Thursday, December 31, 2009

Week 14 Update

Welcome to Ellen's New Year's resolution number one: posting on the blog more often (at least once a week). I am making it public so that all you faithful readers can hold me to it! There's still plenty to tell everyone about regarding our adventures in Korea, so I have no reason to be so unenthusiastic about blogging. Hopefully I haven't lost all of my readers during my recent lackluster performance.

Now that we've made our pregnancy public knowledge, I can start publishing updates about Baby's (and Mommy's!) growth on here. Today is the end of the 14th week of our pregnancy, so we are officially at the beginning of the second trimester, which is supposedly known as the most comfortable part of the pregnancy, although I was so lucky during the first trimester that I haven't noticed much of a change. Baby's development from week to week has slowed - not so many new organs and bodily systems but much more growth. According to my pregnancy books, the baby is now the size of a clenched fist (hopefully mine and not Michael Jordan's). This week, the baby is starting to grow hair and eyebrows (unless it's destined to be a baldy like me), and its ears are moving up from the neck to a more "normal" place on the head. The baby's muscles and bones continue to develop, and it can make more and more sophisticated movements. Unfortunately, it's still too small for me to be able to feel anything - I am so excited about feeling the first movement! I think I probably have another month or two to go for that, though.

I'm continuing to feel pretty well. I'm still very hungry in the afternoons and a little less hungry in the mornings and evenings, which seems to balance me out pretty well. I gained my first pound this week, and my belly is definitely starting to grow a little. The belly actually sticks around in the mornings now and doesn't just disappear if I haven't eaten in a while. I can't believe how much bigger it's going to get! I also started exercising again this week after being instructed by the doctor to take it easy during the first trimester. I did a 30-minute run/walk (the running was only two 5-minute sessions - I am taking it very, very easy) on Tuesday, and yesterday I went to the pool and swam four easy 250's. It feels great to be exercising again, and I feel wonderful while working out (ok, a little awkward running), but I am very tired afterwards. Also, it pains me to admit it, but I am a little sore from Tuesday's run. Clearly, I have a long way to go. I am going to try to work up to 3 miles running and maybe 1500 meters swimming, but I will pay a lot of attention to my body and back off if things get uncomfortable.

Now that the pregnancy is public knowledge, we've been getting some offers of used baby items that we can borrow or have. There are so many families here that we should be able to gather a number of supplies without having to purchase everything new. We are so grateful to those who are willing to share and feel very good about being able to reuse items that often have a pretty short period of usefulness.

I think that's about all that's new this week. My next doctor's appointment is this Tuesday, so stay tuned for the newest ultrasound and belly photos!

Thursday, November 12, 2009

A Dreary Week

This past week has consisted of day after day of nasty, chilly, gray, cloudy, rainy and horribly windy weather. The cats and I have spent much of it reclining close together on bed or couch, soaking up each other's body heat and zoning out completely. Fortunately, there is one plus side to such weather: using our Korean floor heating. The house is now very cozy and warm, and the cats find it difficult to walk more than a few feet without flopping over to soak up the heat radiating from the floor. Here they are in the office, taking advantage of their favorite spots:

Just when the lethargy seemed to be getting too much, we had a bit of excitement this afternoon. A hawk lighted on the railing outside our guest room window with a sparrow in its talons.

It was totally focused on devouring its prey and didn't notice Chili watching with rapt attention or me approaching slowly and carefully with the camera.

I don't know how long it stayed because I had to leave for a lunch date, but I'm sure Chili could tell you exactly how long he was there. Unfortunately she, like Keegan, is not interested in being a contributor to this blog.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Happy Halloween!

Keegan and I had a fun Halloween this year, despite coming up with our costumes at the absolute last minute. Mine relied heavily on a mask, and Keegan's relied heavily on his facial hair. We wore our costumes to a Halloween party that a group of foreigners put on in a bar downtown. We were a bit worried on the way to the party because we were so clearly the only people on the streets of Okpo wearing costumes, but we shouldn't have worried. There was a really good turnout at the party and some really spectacular costumes. My favorite was Keegan's co-worker Chris, who made himself a "dead biker" costume. And there was dancing! Those of you who know me well know that I very often lament a lack of opportunities for dancing. So I was quite happy. Here are some photos:

Keegan as a rock star with Chris post-bike-accident, and Michael Phelps.

Ellen as a black cat. You can't see my stunning pantyhose and newspaper tail.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Jamie's Visit

Sorry, loyal readers, for not posting for so long. I'm sad that I've missed so many interesting things to post about! But there's no time like the present to get back into the swing of things.

Jamie came to visit last week! I had been anticipating her visit for such a long time that it was a shock when it was finally over in such a short time. But we crammed in a lot of fun activities, and Jamie appreciated all the right things about Korea, just as I expected her to.

We picked Jamie up in Busan on Friday the 9th and drove her into the city.

Jamie and Ellen, reunited at last at the Busan airport.

Keegan and I were a bit hungry after only a small meal on the ferry, so we decided to find something small to eat. We ended up trying udon noodles at a tiny street stand. They were delicious! We made friends with several Korean men who were also eating at the stand, and one of them paid for our noodles. I really wish we had taken pictures with our new friends, but alas we did not.

On Saturday we spent the majority of the day driving to Uljin and finding the registration for the triathlon. The Uljin triathlon was not held in the actual town of Uljin but a ways south in Hupo Beach. So that made things interesting. I was really glad I had done some research before we left! On the way there, we stopped in a big field full of amusing homemade scarecrows and took a bunch of pictures.

Homemade scarecrow festival south of Uljin

Anyway, we managed to get registered, drive the bike course, and eat lunch at a really great Korean buffet in a rest stop near Hupo. In the evening, we stayed at the Baeck Am Springs Hotel, and Jamie had her first taste of the Korean spa and of bi bim bap.

Sunday morning was the triathlon. I was quite nervous before the start because it was going to be a mass start, which meant that all 500 or so competitors were going to get into the water at roughly the same time. It was a complete and total madhouse, and my slow swim time (37 minutes for 1500 meters) reflects that, but at least I survived. The bike course was flat, though a bit windy. I learned that my training on hilly terrain allowed me to switch my position more often than riding on a flat course. By about 30 km into the bike, my butt and back and arms were KILLING me. I resolved to wear shorts with at least a little more padding for the next tri. Ow. The run course was three loops of about two miles each. I felt great on the run and was really surprised with how fast my time was at the end. Unfortunately, Keegan was confused about the number of laps we needed to do and ended up crossing the finish about two miles short. It would have helped if the course map posted online and given to us in our race packets had been accurate. But he was remarkably unfazed by his mistake. We spent most of Sunday afternoon driving back to Geoje - some of the scenery was really beautiful, but it was a loooong drive for two tired triathletes and their jet-lagged guest.

On Monday, Jamie and I went to Home Plus for shopping and then met Joy, Kayoko and Jana for coffee. After coffee, we bought pumpkins to take home and paint. We had a good time watching Planet Earth, eating Mexican food, and painting three festive Halloween pumpkins.

Tuesday was the day for a swim in the morning and a party in the afternoon. All of my students, plus Joy and her students and Sandra and her students joined us for coffee and goodies. Jamie happily chattered in Russian to my Ukrainian student Elena the whole time and was beside herself with a chance to practice. I was happy that she had a chance to meet everyone.

On Wednesday, we decided to go for a hike and engage in some long overdue girl talk. If any of the Koreans on the trail spoke English, they certainly overheard some interesting things, that's for sure!

Jamie at the summit of Guksabong

We were very tired after the hike and mountaintop picnic, but we had enough energy left to do some shopping and get some refreshments nonetheless. In the evening, Fred joined us for a big lasagna dinner and we had a lot of fun reading my Culture Shock Korea book and laughing about its tone.

Thursday was the day for the big trip to Oedo Island. It's as beautiful in the fall as it is during the rest of the year. We had a fairly calm boat ride and were even offered some dried squid by our neighbors. Jamie would later regret the one bite she took, but I didn't think it was too bad. We also enjoyed an impromptu singing performance by our boat's tour guide, which I have never seen before. Jamie was very impressed.

