Restless for Rest – A Coastal Adventure – Part 3

… Busan!

After saying goodbye to my taxi buddies, I headed to the train station hoping that I could get a space on the train that night. I could, I had to wait 3 hours, but I could!

My phone was dying  and a Korean friend was sending me desperate messages telling me that I was crazy and that there were no accommodation options in Busan because of the mass influx of people due to Golden Week. I wasn’t too concerned. If the worst came to the worst I would be able to get a bus or train back to Suncheon, and have a lovely few days at home. Determined as I was to find a place to sleep, and prove the world wrong, as soon as I got to Busan I walked into the fist motel I saw. I may have had to go down a terrifying alleyway, up an elevator that wasn’t quite in order, speak to a man who clearly slept in his office, and pay in cash only, but damn it! I found a room. A super sexy, red lit, out-of-order-rotating-circle bed, with pink polyester sheets, situated next to the train station kind of room. It was dodgier than Butch’s hideout in Pulp Fiction, but they gave me a free toothbrush, and assured me that the room was neither clean, nor would it be cleaned – I didn’t ask about this, they were just determinedly honest; I appreciated that.

That Room...

That Room…

I’d read that the world’s largest shopping mall was in Busan and I was in the mood for the cinema so I decided to check it out. The problem with the world’s largest shopping mall, is that it is rather large. I promptly got lost on my way up the escalators, and I’m fairly sure I took a goods lift in order to get to my final destination. Grabbing my obligatory “nachos” and “ice tea” I made it just in time for the opening credits of “The Great Budapest Hotel”… I think it might be Wes Anderson’s best. Getting home on the subway should have been a breeze, except this is me, this is me in a strange city, at midnight, during Golden Week. At 12am the subway arrived at a random station and stopped. It didn’t finish the route. It just… stopped. And so, I got out, and attempted to hail a taxi. Except this is Golden Week, in Busan… there were no vacant taxis. And so I walked. I walked for a really, really long time, in the rain.

I used to this all the time at home, walk for hours and hours, in any weather, I’d walk everywhere. I still do. It’s just that everywhere isn’t that far anymore. Since that walk, and the endorphin rush, and the peace of mind I gained, I’ve been sure to keep walking, as long as I can most nights of the week. Anyway… back to Busan.


The next morning, I decided to make my way to Hyundae Beach. However, on the bus I was accosted by a middle aged woman who desperately wanted me to speak English to her (rather unwilling) daughter. She decided that I was to tour with them that day and took me to the outskirts of Busan, namely Taejongdae Park, which apparently has a really interesting lighthouse on  a rocky peninsula. We didn’t get quite that far, the poor woman got a bit too tired, and after seeing the ocean for the first time in her life, was a little overwhelmed and we went back to the bus stop chomping on octopus jerky. They wanted me to join them for dinner, however I needed some breathing space and I headed back into the city.

Wandering around I eventually made it to the famed Hyundae Beach where families were setting off fireworks in celebration.


There isn’t much more to say, except to point out that the train journey from Busan to Suncheon is one of the most beautiful journey’s imaginable. Rolling hills, small mountains, coast, rivers, rice paddies. It’s just stunning. And yet, I have no photos. I was far too busy skyping my aunt and enjoying her company. 🙂

I couldn’t help but feel incredibly humbled, and calm, and lucky at the end of this trip. Korea has so much too offer, and I tend to forget this all too often. I get wrapped up in the bubble of the GPP and my job – both of which I love, but I need to step away sometimes and appreciate this country while I’m still here. Tomorrow (actually today – derp), I’m heading to Jeju island for a few days of hiking and (maybe) some sun. See you on the flip side!

Restless for Rest – A Coastal Adventure – Part 2

Struggling to sleep thanks to the odd feeling that I was being watched by a cartoon dog, I eventually dosed off, and woke well after my alarm.

There was no way to sleep with snoopy

There was no chance of sleep

Freaking out, I ignored the call of the luxurious bath tub and ran to the ticket office at the train station. The queue was packed with other disorganised travelers and looked something akin to the picture below. Somehow, I managed to get a standing room ticket and I even found a piece of wall to rest on!

CROWD

This is actually Gwangju, the night before, but you get the idea…

Arriving in Gyeongju, it occurred to me that I had hours before I was due to check in at the temple; I had no idea where I was going; how far away anything interesting was; or what to pick.

Taxi driver to the rescue!

