Monday, November 26, 2007

A live experiment on backpacking; result: Great Success!

So Tuesday I get to work, still wondering what I’m going to do that long weekend but I can’t deny the itch to get out was strong. Anything out of my prefecture would do, it was more of a mental thing at this point. At work I awaited my new schedule for the next 3 months or so but realized there wasn’t anything for that week. Apparently it was test week and I had nothing to do, making it possible to take some nenqyu (holiday). Well on to the Internet I went, sent a message to Moon-Ju (a Korean friend of the family) asking what she was up to that weekend with the vague notion of doing something crazy like going to Korea. With nothing to do I went home and made some potato sauce for the office as I found out the cultural festival had come and gone and I still had no idea when I could share this delicious food with my Japanese friends. So I cooked some up and shared it; everyone loved it. What a difference having proper white vinegar again.

So I get a message from Moon-Ju saying “this weekend is great…” and other important stuff that I stopped reading after the first sentence, more on this later. At this point I was dead set on Korea. So to the Internet I went looking for flights. It was too late to book online so I got a lot of help from my caretaker, Uchiyama-sensei, and got the ball moving. I again discovered how bad I am at asking for help, I would try to be independent like “do they speak English?” and when I got the standard “probably not” response I would go silent while longingly looking at the phone… trying to think of some way to reach out and… use it. Uchiyama is so nice though, she kind of saw my expression and would ask “… would you like me to?” and I would jump to “onegaishimasu” (literally: “please do me this favor”, very common in Japanese) She joked later how she was my travel agent and was “open 24 hours.” Very cool, I made sure to buy her some special Omiyage (gift) for her efforts and it probably wasn’t a bad thing I buttered everyone up earlier with my cooking.

So there I was driving to the large city Matsumoto to the north. I kept track this time and found out it takes 40 mins to drive 30km. The place took over an hour to reach. While I was there I found a cool shop not unlike our “San Francisco” stores and bought cool Christmas presents and other items. Because I bought my tickets Tuesday and was leaving Thursday the price was double normal, and because I was coming home Sunday and not Saturday again the price was double. I didn’t care though, the itch was strong and I needed powder! After all, how many times have I gone to Korea before? And how many times will it be “a good weekend” to visit? It was late when I got home and Wednesday was an interesting day of not doing much again because of tests, only taught the 3rd years.

So after that class some of the girls started to gather and ask questions again. Nothing wrong with that, I like talking with people here as it is ALWAYS interesting. After a bit the “are you married” question came up again and if not why wear the ring. This is a gist of the golden conversation ensued:

Student: “so do you have a girl friend then?”
Me: “nope, not yet” give the ‘shucks’ gesture.
Student: “what do you think of Japanese girls?”
Me: “they are very pretty”
Student: “what do you think of high school girls?” with the leading in voice… something is implied here…
Me, sensing the trap: “oh they are lots of fun! Very genki!” (Energetic/cheerful)
Student: “no, what do you think of Yayoi girls?” (I was at Yayoi that day) she could see that I was stalling and avoiding the issue at hand.
Me: “uh… genki?” At this point, there are about 10-15 very good looking 18yr old high school girls crowding around me in a semi-circle with their eyes wide open and with big smiles on their faces expectantly. Also at this point I am expecting a teacher to jump around the corner and fire me on the spot, but I knew I wasn’t going to escape this trap either. I had to think of something, and do it fast!
Me: “well… uh… maybe… uh… “

Good one Tony! Way to woo them with your words. In the end I chose job security and envisioned my friend Neal with a bowling pin above my head should I say what any other man would have said in that situation. “Maybe kocho-sensei would say no… so I don’t know” (kocho = principal) feeling very defeated at this point. The crowd of cute girls quickly scattered and I felt sad and empty ☹ Ah well, there will be time for that stuff later. A couple of my English club students stuck around and we started talking about my South Korea trip and an upcoming Christmas party, I offered to cook a turkey if they wanted. Long story short, they wanted me to buy them some Korean seaweed until the anti was upped by one student to jewelry then they all wanted jewelry. I told them I’ll see what I can do and headed out for the day.

That night was a little crazy with the packing and figuring out just what the heck I was going to do in Korea. Remember how I stopped reading after “this weekend is good”? Well funny story. Moon-Ju literally meant after her university entrance exam, which was Saturday. Also, she doesn’t live in Seoul; she lives in Ulsan, 5 hours away by car. My day Sunday would be busy getting home, the plane left at noon. Reasonably there was no way to meet up, who wants to spend 10 hours traveling when you only have 3-4 days? Well this is what happens from hasty plans I guess; at this point I’m searching google with strings like “what to do in Seoul” and making bad notes ☺ Also made a booking at a Hostel for one night, it was $25 a night. I ended up staying there the 3 nights.

