sister. It’s best known for its beautiful beaches, which we would not be enjoying since it was January, and its enormous fishing industry. Our real objective was just to get away from Seoul, and to enjoy exploring a new city for a few days.
As is always the case with these adventures, we had to leave at the crack of dawn to catch a bus out of Seoul. Irony of ironies, we woke up at 4am to find it was snowing – of all days to have snowfall! We met up with Sarah and her friend Mike at the Seoul bus terminal at about 5:30, only to find that the next bus wouldn’t be leaving for Busan until 8:30. Sweet. The boys grabbed some fast food (how guys can eat that disgusting food before the sun rises is beyond me), and we just hung around and killed time until our bus arrived.
Since it has only snowed three times this winter (sorry to everyone back home, who have had a billion inches of snow fall already), everyone in Korea loses the little driving ability they have, and the roads turn into parking lots. We left the bus station at 8:30, and in two hours had barely left the city. I had a feeling we were in for a long trip….luckily the bus driver decided to forgo the highway for some backroads driving, which likely saved us countless hours of waiting. We slept for a few hours, read a bit, and just wasted time until we arrived in Busan about 7 hours later where the ground was green and the sun was shining! Beautiful.
From the bus terminal we linked up with the subway system which would take us to our hostel in Nampo-dong, on the south-west side of the city. Busan is so cute – the whole city has only three subway lines! Awwww…..Anyway, we exited the subway about half an hour later and were completely overwhelmed by the pungent smell of decaying raw fish. Oh man, it’s something to be experienced. The directions Mike had received from our hostel were vague, to say the least: “Exit the subway, look for the seafood restaurant and cross the street. Go up the alleyway and past the kimchi pots, then turn left.” Riiiiight. We wandered around for a good half an hour before finally finding a huge cartoon map of the area, and from there we were able to figure out where we needed to go.
The hostel was only $15 per person per night, so our expectations were definitely low, but the place was surprisingly comfortable. Sarah and I shared a room with a double bed, a tv, and a bathroom with a full shower – not bad! Dave and Mike shared a room with ondol heating, so they slept on the floor, but it’s still much better than some hostels I’ve seen. The only downside was that we were on the third floor, and directly below our rooms was a 24-hour noraebang, or karaoke room. It was well used by many a drunken Korean during our three night stay.
We dropped off our bags then decided to check out the neighbourhood until the arrival of two other friends – Sally and Desirae – who had the misfortune of having to work on Saturday morning. Directly across the street from our hostel was a huge district filled with restaurants, bars, and tons of outdoor market stalls. We stopped in at a chicken restaurant and the boys and Sarah muched on some wings. Once the girls arrived we headed over to a huge bar called Hollywood and enjoyed a few beverages.
Fast-forward a few hours, and the six of us are wandering around outside looking to fill the longing urge that only Koreans and us foreigners here can really understand. Everyone has heard of karaoke lounges, but in Korea the noraebang (“norae” = song, “bang” = room) is a little different, and it’s an absolute national obsession. Instead of singing in front of a group of strangers, we rent a large room with comfy couches, microphones, tambourines, maracas and lots of flashing lights where we pick from a variety of American tunes and sing, sing, SING at the tops of our lungs! Some of my favourite choices include Bon Jovi’s “Livin’ on a Prayer”, Guns N’ Roses’ “Sweet Child O’ Mine” and Madonna’s “Like a Prayer”. Hmmm….it’s a little strange that two of the three songs involve praying – is my subconscious trying to tell me something??
Here’s Sarah, Desirae and I getting into the groove:
Anyway, time passes by incredibly quickly when singing great tunes with friends, and before we knew it it was 5am – we’d been up for close to 24 hours! We hit the hay and I slept straight through until the early afternoon.
When I woke up Sarah had already gone out with Desirae and Sally for some wandering, but Dave and Mike were still about as mobile as I was. It was Dave’s birthday, so we decided to do some sightseeing and let him pick out the evening’s activities. We met up with the girls and walked over to Busan Tower, which offers a great view of the city and the surrounding waterways. Here’s a nice picture of the tower:
And a couple of shots that Mike took from the top:
It’s kind of interesting to look at these pictures, because when we were there the area didn’t really look that densely populated, especially in comparison to Seoul, but man, there are a lot of buildings!