Clearly prepared for idiot tourists like myself, he took one look at my confused face and pulled out  a poster with pictures of places to choose from. I pointed at a pretty looking lake thing, he nodded his approval and away we went. On arriving, he got out of his car and walked me around for a couple of minutes showing me where I should go – have I mentioned that I love taxi drivers in Korea? I really do, not enough to marry their sons (I’ve been proposed to by proxy a couple of times), but enough to be very grateful they exist.

It was a perfect Spring day, the sun was high, the sky was blue, the grass green. It seemed I had chosen to visit the area hosting the Anapji Pond, Royal Tombs and the Cheomseongdae Observatory. These sites all date back to the Ancient Silla dynasty of Korea (57 BCE – 935 CE). Anapji, originally constructed in 674 CE and restored in 1974, was the palace of the Crown Prince away from the main palace.  Cheomseongdae, meaning “star gazing platform”, is the oldest known observatory in East Asia. Interestingly, it is made of 362 pieces of cut granite, representing the number of days in a lunar year. Known as tumuli, the Royal Tombs are dotted all around Gyeongju covered in green, green, grass. I made a joke when I was travelling that I was in the shire, but really it was more like walking around the burial site of Rohan. I wish I had a better way of describing just how calming and peaceful this place was. Or at least, it was until a young woman let out a shriek, because a squirrel had decided to join for lunch! Perhaps I should let the pictures speak for themselves:


Eventually I made it to Golgulsa temple. I’ve got to admit, I just wasn’t in the mood. I was full of adrenalin after touring ancient Korea, and well, I just wanted to keep moving. However, I had made a commitment to give this “temple stay” idea a try and so I went. It didn’t start well, the (stunning) taxi ride was about 20,000won more expensive than the temple had lead me to believe and I was short on cash to pay for my stay. Luckily they did have the card facilities they had purported not to carry, but the mid-30’s British girl who works at the temple, was quite simply awful, and dripping with false niceties. Maybe I’ve become used to Korean hospitality but it just seemed like every question anyone had was bothersome. Hmmf.

Anyway, I found my room, a large hall which fit probably around 30 sleepers; put on my uniform; and went for a wonder through the temple gardens. The weather was starting to cool off, birds were chirping, lanterns were strung around the complex to celebrate Buddha’s birthday. That night I met the other guests for dinner. Following Buddhist practice, women sat separately to men, and the meal was entirely vegetarian. As a special treat there was watermelon – watermelon costs around AUD$20 in Korea! After dinner we were given an orientation to the chanting and meditation practices at the temple, and then we had a Sunmudo lesson! It was so fun! I felt like I was back at dancing without stretched toes and if there was an academy in Suncheon I would be sure to enroll.

The next morning, after waking up at 4.30 am for prayer (the stars were awesome!) and a ceremonial breakfast, we were given the option to head out on an excursion. I decided that that was exactly the plan I wanted and I took the tour bus to Girim-sa Temple in Mount Hamwolsan. It was a small temple, but full of interesting things. In fact, the detail on the temple roofing was probably the most detailed I’ve seen, and also, oddly, the most pastel. This was followed by a trip to the coast to see a pile of rocks in the ocean that apparently held an underground tomb. I appreciated the idea rather than the site itself, there wasn’t much to behold.

Going back to the temple, a couple of other guests were talking about leaving. Realising that this may be my only chance to share a taxi back into town, and getting fed up with meditation, I decided to trek back into town with them. The frustrating lady in the temple office claimed that there was no taxi available. However, catching a bus wasn’t an option because one of our number was nursing a back injury. Curiously, on asking a man at the kimbap shop down the road, we managed to get a taxi within 20 minutes. Hah!

I made some lovely friends on that taxi ride, a German lady living in Tokyo, her sister, and a young Mexican man living in Saudi Arabia as an engineer. (Thanks for the postcard Rod!)

New friends :-)

New friends 🙂

I was sad to leave Gyeongju, but I had decided that it was time to hit the big city of… MWHAHAHAHAHA!!!! (Tomorrow, I swear – but 1000 words is quite enough!)

Restless for Rest – A Coastal Adventure – Part 1

It was a while ago now that I took off along the southern coast of Korea for my 6 day Buddha’s Birthday holiday, yet it is still fresh in my mind like it was only last weekend. I was in the midst of May Concert rehearsals, teaching was full steam ahead and I was just starting to get serious about studying Korean.

I was busy! I wasn’t really ready for a holiday. It seemed to come at me unexpectedly, forcing a break in productivity.

