Monday, December 26, 2011

Palace Gates of the Ancient Korean Kingdom

Artwork on a Buddhist Temple

War Machines of the Korean Army

Korean Street Market Food

Hanging out with Korean Warrior

Finding the Soul of Seoul

                I walked off the plane, stepped out of the terminal and was immediately blown back by a gust of freezing wind. I was still underneath a gigantic steel dome structure that covered the area between the airport and railroad, but it did little to protect me from the unforgiving cold that swarmed around me and shocked me into alertness. My breath turned to steam, my eyes watered up, the hair on my arms stood straight, and my nose tinged with pain. The icy air seeped into my skin and made my bones ache.
                The sensation of cold was something that I have not experienced for more than a year. My body has not been exposed to temperatures below 70 degrees since I arrived in Micronesia over 15 months ago. Now I was suddenly thrust into a unknown world of freezingly dry weather. The 29 degree air engulfed my body in a frigid blanket of overwhelming cold and literally stopped me in my tracks.
                I was far from prepared for this kind of wintry atmosphere. My wardrobe consisted of 2 tanktops, a bathing suit, one pair of basketball shorts, a few t-shirts, several boxers, a single long sleeve shirt, and two of thinnest materialed pants known to mankind. I also brought along some sandals and a ratty old pair of sneakers full of holes. Needless to say, my tanktop and shorts were not sufficient to shield me from the onslaught of cold that awaited me in Korea.
                For the first few seconds, the cold was actually refreshing. I took a deep breath of the crisp air and felt refreshed by the novel sensation that was coursing through my veins. This feeling was quickly replaced by a biting iciness that forced me scamper along at a quicker pace and shake my arms to keep the blood circulating. I hurried into the railroad station and boarded an express train bound for the center of the big city.
                The crowded bullet train had heated seats and the body heat of the throngs of bundled up Koreans kept the inside of the train car nice and toasty. Our train sped out of the Incheon Airport and popped out of a tunnel into unmanned openness. Wide open grassland spotted with leafless trees covered the landscape. This was not what I expected to see in the bustling metropolis of Seoul.
                My original xpectations were soon realized when we crossed a bridge and entered into what I believed were the suburbs. The outskirts of the booming city were not the stereotypical image of white picket fences and single-family houses that American suburbs boast. The skyline went from hilly meadows to towering buildings within minutes. 30-story skyscrapers containing scores of people were tightly bunched together along a seemingly endless expanse of development. The high-rise apartment buildings reminded me of what I remember from the "suburbs" of Hong Kong. The architecture, spacing, and size of the outer cities simulated the same crowded developments that surprised me a couple of years ago. The condo megaplexes all look exactly the same. Same color, same shape, same arrangement, and probably the  same on the inside. No points for originality, but they sure do a good job of getting a lot of people into one spot.
                The metropolitan area may seem overdeveloped in its efforts to reach towards the sky to cram in all its people, but it has to put them somewhere. Seoul and its immediate vicinity make up the second largest metropolitan area in the world with almost 25 million people living around the South Korean capital. Only Tokyo can handle a larger population.
                We crossed another bridge and then entered into the real city. A city of technology. A city of efficiency. A city of the future. Seoul is a giant conglomeration of infinite skyscrapers that span for miles on the banks of the Hangang River. Its bustling streets criss-cross between the behemoth steel towers that dot the skyline. Busses, subways, trains, cars, motorcycles, and millions of people hurry around the city in a hectic race to scurry along to their next destination. Huge electronic billboards advertise Ipads and cellphones. The emblems of multination corporations are plastered at the tops of every building, marking their dominance as the kings of this capitalist megatown. The city is a continuous buzz of activity. Everyone and everything is going a million miles an hour; headlong into the future.
                If you have read any of my other blogs, I am sure you are already aware of the stark contrast between the city of Seoul and my home island of Fefan. Chuuk is a slow-moving crawl through life, only stopping along the way to chew on a fish or gaze at the rippling blue sea. Most of the time, no one is going anywhere and no one is doing anything. People just "are". Where Seoul is a continuous buzz of activity, Chuuk is a continuous lull of activity. There is nothing worth doing except kicking back and relaxing on the beautiful islands and absorbing the radiant heat.
                It is a matter of personal opinion which life suits you best, I am in no place to make judgments upon which life is "better". Some people like the efficient hustle bustle of the technological world and others like the low key stroll of island living. However, I am in a unique position as I have been thrust into two polar opposite worlds and get to make a side-by-side comparison of the lifestyles. Good stuff to think about.
                After I settled into the Seoulwise Hostel Guesthouse and took a nap to recover my wits, my first mission was to get myself some proper clothes for this harsh environment. I at least needed a jacket to shield me from the freezing temperatures outside. I took the advice of my hostel manager and hopped on a subway towards the center of the city where I could find the Namdaemun marketplace.
                I slunk down into the depths of a concrete cave and followed the crowds of Koreans jostling their way towards the metro entrances. I watched for a minute as people paid for their tickets or simply swiped a wallet and sped through the gate. I quickly figured out the system and got myself a metro pass that would last for a few trips around the city. I brushed my card over a magnetic sensing device and a shiny metal arm swung open to allow me to pass through the stall. I stood in the terminal scanning back and forth at the signs of Korean scrawl and trying to decide which way I wanted to go. There were 4 different subways that I could board and I didnt want to get fooled into going the wrong way. I glanced over a couple of maps, matched the names to the subway destinations and then picked my train. I sauntered down another flight of stairs as a crowd of quick moving locals darted passed me down the hallway. I arrived on the subway platform just as the doors slid shut. “Damn, I missed my train, looks like I've got another twenty minutes of standing around.” I started to fiddle around with my map when suddenly another train arrived in its place. It only took about 3 minutes! Talk about efficiency.
