Sunday, August 26, 2007

One Big Bloody Blog

It's Monday afternoon - our first rainy one in Suwon, Steph and shared an umbrella on our way to work this morning because we needed to look somewhat presentable for our school photos :) Below is the blog of our first few days since leaving Calgary. I have been writing it in my laptop from the apartment, but I haven't been able to post until now since we are still waiting on our internet connection back home. So, here it is - lots to read and lots to see. I will do my best to load as many photos as I can today and the rest will come soon. I can't seem to configure my connection more quickly so some photos will be added to the below blog once I find something that's quicker. I will blog more regularly as soon as possible. Happy reading!

Travel Diary August 22nd

7:25 AM (Calgary Time)

Steph and I are in the air. I think we might have seen Luigi and Christina’s house as we passed over Tuscany. Man, Calgary is fricking large. The mountains do look fairly small from up here though.
The airport was interesting. Though we had weighed our bags at home, I guess our bathroom scales weren’t all that accurate. Steph’s checked baggage was just under 70 lbs each, meaning that she only needed to pay $70 for her overweight bags. Not too bad, I suppose.
I had one overweight checked bag so I only needed to pay $35, but we both had carry-ons that were well over the 22 lb limit. That meant a little bit of frantic madness in front of the Air Canada people as we sifted through our carry-ons, emptying books, DVDs, and other goodies. Thank God our parents were there with bags awaiting and promises to ship us our stuff. I think I might actually need Twin Peaks to get by, so Mom – send it quick ☺
Customs was okay, though Steph’s dad didn’t get to play us his song. He’d brought a guitar to entertain and serenade us on our way out the door, but the U.S. customs agent wasn’t in the mood for a song apparently. So our goodbye to the parents was mercifully quick and relatively painless. Oh, except for the fact that I went through Customs with my mom’s new cell-phone (formerly mine). I soon heard whisperings of some frantic woman looking for a young man with a cell phone. These tales were being passed-up the line. So, I checked my pocket and there it was. I gave it to the white-hatter lady and off she went to put out the mom fire. Sorry, mom – I hope you got your phone afterall.
The rest of customs was fine, we took of our shoes, I opened my bag because apparently my tin whistle looked like an instrument of death to their x-ray machine, but when I demonstrated that it only induces mild seizures, they let me through. Of course, I hadn’t closed my now half-empty carry on, so it spilled-out all over the floor. Good stuff.
We sat in our terminal for 30 minutes, had a quick bit to eat and before we knew it, we were in the air.

7:39 – A word about baggage

CALL YOUR AIRLINE AND SPEAK TO A REPRESENTATIVE. Yes, if you check the website, you can learn all about limits – weight and size. Heed these limits. Should you think that you can fool the airline people into letting you through with more than your allowed weight – YOU ARE WRONG. We needed to remove items and shift stuff around until we were clear. For example, your checked bags need to be less than 50 lbs each if you don’t want to pay anything. If they are between 50 and 70 lbs, you will need to pay $35 per bag. Should your bag be over 70 lbs, you will need to drive to Air Canada Cargo where they will charge you $589.00 to ship your 80 lb bag to Korea. So, yeah – listen to what they say, if not, hope there are four able-bodies parents there to take your shed goods home and hopefully ship it to you later.
What truly blows about these relatively new weight limits is that the way luggage is built, you're kind of wasting your time using it. Large suitcases, unless they are packing only popcorn or Styrofoam packing peanuts are going to remain half empty to get under the 50 lb limit. Carry-ons – the ones that come in a luggage set anyway - are going to be over the 22 lb limit if you have it anywhere approaching half-full. The case itself is about 10 lb so do the math. I call it a cash-grab to pay for higher security. Whatev’s.

8:02 AM –Cloud Rivers

…are pretty effing cool looking.

6:51 PM (Calgary time)

We’ve been in the air for about 5 hours now so I guess we’re really not doing too bad at all. I actually got a chance to finish Spider-Man 3 and have discovered that Korean air also plays some true classics: Casablanca, Streetcar, and, of course, It’s a Wonderful Life. Sweet! I thought I’d try and see what ol’ Joe the luggage salesman was up to.

We’ve been passing in and out of sleep after Steph decided to share her prescribed sleeping pill stash. Good call, though when you’re out, you really have very little motor control at all. In an attempt to shift a sleeping Steph into a more comfortable position, she nearly fell right forward a couple of times. It was really rather cute.

