Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Stiff one eye to winter and hopes of spring

It's been a helluva long time since I've consistently written on this blog;  I feel like I owe a bit of an explanation.  Life has a funny way of twisting itself around your unmentionables and leading in whatever direction it feels fit on that particular afternoon.  Mostly because of the frost, life has tightened the grip on that piece of anatomical real estate and kept me tethered to the shitty little apartment that I might have mentioned once or twice in the past.  I haven't become a hermit or anything... my routine has just been screwed up.

I used to spend at least 2 or 3 days a week in the coffee shop just on the other side of the academy that pays my bills.  I'd wake up several hours before the beginning of the shift and I'd take the opportunity to overdose on java beans and keep the world abreast of my travels.  I was even getting back into actual writing; nothing spectacular, nothing even really complete, but it was something more than the narcissism  and "look at me" ego stroking that every blog on the face of the planet has become at some point.  Fiction was always where I preferred to dip my wick and it was beginning to feel a bit like home again.  Then, it got cold.

Leaving my apartment
I've traveled around a lot in the US and I've lived in several different states across all seasons.  I've never lived on the water, though, when the temperature drops low enough to keep butter from spreading on hot bread.  The wind coming off the ocean has a way of stabbing at you regardless of layers and the tendency to make men's dress pants thinner than a creationist's argument is enough to make me reconsider my stance on wearing tights.  To make matters worse, the heat doesn't really work in my apartment.  I picked up a space heater, but it does little more than take the bite out of the frost.  In short, I feel less and less motivated to get out of bed and continue my routine.  They say it takes forty days to form a habit, but it only took a few weeks of frigid air to shatter mine. 

February is here and the world keeps teasing with the threat of spring, but then the sun goes down and I'm painfully reminded that short sleeves and a light jacket was a shitty idea when I walk home 4 hours after the light's gone out.  This month used to offer a sense of excitement and anticipation for me.  My birthday's on the 25th and it always felt like a beacon through the gloom.  It was like the entire world was congratulating me for making it through the longest 'short' month in existence... and, to top it off, they brought bitchin' presents.  Now I just get to look forward to being another year older.  The presents come in the form of an errant gray hair or two, a few wrinkles and the realization that I will never again be as young as I am right now.  Who needs a drink?

Fuck you, Winter... Summer is Coming

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

15 pints and I'm still standing...Come on and make me smile

Toasting with the mayor of Namhae
The last three weeks have been a blast.  The first weekend was a Boryeon reunion of sorts in Daegu to celebrate the birthday of everyone's favorite drunken Irishman.  Due to lack of coherent memory, that trip would be difficult to write about, though.  The following two weekends were back to back Oktoberfest parties: one on Namhae Island and the other back in Busan.  The festival in Namhae had the best beer I've tasted in a long time.  One of the big downsides of Korea is a lack of diversity in their brewing styles.  On a normal night in Korea, you basically have your choice of the three different versions of the same weak piss.  The Hilton Namhae imported 3 or four different varieties of German beer for the event and it was a welcome change.  The food was also delicious and well suited for the German celebration.  There was a noticeable lack of sauerkraut, but the Koreans must just view that as a giant waste of perfectly good cabbage.  Namhae is a much, much smaller community than where I currently live in Busan.  There's less than a hundred native speaking teachers on all of Namhae Island(compared to the 1500 waygook teachers in Busan).  Basically, we were treated like rock stars.  We got pulled in to toast after toast for another photo op.  It's a bit intimidating at first, but ultimately its just a huge ego-stroke to have twenty or thirty cameras flashing away at you every time you take a step.  They were everywhere.
I haven't seen the picture yet, but I was told that there is a huge full page spread of us drinking in the local paper.  On top of the professional photographers, we had a fairly regular stream of Korean girls who wanted their picture taken with with the foreigners.  Naturally, I was quick to cede to their requests, being a guest and all.  The mayor even took a break from kissing hands and shaking babies to come over to pose for a few pics with us.  I'm pretty sure he randomly stole a bottle of wine from a family just to pour for us; all of this to the constant click of the photo shutter. 

Another fun, but sometimes disturbing aspect of Namhae's Oktoberfest was the near constant flow of contests and musical acts.  The acts were mostly made up of dance classes consisting of little old people:  think the female version of the Shriners dancing the foxtrot with each other.  The contests were a little more entertaining and we tried to take part in them as much as possible.  All of the guys were embarrassed in the arm wrestling competition by a Russian built like a fire hydrant.  All of the girls were beat by a behemoth of a Korean woman, a strange site on any day.  We avoided the hammer and nail contest (?) and were chased off stage before the drinking competition began.  The dancing competition was split up by gender and age and was fairly uncomfortable to watch.  Most Korean dance moves look more rudimentary than the half time performance at a peewee basketball game so the stage wasn't exactly stacked with talent.  We avoided that one, too.  All in all, the festival left a lot to be desired, but it was still a good time.