Here’s the gang:
Dave and I
Sarah, Sally, Mike, Dave and Desirae
After the tower we decided to go over to the Jagalchi fish market (http://www.lifeinkorea.com/travel2/pusan/21/), which is one of the largest indoor fish markets in all of Asia – it sounded pretty cool, but by the time we were done I’d vowed never to eat any sea life ever again. Sarah described it as one of the levels of fish hell, since the entire area was filled with hundreds and hundreds of tanks packed with every kind of creature you can imagine, all awaiting an untimely death.
I watched old Korean ladies pulling live eels from a tank, only to skewer them with a large metal hook and pull the skin right off the body. Oh my god, it was disgusting. The poor thing was still alive! Just because I know everyone likes visuals, here are a few more of Mike’s shots:
That crab was trying his hardest to escape certain death…..
Mmmm….doesn’t it make you hungry just looking at it?? No?!? Yeah, me neither.
Anyway, we moseyed back over to the entertainment district, where Dave picked out a samyeopsal restaurant for dinner. I wasn’t too hungry at first, but the mouth-watering smell of barbeque pork quickly pushed the thoughts of poor skinned eels from my mind. We had a great meal, then did some bar hopping until we landed at a great place called Ace Bar. The Ace Bar is known for its selection of enormous beer glasses, which come in a variety of heights:
We went for the gusto and ordered Kings, which are the largest of all the beers – they’re the huge green ones on the far left. Ironically enough, the bar didn’t stock enough glasses to serve all six of us Kings at once, so Sally and I settled for Ace’s, which are one size smaller. As an added bonus, the tables at the Ace Bar were fitted with super cooled cups that keep the beer extra frosty, and they had lights, too!
Here’s Sally, Desirae, Sarah, Dave and I just after the arrival of our first round:
Drinking from this huge glass tube makes one look like he or she is playing the clarinet, albeit a beer-filled clarinet.
After the Ace Bar we headed back to the hostel where we surprised Dave with a yummy chocolate birthday cake topped with….saltine crackers?? Yep, that’s Korea for you.
Then it was back to our favourite noraebang for some more singing and merriment to close out what I hope was a really great birthday for Dave. I know we all had a fantastic day!
Since we were out on Sunday night until somewhere close to 6am, most of us slept well through until mid-day on Monday. By the time Dave, Mike and I had roused ourselves the girls had already left for some shopping, so the three of us wandered around the entertainment district across from the hostel. It was here that I found the greatest hat ever created – I’d seen these hats worn by my students over the last few months, and had long ago decided I wanted one. I finally found the perfect one in Busan, and once I put it on my head it didn’t come off for the next 12 hours. Seriously – tell me this isn’t a fantastic hat:
It actually comes with paws that you can use as gloves!!! How amazing is that?!? I think it’s the single best item of clothing I’ve ever purchased.
We met up with the girls at around 4pm, and decided to head over to the famous Haeundae Beach, which was about a 40 minute subway ride away from our home base. We arrived just as the sun was setting, and had a fantastic view of the waterfront:
The views were amazing, but since it was late January there really wasn’t much else to do other than stare at the beach…..soooo righty-o, that was about it for Haeundae. We found a great Mexican restaurant called FN Tacos (“FN” was for “Fuzzy Navel”, but I prefered to read it as “f-n”, like a swear word :)) who served some yummy tacos and burritos, and then it was back on the subway and to the hostel.
For our final night we decided not to break protocol, and went back to the Ace Bar for round 2. Yet again, Dave conquered the King:
Later in the evening he pulled out his best Wolverine face - you’ll notice the chopsticks carefully arranged in his watch so as to give the impression of claws:
He kind of looks like a bulldog, don’t you think? What a special guy….
We also found a little G.I. Joe figurine during our wanderings, and Mike spent a good 45 minutes arranging him in different positions around the table. Here are a few for your viewing pleasure…
G.I. Joe invades the snack bowl:
G.I. Joe’s invasion fails miserably, and he drowns in the snacks:
G.I. Joe tries on a seaweed skirt, just for fun:
G.I. Joe has a smoke (check out Dave’s face in the background – classic):
And then, after seeing how little he has to live for, G.I. Joe decides to end it all using his favourite Korean beer bottle opener:
So that was our final night in Busan – after the Ace Bar we went back for a little more noraebang (after the first two nights we had shot our vocal chords, so it was a much shorter outing) and then said goodnight.
