Archive for October, 2006

Lazy in Korea

The title says it all, really. I got an internet connection last week and the amount of work it’s allowing me not to do is disturbing. I will get round to doing a more in-depth post. At some point. (I’m still thinking about reviewing a book I read a month or two before I left Britain, as well.)

I have, however, started a new blog. This one is going to be a writing diary-cum-online wordprocessor. Or at least, that’s what I’m thinking. Have a look at my first couple of posts here.

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Rat-bottomed Maybe

One of the highlights of my time here came last Friday night when I went out with colleagues and other English teachers to the classily-entitled Beer Plus. It’s actually quite a nice place – clean and open, with couches in a greyish shade of orange that go well with the wooden tables and floor. There were a number of people in our party (another party of English teachers sat nearby later on), including a couple of other Brits (one I’ve already mentioned and a Geordie) and a couple of Korean teachers.

The first part of the evening passed relatively quietly. Some food was ordered and there was a continuous supply of beer (of which I partook because I didn’t feel like ordering something else; the supply was kept continuous by means of buttons on each table that you use to attract the staff’s attention). I exchanged a bit of conversation with whoever was sitting next to me – how long have you been in Korea? – that kind of thing. At one point, one of my colleagues had the misfortune to be seated at the end of a couch next to me. She started asking me about what my pre-Korean life was like – in the manner of someone trying to get blood out of a stone, but only because they’ve got nothing else to do.

I found myself sat next to a guy whose name had been mentioned to me another time. We started having a conversation about what fantasy novels we’ve read – in fact, we like pretty much the same authors – Donaldson, Martin, Jordan. He seems to be a big fan of Feist, though, and I’m not impressed with Magician so far. He didn’t know of Erikson and made a note of the name.

Around this time the soju started flowing. Soju is the Korean equivalent of sake, I suppose. It doesn’t have too strong a taste – as someone else said, it doesn’t give you the shudder effect of vodka, say. She also said it tastes like rubbing alcohol. As far liquors go, I didn’t think it was too bad. I don’t remember how many I had, but it was a good few in addition to endlessly topped up glasses of beer. So at some point I got very drunk. Drunker than I’ve ever been, in fact. Suddenly, all these people who were previously strange (in the sense of unknown) had enclosed me in their camaraderie.

Somebody – some guy, I should say – took their top off and others (still guys) followed suit. Well, I didn’t want to be conspicuous by being different, so I took mine off, too. This general state of semi-undress then progressed to three-quarter-undress as they started taking their trousers off, too. Again, I joined in – it would have been rude not to. I think my abovementioned female colleague has some footage on her camera or phone of us dancing in our underpants.

Towards the end of the evening I wove my way towards the toilets to be sick a couple of times. I was in the last group of people to leave; I remember wondering what the landlord and his waiter thought of us. I contributed 30,000 won, but later when I mentioned this, my male colleague gave me 20,000 back. I think the total bill came to something like 200,000 won (112 pounds) – for ten or twelve people drinking all night, plus food.

In the morning I was sick several times in the general direction of my toilet. I couldn’t keep anything down. In the afternoon I showered (having first rinsed down the bathroom floor) and went for a walk (I ended up getting some laptop speakers for 24,400 won; they work very well – all you need to do is plug them into a USB port and you have (relatively) loud, bassy music). I didn’t shake my headache until I went to bed on Saturday night.

Apparently, the other teachers do this night out twice a week – Wednesdays and Fridays. They can have Wednesdays, but I imagine I’ll go out again this Friday – it’s something to do. I’ll try not to get quite so drunk (which will be useful because I’m going to a meal with the British Association of Seoul the following evening).

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I met another English English teacher the other day – a guy from Bournemouth. He mentioned an experience he’d had in the Amazon. He hadn’t tucked his insect netting in properly and, well, to cut a short story even shorter, in a state of semi-consciousness involutarily ate a large cockroach. His mouth was filled with some vile liquid, which he swallowed before he was fully awake. In the morning he showed a wing he found on his bedding to his guide, who told him what it was. The guide also said that cockroaches, when they sense that they’re in danger, lay all their eggs – which he took to be the vile liquid. Nice.

