Archive for the ‘South Korea’ Category

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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Yongin, South Korea


It looked manageable from the street as I was looking for a place to eat lunch. If I could only speak Korean, I am sure I would have heard them saying: “Hey girls, we got us some entertainment here”. When I sat down, they turned on big flame in the middle of the table and then filled a pot with water. I was then escorted to a buffet type line where I generally got the idea I was supposed to put some food (or something) on my plate and then go back and cook it myself. No problem, as I immediately recognized the Bok-choy and the mushrooms – I am wanting to move towards a vegetarian diet anyway. I went back to the table and was minding my own business when a women goes to the line and fills a plate with the things you see above and then promptly brings it to my table, points to the pot, points to the plate, and then points to me. Not to be outdone, another women comes over and sits down a dish of some type of sauce and says: “very good”. So, the white mass is a full squid; no problem. The shrimp looking things are some type of shrimp; no problem. The dark thing in the back is an octopus; not a big problem until I lifted it into the pot and noted it was 9 inches long; The brain or intestines pile: that looked like a problem, and the little brain things in the foreground; those looked problematic as well. Wanting to be a good sport, I simply said thank you and started to a cooking while trying to figure out what do you do with a 9 inch octopus when it is cooked; when is it cooked was another pressing question. After discretely and quickly surveying the other tables, I discovered what the scissors next to my chop sticks were for; you just cut it up and drop the pieces to your plate.

So the squid was fine, the shrimp was actually quite good in the “very good” sauce, the octopus was fine except when I cut the head off some, lets say interesting, green color stuff spewed forth. The brains or intestines were much much worse than they look and one gram in my mouth was enough to tell me: “Don’t go there”. Now the mini brains turned out to be really hard and when I finally bit through the outer layer it squirted water or something 5 tables away as I tried to figure out what I was supposed to do with the nasty thing next. About this time, a nice young women walked over, handed me a large bottle of water and in very good English said “you are welcome to try something more suitable to your taste” while her co-workers maintained that stoic smirk I am already beginning to recognize. When I got up to leave, I must have passed the “you’re a good sport test” because I got a lot of bows as I exited.

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Yongin- City, South Korea; Sara’s apartment

Fortunately I passed the “temperature” test as I departed one of the best flights I have ever been on (Singapore Airlines is GREAT), and thus I was not quarantined for H1N1. It is a bit unsettling when you depart a plane, don’t speak the language and a guy sticks a probe against your neck. I was actually a bit concerned because not 2 minutes prior I had sneezed and caught the attention of half the people in line as it flashed though my mind they were screaming….”it’s him its him”. I had visions of being immediately taken away to serve my two weeks in SKorea isolated from all humans, or doing hard labor in North Korea as a trade off for some political brokering.

Five minutes in the immigration line, two minutes in the customs line, 30 seconds waiting for my bag, zero wait as the bus pulled up when I stepped to the curb. Ah but this bus did not go all the way, but from what I understood it was close. Handed the driver a wad of Won and got something back. About an hour later I had made it to the last stop on the line. No problem, I figured. Find a connecting bus and keep rolling. Well big guy, English got left at the international terminal. So I am standing on a street corner in some city and I have no idea where I am or where I need to go. Strangers to the rescue. I inquired with a taxi driver who really tried to help but the language barrier was insurmountable. Fortunately, I found a young and sharped dressed man (I know stereotypes are dangerous, but it usually works when looking for English speakers) who was able to actually read the email I had from Sara. Then he translated, figured out my next bus, waited for it to arrive and gave the bus driver a note regarding where to ensure I get off. Lets just say at this point, there were no Americans with backpacks anywhere close to where I am now. It was pretty obvious I did not have a clue as the kind bus driver tried to show me how to pay my fare while I was trying to drag my gear on a local bus filled with Koreans who had a “what is that” look on there faces. At my final stop, which I had no idea if it was the right stop or even the right city, I stood on the corner thinking to myself: “Now what smart guy”. Then from the bustle of the city appeared my niece Sara. “how long you been waiting?”, “oh about 30 seconds”.
And the Second of September? Lost it completely as I crossed the international date line. Talk about time being precious.

