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Archive for June, 2007

This week and next is the once-per-term middle school exam period, leaving me what amounts to a two-week holiday with no evening classes and Wednesdays off completely. This conveniently coincides with Ann’s visit, so we decided to use my first free Wednesday to visit Mt. Bukhansan National Park in the north part of Seoul. A relaxing day of hiking, out in the mountains followed with an evening at the sauna.

It all looked promising with good weather and buttered toast. However, things quickly soured when a certain PMS-ing person and her guest arrived at Suyu station on the other side of the city, an hour and a half subway ride later. I will not exhaust you with the details that almost sent us home without ever seeing so much as a tree, let alone a mountain. However, let it be known that by 10:30 I had already had my fifth meltdown of the day. It involved varying degrees of looking for a bus that does not exist, little-to-no clear directions, a dead cell phone battery, a map completely in Korean, 7000% humidity and not enough ibuprofen. But thanks to some research by my friend Wayne and the kindness of a man in a yellow van, we finally made it to the trail head at the Doseonsa Buddhist Temple.

We greatly underestimated this hike. I must be honest here: I was certain this was going to be a pussy trail. There was a time in my life when I did a good deal of hiking, and we’re not talking about short jaunts skipping through the forest, either. I have had my share of experiences in showing up fully clad in The North Face Spring Catalog with enough rations to survive a week only to find my “hike” is a paved trail through a park. This is a mountain in the middle of the world’s 5th largest city, I thought. It’s the most visited National Park in the world. The trail head is a Buddhist temple. How freaking difficult can it be?

Well, apparently both the Koreans and the Buddhists are all bad-asses. And frankly, so are we.

We are also lucky we made it to the top, clearly not for lack of skill or strength, but for lack of PMA, better known as Positive Mental Attitude. We nearly turned around 4.5 times within the first half-kilometer of the trail. But thankfully a combination of blissful ignorance and sheer pissed-off determination carried our asses up one of the steepest climbs I’ve ever done. Blindly thinking the peak was around every corner also helped.

Two-thirds of the way up, we were blessed to stumble upon a rest house where two women served snacks, drinks and freshly cooked Korean meals to the hikers. We ate our rations, refreshed our waters and met a 53-year old man who gave us cookies and then asked if I was a virgin. This was a first for me; usually I get the cookies after being asked if I’m a virgin.

I silently prayed the end was near for three-quarters of our hike to this vertical 835-metre peak of smooth granite. Nothing about this day was what we expected it to be when we left my apartment what seemed three days earlier. I was not prepared to be thrown back into a language labyrinth on the way to the mountain. I did not anticipate a challenging climb in a forest that smelled of dirty sex, sharing the trail with hundreds of Koreans twice my age who were kicking our mountaineering 30-ish asses. I wanted it to be over at the turn of every corner, even until the very moment I spied the peak for the first time. But then I saw it far away against the gray sky, with the Korean flag flapping in the wind and I instantly didn’t care if it was 835 kilometres more. The lead in my body evaporated and I found my rock-scrabbling feet once again. Despite a few final moments of vertigo and reconsideration, we used the steel cables to pull ourselves, hopping and skipping to the top.

Up on the peak. Wind howling. Clouds coming in.

And so this thing called being human:

We stood on the top of that rock in the cool moaning wind, with clouds covering most of the mountain range and all of Seoul around us, and felt like we were on the moon. Like we were the first to ever climb to the top. And clearly we weren’t, given the 10 or so people with which we shared the summit, including a woman in head-to-toe purple hiking gear and matching lipstick. But as we came bouncing back down that mountain alone, feeling like Ann Messner and Stephanie “The Wire” Habeler, we were the only people who had ever been to the top. Because that is how we humans work. It’s the very same mechanism that keeps us trapped in fear that pushes us beyond our perceived limits to the top of some tiny mountain in South Korea.

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Two hours earlier, I was silently, internally churning over my non-working cell phone, our lack of proper rations, our inability to read any sign and visions of broken legs. Now, high on chocolate and being a badass, I was rapelling down the mountain along steel cables with nimble feet and stealth-like ninja precision. I was rediscovering some lost part of me that used to sit for hours pouring over trail maps, plotting out my next adventure. With visions of wings and bird’s-eye views.Our return to the subway was considerably less complicated, having learned every detail backwards. We went from mountain to jimjilbang and spent a few hours scrubbing down, baking and soaking our badass ninja muscles to views of Seoul at night.