                I exited at the City Hall terminal and climbed out of the underground passageway into the center of the jumbo city. The buildings were taller, the streets were wider and even more people lined the sidewalks here in downtown. I took a look at another map and hesitantly started walking in a direction that I wasnt sure was correct. I went for about 200 yards before I noticed a large group of people gathered around an ancient looking gate. I came closer to the action and saw what the onlookers were watching. A battalion of colorfully clad soldiers were performing "changing the guard" rituals at the entrance to a former palace. The guardsmen were dressed in traditional garments and had the full repertoire of spear tipped poles and long droopy mustaches. They banged on a powerful drum and marched around in a series of disciplined formations. A commander at the center shouted orders as the different groups of colored soldiers performed traditional routines. The commander barked a final order, and half the soldiers marched their way through the gate into the palace compound. I was pleasantly surprised to see this ancient cultural exhibition sandwiched in the shadows of the skyscrapers and billboards.
                I enjoyed the showcase of guardsmen performers, but it also made me realize that I was in the wrong place. I consulted the map once more and headed back the other direction. I zig-zagged across a few busy streets and finally found myself at the Namdaemun market. This marketplace is famous for selling all kinds of clothing and items in a traditional open-air market style. Booths and tiny shops are crammed along a crowded cobblestone road that is nestled in a secret neighborhood of the city. Merchants are selling a wide range of products at bargain prices. Piles of clothes are plunked down in the middle of the road and people start clawing at the garments. Food hawkers are frying tasty treats on sizzling street carts. Shopkeepers are beckoning for my attention and eagerly holding their prized merchandise. The energy level is even crazier than on the big streets, but its a different type of energy. Its an energy entirely fueled by shopping. We all know the wildness that can occur on Black Friday or Christmas Eve during holiday shopping back in America. Imagine all that hecticness packed into the back alleys of a Korean market. Everything is intensified.
                I do a full tour and a little bit of price comparison before I decide to buy anything. I am an infamously indecisive shopper, but my will is finally persuaded to make a purchase when I simply cant stand the cold any longer. My teeth are beginning to chatter and the coldness is starting to make me sniffle and shake. I pick up a pair of gloves, a beanie hat, and a green jacket. I put on all the winter wear, but am still cold. I start to regret not buying a puffier jacket, but realize that the purchase is made and there is nothing I can about it.
                After shopping, I wander the streets and snack on some of the street food from the vendor carts. Street food in Korea is famous for its value and tastiness. Hundreds of little carts are scattered along the roads slanging all kinds of hot foods. You can step into the overhanging plastic covering and pop a toasty fried mystery food into our mouth as you sip on a small cup of warm broth. I dont ever know what I am eating when I order, so I have just been trying a different thing each time. Each one of these tiny delicacies has been surprisingly delicious. Some are spicy and some are sweet. Some are fried and some are boiled. Either way, I have yet to be disappointed by these cheap street treats.
                I get back to my hostel before dark and crawl into my bed to warm myself up. I am still shivering from the cold and I need the rest for my body. I have been on back-to-back midnight flights and only had shoddy naps to relax and recuperate. I awake from my nap and take a shower before trying to go discover the famous nightlife of Hongdae area. I sit down on computer and start browsing through the laser speed internet as my body starts to send me warning signs. It is telling me, "you are cold, you are tired, and you are sick". I begin to slip into a mild fever and weakness of the body, and then decide that its probably not a good idea for me to go out drinking tonight. The idea of braving the cold and pounding back soju is not appealing to my mind or body. So I take the road I rarely follow, and decide to refrain from having a drink or two. Instead, I cuddle up in my warm sheets and try to sleep off this sickness that is beckoning at my door.
               The next morning, I arise around 8 and eat some cereal and toast for breakfast. I begin planning my daily excursions, but then opt for more sleep to mend my freezing limbs. I once again wake up sometime after noon, and then head out on my journey. I feel refreshed when I step outside and an excited energy flows through my body. Today, I am better prepared for the weather (well kind of). Due to my lack of proper clothes, my best option is to layer. I put on two layers of socks and basketball shorts under my pants. On top I wear an undershirt, a long sleeve shirt, a t-shirt, another t-shirt and then my new jacket. My $2 gloves and $4 beanie go on last to cover me up from the cold. This layered mishmash of winter wear does an admirable job of keeping me warm in the 20 degree weather of the city.
                My hostel manager Young draws me a map of places that I should see on my first day in Seoul. The plan seems ambitious for beginning after 1pm, but I embark on my exploration with a heart full of excitement. My first destination is the famous Gyeongbokgung Palace near the city center.
                 Gyeongbokgung Palace was the former residence of the emperor of Korea and the country's political center for more than 600 years. It is steeped in tradition and is one of the prize landmarks for the Korean people. The palace walls are immense and the giant colorful gates provide a stunning entrance to the inner grounds. My first impression was its striking similarity to the Forbidden City in Beijing. This initial impression of mine would be supported as I continued to wander through the palace and gaze at the spectacular artwork, meticulous architecture, and intricate design of the palace. Comparing this place to the Forbidden City is not demeaning its magnificence at all; rather it is a generous compliment.