The next morning we woke up early and headed back to the bus station to check out the scheduled departures. Considering how long it took to get to Busan we quickly changed our minds and decided to pay the extra money and upgraded to a train ticket. The bullet train from Busan to Seoul would only take 3 hours, and considering that everyone who had gone on vacation during the long weekend would be travelling back home on Tuesday we decided the extra expense was well worth it. We were given standing room only seats, which meant that we stood in the little area in between compartments, but it had a tiny fold-out seat that we shared during the trip. We were all completely exhausted, so there really wasn’t a whole lot of conversation on the trip home.
Even though we did little more than sleep, eat and bar-hop, the trip to Busan was by far one of the best experiences I’ve had during the seven months we’ve been in Korea. We really bonded with our friends, and shared some fantastic memories. We’ll never forget the Lunar New Year holiday, and Dave will always have an amazing birthday weekend in Busan to remember!
Friday was family outing day – we left the Normans really early and headed about two hours north-west of Sydney into the Hunter Valley wine region (http://www.hunterweb.com.au/). I love winery tours, so to partake in one with family members who looooove wine just as much as I do was so much fun. Here are a few shots to show you the landscape:
The area was a lot more….hmm….rugged? Lush? Exotic? I can’t quite find the right word, but it was like Niagara-on-the-Lake but on a much grander scale. What a beautiful place to have dozens upon dozens of wineries! We stopped in at the tourist information centre to pick up an area map before plotting our course for the day.
Stop one was Tulloch Wines & Cellar Door (http://www.tulloch.com.au/) where we enjoyed our first tastings of the day. We all had specific goals in mind: Julia was on the look out for blush wines, Tony was searching for the perfect port, Dan tasted all the reds, and Dave and I were just happy to drink some great wine that didn’t cost an arm and a leg! Since Cheryl was the designated driver for the day, it was her job to enjoy the many hilarious quips that Tony uttered throughout the tours. Just a few from later points in the day included “I can’t feel my legs”, and “The lines of demarcation have been drawn”. Needless to say, Tony enjoyed himself quite a bit :)
Stop two was the Audrey Wilkinson Vineyard(http://www.audreywilkinson.com.au/), which offered fantastic views of the entire valley. I particularly enjoyed the wines here, so we picked up a bottle for the road.
They had a beautiful hilltop where you could look down into the valley below, so we took a few shots (sorry, they’re of people, not the valley….)
Yes, I am wearing clothes…
Dan and Julia
Next we drove over to Lindemans winery (http://www.lindemans.com.au/), which is one of the larger vineyards in the area. They had a fantastic tasting area, plus Dave found a great selection of sauces and chilis made with different wines.
By this point we’d all had quite a few samples, and it was high time for lunch. We stopped in at Potters Hotel & Brewery (http://www.pottersbrewery.com.au/) for baked brie and beer fondue, cajun chicken pizza and a fantastic chicken salad. All this plus beer tasting panels for the boys, and more wine for the girls. Lots and lots of wine and cheese – aaaah – I was in heaven :) This is the kind of life I could get used to!
Next we sipped some bubbly at the Peterson Champagne House (http://www.restaurantcuvee.com.au/) and stopped in at The Hunter Valley Chocolate Company (http://www.hvchocolate.com.au/) where we bought some delicious honeycomb chocolate. This was a day of indulgence, if there ever was one. One of the best finds was the Small Winemakers Centre, (http://users.hunterlink.net.au/~dddil/winemakers.htm) which features smaller boutique wineries that aren’t large enough to open their own shops. They had a beautiful pond behind the building where we relaxed for a few minutes and took in the scenery. The last stop on the booze cruise was the Bluetongue Brewery (http://www.bluetongue.com.au/). By that point Julia and I had had more than our fill of wines, so the boys enjoyed one last sample of beer before we called it a day. The cars had been filled with bottles from most of the wineries we’d visited, plus sauces, chilis, chocolates, and other delectable goodies. We fell fast asleep for the whole trip home, and then spent the evening relaxing with the family. It was a fantastic day.
Although we’d prolonged it as much as any human can delay the passage of time, day eight had finally come – the end of our Aussie Adventure already! We definitely ended with a bang, though – Julia and Dan graciously volunteered to wake up at the ungodly hour of 5 to drive Dave and I into the Blue Mountains (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Blue_Mountains_(Australia) for our day of canyoning fun. We booked a tour of the rainforest canyons through a group called High N Wild (http://www.high-n-wild.com.au/) and chose a full-day adventure called “Twister & Rocky Creek”.
