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Archive for March, 2009

Lovely Girls Contest

The title of this post is, of course, a reference to an episode of Father Ted – ‘Rock a Hula Ted’ – that I’ve recently re-watched (‘Of course – they all have lovely bottoms.’).

On Friday night, straight after work, I went to taekwondo for my half lesson with I Sabeomnim. By the time we’d finished our short training session the dojang was pretty much deserted. I tried once again to persuade her to let me give her English classes. Once again, she professed her interest, but said she was very busy. She also told me, however, that she was studying by herself. I asked her what exactly she was looking at and she said, ‘Bulbs.’ ‘Bulbs?’ ‘Yes, uh, vulbs.’ She meant ‘verbs’. She also said she was planning to maybe go to America in a couple of years’ time.

She also invited me to go to a camp for the taekwondo students next weekend and be a ghost with her. I agreed, of course, but I have my doubts about the latter part of the deal.

On Saturday, I went to meet Lucy, or Lucia, or Ji-hyeon – I prefer the latter, although she was introduced to me as the former – a friend of our colleague Ally or Yu-jeong. I’d asked a few of my Korean colleagues about finding someone for a language exchange – someone to teach me Korean while I taught them English. I was bracing myself for failure in this enterprise, but Yu-jeong – the flame-haired Valkyrie – came through with Lucy’s phone number.

I gave Yu-jeong a small present. It was pretty paltry, I suppose, but I’d been collecting cards from Starbucks offering free drinks. Most of them were extra shots, but I had one for a tall Americano. Last week, distributed them amongst the Korean teachers, and I gave Ally my sole ‘second prize’ card.

Anywho, I met Ji-hyeon at Sinchon (pronounced ‘Shin-chon’) for lunch on Saturday. I thought I might be late, but it turned out that she was. She offered to cover lunch because of this, but I didn’t let that happen. I’d been to the area once before – although it’s right next to Hongdae, which I’ve been to a few times – when I went out with the foreign teacher from Ansan shortly before I finished my previous job; I remember visiting a Burger King in the early hours of the morning. Lucy and I went to an Italian restaurant, where she had some seafood pasta that she didn’t like much; I had a rice croquette in a rich tomato sauce – mine was really good.

We talked for a while about what we wanted from this language exchange. Lucy tried speaking Korean to me, but it was aju eoryeowoyo (very difficult). She took my level two textbook to study to come up with excercises for me. I suggested she write essays for me. Her English is very good – better than your average Korean English teacher – so I’m apprehensive of how to go about ‘teaching’ her. She’s currently in Italy at a book fair, buying books for education publisher she works for. We’re meeting again next weekend – although I’ve just realised there might be a clash in my schedule (see below).

She’s 30 years old, I think, which is about 32 in Korean terms (for instance, I’m both 32 and 34). She’s also very good-looking – as many Korean women are. We went for a walk after lunch, to Ewha Women’s University. The campus is pretty interesting. It’s completely open to the public, and seems just like a normal park. There’s a kind of manmade gorge running through a shallow hill; this is all paved, and there are steps at the uphill end. The sides of the gorge are all fronted with glass and house various university faculties. As this is a women’s university, I couldn’t help thinking that the overall design is rather vaginal.

On the following day, Sunday (just in case you didn’t know that Sunday follows Saturday), I went down to an area called Ttukseom to ride bicycles with Habiba, the woman I met on the DMZ trip, and some of her colleagues.

I thought I was going to be just about on time, but I was late. The reason being that there’s a Ttukseom Station and a Ttukseom Resort Station; I’m familiar with the latter because it’s on the subway line I use for going to Gangnam and roleplaying – I just assumed that it was that stop we were meeting at when I was given my instructions. I rang Habiba to inform her there wasn’t an exit 8 at this station – but, of course, I was at the wrong stop.

