September Ended So I Guess I Can Wake Up Now

Ssangmun

Tomorrow is October, which means in a few short hours I will again be living in the future.  The onset of October also celebrates me living in Korea for four months.  In the past four months I’ve become incredibly comfortable going about my day-to-day activities, more comfortable than I ever thought I would be in this short period of time.  But while knowing that I can become accustomed to life on the other side of the world is pretty amazing in its own right, it also means that I’ve gotten stuck in a routine.  I know some people enjoy having their routines, knowing what they have to do everyday before they already do it, but I am not one of those people.  As of right now I am making it my new goal to do more spontaneous weekend trips out of Seoul and see more of the country.  Actually, this goal will probably be put into action after my next paycheck given the sad current state of my bank account.

The past month came and went pretty quickly.  Apart from my trip to Ulleungdo, September seemed to be spent mostly in the office.  A couple of my coworkers renewed their contracts with our school and they got to go back to America, one a couple of weeks ago and the other this week.  This means that the rest of us not returning to the motherland were pulling double duty to cover their classes in addition to our own.  Any break we had in the day was filled with another class.  Today was the last day we’re short-staffed so, thankfully, I will have my mid-day breaks back when I return to work next week.  I’m grateful the extra hours are over but at least one of those coworkers brought me back American toothpaste and deodorant so now I get to smell like an American again.

Outside work hasn’t been too terribly exciting lately.  The weekend after I got back from Ulleungdo I went to a bottomless wine bar at the InterContinental Hotel in COEX, the biggest underground shopping center in Asia.  The wine was decent and there was a ton of non-Korean food that was also blissfully unlimited.  The next week I did another Hash Run.  A few months ago I wrote about the Hash, a run I did around Seoul that goes for a few miles and ends at a bar.  Running isn’t exactly my cup of tea but this time it was a hike instead of a run so I decided to give Hashing another go.  The hike was by no means an intense climb but it was still fun to see another part of the mountains I hadn’t seen before, and, like my previous Hash experience, there was plenty of alcohol to go around at the end.

Hash Hike

This week has seen a sudden drop in the temperature that I’m still not prepared for.  When I leave for work in the morning and come back at night I now have to wear a jacket.  I haven’t really experienced winter since my senior year of college in Iowa and the current temperatures are already on par with Phoenix in January so it will be interesting to see how this whole fall-winter situation plays out.  I probably should have looked for teaching positions in Tahiti.

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Halfway to Helen Keller

I'm old now

I have glasses now.  Not even simply reading glasses; real glasses.  Just a forewarning, this post will contain next to nothing about Korea given that I now have a physical limitation and whatnot.

I’d come to terms with the fact that I needed reading glasses.  I’d noticed I was holding my book closer to my face and I’ve been getting headaches from looking at smaller type and reading for extended periods of time.  What I was not prepared for was finding out I should be wearing glasses even when I’m not just reading.  Apparently I’ve started my slow descent into blindness.

The biggest surprise about glasses was finding out I needed them at all.  As I said before I suspected I probably should have had reading glasses but when I looked through the lenses the optometrist used to ask which picture was clearer, I was amazed at how much blurrier my eyesight was than I realized.  For me it was like driving in a drizzly day, where the rain is more mist than anything, and you get used to your windshield being kind of hazy but it’s not until the wipers clear the window off that you really see how much better the picture could be with a little help.  I had no idea that the world around me was blurry until the eye doctor handed me a pair of glasses with the correct prescription.

So far I haven’t taken to the idea of constantly wearing something on my face with the most positive outlook.  I feel like I’m looking at the world through a picture frame and it’s actually pretty annoying to always feel something sitting on my nose.  I’m not sure yet if I’ll be following doctor’s orders and wear them around everywhere or if they’ll be something that sits on my nightstand I only use when I absolutely need to.  Today was the first time I wore them all day, out and about on the street and in stores.  I did notice some details on signs I hadn’t before but I’m not convinced seeing those details outweighs having to see the rest of the street framed through neat little boxes.  On the plus side I’ve been told by multiple people that glasses make my nose look smaller, which is hardly a small feat in itself.