                The two ancient palaces share similar structure, design and function. The division of courtyards and fabulous gates seem to have sprung from the same tradition of architecture and ideology. The two cultures have been linked for centuries and it is not surprising that their famous palaces also share similarities. Many people often overlook the rich history of the Korean people because they are sandwiched between Japan and China; but after viewing the palaces and seeing the museum, I have come to realize that Korea has wonderful past of dynasties that created art, science, government and many other noteworthy accomplishments.
                The one thing that impressed me the most about the palace was the detailed artwork that covers the gates and palace halls. Exquisite patterns of blues, greens, pinks and reds swirl across the trellises, walls, and roofs. Flower designs and storyboards of cultural depth flank the walls and depict the artistic creativity of the Korean people. The perfect decorations were tirelessly painted across dozens of enormous structures and provide an amazing site to be gazed upon.
                I wandered through the courtyards and passageways of the palace grounds for a couple of hours and ended at the museum in the far corner. The one thing that made this experience extra special for me was the quiet atmosphere. There were other tourists there as well, but it wasn’t overflowing with people. I found myself walking alone through empty courtyards and traipsing along pathways where I heard nothing by my own footsteps. It was a transcendently peaceful time to stroll alone through this magnificent palace.
                The palace isn’t just one huge building towering above everything else. Instead, this type of palace is more like an enclosed city with several large structures throughout. It is a huge expanse of land that must have housed thousands of people. It is truly a fantastic thing to see and made me appreciate the importance of Korean history.
                Afterwards, I walked across a few streets until I reached another traveller hot spot called Bukchon Village. Buckchon is a place that still maintains the traditional style of Korean houses. The buildings are tiled with black clay shingles that curve up at the edges. It typifies the type of East Asian architecture that has been made famous in Japan and China. I wandered through the old neighborhood and enjoyed the traditional style of the place. There were many small shops and cultural workshop areas in the houses along the road, but I just walked on by and continued my city tour.
                My next destination was Insa Dong, the place to buy Korean arts and crafts. I came on this trip with a very limited budget and wasnt planning on really buying anything, but I felt it was a worth checking out the artistic creations of the country. Insa Dong has a walkway street that is flanked by hundreds of small shops selling local crafts, clothes and other odds and ends. It is the kind of place where almost all the stores have the same type of stuff. Masks, jewelry, clothes, and little tid-bits of souvenirs. I poked my head in a few stores and munched on some street food as I slowly meandered down the road.
                As I made my way back towards the subway station, I walked along a river that streaked through the city. There was a walkway down by the river that provided a peaceful escape from the craziness of the city. A tranquil stream trickled down its manmade banks and through the arranged rocks in its belly. It was a fake river, but it was a beautifully made fake river. The sun was starting to drop and I noticed colored lights beginning to appear beneath the surface and on the boulders protruding above the waterline. If I wasn’t freezing cold, I probably would have waited to see the lightshow that seemed to be imminent; but instead I hurried my way across the noisy streets and down into the transportation hub bub down below the city.
                My hostel is currently being remodeled, so unfortunately there were very few people here. I was hoping to make friends with other travellers and do some sightseeing and drinking with them, but to my chagrin the only people at my hostel are a mom and son pair and a snooty frenchman. So I decided to do something I have never done before in my life; go out on the town alone.
                The nightlife of Hongdae is buzzing with energy. Lights and music are booming from every spot along the half mile stretch of street that is adjacent to Hongik University. From the street, the place is pumping with excitement. Flourescent lights flicker at every door and booming music pours through the windows. Hundreds, literally hundreds, of bars line the road. The energy of Hongdae nightlife is a vibrant out flux of technoligized fun.
                However, I was rather disappointed to find very little activity when I went inside to grab a drink. I went into 3 or 4 places and was surprised to find only a few quiet Koreans sipping drinks in booths. I drank a few by myself and continued on a trek for friendship, but failed time after time. I found no English speakers and no fellow travelers to shoot the shit with. I felt rather pathetic by the end of the night and snuck back to my hostel room and snuggled into my covers. I was unsuccessful in my first outing to meet some other fun travellers, but there was still plenty of time.
                The next morning, I woke up in the morning as a new arrival stumbled into my room and collapsed on a bed. A few hours later, he awoke from his jet-lagged slumber and I was pleasantly surprised to meet a travel buddy. He is a Vietnamese Aussie and is the exact same boat as I am. He booked a trip to Korea on a whim and had no idea what he wanted to do here. He had no plans in Seoul except maybe meeting some travellers and seeing the sights of the city. It worked out great for the two of us and we headed out on our first excursion.
                We took the metro across the city to the southern tip beyond the river. Our destination was the Bongeusa Buddhist Temple. The temple is hidden beneath the towering trees of steel that dominate the city scape. We turned a corner around a giant glass building and looked upon the beautiful gates and intricately decorated artwork of Bongeusa. The temple is almost 1300 years old, but was neglected for the majority of that time due to government reactions against Buddhism. It has recently been renovated and the magnificent splendor has been restored. As you walk through the arched gates and into temple grounds, a feeling of spiritual peacefulness overtakes your body and the frantic noise of the city streets drowns away into the distance.