The following weekend started off with a barefoot hike up the side of a mountain in Busan.  The event was part of a weekend long Oktoberfest party and mountain clean-up sponsored by a hotel/spa near PNU.  Let me start off by saying that I don't like hiking.  I'm not really a big fan of walking, in general.  And I think it's especially ridiculous to walk up the side of a fucking mountain, over rocks and sticks and other things that cut without wearing a goddamn pair of shoes.  I needed to get that off my chest... I apologize.  That being said, it wasn't really that bad.  The ground was fairly clean and easy to walk on and the trip up wasn't that bad.  The trip down was another story, though. 
The meaty balls of my feet had been well-tenderized on the upward journey, so it was particularly painful on the downward slope.  Luckily, like any good Korean hiker, I had came prepared with plenty of liquid pain reliever to make it more bearable.  Once we made it to the bottom, we were awarded prizes for a loudness contest and our ability to pick up trash.  (Full disclosure:  my "trash" was mostly made up of the soju bottles that I managed to empty on the hike.  We were the last group to go, though and all the good trash was taken... was just easier to make our own.)  For our hard work in clean-up and our uncanny ability to be loud, obnoxious foreigners... we won 4 bottles of dish detergent and a facial cleanser.  So I got that going for me. 

The event cost a total of $20, that included the hiking event, entry to one of the best spa's in town, and a commemorative mug that was used at the Oktoberfest party back at the hotel.  With the mug, it was a buck-a-beer and we did our best to get our money's worth.  There were many, many "Gun bae"s and "Wi ha yeo"s that were only matched by the low clink of the mugs as they were repeatedly raised in a toast.  The beer was better on the first weekend, but this was still more tasty than our normal offerings.  And the buck-a-beer in a beefy mug was a lot easier to justify than the $5 dixie cups on Namhae.  There was a constant stream of entertainment on the main stage in front us and a constant stream of "dancing with a foreigner" at our table.  To be honest, the "dancing with a foreigner" was only being proliferated by one old Korean man, but what he lacked in numbers, he made up with enthusiasm.  You haven't really lived until you've seen an eight year old Korean doing the Macarena.  By the time a two man violin band broke out Cotton-Eyed Joe, the entire party was doing an impromptu epileptic square dance.  And as I looked around at the warm glow and light haze, it was nice to know that all it takes is a few cocktails and some shitty dance music to make a southern Illinois boy smile...

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

The Boy with the Bacchus Tattoo

Fifteen years ago, I got my first tattoo.  I was eighteen at the time and it was during my first Thanksgiving vacation while I was away at school.  I was spending the first part of that vaca at a buddy's house in central Illinois.  Due to a strange turn of events, we ended up driving about 8 hours out of our way to drop off a VW bug in Rockford and a group of guys in Chicago.  Somewhere between the tenth and twelfth beers, we decided to get tattoos the next night.  It was a bit of a spur of the moment decision, a flash in time when all came together for the perfect cusp-of-manhood-mistake; I've just never had any apologies for this particular one.  Now, I've regretted haircuts, piercings, clothing choices, and a few significant others, but I've never had any misgivings about getting that tattoo.  The parlor itself had a stack of bumper stickers at the counter that read "Welcome to your New Addiction" and I was convinced that the sun on my upper arm would just be the first of many.  As they say, though, "Time makes liars of us all."

I've always considered a tattoo to be less about the object and more about the event of which it reminds you.  It's a snapshot into a time in your life or a reminder of something you don't want to forget.  Some get a tattoo just because they think it looks cool; I guess my first would fall into that category.  Regardless of my original reasoning, though, it will always take me back to that time in my life, much more often than a photograph ever will.  The third and last call for a tattoo, in my opinion, is to simply express an ideal or concept, the thing that tickles your unmentionables.  What drives you or pulls you or makes you smile or makes you smirk?  What gods do you drop a knee to?  For me, the answer to all of these is the same:  Bacchus, the God of Wine and Revelry.

Now I know that some of you more pious individuals just had the hairs on the back of your neck stand up and a few may be questioning the further reading of this blog or maybe even the further pursuit of our friendship all together.  Before you make any rash decisions, though, know that I don't actually worship Bacchus (or Dionysus to the Greeks).  The image just embodies everything that I hold to be important:  living for the moment, never passing an opportunity.  Everyone knows 'carpe diem' but, thanks to Robin Williams and the dead poets, everyone also mistranslates it and takes it out of context.  "Carpe diem, quam minimum credula postero" is the full line of poetry written by Horace in 23 b.c. and it actually translates to "Pluck the day, putting as little trust as possible in the future."  Sit back and drink your wine.

Getting a tattoo in South Korea is not exactly legal.  It's kind of like driving 57 in a 55, though; it's not really enforced to any great extent.  In addition to the legal issue, tattoos are still associated with the Yakuza in this part of the world.  Some places still won't allow an Asian with a tattoo into a public bathhouse.  Obviously I'm white and that keeps me out of any Japanese crime syndicates, so I haven't had any problems with my tattoo.  Despite the police turning a blind eye, most tattoo shops cannot operate as a regular storefront property.  They are done in the back rooms of dummy shops and in extra rooms at the artists home.  It also means the only way to really find an artist is by word of mouth.  I met the artist I've been going to through a guy I met on my sailing trip a few weeks ago.  The artist underwent 15 years of training in Japan in a classic Irezumi style.  He's known very well for his full body suit style tattoos and he implements both hand tapped and gun tattoos depending on your request.  The image that I was wanting for my left shoulder was a bit out of his wheelhouse, but I could tell by the work that I had seen from him that the difficulty would not be an issue.