I was up at 3 that morning to catch my bus that left at 4. I got to Seoul maybe 1 or 2 in the afternoon feeling very alone and very nervous. Maybe it got the better of my judgment as a guy asked me if I needed a taxi. “Sure” I say, thinking it would be convenient. Turns out that 1 hour taxi ride cost $150 US. I found out later that as a good rate but I wish I had gambled with the bus or train as it took slightly longer but easy cost 93% less or more (about $10 by bus to the airport) Mind you it would have been tough to figure out when to get out, I was still pretty wide eyed at this point. I avoided another China-taxi scam depression when I found out I got a very good deal considering it was a taxi, the man was friendly and gave me some tips too. His English wasn’t the best though so he dropped me off at the wrong place. I took another taxi to the right place, this ride cost maybe $10.

Well that was my only bad story about Korea and now it is out of the way so no more asking! People love the bad stories but I would have been fine if I had stuck to the two golden rules of airports. 1) never exchange money at an airport and 2) never take a taxi from the airport. (the exchange rate there is terrible, when I traded my money at a bank I easily got 10-15% more money) I don’t like International airports much, they try to stuff every type of culture into one building and then dehumanize it further with uniforms and monstrous security. If there was a one world government (coming soon?) I bet every place would look like an international airport.

The hostel staff was very friendly, going so far as running out to the road when my taxi was near and the driver phoned to find out where they were. Some of the staff shared interesting Korea information with me and let me join them eating some kind of strange fruit that was a cross between tomato and apple. When it was time to go they wanted to get their picture with me first. That was something of a first; pretty cool too having two cute girls wanting individual photos of me with my arm around them. This of course was just the beginning of my Korean adventure too.

I took the subway just to get lost, knowing I had a card should things get bad and just cab it back. I was on the subway for over and hour and mostly figured it out, except on how to pay ☺ I looked around and couldn’t find no Japan-style ticket booths so I just walked on the subway. And when I got to my destination the ticket guy just waved me through because he didn’t know how to talk to me. The second subway experience I found the tickets, but didn’t know how to get them stamped. So when it came to exiting the turnstile wouldn’t let my unstamped ticket through. A nice lady, total stranger, motioned for me to get close to her. We ended up going through together and my second subway trip was free as well. When I got it all figured out, the subway cost about a dollar for most destinations, a little more if you went further; very reasonable.

I went to the lake going through South Korea and mostly walked around and enjoyed the scenery. There were low prices and interesting street shops everywhere; something I missed from China. The lake was cool with stepping stones so people can pass over the stream together and it was something of a couple’s hang out. I went home later with intentions of going to a local bar I read about at the Hostel, thinking “just go for one drink” but my body proved too exhausted as I passed out fully clothed on top of my bed at 9p.m. I guess that happens when you wake up at 3 a.m. and spend a couple hours walking around a foreign city.

Friday I got up early to ride the subway for ½ hour to do a tour of the DMZ (demilitarized zone, it separates South Korea from North Korea). I met a cool Norwegian girl on the bus, Inga, who could speak like 6 languages (must be nice to live in Europe) and had been in South Korea for a couple weeks. She gave me some tips and showed some pictures of her travels including The Secret Garden by the palace in Korea when the autumn leavers were just turned and were dazzling colors still. The trees are leaves are mostly dead now so they aren’t as pretty in Japan and Korea but that’s ok.

So ya, the tour was interesting, it was kind of sombering to see all the razor wire fence strung out on the coast to keep North Korea spies from infiltrating so easily and the dark reminders of the Korean war where 6 million people were killed. Now the biggest event in Korea is the thanksgiving event, where usually sometime August family members from North Korea and South Korea that were forcibly separated get the chance to get together again. This of course is a very recent thing as many families have been separated for 40 years or more with no contact.

It was raining that day rather hard so visibility wasn’t too good. We took a tour of some of the tunnels the North Koreans were digging in the 70’s to invade South Korea again. So far they have found 4 tunnels, the latest one being in 90’s which shocked many people, knowing North Korea still wanted bloodshed. It was a very locked down place, our passports were checked by armed guards and we were specifically told when we could take pictures or not, there was even a painted line on the ground at one point where taking pictures was ok with a guard watching it. Again because of the rain we couldn’t see any North Korean soldiers.