                We narrowly missed an opportunity to have a 3 hour templestay and have meditation sessions, tours and Buddhist rituals led by the local monks. I was bummed out that we didnt get the chance to experience the real Buddhist way, but we still did our best to enjoy the tranquil atmosphere. After walking around the outside of the temple buildings, we took off our shoes and entered into the main hall. We sat cross legged in the center of the room and soaked up the feelings generated from within this holy site. About 20 Buddhists were performing prostrations or meditating on cushions around the room. Every inch of the walls was covered in colorful painting or flaming candles. Lotus flower lights lined the edges of the ceiling and 3 large statues of Buddha stood on a shrine in the center. As I closely inspected the paintings and figurines around the room, I noticed an interesting thing. All of the characters in the pictures had contorted faces that showed anger, love, laughter, hate, fear, or fury. But the Buddha's face was always calm and relaxed. He is the beacon of moderation and always follows the middle path.
                We went out the backdoor after a long period of relaxing in the temple and walked towards the huge stone statue that stood over a small hill. This humungous statue of Buddha was an immensely impressive work of art that had a natural background of rising trees. We marveled at the statue for a bit, but were soon distracted by the bang bang of drums from a distant temple hall. We walked toward the cacophonous drumming and tried to see if we could enter the building to watch the festivities. We scanned around the perimeter but found no entrance. At this point, we were both shivering with cold and started to walk away to warmer quarters. But suddenly, a woman emerged from a side door and beckoned us to enter. We went into the large hall and were struck with the boom of 50 drums. A giant circle of middle-aged women were marching in a circle and pounding on all sorts of drums. We were given seats at the back and were handed warm cups of water. We watched in wonder as the melody of drummers echoed through the room. The performers were happy to have visitors and put on a fantastic display of musical festivities for us to enjoy.
                As the sun sunk behind the concrete skyline and the temperature dropped another 10 degrees, my friend Michael and I convinced our hostel manager to show us how to properly eat a famous Korean BBQ feast. We bundled up in our layers of clothes and zipped through a maze of streets before arriving at a steamy windowed shop at the corner of a brown building. Through the fogged glass, I could see cramped groups of eaters circled around sizzling platters of meat. The door chimed as we entered and chorus of excited Korean greetings bellowed to welcome us.
                 Two workers quickly hustled across the small room and arranged a table for us. They wiped it clean, removed a few stools and poured water in the metallic hole in the center of the short circular table. We took a seat on the 1-foot high stools as a man plopped a bucket of flaming coals in the middle of the hole. He placed a grill on top of the hollowed out table-center and handed us an array of tongs and chopsticks. Before I could take my jacket off, ten small dishes of Kimchi and other appetizers were littered across the tiny table. A platter of pork was pushed into my hands and a bottle of Soju was handed to my friend. All of this preparation was accomplished in less than 90 seconds from when we walked in the door.
                The hostess then brought a trash bag and asked us to put our jackets in the plastic. I was confused at first, but my guide explained that it was to keep the strong smells off your close. In this setting, it actually made sense. The air was thick was meat flavored smoke. No ventilation coupled with a dozen flaming grills in a place the size of my bedroom is a recipe for a sauna of smelly smoke.
                A moat of heated water surrounding the burning coals provided the necessary heat to grill our food right in the middle of our table. We let our Korean guide handle the cooking and he shuffled the meat and veggies around at a nimble pace. He tossed on garlic, onions, kimchi and potatoes to add some variety to the mound of meat. Korean BBQ gives you the freedom to cook your food by yourself right at your table, so you have the ability to control portions, timing, and deliciousness.
                We snacked on the side dishes of spicy pickled vegetables and then took our first sip of Soju. It is tradition in Korea to never pour your own drink. If you want a new shot, you must ask your partner for assistance. They will gently grasp the bottle with two hands and pour a cup full into your outstretched glass, which must also be held with two hands. I was also told that it is respectful to always accept a drink if it is offered. You can refuse from the beginning if you are not in the mood. But if you accept once, you better be ready to keep on drinking until the booze dries up.
                The tasty pork belly meat was gobbled down and then our guide hollered across the room and another plate of "meat" was brought for our second course. The second plate was actually a pile of pig skin. This would have been a surprising display for me if I had not already eaten plenty of it in Chuuk. The skin of a pig is about a half centimeter thick and usually a light brown color. It is rubbery and chewy, and sometimes still has some leftover hairs. In America, sometimes you seen the puffed up pork rines in a chip bag at a trucker rest stop, but those are far different from this delicacy. He used scissors to cut the long strips into small pieces and threw them on the grill. They crisped up quickly and began to pop up like sizzling bacon. One piece shot so high that it completely fell off the table. I really enjoyed the crunchy and chewy contrasting textures of the skin, not to mention the succulent fatty juices that squeezed out of the pores.
                We left the restaurant with full bellies' and spicy tongues. On this night, I had some drinkin buddies at my back so we walked towards the busy bar street and had a drink at a few places. I got a more in depth look into the nightlife of Korea and noticed a few peculiarities about their style of partying. Most of the bars are blazing electronic techno music at blaring levels and have flashing lights and disco balls twirling in a dazzling display of brightness. In America, places like this would be dance clubs. People would be out boogeying and shaking to the music on the dance floor. However, the Koreans handle the atmosphere a little differently. As you enter the bar, you are often greeted by a hostess who shuffles you to a booth or table and hands you a menu. The majority of the items on the menu are combination sets that include a variety of drinks along with a platter of food. And its not the normal greasy bar food that you might expect; instead you might have the option of the watermelon and canteloupe display, or the sashimi and soup mix.  Its an odd combo of styles, but fun nonetheless.