That tattoo itself is going to take at least four sessions and I've decided to chronicle it with pictures from each session.  The price itself is about a third of what I was expecting to pay.  After the initial consultation, I decided to go forward with the tattoo and we set up an appointment for a few days later.  It was the tail end of a pay period for me and he did the first session with no money down at all, a concept that would be completely unheard of back in the states.  This first session took about an hour and a half, by the way.  The man works fast.


After a week, of healing, I went back for my second session.  The detail of the piece is a lot more established after this session.  I basically had two and baby cluster filled in this time.  Each individual grape has four or five different shades in it and it has become apparent that the tattoo is going to take a lot longer than myself or the artist originally thought it would take.  He thinks it's going to be four or five more sessions from this point, putting the total sessions possibly at seven.  I spent an hour and a half under the gun again this time and it was a helluva lot more painful. Here are the pics:


Here are pics from the third session.  This was a much longer session and the artist really hit his stride.  This is the first time that he has done this style of tattoo, so the grapes from the last session were a kind of "figuring things out" sort of situation.  They went much, much quicker this time around.


Last night, we got started in on the leaves and the collarbone area was by far the hardest for me.  From what the artist said, each person is a little different in what are bothers them the most.  For me, the thin spot right on my collar bone has been a bitch.  I think he's pretty much done up there now, but I really don't know.  He started off with a general outline (blueprint) and he lets the art tell him where to go next.  We were out one night and a mutual friend asked him how he planned to do the face and he refused to even look at it, saying he didn't want to have a preconceived idea before he actually sat down to do it.  It sounds a little unnerving to allow someone to use your body as a blank canvas, but the more I see his work, the more I'm happy with the decision to go to him for this piece.  For instance, I know that the yellow is going to fade some over time, but I really like how it pops off of my shoulder right now.  It frames the leaves themselves and gives it a deeper dimension; the same with the grape shading.  It's a bit difficult to see the amount of detail that he's put into this tattoo from the pictures, but it's extensive. 
At this point, I've been on the table for just under ten hours and he says I have at least 2 or 3 sessions left.  He hasn't even started on the facial details and only one set of leaves have been completed.  The most obvious downside to getting this has been how small, pathetic, and old the tattoo looks that is on my right shoulder.  I have no intentions of ever covering it up, but it could use a touch-up and maybe an extension to help it to match the art on my left shoulder.  I still have a few weeks to go on this one, though.  One tat at a time.


This next session was another lightning round.  Much like when he did the first set of grapes, the first leaves were more of trying to figure out how to approach the colors.  Once he figured it out, he flew through the next group of leaves.  It looks as if I only have one session left to go, but I don't really know what he has planned for sure, so I may be wrong.  I was pleasantly surprised when the first set of leaves didn't lose their pop after the scab came off... they look as bright today as when I first got it done.  The only thing left at this stage is the face itself and possibly some shadowing...


It's finished....

The final three sessions were finished over the course of 6 or 7 days.  The details of the face were all done free hand and the detail of the beard and the eyebrows was particularly impressive to me.  He did it all with a single needle in a continuous line like a brush stroke on a canvas.... ridiculous.

The face
Bearded detail

So the entire process took almost 4 months.  It was awesome to have a tattoo artist who was willing to take the time to make this piece as intricate and badass as this one turned out to be.  The quick outline that he did in the first session is literally the only time that he used any guiding stencil at all on my arm... practically the whole thing was done free hand.  

The only real question is.... "what's next?"

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Set an open course...

The last few weeks have been a bit chaotic here in South Korea and I've gotten lax on my blog posting.  I have just had a bunch of things happening at the same time.  Since getting back from a sailing trip at the end of August, I've had one depressing thing after another happen.  I got a pretty bad sinus infection (first time I've been sick since leaving the country); I've had a student tell me that I don't belong in his country and that I'm stupid because I can't speak Korean.  I was told by another student that Koreans are the only pure bred race left in the world and they are superior because of this fact.  (This particular student was not being mean, she was just making a chilling statement of what she thought was fact, an aside that she believed to be a truth so obvious that it didn't require any other sort of explanation.)  In other racist news, I also had an entire class of 10 year old kids answer "Obama" when I turned over the animal flash card of a monkey.  Then, on a more financial note, I was the only teacher at my school that did not receive their paycheck before the 4 day Chuseok Holiday weekend that just ended.  The explanation given to me was that the other teachers where traveling to be with their families for this Korean version of Thanksgiving.  My check's now four days late and I'm rubbing two nickels together to try to make a dime.  Needless to say, it's been a rough couple of weeks.  Since this isn't a good place for my mind to linger, I figure now's a perfect time to write about the sailing trip that has become:

"The Weekend by Which All Others Will be Compared."