Our guide on the boat to Oedo, belting out Korean hits.

We saw some truly enormous jellyfish in the water during the boat ride. In the evening, we went out to eat at the Chinese restaurant and devoured a huge plate of stir-fried tofu while indulging in more girl talk.

On Friday, we decided to spend the day in Busan. We didn't actually get on the ferry until 12, though, so it was a quick afternoon seeing the sights. We checked out the fish market and the Busan tower.
Jamie in Busan, near the Jalgachi fish market

There was a festival going on, possibly in conjunction with the Pusan International Film Festival or PIFF, so everywhere was very crowded. We enjoyed being at the top of Busan tower in the evening, so we could watch the lights come on in the city. After the tower, we went to the Shinsegae shopping center for a truly delicious pasta dinner and a shopping spree in the adorable stationery section of the Kyobo bookstore. It was a very sad evening in the hotel as we prepared for Jamie's early departure in the morning. It was a whirlwind week, full of female bonding and good experiences. I miss Jamie already, but I'm so happy that she made the time to come for a visit!

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Photos for Your Consideration

A few photos that I took while out and about (don't worry, I was stopped at interminable traffic lights when I took them) so I could show you some unique aspects of Korean life:

Swarms of scooters surround my car at a traffic light near the shipyard. You can also see my trendy dashboard bobblehead.

Not sure what to say about this except "Wow."

Junction Produce, a car detailing company I think, shows fine control of the English language. And exhibits "austerity, eeriness, rambunctiousness, and austere elegance in which only prestige car has."

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Good Things That Happened this Weekend

  1. Had a wonderful get-together with students and friends on Thursday afternoon. A lot of English was spoken and a lot of listening was done. And a lot of delicious cakes were consumed.
  2. Met several new people at lunch and at coffee on Friday afternoon.
  3. Found (with the help of my student Flavia) a tiny hole-in-the-wall store in Okpo that sells beautiful handmade purses. I plan to stock up for Christmas gifts (and for myself!).
  4. Enjoyed dinner and ice cream with my handsome husband on Friday evening.
  5. Got lots of sleep!
  6. Had a nice trip to the beach to hang out with Flavia and her husband and another Brazilian couple and a third Brazilian woman.
  7. Enjoyed watching Keegan play a Brazilian beach game involving two paddles and a rubber ball. (He is sore today!).
  8. Resolved to start taking Portuguese lessons with Flavia.
  9. Swam in refreshing, clear water and discovered that Wahyeon Beach is really nice.
  10. Learned that nice beach chairs can be obtained relatively easily by searching on GMarket for "fishing chairs."
  11. Got back on the bike again after a long hiatus.
  12. Did not wreck calamitously, get a flat tire, fall off while trying to clip out of my pedals, or ride into a ditch, despite imagining and worrying about these things every time I have even thought of riding.
  13. Got all my lessons planned for Monday and got a call from my Ukrainian student saying she is back in Korea and ready to start studying again. This is actually stressful because I have a student overload now, but I will be happy to see her again!
  14. Had friends over for beer-brewing this evening.
  15. Successfully prepared almost five gallons of beer and ate a delicious spaghetti and homemade marinara dinner.
  16. Planned a homemade Mexican night for the near future.
  17. Avoided the Sunday blues and actually feel relaxed and ready for a new week!

Friday, August 14, 2009

Visit to the Dentist

One of the fun things about living overseas is that things like going to the dentist become worthy of a blog post! I got my teeth cleaned on Tuesday, and I was definitely impressed with the staff at the dentist's office. They escorted me to a dentist chair in a long room with about eight chairs in a row. Each chair had a television monitor suspended above. It kind of reminded me of a gym since those individual screens have gotten popular. The receptionist switched the channel of my screen to a movie channel that was showing "Men in Black." Of course, I couldn't hear the audio, and the subtitles were in Korean, but it was a nice gesture. After a few minutes, my hygienist came over and got me positioned in the chair. She handed me a pair of glasses to protect my eyes while she cleaned my teeth.

For the cleaning, she used a high-pressure water jet, which I have never seen before. It made a high-pitched noise and was a little, ummm, uncomfortable, but man I think my teeth have never been so clean! After a long session with the water jet, she polished my teeth with that gritty paste they use and then flossed for me. I think she was the gentlest flosser ever! Finally, she gave me a lesson on proper flossing procedure using impeccable English. She was a little tentative and giggly with some of the words, so I think it was a bit strange for her to be giving her spiel in English, but she did a great job. No cavities, so I was free to go. I was really happy to find out how easy and inexpensive it was to visit the dentist and how professional and able the staff were. Good job TLC dentist in Okpo! See you in six months.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Happy Birthday, Chili and Pepper!

Last year I estimated that the kittens were born on August 8, so this year we had a little celebration for them turning one year old. This consisted of taking some photos of how big they've gotten and providing them with a new toy that we brought back from the States. They loved the toy (not so much the photos).

Chili-cat is one year old!

Pepper and his giant belly are one year old!

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Aquathon and Triathlon Weekend

By now I'm sure you all know that Keegan and I competed in some races this weekend in Tongyeong, just across the bridge from Geoje Island. I'd like to share a little bit about what it was like.

Saturday morning we got up early so that we could make the drive to Tongyeong in time to be there about an hour before the 8:00 start. I got very nervous as we crawled along through traffic in the city, reliving all of my many anxiety dreams about being late for the start. Finally, we made it to the race area, and I was able to dispel my anxiety with some stretches and the arduous process of squeezing my unwilling body into an extremely tight neoprene casing (otherwise known as a "wetsuit"). By the time I did that and donned my bright yellow race swim cap, it was time to line up on the starting platform.

Ready to race

I have to hand it to the race organizers - there was no messing around at the start, so I didn't have too much time to be nervous before the starting siren went off. It was my first open water swim in competition. For those of you who haven't done one either, you should take a minute to understand why many beginning triathletes find the swim leg particularly daunting. It involves:

a - plunging into the water with a crowd of other people who are dead set on getting back out of the water faster than you while
b - wearing a very tight wetsuit that fills with a layer of water that is
c - often very cold or filled with scary fish and usually very murky which means that
d - you can't really see any of the other competitors or the scary things that might be in the water and
e - you have to put your head under the water, exert yourself athletically, and somehow manage to breathe lots of air and not lots of water. Oh, and
f - you better hope your goggles don't get knocked off by all the commotion.

Fortunately for me, the aquathon field was very small, so the number of other people jostling for position in the water was much less daunting than it could have been.

The small aquathon field

Also, since it is August, the water was a very comfortable temperature. It wasn't hard to get going, and when I did jostle other people, the extra buoyancy of the wetsuit made it easy to poke my head up and chart a better course. Also, when jostling occurred it was easy for the other swimmers to get out of the way. The only problem I had on the swim was that my goggles got some water in them, which was annoying. I took a second to quickly empty out the offending goggle (is that what you call it?) and then resumed swimming. I also noticed that I had a little trouble breathing in my normal three stroke rhythm, but that has happened to me in every tri I've competed in. I think it's the adrenaline. I might have been able to swim faster if I could have relaxed a little. I also have to admit that I had a little trouble staying close to the buoy line that marked the course, especially after making a turn. But all in all, it was a successful swim, and I know I'll be much more confident approaching the next one.

After the swim was over (my time was 18:36 for 1k), I ran out of the water and into the tiny transition area, shedding goggles, swim cap, and most of my wetsuit on the way. As I fumbled with my shoelaces, I silently cursed my lack of "speed laces" which allow you to tighten your laces with just a little plastic slider rather than tying them with clumsy, waterlogged fingers. I also fumbled with my new race belt, which is supposed to be a quick and easy way to put on your race number after you get out of the water. I tried to buckle it behind my back, which was dumb. Next time I'll mess with the buckle in front of me and then turn the number around. These are the silly logistical things that make tris (and aquathons) fun. I think I spent about two minutes in the transition, including the run from the water to the transition area.