                After a few days of being numb from the freezing temperatures, I figured it might be a good idea to buy some more cold-weather gear to keep me warm for the remainder of the trip. I was in a state of semi-sickness since I arrived; and my fingers, toes and nose were perpetually frozen. Apparently layer upon layer of t-shirts isnt good enough to keep a man warm in -9 degree weather. So I picked up a furry sweatshirt and a scarf to complete my ensemble. My daily outfit from this point forward consisted of 2 pairs of socks, 2 pairs of pants with basketball shorts and boxers underneath, gloves, a beanie, a scarf, one long sleeve shirt, 3 shirts, a furry sweatshirt, and a large jacket on top. Despite all these layers, the chill still rattled me to the bone. I think my body was designed to only wear boardshorts and a tanktop, this cold stuff doesnt blend well with my internal chemistry.
                Now that I had 5 inches of cotton surrounding my torso, I was ready to see our next spot, which was the Korean War Museum. We thought it would just be a boring statue with some names on it, but we found that there was much more to be seen. A field of tanks, planes, boats, anti-aircraft guns, helicopters rocket launchers and large war machines was set up as a playground for museum goers. These werent just cool things to look at; you could actually climb inside and on top of many of the massive weapons. We clambered over tanks and through the control center of warships as we envisioned ourselves in real combat. I felt like I was a little kid in a candy shop; if candy=deadly weapons and little kid=battle-scarred warrior.
                After our fill of playing with the weapons, we strolled inside and took a gander through the museum halls. The main focus of the museum was the Korean War back in the 1950's. It was interesting for me to learn more about this conflict, because it is often overlooked as the little tussle we had between the big wars of Vietnam and WWII. I was also surprised to find out about Korea's involvement as US allies in every armed conflict since the 1950's. I sometimes forget about Korea's importance with the US military, but we have over 25000 troops stationed here and they send thousands of their own out on the battlefront with our men. We had a surprisingly good time at the war museum and spent much more time than we planned.
                I was feeling weak and tired after a day of winter walking and was not in the mood for drinking. My throat was raw with pain, and against my usual logic I decided that whiskey was not the proper remedy. Our hostel guide showed us a beef soup place that was the perfect cure for my ailing throat and body. Afterwards, he offered to drive us up to the top of a mountain and see the city lights from a birds eye view. We accepted his offer and took a short trip to the peak of a rocky point on the edge of the city. From the windy vantage point atop the mountain, the sparkling lights of the city spread for miles in all directions. The vast sprawl of the city and the endless line of skyscrapers was clearly visible from this perspective. It was refreshing to see the bustling city from the top and get a night time view of the booming metropolis.
                The following morning, I took the subway across town to sample some of the local cuisine. We turned a corner into network of alleyways that was crawling with food vendors. All types of food were being fried, boiled and grilled along these back alleys. The area is particularly famous for their Korea pancakes. A Korean pancake can be cooked many different ways, but it seemed that most were made from a ground up bean paste and flour that is mixed with veggies and then fried on a hot stove. For a couple of dollars, you can sit down on a heated bench in front of a food cart and enjoy the crispy goodness of these tasty Asian treats. They go well with a side of soy sauce and onions, kimchi, and a bottle of Korean rice wine. I tried an array of different kinds and loved every one of them; this was probably my favorite food so far in Korea.
                I wandered around the market and tasted as many things as I could fit in my stomach. The other most popular option around the food market was the pig parts. Mounds of pig intestines, snouts, feet, lungs, livers, and all the other scraps are out on display to attract the adventurous epicurean. We sat at a booth and the lady served us a couple of plates piled high with pig guts and sausage. I took a bite of everything, but none of the mushy slime appealed to my taste buds. I ate one more pancake so that I could leave with a good flavor in my mouth, and then we departed towards our next stop.
                A few subway stations away, we took a short tour of an old-style Korean neighborhood that was decorated with larger-than-life lantern displays. We gawked at the meticulous artwork and then started working our way up Namsan Mountain to the Seoul Tower. On our way, we came across a huge circular depression with an inscribed stone tablet at the center. It looked like an alien beacon or something, but we soon found out that it was a Time Capsule. Our guess was pretty close. It was actually a subterranean vacuum sealed chamber full of argon gas. Inside the chamber were 600 items that were representative of the world in 1994. In the year 2394, the Koreans will blast open the vault and be able to take a sneak peek into the past. Instead of aimlessly searching around in archeological digs, we have made it easy for future historians by putting all of our shit in one easy to find location. Your welcome future history professor of Seoul University.
                Our hike took us away from the mysterious capsule and up the mountain towards the pointy symbol of Seoul's skyline atop the small mountain. We walked along a nicely manicured stone road for about an hour and didnt seem to be gaining the elevation towards the tower. We finally found out that we circled around the edge and missed the stairway up the mountain slope. By this time, the sun was setting and our daytime mountain vista was fading along with the sun. We hurried up the mountain, but arrived at the top after the sunset had passed. We had another fantastic night view of the city, but it wasnt much different than what we had seen the night before. We snapped a few pictures of the glowing tower and then made our way back down on a bus.
                After a dinner of spicy noodles, we hit the town for another night of drinking. This time, I found a bar that I liked and was playing quality music in a good spot. I drank a handful of whiskeys and talked for a while with an Air Force officer who was griping about being stuck here for 3 years without his family. He had some interesting stories about military life in Korea, but I slipped away after a while because his mouth was running a mile a minute and I had enough of his complaints. I stumbled out into the night air, but for the first time wasnt cold. This time I was prepared, I had top of the line protection from the chilly wind. A whiskey jacket.