On Saturday I discovered a cricket in my apartment. Not sure how it got there – it must have crawled through some crevice. I wasn’t entirely sure what to do with it. I tried taking pictures, but even using the macro function they just came out as blurs. The cricket was roughly the same shape and size as a large house spider. At one point I poked at it with my camera and the thing started hopping about in my direction. Briefly overmastered by atavistic fear, I scrambled out of the way. I then tried to herd it towards the french windows, but it wouldn’t co-operate, so I let it hide under the bed. When it strayed out again later I trapped it under a mug, slid a leaflet about Fukuoka underneath and threw it out of the window.

Yes, OK, my anecdote isn’t as impressive. But I kind of like that.

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‘No Leaf Clover’, Metallica

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Something I love about good high fantasy is the fact that when you’ve read one book, that’s not the end of the story, that you have further volumes to look forward to that promise to be as good as the one just read. Perhaps four years ago I started reading George R R Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire and am eagerly awaiting book five; in the last two years I started reading The Malazan Book of the Fallen by Steven Erikson, book six of which came out earlier this year – book seven probably arriving in 2008. The front cover of The Darkness that Comes Before bears a quote from Erikson: ‘Something remarkable has begun’. If Bakker builds on what he’s created here, then I would have to agree.

2,000 years ago the land of Earwa suffered an apocalyptic war and it seems that the forces that provoked this war are at work again. The central characters include a middle-aged, world-weary sorcerer and his prostitute lover, a childish but cunning emperor and his brilliant tactician nephew, a brutal plains warrior, and, perhaps most importantly, a monk whose training makes him an irresistably seductive empath and a fighter with preternatural reflexes. These players occupy a stage that is clearly inspired by the Mediterranean and Middle Eastern empires of antiquity.

The 640 pages of this novel aren’t action-filled, there’s a lot of introspection and a healthy dose of political machination, and while this could make for a dull book, the writing is such that it becomes quite compelling. Some parts are more compelling than others, though – Ikurei Xerius III, the spoilt emperor can be tiresome, and even Drusas Achamian, arguably the main character, descends into consuming self-pity. The most fascinating character is Anasurimbor Kellhus, and, though there are sections from his point of view, we never quite learn his agenda; this isn’t just authorial secret-keeping – Kellhus’s strength of mind is such that he wouldn’t think of somthing unless he needed to.

The writing is very strong throughout, although it suffers from being a bit too portentous, especially in the prologues (there are two – one short, one long), but you get used to this. Kellhus’s intellectual, emotional and phsyical powers border on being too much, too imbalancing; and sorcery in this world – although it’s used very little and magi are seen as blasphemous by many – seems overpowered, as well. The other main complaint I would have is that not quite enough happens during the book – in some ways, though, The Darkness that Comes Before feels like a prologue to the story that will unfold in future books. But still, this is an extremely promising start to a series – as soon as I get my hands on the internet I’ll have a look for Book Two, The Warrior-Prophet.

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Groucho Marx

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This is my second day working to the new schedule at the school – a schedule which includes me (whereas before I was taking the classes of an absent teacher). It’s not too bad – I still have the two double kindergarten blocks in the morning and in the afternoon I’ll have about four classes as well. The afternoon classes are the same on Mondays, Wednesdays and Friday (the busier days), and the same (but a different same) on Tuesdays and Thursdays. So this afternoon I’l be meeting my second set of students.

Now that I’m being paid I think I’m going to get the internet and cable TV – the former for obvious reasons (hopefully I’ll be able to hook up my laptop), the latter because at least then I can switch on the news first thing in the morning. I’ll need to find out how I go about these things, of course. There’s also a possibility of joing of forming a book group with other waeguk teachers in the Seoul area – if that’s realised then I just need to find a source of books in English (it may just be Amazon and eBay). And then I may also start taking Korean lessons.

