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Posts Tagged ‘Korea’

A couple of weeks ago was the Korean harvest festival called Chuseok – a three-day holiday that, this year, fell on a Wednesday, Thursday and Friday, thus creating a five-day weekend. In addition, my delayed summer holiday followed on immediately, giving me twelve consecutive days of non-work.

On Wednesday, I held a coffee morning here in Cheonan, which got a pretty good turn-out. I was given a late birthday present of some chocolate cake/pie, which was very tasty. Afterwards, three of us set out on a quest to locate a cat café in Cheonan – in which we eventually succeeded.

The following day, Chuseok Day itself, I headed up to Seoul and met a group of friends for a walk around Gyeongbokgung – the main royal palace. It was busier than I’d expected and pretty warm, but we had a good time looking at the fantastic architecture, posing for photos and browsing the exhibits in the Folk Museum. After that, we had food and drink in a Bukchon café and played card games. I’d told people I wanted to see a film in the evening, but that didn’t pan out; those of us still remaining had dinner at a cheap Korean restaurant in Insadong before heading home.

Gyeongbokgung

Actually, I headed to Zach’s home, as I’d invited another group of friends to a day of gaming in Sinsa on Friday. We only actually played two games. The first was a Burning Wheel one-shot run by Peter – which, somewhat surprisingly, turned out to actually be a one-shot which is to say, we finished it on the day).

Our disparate group of characters were supposed to retrieve an Elixir of Life from a dragon’s hoard to give to a dying princess. Most of us had ulterior motives. The game ended with the prince drinking the elixir himself (thus becoming immortal) and escaping with a magic sword of truth and killing one of the last surviving characters causing the victim to come back as a ghost and haunt him. Our cheer at this happy conclusion caused the coffee shop staff to ask us to be quiet. After dinner we played my game Islands of the Azure Sea, which I’d just updated. I’m starting to think a maximum of eight players is rather too many.

I had a wedding to go to on Saturday, then, on Sunday, I met Natasha – an Englishwoman I and my ex-girlfriend met while volunteering on a farm in Iceland, and who was visiting Korea for a couple of weeks – and Alisha a friend from the Tolkien reading group. We headed back to my place so Natasha could drop off her bag, and they peered at my cat in her hiding place. Then we went up to Sinbu-dong, the city centre area, and spent an hour at the cat café (which is called The Cat) that I’d previously located. Jocelyn joined us while we were there.

The café is divided into two areas, a larger area with the entrance and counter and so on, and then a smaller, but still reasonably big, area partitioned off with a large window running the length of one side and glass sliding doors on another side. Before going in here – which is where the cats hang out – you have to change your footwear for cheap rubber sandals and clean your hands with disinfectant, as well as putting your possessions in a locker.

The Cat Café

When I was there the first time, the owner told me he had eighteen cats. They include a Maine coon, a Scottish fold, an American curl, a sphynx or two, some oriental shorthairs, a couple of munchkins and others. The cats – apart from the munchkins – are all very friendly and seem quite happy. The Maine coon has its back shaved, for some reason, and one or two cats with long fur look like they could do with a bath – I’m not sure if their greasy fur indicates an illness or the fact that they get petted a lot by people with sweaty hands. There was one big cat – an Abyssinian, I think – that gave all of us a hug.

After the cat café, we went to the Arario Gallery – which I’d never been to in my ten months in Cheonan. I got Alisha and Jocelyn to pose next to a couple of Anthony Gormley sculptures. The current exhibition was by a Korean artist called CI Kim and included an interesting range of media, from found art washed up on a beach to big plastic triangles to paintings of children holding emotive signs.

Buddha Statue

We went for coffee downstairs in the Coffee Bean. Jocelyn left us, but Eve joined us, and after a bit we met Mike and Tera and their friend Brandon for a trip to Taejosan, a nearby mountain, home to Gakwonsa, a Buddhist temple with a big Buddha sculpture. After looking around the temple, we had dinner at a vegetarian buffet restaurant. Then we (minus Alisha, who had to return home) headed back to Mike and Tera’s for a game of Cards Against Humanity.

On Monday, Natasha and I started carrying out our plan to head down to Busan and see some of the south coast. We got to the KTX station in Cheonan nice and early and therefore arrived in Busan nice and early. We hadn’t identified anywhere specific to stay, but we decided on Haeundae because there are plenty of hotels, motels and suchlike around there. Our plan was to ask at a few places and see what was reasonable in terms of price. In the event, we checked out a small pension first and at ₩50,000 for a room for the two of us it seemed OK and our search came to an end. We probably could have found some where nicer, but it was par for the course for Korean pensions.