Our time in LAX was brief, but a nice rest from sitting squashed into economy seats. About 30 minutes before we touched down in LA, I felt for the bag I had placed under the seat in front of me – underneath the most fidgety children that air travel has ever seen.
The result for Steph was constantly reclining seats and blankets randomly thrown back in her general direction. The result for me was a spilled bottle of apple juice dripping through the seat in from of me and onto/into my carry-on back bag. Yummy. It could have been much worse, but still – I think sippy cups could have been in order for that one.

Our Korean Air flight is a monster 747 – Executive class upstairs and an ass load of seats down here. We have been served some fun Korean food already and I’m hoping for more. Also hoping for more sleep – those sleeping pills are crazy effective. Just over 7 more hours until Korea. Sleep or read – let’s see what the body demands…

3:09 PM Seoul Time (12:00 AM) Calgary time.

Yeah, it pretty much feels like midnight. A combinations of the previous days’ exhaustion as well as general flight sleepiness has not allowed me to get anywhere close to Harry Potter on this flight. Half-Blood Prince will have to wait.
I tried watching most of Bridge to Terabithia as well and it was mostly good, but I kept messing with the controls and having to re-start – eventually, I abandoned the process all-together.
There is an overabundance of cuteness on this plane – everywhere I look, I see smiley Korean kids. Fingers crossed it’s not just what happens on planes. We land in just about 2 hours – enough time hopefully for a more of a sleep and then we’re off to meet our employer, check-out our apartment, and learn what the next few days will bring.
Steph just told me to tell you how sad she is that she doesn’t have her nose ring anymore. She took it out to replace it with a new one before leaving Calgary and the new one somehow wouldn’t go in. Fingers crossed it will on the ground ☺.
I like air travel for the most part – this time around, we’re in the front with a little more leg room – thank God. And the cute girl beside us doesn’t spill her apple juice all over my stuff. Hey, check it out, we just flew past Tokyo! Anyway, though I like to stop at the Duty-Free shop, I didn’t get a chance. I did however get a chance to switch some coinage over to Korean Won. I’ve got Wan coming out of my ass! It’s a good feeling.
We’ll be on the ground soon and then I have no idea how long it will be before we get our internet hooked-up. Likely a couple of days. We’ll be sure to write back then. Time to sleep… just a little bit. Check out these zany screens that tell you where your plane is. The same screens also play movies, music and TV etc. I’m a freaking babe in the woods – oooooh, an airplane!

Saturday, August 25th 6:41 AM (Suwon Time)

Jet-Lag blows. I’m pretty much wired and ready to go by about 5:30 AM since I’ve arrived here, but my energy dies-off huge by about 5 PM, we’re in bed by 9 and that’s pushing it. I know it’ll take a while to get accustomed to the change, so, for now, we are go to bed early types.
This is the beginning of our third day (our second full one) in Suwon and I think it would be a good thing to give a couple of quick impressions – mainly to see how accurate I am once I’ve had the chance to explore a bit more.
We were both pretty tired once we got to the Incheon airport on Thursday evening. We met with a few representatives from our school who were waiting for us and then we took a cab from the airport to Suwon. We rode with Amy, a lovely Chinese/Australian girl with a thick Aussie accent (thick for us, apparently not for most Aussies) and it was nice to chat with someone who we knew we’d be seeing on a near daily basis. We didn’t get close to the heart of Seoul on our trip in to Suwon because the freeway by-passes a lot of it, but we did see a lot of apartment buildings, some with zany anime-looking characters on them. I’m pretty sure that anime is not a word most Koreans prefer we use for their characters, but I could be wrong.

I fell asleep in the car, but Steph woke me up as we got closer to our apartment. The lights were incredible. Block after block of buildings that have been lit-up with advertisements. I’m pretty sure that we have nothing like it in Canada and it’s pretty overwhelming. One of the teachers we met so far described it as Vegas on steroids. I would think that’s pretty accurate. Of course, I will probably be even more blown-away by areas of Seoul, but this is pretty cool for now.
Since I haven’t been out of our little 10 block radius of comfort as of yet, I really have nothing to compare our area of Suwon to, but as a Canadian, I can say that it is most reminiscent of a Vancouver kind of feel. Our apartment is on the third floor of a villa-style condo type thing. It’s nice – about as small as we thought and that’s okay. We have enough room to do what we need, so we’re in good shape.

Our apartment is about a 10-15 minute walk from the school and the most direct route for us is through a bit of a park and then towards the retail area where our school is located. Our school is on the sixth floor of one of the many buildings that were lit up the night we arrived.