Anyway, once I arrived I met Habiba and one of her colleagues, an American chap, the Korean girlfriend of another of her colleagues, and her school director, a Korean woman of about 40. We walked to Seoul Sup – Seoul Forest – which didn’t really seem to be a forest, just a big park. Once there, we met the director’s husband, their two daughters and their two friends.

Bike hire turned out to be ₩3,000 per hour – about £1.50. The bikes themselves were nothing special – bog standard 21-speed mountain bikes with several gears not working (my bike only went up to 14th gear). There were also ladies’ bikes for the ladies; Habiba got one of these and then had to swap it for something more manly because it didn’t handle so well.

We rode round the park for a bit, then paid for more time and took our cycles down to the river (which was possibly against the rules). The Han River – or Hangang – is a lot broader than the Thames (in central London, anyway) and much of both banks is lined with parkland and cycle paths. It’s a very pleasant place to go for a walk or, in last Saturday’s case, a ride.

I stuck with Habiba most of the time, but I chatted a little with the others. Habiba and I got separated from the others for a time and we rode our bikes to a rubble-strewn dead end and got off to look over the water for a while.

When we got back to the cycle hire place in the park there was some waiting around as other members of the party made their way back. The director’s family left us and there was talk about going for a meal. When we returned to Ttukseom Station (not Ttukseom Resort Station) I took my leave and headed back up to Nowon, having run out of things to say for the time being. Later in the evening I went to see Gran Torino, which was very good.

I like Habiba a lot, and I guess she likes me. I have to reason these things out as my insecurities regarding women are little short of crippling. She must like me – she invited me to go paintballing with her next weekend, and I invited her to come and see a film with me tonight. Both invitations were accepted. By the time I post this, that date will already have happened; I’ll try and write it up tomorrow.

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Zoned out, part three

I eventually got up at around 8:30 on Sunday morning – breakfast was supposed to be served between 8 and 9am. Bo, John and Rosie were still asleep (as far as I could tell).

I took my bag into the living room and gently tapped on the bathroom door. No response. The handle didn’t give when I tried so I waited for a while, thinking I might have knocked a little too gently. After a few minutes I reasoned that there was probably no one in there and I’d simply turned the handle the wrong way – the intuitive way. And so it was. While taking a shower I failed to set my towel down far enough away from the wide-spray shower head. It ended up being partially soaked.

Bo emerged from the bedroom once I’d finished in the bathroom and we headed over to get some breakfast. This turned out to be toast with fried eggs, jam or peanut butter (although why anyone would want to consume that shit in a jar is beyond me). I went back to the toasting table for some more toast and found there to be no bread – so I took a loaf out of a box of miscellaneous foods. I think this annoyed the tour guide – he was trying to get breakfast finished.

After breakfast there was some free time – tandem bicycles had been provided for people to go exploring. Bo and I walked over to the scene of the previous night’s ‘bravery game’ – the cenotaph on Baengmagoji. We were followed by Habiba and her friend. The I stopped to take a few photos of birds and icy fields, and we followed them the rest of the way.

Field

I took a good few shots of the memorial – it’s a pretty huge thing, and, like the observatory from Saturday, it’s all grey stone and sharp edges. The weather wasn’t as good as it had been, but as Bo and I were up at the cenotaph and nosing around the tiny museum it wasn’t too bad. After a while we descended the hill to take part in another game.

Baengmagoji Cenotaph

The itinerary had informed us we would be doing some mine clearing. We’d joked that this was a ploy by the Korean government to use expendable foreigners for this dangerous task. On a more serious note we were hoping this might provide an insight into how mines are dealt with. In the event, we were split into groups of eight, each person working individually with a radio that was supposed to pick up a bleep from a small transmitter hidden somewhere on the hill.

Baengmagoji

This wasn’t nearly as much fun as it could have been – principally because the radios Bo and I ended up with didn’t appear to pick up anything other than ‘khhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh’. We’re too old for that sort of thing, anyway. I fiddled with my dial and found a station playing classical music.

We stuck around to take more photos – including the brightly coloured (in a typically Korean way) bell pavilion – and take in the view. The weather drew in – by the time we left it was spitting.