We arrived just before 7 and met up with our tour leaders, Paddy and Ian. We were given a brief overview of the day’s plan, then were told to pick out a wetsuit. Oh, and by “pick out a wetsuit”, they actually meant try one on. To get a full account of the difficulties of putting on a wetsuit, please refer to the earlier post when we went scuba diving. Needless to say, I was not impressed that I had to squish my body into a dry rubber suit at 7 in the morning. We also got helmets, harnesses and water bottles, then headed out in an extremely rickety 10-seater van. Soon we left the comfort of paved roads and headed deep into Wollemi National Park where the “roads” were more potholes than anything else. On the way to our launch spot we actually saw a couple of kangaroos hopping around in the distance!
After about an hour’s drive into the wilderness, we dropped off the van and got suited up. Our motley crew included two American girls and their Aussie-born father, three British guys travelling around the country, and a guy from Vancouver who was in Australia to surf. Wetsuits on for the second time during the day, we trekked down a steep slope to the bottom of the valley where we walked along the floor for about 20 minutes.
Our first stop was Twister Canyon, and there was no easing into this one – within five minutes we were jumping off three meter high cliffs into icy cold natural pools. For someone who’s afraid of heights like I am, this was pretty huge – I couldn’t believe I could actually will my body to jump off a cliff! We swam through huge caverns and slid down rock waterslides – it was so, so fun. We got to the biggest jump of the day – about 6 meters high – but it was a little too high for me. I slid down the waterslide and watched Dave take the plunge – it took him about two to three seconds to hit the water and boy, did he yell on the way down!
There were quite a few tricky bits where the water wasn’t ver deep but the rocks were incredibly slippery and we had to either scramble up or down steep slopes. At one point they actually clipped us into a harness and we had to abseil down a small cliff….for me it was more like hang on to the rocks for dear life while inching my way down the sheer rock face. Shortly thereafter we stopped for lunch at the top of Rocky Creek and we were starving! Our adrenaline had been pumping all morning, and it was quite a workout to walk through the cold water over such uneven ground. The guides brought a fantastic spread for lunch – fresh rolls with tuna or ham, plus all the fixings including tons of avocado and cheese. Have I mentioned how much I love cheese? It was delicious!
All our time standing and swimming in cold water, plus our extended stop for lunch brought on some serious shivering and teeth chattering on my part, so one of our guides had me put on a thick thermal shirt under my wetsuit, plus a warm woollen hat to keep me warm. Eventhough they quickly became soaking wet once we wer back in the water I found myself much warmer thanks to the extra layers.
Rocky Creek also started off with a bang – directly beside our lunch stop was a large drop into a huge pool, but we were told that jumping in would more than likely break a leg or two since there was a large boulder just below the water’s surface. Instead we made our way down through a slippery rock tunnel and then it was back into the frigid water. We laid on our backs and just gazed up at the sheer rock walls on either side that were covered in ancient moss and vegetation. It was truly a beautiful sight. We were then joined by a rather large water dragon (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Australian_water_dragon), who swam with us for a while. Very cool :)
The canyoning adventure ended all too soon, and then it was time for the grueling hike back up to the van….and by grueling I mean excruciatingly painful, since my legs were like Jell-o and I didn’t have an ounce of energy left. I literally crawled up the last little bit, and had to stop every few feet for water. I’ve never felt so out of shape in my life! Back in the van we were all exhausted but so ridiculously happy for having completed the adventure – it was by far one of the most amazing things I’ve ever done.
What a great way to end a fantastic week in Australia – I wouldn’t have changed a single moment of our time down under, and hope to go back there again soon! We are so grateful to Dave’s Uncle Tony, Aunt Cheryl, Julia and Victoria for welcoming us with open arms into their home for a week, and for some of the best memories I’ve had while travelling abroad.
Day 4 – New Year’s Eve! It was hard to believe that our trip was already almost half over. We decided to spend the first part of the day in true Australian style and laze around on a beach. We set off with Julia and Dan at around 8:00 and headed out to Manly beach, just north of central Sydney.
