Thursday, October 29, 2009

A very old Temple and some Halloween Fun

Last week, Oct. 22nd and 23rd, Andrew and I had an EPIK in service training in Gyeongju; a historical city about an hour northwest of Ulsan. The training lasted all day Thursday and until 2pm on Friday. It being our first time there, we decided to stay until Saturday and do some site seeing. We had also gotten wind of an ATV mountain tour that peeked our interest. (We actually never found the ATV tour and aren't even sure it existed. I found it on a kind of shady maybe I 'read' it wrong :)

After the conclusion of the training, Johnson drove us to a cheaper hotel we found online and he said he would talk to the people to try to get us a discount because Hakseong often stayed at their hotel for soccer tournaments. Well, when we go there, he talked to the lady at the front desk and then translated to us that it's originally 80,000 won a night, but he 'talked' her down to 60,000 (about $50.) Whether that was true or not, I'll take a discount when I can get one.

When Johnson left to return to Ulsan, Andrew and I decided to take a walk around the Bulguksa Temple. This temple was completed in 774 AD and it served as a center of Silla Buddhism and of prayer for the protection of the country from foreign invasion. Sadly, like many other ancient Korean landmarks, the entire temple was burnt d0wn by Japanese invaders in 1593 (they should have prayed a little harder...) and it wasn't rebuilt until 1969 after thorough research, investigations and excavation of the ancient temple site. Something I thought was pretty cool, was that in 1995, the temple was designated as the world cultural heritage by the UNESCO.

As Andrew and I walked up the stairs to the temple grounds, the scene was literally breathtaking. I couldn't imagine seeing this temple for the first time at any other moment during the year. The trees were at their most beautiful fall peaks and the colors were simply gorgeous. (We see no trees living in the city of Ulsan, so it was an amazing site to see). The temple grounds were filled with beautiful trees but the most beautiful site of all were the trees that surrounded a pond and a waterfall. Andrew and I took like a hundred pictures and just couldn't stop staring at such natural beauty. I wish you all could have been there in person. These pictures just don't do it justice.

After we walked the temple grounds, we got on a bus to take us up the mountain to see the Seokguram Grotto, another UNESCO world cultural heritage landmark. The ride was less than exciting. I hear the views are beautiful but I was too busy closing my eyes and concentrating on not getting sick all over the bus. It was a miserable windy ride. The grotto was constructed in 751 AD and it represents not only the supremacy of Silla art, but it is also regarded as the best oriental Buddhist work. Sadly we were not allowed to take pictures because of how old it is I'm guessing. But it was a cool looking giant Buddha. I'm sad to admit, but for me, the view from the top of the mountain at sunset was even cooler!

The bus ride down from the grotto had to be the most miserable 15 minutes of my whole life. It would be wise for them to put air sick bags in each seat. They probably would have come in handy for the poor girl that got sick immediately after stepping off the bus. I know we all felt that way, and the last thing I wanted to do was get on another bus to take us to our next tourist destination. After waiting 20 minutes for the bus and trying to settle our stomachs, Andrew and I rode for 45 min on a bus where we weren't even sure would take us to the right place. Well, as usual, we missed our stop and just ended up getting off the bus. We ended up in 'Love Motel Ally' and weren't even sure how to get back. We flagged a taxi and pointed to the map of where we were trying to go. The map was in English, the taxi driver only spoke took us a while to communicate where we wanted to go but eventually we got there.

We were at the Gyeongju Imhaejeon Site on the Anapji lake, a site you can really only appreciate at night time because they have the coolest up lighting on all of the buildings and around the lake. It is a separate palace that the King of the Unified Silla period had built so that he could plant rare flowers and trees and raise uncommon birds and animals. The King also used this place to hold banquets and lavish parties. Once again, it was destroyed by the Japanese and rebuilt in 1975. They have a model of what it might have looked like as well as some actual artifacts that were found when the lake was drained and cleaned.

It was beautiful and the had music playing as we walked the path around the lake. The lighting was gorgeous and even had color changing lights around some of the streams.

After a full day of site seeing we returned to our hotel where we had a very nutritious meal consisting of fried chicken, fries and Pepsi. What a great day!