There's something about being on a boat.  I love the smells, the sounds, the freedom.  A house boat docked in a cove of Lake Mead or a speed boat pulling me through the goose shit of Southern Illinois... each of them have their own type of magic for me.  Given a choice on a place to hide from the world, I'll choose open water and an open bottle every time.  Salty air and the sound of waves just make a drink taste right.  It's like Grandma's spaghetti recipe that no one else can make, the sprinkle of this and pinch of that which takes a cocktail and turns it into a Cezanne.  Music, internal or otherwise, also seems to sound a bit better with the gentle wake of a boat beneath your feet, lulling you side to side and forcing you to dance.  Add a group of friends to that music and that tasty beverage and nothing else compares.  I'm just a different person when water's around.  You can feed me after midnight, but the water can still make the gremlins come out.  My demons look a little more like Puck and less like Stripe, but both can be a bit dangerous at the right time of night.  

The four hour bus ride to the marina started a little after 1am on Friday night after a long day of work.  My last class ends at 9pm and, with the excitement of the impending trip, sleep wasn't a viable option.  Lack of actual shuteye would become a major theme as the weekend progressed.  Of the thirty or so people on the bus ride over, I knew a total of three people, two from a previous trip and the tour guide himself.  It was obvious from the beginning that a large number from the trip knew each other well and that was intimidating at the start.  It didn't last for any amount of time, though.  To be perfectly honest, I was pretty hammer-drunk and I was having more than a few issues at the time.  My main issue would also become a bit of a theme over the weekend:  my pants would not stay up.  I was wearing a pair of shorts that had started the night in a bit of a loose-state and I was without a belt.  The use of my hands were, of course, being reserved for the cocktail I was currently drinking and the cocktail in which I planned to help wash down the first.  Factor in a psychotic bus driver and my pants fell off... regularly.  I have lost some weight since arriving here in May, but I haven't lost anywhere near enough for it to be this big of a problem.  After watching the sunrise over the coast and having a quick breakfast, I was able to find a "belt" to get me through.  (The "belt" was actually a bright lime green dog leash that I picked up at a little corner market... you can laugh now.)

In retrospect, I probably should have skipped the bus booze and the sunrise hike.  The lack of sleep would put an acid-trip-surreal-feel to the rest of the weekend.  It just wasn't in the cards at this time, though.  When we first got on the boat, we each loaded our bags into cabins that would never be used and toured the ship itself.  I don't have exact measurements, but I was immediately impressed with the size.  I had been a little curious how tight the quarters were going to be for thirty people, but it was never an issue.  Once the boat got away from the marina, the real fun began.

I need to take a second and give credit to the large group of friends that made up the majority of our sailing trip.  At least a few of them had taken the trip several times and were well prepared for the voyage.  The biggest contribution, in my opinion, was a selection of CD's made by one of the guys in the group.  Since he had been on this boat before, he knew that the mp3 players that most people were carrying weren't compatible with the stereo system built into the ship.  So, he took the time to make an eclectic mix of feelgood boat drink music.  This is the same guy who, along with his girlfriend, put together a massive amount of bloody marys and marinated skewers to grill.  These discs set the mood for the entire trip and, if nothing else, it gives some credence to his taste in music.  (I figure this justifies a small plug for his music blog... it can be found here.  He has download links at the bottom of each of his entries.  Look for the ((((0)))) symbol at the bottom of each link.) 

In the crow's nest...
After an hour or two of sailing, the captain turned off the boat and we were able to jump from the rigging and swim for a while.  I don't know the exact height from which we were jumping, but it was enough to hurt when you hit the water.  We walked out from the mast on the beam just below the crow's nest  and jumped in feet first, very fun, but also a bit painful.  There are many, many more pictures on Facebook of the entire trip

After the quick swim and a dockside delivery of 3 or 4 cases of Makgeoli, we continued the trip on to the Sado Isles.  The isles themselves supposedly have dinosaur fossils in several different places, but I never saw them.  There was a map showing the way, but my mind was in a different place at that time.  After a 2 or 3 mile paved walk, we came to a small inlet with a beach that we would fill up the rest of the daylight on Saturday.  We tossed a frisbee on the beach and then moved it into the water.  It was about this time that the pants issue came back around.... this time was completely my fault, though, no lack of belt to blame.  Please keep in mind that we have been drinking consistently for the last 18 or 20 hours at this time.  I caught a small 5 or 10 minute nap on the breakfast room floor, but that was the only sleep I had received since waking at 9am on Friday morning... and it's around 6pm on Saturday night at this point.  Whatever the reason, I decided I wanted to skinny dip in the ocean.  Now, this wasn't a Frank the Tank moment; I wasn't trying to talk anyone into joining me.  It just sounded like a good idea to me at the time.  All was well and good.  I was holding my swimming trunks and we were still tossing the frisbee when I suddenly lost my pants in the current.  One minute they were there and the next they were completely gone.  I had to borrow a towel and try to walk that same hike back to the boat, sans pants.  The old Korean ladies along the way thought it was hilarious as our tour guide was all too happy to explain what had happened.  Not my finest moment.  To top it off, I had accidentally left my Ray Bans on a rock near the beach.  By the time, I had made it back, the tide came up and the sunglasses joined my pants in the great kingdom beneath the sea.

