Published: November 18th 2008November 18th 2008
It amazes me that even the strangest of things can eventually become routine over time, even some of the most un-routine things. Even looking back some of the writing from previous entries, what happens outside of plans and schedules and itineraries and outlines are the things that have, more or less, morphed into being what we call our everyday life, if that is possible. This week seemed to be a snowball rolling down a hill of unexpectedness, starting off on Thursday afternoon.
I had heard the entire school staff was supposed to go on a field trip to a town on the East Sea (or Sea of Japan on some maps, but NOT the Korean people). Outside of being vaguely informed, and I need to chalk this one up to my feeble memory, it pretty much slipped my mind in lieu of the million and six things needed to be done in order to teach. Somewhere in between making telephones for my fifth grade class and worrying about an ‘open class’ I have coming up, Mr. Kim popped up out of his chair five minutes before two o’clock in the afternoon, and asked if I was ready to get on
the bus. Sure enough, I glanced outside and there was a huge, purple, coach bus sitting in the parking lot just outside of the gym doors. Ready or not, it was time to go.
After milling around the outside of the bus for a while, I was told to head to the back where some of the teachers were already seated. At the special request of the vice principal, a few seats were rearranged and a table was placed in the aisle. Not after too long were boxes loaded on, opened, and spread out on the table. Sitting on the table was more beer and soju than I could imagine, tangerines, beef jerky, and some type of dried fish product, like fish or squid jerky. I knew I was going to be in for quite a night.
The principal and vice stood in the front of the bus as it pulled away, turned the house microphone on and made some announcements. They instantly came back to our section for the first “Kon Bae!” (cheers) of the evening. We had a two hour drive ahead of us, a tour of a school in Gangneung, and a nice dinner overlooking
the sea. Things eventually settled down after the initial, energetic, drinks and seemed a nice ride through the beautiful mountains of the eastern half of the country. I can only describe them as a wonderful mix of our Rockies and Appalachians; dramatic and majestic (Rockies) while being completely tree covered and populated (Appalachians). Just for good measure and because of it’s proximity to the sea, I’m willing to throw in a sprinkle of the Cascades, but that’s it, no more. Regardless, it’s a very beautiful area and I can see myself exploring more in this region while I’m here. (i.e. Yongpyong Ski Area!)
We then navigated the busy back streets, nearly scraping our sides to find this school. We shared some coffee ‘sticks’ with their principal while he spoke of the positives of his school. It was told to me that the school had over 2,000 students alone, and needed to open two different satellite schools. The size and scale of an operation like that is wild. It didn’t last all that long and we were back in the bus en route to our restaurant before I knew it.
We followed a beautiful coastline of beaches to an
unassuming restaurant overlooking the harbor. The town is larger than I’d first imagined and is known for its fishing and quality harbor. Naturally the seafood here is second to none, which I was excited to check out. After a few pictures with the staff and principal on the beach, it was off to the soju… I mean seafood.
As my luck would have it, I saw an anxious principal waving me over to sit next to him. Quite an honor for me, but I had visions of keeping my dignity in front of the entire staff. Rather, we were exchanging glasses and shots of soju, pouring for each other, the Korean custom, before the first side dish hit the table. In fact, once everyone was poured, he made sure everyone quieted down, and had me toast, ‘Kon Bae!’ to everyone. It was going to be one of those nights.
Side dishes galore, I feel like I should talk a little about what we ate. The area is known for raw fish, literally coming out of the sea perhaps only hours before it is prepared. The initial dishes made me wonder if I should drink more soju before I
indulge, or just cowboy up. There were shrimp, complete shrimp, not the prepared, de-eyeballed, de- feelered, de-pooped kind of shrimp I am used to. These little guys looked as if they were sleeping on the dish, everything still intact. There was a large black shell, dwarfing the plate it sat on, with what was described to me as clam meat with spicy sauce drizzled over the top… remember, it’s all about presentation. The first thing I was encouraged to eat was a kind of ocean snail, in the shell, and looked as if it could spring to life and slither away at any second. The technique was to get a pinch of the meat at the opening and kind of untwist it out of its former home, give it a little dippy dip, and enjoy. Which I did. I must say, after I got over the strange sights, the food itself is great. The featured cuisine on the menu was puffer fish. It wasn’t found in my little pocket dictionary I have with me (all the time) and seeing some of the lady staffers try to act out a puffer fish, after a few drinks, will most definitely pass in
front of my eyes before I meet my maker.
“Very expensive, little bit spicy, little bit poisonous.”
“Hmm… I can’t say I’ve ever eaten poisonous fish. How does poison taste this time of year?”
Actually, that is 100% correct. The poison is removed in the preparation of the fish, and more than one person explained how rare and expensive it is. I most definitely enjoyed eating my first poisonous animal.