Wednesday, October 28th, I threw my after school kids a Halloween party! It was so much fun. We played all kinds of Halloween games like 'Pin the tail on the Black cat,' we made construction Jack-o-Lanterns, masks, Ghost suckers, and BINGO (a Korean favorite). Their favorite activity had to be the toilet paper Mummy rap race...boys against girls. It's always good to promote healthy competition. Not to be biased in any way, but the girls kicked butt, look at the picture and you can be the judge! It was a fun time and a nice break from the English studying that we usually do. I think that all kids around the world should celebrate Halloween...everyone loves free candy! But if I have to hear, "Teacher changey...changey...." one more time...I might go crazy. If I gave them a piece of candy, they always wanted to 'change' the flavor. So I stopped that madness real quick. (That's me, in the Witch hat and striped leggings).

By the way, I have posted a few videos on youtube. Just type in 09Ulsan in the search tab. They are short because my camera can't take long videos but they are kind of fun!

Tuesday, October 20, 2009


Sorry it's been several weeks since my last entry. Sadly my life has turned into a bit of a routine; something I assumed wouldn't happen while I was here with so many adventures lurking to be discovered.

First things first, a volleyball update. So, Wednesday October 7 the volleyball routine began like any other. Change into uniform at 1:50pm. Load into a random teachers car at 2pm and then warm up beginning promptly at 2:30pm. Well, all occurred in that order...except we were at a random school warming up and there was no other team there. So I just assumed we were practicing for another big game. Well, there I go assuming again and in walks our competition around 3pm. We cleared the court so they could have their time to warm up. I just stared as they were practicing their spikes. I looked at Johnson and seriously asked if we were playing them. They were in a league of their own. You could not classify those "Meet the Parents, nose breaking" kind of spikes as recreational. These guys were not messing around and my fun index dropped to fear. I was not ready for this. Well, to make a short game recap even shorter, we got killed and I'm lucky to have walked away with only a raspberry on my knee. A minor battle wound to what could have been...

Since we lost we didn't go out as a team for more octopus, Soju Bombs, and Karaoke. And since we lost I assumed we were finished with the tournament, or what I understood as a 'qualifying' game for the all day Saturday event.

Saturday. Andrew's volleyball team hadn't lost a game and therefore qualified for the tournament. So from noon until 9:30pm, I sat in a gym and watched teachers play volleyball. Needless to say I was less than thrilled. Parts of the day were entertaining...others I was struggling to stay awake. We arrived at noon so we assumed Andrew's team was playing at 1pm or so. Not exactly. He didn't even play his first game until 3:45pm. We think maybe they were scoping out their competition...not really sure. Like I said, volleyball in Korea is taken extremely seriously. Winning is everything and having fun depends on only if you are victorious.

Well, they lost their first game. Andrew and I didn't know if that meant they were finished or playing again...a double elimination kind of one told us anything because they didn't speak English. So we sat around because they sat around. Turns out, it was double elimination and Andrew's team ended up winning the entire tournament! Andrew even had a clutch play in the semi-final game to send his team into the championship. (A feat he continues to brag about every chance he gets). They played the team that beat them the first game in the championship. It was actually a very exciting game. And after 9 hours...I was standing on my feet beating water bottles together with the other fans. I'm not really sure if I was excited that the game was so close in score or that it was so close to being over. Either way, his team walked away with a trophy, a certificate and an MVP. His principal even game us 30,000 won (about $25) to eat dinner on!

Wednesday October 14th, I was given my first traditional Korean painting lesson by a 5th grade teacher, Mrs. Pan. She drew four lines on a piece on very thin paper and said this is very basic movement that I needed to master. Four lines. Really, how hard could it be? I assumed it would take me like two times to get it right and then I could move on to more 'difficult' things like the flowers she was painting. Well, there I went assuming again. Those four 'basic' lines, I have worked on three different days now. I have probably painted those same lines over 50 times and it still looks embarrassingly awful. There is such an elegant technique that has to be done in order to get the lines just right. The paintbrush is very big and awkward...I still don't think I hold it quite right. The ink is very watery and the paper is really, really thin so the ink bleeds easily. It's been a very interesting experience and it is awesome to watch how gracefully she paints. I now take lessons from her every Wednesday and Friday after school and I am really enjoying the learning experience as well as her company. She is so sweet!