Mermaid Statue

We walked up an down the beach. It was sunny and breezy and a big embankment of sand had been built for the forthcoming Busan International Film Festival festivities. The purpose of this wall, we could only guess at. We had a burger for lunch at a fancy-ish burger place – best burger ever, according to Natasha – then walked around the coast towards Gwangan. We took pictures of the mermaid statue and the fourteenth century (or earlier) Hae Un Dae carving in the rock, walked around the APEC conference building, craned our necks at the blue skyscrapers and tried to find the Busan Museum of Art. When we finally located it, it was closed – it was Monday. We had a coffee at a Twosome Place (no, really – it’s one of the many coffee shop chains in Korea) and played cards.

APEC House and Gwangan Bridge

Then we took the subway and walked to Busan Museum – also closed. So we walked up the hill to the Cultural Centre, finding a friendly cat on the way. Natasha marvelled at the chandeliers in the concert hall lobby and we watched some musicians have their photo taken on the plaza outside. We went back to Gwangalli and had seafood for dinner, watched the lights on the bridge and a lightshow projected on the rain from a jet of water.

Gwangalli Beach

The next morning, we spent an hour on the subway to the Intercity Bus Terminal, an hour on a coach to Gohyeon – the main city, it seems, on Geoje Island – then well over an hour on a bus out to Haegeumgang. Actually, the driver dropped us off at a nearby village – even though the route information said the bus terminated a Haegeumgang – and we had to wait for another bus for another ten minute ride.

As we hadn’t really researched exactly where we wanted to go, I asked a ticket clerk at the bus station in Gohyeon what was a good beach to visit and she recommended Haegeumgang and told us which bus to take. Haegeumgang is a picturesque, rocky island and it has no beach – so I may have used a word that translates more accurately as ‘coast’. We didn’t take a ferry around the island, but, after a lunch of more seafood, we walked up a nearby hill to a view platform with great views in most directions. When I tried to reach the actually summit, I found it to be closed with a padlocked, barbed wire-encircled door.

Haegeumgang

After missing two buses, we took a taxi back to Gohyeon (₩17,000) and a coach back to Busan, then subwayed to the Museum of Art – which was open. The museum was pretty massive, but its spaciousness made it seem like there wasn’t that much stuff in it. We wandered around all the galleries, admiring, in particular, a collection of works about Korean-Japanese relations, such as the painting of two dogs biting each other, a series of woodcuts telling the story of a Japanese-run mine and a huge mural of corpses and Buddha statues based on the Gwangju massacre.

We headed back to the pension for a shower, had dinner at the burger place and met Jessica for an all too brief chat.

The next day, we headed back to the Bus Terminal, with all our bags this time, and caught a coach to Suncheon. Once we’d checked in to a hotel – Hotel BMW, ₩35,000 for a room – we caught a bus out to Suncheon Bay Ecological Park – the site of Korea’s biggest wetland.

Suncheon Bay Ecological Park

We dutifully walked around the museum first, reading and forgetting various bits of information about wetlands, then looked for something to eat in the ‘cafeteria’ and the ‘convenience store’. Rather inconveniently, as we were both hungry, they had nothing more than small pastries and crisps. After eating a packet of crisps each (actually, mine was a dried tofu snack), we started walking through the wetlands on jetty-like walkways, taking pictures of the massive fields of reeds and the occasional heron, crab and bunch of mudskippers.

Suncheon Bay Ecological Park 2

On the far side of the reed fields, we walked up the familiarly named Yongsan, a forested hill with an observation platform looking out over the bay. I took lots of photos of the view, including distant hills and islands and the circular reed beds on the coast. Natasha was particularly taken with the maroon-ish colour of some of the vegetation.

After a convenience store lunch and a brief encounter with a couple of Mormon girls (one Korean, one from Salt Lake City), we headed back into town and then out again to Seonamsa on another pretty long bus ride. We walked around this Buddhist temple at dusk as the monks were performing some sort of ceremony. This began with monks taking turns to perform epic drum solos on a giant drum in the entrance building (on the ground floor of which was a shop, the attendant of which harassed Natasha as she looked around). Then the monks gathered in one of the halls for chanting and praying. It was nice and peaceful; there were a few other tourists around, but not many.

Buddhist Drumming

The following day – Thursday – was our last day together and we decided to check out Yeosu Expo – the site of a world exposition last year. I was a little confused about what was going on there because there was also a garden expo in the area, but that turned out to be in Suncheon. Yeosu is close to Suncheon, but is a separate town. Yeosu Expo is also a terminus of a KTX line, so it seemed like a good place to head back home from.

Yeosu Expo

Unfortunately, there was really nothing going on at Yeosu Expo – there was some sort of ‘character festival’ for kindergarteners and the nearby aquarium seemed to be open for business. Most of the exhibition halls were closed and empty and the whole place seemed a bit sad and dilapidated for something that is only a year old. We had a strange French toast-croque-monsieur thing and a drink in a café on the site and played some cards then caught our train home. It was a regular train rather than KTX – four hours to Cheonan, five to Seoul – as it was at the most convenient time.