The unprofessional race-belt fumble

The first part of the run was just around the parking lot, and I didn't see many other competitors. After about eight minutes, we left the parking area and headed out on a long, beautiful trail next to the water. A member of the Geoje Tri Club named Oscar ran with me for a while, and his heart rate monitor provided a rhythmic beep-beep-beep for me to set my pace to. Just before the turnaround, I passed a female competitor. At the turnaround, Oscar pulled ahead, and a race official told me that I was the third place woman. I was thrilled, but also worried because I had just passed the fourth place woman and knew that she was not far behind me. I spent the whole way back to the parking lot worrying that she would overtake me, especially when I started to slow and got a shoulder cramp about 45 minutes into the run. But fortunately, I got a second wind when I got back to the parking area, and was able to finish with a kick. My time was about 53 minutes for the run, just over 8:30 per mile. I ended up three minutes ahead of the fourth place woman, but I was glad that I felt her breathing down my neck the whole way home because it helped me keep my pace up.

After the race there was a nice awards ceremony with medals, certificates, and a podium. Jacki, our friend and super-athlete whose husband works with Keegan, won the race, and I maintained my third-place spot to the finish. There were eight women in the race, so it was a small field, but I was still happy about my success and motivated to do better in the next race, whenever that may be.

On the podium
(I am not trying to steal Jacki's spotlight. They told us to get close.)

On Sunday, we were back to Tongyeong very, very early for the 6 a.m. start of the triathlon. Several friends and acquaintances from Geoje competed in the race, including Jacki's husband Matt, Keegan's co-worker David, and another guy who works at the Samsung Shipyard, Charlie, who I hadn't met before. Jacki and her kids, David's wife Joanne, and I all watched the race together. The swim course and the bike course involved three laps apiece, so we had lots of opportunities to cheer our men on. Jacki's two beautiful blond kids got a lot of attention from Korean women who were also watching the race. In fact, they got so much attention that I started getting angry. Numerous women completely ignored the little girl's frown and angry gestures and touched her face and hair, and one woman even picked up Jacki's son and held him, without saying anything to me or Jacki. How can you not know that it is totally inappropriate to touch other people's kids, especially when they CLEARLY don't want to be touched? I was really shocked.

Matt finished fourth among the elite age-group athletes, and Keegan was ninth out of twenty-nine in his age group. Everyone except for Matt, for whom this was the seventh triathlon of the year, said that the run was pretty tough, and I think both Keegan and David got some nasty cramps on the run. But everyone also was motivated to train harder for the next one and was happy to have competed.

Keegan finishes his first Olympic distance triathlon.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009


I'm not sure what's supposed to cause culture shock anymore. Being in Korea? Being in the U.S. for three weeks after almost a year away? Being back in Korea again after those three weeks? Well, it turns out that travel in both directions can dramatically change perceptions, and it's very difficult to anticipate how you'll feel at any stage in the process. For example, both Keegan and I thought it would be hard to adjust back to the relative calm and lawfulness of driving in the United States after a year of near misses and crazy road hijinks in Korea. But it wasn't difficult at all. On the other hand, I never expected to find certain foods in the U.S. no longer to my liking, and I did find out that my tastes have changed slightly after a year here. So here's a gathering of all of our impressions and surprises as we traveled between two very different homes:

1. Driving
As I mentioned above, we didn't find it nearly as difficult to get used to driving in the U.S. as we had anticipated. Surprisingly, both of us found ourselves driving more slowly and more calmly than we used to. Maybe because the speed limits are generally lower on Korean highways than they are in the U.S. or maybe just because we were on vacation, but we both noticed it. But let me tell you, coming back to Korea and venturing back into the road jungle that is downtown Okpo was a rude awakening after three weeks of amazing innovations like sidewalks and two-lane streets for two directions of traffic.

2. Food
Keegan and I did a lot of good eating in the U.S. A lot. A whole lot. Mexican, sandwiches, Italian, Chinese, seafood, and enough Bodo's bagels to construct a good-sized bagel fortress. And generally, this eating was one of the best parts of the vacation because I miss restaurants that have more than just seafood, spaghetti, and steaks and also because it's so wonderful to top off a really good restaurant meal with a really good dessert (usually not available in Korea, although Baskin Robbins does make a good finale after almost any meal). But a few things surprised me.

First of all, a lot of the restaurant food we tasted was suprisingly salty and greasy. It tasted great for the first few bites, but after a few more I ended up feeling totally over-stuffed and logy. I think this is part of the explanation for why we saw many more very obese people in the U.S. than we usually do in Korea. Obviously Koreans come in lots of shapes and sizes, and I always feel sorry for the larger men and women that I see because I don't know how they find clothes. But I don't think I have seen anyone here that comes close to the size of some Americans that we saw at home, and I think salty and fatty restaurant food has a lot to do with that.

Another surprise for me was my breakfast yogurt. Generally, I don't like plain yogurt and always used to buy vanilla yogurt in the States. I do the same here. But apparently I can make do with a lot less sweetener than is found in the American brand, because when I had my first highly anticipated bite at breakfast in Charlottesville, I was shocked at how sugary the vanilla yogurt really is. Maybe I will learn how to make my own when we return home to the States for good.

3. Shopping
No surprises here. Going shopping with Mom in Lynchburg was so much fun! There were shoes in my size everywhere! The stores were large and almost completely self-service, without salespeople hovering at the ready to fetch "large size" clothes. All of the books and magazines at the bookstore were in English! There was an easy-to-find store selling triathlon wetsuits that we could try on right there in the store. I did have one funny moment in Old Navy in Lynchburg where I started counting out my dollars as if they were won. Because the largest denomination in Korea (until last month, anyway) is roughly the equivalent of a $10 bill, I am used to counting out bills by 10's. Imagine what happened at Old Navy when I carefully counted out three twenties and a few ones to pay for a $34 total. The clerk was a little concerned about my skills in basic math, I'm sure.

4. Work
In Korea, a lot of our friends are also Keegan's co-workers. This means that even at social gatherings, the conversation almost always turns to work at least occasionally. In addition, everyone is working very hard, long hours, and everyone knows that the company has shipped them to the other side of the world to do just that. It was so refreshing to be back in the U.S. and have so many conversations that focused on life outside of work - people's hobbies, families, and work as a way to support the rest of one's life.

5. Home
Before we left for our vacation, Korea had begun to feel like home. We have a great apartment, a rich group of friends and co-workers and neighbors, favorite shops and restaurants, two playful and affectionate pets, running and biking routes, and a plethora of activities to keep us busy. But as soon as we arrived in the U.S., it took no time at all to feel at home there as well. Familiar faces, old haunts, favorite meals, and long-missed activities filled our vacation days, and it was hard to see how a return to Korea could be a homecoming at all.

And it wasn't. I thought that the return to Korea would be very different from our first journey here, and in some ways it was. Nothing was as surprising or new as it was last year, and we certainly didn't have to do any unpacking, and we had two very happy cats to greet us when we arrived home. But at the same time, I felt a lot of the same feelings of readjustment again. I missed friends and family in the U.S. with a renewed strength and once again felt tentative and uncertain about leaving the apartment to do everyday tasks. And I started getting an envious feeling again when I looked at Korean people going about their daily lives. I am envious of them because this is their place, their culture, unquestionably their home. I had the same feeling sometimes in Poland. I loved Poland dearly, and my year there changed my life in a lot of positive ways, but it could never be home in the way that it was for those Polish people I saw in the streets, who were living where they had grown up, close to family and friends, speaking their native language without a second thought.

I know that as I re-immerse myself in my life here that those feelings will diminish, and I will appreciate the positive aspects of being here - the adventure, the chance to meet new people and try new things, the opportunities to travel. But the homesickness and distance from friends and family are part and parcel of living abroad, and they have their day, too.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Easier Than You'd Think

We're back in Korea, safe and sound. Yesterday I felt boastful because I was lively and awake in the afternoon, but shortly after I boasted to Keegan about it, I started yawning. We managed to stay awake until about 10 p.m., which was great, but then both of us were wide awake at 4:30 this morning. Keegan fell back to sleep for a bit and then woke up with a tremendous jolt at around 5:30. He said he was dreaming about cats. We both got up after that.

