Friday, September 24, 2010

Sightseeing

Chusok break is winding down.  We've been making the most of our week off of work and school.  The weather has finally cleared up.   The rain and heat and humidity are GONE.  Sunny, clear skies, cool mornings and evenings and warm days have set in.  Finally!  I saw on the weather news that we've had almost 4x the normal amount of rain - recording setting. 

So, the break in the weather has made for wonderful sight seeing.  We celebrated two special occasions this week: my birthday and Anna's adoption day.  Make that three special occasions; our new couch and chair arrived after a 3 week set of delays.  Halleluia! 

Mexican food makes a felix cumpleanos
For my birthday we headed back to Itaewon, the Global Village area with a plethora of shops and ethnic eateries.  I have been hankering good Mexican food, and I knew I could find it there.   What an eclectic place.  We met Mr. Jokeman, a tailor who accosted Brent on the street insisting he could custom make him a suit and tell jokes "for free."  We've got his card to prove it.  (Tailored suits ARE a big thing here, and Itaewon is a good place to go since you have a better chance of finding an English speaking taylor.)  We also had a street artist create a banner with our last name on it with amazing artwork!  Can't wait to frame it and put it up in the apartment.  For lunch we walked Restaurant Row and found Amigos at the very end.  This was just what the doctor ordered - great Mexican food.  I had a burrito and a taco, rice and beans.  The mango margarita was on the house as a birthday present.  Cool.  Later I was told the Mexican embassy orders from them as it is the closest to home cookin' they can get.  After a few more purchases, we headed back home.

Drum and Dance show at Korean Folk Village
Dressed as guards for the Governor's Palace
 For Anna's birthday we made our way to the Korean Folk Village.  I got directions through a phone service here for foreigners, learning which buses would take us the 35 minutes to the Village.  It is sort of a Heritage Hill crossed with a Bay Beach Amusement park attached.  The grounds are huge, housing all kinds of authentic buildings, a few different museums, and various areas for entertainment.  Workers and artisans dress in the traditional hanbok, so the kids wore theirs, too!  (A lot of heads turned seeing two little blond headed kids in hanbok!)  While there, we saw a horsemanship show, a tightwire act, a concert of traditional Korean music, awesome drumming and dancing in bright costumes, and a traditional wedding recreation.  The kids both got to ride a horse led by one of the professional riders; a highlight of their day.  For supper we ate at the "foodcourt," an outdoor area where you order and pay for your food at a central ticket booth then take the tickets to the booths to pick up your order.  We had a marvelous noodle soup, pork kabobs, rice, kimchi, and water.  (By the way, most all places expect you to drink water with your meals, not milk, juice, pop, or alcohol.)  At the amusement area we took a relaxing trip on a little boat ride, rode a small rollercoaster (which the kids loved) among other things.  The nailbiting part of the day was when I lost my Flip for about 10 minutes until we retraced our steps twice and found it.

Enjoying a ride down the river at Korean Folk Village
Today our new couch and chair (cushy and reclining) arrived.  Wonderful!  The couch and chair provided would only seat three of the four of us and not very comfortable (too HARD).  So, now all that is left is a bit larger TV and we'll be set.  Don't expect anymore fabulous adventures for awhile - we'll be too busy lounging around as couch potatoes!

Monday, September 20, 2010

Lost in Translation

Happy Chusok!

Wednesday is a special holiday for the Koreans.  To the locals it is a sort of Thanksgiving/Day of the Dead combo that is celebrated for several days.  This is a time to be with family, wear traditional clothing, eat special foods just for this occasion, a visit the cemetery to honor the deceased.  To expats such as ourselves, it mostly means vacation at an unusual time - September!  Most people return to families, which means that Seoul more or less empties out and lots of businesses close for the holidays.  Many of the teachers at our school (foreigners) head out of the country for the week.  We did not.  We headed to a resort in another area of Korea where we cashed in on some timeshare.  At least, that is what we WANTED to do. 