It was great to spend time with Natasha and quite satisfying to use my minimal expertise to show her around. It was also good to finally have my summer week off work, even though it was a pretty tiring round of early starts and long bus and train rides. It was also a little weird to consider that Natasha is a link to my ex-girlfriend and that our lives are pretty close, but completely divorced from each other. But it’s only loneliness that makes me dwell on this, I suppose. But Natasha was great company – it was lovely to spend time with someone as good-natured as her; her being British was a bonus, too.

Natasha and Sean

Although there was lots of moving around, this short, concentrated burst of travelling works quite well, I think. Busan is a great place to spend a couple of days on holiday, and there are lots of places on the south coast that would be worth exploring; the little that we saw was very pleasant – even Yeosu Expo had a certain charm. The experience makes me want to explore more of the country – just not necessarily by myself.

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Today, instead of working from two to nine-thirty, I got up early and joined the majority of my students on a trip to a water park near Cheonan. I arrived at the meeting point at a nearby bus stop and found no one there. So I waited a bit and some of the kids walked past, so I followed them to the big red coach that was waiting a few metres away.

The bus was far too big for our needs. It could have seated the better part of fifty passengers, but had about two dozen people including the boss, the Korean teacher and me. The drive took less than half an hour.

Once at Tedin Water Park, we lined up for a bit – well, the kids did; I hung about to one side – and a member of staff gave everyone a device that looked like a young girl’s watch. It was the locker ‘key’. Inside, we deposited our footwear in a small locker, then entered the changing rooms. As there was a gaggle of children – not all of them ours, it seemed – in front of my main locker I decided to just sit and wait.

Eventually, I was changed and had covered myself in sunscreen and was ready to go outside. We were all given life jackets; I didn’t put mine on, but eventually relented and wore it. Many of the kids – and visitors – seemed overdressed. Most people seemed to wear at least a T-shirt in addition to their swimming costume – perhaps a lightweight hoodie, too. There were a few young women who walked around in bikinis only, but their dryness and lack of life jackets indicated that they had no interest in going into the water.

Tedin Waterpark

I felt kind of miserable for the first part of the morning. There were too many people and I felt like a fish out of water, not really knowing what to do. I went off by myself for a bit and found a quiet area to look over the park. Then I decided I should get over it and decided to find some of our children.

I was rescued from my funk by some of the elementary school girls, who grabbed me and pulled me to this feature that consisted of a channel that looped around much of the outer part of the facility. There were hundreds of big inflatable rings being used or floating freely. Close to the entrance, there was a section where huge gush of water thundered into the channel and propelled everyone forwards a few metres.

I wasn’t allowed entry at first because I didn’t have a hat, but one of the girls gave me hers and she put up her hood. Like the life jackets, it seemed like a strange, overly protective measure, but the thousands of people who must pass through every day are probably capable of shedding a fair amount of hair.

Tedin Waterpark 2

It turned out to be quite fun. The girls escorted me to a big wave pool, which wasn’t quite as exciting, but at least afforded a tiny bit more space in which to actually swim a few metres. There was a big ride called the Tsunami, but it seemed to have a really long queue, so no one wanted to go on that (the elementary kids were probably too young, anyway). We did go one slide. The chute was covered so you shot down in complete blackness apart from the start and the end. The joins in the chute bumped my shoulder blades in an almost painful way.

Lunch was bizarrely early at about 11:10. We seemed to have an assigned time as well as assigned seating in a cafeteria that was separate from the food court. The food was a bit prison-ish: a white plastic tray with modest amounts of rice, bulgogi, kimchi and (for some reason) corn, plus a bowl of watery but tasty soup with those beige spongy things that I’m not sure I know the name for. It wasn’t exactly filling, but I suppose swimming on a full stomach is not so pleasant.

At lunch, my boss let me know that she wanted me to make a decision about whether I would sign on for another year or leave in November by Monday.

The afternoon progressed much as the morning had – except that there were twice as many people. I retrieved my own hat from my locker (and reapplied sunblock). As the younger kids couldn’t go into the deeper parts of the wave pool, I kept losing them when I came out. If I’d stuck with them, I might have had more fun, or at least kept busy, but whenever I was on my own I was at a loose end.

Eventually, I decided I’d had enough and went and showered and changed. I noticed in the mirror that I was a little pink where my skin had been exposed to the sun. The backs of my feet and hands and arms had a very mild sting of sunburn, but they seem OK now. I came back out into the water park area wearing my jeans, T-shirt and backpack, but barefoot. I was about in time to meet up with everyone as they got ready to leave.

So the day wasn’t terrible – I had some fun and the kids certainly seemed to enjoy themselves (all but one older boy who told me towards the end that he was angry because he’d been given responsibility for looking after the youngsters). I’d never been to one of these places before. It hadn’t really been a priority. I’m not sure that I’d ever want to return to a water park – not unless it was on a weekday outside of holiday season and I was with someone who would encourage my playful side.