Even with the early start on the day, I managed to make the morning disappear without much to show for it, as usual. I've been tired and logy all day. My major victory for the day, though, was taking the car to the garage. Yesterday, when Keegan and I did an emergency post-vacation trip to the store, I pointed out to him the funny noise the car had been making when making left turns. It seemed to be even worse than I remembered from before vacation. He was concerned and told me to take the car in asap.

I hate taking the car to the garage anywhere because I hate feeling like a complete know-nothing and worrying about being ripped off. Of course, I do know next-to-nothing about cars, but I hate that as a woman I might as well have "CLUELESS" stamped on my forehead when dealing with possibly pushy mechanics. Add to that the possible difficulties in communicating my problem to a mechanic who speaks passable but limited English, and I was completely dreading the trip to the garage. Fortunately for me, I was totally wrong. I described the problem in telegraphic English (leaving out those tricky function words, like articles, prepositions, etc.), and he understood my complaint. "Left-uh? Sound?" he confirmed. "Yes!" He pulled the car right into the garage and told me to return in two hours. I had lunch and spent a luxurious hour and a half reading my book and then went back to the garage. The ever-helpful mechanic showed me a narrow rod of metal about three feet long with springy-looking things on either end.

"Drive shaft," he said, and then wiggled one end of it to show me how the bearings on the end were loose. "You turn, tut-tut-tut-tut-tut," he explained. "That will be 8,000 won." (about 8 dollars)
"What? That's all??"
I offer 10,000 won.
He frowns.
"Ok, much better. I understand."

And that was that. Easy as pie, no feeling stupid, no wondering about myriad (expensive) suggested repairs to my car. I definitely miss a lot of things about home, but I have to say I was very satisfied with today's Korean transaction at the garage.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Home at Last

Through the miracles of modern air travel, laptops and wireless technology I am writing this post sitting by the pool in Charlottesville, Virginia, 28 hours after leaving our apartment in Geoje. Those 28 hours have included about 4 hours of fitful and disconnected sleep, so I am a little loopy, but otherwise fine and happy to be back in the USA!

The trip home with Glenda and John's cats, Petey and Bonnie, was an adventure, but really very smooth. We left our apartment at 2 a.m. on Friday morning and picked up the cats in their super-deluxe air travel carriers at Joy's apartment. We made it off of Geoje Island in record time due to the complete lack of traffic lights (they were all blinking) and other cars on the road. If only it were always so simple. The traffic remained light until just past Daejeon, about halfway through the trip. After that, truck traffic really picked up. Still, it was a pretty quick and easy drive to Seoul. Bonnie, who has a bad reputation for crying (or "singing" as Joy put it) in the car, was not half as bad as she could have been. I think she was mostly confused about where her beloved brother Petey was and just wanted reassurance that he was nearby. Of course, Petey didn't get that at all and didn't make any response to her cries. He rested majestically on his tiger-stripe cushion like a sultan for the whole ride. We got to Incheon Airport around 7:20, right on time. Keegan parked the car while I got everyone situated on luggage carts, and we headed in to see what we could do about getting everyone checked in and on the plane.

Inside the airport, we wandered around for a while with our heavily laden carts looking for animal quarantine, where we needed another necessary document for Petey and Bonnie. This was where we hit our first snafu - despite the recommendation that everyone begin the check-in process three hours before their flight, the quarantine office didn't open until 9 a.m.! Unfortunately, our flight was at 10:40, so we knew we would be pressed for time. We decided to check everything else through and then go back for a second round with the cats. After a lot of waiting in line and a nail-biting wait for our quarantine document, we were finally able to get the cats checked in. The quarantine official didn't even open the cats' cages; he just shuffled a lot of papers and gave us one more. We raced to the ticketing counter to pay our excess baggage charge and sped through security to the gate. We arrived just as everyone was beginning to board, so realistically, we had about 20 minutes to spare, but it was still a little tense for a while. It was a good thing that a sympathetic check-in agent had noticed our plight with the cats and let us through our second check-in ahead of a few other people or we might not have made it. Overall, the experience at the airport was good, except for the late opening of the quarantine office.

The flight was long but reasonably comfortable. The stewardesses were efficient, competent, and considerate. We each had our own monitor on the seat in front of us, so we were able to play some computer games and watch tons of movies. I had a Jennifer Aniston fest and watched "He's Just Not That Into You...." (not amazing, but very enjoyable), "Marley and Me" (a must for anyone who has ever owned a dog) and an episode of "Friends." I also played a lot of Minesweeper and Tetris. Keegan played computer blackjack until his eyes glazed over. Our seatmate was a really friendly Korean woman returning to her family in Maryland after her first trip to Korea in five years. She said she was astounded at how much things have changed since the last time she was there. She thought that everything was very clean and nice, had a wonderful time visiting the northeastern part of the country with friends and family, and was impressed with how many women were wearing nice golfing clothes. We hit turbulence several times on the flight, but it wasn't too jarring.

In Washington we had a very easy time of it. When we finally emerged from passport control, all of our bags and cats were waiting for us, and we went straight to customs. Getting the cats through was so easy! We showed our customs form to the agent, and she asked us a few questions about the food we had brought for the cats. She told us that we needed a labelled bag of food next time showing that the food was vegetable (who makes vegetable cat food?) or fish, but that she would let us take the small amount of food we had with us through because the cats were going to have another flight to endure. No one opened the cats' carriers or looked at the cats at all, which I'm sure was just as well for the poor traumatized beasties. Poor Petey was hiding underneath his tiger-striped cushion, causing one bystander to exclaim "It's a wildcat in there!" Everyone was very curious about the cats since we were the only ones on the flight who had checked animals. After we cleared customs, we handed the cats, their food, and some paperwork off to a very competent-looking woman in blue scrubs, who Glenda had hired to get the cats on their flight to Wisconsin. We hope that the last leg of their journey was ok and that they are now resting and enjoying their reunion with their mom and dad. Poor guys - I can't imagine what that flight must have been like in the cargo hold.

Steve and Sue met us at the airport and drove us down to Charlottesville, with a brief stop for lunch in Gainesville at a little Afghani restaurant in a strip mall. I had an interesting dish of leek-stuffed ravioli in a yogurt-herb sauce. So our first meal back in the States was Afghani! I don't know how much longer Keegan can hold out for a Philly cheesesteak, though. Once we got home, I immediately took a nap, but I didn't really sleep for very long. The shower was much more refreshing than the nap. I guess our bodies will be screwed up for the next few days, but what do we care? We're on vacation!

Monday, June 22, 2009

Mom & Dad's Visit, Part III

At last, the final installment.  

The second weekend that Mom and Dad were here, we decided to go to Seoul.  We took the express bus from Geoje Island on Friday morning.  I had bought the bus tickets the day before and was really nervous about whether they were for the right bus, whether we would get on the right bus, etc.  But of course, everything worked out fine, and we were soon comfortably ensconced on the bus reading and sleeping.  My parents' visit coincided with a lot of exciting news in South Korea:  first, the former president's suicide and then the nuclear test and missile tests by North Korea.  On the bus ride, we watched the funeral for the president, which was taking place in Seoul as we headed there.  The funeral was televised for all of the five-hour bus trip, and we watched hordes and hordes of people with yellow visors and balloons wait along the route of the president's funeral.  We saw speeches and a special traditional dance.  The bus stopped once at a large rest area where we had a chance to relieve ourselves and get some snacks, but we weren't sure how long the stop was for, so we got back on the bus right away and didn't linger very long.