O geeze...Monday October 19th. I had to teach my after school kids alone because Johnson had a meeting from 4pm to 6:30pm. I was a little nervous because I now had no interpreter, but I began class like normal. 15 minutes into class, I was writing the new vocab words on the board when I heard two chairs screech across the floor. I turned around to see Kyle and Jack (their English names) standing and facing each other whispering something I obviously didn't understand. Let me paint a picture, Kyle is not your average 6th grader. He has an inch on me and about 30 pounds. Jack is an average 5th grader and very scrawny compared to Kyle. They both just had an extreme look of rage in their eyes and I knew something was about to happen. So I got in between them and told them to relax and sit down. More Korean words were exchanged and I assumed awful things had been said because while I was trying to get them to sit, Kyle reached across and grabbed Jacks throat. I yelled at Kyle and grabbed his arm to let go. Kyle did not let up and wasn't listening to me. So the first thing that came to my mind was to Karate chop his arm to let go of poor Jacks throat. Well, I did it and he let go. Jack sat down, tears in his eyes and a red neck. I grabbed Kyles stuff and put it in the back of the room and told him to sit.

I walked back to the front of the class and just looked at the clock like you have got to be's only been 15 min. I was so shaken up by the whole thing I totally lost my train of thought. I wanted to lecture Kyle so bad but it would do no use because he wouldn't know what I was saying anyways. There were no teachers around because they were in a meeting and I just couldn't believe what had just taken place. A kid was almost choked to death in my class and I karate chopped a students arm. Physical abuse is often used among Korean teachers towards students but I am just not comfortable with it at all...but I felt like I had no choice. With the hate in Kyle's eyes, I was afraid he was going to hit was awful.

On a happier note, October 20th was an all school picnic day! I was so excited to go and couldn't wait to see what they did. Well, I assumed we would go to park and play organized field games, eat lunch and return to school. Wrong again. We walked with all the kids about 20 minutes from the school to a trail by the river. All the kids put their backpacks in neat little lines and we continued walking for about 20 more minutes. The kids messed around on some exercise equipment for about 10 minutes and then we walked back to where they dropped off their backpacks. They began to engage in snack time (which I was not informed would take place so I was less than prepared). Several students noticed the starvation look on my face and began giving me snacks! It was great!

After snack time, Tessah (another English Teacher) and I went to play games with students. They just flocked to us and were so excited that we came, it was really cute. Well, this put the pressure on us to come up with some games on the spot. It was a kind of 'bring your own equipment' sort of picnic. I remembered a hand clapping game, Down By the Bank, and Tessah knew it too so we taught it to a group of girls. It went over really well...until they got bored. So the next game we played was the 'Tap, Tap, Clap, Clap, Snap, Snap Numbers game' we play at Grandma Stremme's every Christmas. They REALLY liked that game and I was happy because I was struggling think of any more.

Tessah and I were saved by lunch time. All the students brought their lunches and the teachers had Chinese food delivered. This was real Chinese food, none of that American stuff, and it was actually really delicious. We ate for about 10 minutes before we were attacked by a group of student wanting to play more 'American games.' We racked our brain for some more games. We got so desperate that we taught them the Macaraina...haha. The kids did a nice job of finding stuff to do without equipment. After the American game time...they all went searching for bugs. They were catching dragon flies, baby lizards, caterpillars, huge grasshopper things they chased me around with and several other critters I did not participate in catching. All in all, it was so much fun to hang out with the kids outside of a school setting.

Moral of this blog entry...QUIT ASSUMING!

Sunday, October 4, 2009

A "Seoulful" Chuseok

That's right! Andrew and I met my brother and Andrea in Seoul this past weekend for the Korean Thanksgiving holiday, Chesouk. It is a major three day harvest festival that is celebrated 8 months and 15 days after the lunar new year begins. It is actually the biggest holiday in Korea and we almost didn't get train tickets to go.

Ok...a quick update on last Wednesday's first volleyball game. WE WON! And then we all went out to eat to celebrate and then we went to a Karaoke bar. I decided to sing Michael Jackson, Beat It. They especially enjoyed my imitation of the moon walk. Very entertaining evening!

Now back to Seoul. We caught the 7:12pm train on Thursday night since we had no school on Friday or Monday. It took about four hours to get there and we only had to make one train transfer which we almost missed, but that's a minor detail.