Turns out that Cheongju and Chungju are not the same place.  Just try pronouncing both of those names aloud once and see if you hear a difference.  I didn't, but apparently the guy at the bus terminal did, because when I asked for 4 tickets to Chungju, it was heard as Cheongju.  Both cost about the same fare and lasted about the same amount of time, so I didn't know the difference.  Our family happily boarded the bus and settled in for a 2 hour ride beginning at about 7:10 PM on Friday night and ending at 9:00 PM on Friday night.  Perhaps we should have been suspicious when the first taxi driver we came to refused us service.  Instead, he indicated the guy behind him who promptly KICKED out some poor schmuck in the back who thought he was going to get somewhere!  We apologized, put our luggage in the trunk and got in the cab with "John Denver."  (You'll understand in a minute.)  He knew a little English.  I showed him the resort address, carefully sounding it out with him.  He punched it into his GPS and we were off.  I expected a 5 minute ride and a 6000 Won fare (as promised by the Resort paperwork).  He was a pretty good conversationalist and began making small talk.  Pretty soon we were out of the city.  After 15 minutes I felt suspicious.  What had gone wrong?  Our driver helped us to understand: we had arrived in Cheongju, a happy 84 km from Chungju and he was taking us there!  We were in for a long ride - literally!

Chalk that one up to experience!

Thankfully our driver was a good guy.  He asked questions about the US and spoke of how he would love to travel all over the US some day, but he was just a poor taxi driver.  He spoke about how all American women are seen as "movie stars."  (I guess that makes me a sort of movie star!)  He told us he knew a little John Denver and began singing "Country Road Take Me Home."  Brent and I joined in.  We had some regular karaoke going on!  Eventually we saw it.  Our place was near the top of a mountain.  The taxi began the long ascent.  We passed some poor young young guy walking up the sidewalk that lined the road.  I wanted to pick him up, but there was no room in the car.  "What a long walk that would be," I thought.  At last we arrived.  We were elated!  It was about 10:00 PM.  So, 1 hour, 84 km and 100,000 Won ($100) later we were saying THANK YOU to John Denver.

It doesn't end there, of course.

We plopped into bed (as a one bedroom, one kid slept on the floor and the other on the couch) and drifted happily to sleep.  The next morning we discovered what a beautiful, remote setting our place was in.  Lovely!  The mountains were misted over in the distance and looked 2 dimensional - just like in the Korean artwork you see.  We made our way down to breakfast - a traditional Korean breakfast - our first.  Korean breakfast is just like Korean lunch or supper; essentially there is no differentiation.  We were served rice, soup, kimchi, a fried egg, and a few other side dishes.  Much of it was quite good.  Next up - doing something fun!

One problem.  No car and no public transportation meant taking another taxi into town - yes, Chungju.  It turns out we were still 20 minutes from Chungju!  Yet another long and costly taxi ride into town.  No worries, though.  We were determined to have a good time.  So, we headed toward the Visitor Information Center.  What luck.  The minute we walked in, a kind, local English speaking couple came in too.  "What are you doing here?" Matt asked.  "We're here for Chusok, just exploring."  "Really?"  "Yes, what is there to do around here?"  Well, the couple proceeded to give about 30 minutes of their time explaining what might be good to do in the area with the kids.  Very kind of them!  Unfortunately, the thing we most wanted to do was take a ferry around the big lake there, but they were only running the short route due to Chusok and we wouldn't make their departure that day.  Another day, perhaps.

Finally, we took off for our adventure.  Taxied to a nice park with lots of monuments, statuary, and a beautiful view of the river as well as a lovely lookout tower.  We also discovered a forgotten Buddhist Temple tucked in the hillside.
Next, we taxied to another park that held a 7 story pagoda marking the very center of the Korean peninsula.  Cool.
Wandered into a small museum, again looked at the river and generally wandered around.  Taxied back into town to seek out public transportation back to the resort (as it would be much cheaper).  We had a bit of supper at Pizza Hut (no the pizza does not taste quite the same.) As usual, we met people who adored our children and wanted to talk to them and touch their hair.