Other than that there’s not much to report. The school director invited the foreign teachers to a meal at ther apartment with her family. Her husband runs another hagwon and speaks better English, although with a strong accent. Their eldest daughter (besides being very pretty) has pretty decent English (with the obligatory American accent). Their apartment overlooks Ansan Lake Park, and the husband took us out for a post-prandial constitutional.

I finished reading The Darkness that Comes Before and have a review on my USB memory thing ready for uploading (the computers here don’t have USB ports that work). Now I’m considering reading Raymond E Feist’s Magician.

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Seoul, man

I tried to buy a reusable card for the subway yesterday. I showed the man at the counter of my local station (Handaeap, or Hanyang University at Ansan) a card (my Oyster card, strangely enough) and then waved a 10,000 note at him. He seemed to think I wanted to recharge my card and didn’t appear to have any for sale. I left.

I walked in the direction of Home plus and thought about it. I decided to get the subway to Seoul and see if there was any waegook-friendly information there – and have a look round. The trip to Seoul Station (the railway station) takes nearly an hour and costs 1,400 won – about 70p. Once there I couldn’t find much in the way of info, so I just went for a walk.

Seoul is naturally a lot more impressive than Ansan. It has all the huge office buildings you’d expect of a capital city and even a few historical buildings. I’m not going to say much about it here – I want to go back and visit the attractions more thoroughly in the future. I got the impression that I only saw Seoul in third gear – this being Chuseok, many people are away visiting family.

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Images unlimited (nearly)

I’ve just subscribed to Flickr’s full service for a year for $24.95 (or 13.69 in real money). My posting limit per month has now gone up from 20mb to 2gb. I am uploading photos as I type. See them here

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Part One

I’m writing this near gate 7 of Incheon Airport, a cup of black tea at my left hand. I’m taking my laptop with me – so I can write, of course, but partly because my laptop bag is the only bag I have in Korea and it seems rather empty with just a change of clothes in it.

Had a pleasant surprise last night when my boss’s husband rang and said he and the director were coming over. When they arrived – with their two daughters – they had a laundry rack for me. Which was especially convenient, as, not only did I need one, but I’d just washed some clothes. (I had to wipe it down before draping my laundry on it, though – it was filmed with black dust, as if it had been in a bus station for a couple of weeks.) Mr Director spoke reasonable English (though with a strong accent) and went through my schedule with me again.

This morning he picked me up from my aparteu (as they say hereabouts) at five of the morning clock and took me to the bus station. He helped me get a ticket to the airport (11,000 won – five to six pounds) and hung around while I waited to depart. He’d said something about the Seowon Hotel, which I’ve seen nearby, but I can’t place exactly where; at first I interpreted this to mean he’d pick me up from there tomorrow, but thinking about it on the ‘limousine’ bus I decided he was advising me to head there by bus or taxi when I got back. In that eventuality, I’ll walk – the bus terminal is near Homeplus.

I spent the time on the bus looking out of the window – something I like doing when travelling. We drove out of Ansan and through some more modest built up areas (there were even some single storey shop building – imagine that) then out into some countryside that would have looked at home in Cheshire. A fairly thick but discrete layer of mist lay on the fields; in places this layer floated a little way above the ground and you could see side-on. The bus went to Gimpo Airport first, which is a bit tarty, with a flashing neon frontage. Then it was on to the ‘New Airport’ (as one toll station called it).

I got here in plenty of time: around seven o’clock – boarding is at 9:10, take-off at 9:40. I decided to change 120,000 won into yen, but evidently I handed over the wrong wad of 10,000 won notes (given that that figure in Korean is man, perhaps I should call them ‘manners’), so instead I got 12,000 won for 100,000 won. Apparently, the hotel charge has been paid, so I shouldn’t need much money. Somehow, though, 12,000 doesn’t seem a lot after using Korean currency.