Sometimes it pays to have no idea what lies ahead of you.

Our video is here.

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Tourists

Monsoon has arrived early this year, just in time for my friend Ann-Kathrin‘s visit from Germany. If all goes according to the plans of the meterologists, it will be raining for the duration of her 3-week stay. If all goes according to our plan, it will rain only at night or while we are watching movies and editing photographs. So far, we are winning. Either way, we don’t care all that much. Ann gets to explore this wonderfully wacky place called Asia and I have a friend here to do my America’s Next Top Model impression for. Let’s just say I can’t quite smile with my eyes like Tyra can. Yet.

People in my neighborhood have gotten used to seeing me walk around and for the most part don’t stare much. But now there are two of us. As a pair, we are conversation-stoppers. Literally. We’ve silenced whole subway cars just by walking onto the train. It doesn’t help that we are also two camera nerds who are not taking photos of anything comprehensible but are instead shooting phonebooths, squid tanks and our shoes.

This afternoon we dragged our weary asses to Olympic Park, site of the 1988 Summer Games. It is not far from my house and now I am kicking myself for not having visited earlier. The park is a vast tangle of wooded trails and flower gardens, again with piped in soft music, views of the mountains and a whole lot more we didn’t even see. Because we were too busy eating a hot dog on a stick and taking these Asian portraits:

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And then I posed with this guy:

 

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You find out that you’ve been washing your clothes in fabric softener for the last four and a half months.

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When it comes to hair management, I am of the low-maintenance persuasion. This is for a number of reasons, but most importantly these three:

1) Laziness
2) Frugality
3) Lack of concern for such matters

I’m just not someone who can easily part with between $60 and $75 on a monthly basis to maintain the fresh ends of my locks. There are more important things on which to spend my money such as Domino magazine, excessive amounts of paper goods and hot dogs. Instead, I prefer to wait until my hair is unbearably straw-like in texture, at least a good six months. I blame the inventors of the hair-tie, the headband and the hat, three things that make it easy to ignore the highly flammable nature of my head.

There are times when being the yellow-haired foreigner has its perks. Monday was one of those times. I met my friend Kristin for some long overdue haircuts at Leechard Salon, (apparently it’s Richard but through the filter of the Korean translation it is spelled Leechard). We were washed and cut side by side, so she could translate for me and keep them from giving me a blue mullet.

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I was guided from chair to shampoo, shampoo back to chair with hands at my back like an invalid. I liked that. Two women tag-teamed my head to dry and straighten my hair, while my stylist, Jeong Hu, looked on and made comments. It was clear the foreigner was getting preferential treatment.

Jeong Hu used a cutting technique that can only be described as “ninja”, with the added bonus of something no one has ever thought to do for me: thinning from beneath. Finally I am free of accidental Liberty Bell Head.

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The result is probably the best haircut I have ever had, complete with free lunch. Yes, you read that right. Complimentary salad and lunch bar with sandwiches, kimbap and fresh fruit juices.

Oh and did I say mention this was all for the massive total of $13?

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Bragging rights

On May 5th, photographers all over the Flickrverse captured moments from their days for the very first 24 Hours of Flickr project. I am thrilled to let you know that my photo was one of 122 photos chosen for the 24 Hours of Flickr book that has been published to accompany the slideshow tour & event. I am so honored to be included, especially considering that 7500 photos were submitted. The company I am keeping is pretty amazing, too.

{May 5} warm night

If you are in London, Paris or Montréal, you can go to see all these great photos at the upcoming events (and there are more events coming this summer). My friends Matt & Jördis went to the event in Berlin last night and found my photo! I am green with envy that I don’t live in London, Paris, Berlin or Montréal. Something tells me Seoul won’t be on the list.

If you aren’t able to get to an event, please go see some of the incredible photos snapped on May 5th.

You can purchase the book here. $2 from the sale of each book goes to MSF/Doctors Without Borders.