Eventually we got on the 365 bus to the country.  It was a 45 minute ride to our stop.  We watched the lovely red sunset.  As we really didn't know where to get off, the bus driver kindly stopped at the bottom of our mountain and waited for us to disembark.  So, there we were - 7:10 PM, dusk, at the bottom of a mountain in the middle of nowhere.  No chance of getting a taxi now.  We had only one choice - hoof it to the top of the mountain!

The kids were great.  All in all, I imagine it was a 1.5 - 2 mile hike from the bus stop to the front door.  Anna was the first to make it, then Alec, then Brent (who only hung back on my account).  I brought up the rear, feeling like the guy who comes in last in a Biggest Loser challenge.  But, we made it!  We climbed a mountain!  Once again, we plopped into bed very weary travelers.

The following day it rained.  All day.  Just plain rained.  We had no ambition to walk down the mountain to catch a bus nor pay the price of riding into town to do activities in the rain, so we simply "hung out."  The highlight of the day consisted of experiencing a Korean Sauna (or public bath).  There was one on the resort - kids welcome.  Yahoo!  Boys go one way, girls the other.  Why?  Because public baths are enjoyed nude.  Thankfully, there was only one other woman in the bathhouse.  This made the whole experience a bit more comfortable for me.  Anna, of course, has no problem with nudity; she never has.  So she happily trotted from one hot bath to the next in her birthday suit.  The room itself was amazing - 4 different bath areas (the size of huge hottubs without jets).  One at about 105 degrees F, another at about 100 F, another about the same but with some sort of medicinal herbs in the water, another cold bath (75 F?), and two dry saunas.  The room also contained several standing showers, and seated showers for soaking feet, for example.  It was an amazing facility built to easily hold 50 - 60 people in the baths themselves.  The locker room had over 100 lockers, but there were only 3 of us!  We soaked in one, and then another, and then another several times over.  Lovely and relaxing.

So, were entertained ourselves for the rest of the day as best we could.  No restaurant was open, so we ate convenience store food for lunch and ordered take out "chicken" (which here means fried chicken) for supper.  A nice movie before bedtime and all was well.

Next day.  Rain again.  Drat!  Well, as you could imagine, this did not sit well with us.  Essentially all services were halted at the resort (because of Chusok?) and we had no wheels of our own.  Patience had run out.  So, we called it a day, hopped in a taxi to the bus station in CHUNGJU and made our way back to Seoul for the very reasonable price of 32000 Won total (about $30) for our 2 hour ride.

Now we are back at our apartment and couldn't be happier.  I AM sad that we never made it to the lake there.  We were looking forward to it.  But sometimes you just got to deal with the hand given you.

Think of us on Wednesday; it'll be Chusok and we'll be sure to dress our kids up in their traditional hanbok clothes for the occasion.  Now. . . if we can just find an open restaurant . . .

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Cool!

Hello all!

This is a quick note.  I just checked my "statistics" for my blog.  This includes a glance at my demographics.  I'm quite excited because my blog now includes hits from 10 different countries!  Isn't technology wonderful?

Peace.  Pax.  Paix.

B

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Prices and Products

Hi Readers,

How much is a loaf of bread?  How much for milk? or gas? or a night out?
I remember wondering these questions before I came to Korea.  As a matter of fact, I remember one night on Facebook pounding Yunji with question after question about her home country days before we were to leave.  I was especially worried about finding cheese.  Good old Wisconsin cheese.  And milk.  She assured me I could find "everything."

So, I thought I'd take this time to talk about prices and products - shopping in general.

I'm not a huge shopper.  Never have been and never will be.  But I can offer this: in general clothes and shoes and eating out at a Korean restaurant are quite a bit cheaper than in the US.  Groceries, especially fresh fruits and vegetables and meat, is much more expensive.

First, clothes.   The fashion here is wide-ranging but chic.  It's almost impossible for me to find clothes that fit due to my size versus the normal female Korean sizes.  But I did by a nice pair of shoes today for 17000 Won (about 15.50 US).  Shoe stores are EVERYWHERE.  Most shop keepers of all kinds put at least some of their wares out on the street in front of their place.  So it looks like Maxwell Street Days all the time here.  T-shirts abound for 5000 Won.  In fact, Brent bought a short sleeved button up shirt for 5000 Won one day (about $3)  So clothes are to be found easily and at good prices.  There are also an abundance of up-scale shops to be found in certain shopping malls.  Prices in these places are as you would expect - way beyond my budget.  In general, Koreans love to have the brand name sort of stuff, so there are also quite a few knock off brands to be found. 