Once in Seoul we were able to quickly find the subway station and make our way into the downtown area to find our hotel.  Little did we know that our hotel was essentially right next to the funeral route and only a few blocks from a small square where a lot of the funeral ceremony had taken place.  When we emerged from the subway, we saw all of the yellow balloons and banners that we had seen on TV, although fortunately we timed things well enough that most of the crowds had dispersed.  We headed down the street toward the hotel.  Just a block or so outside of the subway station, we got a huge surprise:  the sidewalk was halfway covered with hordes of fully uniformed, helmeted, weapon- and shield-bearing riot cops.  Apparently they were expecting protests by supporters of the ex-president, who were angry about a corruption probe by the current government.  They believed the probe was what drove the ex-president to his suicide.  We were completely overwhelmed by the sheer numbers of police, as well as by the big riot wagons nearby, covered in wire mesh and with water cannons mounted on top.  The police presence in Seoul for the whole weekend was truly impressive, but we barely saw anything of the protesters:  just a few banners and some chanting and shouting in the distance as we walked back to the hotel one afternoon.  I'm sure that the police were pleased to keep interested spectators at a distance.

Finally at the hotel, we took a break and made a plan to get some food and do some shopping in the evening.  We looked for a little deli listed in my Lonely Planet, but we had no luck finding it, so we picked up some sandwiches at a nearby coffeeshop and then enjoyed ice cream served up by the super-friendly employees of the Coldstone Creamery.  After filling our engines, we headed back to Insadong, the artsy and touristy area Keegan and I had visited on our last trip to Seoul.  Mom and Dad enjoyed buying a few more souvenirs and gifts for their friends, and I found a beautiful bead and string necklace at an embroidery shop.  

Trying on silly glasses in Insadong

We had dinner at a very quaint Korean restaurant, where we all sweated and steamed our way through spicy Korean dishes.  Dad was a real champ.  We turned in rather early because we had an early start scheduled for the following morning, when we had booked a trip to the DMZ (the DeMilitarized Zone between North and South Korea).

The DMZ trip left from the Lotte hotel at 8:30 in the morning.  We had a quick breakfast at Starbucks and then headed to the hotel, where we paid for our tickets and loaded onto a very lavishly decorated tour bus.  The other people on the tour were mostly young students from all over the world who were spending a semester in Korea.  There was also a professional photographer from Australia, a Korean man and his Korean-American son, and a few other tourists.  Our tour guide spoke very good English and did a great job.  As we headed north from Seoul, we drove along the Han River, and the guide pointed out barbed wire and watchtowers meant to prevent any incursion from the north on the river.  Eventually, we could see North Korea on the opposite side of the river.  The mountains of the north were distinguishable because they are all denuded of trees.  The poor people living in southern North Korea still use the trees for fuel, so the mountains are bare and red instead of green with trees.

Our first stop was a bewilderingly brief break at a flower festival in Paju, one of the northernmost cities in South Korea.  We saw a Korean brass band dressed in colorful plaid uniforms and then saw beautiful fields full of poppies and other wildflowers.  

Mom and Ellen at the flower festival in Paju

Back on the bus, we headed into the militarized zone around the DMZ.  At the checkpoint, a Korean soldier with just a few days left of his compulsory military service checked all of our passports and gave us the go-ahead.  Inside the militarized zone, we had a quick succession of stops.  First, we went to an observation point where we could look out over the DMZ and into North Korea.  They had those pay-to-look binoculars set up so that we could really see pretty far.  The guide pointed out when we stopped that we were not allowed to take pictures from the observation point.  We could only take pictures in the parking lot (of what?) and then from behind a yellow line about 5 meters behind the edge of the observation deck.  At this point, the Australian photographer pitched a fit about how he wanted to take pictures, while the rest of us looked on in horror and exasperation.  There's one on every tour.  Anyway, we were impressed with the view into the forbidden north.  Through the binoculars, I could see some rice farmers, carrying on with their daily tasks perhaps unaware that their lives were being scrutinized by curious foreigners.

Our next stop was at the Third Tunnel, where we donned silly helmets and rode a monorail into a tunnel dug by the North Koreans into South Korea.  

Dad strikes a pose in his silly helmet.

The guide carefully presented several points of evidence that prove that the tunnel was constructed from the North into the South.  Apparently, the North Koreans claim that the tunnel is an abandoned coal mine, and they smeared charcoal on the walls of the tunnel to back up their story.  Unfortunately for them, it was easy to see through that ruse because there aren't any natural coal deposits in the area of the tunnel.  Also, the tunnel slants towards the north, as it should if it were built from the north and its builders wanted water to drain out of the tunnel as they dug.  Finally, the blast marks from the dynamite inside indicate which direction the people who blasted the tunnel were coming from.  You guessed it:  the north.  Inside the cold, damp tunnel, we soon saw the reason for the helmets.  The ceiling of the tunnel was very low and rough, with lots of rocky outcroppings.  So our tour of the tunnel was conducted all hunched over and uncomfortable.  But it was eerie and impressive to be down there and to see all of the fortifications that keep anyone from entering South Korea through the tunnel now.

After the tunnel we watched on odd film giving some of the history of the DMZ and the tunnel.  I say that the film was odd because it ended with a presentation of the beautiful peace park at the old DMZ, now that North and South Korea are reunited.  Of course everyone hopes for such a resolution, but it was jarring to see it presented as fact in this movie, complete with a joyous little Korean girl romping after butterflies in the ex-DMZ.  After the movie, it was back on the bus to visit another site where high hopes for reunification are evident:  Dorasan Station, the last train station on the line in South Korea.  The station is huge, modern, and totally empty.  There are a few trains arriving there from Seoul each day, although it's hard to see why anyone would want to go to Dorasan Station except for the novelty of a train station with no purpose.  There were big posters in the station showing how a trans-Korean rail line could connect with other transcontinental railroads to allow passengers to travel all the way from Korea to Europe by train.  I would love to be able to take a trip like that someday.  Imagine all the cool places you'd see!

After a stop for lunch in a traditional Korean restaurant outside the militarized zone (bulgogi for the carnivores, bi-bim-bap for me) we headed to a park called Imjingak.  The park is the site of the Bridge of Freedom, which was used for an exchange of prisoners of war after the Korean War.  Our guide told us that many Korean families will visit the park on Chuseok (Korean Thanksgiving) to perform ceremonies to honor their ancestors and families who they can no longer see because Korea is divided.  There was an observation deck where you could look across the river into North Korea and, oddly enough, an amusement park.  We took a few pictures, but mostly we were eager to get to the main event of the tour:  the trip inside the DMZ to the Joint Security Area, manned by the UN and the North Koreans.

Before we could get to the JSA, there were a few more hoops to jump through.  We had to show our passports to a surly young American soldier with a southern accent.  Then we sat through a "briefing" on the history of the JSA that was painfully disorganized.  In the "briefing" room we had to sign a waiver stating that we were entering a hostile area, that the UN couldn't be held responsible for what would happen, etc.  We were also instructed to "not point, make gestures, or expressions which could be used by the North Korean side as propaganda material against the United Nations Command."  While we didn't feel unsafe at any point on the tour and knew that they would never allow tourists in if things were really bad, we were definitely aware that the North Korean side is totally unpredictable and not known for restraint or reasonableness.

Finally we were back on the bus into the JSA, where we were able to stand in a conference room used for meetings between the two sides and actually cross over the border into the North Korean side of the JSA.  Obviously we were still in the DMZ, but technically, we could say that we were in North Korea.  South Korean soldiers stood in the room with us as still as statues with their fists clenched, and we were allowed to get our pictures taken with them.  

I was very dubious about posing next to the South Korean guard.

It was bizarre and a little creepy.  Near the conference room was an elevated pavilion where we could stand and take pictures of the North Korean side of the JSA and of the North Korean "propaganda village" inside the DMZ.  I got chills down my spine when I looked at the largest building on the North Korean side and saw a North Korean soldier looking at us through binoculars.

