Archive for the ‘South Korea’ Category

The Birthday

As I sit in my favorite cafe Americano  in Yongin waiting for a bus to take me to Incheon, a plane to Singapore, and a connecting flight to Nepal I find myself in the middle of an all ladies birthday celebration.  When they starting singing “Happy Birthday” or something that sounded like it, I joined in to their great delight.  Korean culture is hard to break into but little things like this are sure to produce a smile and laughter. After the singing, and clapping was rewarded with a beautiful bunch of grapes and I was able to produce a respectable- Cas-ham-nida (thank you in Korean). The grapes are really unique and remind me of the off the vine ones we grew when I was a kid; full of seed with all the juicy sugar close to the tough skin while the inside is very firm mass.  Somehow these grapes seem more real then I highly modified cultivars. Being a gift makes then all the sweater.


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The answer

South Korea

little guy

Guardians protect the entrance to many ancient sites

Given “The answer” has been found, I – well- guess , I can go back to the states. In hindsight it was easy, to easy in a way; and while I am very happy, I am left with a feeling of – really, that simple; results do not lie. When Sara and I speculated that we were onto it, it was simply a matter of finding the “right”, “not substitute” ingredients. Granted it took some bus rides, it took some walking, it took asking directions, it took help from abroad, it took multiple stores, it was expensive – but after a half a day we had what we needed, or at least we were pretty sure we did (labels were all in Korean); the ingredients for the perfect American chocolate chip cookie, and thus the answer to all of life’s questions – Good friends, good laughs, great cookies. We could only bake 4 cookies at a time given we only had access to a toaster over, but we knew we had it as we ate multiple spoon fulls of raw dough; lubrication for the tongue and upper palette. REAL BUTTER, REAL VANILLA, REAL CHOCOLATE CHIPS, and of course walnuts.

“We are dangerous together, like two peas in a pod” Sara exclaimed as we thought it was perfectly fantastic to stay up until 3am and sleep until noon all the while enjoying batches of cookies, 4 at a time. Sara had bought a book on traveling to South America on a shoe string and I had found the newly published Lonely Planet guide for Nepal. “Hey check this out, I am going to take Salsa lessons in Latin America” or “OMG, Kathmandu is one of the only capital cities in the world to have daily and extended power outages….it says here that nothing works”.

And thus my stay with my Sara comes to a perfect end. We saw some sites, we experienced a different culture, we ate a lot of Kimchi, and most importantly, we expanded our friendship beyond one of Uncle/Niece that was a definition from my previous marriage and a previous time.

While I have found the answer, I do think I will carry on in my travels however. In a comment posted here, my friend Ed Whitehead reminded me about what Mark Twain said of travel: “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.” Looking forward to that motorcycle ride to the tip of Baja, ferry across the gulf, and ride back up the mainland of Mexico Ed; you and those biker bums back home get to planning. And that goal of sailing across an ocean together, well that needs to happen also.

Off to Kathmandu and the country that has the right to boast about having 8 of the worlds 10 largest mountains within its border. Tonight, if things go as planned, I will be calling the Singapore airport home. Tomorrow, tiger balm hucksters, and some BIG ass mountains.

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The markets and roads

Central South Korea

bowls of grain

Bowls of grain

Much of what is for sale on the street markets is quite beautiful and reminds me of a nice farmer’s market back home; ok that is a stretch. And much is rather disturbing. Capturing photos of the markets, particularly the disturbing parts, has proven difficult. The street vendors do not like to be photographed (the nastier their product the less they like it), and it is considered rude to do so without permission. So, I keep asking for permission and keep being “Shooed” away. I have employed a technique that my good friend Alan (http://www.ecovelo.info/) and excellent photographer suggested: “Put the camera on full auto, turn the camera to mute, and walk down the street with camera at waist level while the shutter is depressed; you will capture something interesting”.

fruit bowls

Bowls of fruit

market produce

Market Produce

The lost in translation contest continues and today”s entries included a couple of real contenders . The first was worn proudly by a rather dark complected young Asian man on the subway; he was wearing a snow white T-shirt that read: “White Represent Purity”. The second was even more, well, interesting. It was worn by a young girl that we estimated to be around 10-13 years old. She was wearing a baby pink adolescent’s shirt that had a bright pink cartoon cat on the front of it….just adorable. Above the cat in big letters it said: “Our Pussy”, and below the cat it read: “Our Choice”. Now in California at the Dykes on Bikes parade, I would expect this. In fact, I once found myself in the middle of a gay rights march on Washington DC and this shirt would have been considered junior league there. But from a women’s perspective, South Korea has been described to me as being most similar to the U.S, circa 1950; albeit changing rapidly. Thus, I am pretty certain this young girl was NOT an activist.