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The possibility of getting skin cancer has been on my mind for some time. I have lots – lots – of mole, several quite big. They’re mostly on my back and seem to a have grown and multiplied imperceptibly over the years. Having moles and freckles is associated with a higher risk of getting skin cancer (although I’ve also read that having many moles is also connected to ageing more slowly – those of you who know me well won’t be surprised at that). It’s really about time I saw a dermatologist.

Which is what I did a couple of weeks ago.

Now You've Really Seen the Back of Me

On the Monday, I went to a hospital in Cheonan that was recommended by my boss, Soonchunhyang University Hospital. I went into one building and inquired after the 피부과, or skin clinic, and was directed to a neighbouring building. In the lobby there I spoke to a member of staff who spoke English and she explained that I should get a referral from another 피부과 first. I was given some directions and headed off there in a taxi.

This skin clinic – 퀸 피부과, ‘Queen’ – was also a cosmetic surgery place. It was a bit rhinestoney – kind of down-market princess chic. My presence there seemed to be equally confusing to the staff and the female clients. But I took my T-shirt off for the doctor and he figured out want I wanted. Eventually, I was sent on my way with a piece of paper.

I headed to a nearby Starbucks to do some work on one of my games.

The following day, I went back to the hospital and saw a dermatologist there. He gave my torso a fairly cursory examination and said that they would take a biopsy from the darkest mole – or naevus – on my back.

A younger man did the procedure. I lay on my front and he anaesthetised the area, used some device to punch a small hole in my back, then sewed it up with a couple of stitches. The sample was a little cone of skin a bit less than a centimetre tall and about half a centimetre across the base (the skin surface), pinkish-greyish-brownish in colour. I was told to keep it dry and was prescribed some medication and told to get iodine and waterproof plasters. I was to come back the following week to get the biopsy result and have the stitches out.

Diminished Mole

The mole is a little to the left of my spine, but pretty much in the middle of my back. Not easy to reach oneself. However, with a little daily practice, I got fairly proficient at wiping the stitches with damp tissue, dabbing it with iodine and putting on a fresh plaster (the waterproof plasters were excellent – they have a slightly rigid plastic covering that keeps them straight when you’re putting them on, they really are waterproof, they don’t peel and they don’t leave much of a sticky residue behind). I took the medicine – antibiotics, I think – most of the time, but had a few left at the end of the seven days. The wound didn’t bother me at all.

I went back the following Tuesday and the dermatologist told me the result was negative – there was no sign of cancer – in that mole, at any rate. I wonder whether some of my other moles ought to be tested, as well, just to make sure. I’m going to try to keep an eye on them – on the irregular ones, anyway. Having the stitches removed was quick and painless.

I walked home feeling pretty good that I’d finally done the right thing, but conscious that it may not be the end of the story.

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It’s been over a month now since I turned 37. Life is going well in many respects – but it’s also pretty tiring.

I think it’s fair to say that my birthday celebrations were a great success. About twenty people came to the meal at a British-style fish and chips place in Sinchon in Seoul called Battered Soul. The menu wasn’t very diverse – the was little choice outside fish and chips – but they had plenty of beer and most people were satisfied with what they got (one American friend was somewhat disappointed by the fish cakes – she had never had them before). I got Guinness-battered cod and chips – along with a pint of Guinness.

After that, we headed off to Hongdae, where we went for drinks at a hookah bar (my sister had been rather confused when I told her this via Skype; my default pronunciation of ‘hookah’ is the same as ‘hooker’); after that, we went to Luxury Noraebang – a fancy karaoke place; and after that, those remaining went to a bar/club for another drink or two and dancing.

It was a long and tiring but very satisfying night. I’m very grateful to all those who came out with me – most of whom were friends that I’ve made since I returned to Korea in November. I think it’s a mark of how much I’ve developed as a person, even in just the last seven months, that so many people chose to celebrate with me.

And, although I’m not going on as many tour group trips as I did in my first few months back in the country, I’m continuing to meet new people. There have been several birthdays in the last six or seven weeks, and I’ve met new people at all of them – even my own; and there are more birthdays in the coming few weeks. I’m also continuing with my coffee mornings – I met several new people just yesterday – and I’ve attended a local language exchange group a couple of times. In Seoul, the meetings of the Tolkien discussion group are going well, and we’ll be talking about The Hobbit soon (stayed up far too late last night reading it – the hot weather is not conducive to sleep).

Finally, I’m organising little events of my own to try to bring some of my acquaintances together and develop those tentative relationships into more solid friendships. I got a few people together recently to see the new Star Trek film – an action-packed disappointment, by the way – and I will be getting some people together to go to a rose festival and modern art exhibition at Seoul Grand Park on Saturday.