On our first morning here (Friday), we woke-up at about 6:30 after a pretty decent sleep. It was my first time waking up outside of North America and it felt to me that once we open our apartment door, it would all be real then. So, after un-packing a bit, we got dressed and ventured out at round 7:30. The air is thick here, as in humid. Yes, there is a bit of smog, I suppose, but it doesn’t seem like it’s anymore than what’s been surrounding Calgary lately – ie: I can’t see the mountains from Calgary on more days than I’m used to, and I can’t see too far here either. It’s also very hot here right now. I couldn’t give you exact numbers yet, but it’s just damn hot. Remember our week of intense heat this past July in Calgary? Well, add humidity to that plus about 5 degrees Celsius and you’d have a pretty good idea. Thank that maker for air conditioning in our apartments and all stores.
We decided on our first morning to walk around our neighborhood and see what we could see before we met some of the school staff for lunch. We entered one of the many Family Marts and bought some water and I thought I’d give my two Korean phrases the ol’ college try. So I said “annyoung haseo” (hello) to the lady behind the counter and “kamsa hamnida” (thank you) when we left. It felt pretty good to say the simple things… that’s all I’m pretty sure I’ll try for the first while ☺

We then went for more of a walk towards the school, we were basically going by a poorly established sense of direction we had “gained” during a short jet-lagged trip into Suwon the night previous, so I think we were doing fairly well. We found the school, and passed-by many shops, before deciding that we needed some food, so, the adventure began.

We went into a restaurant that looked open, and it was. We sat down and once it had been established that we knew not what the hell we were doing, the lady took pity on us and ordered something from the all-Korean menu for us. It was pretty good, and very foreigner friendly, which is why I suspect she gave it to us. A beef and mushroom soup with Kimchi on the side of course – Kimchi cut-up by her special scissors.

After filling our bellies, we headed to Home Plus – a huge Real-Canadian-Superstore type of place where they have pretty much everything you could ever want. We bought a few essentials (dish soap etc.) and headed home to wait to be picked-up by our supervisor, Justin.
Justin picked us up at around 12:30 PM and drove Stephanie, Amy, Shannon (a girl from Toronto) and myself to the school where we had a chance to meet some of the staff and check-out some of the curriculum material for the first time.
After that, Kim, one of our supervisor/counselors took us new teachers out for lunch at Pizza Hut – I know, not a traditional Korean meal, but different from Canadian Pizza Huts nevertheless.

After lunch, we headed back to the school for some more exploration of the classrooms etc. and Sabrina, one of the other teachers there, showed-us around to a store called Little Johnny – an English Teacher supplies store. Looks like my Alphabet train wasn’t necessary afterall – oh well ☺. It’s nice to know that there’s a lot of great supplies for us, some English books and magazines (albeit very expensive ones – Time Magazine is $11) and some classics that I recognize from Reading Buddies and Storytime at CPL. Yes, we have copies of No, David!, and Goodnight, Gorilla. I wonder if I can recommend a few to them to add to their inventory…

It’s been nice so far to meet a couple of other teachers from abroad. I know that a lot of foreign teachers stick very tightly to their own group and rarely venture outside into actual Korean social circles. I’ve also heard of some foreign teachers who make a point of not socializing with other teachers in a more forced attempt to become part of the local culture without maybe the temptation of relying solely on English speaking teachers who are having a similar experience to yourself. I’m pretty sure at this point that I would like to open myself up to both groups whenever possible. I’m here, I don’t want to limit myself in anyway if I can help it.

So far, the teachers who have been here prior to us have been very helpful. Sabrina was great showing us around the area near our school, and then we ran into Melissa at Home Plus last night. She helped us find a few things that we needed for our first couple of weeks and then we decided to do a bit of a tour of our apartments so that we could see where we all live. We are all within 15 minutes walking distance of each other and I’m sure we’re going to bump into each other a few times.
We are still suffering a bit from Jet Lag so last night, after the apartment tour, we decided to crash a bit early. We’re up early today because we’ll be meeting Ian and Bonnnie (Ian is my old roommate from Canada who met the lovely Bonnie when she was an exchange student in Canada a couple of years ago. They are now married and live here, in nearby Sanbon, for those that don’t know). They will be picking us up and taking us… well, I don’t really know. Maybe Seoul, maybe somewhere else, I guess we’ll see. I can’t wait to see them. It’ll be a bit surreal I suppose to see our friends that we know from Canada, here in Korea. Man, the world is small.