Traffic signals are but “Recommendations”; seriously. Yellow proceeds green NOT red, and indicates that the other side is still green but you can likely proceed regardless. Not that it matters, you can proceed on red as well. Scooters use the cross walks to avoid signals all together, and use the sidewalks on an “as needed” basis. Folding mirrors on cars were invented for the narrow alleys – when it is tight, quickly grab-em, fold-em and accelerate; if you are actually going to hit (these are nice cars) slam on the brakes and horn simultaneously and play a game of chicken regarding who is going to back up; or maybe a shop keeper will close their window to provide the extra inch. Bus drivers are something to behold and compete in real races around real cities; way more interesting than NASCAR – spectators get to come along for the ride; usually about $1500 Won, so plan on a buck and a quarter for your admission.

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Miss you mom

Jukjeon, South Korea


Peggy Johnson Francisco

Still on the road mom, looking for home; It has been a year today, yet I know you are with me.

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Outside of the World Trade Center, Insadong, South Korea

future skyline

Skyline in Insadong

A sad day in American history. I hope our future is more bright.

Yet, when I read a description of the fall of the Shilla Dynasty, I wondered how much history truly does predict the future–our future. It went something like this: Given differences amongst internal and external ideologies, combined with internal and external disparities in wealth, the empire was destroyed from within and without.

On a “deluxe” bus for return to Sara’s. Just worked out that way due to timing; certainly more spacious, but there are only a half dozen of us on bus so matters not.

“How did I get here?” A question that repeats itself often; “Well this happened and then this happened and now you are here”. Somehow, however, that does not seem to completely or even accurately describe why I am on a bus in Korea. Something is missing. Or at least I hope something is missing, for if it’s not, I am stuck; stuck with a feeling that something is missing; something that I need to find. “What is it, where do I need to look, who do I need to ask?” Patience grasshopper.

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A night culture

Gyeongju, South Korea


Oldest astrological observatory in Asia

Lonely Planet guide described my hotel as very clean. I like clean. I would also add very friendly, very quiet, very secure, and as typical in Korea, a very hard bed and a wand for a shower head. Being that I had no idea where to stay I followed the book’s recommendation. “I know, what a tourist!”. True. But it was in the budget category and in the old part of the city verses the new sanitized “Resort” area complete with an artificial lake . It was a great recommendation and I truly enjoyed my three night there for 25,000 WON (about $22USD) per night.

I FOUND it; good food. Korean noodles are excellent. Home made noodles and vegetables in a thin salty broth. Just don’t think that the ingredients came from the market with pig’s blood dripping down the stainless steel hooks, or the severed hooves for sale in the bucket and you will be fine. during noodles I saw a refrigerator full of Coca Cola in a bottle; perfect. I attempted to ask for a coke; coca cola, cola, soda, coka… I even went over and pointed at the bottle only to get a flurry of Korean and a lot of no head shaking. “Ok, sorry I asked”, and when back to my soup. Minutes later, the owner reappears and presses a glass bottle of nearly frozen Coke against me cheek along with another flurry of incomprehensible sounds. I see now she went down the street to get me a cold one-Life is good. Based on taste, I am pretty certain that like Mexico, Korean Coca Cola in the bottle is made with sugar and not corn syrup….oh life is really good.

Korea is a night culture. Thus, I got on the bus early (8:30am) and took it to the last stop. I had the bus to myself as I developed a plan to find some of the more obscure history of the ancient dynasty. I found the first Stupa I was looking for and it was literally in someone’s side yard; I had to walk through their Kimchi pepper, and soy bean patch to see the work of ancient craftsman. After some time, I found the training facility of the Shilla wariors and as I walked through the looming stone walls, I could feel the presence of the warrior who trained to defend the kingdom from Mongol, Chinese, and Japanese invaders. Besides these spirits, I was the only one there and the 300 WON ($0.25USD) was a steal given the great painting and the excellent narratives (in English) that explained the millennium of the dynasty; great way toput my short life in appropriate context.