Part Two

I’m now in the Royal Food Court of the International terminal of Fukuoka Airport. Just as I was wrapping up Part One a couple sat nearby in the café I was having my cup of tea at in Incheon Airport. The guy looked an awful lot like the guy who plays the young Australian astronomer in Supernova, the sitcom with Rob Brydon. I didn’t get a decent front-on look, but Australia’s not that far away, so one shouldn’t be surprised.

Once more I have tea at my left hand – although I think this cup is probably very overpriced at 380 yen. Hold on, let’s work this out: I got 12,000 yen for 100,000 won, so one yen worth eight and a third won. There are 1,850 won to the pound, so 1,850 divided by 8.33 equals 222 yen to the pound. 380 divided by 222 gives you a price of one pound seventy one. Hmm, not that bad, I suppose.

I’m gathering strength and courage for the expedition to find the Korean Consulate General. Fortunately, it’s on the same line as the airport, although I may need to get the bus to another terminal. My research tells me the fare to Tojin Machi will be less than the cost of a cup of airport tea.

Part Three

The visa application part of today’s mission went well. The subway was easy enough to navigate – buying individual tickets is a case of looking at the map, seeing how much it says for your destination, then putting some money in a machine and selecting your fare.

I arrived at the Consulate General at about 1:40 and joined the end of a cue of waegugin (foreigners) filling out forms to get into the compound. It turns out that in the afternoon they open for visa applications at 1:30, so my tardiness at the airport was actually part of a cunning subconscious plan to avoid hanging around for an hour and a half.

Once inside, I filled out the application form itself, cued some more handed over 6,000 yen and my passport, and now I have to return tomorrow (they open in the mornings from ten) and pick up my documents. Naturally, I didn’t speak to anyone while there, although there were a couple of Irish (Northern Irish, I think) women there. One of whom was on my flight – as were several other people including the guy who looked like the guy from Supernova (along with his presumably Korean, definitely fit girlfriend).

After that I was about to head back towards the subway, when I remembered I wanted to investigate a huge domed building I’d seen. The Yahoo! Dome turns out to be a baseball arena and home to the Hawks. I carried on that way and found the beach, which was nice, though very windy. I strolled along the littoral for a while then turned back and went to investigate Ohori Park – a large park that is about 90% lake. While I was there I wandered through the ruins of Fukuoka (or Maizuru) Castle. I took plenty of pictures (my camera only has a 32mb memory card, so you can only take 21 full-sized pictures with it; I’ve turned the picture size down, though to fit more in) – they should turn up on Flickr at some point.

The day had gone quite well up to that point, so maybe it was inevitable it should take a turn for the less good. I took the subway to Hakata – the nearest station to my hotel, the Chisun Hotel Hakata – and, of course, decided to make my way on foot from there. I’m not saying I got lost – I didn’t get lost – however, I didn’t find the hotel. I was trying to find my way by a map in tourist pamphlet and succeeded only in walking round in a big circle for a couple of hours. Towards the end of that time, as it was getting dark and the bats were coming out, I – yes, OK, fortunately – saw a sign for Hakata station and followed that.

When I got back there I decided I wanted something simple to eat – ergo MacDonalds. Even that took me twenty or thirty minutes to find – the shopping complex above the subway station is massive and maze-like. Then I took a taxi. Throughout the day I’ve been saying ‘Domo arigato’ (‘thankyou’) to people (in context, obviously), but by the time I got to the hotel I didn’t have the energy even for that. I’d heard someone at the consulate earlier saying that they’re hotel needed their passport number. I have mine written in my address book, so I wasn’t worried on that front. When I checked in I was asked for my passport; I explained that it was at the Korean Consulate , and the girl behind the desk said something like, Ah, visa, and that was it – no passport number needed.