                The temperatures were still well below freezing, but my friend and I took our chances and went on an outdoor adventure to a Buddhist temple on the mountain. After a series of subways and busses, we began our slow trudge up the mountain road. However, this wasnt the type of hiking I am used to. Although we were on a mountain out in nature, the city life was not far behind. Hundreds upon hundreds of people had the same idea as us. And they were much better prepared.
                The bottom of the mountain was packed with high-end outdoor clothing stores. $300 jackets and $200 boots shimmered in the windows of the snazzy designer stores. Everyone of the hikers had neon colored jackets, pristine hiking boots, state of the art backpacks, and a pair of extendable walking sticks. I had never seen such a large group of overly prepared outdoorsmen. I held back my laughter at the ridiculous outfits and fancy outdoor gear that these people sported. I couldnt tell if they were preparing to climb Everest or strut down a fashion show runway.
                I soon found it that it was not even close to either. The "hike" was a walk along a two lane paved road that curved up the mountain face. It was a pleasant walk along a frozen creek and admittedly steep at some points, but far from challenging. But the difficulty of the hike was obviously not the primary concern of the Seoulites.
                When we reached the temple, my blood was pumping and I was happy to feel warmth in my limbs. We went through the temple gates and slowly toured the statues and shrines spotted throughout the grounds. My travel friend was Buddhist, so we had interesting talks about the nature of Buddhism and its relationship to the relics and temples that we were observing. We went inside the main temple hall and sat in the corner as two monks chanted and chimed in front of a large group of followers. After warming our bodies and calming our souls, we exited the temple and finished looking around the area.
                 We noticed a lot of people going into a bottom floor "restaurant" and followed them into the room. Inside were rows of long tables and a small line of food on the far end. We observed for a bit, then realized that the temple was giving away free food. We dropped some donations in a box and scooped ourselves a steaming bowl of cabbage soup along with a dab of rice and kimchi. Following the lead of others, we took our empty plates to the next room and washed them ourselves before returning them to their original spot next to the food line. A little bit of generosity and collective teamwork allows these Buddhist monks to fill the bellies and warm the hearts of their visitors.
                Seoul is a booming city with a million things to do, but most of those activities cost big bucks and many are centered around the unlimited options for shopping. I had seen most of the important tourist sights and my options of cheap fun were starting to run low. A fellow traveler at my hostel had just returned from the city of Busan and was raving about how much fun he had down there. He talked about the warmer weather, variety of atmospheres and overall good feeling of the place. His stories were enough to convince me that taking a short trip down to the southern tip of Korea sounded like a pretty good idea.
               A round-trip express train ticket only available to tourists could zip me down there in a few hours for only about $60. This opportunity seemed too good to pass up, so I bought a ticket after dinner and took off towards Busan the following morning. About 3 hours later, I stepped out of the train station and had my first look at Busan. It was warm! Well, kind of. It was a hell of a lot warmer than Seoul, but still chilly for my tropical tastes. I stripped down to a single jacket an took off my beanie and gloves. This type of cold was manageable.
                The city of Busan is the second largest metropolitan area in Korea and is divided into numerous sections divided by small mountainous outcroppings. The city sprung up around the most popular port on the peninsula. The harbor town expanded and now houses millions of Koreans. The place that I chose as my destination was the beach hang-out of Haeundae. During the summer, thousands upon thousands of sun searching tourists flock to the sandy shores of Haeundae. The sand becomes an overcrowded medley of red, yellow and blue umbrellas that cover every inch of the beach. In pictures that I saw, the beach is so crowded that it appears there isn’t even space to walk between the tightly packed blocks of umbrellas. It is the hot-spot for Korean summer tourists and they brave the flood of beachgoers to secure there tiny corner of sunshine on the jumbled sand.
                During the winter time the crowds have dispersed and Haeundae is a peaceful waterside locale to enjoy the beautiful ocean and fantastic views. The hostel that I chose was perfectly located at the center of town, directly across from the main beach. We were on the 8th floor with an unbelievable panorama of the oceanside. Mr. Egg hostel is situated in a penthouse corner condo in a high rise with spacious windows. Not a shabby spot for $20 a night.
                The hostel also had one of the largest and most comfortable common rooms that I have ever seen. The huge room was perfect for lounging around and meeting the other guests. The hostel was full and I quickly made a big group of friends, most of whom were from my home near Los Angeles. I buddied up with these guys and spent the next couple of days partying with them.
                We walked around a forested peninsula that stretched out towards the sea and took in the crisp sea air and breathtaking ocean sights. After exploring the surrounding area, we slurped some spicy Korean soup and then scoped out the local bar scene. The area was littered with bars and clubs, but it was a Tuesday night in winter and the places were empty. We decided to pick up some drinks at a convenience store and head back to the hostel.
On this first night in Busan, I really learned how to drink Korean style. Unrelenting pace and continuous flow of Soju and beer. Soju is the Korean liquor that is only about 20% alcohol and tastes kind of like a weak vodka. It only costs about $1 per bottle and goes down pretty easy. I learned several Korean drinking games and pounded shot after shot of the clear substance until the bottles were empty and we crept off to bed.
The next morning, we woke up slowly and had free eggs compliments of Mr. Egg’s hospitality. I then followed some of the other guys and we took a trip to see a temple on a mountain. It was a long subway ride and about an hour walk up a road before we reached the Buddhist sanctuary. I had already seen two temples, and didn’t expect to see much difference in the third; nonetheless I was excited to check it out.