I was in one of those outwardly annoying phases one projects when they are pushing themselves too hard  and forget the value of relaxation. I’d been in hospital for stomach ulcers that had caused perforations in my stomach, bad enough to need stitches, and leave a large dent in my wallet; I had sprained my ankle and I wasn’t sleeping. BUT OHHHHH NO. I WAS FINE. FIIINNNEEE LOVE. Idiot Heather.

Some part of my subconscious wasn’t quite so stupid, and listened when some Korean friends suggested I try a temple stay. I booked my self in for 3 nights at the Golgulsa Temple near Gyeongju in the South East of the country. I chose this particular temple for two reasons. First, I was keen to visit Gyeongju, one of the most historically interesting areas in the country. Secondly, Golgulsa is known for training in the art of Sunmudo, a Korean martial art; sweating my frustrations out seemed like a far more welcome idea than seated meditation.

Before I headed off to Gyeongju I had some things to take care of in my own province. I had a “western” breakfast date with a friend, Lindsay, completed with a peanut butter milkshake and a suggestion that we trip 15 minutes south to visit friends in the coastal city of Yeosu. This would be my first visit to the Korean coast. I had heard many a “you won’t be that impressed”, “you’re Australian, don’t bother”, “the water is gross and muddy in the west” – so naturally, I was keen to go. It may be the product of growing up a short walk from the relatively small, windy, basalt encrusted, seaweed stinking bay that is Altona Beach, but colour me impressed Yeosu – you’re perfect! It was small and unassuming; southward facing (so that the sun was never in my eyes); dotted with islands and cool water, perfect for paddling; surrounded by a lovely boardwalk and palm trees. It was a perfect, homely paradise.

Alas, adjective-inspiring siesta’s must come to an end, and I ventured back into Suncheon and onward to Gwangju the next day for a joint rehearsal with the Hoshin University Choir. I had hoped to skip this rehearsal, however conductor guilt got the better of me. It was lucky that it did! I received a call from a non-English speaking government worker telling me that I had incorrectly disposed of my garbage, and I needed the Head Conductor to take the call for me! I’m still not entirely sure what I did wrong, but the conductor guy got me out of a fine by saying “waegookin” multiple times so ummm… yay?

I wasn’t to make it to Gyeongju that night and expected to make an uneventful pit-stop overnight in Daegu. Ha! “Uneventful”! I was to discover that Korean motels can be… interesting. Often called “love motels”, rooms are available on a nightly basis … and an hourly one… to satisfy the ahhh… “love” drive… of young adults in Korea still living at home. One can find vending machines filled with “toys” and “protective gear” and some very interestingly themed rooms; the appeal of which I will never understand. I got Snoopy:

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CLIFFHANGER!!!! Part 2 will be up tomorrow 🙂

The Extremes of the Seoul

By the end of January, I was ready for a holiday. I’d had a terrible week, dealing with out dated education practices and a black dog that insisted on following me around – constantly reminding me that I had left my loved ones and forgotten my teddy bear in a warmer hemisphere. Luckily, my cold hemisphere position celebrates two New Year’s holidays and I was due to set off on an adventure up North.

No, no, not that North. I was going Seoul Searching!

As soon as I clocked off, I boarded the Seoul Train – a mildly insane idea considering that this meant I was to arrive in Seoul at 4am. The internet had assured me that 4am was a perfectly reasonable time to arrive in one of the world’s largest metropolises, leaving no surprises when I arrived in a barren wasteland of closed coffee shops and quiet streets. This was New Year after all, most Koreans were running home at half speed (traffic jams) to complain to their elders that the kimchi refrigerator had finally broken.

Seoul train

Waiting for the Seoul train to arrive

After fending off an overly friendly touting “taxi” I jumped into the most legitimate vehicle I could find and gasped “coffee”. The man turned, looked me up and down, snorted, said something about a waegookin, and drove me to Itaewon, the foreigner section of Seoul, filled with 24 hour cafes, brunch spots, western sized shoes, baking supplies and kebabs; most importantly kebabs.

I didn’t have a kebab. That’s really not the point. Kebabs existing, meant that people who needed kebabs also existed; loud, sleazy, raucous, completely drunk and distasteful people – everywhere. Never has disgust been more satisfying.

I was in the antithesis of Disney. An ‘old familiar point of view’ had taken over.  My Never-Wonder-land. The… ah… I could keep going but I’ll spare you some pain.

A friend of mine claimed, on our 4 hour trip in Macau, once upon a time, that if Las Vegas was the most fake place in the world, then, as Macau is a fake Vegas, it must be the most fake place in the Universe. The same could be said of Lotte World and Disney World.