I’ve been stepping up my efforts to learn Korean and, to this end, I’ve started attending classes twice a week. My teacher is a Korean woman who takes various lessons in the living room of her apartment near to where I live. She is very sweet and very patient – which latter quality is essential for teaching me, as my brain hates being forced to communicate in an alien tongue. I’m slowly getting there, though. I feel more comfortable speaking Korean with my Seoul-based language exchange partner – but she’s always off travelling the world, so I don’t get to see her as often as I’d like.

My cat, Acalia, is really starting to act like a real pet – as is her duty, of course. It’s been a slow process, but she has continually built up her confidence and her liking for me has grown and grown. Whereas previously, I’d come home and not see her, and she hardly ever made a sound, these days, she is generally keen to get attention. I always find her lying on the bed when I come back home. When I enter the living room, she hurriedly gets off the bed – she’s still quite skittish – but then she follows me around and meows continuously, though not annoyingly, until I spend some time petting her.

She still doesn’t like being picked up for more than a couple of seconds and, when I move to pet her, she will sometimes either avoid me or duck her head as if she’s afraid of being struck. But she purrs very readily once I start stroking her and she enjoys the attention. She also like to chase stringy things. I made a toy out of a pizza box ribbon and the handle of a spatula (the rubber head of which I use as a cat fur-remover) and it never fails to rouse her interest.

If I offer her a finger to sniff, she always bites it – which I have mixed feelings about. It’s cute, but it’s also a bad habit that I should maybe try to wean her off. She also has very watery eyes – a feature of her breed (exotic shorthair), apparently. It wouldn’t be too bad if her eyes were merely watery, but the liquid that gathers around her eyes is pretty gunky. She leaves spots of dried, brown fluid all over the place. I clean her eyes with damp kitchen towel, which, naturally, she doesn’t like, but she doesn’t fight against it too much.

I also made her a bed out of a big cardboard box that contained my new fan. The bed has an open compartment and a closed compartment. I cut my old bathmat in half to carpet each side of it, and I made an arch strut for the covered side so it doesn’t collapse when she sits on the top – or jumps on to it, as it’s right under the window.

Work is going well. I’m taking advantage of the relaxed regime to do some more creative but English-related things with my classes. For instance, in the past week or so, I’ve had many of my kids making wordsearches and crosswords. Now that I’m more than halfway through my contract and near halfway through the calendar year, I’m starting to think about what I will do in the next six months or so. Well, I’ve been thinking about it for a good while, and I pretty much know what my plan is; I’m just starting to worry more about what exactly to do. The downside of keeping busy at weekends is that I don’t have much time to dedicate to the thought and research needed for this planning. That’s something I should schedule for the coming weeks – before it’s too late.

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At the weekend, I went on my first group trip in a while – to Jindo, primarily. Jindo is an island off the south coast of Korea where, twice a year, the tide lowers to reveal a land pass to a much smaller island. The second part of the trip involved going to a butterfly festival.

After returning to Korea, I had a period of going on lots of trips (well, a few, anyway), but in the last couple months I haven’t attended many – or any. I’ve been concentrating on spending time with the people I’ve met and haven’t felt the need to meet new people. I still don’t really, but I saw that one of my new friends had signed up for this trip, so I did, too; she later told me she wasn’t going to go. It was also the longest trip I’ve been on since I’ve been back in the country – a full weekend.

I got the first bus out of Cheonan on Saturday morning – six o’clock. It should have arrived at the terminal a short distance from the meeting point at about seven, but there was a crash on the motorway that made me a little late. As soon as I boarded the second coach, the organiser, Harry, gave me a microphone and wanted me to introduce myself. I said, ‘I’m Sean. I’m from the UK. Sorry I’m late.’ Fortunately for my self-esteem, I wasn’t the last person arriving, so we didn’t actually set off until eight.

It was a long ride down to the south-west corner of the country. I sat next to a Korean guy who had lived in the States for a long time and we chatted about Korea and Korean. We stopped for lunch in Mokpo – where Harry announced to our smaller lunch group that they should all go to my birthday party. We made another stop to cross Jindo bridge on foot; the bridge is actually two very similar bridges side by side. The bridges had statues of Yi Sun-sin (pronounced ‘ee soon sheen’) – the Korean equivalent of Nelson or Raleigh; he fought against the Japanese invasion in the sixteenth century.

Yi Sun-sin Statue on Jindo Bridge

The continuing ride from the bridge to the beach we were visiting seemed inordinately long, but we eventually got there. On this leg, most of us put on the cheap rubber and plastic waders we’d bought from a man at the bridge; mine – and most people’s – were bright green. We walked to the festival site, where Harry bought tickets, and made our way towards the seasonal causeway that we’d come all this way to see. We were early, so there was lots of milling around, photograph-taking and so on. I didn’t have much cash, so I didn’t buy anything, although there were stalls selling food and drink. The group pretty much dissolved at this stage.