Next, food.  Food is everywhere.  In one city block you will easily find clothing shops, a salon, a stationery store, a pool hall, a convenience store, a pharmacy, a PC Bong (internet arcade) one or two small grocery stores (always with icecream machines outside), a Baskin Robbins, and several eateries.  Some of the restaurants make their food right in their front window facing the street so you don't even have to walk in to buy their products.  These places sell tempura, spicy meat dishes, vegetable pancakes, waffles, or candies.  Their prices are very reasonable, usually ranging from 1000 - 4000 Won.  No tipping is expected.  The Korean restaurants usually specialize.  They might sell primarily spicy chicken or pork dishes or rice dishes with pork cutlets, or sushi-like options or soups, depending upon where you go.  Prices usually range from 4000 Won - 10000 Won.  No tipping expected.  At Western chain restaurants, like Outback Steakhouse the prices are rather comparable to what we'd pay in the US.  The menus are slightly different, but still a good place to find beef, which is rare here.  Tipping is expected and included in the bill.   Same for Italian restaurants, we've found.  Baskin Robbins and Dunkin' Donuts abound here - almost one on every other street!  We can get an icecream cone for 1500 - 2000 Won.

Now for grocery shopping.  I have yet to find anything like ye-olde-gallon of skim milk.  However, the litre-plus milk we find (probably closer to 2%) costs about 3300 Won (about $3)  I consider that pricey.  Cheese can be found in bulk at Costco for a somewhat reasonable price.  But in a regular grocery store, we've paid what amounted to $7 for 1 pound of Colby from Wisconsin.  The cost of any vegetable or fruit is generally almost twice what we'd pay in the States.  I haven't adjusted to the metric system yet either, which causes some problems.  A big cereal box?  About $4 -$5.  Diet Coke?  Well, I'm more likely to find Coke Zero and pay about twice the cost at Festival for a similar amount.  I haven't found sour cream yet.  Beef roast?  Impossible!  Beef prices are astronomical - including hamburger.  Most beef comes from Australia.  So there are some things that are nearly impossible to find (or maybe they're here and I just can't read the labels!)  But there are certainly a wide range of products in the grocery store that I've never seen or eaten before.  Seafood and fish are found in abundance.  I wouldn't know what to do with them!  Also, there are a number of vegetables and fruits that are new to me.  At one grocery store we saw a kimchi-bar (sort of like a salad bar, only with all different varieties of kimchi!)

Many Koreans simply eat out most of the time because it is cheaper than buying at the grocery store and making it yourself.  We're doing a bit of both - so far.  So it is always an adventure shopping for food!

:) B

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Politeness

 Politeness wins the confidence of princes” - Chinese Proverb

I want to take this time to comment on the concept of politeness.  People are people and kids are kids, but there seems to be a level of politeness in Korea that has surprised me. 

I imagine it has to do with the hierarchical nature of the culture here.  Each day as we walk past the guardhouse on the way to school, the guard stands, nods his head and says hello (in Korean, of course) to us.  We smile, nod our heads, and say hello back (in Korean, of course).  Each day as we get on the bus, the busdriver greets us, and we him.  In class as students enter many of them say hello to me, and later say good-bye.  During class when I hand papers back or they hand them in, custom dictates that two hands be used for the transaction as a sign of respect to me.  (I've decided I know which students are American and which are Korean by home-culture by the way they turn in their papers.)

I enjoy the civility here in the greetings of bus drivers, cab drivers, shop keepers, and students.  It is not something I expected.  My preconceived notions had to do with large cities with lots of people bumping into each other and not saying excuse me.  While this is true, I've found that in general, the Korean people are quite polite and good-natured.

All of this sounds wonderful, of course, until you see the driving. . . but that is a story for another day.