The next few hours are a bit hazy, for some reason.  There was some much needed food grilled at some point and a continuous flow of not-so-needed drinks.  There was also a point in the night were another camping group called me and a few others over to their site for some fresh sushi that they had caught earlier in the day.  After the sun was down for the night, the majority of us made our way back to the boat for an evening under the stars with a couple guitars and a few good times.  The party was still going on the cabin roof well into the early hours.  Around 2 or 3 in the morning, someone discovered one of the coolest aspects of the trip.  There was a major bioluminescent show going on in the water every time that the surface was interrupted.  From what I understand, this type of event is fairly rare:  it only happens once or twice a year in certain parts of the world.  Pouring water over the side of the boat made a bright neon reaction in the water at every place that the surface was interrupted.  After being assured that this had nothing to do with the nuclear fallout in Japan, I jumped in the water.  There was an explosion of light as soon as I hit the water.  It was like a thousand glow sticks were attached to my body.  As we swam, small drops of water came off the front of our hands and those ripples would also start to glow.  It was ridiculous.  After a few minutes in the water, it would stop and we'd have to get out and allow the algae (or whatever was causing this particular event) to either recharge or regroup, then we could start it all over again.  This midnight swim and the subsequent rest in wet clothes would probably be a big factor in that sinus infection I mentioned at the beginning of this post. 

After a short half hour or hour nap, I woke up to the first fingers of light as the sky went black to grey.  I tried to sleep more, but it just wasn't going to happen.  I grabbed some morning Makgeoli and headed back to the beach to see if there was any chance that my things had washed ashore when the tide went down... no luck.  Some fresh grilled tuna and fruit met us for breakfast a few hours later and the rest of the day was spent with Bloody Mary's and more boating.  I'd love to go into more details about Sunday, but I was in a slight hallucination mode from lack of sleep by this point.  We got back to Busan fairly late Sunday night and I finally got some much-needed sleep.

I can't imagine being back in the United States and being able to find thirty people that were able to put their lives on hold for a weekend and step off the map for a bit.  You have to be a bit crazy to move to the other side of the world for a job like this one.  I think it just naturally attracts an adventurous soul.  It's hard to get a float trip for 5 or 10 people together back home, a sailing trip for 30 would be close to impossible, I think.  These weekends have made this job and this trip more than just bearable; they've allowed me to ignore or forget all of the downsides.  I miss my family, I miss my friends, but I wouldn't trade weekends like this for anything.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

A Few of My Favorite Things...

On several different occasions, I've written about some culture shock issues that come with living here in South Korea.  I don't think that I've overly complained like "why don't they do it like they do in America?", but there have definitely been a few head scratching, WTF moments since I landed on these shores.  Luckily, there's a whole lot of things that make Korea really, really cool and so far they've overshadowed the strange for me.

The example that jumps out at me the most is the level of service you get at almost every place I go.  Now, admittedly, as a foreigner I don't always get that service, but any time that I go out with a coworker or have at least one Korean in the group, the service is usually stellar.  (Exceptions always apply, of course.)  Good service is just the norm.  In some of the higher end restaurants in which I've worked, an amuse or "gift from the chef" was common for any call parties.  Others did it for every table.  A half ounce of tuna tartarre over a crispy croquet is almost a joke when you compare it to some of the items I've received at no extra charge.  Order the largest pitcher of beer and more often than not, one of the workers will show up with hot wings and say "service, service" before placing it on your table.  Buy a deli sandwich at the local Family Mart, and you will occasionally get a free juice.  (The free juice is more like a coupon, but it's still nice.)  What does the server expect to get out of this little act of kindness?  Nothing.  For the most part, you don't tip in Korea.  That goes for taxis, doormen, servers, bartenders, barristas, you name it.  I do tip at some of the more western style bars, but most just assume that you made a mistake and force the money back in your hand.  Having worked in a tipping industry for almost fifteen years, it's hard for me to admit this, but it's nice to receive good service simply because someone regards it as doing their job... not because they think I'm going to leave a big tip.

Another upside to restaurants in South Korea is speed.  Eateries are set up a little different here than they are back home.  Variety is not as much of an option.  In general, restaurants are split up by the type of meat they serve and the style in which they serve it.  There are still "family restaurants" like Outback and TGIFriday's, but they are considerably more expensive and are usually reserved for more of a special occasion. We usually just decide that we are in the mood for chicken or pork or beef or octopus or whatever and we go to a restaurant that only serves that food.  If you have a large group, it can make the decision a little more difficult, but it usually ensures prompt service at every spot.  When a restaurant only has two or three items on its menu, you can have the majority of the meal prepped and ready to go almost immediately.  It's not fast food, per se, it's just food that comes fast.  It doesn't have all the MSG and other preservatives that make McD's and other fast food places so unhealthy.  One of my favorite local meals is a dish called Daeji Gukbap which is a pork soup with rice.  That dish is literally the only thing that's served in the restaurant where it can be found.  So, you're either in the mood for pork or you're not.  It's the same way with the Nakji Bokeum that has also become a bit of a staple dish for me since both shops are so close to work.  This dish is actually prepared in a small grill that's built into your dining table.  Here's a few pics of the dish as it's prepared.  Far left is uncooked and just placed over the flame.  The next pic shows the dish coming to a boil.  The bottom picture is the finished dish served over rice.