Macau is to Vegas as Lotte is to Disney. From antithesis to hyper-reality, I was sure to make this a trip of extremes. Lotte World, is the largest indoor theme park in the world, and also has an outdoor section with it’s very… own… Cinderella’s Castle. I didn’t feel any pressure to go on the rides, I just wanted to soak the place in.

For anyone who has been to a Disney Land and ridden the “Small World”, you would know that it is best compared with Gene Wilder’s face and that terrifying tunnel in the original Willy Wonka movie. For anyone who is yet to experience either, well:

Round and round and round you go.

Everything is bright. Just a little too bright.

Everything is coloured. Just a little too coloured.

Everything is happy. Just a little too happy.

If you took that one ride, and made it a park, you would have Lotte World – An Architect’s Impression of Mania.

I’ve thought for a long time about what to tell you about Lotte World. I’ve been trying to decide on a fun story or particularly odd encounter. Yet, I don’t really have any I want to tell. My trip to Lotte World was an entirely cynical one. I intended to laugh derisively at the delirium – matching couples, overly happy staff and the wide eyed smiles of the Lotte characters – and I did. Yet it was an entirely personal endeavor. I went to wander, and have time to myself and I got a lot of that, yet less than I expected.

When I had finally decided that I had had enough, serendipity stepped in, in time for the parade, and I found myself completely barricaded from getting out. Suddenly, I felt a little poke in my back. Turning around, a little knight stared up at me, sword in hand, ready to take on the evil giant that stared back at him. As I bent down, he whispered “hello”, I pulled out the pen in my pocket, and we proceeded to duel. More kids joined in and the high pitched Korean lady performing silly dance moves to keep the children “occupied” while we waited for the parade stared daggers in my direction. With the little boy refusing to let go of my hand, I watched the show. The parade was a fascinating march of unacceptable racial stereotypes and sea animals. It was pretentiously hilarious, unpretentiously fun and I completely adored it!

That little boy really helped renew my enthusiasm for all things Korean, and reminded me to appreciate rather than laugh at what is innocent and kind. Seoul had done for me what my job had failed to do in the weeks previous. It reminded me why I want to be here. I want to educate beyond a university environment, and work with kids. I want to live in a culture that is so old and yet so young; having pushed so far ahead, in such a short space of time, that it is difficult to find anything below or above an extreme.

I love South Korea, it never stops amazing me and it never will. I have so much more to tell you about my Seoul adventure, yet for now I will leave you with this little face that I’m sure will haunt your nightmares just as it haunts my apartment. Here is my first Korean souvenir, a comforting slice of depression found within the coloured halls of the most manic place on earth:

Reginald the Cat

His name is Reginald

Happiness Tip: Face backwards the first time you ski!

Just a quick note: Sorry that I am late posting this. Having just completed my first week of teaching elementary students on top of my regular classes – around 6 hours extra teaching time – writing home was the last thing on my mind. This has meant that for over a week the first post you see on this website has been a fairly depressing, brutally honest piece about the trials of living in a new country, so foreign to your own. By the end of today’s post if I haven’t made you smile, I give you full permission to force a grin on my face – Joker style. And so: 

Unfortunately,

I was a scientist these past few years – I research any new project so thoroughly that every moment feels like déjà vu.

Fortunately,

I was a scientist these past few years – I read everything objectively and with a grain of salt.

When I first started learning about coming to South Korea, as an ESL teacher, I inevitably found my way to websites and blogs that were far from positive. After reading some of these accounts I couldn’t help but wonder if it was all a scam; that I would get to Incheon airport, be thrown into a black car and sold to a very strange man with a fetish for slightly odd looking, mildly voluptuous, messy haired, 174cm, blue eyed, Caucasian women. It was a very small worry, given that the previous foreign teacher had added me on Facebook and was definitely short.

No, I am not usually this paranoid.

(That last sentence was probably a lie.)

Thankfully, my paranoia has so far proven unwarranted, and I was right to ignore the mindless drivel of cyber pessimism.

Over the New Year’s break I had the good fortune to be invited to attend a company workshop at Muju Ski Resort. When I first heard the term “Company Workshop” I was terrified. It sounded like I was about to spend the New Year sitting in a room, trying to concentrate on lectures whilst staring longingly out my window as skiers rushed past. How wrong I was! “Company workshop” was actually code for let’s go skiing together, eat amazing food and drink copious amounts of soju! I had a marvelous time and had a chance to build my relationships with my co-workers.

(I’m starting to feel that “copious amounts” is a redundant term when it comes to soju.)