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One hundred and something

For the last month, I have been composing some sort of overdue update to celebrate a variety of things: the mark of my third month, a really wonderful Korean holiday, my first 100 Days, and the end of the first term, beginning of the new. I have started a hundred posts and abandoned them all. I have saved up a thousand things to say, all of which have lost their relevance and newsworthiness.

And now I find myself here, officially four months from the day I stepped off a plane onto Korean pavement. Four months from the moment that everything was overwhelmingly new, overwhelmingly foreign, overwhelmingly Asian. Again time does its warping thing and does not seem to live up to the the real time I am actually living. When one’s existence becomes such an immediate and active affair, it is possible to cover much more ground than we normally tread in our everyday lives. February seems a hundred months behind me, not four.

Somewhere in the last month, there has been some sort of subtle yet tremendous shift. A few weeks ago, I was in a phase I described to Mary as my “Three Month Hrrrmmmm” phase. It was weeks of allergies, illness, exhaustion and overworked teaching burn-out, complicated with feeling lost and confused. As the newness wore off and Korean life became normal life, the existential quandries with which I am expertly familiar came hurtling back to the forefront of my brain. You know, the What the Hell Am I Doing Here? phase. I was not un-prepared for this episode…I had been properly warned. “The third month sucks,” I was told. I thought this preparation would keep me immune.

But it came and knocked me sideways regardless. I wrote this, then:

I am feeling restless and the homesickness has taken on new flavor. I am never homesick for home. And I am OK with being far away, OK with being on my own…a little time of solitude. What I am suddenly not OK with is being in a temporary situation. I have been in a temporary situation since I left Austin, and I am craving like never before to settle down and stop. Consumed with wanting to resume my life…feeling like so much of it is on hold and packed up in boxes. I have had to shift my focus away from some of my greatest joys and am missing those parts of me right now. The Suzy Homemaker, The Social Butterfly, The Cook, The Baker, The Candlestick Maker. I am homesick for those.

And just like that it was gone, as if saying it outloud was all it took to make it go away.

The few weeks since have been an entirely different story. The new summer term has me teaching six hours fewer and one day less per week; finally, I have a full weekend. I have moved from tourist to resident, as the subways become second nature, other parts of Seoul begin to feel like home and acquaintances turn into friends. Being less brain-dead helps.

There’s been a new bang each week: DVD bang first, noraebang last week and jim jil bang this week. DVD bangs are a good way to kill time and get some sleep between the end of your night and the first subway home, especially if you choose something long and nauseating like Memoirs of a Geisha. Noraebang is just an extension of my cover band days, except this time I get to sing Kelly Clarkson. And jim jil bang is simply a night in heaven, in my humble opinion.

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I’ve toured 13th Century Palaces and modern shopping districts. I have been to lively festivals and parades. I found a lake I am in love with and a stream that is best visited in the middle of the night. I have unearthed favorite coffee shops, tea houses, tofu restaurants and neighborhoods. Long Saturdays exploring the city leave me feeling full and satiated, like a delicious meal that takes hours to eat, spilling over the top with brilliant conversation, perfect lighting and good wine.

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It helps that the language is beginning to roll off my tongue with greater ease and I am finally starting to take an interest in reading Hangul. Like those moments in “A Beautiful Mind” where Russell Crowe sees the numbers and codes come together from their floating in space, the language is beginning to form itself into something concrete and tangible rather than a random assortment of sounds. I can have actual, albeit simple, conversations now. These conversations mostly relate to ordering food, but it is a huge achievement to be able to both understand and answer a question in Korean 37% of the time.

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Missing my other parts has not gone away entirely, but I am OK with it now. I still want to buy plants, proper bedding and a variety of things that will neither fit in my suitcase nor make it through customs upon my return. But I am OK with scratching that itch at a later date, when things are less temporary. I still don’t know how long I will be here or where I will go next, but I do not need to answer that question yet. There is a whole country to discover around me NOW, here, right this moment. And what I was looking for all along — to be completely present in my surroundings — has found its way into my lap without much convincing. Now I can better focus my energy on amazing street food, cheap shoes, green mountains, weekend train trips and laughing until my sides hurt.

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