Coffee is another huge upside to living in Korea.  I know what you're thinking, "Starbucks is on every corner in the US."  In Korea, Starbucks is around, but the little mom and pop barristas are much more prevalent.  There are many other corporate-coffee places like Pascucci, A Twosome Place, and Coffeebean around the city, but it's the small coffee shops that I enjoy the most.  The Americano (espresso and hot water) is the beverage of choice over here and can be found at most of these shops for around two bucks.  (In the three months I've been here, there have been two seperate chart-topping songs dedicated to the americano.  I think the second one's a remix of Tu Vuo Fa L'Americano to a shuffle-beat but I don't have the heart to tell them it has nothing to do with coffee.)  The point is... Korean's love their capo and I love them for it.  It's close to impossible to get Monster, Red Bull, Rockstar, or any other true energy drink over here.  If they took coffee away, too, I might sleep for the rest of my life.

If you have some sort of strange aversion to a coffee shop experience, there are other ways to get your fix.  In the corner of every 7-11 or Family Mart, there is a stand full of bagged juice or overly sweet coffee options.  A sixteen ounce cup of ice comes complimentary at the massive total price of about $1.  I prefer to get my coffee freshly made at a shop, but these stands are great for a juice options.Strawberry or Blueberry Juice anyone?  Go with the blueberry, both are really good, but the strawberry tastes a lot more sugary.  
Another sheer stroke of genius is the milkshake-in-a-bag.  There a large number of little ice cream novelty treats at the local marts, all in different shapes and flavors.  There's a watermelon flavored ice cream that comes in the shape of a slice of watermelon, a drumstick-like treat that's a more flat and easier to hold, or a coffee flavored ice cream in a tube that breaks in the middle so you can share with a friend.  None of these are as awesome an idea as the milkshake in a bag.  You pull it out of the freezer and have to knead it with your hands to get it soft enough to eat.  Considering how hot it's been, crushing it up in your hands can be as refreshing as the actual ice cream.  Okay, that's bullshit... ice cream is always gonna be better than a cold hand.

These aren't my all time favorite parts of Korea, but each of them stack up nicely to make this trip that much more enjoyable. 

Friday, August 19, 2011

Fortnights and Fortitudes, part 2

(I've gone back and forth about whether to publish this story.  I do not want to ever single anyone out in these blogs and I go out of my way to try and leave names off the page.  These are my personal stories and you can take them or leave them.  Remember that there is a different side to every story told, though.  The guy referred to as Drunkie in this blog is just as alone over here as I am.  I do not know him that well, but everyone adjusts to a major life change in a different way.  He was very easy to target this weekend, but that doesn't mean I don't have a little sympathy for him.  Part 1 of this blog can be found here)

This past weekend promised to be a little more organized than the previous one, simply by limiting the number of people on the trip.  The more people on the trip, the more down time from bathroom breaks and stragglers.  Or at least that's the conventional wisdom.  We'd find out over the course of the weekend that it only takes one...

Most of the trips put on by this travel group are open to any of the 600+ members of it's Facebook page.  A few of them are a first come, first serve basis.  Every once in a while, Charles has an invite-only trip for people that have been on several excursions with him.  This was one of those times.  This one happened to fall right in the middle of summer break for many of the ESL teachers in the area and it was also a three day weekend.  The original plan was stream trekking all day Sunday, camping out that night, and letting Monday take us where it would.  A lack of camping equipment for everyone and a strong possibility of rain had us abandon the camping for a minbak, but that was the only real change.

I will start off by taking partial blame for the events that would transpire over the next 12 hours or so.  While I did not force anything upon anyone, I did provide the catalyst that would provide the group with a very, very long day.  I brought the Soju.  Now, this is not an attempt at braggadocio, but I've been known to imbibe a few times over the last fifteen or twenty years.  I've also been known to put myself in embarrassing situations.  I was once pulled over in a Jack in the Box drive-thru wearing nothing on but the skin I was born in.  (The cops couldn't keep a straight face long enough to ticket me, so they just followed me the one block home.  I miss Las Vegas.)  I understand that sometimes the thirst can grab you and take you to places that you didn't know existed... you're own little Oz.  Keeping this in mind, I try not to judge but it's not easy.  In retrospect, I should not have pulled out the first bottle of soju at 10am.

The five members of our little tour hit it off pretty much from the start.  Two friends had came together from a different city, but other than that, we were virtual strangers.  We played a few drinking games on the bus and basically set the table for the rest of the day.  We stopped for food around 1pm and that's when the first indication of future trouble really occurred.  One of the guys decided that he didn't want to eat lunch.  A beer or two would be enough to keep him going for the next seven or eight hours he said.  The rest of us gorged ourselves on the spicy duck with rice dish called oli bulgogi.  He continued to drink.  After lunch we headed to the stream and quickly saw that we were not the only ones who thought that the 3 day weekend would be a perfect time for a little nature trip.  There were people and tents everywhere.  The stream was completely inundated with Koreans on inner tubes.  At times, it looked like a lazy river ride at a waterpark.  Luckily, the further we went upstream, the more the crowds began to thin.  There were many good spots for jumping and swimming along the way, so we stopped when it suited us.  That was the best part about the small group; you can only be pulled in 5 different directions instead of 25.  Four of us were pretty much on the same page, but the lunch-skipper was starting to do his own thing.
The sign on the left says No Swimming; the sign on the right says No Jumping.  Oops.