On the other hand, I am less convinced of my relationship with skis. I think it is more likely skiing resorts that I am unsure of.  I just don’t really understand the appeal of repeating a carnival ride over and over again, and that is exactly what I felt I was doing:

Step 1: Waddle over to the chair lift.

Step 2: Sit in the chair lift

Step 3:  Admire the view (skip this if it is your 10th time (or 2nd) and just close your eyes to escape the glare)

Step 4: Ski down the slope

Step 5: Repeat

For me, skiing was maddeningly monotonous. I’d much rather go hiking.

Yet have no fear, my rant ends here! There was plenty of hilarity to break up the monotony.

As this was my first time skiing, I was sure that I was going to fall over countless times. In the end, I really should have had more faith in myself. Twenty years of dance training should not be discounted; I proudly stayed on my feet.

This is not to say that I was graceful off the slopes – my clumsiness outside of sport is unrivalled! The first time I went up the slope a coworker tried to pass me my phone and I slipped. Not a “slip and quickly gain balance” kind of slip, oh no, I slipped all the way down the slope…

Backwards!

Somehow, I stayed on my feet until the very end when I finally stopped screaming and realized that I had no idea how to stop! I was forced to skid onto my side to break. People came rushing towards me checking that I was okay; mistaking my maniacal laughter for a cry of pain.

Skiing backwards; watching our instructor try to have a conversation with us until he skied into a fence; watching a male friend ski straight into the gap of a woman’s legs, locked in a never ending hug down the slope; those are the moments I will treasure… not the wish washy, upy downy, time wasty nonsense, that was going up and down a hill for eight hours.


I’m glad that I got to do something with the company so soon after the norebang nightmare. It meant that I went in prepared for the worst, and was pleasantly surprised when, most of the time, I was free to be myself and speak my mind (politely of course).

Rest stop Muju

Not a bad place to take a rest

Shock in a Box – The Christmas Post

I hate the lead up to Christmas. Throughout December, I rant non-stop at my friends and family.

I am a pre-Christmas Grinch.

Christmas lights – The attention seeking brat of neighbourly cheer.

Christmas Shopping – Phobic.

Myer’s Windows – Not lovely enough to hold attention, resulting in a rousing children’s chorus of the ‘Bourke Street Scream’.

Fake Christmas Trees –  Worse than the smell of Pine-O-Clean.

I hate pre-Christmas because it is nothing like Christmas. Pre-Christmas is that joyful time of year when I start to wonder whether love really is measured by material possessions and a horrendous electricity bill. I become bitter and twisted, counting my pennies; meticulously planning a Christmas Dinner that could headline Food Porn Weekly.

I love Christmas.

I love that I get to see my ridiculously large extended family. I love that getting a gift is more exciting than the gift itself. I love that I get to eat like I have the metabolism of an eight year old.  I give up on the fancy dinner and hoe into a non-glazed ham thrown unceremoniously on the table next to the yo-yo’s, gravy and mince tarts.  Gravy-laced-brandy-custard is delicious.

This year was different.

This December has proven truly remarkable.

I wrote Christmas Cards and letters (that have no hope of arriving before January). I decorated using the kitsch-est ornaments I could find. I bought a 10cm Christmas Tree that is entirely fake and yet I think it’s wonderful.  I created another tree out of green masking tape on my front door. I own a headband with reindeer antlers and my TV is wrapped in fairy lights.

I’ve planned lessons around Christmas and given the gift of Freddo to all of my students.

I’ve eaten Christmas [sponge] cake out of a cup with chopsticks and guzzled a towering mess of soju.

I have loved every moment of my Hallmark-Scented Korean Christmas Adventure.

On Christmas Day, I joined other expats for a delicious feast of turkey, mash, Yorkshire puddings, cakes, truffles… The list goes on! It was so refreshing to eat hot food at Christmas without feeling like I had melted into a substitute for the gravy. I felt like I was having that oft dreamed of “White Christmas” – in a country that views Christmas as an excuse for an extra Valentine’s Day.

None of it was like home, yet I felt so… at home. So welcome.

Before I sign off I want to mention how grateful I am that I have such kind, wonderful family and friends back home.

Thank you for skyping me into my favourite family gathering and for making sure I had a KK gift to open Christmas night.

Thank you for skyping me into the carols.

Thank you for making sure I knew I was loved.

Thank you for the letters and parcels.

Thank you for the photos and stories.

Thank you for my post title… Shock-in-a-Box… A box full of cards, chocolate, a chupa chup, vegemite, books and a choral t-shirt.

Thank you.