Bell

When we returned to the guesthouse we still had a little time to kill before the coach left, so Botond and I took one of the tandems for a ride. I had us stop so I could take a few shots of the village. As happened so often during the trip, we were just about the last people to board the bus.

Our next and final stop on the tour was Jiktang Pokpo – Jiktang Waterfall. The tour guide described this as the Korean Niagara Falls. Partly seriously, partly ironically as it turned out. The comment didn’t really do Jiktang Pokpo justice – Niagara Falls is such a stupendous spectacle that Jiktang looks pathetic in comparison.

Actually, Jiktang Waterfall is a very pleasant site. Like Niagara Falls, Jiktang Pokpo is created by a kind of natural weir – the river is split by a fault into two distinct levels. These falls are maybe ten feet high, compared to Niagara’s 50 metres, or whatever it is. The Hantan River was fairly broad at this point, and also fairly shallow – especially above the waterfall. There were plenty of pebbles, boulders and rocks of all sizes strewn around.

Jiktang Pokpo

I took plenty of photographs and coincidentally (possibly) shadowed Habiba as she took her own snaps. We talked a little as we made our way round, over the river by a simple concrete bridge just upstream of the falls and down the road to meet the coach again. Downriver, ahead of us at this point, was a red bridge stretched across the river gorge. On the side of the bridge facing us was a structure of maybe three storeys with a platform at the top – a bungee jumping platform. Unfortunately, it isn’t open at this time of year.

Bungee Jumping Bridge

And we headed back to Seoul. At the rest stop close to Cheorwon Habiba and I chatted again. She gave me her card and invited me to go bike riding with her the following weekend – which activity I’ve just done, in fact.

All told I took nearly 550 photos – too many, probably – and I’m currently working on sorting through them and editing the best ones for my flickr page. Click on the thumbnails on the right to have a look at the ones I’ve done so far.

A good weekend, in summary. I think a trip to the DMZ is a pretty much mandatory for any foreigner living in Korea. Going on such a tour means that you don’t have to do much organising – and there could be more than usual with this location. There’s also not a huge amount to do up there, although Cheorwon appears to have a few more tourist attractions that we didn’t visit. As a result, this tour didn’t feel as hectic as the Jeju tour.

My next two priorities for Korean travel are Gyeongju and Busan; Ulleungdo (an island off the east coast) could also be an idea. My friend Paul has also invited me to join him somewhere in southeast Asia this summer – his time on the peninsula is at an end (or will be by June) so he wants to go travelling.

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Dr Manhattan/Jon Osterman to megalomaniac genius Ozymandias/Adrian Veidt; Watchmen.

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Rorschach in prison, being restrained after having dumped boiling oil on an attacker’s face; Watchmen.

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Sheldon, on The Big Bang Theory, season 2, episode 18. The conversation continues:

Penny: Who’s Radiohead?

[Sheldon’s face goes strange for a long moment.]

Sheldon: I have a working knowledge of the important things in the universe.

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Zoned out, part two

Guesthouse and Habiba by the Dead Fire

The guest house the party stayed at was more imposing than its size warranted simply because there were no other buildings near it – it would have been dwarfed in Seoul. In the main hall on the ground floor there were a number of tables and chairs laid out and, towards the kitchen end, was a freestanding stove – when we arrived the air inside was heavy with the smell of woodsmoke.

Hall

Most of the group (of about thirty) were to stay in the guest house, but two groups of five were to stay with families in the village. One group of five friends volunteered immediately. I suggested to Botond that we also go for the homestay option – it would probably be quieter. I could easily imagine drunken foreigners murdering sleep in the small hours. The organiser wanted us to find three more people, but we didn’t know who to ask. Eventually a couple stepped forward and the four of us were taken by a Korean man to his house.