Exhibit A: Soju is a much better English teacher than I could ever be. (stay tuned for my ongoing assessments)
I think my master’s paper topic will be on alcohol’s effect on breaking down the Korean language barrier. I say this because, outside of the male staff on nights out, Mr. Kim, and my Korean teacher Migyeong Jeong, I have had very little conversation. Oh, but not tonight… no, not tonight. I had all kinds of talking with all kinds of people, most of whom I thought were truly frightened of me. It was a riot. I think the entire reason for these trips is to create good will and cohesion among the staff. Teachers must change schools every five years, national law, so the events
must play an even larger part for the teachers than for someone in my role.
The trip home was an episode straight off of Korean Idol. The bus had it’s own karaoke screen, which we all rocked out to. Note to self… singing Dancing Queen was a big hit; do that again, sometime. The trip back must have taken twice as long with all the bathroom breaks at the rest stops along the highway. To me, I was in a Kareoke time warp. We got back around midnight, and needless to say, everyone was a step slow the next morning for Friday’s classes.
Exhibit B: Soju is a much better English teacher than I could ever be.
I had to attend school Saturday for a short time. Every other Saturday, all Korean schools are in session for a half day of classes. Today was a special, open class for all the parents. The principal asked me to come for a while in order to be introduced to the group of attendees. I figured it was going to be a smaller crowd, he would possibly mention me in passing, I would bow to the crowd, and everyone would
move on. Not so much. The cafeteria was decorated with flags and coffee was ready for the parents. It was liken to an opening ceremony for the day than an introduction. A short period into the talk, I was asked to step forward while I was being introduced. Again, I recognized only the words Montana, Northern Iowa, and Jon Wick… proof that my Korean studies have a long way to go. Everyone clapped and the microphone was offered to me. This is probably the first time I addressed a group numbering in the hundreds, that probably wouldn’t understand a word I said. So I said a little ditty about myself and threw out a “Pon Gop Sum Nida.” Yeah, that’s right… “Nice to meet you!” How do you like them apples?
Back to the point, Mr. Kim is in the process of studying English and working with a program that will allow him to travel to Australia over winter break to study there. Apparently, he was indulging the previous night, while someone from the program called him to evaluate his recent lessons. He said that he apologized many times to the person, but the lesson continued, soju or not.
He received his grades, and they were at or above his previous marks! Gamsa Hamnida, Soju (Thank you, soju)!
One of my favorite past times in the Rocky mountain west is to visit different hot springs; developed, undeveloped, whatever, it is just a nice way to relax. Saturday afternoon, we wanted to check out some local hot springs that we’ve heard good things about in the neighboring city, Icheon. I haven’t heard of any hot springs to be natural, i.e. Goldbug- Weir- Jerry Johnson hot springs in Montana and Idaho, pools simply built from rock, so I wasn’t too surprised when we came upon a large, super new hotel. Walking up to the ticket window we already knew we were in for it. Like a fish out of water, we started our patented dancing/acting/hand gesturing/one word communicating to the receptionist that seemed to have pulled the smallest straw (literally, as we walked up we saw the other girls point to her and she came over to our window).
We managed to get a ticket, talk to another worker to get our locker key, and find our shoe lockers, a feat in itself without even seeing any hot water
yet. The men’s and women’s tubs were together, and we were instructed that they were all separate, but we saw pictures of families enjoying the facilities, so we thought we could manage to find each other, and we actually did. But to tell you how we got to that point, I’m going to let you into my head for the first fifteen minutes of this experience. Good luck…
“Okay, I gotta go upstairs. Nothing’s in English, just follow that guy, he has a bag probably for a swim suit. This must be the locker room. HOLY… that guy is totally nude. Oh my gosh… everyone is totally naked. Just find your locker- you understand numbers. What is with all these naked people? Maybe I’m by the showers or something. There’s my locker, I’m grabbing this stool to sit on. Don’t sit too close to that naked guy, that could be weird. Do you think those guys will change into… nope… those are birthday suits. I’m not sure if I’m quite ready for this. But that picture had a whole family together in suits, so there’s gotta be an outside pool or something. Ok, let’s just take a little walk
around this place and get a lay of the land. Naked… more naked… That hot tub has green water, like neon green water! It looks like a giant pool of Ecto-cooler, sweet! OH Yes!! He has a suit on! Thank god, it must exist somewhere. He has an orange suit and a pony tail, see where he goes. Does that tub have orange water? It looks like lava, I better check that out. Ok, he went through that door. Now I can change. Good, I got my suit on. No one has towels so I’ll leave mine here. Here goes, the one whitey in a world of nude Koreans. Cool, the green tub smells good. That must be the sauna, those look like different temperature tubs, I gotta go through this door, outside, still nude city. Wait, feel that orange water, made sure it isn’t lava, then go through the door you saw pony tail go through. Cold Water Cave, interesting. Yes, I’m outside! Yes, suits everywhere! Yes, women, yes suits… I win! Wait, is that black water? Brown water? Green water? Green water it is, let’s see how bathing in Hi-C would feel like. Ahh… My mind is tired,
but this aromatherapy bath smells, looks, and feels soooo good! Boy, I think I just made like ten thousand decisions, I hope things went that well for Cass.”
