Tuesday, December 1, 2009

American Thanksgiving in Korea

Thanksgiving is my favorite American holiday (with July 4th as runner up.) Of all of the holidays, I think Thanksgiving has the best food traditions and it still focuses, more or less, on food and family. I was very lucky to be invited to Thanksgiving at my good friend Maria's house.

We had two turkeys, two kinds of salad, real macaroni and cheese, broccoli, a pumpkin pie, an apple pie, and mashed potatoes. At first it was a little weird. I think it was hard to put on the same good graces that come so easily with family and friends. When the food finally came out, I think everyone was thinking about how much food they could get and whether there would be enough. I think strangers can sometimes take the liberty of being cranky with each other just because they are strangers. The room was silent when we ate. I thought this was really strange and it made me miss my own family! Anyway, after everyone was fed, all of that crankiness evaporated and the rest of the night was really nice. Everyone was very relaxed and friendly. I managed to keep my food intake at a normal level, and avoided getting a stomach ache... a winning strategy.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Heads on the floor

Two weekends ago, my friend David and I went exploring in Gangneung's street market. It is a huge place, and it is possible to find some very strange things there. This is one thing we discovered.

More cyclists in Korea

One of the ways that I have been fighting home sickness has been to get myself involved in the local biking scene. Whenever I see another rider, I try to say hello. Usually they are pretty curious about me too. Here are some of the people I have met.

This fellow was riding his fancy triathlon bike right through the heart of downtown Gangneung. I was really surprised to see this, since the vast majority of cyclists in my area seem only to be interested in Mountain bikes. Anyway, this rider was wearing an aerodynamic teardrop helmet along with his face mask and sun glasses. It is typical for cyclist to completely cover up, even when it is very hot.
I met this cyclist on a recent ride I went on. I was on the return trip, riding along the beach road when I spotted his bike and trailer. I had to stop and investigate...

It turns out he was on a bike tour of South Korea. I think we would've gotten along pretty well, but he was going the opposite direction and we parted after getting coffee together. Anyway I thought his bike touring setup was pretty awesome. It is a good example of what can be done with a bike.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Visitors from France

Wow, its been a while since my last post. Well, there is a lot to talk about.

About one month ago, during a hiking field trip with the students, I met two French cyclists, Florent and Aurelie. We ran into each other in a parking lot at the edge of Soraksan Park. When I saw these two westerners on big touring bikes, loaded down with dry bags and touring gear, I had to investigate. I think they were as curious about me as I was about them and they seemed happy to talk to a fellow traveler. They explained that they were on a world wide bike tour and that they had ridden from France to Korea. We stood in the parking lot speaking for about ten minutes. Then we parted ways, or so we thought! Since I had just finished the hike, the other teachers wanted to sit down and get pancakes and rice wine. They had spotted me talking to Florent and Aurelie and, in standard Korean fashion, invited them to join us for a snack. We spoke for another 20 minutes over rice wine, exchanged contact information, talked about France and Korea, and finally said goodbye. They were planning to hike into Soraksan, and then continue their journey south.

It was a great surprise when I got an email from Florent a few days later. He and Aurelie were planning to stop in my home city of Gangneung! They were hoping to find a place to stay in the city, since camping in urban areas was difficult. I offered my apartment and after a few emails we arranged a meeting spot and a time.

They arrived on a Thursday night. After we unpacked all of their gear, I took them out for chim dak, which is Korean chicken stew with noodles. We spent most of the evening eating, talking, and listening to music. It was really an excellent night. Talking to them reminded me of my own adventures, traveling across Europe and of all the people who helped me then. I was glad to have the chance to host Florent and Aurelie, and pay some of that hospitality forward.
Look at all the stuff they were carrying! It basically filled up my apartment!
Here they are discussing the classic KISS soda can alcohol stove.
Here are their bikes being loaded up the next morning.
Have a good trip you two! I hope we meet again!

Sunday, October 18, 2009

More old style Korean culture with Mr. Son

This weekend was relatively quiet. I spent Saturday morning trying to remove the fixed cup in my new bike's bottom bracket shell. On Sunday, I spent the day selecting records for a new DJ mix. Then in the evening, Mr Son called...

He had gone fishing that afternoon and brought back a bucket full of fish and another bucket of snails. He invited me to a friend's restaurant where they were working on turning the fish into dinner. When I arrived at the restaurant, I went out into the back courtyard. Two men were squatting by a drainage grate. On closer inspection, I saw that they were gutting the fish. They had just started so the majority of the fish were still alive, shifting about in a bucket of rock salt. The men were running their thumbs up the belly of each fish. The force would reverse the innards out of the fish's anus. I did not see them use knives at any point during the gutting process.