Sunday, August 26th 2:10 PM Suwon Time

Yesterday (Saturday) was amazing. Soon, I will be trying to update the blog in the evenings, but we’ll see how that works. As it is, these entries usually refer to the day previous as I’ve been doing most of this writing from our apartment in the mornings.
Anyway, yesterday was great. We started our morning by waking up at 6ish AM as per usual (and as you can see by yesterday’s blog). We unpacked a bit more and then headed out to find some sort of breakfast and check our email at the PC bang near our school. We were also looking for coffee so we went by a local 7-11 (which in Korea are about the size of the average walk-in closet) to see if we could get one. We haven’t yet seen convenience store coffee like we’re used to, but I did decide to try one of the colder coffees in cans like you sometimes see back home. There was a short display fridge outside the shop and when I opened it expecting to get a cold blast of air, I instead grabbed a hot can of coffee. Bizarre? I thought so. Yeah, the coffee cans were loaded in a heated display that only resembled a fridge. That was kind of cool. So I opened my coffee like a can of Coke and sipped-away. Nice!

We stopped-by a bakery too and had some munchies to tide us over until lunch. Ian and Bonnie met us at the Home Plus and then we took a bus to Seoul. It took about 40 minutes to get us to one of the outer-lying subway stations and it was a really nice ride, except for Stephanie who did have a bit of motion sickness on the way ☹. The bus that took us to Seoul was more like a Greyhound than a city bus back home, though not all buses are like that. It seems the further your bus goes, the nicer it is.
Once at the station, we went a couple of levels underground where Bonnie helped us buy a “T money” card – I’m guessing that “T” stand for Transit. They’re very cool. You load them up as you go, much like a pay-as-you-go cell phone and you use them every time you travel on public transit – whether on a train or on a bus. You scan your card or simply place your wallet against the designated spot and it deducts money accordingly. A short bus trip might only cost 1-2000 wan roughly the equivalent of 1-2 Canadian dollars. Depending on how far you go, the trip could cost more and you will be deducted as you scan to get off of the bus or through a subway turnstile – very cool. Some people even have little fobs on their cell phones or key chains to charge-up and do the same thing. The subway itself is a maze with 13 different lines running throughout Seoul and all the way down past Suwon, where we are. That means that at some stations where there are lots of connectors, you will have to descend nearly 5 stories into the earth to get to the line you want. Claustrophobics would not do well here.

The subway seems very safe and is very busy at almost all times. We took the subway from (I think) Sadang station in the south of the city, across the Han River and into the central part of Seoul. We stopped at Chungmuro station and climbed-up into the light and checked-out the Namsan Traditional Korean Folk Village. It’s a very quaint little bit of calm near the middle of the city and it was nice to look around at the various interpretive buildings – though it was very hot and we decided to find a cool spot for food before we headed anywhere else.

After a bit to eat at one of the department stores in the area, we took a cab the rest of the way to the Namdaemun Market – apparently one of 4 massive street markets in Seoul. You can find pretty much anything you want there – from ginseng root, to Korean knock-offs of brand name clothes and accessories. As large as the market is on the street, it goes below ground for a few block as well.

Steph bought a shirt there that was perfect for her and then we headed to Namsan Park to check-out Seoul tower. Namsan Park is pretty cool – it’s pretty much a mountain in the middle of the city. There are theatres at the base and gondola rides to the summit as well. As it was a really hot day, we opted out of the likely 45 minute walk up the mountain and took a bus.

Seoul Tower is a 273 meter tower at the top of this mountain and I think we might head-up there some day. For now though, the view from the base was amazing enough. From the grounds surrounding the tower, you can see pretty much the entire city, at least whatever part of the city that isn’t covered by the surrounding mountains.
The trip up to the tower was exactly what I needed. I’ve been dying since I’ve arrived her to get a more accurate perspective of the city and this did it. The city is huge, and it’s a great feeling to be able to see it in all directions from above. After being down in the market and the surrounding area earlier in the day, it seemed so impossibly peaceful from on top of the mountain where you can’t really see the cars and all of the madness below. If you’re anything like me, I highly recommend going up Namsan tower as soon as possible to anyone visiting or living in Seoul – you won’t understand the city any better necessarily, but you will get the lay of the land and you will get a sense of the scope of the place.

After our trip down the mountain, we decided to head to Sanbon, where Ian and Bonnie live, by subway. This was a bit of a longer ride, but it was good to know that we can head home by subway if needed. We got off at Sanbon station and we had our first Korean BBQ (Galbi) at one of Ian and Bonnie’s favourite restaurants.

We all took off our shoes and we sat cross-legged at a table with a pit for hot coals in the centre. The meat and garlic is roasted on the grill and there are approximately 1000 side dishes that you can choose from (soups, salads etc.) though they are all brought to your table. Everything is communal so we all spoon from the same bowl of soup etc. Essentially, you make your own salad wraps with a leaf of lettuce or bay leaf, grab some meat from the centre grill with your metal chopsticks, add some red pepper paste, a clove of garlic roasted in olive oil on the grill, add some pickled raddish, along with whatever you like from the array of side dishes you see on the table. You wrap it up into a ball (or as Ian and I call it – a flavour bomb) and then you down the whole deal in one fell swoop. Your mouth ends up being pretty full, but it’s full of the best damn food you’ve ever had in your life. Of course, the best way to do it all is to down a shot of soju first.