As is the case with any ocean-front area, parking was at an absolute premium even though it was only 9:00, and we spent about 10 minutes driving around various side streets trying to find a spot. We hiked it back down to the beach and wow, was the view ever spectacular. It really took my breath away. Beautiful waves crashing against a sandy white beach and the hot sun above us – amazing. Here are a few good shots of the area, although they can’t do it justice:
Anyway, we walked along the length of the boardwalk looking for a good place to set up shop, while I gaped at some of the ultra bronzed women on the beach. They were likely my colouring at some point in their lives, but had since burned to a nice, crispy brown that looked remarkably like cow hide. It’s no wonder that the skin cancer rate in Australia is so phenomenally high. Cheryl told us that the highest SPF for sunscreen she can buy is 30! 30!! I generally wear 50 or higher when I go out in the sun, although I’m a little hyper sensitive about excessive sun exposure.
Directly across from the centre of the beach was an area called The Corso, which was another pedestrian-only zone filled with lots of shops and restaurants.
Although we’d only been up for a couple of hours, Dave saw a kebab restaurant and just couldn’t resist the call of the shaved meat. He sat there, mowing through a big, greasy kebab at 10:00 in the morning in true Dave style. We grabbed a waterproof camera at a pharmacy, then headed back down to the beach for some well-deserved lounging.
We layed out our towels and took in the beautiful views all around us, then decided to hit the water. By that time Julia’s friend Renee had joined us, so the five of us waded out into the water for some body surfing. The waves were pretty big at some points, and I was thrown around a few times when the waves caught me off-guard. It was so amazing just floating out in the ocean – the water was cool, but not cold, and was a nice relief from the hot sun.
So after my earlier rant about sunscreen and burned Australians, I think it’s important to detail how my own day of sun exposure turned out. Yes, I am a bit of a hypocrite. I completely forgot to put sunscreen on one very important and delicate area – the tops of my feet. Oh boy, did I pay for that mistake. Even now, the top of my right foot is still very, very red, and you can actually see the outlines of my index and middle fingers where I spread the sunscreen down my shin. Unfortunately I stopped a few inches too soon, and ended up looking a little like a burn victim for the rest of the trip. Dave also managed to procure the inevitable “stupid burns” – he fried the backs of his knees, the tops of his hands and his ankles. I also got quite a hefty burn on my scalp, but that’s kind of inevitable, as I can’t exactly slather on sunscreen in that region.
Anyway, we decided to go for broke and blew all concepts of eating healthy at lunch – we had fish & chips from a little restaurant in The Corso, and topped it off with a scoop of home made ice cream with hot fudge. Delicious. No wonder I put on so many pounds during this trip…
We headed back to the Norman’s just after lunch so we could get ready for New Year’s Eve celebrations. Julia and Dan were visiting friends for a party, and Dave and I were spending the evening with Tony and Cheryl down by the water. I was so excited to see the Sydney fireworks in person – I’d heard so many amazing things about them, and had seen clips of it on the news before, but to be there to see it live was pretty special. The city of Sydney actually has a website solely devoted to the New Year’s Eve celebration – http://www.cityofsydney.nsw.gov.au/nye/ and you can tell just how much planning and thought must go into this event.
Unfortunately Victoria wasn’t feeling well, and ended up staying home for the evening, but the rest of us departed around 4:00 to pick out a good viewing spot. Tony parked the car and we hopped on a shuttle bus that took us to Boronia Park, which offered great views down the Sydney Harbour. Until then I hadn’t realized that the fireworks are actually simultaneously set off at seven different locations along the length of the Harbour, and our spot would give us a great view of four. Take a look at this map – http://www.cityofsydney.nsw.gov.au/nye/VantagePoints/default.aspx - on the far left side you can see Cockatoo Island and Woolwich Road on the mainland – that little green strip of parkland is exactly where we were.
We brought blankets, plus a bunch of coolers filled with drinks and food. Before leaving Cheryl had checked the city website, which said very explicitly that no glass bottles were allowed in any open area. We dutifully obeyed, and didn’t bring any bottles of champagne, beer or wine, although we did have a box of wine for dinner :) When we arrived, we found that every single group of people all around us had tons and tons of glass bottles. D’oh!
Since we had many hours to kill until the early fireworks at 9:00, Dave and I decided to go for a walk. We wandered up Woolwich Street for a good hour before realizing that there was absolutely nothing to see there other than houses. Not a grocery store, or a shop of any kind, and boy, was it hot. Back at the park we stopped in at the Woolwich Hotel for a drink, and then wandered back down to our blankets for dinner. We had a great meal of cold cut sandwiches, cheese and crackers plus some wine, then we relaxed and enjoyed the sunset. The view of the sun on the harbour with boats slowly cruising along was absolutely gorgeous.