From here I went in search of the rock carvings that were reported on both map and guide book. I even found a sign that I am pretty sure said what I was looking for was 500 meters down this road. Well, if it is not on a bus stop ( I walked about an hour to get to this place) you may never find it. Beyond looking into people”s bedrooms I searched hard, to no avail. I did however, see how those outside the city live, and I appreciated the hard work of one old man I watched watering his row crops by hand with a bucket of water he carried from the river below. I also saw the rice; all the rice. Now I live in the rice capital of the US but this is different. Different in how they use any means, including road shoulders, as the dikes for the rice paddies. Different in how they harvest by hand, and different in the bright ribbons that are strewn across the fields- presumably to discourage birds or to denote the plot boundaries, I am not sure which or either.

Went to “PC” establishment; a “gaming” den for the mostly young males of Korea. I was wondering as I looked at the intense play if maybe one of these guys was playing on-line with my nephew Ryan as they try to save or conquer there own modern day kingdoms. Emails were my mission. Simple enough; no. This was my second PC shop as I was yet to find a machine with English text and an English key board. This particular shop proprietor worked on the problem as I continued to shrug my shoulders and point to the Korean characters. Finally, got Google in English….YES. My journal will likely not get updated as frequently as I anticipated if this this type of difficulty continues.

Interestingly, before my trip I had heard things like: No problem lots of English speakers around the globe, the ATMs are universal, the internet is widely available, and power adapters are readily found. Maybe they meant Paris or London? In Korea, a very developed county that is “Wired” compared to where I am headed, is not without challenges. Anyway, the ATMs, for my banks only work in Seoul. The internet I found was initially all in Korean, It took 5 hours to find a power adapter, and very very few people speak English. That said, Korea was a great venue to start my trip. The cultural shock has been pretty extreme but things work herr. The buses, the trains, the sewers. And best of all Korea is very very safe place to travel. There is very little crime here and I have felt very safe throughout my travels. This includes walking down back alleys at night in several cities thus far. I would not even consider this in Sacramento and certainty not in our nation’s capital. Sara and Kanae both commented on this as well and independently verified that Korea is a very good place for women to travel alone. I talked to some Germans who were here for a conference and they had both traveled to India: “You need to hold onto your own teeth or they will be stolen”. I paid a lot of money for these gold crowns; best be careful.

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New friends

Gyeongju, South Korea

Korean dinner with Japan friend

Kanae and I enjoying a 30+ course (sides) dinner

“You speak very beautiful English”, “It is my hobby” said the women outside the oldest astrological observatory in all of Asia. I have found that this simple compliment often instills a sense of pride and accomplishment in non-English speakers and as a result they will often talk to you more freely. Like all people and dogs, we like to be encouraged and praised rather than criticized and disciplined. This case was no different as I got a complete overview of Gyeongju including the best times of day to see sights, and what bus to take because the “taxi to much WON”.I also learned about this womens children and how she had been to the Grand Canyon- “Such big hole”.

The batteries on my laptop SUCK. The HP mini is proving to be a fantastic little machine but 3 hour advertised battery life is code for just over an hour.

Walking up the sublime path to Seokguram Grotto a young women asked me in non-Korean English “Where are you from?”. I have discovered that California always gets a bigger smile than the United States or America so I always introduce myself that way. Besides, I do think of myself as a Californian. Not that I am not pure American as John would say, but the idea of someone thinking I am from Eastern Kentucky just scares me. Now before you start thinking I am down on people from Kentucky you should know one of my dearest friends is from there; and she was smart enough to move to California. Anyway, on this path I met Kanae, a graduating senior from Osaka, Japan who had taken a 2 month English class in Canada and was eager to practice. I guessed her being from Japan as they are the dominant tourists here even though the sites are all but empty as the global economy continues to curb travel (good for me). We had a great afternoon together and we discovered that some of the translations at the monuments were better in Japanese and some were better in English. So we would each read them in our native language and then translate for each other. At the grotto we collectively figured out that this, take you breath away, statue of the Buddha was over 12,00 years old. I could have sat at the base and looked at this Unesco World Heritage site for hours; so perfect so peaceful in that Mona Lisa sorta way. After a bit, Kanae and I needed to go our separate ways and each respectfully bowed to the other and said goodbye.