A few minutes later I saw a stunned Cass pop through a door and search the area as if she just landed on mars. I waved her over and she joined me in the pool resembling Slimer from the Ghostbusters movies. It turned out we had the exact same thoughts at the exact same times and did the exact same actions because of it. Regardless we made it, and we were much more comfortable now.
After a while, we decided to explore the different pools, it turned out that the black pool was coffee. This actually came right out of my dreams, and the dreams of many satisfied Starbucks consumers. We immersed ourselves up to the neck in giant nonfat, organic, extra hot cappuccino with no foam, and it couldn’t have been better. I couldn’t help but think of my childhood vacation to Disney World and the famous teacup ride… makes you think they could improve that ride a little, don’t you think? We also hit up the ginseng tubs,
the wooden tubs, valley bath (a rock tub that looked like a lazy river with no current), and then we were confident enough to take on the inside… you know what that means.
Yes, I had to dive into the lava, which didn’t have any distinctive oder to it, but I got in and that’s really all that matters. The inside green pool, wasn’t an aromatherapy pool like the outside pool was, this highlighter ink colored pool was actually mint. I got in and was swept away to a world of never ending peppermint schnapps. I’m exaggerating, imagine that, and the smell was extremely faint, I just read the word on a sign close by.
That was the end of my hot springing in Icheon. Although I have been to many ‘clothing optional’ hot springs, it still shattered all of my previous notions about the genre. I left feeling completely relaxed, revived, in search of a good mixed drink, and smelling a bit different than when I had come. I wouldn't have changed that experience for all the won in Korea!
On Sunday, Cass was going to go for a hike with Eun Hee, a teacher at
her school and I accepted their invitation to come along. Eun Hee is the lady that was so nervous to drive when we first got here, that she had someone else park her car because she was so nervous. She did fine-ish this time, I only needed to institute a ‘no asking questions when we are attempting to enter the interstate’ rule on the trip. The initial road to the trail was blocked off due to some repair, so our alternate access to the trail took us right passed the Mok-A- Museum, a Buddhist museum outside of Yeoju that I’ve always been interested in checking out. Since we were so far out of our element due to the reroute, we stopped.
This was a truly amazing little museum and the beautiful, crisp autumn day made it all the more enjoyable. You walk through a huge gate entrance and are greeted by an infinite amount of sculptures and historic relics. True Buddhas, not the ones we can buy at Pier One Imports or anything, lined the walkways, temples, the most delicate and wonderfully kept shrines gleamed in the golden sunshine, as well as other symbols of the different eras, philosophies,
and religion scattered about the property. Back home we can buy little trinkets of Buddhist items at particular places, and they are cute or pretty or whatever, but to be in the presence of it is something everyone should experience. It was, again, a feeling of spirituality that overwhelmed you walking between statues, hand made, thousands of years ago and worshipped by so many people. It is hard to put into words looking at the face of a true Buddha and envisioning people on their knees, bowed down in prayer and worship. It made me want to take a second and say a word to whoever was presiding over this land to show my respect. It was a special place, and completely unexpected since we should have been on the trail at that point. I hope the pictures I post here will do it justice, but it is hard to share the essence of that place in pictures.
Our weekend rounded off with that hike we had scheduled for the morning, but now in the afternoon. This was our second mountain to climb, much easier than the first, but a summit nonetheless. Looking back, I feel that if anyone
is contemplating a career in the forest service, or trail work, or anything along those lines, they should come and do some hiking in this country. I say this, because it was an easier hike, but there was still a section roped and terraced just to make the incline climbable, as well as a fully metal staircase two miles deep. I don’t know who designs of builds these, but Kudos to them! The climb took us 388 meters (I think that works out to like 39, 000 feet or something, right?) where there was an observation tower at the top. It was beautiful, and we could see several golf courses in each valley. (Did you hear that Jeff? Golf!) It was a very relaxing, albeit strenuous in sections, but just what everyone was looking for.
Monday afternoon Cass and I got our Multiple Re-Entry Visa so that we can visit other countries and can come back without a hitch. We are thinking about Philippians and Thailand during winter break, the month of January. We have twelve days off and looking for some recommendations. Does anyone know anything- anywhere else we could/should go??? Let us know and drop us a
line either on the blog or email! Thanks!!
There are more photos below