We passed an information booth at the entrance and saw a big sign that said “free guided tour for foreigners”. It sounded like a good idea, so we procured the services of an elderly man inside to give us a tour of the temple grounds. I was fascinated to hear the history and significance of the temple. He explained the symbolism and meaning of all the statues, arrangements, architecture, and buildings in the area. I had looked at the drums, pillars, gates, and rivers at the other temples but just brushed them aside as beautiful objects. I had no idea about the deep importance of each thing as a representation of an idea or practice associated with Buddhist monks. The river washes your mind clean before entering, the turtle pillars honor the men who built the temple, the colors on the gate symbolize the elements, each instrument pays homage to a section of life, so on and so on. The temple is a conglomeration of meaningful objects and decorative shrines that come together to make a holy place. It was wonderful to finally understand what I had been looking at and I gained a better appreciation of the temples that I had seen.
On my final night in Korea, I ate a gigantic feast of Korean BBQ and sampled a wide variety of meats on our personal fire. After our meal, we returned to the hostel for another night of drinking. This night was even more intense than before because a few new Koreans joined the party. We stayed up until the wee hours of the morning clinking our glasses and challenging each other in all sorts of games. My first few days were disappointing in the party arena because of a lack of fellow drinkers, but the last few days more than made up for it by proving the fabled Korean drinking prowess.
My last day was uneventful as I made my way back to Seoul and haggled a electronic salesmen for a cheap MP3 player. My adventures in Korea came to a close and I was on my way down to New Zealand. My time in Korea was a great experience for a few reasons. I met great people and saw many wonderful things. I learned about a new culture and had a shit load of fun. But mostly it was an enlightening experience to be thrown into a place that was the exact opposite of my existence back in the Chuuk. I appreciate the advantages of the modern world and the traditional world, and it was a unique thing to be able to see them side by side.


Saturday, December 10, 2011

Winter? Break

I am taking a little “asesse” from Chuukese lifestyle and traveling around the world for the next month or so. My life has been going well on my tiny island, however I am ready for a break. I enjoy everything about Chuuk and I am by no means running away from anything. Its just my style to get an itch every few months and want to do something new and exciting. Regardless of how wonderful my existence is flowing along, an energetic and curious feeling creeps its way up through my nerves and tells my brain that its time for something new. Its time to see something new. Its time to do something new. Its time for a new adventure.
            This new adventure of mine has begun with a Peace Corps conference in Pohnpei. All of the volunteers from the FSM and Palau came together to have our Mid-Service Training near the headquarters of our Micronesian office. More than a year ago, 31 of us embarked upon our service with a 5 week training session on the island of Pohnpei. At that time we were a sheep-eyed group of innocent westerners that got plopped in the middle of the Pacific. We had no frame of reference; we were like a child who wandered into the middle of a movie.
            Things are a little different now. Our group has slimmed down to a rough and rugged team of crafty vets. In the past year, we have encountered things that none of us ever thought possible and dealt with problems that the average human mind will never conceive of. The stories of our trials and tribulations along with the triumphs and joys are truly inspiring. I have never been around a group of people that are so unique and accomplished in so many ways. M77’s!
            Our conference/training/workshops took place at the Village Hotel on a lush jungle hillside that rises up from the sparkling blue waters below. The Village is a fancy place, but doesn’t fall under the standard view of “fancy”. It is an eco-friendly resort and is geared towards conservation of resources and the natural environment. The rooms are built in the style of local huts with palm fronds and forest branches covering the roofs. There is open air circulation drafting through the top and mosquito nets to keep the pests from biting. The houses are fashioned in the style of local huts, but I don’t think any Micronesian has ever lived in such a lavish and deluxe palm frond domicile. The huts are nestled in a spattering of little hideaways scattered in the dense jungle. A rock pathway leads you winding down the mountainside to your own personal luxurious island house. It is the perfect combination of comfort and culture. Visitors get to truly experience the tropical setting, but don’t have to sacrifice cleanliness and luxury.
            We covered many important administrative training sessions during the daytime. From 8-5, we were in our classroom (a giant wooden balcony overlooking the ocean and the islands of paradise). We dealt with multiple sessions discussing sexual assault because Peace Corps is putting a huge effort towards increasing security and response measures after all the problems that recently erupted in Africa. The importance of safety and proper handling of serious issues was pounding it us with powerpoint after powerpoint. Besides the safety sessions, we also talked about teaching, secondary projects, communication and a myriad of other issues concerning our Peace Corp lives.
            The workshops were important, but not as important as rekindling the relationships with our American friends spread across the 3000 mile expanse of ocean called Micronesia. The tales of bravery and perseverance coupled with accounts of hilarity and strangeness never ceased to amuse us. Society changing community projects, life changing interactions with students, deep integration into cultures along with heartbreaking failures, terrifying crimes and abuses, and unending confusion created dynamic conversations that lasted for hours. We laughed & cried, listened & blabbered throughout the nights. It was an amazing feeling of vindication and emotional release for people to be able to share their stories with fellow friends who can actually relate with the circumstances. Our volunteer community is an imperative part of the experience out here and its significance for our well-being and happiness cannot be denied.