The room’s OK – compact, but who cares for one night? There seems to be a faint, dusty smell of cigarette smoke throughout the hotel (although it may just be a faint dusty smell), but my nose has acclimatised to it now. When I got to my room I put the TV on to find one channel broadcasting Walking with Beasts; a button on the remote changed the Japanese voiceover back to Kenneth Branagh. I had a cup of not too nice instant green tea then went to bed. Where I had a couple of hours rest before some kids in the corridor woke me up (sounds like a school trip, given that an adult has been knocking on doors talking to them). Now, while I’m still tired, I’m no longer sleepy. I might read. I might even go out for a walk …

Part Four

On my second and last day in Fukuoka I got up at about 8:30, showered and went down to the restaurant for breakfast. Although there was a large selection of Japanese food, I, as usual, went for the easy option and cornflakes and a handful of bread rolls (which latter were extremely nice – warm, crusty, brown rolls sprinkled with seeds). After brushing my teeth I checked out (the bill had been paid in advance by the school) and set off to find Hakata station, which, it turns out, is about a two minute walk from the hotel. Darn (as Ed Winchester might say).

I returned to the Consulate General to find it a lot less busy than yesterday; I asked for my passport, was given it, complete with shiny new visa, and left. This left me with about seven hours or so to kill before my flight at 18:10. I could have gone to explore more of the city, but after yesterday’s four and a half hours of walking I decided I’d just go straight to the airport.

Well … I went straight to the Domestic Terminal, then walked round the corner to get a shot of an amusing sign – and kept on walking. In the midday heat, the walk to the International Terminal was a little arduous, but survivable. If I’d been quicker off the mark I would have taken a good photo of two planes, one landing, one taking off at the same time. By the time I fished my camera out of my pocket the plane taking off had passed me, and, just as I was about to snap the landing aircraft, a van came round the corner and blocked off my view of it.

Eventually, after straying into the cul-de-sac that was the Cargo Terminal, I got to the appropriate bit of the airport. With still nearly six hours before the flight. I had a cup of coffee (shock, horror! I did ask for green tea, but they’d sold out, apparently, and I’m not too keen on milkless black tea), read, bought a couple of cat ornaments, wandered around. After an hour or so reading I went for a walk round the terminal and discovered I had a twinge in my right calf (a tinge that is still present as I write this two days later). Towards four o’clock other waegugin arrived at the airport. I checked in, went through into Departures, read, got on the plane.

It was overcast and drizzly by take-off time, and the ascent was quite bumpy. When we got above the murky clouds, however, we were rewarded with the view. Cotton wool clouds made a fantastic landscape and the sky went from orange at the horizon through cyan, sky blue and up to indigo above. I read some more (The Darkness that Comes Before is quite engrossing – expect a positive review soon) received a meal (even though the flight is only an hour; these two flights have been my first taste of sushi, which I’ve found quite pleasant (although who knows what real sushi might taste like)), and then we were nearly ready to land. The view from the window now showed that night had fallen; Koreans cities appeared as networks of light, like a microscopic view of an ethereal being – you could even see car headlights like blood cells pushing through veins.

At Incheon Airport I dithered once more. Eventually, I bought a couple of books on the Korean language (one from each of two branches of the same shop – neither had them both) – one phrasebook and one vocabulary (containing the 6,000 most common Korean words according to the National Academy of the Korean Language). I checked my bank balance to find it now contained 574,000 won (more than I was expecting for my week or so’s work in September and equal to about 310 pounds – meaning I have the equivalent of ten GBP a day for October), then got on the limousine bus back to Ansan. I noticed people giving money to the driver as they got off at the various stops along the way (I noticed it on the outward trip, too, but I gave it more thought this time). I’m pretty sure they were paying him rather than tipping him – no tickets were checked or money taken as we got on. You have to wonder what sanction a driver holds if a person refuses to pay on arrival – threaten to drive them back? I almost found out as I got off – I was behind a man who had misplaced either his ticket or his money; however, I squeezed past and handed over my ticket.

From the bus station I went to the nearby Homeplus to get some milk (as I went in, I passed a couple of lads coming out who had hair as long as mine – the first such I’d seen in South Korea – they looked very Native American (which isn’t surprising, as Native Americans are, in racial terms, Asian (or Mongoloid, to use the unflattering technical term)). Then I walked home.

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