North Korean soldier on the lookout for pointing and other gestures to use for propaganda

 We learned in the pavilion that it is very, very hard not to point when standing in an observation tower looking at an interesting view.  So there were lots of quick slaps at people's arms and hisses of "Don't point!"  I'm sure the North Koreans were heartily amused at how silly we all looked trying to avoid being fodder for their propaganda.  We stopped at one more observation point where we could look out over the beautiful unpopulated land of the DMZ, and we took a lot of pictures of the huge (300 kg) flag at the North Korean propaganda village.  The propaganda village is so called because it is built to represent North Korea's presence in the DMZ, but no one actually lives there.  The flag is so large because North Korea took great pains to be sure that it was larger than the one in the South Korean DMZ village.  Yes, they really are that petty.  On our way out of the DMZ, we saw a huge flock of beautiful white cranes nesting in some trees along the road.  

On our way back from the DMZ, we were all exhausted, so we didn't do much in the evening.  We decided that we would like to spend Sunday exploring one of the historic palaces near our hotel, so we turned in early and got thoroughly rested.

After breakfast on Sunday morning, we headed to the nearby Gyeongbokgung Palace for some sightseeing and picture taking.  We spent several hours wandering around the palace grounds and took hundreds of pictures on our four cameras.  

Mom and Dad at Gyeongbokgung Palace

The palace was beautiful and colorful, and at the front gate there was a free English guidebook that gave lots of interesting information about the many palace buildings.  In the queen's quarters, one of the palace docents evidently took a liking to me and gave me a tutorial about how the floor heating and ventilation worked in the queen's quarters.  On the back side of the palace complex is the road that leads past the Blue House, the residence of the Korean president.  

The Michalik family at the Blue House

We were happy to have the chance to see that, too.  On the way out of the palace, we stopped for lunch in the palace museum and had some odd old-fashioned palace food.  All of our dishes came wrapped in giant steamed lotus leaves.  I had a glutinous rice mixed with nuts and other grains, Mom had rice pasta, and Keegan and Dad had some dumplings filled with meat.  Definitely something new for all of us!

After the palace, we stopped back at the hotel for a rest before heading out again to an Italian restaurant for a celebratory dinner for my birthday.  The Italian restaurant had a really nice atmosphere, and everyone was happy to take a break from Korean food after our weird lunch.  We enjoyed our dinner thoroughly, and Keegan presented me with an absolutely beautiful watch, which I had asked for as a special 30th birthday gift.  Overall, it was a wonderful birthday.

By this time, my parents' visit was definitely winding down.  Monday we spent most of the day traveling back to Geoje Island and looking at pictures from our trip.  On Tuesday I had promised my parents a rest day, but we ended up doing a little souvenir shopping and sightseeing on the island.  I showed them our bike route around Chilcheondo Island, and they picked up some souvenirs at the little shop in Okpo.  We also marveled at the Okpo outdoor market and picked up a few things for our ratatouille dinner.

Wednesday morning, Keegan took my parents to work to show them around a bit, and I went to my Korean class and desperately tried to remember the vocabulary I had forgotten during our little vacation.  In the afternoon, we took the ferry to Busan and showed my parents safely to their hotel.  The ferry ride home from Busan could have been a time of sad reflection on how quickly the visit had passed, or satisfaction over what fun we'd all had together.  But instead it was mostly an exercise in restraint, as we tried not to vomit on the tumultuous ride.  Suffice it to say that late May/early June is not a good time for ferry travel here on Geoje Island.  Our regret and satisfaction at the end of the visit waited until we were at home, passed out on the couch after a very interesting, adventurous two weeks.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Mom & Dad's Visit, Part II

Once we returned from Busan, Keegan had to go back to work, so I had my parents to myself.  On Monday, I had the chance to show them my usual running route, to the Buddha park and back.  I think they both enjoyed the chance to see the small rice farms and the pretty countryside in the valley leading to the park.  In the afternoon, we went to Home Plus to do some grocery shopping.  It was a funny trip because I spent most of it worrying that it was not really very interesting.  I guess I have gotten used to seeing counters full of kimchee and the extensive aisles of sesame oil and red pepper paste.  But my parents insisted that it was an interesting trip.  After returning from the store, we spent some time in the garden, and Keegan came home from work early.  We took a quick visit to the exercise park near our house, which has a very good view of the DSME shipyard.  Keegan and I did our best to walk all the way around the stone foot massage path around the park.  

Keegan and I are smoked by a Korean woman on the foot massage path.

I gave up about three-quarters of the way around because my feet were getting tired.  Keegan made it the whole way, but he was lapped by a speedy Korean lady who looked like she was out for a comfortable stroll.  We made burritos for dinner and retired after a relaxing day.

On Tuesday morning, I took Mom with me to the pool in Jangseungpo.  Fortunately, we were able to get a lane to ourselves, so it was a pleasant experience.  In the afternoon, we decided not to go to Oedo because the day was a little overcast.  So we went on a hike instead, taking the wooded path from Deokpo to Okpo.  The hike ends along a beautiful boardwalk that winds along the coast and into Okpo.   Unfortunately, the view there is full of heavy machinery and huge ships under construction at DSME.  

The boardwalk in Okpo

Along the last part of the trail was a huge pile of rocks.  We watched in horror as a huge excavator pulled itself up by the bucket onto the top of the pile.  We were horrified because it seemed to us that it would be very easy for the excavator to start a mini-landslide that would immediately bury the path we were walking on under a pile of huge rocks.  Fortunately, we survived to make lots of comments about how unsafe the situation was!  We were all tired after the hike, so we got drinks and sandwiches at my favorite little coffee shop, Pompeii.  We walked back into town on the main road, and had a few minutes to rest before a delicious dinner of stir fry with fresh peas from the garden, our first harvest!

Stir fry with fresh peas from the garden

On Wednesday, we decided to take our trip to Oedo, the island with the beautiful botanical garden, where Keegan and I have gone several times.  The weather was sunny as we headed to the boat launch in Jangseungpo.  As soon as we left the harbor, however, we got a nasty surprise:  the water was very, very rough.  So rough, in fact, that other passengers were shouting and throwing their hands in the air, roller coaster style, with every toss and turn.  The ride was very unenjoyable, and unfortunately, the pilots wisely decided not to try to steer the boat in between the large cliffs of Haegeumgang, a craggy island that is usually the first highlight of the tour.  Mom and Dad were afraid to get out of the boat to get a closer look at the cliffs (so was I, to be honest).  So that part of the trip was very disappointing.

Finally, we were back on solid land and ready to start our tour of the island.  We had planned to have lunch on the boat, but that was clearly out of the question, so we ate a quick lunch on the island instead.  Then we proceeded to rush through the beautiful springtime gardens, enjoying the colorful flowers and the beautiful views of the ocean and other islands.  

Mom among the azaleas on Oedo Botania

There were a lot of schoolchildren on a trip to the gardens, so Mom and Dad got to experience firsthand the habit of Korean kids to practice their English on unsuspecting foreigners.  At last it was time to get back on the boat.  Unbelievably, the ride back to Jangseungpo was even worse than the ride to the island!  I gripped the handle on the back of the seat in front of me so hard that my knuckles were white, all the while reminding myself that holding on to another seat would be useless when the boat capsized, which it was sure to do.  Fortunately, I was wrong, and we all made it back to Geoje Island safe and sound.  I apologized profusely for the horrible trip, but my parents looked at it as another unique adventure.  I was thankful for their good attitudes.

Back at home, I cooked up a soup for dinner, and we ate quickly before heading out to Gohyeon to watch Keegan and his ABS team play soccer.  Since Dad played soccer in high school, he kept up a running commentary on what everyone was doing, how their skills were, and what sort of strategy they should adopt.  It's too bad he didn't stay longer, as the team could use some practice and coaching.  But we all had a good time, which is the most important thing.

On Thursday, we decided to venture off of the island to visit the Dinosaur Expo in Geoseong.  The Matiz performed admirably on its first trip off of Geoje Island, and we made it to the huge, empty parking lot of the expo and tried to get oriented.  I had thought that there might be some interesting fossils and some cool dinosaur footprints for Dad to enjoy, but the whole expo was a study in campiness and was geared mostly toward kids.  

Those raptors were scary!