            The hospital in Chuuk is a joke and there are no qualified doctors or dentists to handle our serious medical issues, so it was a good time to take care of some things while I was Pohnpei. First off, I got a large cyst removed from my back. A lump of fat had been growing near my spine for the past year and it was about time to chop it out before it reached the backbone. The medical facilities in Pohnpei are fairly legitimate, but also rather humorous. I lied down on a table right next to the waiting room (in open view of everybody) and the doctor began inspecting me. He saw the nickel sized lump and chuckled as he snickered, “ooohh, its so small” The doctor continued making jokes to the people around the room and whistled while he worked. As he scraped the lump out of my back, he giggled and yelled “its a boy!” As he was stitching me up, he casually remarked to himself, “one smiley face, two smiley face….” each time that he applied a suture. It was a very interesting and funny surgery experience, but I think it turned out all right.
            My time at the dentist was a similar encounter. They had no appointments to do a full cleaning, so they squeezed me in for a check-up. The dentist looked for 2 minutes and then told me that I had cracked a filling off and it was missing. I waited for another hour then went in with another more specialized dentist. She probed my mouth with her spiky tools and then looked at me with a quizzical face.  She said, “umm, I think your filling is still there” We took X-rays and sure enough my filling was fully intact. She cleaned the area around the few painful teeth in my mouth and then sent me on my way smiling. It was kind of a debacle, but I was very impressed with her in depth explanations of my tooth issues and friendly examination of the X-rays (I also got a free cleaning of one tooth).
My trip to Pohnpei was not only valuable because of my medical fixings, interactions with friends and the skills I learned in the training, but I also gained a slightly new perspective on “perspectives”. I was shocked to see the condition and development of Pohnpei compared to the previous view that I held. When I first arrived in Pohnpei, my impression was less than stellar. I joked about the shoddy roads and the lack of stores and restaurants. However, on my return visit my perspective took a 180 degree shift. I was amazed by the clean buildings, smooth roads, constant electricity and a seemingly endless amount of stores and restaurants. Being stuck in rural Chuuk for the last 14 months changed how I view the world.
            The reason why this perspective shift was important to my view of life is because it showed me the power of preconceived notions and misjudged expectations. Our impression of a place, or person, or thing is entirely shaped by our previous experiences. The way that something is seen is dependent upon what has been seen before. I know this is a common sense statement and makes intuitive sense to most people. However, most people don’t actually realize it in their real lives. We think our view of the world as the one and only correct world. We see what we see, and that’s that. But what if what you see is not the same as what I see. What if what I see is not the same as what other people see.
            When I use the word “see”, I am not simply referring to the visual field that we observe with our eyes. I am referring to what we perceive and what we internalize about something. This philosophical rambling of mine roughly translates to the theory of relativism. More specifically cultural relativism. However, it has a new significance to me now because I have actually experienced it. Studying something in a book and thinking of little examples in my own life are one thing, but truly experiencing a sensation of perspective change is another thing all together. The alteration of my mind due to integration into another culture has changed the way I view things. My mind and hence my perspective of the world has undergone a seismic shift. And because of this shift, I have come to realize the power of experiences to shape other experiences. Life, and the way that we perceive, live and think is a complex network of experiences built upon experiences ( I have plenty more intellectual thoughts to spew out about this new “experientalist” philosophy that has been brewing around in my head, but I’ll leave that for another blog)
            Never mind all that stuff, I really just wanted to write this blog so that I could tell everyone that I nearly had a heart attack of happiness when I came to Pohnpei and found out that they had tacos. Yes, I ate tacos. It was amazing! In my lonely nights of canned mackerel and cold rice dinners, the idea of Mexican food has been the primary thought that keeps me drooling and pushes my appetite along enough to scarf down some bland grub. The next month of eatery exploration is going to blow my mind.
            Besides my rendezvous with volunteer friends and taco orgasms, I also got another fun experience while in Pohnpei. I extended my stay a couple of days so that I would get the chance to visit my host family from training. The family treated me with overwhelming love and respect and I felt it was my responsibility to stop by and pay them a visit. I have nothing but fond memories of them and was eager to spend a night getting reacquainted with my Pohnpeian relatives.
            If you remember from old blogs, my Pohnpeian family has about 23 people living in one housing compound. There is my one toothed grandfather with a howling laugh that shakes the leaves off the roof and sends the chickens squawking into the bushes. There is also my 300 pound brother and his skinny “twin” that has a tightly curled mullet that hangs past his neck. There are also a few beautiful island girls who have lived in America and brought back a flurry of little kids.
There are kids, and kids and then some more kids. 13 little rascals running around like its Christmas at Disneyland. The energy of this bunch is unmatched by anything I have seen. I don’t think a preschool of ADHD kids sniffing cocaine could stand up to the constant energy of these little Pohnpeians at my house. Within minutes, I was back into my old routines with them of wrestling, swinging, and spinning. Two on my legs, one on my back, two on my arms and a couple crawling through my legs. That is my standard position at the Waltu household.
Playing with the kids was the second most memorable part of my original Pohnpei stint. The only thing that matched the consistency of the children’s energy was the consistency of drinking sakau with the older men. If you recall, sakau is the poopy mucus that is consumed on a nightly basis in Pohnpeian markets and household. This slimy substance, commonly known as kava, calms the nerves and relaxes the brain. You melt into a smirking blob of sweaty goodness and then trail off to sleep. The next morning, the gooey brown liquid will quickly find its way back out the other end, seemingly unchanged.
I spent about a day playing with kids, slurping sakau and catching up with my family. It was wonderful to see them again and enjoy the unique parts of Pohnpeian life. I am now about to take off on part 2 of my journey, Guam. After that I am headed towards Korea (not North) and then down south the land of the kiwis. I’ll do my best to keep you all updated on my travels.