I brought a little mini-cooler filled with soju and beer for the trekking and we were dipping into it pretty consistently, but the four of us weren't getting hammered by any means.  It was more like a casual day drinking at the lake.  Drunkie didn't get the memo, I guess.  The further we walked, the more he stumbled.  The river didn't split anywhere so we would occasionally leave him in shallow sections as we kept walking towards the next series of pools and jumps.  Towards the end of the day, Charles took us a little off the main stream into a side tributary that ended up being the highlight of the day for rest of us.  About thirty minutes later, Drunkie stumbled to where our guide was waiting at the split.  Eventually, he made it up to join us.

While the stream itself had been pretty busy, the hidden alcove had only one group of four Koreans at a small portable picnic table.  They were friendly with us all and even invited us to share their samgyupsal.  The alcove was protected from the sun by a bridge overhead.  That left the deep water several degrees cooler than the river had been just a few minutes before.  It was very refreshing.  The only real downside to this spot was that the water was much darker than the rest.  It was still clear, but the combination of a lack of sun and the depth of the pools left it difficult to see the bottom.  This was a particularly large problem for us considering we were having an epidemic of lost sunglasses and necklaces.  No one could seem to remember to take off their sunglasses before jumping.  Two of of the party members were divers, so that helped considerably.  Lost items weren't the only issue with dark waters, though.  As I was floating beside one of the rocks, I managed to get my feet tangled in some loose kite string.  The more I tried to free myself, the worse it got.  Finally, I had to pull float while one of the girls helped me out.  After finally getting free, I started pulling in the string so it didn't happen again.  Eventually, I got to the end and pulled up a small catfish attached to a hook on the end.  The Koreans at the that had joined us said that this was somehow a sign of good luck.  I was just glad the hook didn't end up in my foot. 

As the sun continued to go down, the alcove got darker and darker.  We said our goodbyes and went back to the river.  At this time, Drunkie decided that he didn't want to go the way that we were headed so he climbed out and tried to walk above the stream instead of in it like the rest of us.  That translated into more waiting for him to try to make his way back to the group.  By this time, we were fed up.  We went a little further up the river and spent some time at a waterfall shoot that was a blast, but every stop took twice as long as it should because he could not keep up.  As you can see from the picture, the sun was going down fast and the walking would be pretty treacherous if it went down completely.  This didn't help convince Drunkie to walk a little faster... or even stay with the group.  He again went off on his own as our guide tried to corral him towards the path while it was still visible.  We finally got to our stop as the sun went down for good.  The worst of Drunkie was still yet to come, though.

When we got to the spot were we were supposed to sleep for the night, we found out quickly that it was supposed to rain that night and, if it did, we would be stuck on the wrong side of the river.  So we started a twenty minute walk towards our bus to go to another spot.  There was a little confusion and our group got split up a bit.  When we realized what had happened, everyone stopped on a small bridge and waited to get everyone back together.  Drunkie did not stop with the rest of us and no one really noticed.   He decided he'd just meet us at the bus.  He must've forgot that he had no idea where the bus was parked or which road to take at the four way stop to find it.  We're in the middle of the Korean wilderness.  There are no lights and there are cliffs on all sides going down to the river valley.  We spent the next three hours trying to find him.  No one had eaten since early that afternoon, and all of us were fresh out of energy.  Eventually, he hit resend on his phone and called the bus driver.  Luckily, the guide had used Drunkie's phone to call the first time.  Stumbling around lost for three hours seemed to sober him up for a time, but it wouldn't last.

We finally arrived at our actual minbak for the night and Drunkie partially redeemed himself by making dinner.  When he had gotten back to the bus, he had attempted to put the blame on us for him being lost, but he was quickly backed down.  Despite everything that he done so far, that dinner was delicious.  It was augmented by some delicious grilled eel provided by a friend of the guide.  Unfortunately, that goodwill was short-lived as he started to drink whiskey with a group of Korean marines that were also staying in our minbak.

Minbak picture from a previous trip
About this time, I had decided to call it a night.  It had been a long day and another long day was planned for Monday.  I didn't really sleep, though.  I read for a bit and just rested mostly.  About an hour later the rest of the group started to come into the room.  The Koreans that Drunkie had been drinking alongside begged us to put him to bed.  Begrudgingly, the other guy in the group helped lead him into the room and directed him into his own little corner.  In the picture, you can see how a minbak is just an empty room with a pallets laid out on the floor.  It's nice and cheap and is a great way for large groups to travel together.  Snoring tends to be the only real problem with these types of rooms.  We had a different sort of issue on this particular evening, though.  Thankfully, we pushed him off into his own corner, because somewhere over the course of the night, Drunkie pissed himself.