As the evening wore on an older Aussie fellow beside us delved further and further into his whisky, and started shouting obscenities at a group of Lebanese 20-somethings sitting right beside him. It was a little embarrasing to hear the continuous string of racial slurs this guy could come up with. But, as Tony would say, this guy was a classic red-neck hick, or “bogun”, as they’re called in Australia, so we tried to ignore him as he screamed things like “If I had a machine gun I’d mow them all down”. Oh, and he was there with his wife and kids. Classy.
We were, however, treated to a magnificent sunset – here are a few shots:
Around 8pm we went back up to the Woolwich, and Dave managed to smuggle two beers out of the bar before the bouncer caught us, which he and Tony enjoyed just before the early fireworks began at 9pm. I have to say, I was thoroughly impressed with the kiddie version of the fireworks, so I couldn’t imagine what was to come at midnight. After the first round was complete and dusk set in, there was a large parade of boats decorated with lights in the shapes of huge sea creatures that wound its way throughout the harbour. It was amazing to watch.
Time seemed to stop in between 9:30 and 11:30 – we were so excited for the big midnight show, and it seemed that the universe wanted us to endure each excruciating minute until the final countdown to its full extent. I’m used to watching the ball dropping in Time’s Square, so was a little surprised when there was no countdown or huge lead up to the actual stroke of midnight. All of a sudden a single firework was let off into the darkness, and then the entire sky lit up in a blaze of glory. It was dazzling and overwhelming – there was literally too much for the eye to take in. We watched as the display was set off simultaneously down the harbour with pinpoint accuracy – the timing was impeccable. The Sydney bridge was lit up from one end to another with the full rainbow of colours. I really can’t put the experience into words. It was really magical. After a full 15 minutes of complete awesomeness, the finale was completed and the crowds began to sing “Auld Lang Syne”. We exchanged hugs and wishes for a Happy New Year, then set off towards the shuttle that would take us back to our car.
Unlike most major cities like Toronto, Sydney was incredibly well organized in planning this event. As soon as the fireworks finished a fleet of dozens upon dozens of city buses pulled up and began shuttling people away from the epicentre. The total time from leaving the park to pulling into the Norman’s driveway was 45 minutes. 45 minutes!! I assumed, from experience at Canada Day events back home, that we’d have been stuck in traffic for hours. Hallelujah! Back at home we celebrated with the bottle of champagne I’d picked up at Dan Murphy’s, then everyone went to bed. Happy New Year!
On New Year’s Day we were a little limited on our sightseeing options, since many of the tourist spots (outside of beaches) were closed for the day. Victoria and Cheryl wanted to do some shopping in downtown Sydney, so we decided to tag along and head over to the Sydney Tower. Along the way we made a pit stop at another fantastic beach – Bondi Beach. It’s probably the most tourist-y of the Australian beaches, and is well-known for its lifeguards who wear the little speedos (or banana hammocks, or budgie smugglers – Tony has many euphemisms for the male bikini).
Although it was only mid-morning the sand on the beach was boiling hot and the sun was beating down on our heads. Tony, Cheryl & Victoria dropped Dave and I off at the boardwalk and we meandered on our own for a bit. The beach is very large, and the sand was beautiful – like a sun bleached bone. Here’s a good shot:
We had only planned to walk along the beach, but there were some great waves and Dave couldn’t resist the urge to do a little more body surfing. So he stripped down to his skivvies and I took some videos of him frolicking like a dolphin in the surf. He definitely had a great time.
We only stayed for about an hour, then joined up with the fam and headed into Sydney. I was excited to check out one of the shopping landmarks, called the Queen Victoria Building, only to find that it was closed. Booo. It’s a beautiful Romanesque building right in the centre of downtown that apparently has a lot of great stores:
Oh well, it wasn’t meant to be. We had a nice lunch at the Three Wise Monkeys tavern on George Street, and then wandered over to the Sydney Tower. This was the third component of the Discovery pass we’d purchased at the Aquarium, and is very similar to the CN Tower in Toronto (http://www.sydneytower.com.au/). It wasn’t nearly as spectacular as the CN Tower, but it was pretty cool, and gave us great views of the entire city of Sydney. We actually had the most fun at the souvenir shop, where we both picked up really snazzy Australia rugby jackets and I got a new bag. Woo!
Later that evening we had a fun night out with Julia, Dan and Victoria at a local restaurant called the Hillside Tavern. It was a very relaxed day, and we definitely enjoyed the downtime!