We later visited a train station that has linked the North and South and got special stamps for our passports. George Bush was there in 2002 or 3 and signed a rail. Long story short it “looks” like things are getting better but personally it’s hard to say what is going to happen with all the stuff you hear in the news. But then again what isn’t negative in the news.

So the tour bus took us back to downtown. I saw a temple place of some sort nearby so I went sightseeing there and took lots of pictures. Inside the temple grounds was a national museum of art which I also walked around for a while. I don't know, "fine" art is lost to me, I just don't "understand" what the descriptions are trying to say. "you can see from this piece all the anguish in his life..." all I saw was horrible drip marks from poor painting, not to mention a canvas so dark good luck making anything out. I'll stick with real photographs or computer generated images for my art.

I went shopping at a huge COEX mall and bought more christmas presents after. One of the places a nice lady was asking if I needed any help finding anything. I said no thanks, just looking for some Omiyage (gifts). She stopped, stuttered heavily and was like "omiyage? how do you know that word?" so I was like "Nihongo ga sukoshi wakarimasu" (I understand little Japanese). She practically bowled over in shock and before I knew it we were talking in Japanese to each other for a while. I was surprised how many words I knew as much as she was. It was a good confidence booster and seeing her reaction was priceless.

I was at the mall to also meet up with Moon-Ju's cute friend, Star. She helped me find some shops and we went for supper together for some Korean food. She spent time in Toronto and is pretty much fluent, we had a really good time. She introduced me to Korea's "dongdongju" alcohol, similar to Sake but much better tasting. She unfortunately had to work the next day so the night didn't get too late, also the Subway closes down at a certain hour. She showed me some other things like a nearby buddhist temple and street shopping places. A lot of people in Korea were wearing pink ties... and they looked good! So I bought one and plan to wear it this weekend to the big JET conference. But ya, we walked around for a while, got good food and saw cool sites.

Saturday I slept in (until 9?) and went to Gyeongbukgung temple, where the main royal palace was. I got there just in time to watch the changing of the guards and you can see it too through the power of the inter-tubes! (I posted it on youtube) The place was huge and I spent a couple hours walking around and listening to an audio-tour of the place. It was really beautiful and there was a lot to take in. There was a folk museum nearby and I went there after. Again lots to take in, lots of pictures, lots learn. I was pretty exhausted after that so I went to the next meeting place and took a break for a while and relaxed.

This time I was meeting Moon-Ju's older sister, Moon-Hee. She is also very nice and even though she and Moon-Ju said her English wasn't very good she spoke better than alot of my 3rd year students, pretty good I think for someone who doesn't like the language. She is majoring in Korean dance and took me to a theater to watch it be performed. We watched 3 different acts and although I couldn't really understand what was going on it was still neat to see; the dancers were very skilled. We had Korean food and had a nice visit for a couple hours. (Moon-Hee is on the left, her friend was performing right away so he was wearing a lot of makeup)

Sunday was spent getting home, I took hundreds of photos of the clouds from my prime window seat. I should be a pilot or something with the way this stuff fascinates me. I of course cut out a million stories due to time and size restraints; it is midnight to me and I am exhausted. To sum it all up Korea had everything I loved from China (low prices, street vendors, etc) nothing that I didn't like from China (only saw 1 homeless person, wasn't targeted/scammed for being a foreigner) and had things I wish Japan had more of (friendly strangers that would try talking with you). I have never had so many beautiful women that I just met tell me how handsome I was like that before. But anyways, maybe I'm just wishing I was in a bigger city sometimes or battling another wave of homesickness. Either way it got me thinking about why I'm teaching in Japan and not Korea. That lovely country has stolen a piece of my heart and I definitely will be back someday, if for nothing else to visit Moon-Ju properly next time. I was confident I would most likely stay a second year and teach in Japan but now it's up in the air again, I'm thinking maybe I should do Korea. I have until February to decide at any rate.

I have learned so much from this trip it is hard to put it into words. I, alone, went to a different country with no plan and little money and made out alright. I now have full confidence in my ability to backpack around Europe or one some other crazy adventure. Backpacking was always a far-fetched crazy idea to me, far too extreme for someone like me. I of course feel differently now and am wondering where this new-found confidence will take me.

"Live in your imagination today, for tomorrow it could be your reality" -Kevin Eikenberry


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