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Old and wise enough

San Francisco International Airport

Well this trip started remarkably well. Dad and his dog (named shadow but I call her killer given she is so darn small and sweet) dropped me off at San Francisco International airport and within 10 minutes I was checked in with an apparent seat upgrade to the exit row/window on the forward bulkhead. I Was not sure about taking this seat as I thought I got a pretty good seat when I booked on-line, but the young and petite Asian women insisted that I was big and needed the extra room. Typically, I would have thought she meant I was tall but after tipping the scales at 219.50 lb yesterday, I think she was being polite and was actually thinking to herself – you are a fatty and are lucky we did not charge you for a second American super sized seat.

Next I went to the see the money changers. Yes, I know they charge a premium at the airport but I like showing up in foreign lands with some local currency. I asked for ~two hundred dollars US in the local currency of South Korean which is my first destination. Not sure but I think I got 311,000 Won. It is a big stack of bills with the lowest denomination being 1,000 Won and there is only one of those. When the women counted it back to me and asked for my concurrence I just shrugged my shoulders as I have no idea if it is correct – thus starts my journey into the unknown which will need to be based on the trust and kindness of others.

Somewhere over the Pacific Ocean

“Remarkably well” was an understatement and I am certain this is an omen of things to come. I am indeed on the bulkhead just beyond first class. I have about 5 feet of space in front of me, and if you can believe it- the middle seat next to me is open. So you think it could not get better than that on a flight that is schedule for about 12 hours? Wrong. The take-off and landing jump seat for the stewards is just in front of me and thus right before my eyes are the most beautiful women from Singapore. Forget about the U. S Airlines along with their frumpy old fashioned flight uniforms. On Singapore airlines they dress for success and the women of the crew wear the most gorgeous flowered blouses that look almost like a tapestry. These are accompanied by beyond ankle length, flowing, and simply stunning skirts. Hell their shows even have inlays of the same patterns and material. I have no idea what the men are wearing, sorry.

According to the flight monitor it looks like we are about a third of the way across the pond while traveling at altitudes somewhere above 30,000 feet. We are flying nearly directly west on a great circle course that will take me to Incheon South Korea and the beginning of my 2009 mini trip to Asia. I say mini as I only plan to touch a few countries in the coming days, weeks, and months. How long exactly? I honestly do not know. What I know is I resigned from my job as the Vice President of a California based environmental consulting firm. WHAT, didn’t you get the memo about a world wide recession where jobs, let alone really good ones, are hard to find? Yea, I heard about that but I also heard a few other things. Including my tramping buddy John from New Zealand who is now working in the United Arab Emirates, who said something like: “Hell, it beats a sports car, a blond bimbo who is 20 years your junior. ” I also heard my mom, who we lost almost a year ago now from cancer, who understood so perfectly her last year that every day is precious and thus you better not waste to0 many of them or defer your life. So because I have always dreamed of seeing the Himalayas, I figured that would be a good place to reassess my middle aged-post divorce life. Besides I can always work, but I am not certain I will always be able to go hiking in the land of the snow leopard.

The plan, and it is not much of a plan, goes something like this. See my niece Sara who is working in Skorea as an English teacher to kindergarten children, then head to Nepal and potentially Tibet and see those BIG damn mountains. Maybe go down to India for a bit of Yoga and curry, maybe over to the United Arab Eremites to see John and take a camel ride, and well who knows what else if anything. I honestly have made absolutely no plans less buying a round trip airline ticket (which is required before you will get a Visa to Tibet or India). I may stay a few weeks, or I may stay a few months….I bet it is more the latter and thus my return flight is booked for the maximum allowable stay under a single ticket (6 months); but for a hundred bucks it can be changed so we will see. Who knows, maybe I will be back at work in six weeks as some ar predicting. All I know right now is that I am on an airplane, and Sara told me what bus I need to take to get to the town she is teaching in; actually said take the purple one…… I think.

Over the months I have told a lot of people about my trip and the responses are as varied as they are interesting and potentially even insightful. My professional peer acquaintances say things like: “Aren’t you worried about your job, security, retirement? I put these comments in the misery loves company, fear based American marketing, damn I really wish I could just go do something like that, or I am flipping pissed you can category. Then there are my family and friends who often think I am nuts but love and support me regardless and sincerely hope I find what ever it is I am actually still looking for; who knows. Finally, there are the many members of Sun City Lincoln, an old folks retirement community as dad calls it, who I have talked to over the last 2 month while bumming a room off of pops in preparation for being homeless. Without exception, I mean not even one, every person be it man or women has said: good for you, you only live once, don’t look back, go now, go now, go now. I put this group in the old enough and wise enough to have it figured out. Fortunately they are sincere and kind enough to pass it on.

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