Still, it was a chance to show my parents the type of activities we do on the weekends when we're exploring and looking for something new to do.  And we did see some interesting fossils and real dinosaur footprints (much less impressive than you'd think).  Plus, we got to see the absolute weirdest exhibit ever, which featured numerous plastic, animatronic, cartoonish dinosaurs and cavemen.  AND, Mom and I tried out Korea's longest slide, which was made out of those metal rollers that pinch your butt.  We got stuck behind Korea's slowest slider, so the ride was less thrilling than it could have been.  So we made the best of our adventure.  In the evening, we had homemade pizza and used the first of our homegrown basil.  Delicious!  

Having seen most of what Geoje and the area had to offer, we prepared for the next leg of the journey:  Seoul.

Monday, June 8, 2009

Mom and Dad's Visit, Part I

We had a wonderful two weeks with my mother and father, but it's hard to believe how quickly they went by.  It was so easy to fall into the vacation routine, and now we really can't wait until our trip back to the States in less than three weeks!

My parents arrived on Friday, May 22 in the Busan airport.  Keegan and I took the car ferry there again and enjoyed a very Korean dinner in the airport restaurant while we waited for my parents' flight.  We sat down and ordered, and shortly afterward, a group of four elderly Korean women sat down next to us.  Those four ordered, got their steaming hot food, scarfed it down, and were out of the restaurant before we even finished our meal.  I was impressed.

My parents were surprisingly chipper when they arrived and had nothing but good things to say about their flight on Korean Air.  We chattered non-stop on our drive to the hotel, as we checked in, and then in my parents room for another 30 minutes or so.  Mom immediately began plying me with cookies and candies, in true Mom fashion.  

The next morning, we decided over breakfast that we wanted to visit a beautiful temple by the ocean.  Our friend Sung took us there over Chuseok last year, and we both think it's a pretty spectacular temple.  The breakfast conversation was frequently interrupted by exclamations of amazement, as we were eating in a restaurant with a built-in tiger habitat.  Cesar, the tiger, was awake and lively.  I felt sorry for him that he has such a small enclosure, but he looked so cozy and cat-like when he finally settled down for a nap that I decided he could have it worse.  

Our visit to the temple was an interesting one.  It was not quite as crowded as the last time we were there over the Chuseok holiday, but it is still obviously a tourist attraction, so the atmosphere is not as peaceful as at some other temples we've been to.   I think Mom and Dad enjoyed their first visit to a Korean Buddhist temple, and they were very curious about the Buddhist religion.

Mom and Dad at Haedong Yonggungsa

We could hear monks chanting and tapping out soothing rhythms on wood blocks, and we could smell incense in the air.  Mom and Dad also enjoyed the variety of odd items for sale on the walk to the temple, including gigantic roots, pickled fish, and all kinds of dried squid.

In the afternoon, we headed over to the infamous Jalgachi Fish Market, where we all marveled (as is required) over the sheer amount of seafood for sale and wondered what they do with it all at the end of the day.  We decided to get lunch on the fourth floor of the market in a clean, efficient Korean restaurant overlooking the water.  We ordered bulgogi, stone bowl bi-bim-bap, and a seafood pancake.  My parents were very brave and tried everything with some success.  Dad was mystified by the spiciness and lingering effects of the whole, partially-cooked garlic clove he mistakenly ate.  Mom was horrified by the octopus tentacles in the seafood pancake.  And everyone was uncomfortable on the floor.  But overall, the meal was a good introduction to Korean food and a big success.  

Dad enjoys his first taste of bulgogi, while Keegan gives helpful instructions.

At this point, we headed over to the Busan Tower for a view of the city.  As we approached the tower, we stumbled upon the beginning of some sort of traditional performance.  I told my parents that finding an interesting performance like this completely by luck was an integral part of our Korean experience.  We saw a team of four acrobats perform traditional Korean see-saw jumping (called nol-ttigi) and then a whole slew of traditional dances and drumming, performed by women in beautiful, brightly colored folk costumes. We were thrilled.

Nol-ttigi, Korean see-saw jumping

After a quick trip up to the top of the tower, we returned to the hotel before regrouping for a late dinner.  I had my heart set on visiting the new Shin-se-ge Shopping Center, so we set off on a long subway ride.  We had dinner in a fashionable Italian restaurant with absolutely wonderful food.  I was excited to find such good Western food in Busan since it's not too far from our place on Geoje.  I foresee this restaurant being a good place for celebrations in the future!  By the time we finished dinner, it was almost 10:00, so we didn't get to see much more of the shopping center.  We did look around the Kyobo bookstore, which has a decent selection of English books, as well as a fun crafts section that I'd like to visit again.  

On Sunday, we decided to try something new.  We looked at the Busan map and decided to drive down to the southern part of the city to a park called Taejongdae Park.  It was a beautiful place, with a long, pleasantly-landscaped walking path, an entertaining outdoor exercise area, and fantastic views of the rocky coastline and the ocean.  We spent a while just walking leisurely along the path and taking lots of pictures.

Michaliks on the loose in Busan!

 I also visited the most scenic public toilet ever, where you can do your business facing a huge back window that looks out over the ocean.  
In the afternoon, we returned to Geoje Island on the car ferry and made it safely back to our apartment in time for a simple pasta dinner, with Keegan's homemade marinara.  Everyone seemed to be adjusting well to the new country and time zone, so we were ready for the next stage of our adventures.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

The Wonderful World of Korean Store Names

You may remember the legendary "Crapino" furniture store featured on this blog a few weeks ago. But Crapino is far from the only funny store name on this island. Here is a list of some of our other favorites, in a number of different categories:

Hair Salon: "Hair Sponge"
Western Bars: The variety here is endless. We have an ongoing debate about which sounds more seedy: "Monkey Business" or "The Business Room." I am also partial to bars that make terrible puns in their names, such as "Western Bar None" and "Bar Code."
Mystery Spot: There is a building at a major intersection in town whose second floor holds a business called "Japanese Style Banana." We have no idea what it is, and we're kind of afraid to investigate.
English School: The award in this category definitely goes to "Butter English."
Snack Bar: "Bob Stick." This stand is clearly defunct, but we eagerly await the day that we can buy our very own Bob Stick snack.
Apartments: "Dream Factory" and "Kisan Nestville"
Food Brands: For health foods, you can take your pick from the nutritious items recommended by "Dr. You" and if you're really hungry, you may even resort to "Mother's Finger" healthy snack foods.

I am counting on my parents to point out other funny titles during their visit, which begins tomorrow!

Monday, May 11, 2009

Trip to Seoul

Because last weekend was filled with saying good-bye to John and Glenda, we decided to celebrate our anniversary this weekend instead.  We have been wanting to take the KTX fast train to Seoul for months, so we grabbed our chance and spent a short weekend there.

On Friday evening, Keegan and I met at the ferry terminal in Gohyeon (where the shipyard is) around 6.  We caught the day's last ferry to Busan and then hopped on a shuttle bus to the train station.  We made our train with five minutes to spare and settled in to our seats, which were roomy and remarkably comfortable.  Of course, it was dark out by the time we left, so we couldn't see much on our journey, and even when the train reached its top speed of about 290 kilometers per hour, we could barely tell.  The tracks were very smooth, and we just glided along through the dark night.  The train trip took about three hours, and once in Seoul we easily navigated the clean and modern subway system two stops to our hotel.  Counting our individual trips to the ferry terminal on Geoje, we took a bus, a scooter, a ferry, another bus, a train, and the subway to make it to our final destination.  If we had just figured out how to add a hot air balloon and a unicycle, I think we'd have covered every possible method of transport!

Since we hadn't had time to do more than snack during the many legs of our journey, we were quite hungry when we got to our hotel room around midnight.  So we decided to order room service.  I've never gotten room service before - I felt like we were in the movies.  The food was  not fantastic, but it tasted that way to our hungry mouths.  Shortly after our midnight meal, we hit the sack.

Our room service feast

On Saturday morning we woke up without a plan and got off to a slow start.  At breakfast, we planned our day, which involved going to Insadong, a neighborhood near that hotel that was recommended by our friend Fred and by our guidebook as a cool place with lots of interesting shops and restaurants.  We strolled there leisurely from the hotel, stopping to take pictures along the way.  