The couple were John and Rosie, American and English respectively. We walked with the Korean into the village of Odaemi. I asked him later (in Korean – he didn’t have any English) how many people lived there; answer: 500. All the land around was flat, quilted with small fields of rice stubble. The village clustered around the road running through it. It appeared to have a couple of convenience stores, a couple of churches (perhaps more) and a school. About half the houses were bungalows, as was our host’s house.

our-homestay-home

The houses themselves all seemed quite new and well-kept. The gardens and streets were another matter, though. The space around most of the houses was filled with rubble, furniture, general rubbish. Koreans don’t seem to be big gardeners. Across the sidestreet from our home a labrador was tied up near the remains of some giant spools.

Dog

Inside, the house was much the same as a city apartment. It was nice and quite and kept at a good temperature. The four of us dropped off our bags in the spare room and sat for a while on the sofa, watching some popular Korean TV programme that looks pretty awful. The man of the house, and his young brother, were very quiet. Bo and I tried making conversation in Korean – Bo with a little more success than me.

After that we went back to the hall to have dinner – a mediocre bulgogi supplemented with some rather nicer fish. In front of the guest house, the Korean staff started a bonfire – with copious amounts of some flammable liquid. A truck was parked nearby with a flatbed full of wood. As night fell we were taken to a nearby hill, Baengmagoji (which means ‘White Horse Hill’ because, apparently, it looks like a horse lying down); the itinerary for Saturday night reads ‘Let’s do bravely game together’. This was supposed to be ‘bravery game’ – and in the event it consisted of walking up the hill, albeit in the dark and singly.

The bravery aspect came from a rather pathetic attempt at headology. The hill and the nearby land was the scene of fierce fighting in the Korean War, and thousands of men lost their lives there. The tour guide told us that their spirits still haunted the area. At the crest of the hill there was a huge cenotaph, and a little beyond that a bell and an observation platform – although none of this was lighted. From the latter we could see the lights of the hilltop guard stations, but little else.

Back at the guest house the bonfire had settled in and people began to set fire to marshmallows on the end of twigs. I helped myself to handful of marshmallows, but I didn’t bother trying to roast them. The wind was pretty strong – standing downwind of the fire wasn’t a good idea – and the night air was frigid. The trick of standing next to the fire was to find a sweet spot where the fierce heat counterbalanced the iciness of the night. And also to try to prevent anyone from coming and standing in front of you and stealing your warmth. This happened to me a few times.

Young Bonfire

I spoke to a Korean American woman for a few minutes over dinner. Although Bo was sitting next to me, we’d been chatting throughout the day and I felt chatted out, so we didn’t talk much on Saturday night. Around the bonfire people talked and joked, as people do in these situations. I just stared into the embers. It wasn’t at all late – after dark but hours before midnight – and was well before my habitual bedtime (about 3 or 4am) and I wasn’t tired.

As time went on, more people went inside to get out of the cold and drink. A voice next to me said something along the lines of, ‘Hi, what’s your name?’ A couple of seconds later I realised it was directed at me. The voice belonged to Habiba, a Canadian American woman. We talked for a long while. She told me she grew up in a Sufi spiritualist community in the States, though now she regards Montréal as her home (one of her parents is Canadian, one American, so she has dual citizenship). She’s a fan of Father Ted. Later on I helped her and another guy carry wood from the truck to the fire.

Towards midnight we were told to stop adding wood to the fire. At midnight we started burying the fire to put it out, but the younger tour guide told us to leave it. John and Rosie had gone back to our homestay a couple of hours previously, so I was a bit nervous about heading back so late. When Bo and I got there, the man was watching TV. We went to bed.

John and Rosie were in the double bed, and Bo and my bedding was set up next to each other. In order to preserve our manliness, Bo volunteered to move to the other wall near the door. However, later in the night he moved back next to me as it was too cold. The floor was heated, and, sleeping in clothes, I didn’t find the temperature too bad – although it was still a little on the chilly side. I slept intermittently, but at least I slept.

Stay tuned for Sunday’s adventures in ‘Zoned out, part three’.

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Jack Bauer, on 24, Day 7, episode 14.

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