We all got together again as the tide continued to go down and stretches of the land pass were revealed; some people started making the crossing early through what looked like a couple of feet of water. We clambered over the rocks on the coast and on to the pebbly seabed and followed the crowds heading across the sea towards a small island in the distance. It didn’t look that far away, but the information I’ve read says that the land pass is nearly three kilometres long.

Jindo Land Pass

Having agglomerated into a single group once more to commence the crossing, we quickly dissipated into smaller clusters. I talked to a Moroccan woman on the way over and back about life and work. We bumped into one of my other new friends, Erica (we’d been in contact about meeting while we were there, but it didn’t look like we would actually make it happen. I saw a couple of other people I’d met on trips – it seemed like every foreigner-friendly tour/Meetup group was there in force; the expats almost outnumbered the Koreans). We didn’t actually make it all the way to the smaller island; our group leader told us we had to start heading back; a coast guard ship started sounding a loud horn and men in a dinghy blew their whistles at us.

Captain Maybe in Shallow Water

The walk back was a little bit frantic. The tidal flow evidently crosses the the causeway instead of being parallel to it, so water was rushing from left to right as we headed back to the main island, at depths of up to a foot – maybe more.

We stayed at a pension near the bridge(s) overnight. In the morning, as most people were breakfasting, I took a short walk across the road to the park by the giant statue of Yi Sun-sin that faces Jindo Bridge.

Yi Sun-sin Statue

We packed up and boarded the coach and headed back to Mokpo. An American woman sat next to me and we talked about fantasy books; she kindly gave me a couple of ibuprofen for my headache. In Mokpo, we had a short hike up a mountain close to the middle of the city called Yudalsan. On the way down, I talked to a different American woman who was also into fantasy and who had lived in Manchester (the British one) for several years. We found a cash machine, went to a coffee shop where we met another member of our group – a Canadian guy – and took our coffees back to the bus.

Mokpo

Then it was off to the butterfly festival at Hampyeong Expo Park. The weather was bright and warm and the place was full of flowers so the atmosphere was cheerful and friendly. It was a very family-friendly place; there various places to buy ice cream and toys and there were giant fibreglass models of insects. Out among fields of oil seed rape there were pools and rice paddies where you could try your hand at catching fish, planting rice or operating a waterwheel.

Lifting Water

The side of a nearby small mountain had a huge flowerbed in the shape of a butterfly. The butterfly hall was a little less impressive than similar places I’ve visited in the Philippines and Malaysia – at least in terms of the species it contained: I only made out two kinds of butterfly – white ones and black and white ones. It also had some live giant beetle grubs that you could pick up.

Butterfly

I tagged along with a few people; later, it looked like we’d get a group together to have lunch, but it didn’t really happen. I ended up having some rather expensive (₩8,000) chicken tandoori from an Indian food stall (which, for some reason, had a large picture of the Hagia Sofia at the back); then I got a kebab from the Turkish stand (which also had a Hagia Sofia picture).

Hampyeong Expo Park

Then we all got back on the coach and we headed back home. Well, nearly all; both the Korean man and the American woman (and her friend) that I’d sat next to left at this point to go their own way. I chatted to a Frenchman on the way back – he’s in the country working on RAM, apparently.

I had told Harry that I’d like to be dropped off near Cheonan, but, as I had no idea how I’d get from the service station to the city and my boss couldn’t give me any advice, I changed my mind and headed up to Seoul, where I met Zach and Matthew for dinner and a game of Munchkin. I’m pretty sure I got the last possible coach back to Cheonan on Sunday night.

All in all it was a very good, if exhausting, weekend. I met some very nice people that I’d like to keep in touch with, but, given the often fluid nature of friendships in Korea, I’m not sure if we will. One or two of them might come to my birthday this weekend.

Having stayed up all night on Friday, I came to the event tired and the length and quality of sleep that I was able to get wasn’t great. I think this showed on Sunday, as my desire to socialise dwindled and I was happy to be alone with my thoughts and the view out of the window as we returned to Seoul. I’m not sure I want to do another overnight trip again soon, but another day trip would be good.

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The first official day of my holiday, Wednesday the 26th, passed uneventfully. I did a bit of writing, picked up the rest of my medicine, discovered I somehow wasn’t covered by national health insurance, contacted my boss then heard from her that someone at the government had made a mistake and it should be sorted out by the next day. Later, I dropped some shirts at a dry cleaners for ironing, got a haircut, went to a kimbap place for dinner – where I met Namy, my other colleague; she’s off to America for a month soon, so she was with her replacement, a young Korean guy who used to be a student at the hagwon. They were both on their dinner break – the guy is evidently replacing me, too, while I’m off.