Adventure #1: We arrived in Seoul about 12:20am and really had no idea what we were supposed to do. Honestly, the whole trip was really last minute because we couldn't find tickets so we were a bit disorganized. (For those of you who know me well...that is definitely not my style, so I was a little stressed.) We walked outside and the only information we had was what we thought was the hostel address. Andrew forgot to print off the paper with the directions and phone number, this was mistake number one. So we walked out to where the taxi's were and hoped someone know where the 'Guys and Dolls Hostel' was located. It wasn't a brothel I swear although it does kind of sound like one. No one really spoke English, so this man came to help because we obviously looked lost. We showed him the paper and he called a few more people over to help. He finally looked at us like he knew where we were going and put us in a taxi.

A $10 taxi ride later we were in front of a university. I thought we might have been in the right place because I thought the web site said it was located close to the university. I asked a guy who looked about my age if he spoke English, which he replied yes, and I showed him the address. He confidently pointed to the left and told us 5 min down the street. I looked at Andrew like, "Great! We are on our way!" Ten minutes later we still hadn't seen it and I didn't feel like we were going too. So I walked into the police department to ask them. ( I wasn't sure if that was allowed but Andrew said they are there to 'protect and serve' so I went a long with it.) I showed them the paper and he tried to find it on a map, which he couldn't, and I began to worry. He started to make some phone calls and after ten minutes, we were still sitting in the waiting area. I began to feel bad that this was taking so much time. I was also a little nervous because if the police couldn't find it then it must not be legit. However, after several phone calls he showed us on the map where we needed to go and let Andrew talk to the host on the phone. When Andrew talked to him, he asked if he knew we were at the police station. Did he really think we were that stupid? Anyways, we completely backtracked to where we came from and the host met us at the university. Needless to say, if he didn't meet us, we never would have found it. It was tucked in an ally way and there wasn't even a sign! The host was nice and the place was clean, it ended up working out alright.

Adventure #2: We woke up early because we had to switch hostels and after getting lost the night before, we didn't want to waste our whole first day wondering around. Check in at Hostel Korea wasn't until 1:00pm so we were hoping we could just drop our stuff off and begin our exploration. Andrew did end up navigating the subway system well and we made it there in no time. It seemed legit and nice so we dropped our stuff off and went about our day. The eight year old Lonely Planet book that we found in our apartment is what we used to navigate, so we were never really sure if the places we were going were still there.
The first place we went was called Insadong and the Namdaemun Market for some local shopping. We got off the subway and the first thing we saw was a Pizza Hut...then a Smoothie King...then a Subway! I knew it was going to be a great day. The shopping was your typical tourist shopping and I was a little disappointed. But a fun experience anyway. On our way back from shopping, we were walking to Subway so I could have my first turkey sandwich in more than a month which it record, and we heard two girls screaming in front of us. As we kept walking we noticed a bum passed out drunk on the sidewalk with his pants down and everything exposed. I just kinda shrugged and said T.I.K. A term foreigners use when something strange happens. It stands for 'This Is Korea."

Adventure #3: After a delicious lunch, we just decided to cross the street to see what else was around us when a man came over and asked us where we were from. We told him the USA and he said that he had lived in Houston for the past 16 years but he is from Korea. We began talking when he asked us if we had seen the palace yet. We said no but we wanted to and asked him how to get there. He looked at his watch and said, "Do you have time now?" We had nothing but time so we started walking with him. He told us how he grew up in a house near the palace and use to sneak on the grounds at night with his friends when he was younger. His name was Kim and he was about 64 years old. We thought he was just going to point us in the direction of the palace but he took us there himself. He informed us that he was in town for a few weeks getting dental work done by a friend from college. We just figured he was bored and wanted some company which we didn't mind at all. It was great actually! We walked up to the palace, which was from the Yi dynasty but it was actually destroyed by Japanese just a little over a half century ago. The Koreans have since rebuilt is using the same technology that is was originally built with more than 600 years ago. While outside, we got to watch the ceremonial changing of the gurards which was pretty neat.
He told us the entrance fee should be waved since it was a holiday which made the day even better. Well the fee wasn't free and Kim thought that was just ridiculous so he told us he knew someone that worked there and led us around back. I looked at Andrew like what is he doing, we might be going to jail for real and not just asking for directions! Once we got in, without paying, he told us that he told the guard we lost our American friend inside and needed to go find him. When the guard asked for our ticket stubs Kim said our friend had them. I still feel bad about not paying but we didn't know what he was doing, but the ticket price was only 3,000 won which is less than $3. Kim was pretty proud that we saved 9,000 won.
Anyways, we walked around the palace grounds for about two hours while he told us everything. It was awesome and so much more enjoyable and educational than if we were to have walked around by ourselves. The knowledge that he knew was incredible and I wish I could have wrote it all down so that I could have remembered it all.