Pork was one of the less expensive meats you could order. With pork, the whole Galbi experience cost only $8,500 wan (or roughly $8.50 Canadian) per person. Not bad. The beef option however would run you 27,000 wan per person – not cheap.
After our dinner, we said goodnight to Bonnie who headed to her nearby apartment while Ian took Steph and I back to Geumjeong station where we transferred to the number 1 line and headed to Suwon station.

Ian showed us how to catch our bus to he Home Plus near our apartment and we said goodnight. Then began perhaps the most exciting part of our day – our first public bus ride in Seoul. I know that we took a bus into Seoul earlier in the day, but at night we had a chance to ride a less posh bus that moved in a whole new way.
I can honestly say that I’ve never seen a bus move that fast, or with that much determination. I think the driver somehow knew exactly what the other drivers were doing or planning to do about 10 seconds in advance because he would miss people and other vehicles by mere inches at speeds reaching 80 km/hour on really busy city streets. For my Calgary friends, imagine a bus cruising down the Red Mile at that speed and you have a pretty good idea, only imagine 17th avenue as an insanely busy 8 lane street and that’ll make it more clear.

Overall, the day was amazing. It was great to see that Bonnie and Ian are so close and that we will be able to see them fairly often while we’re here, and it was extremely cool to see Seoul, or at least get a taste of what certain areas of the city can hold. There are hundreds of things I would like to see in the city on the days ahead.

Sunday, August 26th (8:35 PM Suwon Time)

Today was very relaxing. Yesterday had been a bit of a mad rush to see things and the heat combined with our jet lag did make for a very challenging day at times. But we pushed through and we were glad we did. We stayed-up until around 11 PM and slept through until 8 which was fantastic. I’m actually starting to feel a bit more adjusted to the time difference which feels great.

This morning we went to Home Plus to get some groceries to get us started and also to get more acquainted with what will likely be our main stop for food and essentials while we’re here. Like Calgary grocery stores, Home Plus has all of your essential produce, meat, dairy and dry-good needs. Perhaps unlike Calgary grocery stores, Home Plus has live octopus swimming in the tanks in the seafood areas, along with packaged oysters that are wrapped, priced, labeled, and still moving inside the cellophane. Freaking weird, but very interesting. I’m sure that PETA would have a field day with this place.
On our way to Home Plus today, I had perhaps the best single moment of my trip here so far. As we crossed a huge pedestrian bridge over the roadway, a soccer ball came rolling towards me. There were about 5 or 6 young Korean teens walking after it and I decided to kick it back towards them. It was a cool moment, I said hello (annyoung haseo), they bowed and said thank you (kamsa hamnida) and we kind of had a bit of a quick smile and laugh. I kind of wished I had asked to play with them. Just a little moment that proved how universal sport is, also how nice it is to “communicate” over a small moment without sharing language. I really hope that I get a chance to play a bit of soccer here somehow.

After our shopping trip, we got our apartment a little more ready and then went to meet our school friends, Shannon and Amy for dinner. We decided to be all adventurous and we headed out to Suwon Station by bus. It gave us a chance to feel a bit more independent and it was nice to share a bit of yesterday’s experience with our fellow teachers.
Suwon Station is a major hub for buses, the Subway, as well as for Korean Rail. It’s also a fairly big shopping complex – perhaps on par with Southcentre Mall in terms of size, though it is spread over 5 levels. There are a lot of designer labels available everywhere, though North American labels such as Lacoste, The North Face and Polo have at least a 30% mark-up due to the import prices. In other words, Korea is NOT a cheap place to by North American goods. I’m glad I’m not one of the ones affected by that fact ☺

What I’m most excited about returning to Suwon Station for is the movie theatre. It looks like there’s a whole lot of cool stuff playing there – some decent Hollywood flicks, as well as D-War – a Korean film that looks like a zany monster movie that I simply have to see and one that looks like something I have to see simply because the poster makes it look like my kind of cinema. I will do my best to prepare Steph to see it with me.

After another crazy bus ride home, we are ready for bed. We’ll be starting our school orientation tomorrow and we’ll be applying for our ARC cards then as well. I’m looking forward to knowing more about what’s going on with our new place of work and meeting more of the staff. Who knows, maybe I’ll actually be able to post this tomorrow as well.

1 comment:

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