Insadong was indeed full of interesting things.  There are lots of tourist nicknacks for sale, but also a lot of beautiful handcrafts, including paintings, needlework, pottery, and beautiful paper lanterns and lamps.  I found a new dress in this funky secondhand shop, and Keegan and I picked out a table runner with a traditional Korean patchwork design, called "Bojagi."  

Paintbrushes for sale and a cool shopping center in Insadong

We had lunch at a vegetarian Korean place with delicious food.  We tried dim sum, a huge bowl of mushroom soup with noodles (a bit spicy, especially towards the bottom), and a plate of acorn squash with a filling of millet, walnuts, and cinnamon.  Mmmm!  The restaurant was otherwise a bit weird, with all of these books by "The Supreme Master Ching Hai," whose Wikipedia article includes such one-of-a-kind phrases as "Part Buddha, Part Madonna," and "transnational cybersect."  Her television channel was also playing in the background.  We tried to focus on the food.

Keegan meditates over our vegetarian lunch.

After lunch we did more wandering, this time to a temple nearby Insadong.  It was a fairly typical Korean temple, but in celebration of Buddha's birthday, there were colorful lanterns strung high over the entire courtyard.  I was happy that we visited at the right time to see such a festive display.

Buddha's birthday lanterns at Jogyesa Temple

On our way back to the hotel, we strolled along the Cheonggye Stream, where hundreds of Seoulites were wandering, enjoying the sound of the rushing stream and dipping their feet into the cool water during the very warm afternoon.  We also saw some women playing unusual traditional Korean instruments.

We spent the afternoon relaxing a little and then headed out for dinner at the California Pizza Kitchen.  I am somewhat ashamed to admit this, as I firmly believe that one should experience new foods and new restaurants at every opportunity, and as I also scoff at Americans who rave about eating at the Outback Steakhouse or TGI Friday's in Busan.  But apparently California Pizza Kitchen is my Achilles heel.  Actually, only the pizza was tasty, the rest of the meal was pretty lousy, especially dessert, The Worst Tiramisu Ever.  But it was fun to think of all the times we ate at the CPK in Norfolk and enjoyed ourselves.

We didn't do much in the evening either, just relaxed in the hotel and watched the "Sex and the City" movie on TV, which for some reason lasted FOREVER.  We gave up at midnight after a ridiculously long commercial break.  

In the morning, we woke up pretty early and decided to take a walk to a big park not far from our hotel.  The park is on a big hill with the Seoul Tower at the top.  Once we made it into the park, we found an absolutely gorgeous trail for walking, biking, and running, along with tons of people taking advantage of it.  It was nice to be out early and have a chance to see some more of the city.  I wish we had been able to go up to the tower because we both felt like we hadn't had a chance to experience the full size of the city.  Since the Seoul metropolitan area is home to almost a third of South Korea's population, we wanted a chance to be impressed by its vastness.  Maybe next time.

After breakfast, we started our journey back to Geoje, which was pretty much the same as our trip to Seoul, in reverse, with many different modes of transportation.  We were happy to get back to the needy kittens and our cozy apartment after our weekend of adventures.  We'll have to get back to Seoul again and see more of what it has to offer.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Korean Shopping Adventures

This Tuesday was Children's Day in Korea, and as a result, Keegan had the day off. We have been talking for a while about getting a new piece of furniture for the "hallway" in our apartment (really the five feet of wall between the guest bathroom and the kitchen), and we knew just the store we wanted to visit. So around noon we headed towards Gohyeon to pick out a new piece of beautiful wooden furniture.

The store we like is a nondescript building along the highway, with a haphazard collection of fountains and outdoor furniture in front of it. On the patio is a huge chair carved out of the root system of a massive tree. It is totally cool. Inside, there are all kinds of chests, shelves, wardrobes, and chairs. There is even a giant handmade wooden bed that looks like it weighs a ton. Towards the back there is another room full of even more furniture.

When we first got to the store, there was no one around, and we felt funny poking around in the dark back room without permission. So Keegan scouted around outside until he saw a woman returning the shop with groceries and food for lunch. Most Korean shops are small, family-owned affairs, and it's not uncommon to see the proprietor eating an elaborate, chili-paste-tinged meal in the shop if you go shopping around noon. The woman turned on the lights for us in the back room and left us to browse, returning after a few minutes with small paper cups full of instant coffee.

We quickly zeroed in on a beautiful dark wood cabinet with thirty-six tiny drawers painted with Chinese characters. I think that the usual use for such a cabinet is to store the herbs and other ingredients for Traditional Chinese Medicine, but we plan to use it for odds and ends. We beckoned the saleswoman, and she quoted a price for us in Korean. It was one of the few chances I've had to listen to a number purely in Korean, without an immediate translation to English or a calculator display. So I was very proud of my language skill. We moved to the front of the store to complete our purchase.

At this point, things got interesting. The salesman who had helped us the last time wasn't there, and clearly the woman needed to find him to help her carry the cabinet and complete the sale. So, she asked us to sit (I recognized the word from my class!) and turned on the television for us, while she whipped out her cell phone. On the TV was a Korean movie about a girl and a pony, and we did our best to figure out what was going on. While we watched, the girl's father sold the horse, angry words were exchanged, and the girl watched with tears in her eyes as the ship containing the horse sailed away from a pier. As we followed this drama, the proprietress brought out a plate full of Korean rice cakes and chopsticks and told us to help ourselves (another word from my lessons!).

Now, at this point, it is necessary to say a word or two about Korean rice cakes. These were not the dried, puffy kind of cakes that you can buy in the health food aisle. Oh no. These were glutinous, heavy, doughy, green concoctions, presumably made by boiling rice until it was nothing more than a gluey mass, rolling it into a dough with some herbs, and then somehow sucking every last shred of moisture from it. We have eaten these before - usually they are filled with a sweet, sticky red bean paste. But these had no filling and were dry, tasteless, and rubbery. Imagine putting one of those aqua-jogging belts into your mouth and trying to chew it up. We are not big fans of this type of food (could you tell?), but of course, it would have been very rude to refuse such kind hospitality at lunchtime on a holiday afternoon. So we slowly chewed our way through a few slices of rice glue. The kind proprietress brought us some tea, which helped.

Eventually, the proprietor arrived and moved the chest out to the front of the shop, where he proceeded to carefully and systematically dust the entire cabinet. Then he loaded it into a truck to drive to our apartment. Meanwhile, his daughter (I assume) told us she would give us a 50,000 won discount, despite the fact that all of my carefully learned vocabulary for bargaining remained completely unused. We followed the delivery truck all the way back home, where the kind proprietor unloaded our new furniture and carried it up to our place. I was happy that I could tell him "You worked hard. Thank you. Good-bye," in what was no doubt heavily accented, mumbled Korean.

The chest looks wonderful in its new spot.

In the evening, I had another shopping adventure. I wanted to make a recipe that called for four eggs, but we only had two. I decided that I would walk down to the corner store and buy a few more. The store close to our apartment is only a convenience store, so I wasn't sure what I would find, but when I went in I immediately saw some large trays of eggs. Eggs aren't usually refrigerated around here, and these were no exception, but I figured since I planned to cook the eggs for 45 minutes in a 375 degree oven, it would be ok. I wasn't sure how to buy only a few eggs from the huge tray, so I was happy to see nearby little net bags, each holding only three eggs. I walked back to the apartment with my little purchase, proud of my resourcefulness in getting what we needed for dinner.

As soon as I pulled out my purchase in the kitchen, though, Keegan asked me if I knew that I had bought hard-boiled eggs. He had seen them packaged that way before at various convenience stores when traveling with Korean co-workers. Sure, enough, cracking one egg revealed hard-boiled innards, slightly brown from sitting out on the shelf for God knows how long. I became incensed, threw the eggs away, and suggested that we order a pizza. And thus ended our day of Korean shopping adventures.