The next morning we woke to fresh omelets and Mandu Ramyun.  Then, we were quickly greeted with the sounds of a dying giraffe coming from inside the minbak.  Needless to say, Mr. Drunkie had turned into Mr. Hangover.  After keeping quiet for a while, someone finally broke down and told him that he had pissed himself in his sleep.  He then came up with some convoluted excuse about how when he drinks he pisses on his post prized possession... like some sort of inebriated enlightenment.  When he picked up on the fact that nobody was swallowing his bullshit, he finally relented and just slept in the back of the bus.  The rest of the day was fairly laid back and pleasant.  No trekking on Monday... just swimming and lounging around.  We even got back to Pusan a little early and enjoyed the last hour or two of Haeundae Beach before having burgers at the best Irish pub in town, The Wolfhound.  Drunkie stuck with his m.o. and disappeared before we even hit the beach.  Finally, though, he was not our responsibility to watch.  No one looked for him this time.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Fortnight's and fortitudes, part 1

(I decided to split this post into two parts.  Part 2 tomorrow or later on tonight)

So it's been two weeks or so since my last blog and a whole lot has happened.  Most importantly, the internet service and AC that was guaranteed in my contract were finally provided after 3 months of promises.  I've also gone on two more mini-trips; one was awesome despite random acts of buffoonery, the other left much to be desired.  I've also made a decision to take a more proactive role in cutting a few pounds.  Eating right over here is a fairly easy thing to do as long as you avoid the quick and easy pitfalls, but the copious amounts of alcohol that seem to be consumed on random Wednesdays needs to be curtailed a bit.  I've also been a lot more active on the weekends with these trips, but a little effort through the week will go a long way I think.  Unfortunately, gym memberships are two to three times the cost of a membership in the United States.  We shall see.

I'm gonna put a bit of a disclaimer for this particular blog entry.  The second weekend trip involved one drunken individual that did many annoying things.  The problem is that several of those things would be ridiculously embarrassing for him and I'm just not as malicious as I was in the past(or at least I'm trying to not be.)  I still want to write about the trip and everything that he did adds a helluva lot to the story.  So, there's my dilemma.  I have a little catching up to do before that tale gets told, so maybe I'll change my mind by then.

I've been going on weekend trips with a guy here in Pusan that organizes everything for us in advance and then acts as a guide the entire trip.  He's been hosting these events for 12 years now and everyone that I've been on as been a blast so far, until this particular weekend, that is.  First things first, none of the disappointment was the fault of the organizer.  Things just didn't quite work out right.  I still continued the trend of meeting more like minded individuals and that aspect of the trip was a success. 

The weekend was billed as a White Water Rafting & Tofu Making excursion.  The day started off slow with several stragglers that pushed our start time back.  It wasn't an overnight trip, so there wasn't as much wiggle room with the itinerary.  When we arrived at the rafting location, I could immediately tell that this might not be what I was hoping for in the trip.  To start, you could see a lot of rafts in the water... water that was calmly rolling down the river.  I've honestly seen more white water coming from my faucet, but I was pretty sure that there would be more actual rapids down the river.  We could only see the launching area from the road, so of course it was going to be calm.  When we got to the equipment shack we were given life vests and helmets and made to put them on immediately. 

I thought both were a bit ridiculous, but in general, Koreans can't swim.  Or at least they can't swim very well.  If you go to the beach and you get out past your chest, a swarm of ninja's on jet skis will descend on you and corral you back to the beach.  (I call them ninja's because they are covered from nose to toes in a wet suit and many of them also wear a mask and hat of some sort to keep their bodies from seeing any sort of sun at all.)

Our group of 22 were split into two separate groups because they only had two guides available.  The boats were crowded to say the least.  This is where the experience split for the group.  The ten that ended up on the first boat had a blast;  their guide was fun, they were organized, and he spoke at least a little English.  My group of twelve was not so lucky.  Our guide was always in a rush, he couldn't speak any English at all (or he refused to), and he was terrible at steering.  We managed to get stuck on protruding rocks at least four times on a two hour float trip.  That was the other problem: despite the helmet and life jacket requirement, the water was calm for 95% of the trip.  The overloaded boat also meant that we bottomed out every time the water got the least bit shallow.  The guide's lack of competency, lack of English, or our own lack of ability pushed us into every major rock in the river.  After about an hour of this, our boat had a full on mutiny.  Helmets and vests were flung to the side and we jumped out of the boat for a swim.  The guide of course was not happy, but we couldn't understand him anyway. 

After we got back to the equipment shed, it became apparent that we would not have enough time for the tofu-making portion of our trip.  I was looking forward to that portion of the trip, but I wasn't that broken up when it had to be cancelled.  After getting a bite to eat and drinking a few more beers, it was decided to call it a day and head back to Pusan.  I'm not sure what the soup was at this particular restaurant, but it tasted like the juice from homegrown jars of green cooked in bacon fat for hours and hours..... delicious.  The beer, of course, just tasted like beer.

Despite the poor turn to the day, the trip was one of smiles.  Back home, its just not that easy to get a large group of people together for anything.  At SIU-C and in Las Vegas, it was a little easier, but most of the time everything was a still a last minute decision.  It takes a bit of an adventurous soul to decide to move to the other side of the world, to start.  The majority of us are twenty or thirty-somethings, unmarried and without children.  There are exceptions, of course, but it seems to be the exact opposite of back home where getting settled down and raising a family seems to be the norm.  I'm just not that guy right now.  I might never be.... sorry, Mom.