After our long walk, we were crossing the street to leave when he asked two girls at the cross walk where a good coffee place was around the area. They told him and then he invited them to come along. So our three man party turned into five and we all went to have coffee, on Kim. It was great. He told us stories about when he was growing up and more Korean history. He left us with something to think about and I just love it. He said that "The world is an ugly place and it's up to you to make each day beautiful." Andrew and I both felt very lucky to have met Kim and so grateful for the wisdom that he shared. Talk about being at the right place at the right time.

Adventure #4: After our exciting day at the palace, we were going to meet Kyle, Andrea, and their friend Phil from the Peace Corps for a show called Nanta. I knew nothing about it other than the fact that it was expensive and there was no talking; that way all nationalities could enjoy it. was AMAZING and I wish I could have been allowed to take pictures. It was this show that was about four cooks who transformed knives and cooking utensils into musical instruments. They used only items that could be found in a kitchen to make their music. It was combined with actual cooking, dancing, and comedy. It was hilarious and Andrea was called up on stage where she married another random audience member...she was a good sport for an awkward situation. All in all, if you ever hear about NANTA, definitely check it out!

After the show, we went out for a night on the town. It was fun and my favorite part was probably the alcohol in a bag that you could buy from a street was just a funny idea and it made me think of you Montgomery :)
We left around 1:30am to return to our hostels. Out of all the hostels in Korea, Kyle and Andrea were staying just around the corner from us in Sinsol-dong and we didn't even plan it....just crazy!

Adventure #5: Saturday, Andrew and I decided that we were going to back to the area where the Palace was to explore the areas that we didn't have the chance to. We ended up getting off at the wrong stop but ate lunch there anyways and decided to go to the Seoul Tower which is supposed to be one of the tallest buildings in the world because it it built on a mountain. We also decided to go to The War Memorial of Korea as well.

Go figure...Andrew and I got lost looking for the freakin' tower. We walked for a bout and hour in the total wrong direction (even though Andrew claimed he knew exactly where we were). We ended up walking through a really cool shopping center and I saw the coolest looking building but I was exhausted and we hadn't even seen the tower yet. You would think we could have just looked up to see it and followed the road there, but all the buildings were so tall and we couldn't see past them. I ended up asking someone and we walked to the tower only to find the longest line ever for the cable car that takes you to the top. So I snapped a photo and decided that next time we are in Seoul we will go up in it now that we know how to get there...thanks to me :)
After we were exhausted and defeated from not being able to see the tower, we decided to go to the war museum. We were both so glad we didn't just return to the hostel. The museum was awesome and HUGE! It had monuments and life size tanks and dozens of life size planes (dad you would have loved it) and missiles. Then inside was the actual museum. My favorite thing would have had to be the the"Statue of Brothers." It is a symbolic statue of the Korean War and depicts the real scene of two brothers' dramatic encounter during the Korean War. The elder brother being a South Korean army officer embraces the younger who was a North Korean army soldier. It was so sad and touching, I just loved it. Although the reason the monuments were built were in recognition of the people that had sacrificed their lives, the mood of everyone seemed to be very upbeat. I felt very proud to be an American while I was there and proud of what the American soldiers did to try to protect democracy and national peace. I now feel like I understand the war so much better; after listening to Kim and visiting the memorial. It is interesting to note that everything was translated into English except when it talked about places where the Koreans had been defeated, that was only written in Korean.

Later that night, we met Kyle, Andrea, and Phil for dinner before parting our separate ways in the morning. It was a great weekend and we are so glad we were able to get tickets at the last minute. Seoul is a definite must see for anyone traveling to Asia and I hope we can make it back soon!!

I want to leave you with this again, and this is something I will try to do each and every day, "The world is an ugly place and it is up to you to make each day beautiful!"