My earlier docent friend had told me to come back and see the observatory at night and this was a great suggestion as the evening mood was cool, the cicadas were chirping, and the entire place had a certain sense of mystery to it. Just as I was leaving, Kanae walked through the gates as she had taken my second hand advice and had also come back to see it at night. We took some photos and then after an awkward translation, Kanae, asked me if I wanted to have diner and then go see the pagodas together. At first I was somewhat unsure and then I remembered my new rule that when asked I would try to accept or “just show up” as my friend Dana frequently reminds me. After securing a recommendation for dinner we, according to my count, had something like a 33 course (sides in Korea) meal. The food can be categorized into three simple groups.. 1. Wow, that is pretty good, (little fried fish, rice balls with honey and sesame seeds) 2. Humm, not my favorite but….( anchovies in spiced sauce, pancake thing with seaweed 3. Uggg! I would not eat another bite of that if I was on the Donner party (the raw oysters in some of nastiness-gooey stuff ). Kanae had a similar response but she like a few more things then me as they transferred more readily cross cultures.. She warned my about the oysters…but I naturally did not listen. I then warned her about one dish that was “way beyond Kimshi hot”. She did not listen and boy did she pay for that.

After dinner we went to see the pond and the pagodas. It was a great evening. We caught a cab back to town and once again bowed our goodbyes and went our separate ways. My buddy Larry, had mentioned that it is much easier meeting people when you travel alone. He would know as he spent 16 months on the Asia road. I just did not figure it would happen to me. Wonder why that is? Perceptually unique I guess; Not a virtue I would add. Traveling alone is very different for me. I like it a good deal and yet there is a certain loneliness to it. But for me I am pretty certain that I have carried that loneliness for quite some time now. The difference is that at home I can easily mask it by driving hard into my work or some other project; always failing to look at what is the fuel behind that drive.

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Locks of Love

Seoul, South Korea


Couplehood is a HUGE deal in SKorea and from what I can tell one’s identity may be closely tied to the couples identity. As one of Sara’s friends said: “Couples, couples, couples,Korea is all about couples and if you are not in a couple well you are simply not in”. One interesting manifestation of this is in dressing alike – down to matching patent leather with accompanying sequin shoes, and socks. The men also frequently carry their own “man bag” as well as carrying their partner’s purse. When we saw the guy with the brightly flowered purse of his partner along with his beautiful yellow shoes, Sara commented that “he is obviously comfortable”. Our ever increasing homophobic society complete with its macho stereotypes should take note.

After taking the “90 minute” Lonely Planet walking tour around Seoul, we ended up at the tram and a ride to the top of the city and the home of the love locks fence; where lovers journey together, to seal their forever love by locking a lock on the fence. Given that Sara and I are both single, we were there just to look at what locked love looked like. It was interesting to reflect on this in context of my own marriage that I once perceived as locked in time forever. I was wrong. And it struck me as ironic that in a land of Buddha, where Siddhartha taught impermanence, lovers would still embrace the idea of forever…I guess I would again also, if I was to see love again. And yet I laughed it was uncomfortably sad when Sara was looking at a group of locks and touched one only to have it, and several other attached to it, finally succumb to rust and drop to the concrete with an unceremonious thud.

So we are minding our own business looking for a power converter (which took a bus, two subways, and 5 hours to find, but that is another story) when we see a guy casually standing in the alley holding an umbrella as we walk forward. Suddenly he runs up to Sara and covers her with the covering as I jump back. The umbrella almost collapses and I dive for cover as a bucket of water is emptied from the window washers about 20 stories above. Low tech, but it worked. Sara looks at me and her eyes say “did what I think just happen, happen?” We laugh hysterically.

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Korean Folk Village

Korean Folk Village and Heritage Site

flyng man

Have you ever eaten the pupae of a silk worm? Well, I can now say that I have, and it does not taste like chicken. Actually it taste like a soft walnut…sorta. And why did you eat this? Well after we watched the silk being spun off the cocoon, the women broke the remainder open, and offered it to me with an indication to eat. I figured I might as well try something that even the locals were refusing (two actually did try as well), and live up to my notoriety from a Seoul crosswalk of “You look like American Actiooooon Star”. Must have been the Ex-Officio shirt….or maybe the hair cut.