Afterwards, I watched Sucker Punch – which was better than I thought it was going to be. A little, anyway. It was completely silly – a mish-mash of computer game cut-scenes linked by a non-sensical escape plot framed within a deceptive melodrama. It worked, though; it was visually spectacular and perfectly well acted. I particularly liked the fantasy-within-a-fantasy structure and the denouement was pretty bold. I could have done without the pretentious voiceovers at the beginning and end.

I had a fairly early start the next day. I packed my suitcase for five days in Seoul, picked up my shirts, packed one, and headed off to the railway station.

I got off at Yeongdeungpo in western Seoul, where I met Helena, a very sweet woman I worked with when I worked in Gangnam. She drove us to a Homeplus, where we had shabu-shabu for lunch (shabu-shabu is a kind of soup that cooks on a hob on your table; this particular place was buffet-style, so you picked your own ingredients to go in the watery stock: bean sprouts, bak choi, spring onions, beef, baby octopuses, prawns etc; the man on the till when we left told us it was a Mongolian dish, though Helena said it’s common all over east Asia and Wikipedia says it’s Japanese but originally from China). We talked about our lives in the past few years; she told me what she knew of the other people we worked with. She seems very happy and know has her own cottage industry making leather wallets, passport cases and suchlike.

Afterwards, I headed to Sinsa and to Zach’s place. Zach’s out of the country, visiting friends and family in the States, but he very kindly agreed to let me stay there while I was up in Seoul. I retrieved the key from its super secret hiding place and let myself in. I got on the internet and signed up for a New Year’s Eve party; then I went to the KEB handily located just across the main road to transfer funds pay for it.

As I was thinking of what to do next, I remembered my friend Ji-hyeon. I’d sent her a couple of e-mails telling her I was due back in the country, but had had no reply. I searched my mails for a phone number for her and texted a message to it. A minute later she called and we arranged to meet an hour later. Fortuitously enough, she has recently started working in Sinsa, so she came straight from work to meet me for a coffee (well, she had hot chocolate).

The last time I saw her was at her wedding. She sent me an e-mail earlier in the year telling me she was pregnant; she now has a four-month-old baby boy. She showed me a video, and he’s a happy, bonny baby – they usually are. We caught up on each other’s lives, but we had barely an hour together as she wanted to get home to her son and husband.

I ate dinner then headed to Hongdae to meet Mary. I don’t know Mary so well, having only really met her a few times, but she’s a lovely person, so when she texted me in response to my Facebook message about my new phone number I was glad to arrange to meet her. We had a quite serious and occasionally gruesome conversation over a couple of drinks in a couple of bars. And we made arrangements to meet again today with Matthew for a Mary-led tour of Ewha Women’s University, where she’s a student.

And that’s what I’ll be doing very soon. This holiday is turning out to be extremely packed with social events and socialsing: seeing my three friends yesterday, meeting Mary and Matthew today, gaming tomorrow, hiking with a group on Sunday, New Year’s Eve party on Monday, dinner with some Cheonan people on Wednesday (I’ll finally get to meet some Cheonanites! (besides those I work with)). So much social interaction is quite unlike me, but, being stuck down in Cheonan and working the hours that I work, I feel that I have to take advantage of all such opportunities I can.

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The last couple of weekends have been pretty busy and fun.

The weekend before last, I came up to Seoul, my small backpack heavy with my box of Magic cards and a few bits of clothing and toiletries – and my computer, which I probably didn’t really need. I’ve recently joined a bunch of groups on Meetup and my first order of business was to attend my first event with one of them. It was a beginners’ life drawing class at a studio in Itaewon. The instructor had us practise a few different drawing techniques – initially with one of the attendees with whom he was evidently familiar because the model was late, and then with a model once she arrived.

Three Life-drawing Sketches

It was interesting work, quite challenging – especially having not had much practice at sketching for a long time, other than the occasional map for a game or story. I think I did reasonably well, though. The model was a white, North American woman – she resembled a blond Natalie Portman. Most of the attendees were women too; I chatted to a few on the way out and back to the subway station, but the atmosphere in the class was quiet so I felt pretty self-conscious about talking to anyone in there. The one woman I did talk to in the class seemed quite uncomfortable.

Afterwards, I met those sterling gentlemen, Matthew and Zach. We had dinner together and I dropped my things at Zach’s place (which is conveniently nextdoor to Matt’s place; I knocked on their doors simultaneously) where I stayed the night. Later in the evening, Zach and I went to Hongdae where he had a gig to play with Damnear David, a David Bowie cover singer. Also on the bill was a Queen cover band, Queen Machine – which I really quite enjoyed.

The following day, the three of us went to Wangsimni to watch The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, which we all agreed was very good, although it did have some silly bits like the hero not leaving home for the first hour of the film and Galadriel teleporting to avoid scuffing or tripping up over her long skirts.

We also played lots of Magic: The Gathering. Zach and I did, at any rate – Matthew had other duties that called him away.