My Trip to Some Islands You Have Never Heard Of

Monday on my side of the world was Chuseok, a holiday in Korea that is sort of a combination of Thanksgiving and Labor Day.  It is a big fall harvest feast people go back to their hometowns for and it marks the end of summer.  Since my family is on another continent right now I decided to leave Seoul and go to Ulleungdo and Dokdo, two islands halfway between Korea and Japan.  Ulleungdo is an island famous for two things: pumpkins and squid.  It’s an odd combination but that’s just Korea for you.  Dokdo is a rock way out in the middle of the ocean that is important for political reasons to both Korea and Japan.

Ulleungdo

The first stop was Ulleungdo.  To get to Ulleungdo my group took an overnight bus to Donghae, a town on the east coast about five hours away from Seoul.  The bus got to Donghae a little bit before 5:00 AM and our boat to Ulleungdo left at 7:00.  While everyone else stayed on the bus catching some sleep before we got to the island I decided to go out and watch the sunrise over the beach.  Donghae is apparently famous for it’s beautiful sunrises but the overcast skies unfortunately meant that all I saw was a black sky gradually turning into a lighter shade of grey.

After a three-and-a-half-hour boat ride from Donghae, we arrived in Ulleungdo, about a hundred miles off the coast of the mainland.  When we got off the boat, we were welcomed by a rainstorm.  The entire time on the island would be interrupted by on-and-off rainstorms.  Because we were all already soaking wet we went right from the hotel to the water.  The coast in Ulleungdo is absolutely gorgeous.  It’s not very beach-y.  Cliffs go straight into the water and there are trails carved right into the cliffs.  To get from the trails to the water there are bridges scattered about to jump from.  Because the water is so clear and blue it would be easy to assume it would be like the tropical water found elsewhere in the Pacific but, sadly, it ended up being freezing.  Thankfully there were plenty of distractions from the beauty of the rock formations and water that kept my mind off how cold I was.

Cliffs in Ulleungdo

The next day was just as rainy but we had a tour around the island scheduled.  The tour took us along the coast and stopped at various rocks that supposedly look like animals, lookout towers, traditional houses, and spots along the coast.  By the time the tour was halfway over I was just as wet as I was when I jumped into the ocean because of all the rain.  When the tour was over I dried off and went hiking up Seonginbong Mountain, the highest point on the island.  The hike started off on a paved road that made the hills of San Francisco look like the plains of Kansas.  The steep slope wasn’t short either.  It lasted for about a kilometer.  When it finally turned into an unpaved path it leveled off for about twenty feet until the seemingly 90 degree angles started up again.  After another four kilometers of torture, we reached the top and were treated to a near-360 view of the island.  As neat as the view from Dobongsan was, with all of Seoul underneath it, the from from Seonginbong was definitely the better of the two.  You could see all the mountains plunge into the sea and many of the trees beginning to turn colors.

Seonginbong View

After a disappointingly short night’s sleep, I woke up early with one of the other people on the trip and went to Dokdo, an island about three hours east of Ulleungdo.  Dokdo is disputed territory with Korea and Japan both laying claim to it.  The island itself is tiny and not much more than a giant rock sticking out of the water but it’s located in rich fishing grounds so both seafood-loving countries see the water around the island as economically important.

The boat to Dokdo is in no way able to handle big waves, and with the heavy rainstorms going on there were lots of waves.  I’m not being remotely sarcastic when I say that about three quarters of the passengers were on the floor clutching their seasickness bags for dear life.  I saw more vomit on this boat ride than I ever care to see again.  People were lying on the floor looking like death was imminent and others were leaning over the side of the boat letting their projectile drift away wherever the wind and water took it.  About an hour into the boat ride I started feeling like an Italian immigrant coming to Ellis Island in the 1800s.  I was on a crowded, rocking boat filled with seasick passengers who were all looking out to sea, hopeful for any trace of land.  Luckily, I was not one of the miserable majority although I did start to feel pretty dizzy towards the end.

Seasick in Dokdo

As luck would have it, land eventually popped up on the horizon and we docked on Dokdo Island.  There really is nothing to do on Dokdo other than admire the scenery.  It’s too small and steep for anyone to live there.  The fact that there is even a ferry that takes people out to the island is really just a symbolic “Screw You” sent out to the Japanese who also think they own the island.  From what I was told, the vast majority of the trips do not dock on the island.  They merely sail around it.  I think the captain realized his boat full of seasick Koreans would have probably organized a mutiny and decided he needed to let them touch solid ground before heading back to Ulleungdo.