Getting to the village and around elsewhere has been a test in Korean public transportation prowess. On one leg of our subway ride, I apparently failed to buy enough fare on my card and thus when I attempted to exit, the gate would not open; to the annoyance of those behind me in line I am sure. Sara was on the other side and I debated doing a OJ (pre-murder days) and jumping the gate. Somehow this just did not seem like a good idea in a country where you have no ideas what the laws and punishment are. Sara went for “help” as I hovered in a corner. Soon a smart dressed Korean toll police or something like that showed up and I handed him my card and indicated that I was all to happy to pay additional fare for my immediate release. After trying to figure out what he was supposed to do with an American that he could not understand, he opened the gate manually, gave me a 50 WON coin, and left the scene so quickly that you would have thought he had killed someone.

The bus was supposed to cost 1800 WON, I only had a 5000 note, and only saw the driver indicating “NO” after I dropped the bill into the slot. It was like pulling three cherries on the slot machine as the coins just kept coming and coming while I filled my pockets with my change.

The dancers at the folk village were really good and the overall afternoon was very enjoyable and interesting. We saw ingenious grinding tools that utilized water, people, and beast. These were used for grinding rice, and soy into a dizzying array of different foods. We saw traditional building techniques for structures as well as a type of rope made from a grass or reed of some sort that was then constructed into all manner (shoes, baskets, backpacks) of things.

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Lost in translation

Yongin, South Korea

bathroom tour

Yesterday’s adventure went so well with lunch (yea right), I figured I would try my luck at getting a haircut. So down the street I walked in search of a place that hopefully cut hair. I noted some old fashioned barber poles along the street as I sat on the bus and figured they may actually represent a barber shop so I peered in the door of a few and they most certainly do not. (post edit: well turns out some actually do, but impossible to tell which ones).

After I passed the butcher shop complete with an entire Cow hanging from the open stall rafters, I finally saw two glass doors with the door handles shaped like scissors, and posters in the window of people who looked like they just loved their new hair style or bleached teeth; hard to say which. When I walked in I discovered it was indeed a hair salon, so I grabbed my hair with one hand and used my other hands fingers to act like scissors to indicate that I indeed was not lost, but rather in need of a hair cut. A women came over, sat me down, brought me a cup of green tea, and pointed to the clock; I simply nodded. Several other people came in and they all proceeded to get their hair cut while I sat patiently. I am thinking maybe they had appointments, but regardless the tea was good. Then I was ushered into a chair and a women with the real scissors and I tried to communicate about how I would like my hair cut; we got nowhere. So she just started cutting and I kept nodding until it was about the length I wanted and then I gave her a thumbs up. When I thought I was done, I got up and went to pay the bill as the cut looked pretty darn good to me and she had all ready spent about 40 minutes on it. But a few “no’ head shakes and pointing indicated that I was supposed the follow the truly beautiful women to the other room. Now there is just something nice about someone else washing your hair and giving you a head massage. Then back to the chair for a blow dry. Wow, it looked really great now so up I got again only to be lead back to yet another chair where my original cutter came back over and proceeded to give me another full hair cut. Having learned my lesson twice I stayed put this time and after brushing every individual hairs off my face, I was finally complete and ready to be a hair model. This is the best haircut of my entire life; period. So I go to pay and think, lets see: a tea, a haircut, a shampoo, massage, blow dry, style, another haircut, another style and a personal grooming way beyond my own standards…gota be over my budget. Handed the credit card to the shampoo women and signed while nodding politely. Outside, did the quick math…about $8.50, and given that tipping is considered rude here – that is all it cost.

Sara and I see this bus and decide that we simply should not miss a heritage tour of a beautiful bathroom. It was actually the bus to the Korean folk village which turned out to be a great afternoon hanging out with mostly elderly Koreans who were exploring their heritage.

On the bus I showed Sara the photo I took and we laughed about the other funny and even disturbing English translations (actually, we think someone is having a laugh or simply making up random words) we have seen. I saw a guy in a T-shirt that said “Disco Rocks”….really?, and another one that said “official Milk football league”. Sara told me about the super model type women (they’re everywhere is Seoul) she saw who had on a brown shirt that said “brown oily substance”, and she related another super model story with the text “Abortion staff” printed across the chest; this is in a Country where planned parent hood is strictly banned, sex education is just entering the school curriculum, but abortions are quite common in underground….sound familiar?

No wonder I often to not understand the translated directions from products that have been imported from Korea. And to be entirely fair, I can not understand any Korean. Seriously, I have been trying to lean to say “thank you for 5 days, and based on the looks I get, I could just as easily be asking for a pizza with raw squid…or maybe worse.

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