During the week, I made a bunch of paper snowflakes with my students to decorate my class a little. There has been quite a bit of real snow of late and the weather has been very cold occasionally – making my classroom unpleasantly chilly; the single heater is not really up to the task of heating the whole room.

Paper Snowflakes

I also got my Alien Registration Card and set up a bank account with KEB – Korea Exchange Bank. Actually, I set up two accounts (no, I didn’t – the bank clerk did it for me); one is a regular current account, into which I’ll be paid, and the other automatically transfers any money put into it to my UK bank account. Once I got paid, I transferred some money into the second account; I’ve just checked and it has arrived in my British account. Now I can pay off the credit card debt I’ve built up in my first month back in Korea. Unfortunately, the advances on my salary that I’ve been given mean that I probably won’t have enough cash to see out this next month, so I’m going to have to withdraw more money on my credit card.

I had to go back to the hospital where I got my health check done. I went initially to an internal medicine clinic I’d noticed in order to get a week’s worth of my colitis medication. The doctor – a rather uninspiringly nervous and boyish middle-aged man – told me he couldn’t prescribe it but gave me a note to take to the hospital. Having seen one of the specialists at the hospital, I made my way down one of the staircases and passed this very pretty nurse who’d tested my sight and given me my sealed envelope with the results a couple of weeks afterwards. She had been very nice, trying to speak English and (kind of) remembering my name. She stopped to say hello and prove that she remembered my name again (with only a little prompting from me). I asked her hers.

I had to return once more to the hospital to get another copy of the health check statement – the last one had been for the Immigration Office; this one was for the police, with whom I was supposed to be registered. I was able to ask for Ji-yeong by name and she prepared another envelope for me.

There was a weird episode towards the end of the week when Julie, my boss, put it to me that she didn’t want to sign me up for the (legally required) national health insurance and pension schemes and instead wanted to get something private. Or maybe that wasn’t exactly what she was saying, but because of something the recruiter had told her she didn’t seem keen.

I’m very aware that Americans and Canadians can get the pension contributions back when they leave the country, but Britons can’t. This is because of differing reciprocal arrangements between governments; Koreans working in the UK also can’t get a refund of National Insurance contributions. Apparently, the recruiter had told her that she wouldn’t need to pay into the national system for a British employee and that had been a factor in her choosing me over someone else. After asking various people and reading about it, I told her I wanted to pay into the national systems – so that’s apparently what I’m now doing.

I say apparently because after getting confirmation that I was signed up from Julie, I went back to internal medicine clinic, the hospital and the pharmacy and got partial refunds on my payments because I was now retroactively covered. I’ve since been back to the hospital and pharmacy and my consultation and medication were a lot more expensive than I was expecting.

This past weekend was one of Magic and Burning Wheel gaming. Zach, Matthew and I played MTG on Saturday. That other sterling gentleman, Peter, met me on Sunday and we played more Magic, then Zach joined us and we got started on a roleplaying game run by Peter. I played a fisherman exiled from his village and Zach played a cleric with the character trait Overbearing Loony; we were united by a desire to stop colonists interfering with local culture – or at least with an old temple. It was a very promising game and seemed to go off on a tangent quite quickly – or maybe it was all planned. Hopefully, we’ll be able to continue the story soon.

The first thing I did on Saturday was head up to Itaewon to see a man about a phone. I was expecting a North American, but it turned out to be an Indian or Pakistani guy. I started to feel a bit suspicious, but checked the instinct. The phone he offered me was white instead of the black one shown in the photo on Craigslist. I bought it anyway – I’m far too polite to have refused. I came to the conclusion later that the phone was almost certainly stolen. The man didn’t have any idea how to change a setting I e-mailed him about later; the phone is a little bit scuffed on the back, while this chap provided brand new recharging and data cables; he spoke near-perfect English, but he changed the phone from Korean to English right in front of me.

Anyway, it works and I’ve been to the SK Telecom centre to get a new USIM card for it – thus registering an account with SK as well as getting an actual phone number. The clerk opened it up and typed some numbers from inside the phone into her computer. I can only assume that if someone had reported it stolen, some alert would have come up at this point. Maybe it was second-hand after all.

The really disappointing thing about the phone was that it was white and not black. Nevertheless, I’ve got a pretty fancy 4G smart phone with a big screen and I’m starting to get used to how it works and alter things to my taste.

Monday was the last day of teaching for me this year. I had one class with a four-year-old boy, then the next class was an amalgam of many of the elementary school kids and we watched Brave on my laptop. A couple of hours later, the middle- and high- schoolers did the same, but I had to leave halfway through to take a class with one of the girls; then I had one more class with one of the older boys and I was done. The kids will be back on Wednesday, but I have my contractual five days of holiday.

Today, Tuesday, I spent doing not very much – washing clothes, walking around the city, blogging. I had pepperoni pizza for dinner with chocolates and beer and Misfits and the Simpsons.

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