Since the island is so tiny the short time we had in port was long enough to see just about everything.  This pretty much consisted of tall rocks, clear water, green moss covering everything, and lots of birds.  I had never seen an island quite like this.  As I said before, this is really more of a big rock than an island so it was just a different experience being on land that remote.  Any other time I’ve seen an “island” of comparable size, it was located right off the shore of a bigger piece of land but this was out at sea with no other land in sight.  It was a very Gilligan-esque feeling.

Dokdo Rocks

The ride back to Ulleungdo was a bit easier as were traveling with the current this time, although I did still see my fair share of people who did not look like they were having the time of their lives.  After we landed in Ulleungdo we went back to the hotel to get our bags and got on another boat to go back to Donghae.  Four hours later we were back on the Korean mainland and in a bus headed for Seoul.  I got back to my apartment around midnight, passed out, and had probably the best sleep of my life.  When I woke up I had rotated 90 degrees in my sleep, my head and arms were hanging off one side of my bed and my legs were dangling off the other side.  All-in-all, it was a successful escape from the crowds of Seoul that had the prettiest geography I’ve seen in Korea; even if the sky was spouting rain as the people around me spouted their breakfasts into the sea.

Dokdo

The Hills are Alive With the Sound of Makgeolli

At the top of DobongsanToday I had my first Korean hiking experience.  I went to Dobongsan, which is the mountain I have a view of from my apartment, with two of my American co-teachers and one of the Korean teachers.  I went hiking pretty frequently in Arizona before coming to Korea but hiking in Seoul is completely different from what I became accustomed to back home.

The first, and probably biggest, difference between hiking in the US and Korea is the crowds.  In America I think most people like to go hiking to experience nature and get away from the city; at least I like to go.  On Dobongsan there were people all around me, even in the more remote parts of the trail.  At times the trail could feel more like a steeply inclining line in Disneyland than a mountain.  With the crowds came what can best be described as a flea market.  The lower reaches of the trail had vendors selling everything from hiking gear to cotton candy.  As a culture, Korean’s don’t always care about being in nature.  Instead the great outdoors takes a backseat to being comfortable in the outdoors.  While roughing it might be expected for hikes in the US, the millions of other people on the trail with me proved that that is not the case in Seoul.

Another major difference between hiking in Seoul versus Arizona is the humidity.  Seoul in general can feel like a steam bath during the summer and today was no exception.  Arizona might be hot, but at least the dry heat means your can find relief in the shade.  In Seoul it doesn’t matter if you are under a tree or the glowing sun.  It’s always hot.  The humidity thankfully let up the higher we climbed but the bottom half of the trail was like hiking over a boiling pot.

View from Dobongsan

My favorite part of hiking in Korea is definitely the makgoelli.  When hikers here reach the top of a mountain it is tradition to drink makgeolli, an extremely delicious rice wine.  My American co-teachers, Paul and Sean, and I were told by Lily, our Korean co-worker, to put a bottle in the freezer the night before and it would be nice and slushy when we got to the top.  We did as we were told and also brought along food for a picnic up on the top.  The whole group ended up staying on the summit hanging out with our makgeolli and looking out at the scenic view for quite a while.

The hike down was much easier.  After coming off the very top, we took a different route back and passed a Buddhist temple tucked into the mountains.  Though I’m not Buddhist I always take great pleasure in seeing the temples.  They’re usually ornately decorated and, at least the ones I’ve seen, blend in with the surrounding environment in a very organic way.  I also think that seeing them just reinforces the fact that I’m in Asia, especially when I’m living in a city as Westernized as Seoul.

Temple on the Trail

Soon after passing the temple we were back at the entrance to the park, and in true Seoul have-all-conveniences-you-could-ever-want-with-you-at-all-times fashion, the subway and bus terminal were placed right outside the gate.  At this point my legs aren’t killing me yet but come tomorrow morning I fully expect them to feel like they’re on fire.  But despite the massive crowds of people and unrelenting humidity, spending the day hoofing it up a mountain turned out to be a lot of fun.  I mean, just about any day with makgeolli is a good day.  Hiking a mountain just adds to it.