After gutting, the fish had to be descaled. The men did this by repeatedly rubbing the fish with rock salt and rinsing them down. When the fish were gutted and cleaned, the men moved on to cutting the vegetables and heating up water. An aluminum pot filled with small snails was already boiling and was ready for seasoning. Another burner and pot were set up for the fish. At this point, Mr. son explained how the fish would be cooked and eaten. Our meal would consist of two soups. The first would be snail soup. The second would be the fish soup. Traditionally, the kind of fish we had are boiled, mashed into paste, and then boiled again. Finally, greens and spices are added and allowed to cook a little more.

When everything had cooked down, we ate. The snail soup was excellent. The flavor of the snail soup was completely new to me. The fish paste soup was much hardier than I had expected. Rice was also served and everyone mixed some into their soup. Mr. Son produced some kind wild berry liquor that he made himself and, of course, Soju was also served. Eventually, the wives and children of some of the men showed up to join us. Having entire families at the table really transformed the meal into a kind of community event. It made me think about how different food culture and food preparation are in the United States. I think this is one of the few meals I have had where the main ingredients were gathered rather than raised. The simplicity of the meal has definitely raised my interest in more traditional food dishes and preparations. Until next time...

Friday, October 16, 2009

Some panoramic shots

This is a shot I took while in Soraksan last weekend. Take note of the color of the leaves on the left. Autumn is the most popular time to visit the mountain because of the change in color.

This is the inside of my favorite bar, Rush. Bars in Korea are pretty different from bars in the USA. Rush is one of the few western style bars. They often have live performances and the crowd is very mixed. Rush is known for great long island ice teas.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

hanging with the guys

Recently I have had more opportunities to spend time with my students outside of class. I really like these occasions because they allow the students to get more comfortable around me. These chances have also been great for building rapport with both the students and the other teachers.

Two weeks ago, our school had a school wide physical fitness exam. All of the students spent the morning going through a long set of body circuit tests. Here you can see the sprinting and sit-up events.
This past weekend, I went on a day hike to Soraksan mountain. The hike was organized by the school as a kind of disciplinary measure for the biggest trouble makers at school. I went along with the hopes of getting closer to some of the toughest students. I was successful, and I think the benefits are already showing in class. We ended up having a lot of fun, despite how crowded the trails were. Here are some of my students.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Paper making

I recently went to a traditional mulberry paper factory. Koreans use the fibers from mulberry bark to make a variety of products including conventional paper, wall paper, flooring, clothing, and insulation. In this video, you can see the factory worker sifting fibers to make a single sheet of paper.

The screen in the previous video is suspended from these bamboo springs...

Here, paper is being applied to hot plates for drying.

Eating dog

Last weekend, Mr. Son took me out for dog. As it turns out, the best dog restaurant is located across the street from me. We met there and were seated. The dog was already out on the table. Traditionally, dog is prepared in two ways. For lunch, leaner sections of meat are eaten in a soup. For dinner, which is what was in front of us, dog is served in thin slices. The slices are taken from the outside of the dog, with the outer layer of fat and skin left in tact. Koreans are very fond of fat, and it is not uncommon, when eating meat, for a dish to be more fat than meat. In the case of dog, the hair is removed by letting it burn off during the cooking. This leaves little follicles in the outer layers of fat, and it also gives the meat a certain odor. To help fight the odor, the dog slices are arranged around a crock of dog soup that is kept at a boil throughout the meal. You eat the dog slices with vegetables that get added to the soup. These include green onions, mushrooms, and sesame leaves. My guess is that, between the vegetables, the soup vapor, and all of the chili pastes that come with any Korean meal, the burned dog hair smell is blocked out.

I ate about half of the plate of dog, along with the dog soup, and some dog kidney and liver. It was not bad, but I'd say, it is an acquired taste.

Meat Truck

This truck was pulled up outside of my local grocery recently. Koreans are definitely not squeemish people.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Bushwacking on the Mushroom Trails, and the Hidden Valley of Odaesan.

For the last two weekends now, I have gone hiking in the local mountain range here in the Korean north east. This past Sunday, I went mushroom hunting with local bad ass gaucho, and co-English teacher, Mr. Son (rhymes with "bone.")

Mr. Son has been exploring the mountains on the Korean east coast for years. As a result, he knows all of the hidden back country foot paths. This past Sunday, I got a little peek at what he knows about the land here.

Our mission, that Sunday, was to collect the coveted and rare Pine Mushroom. We hiked into the Odaesan area using one of the main entrances. It was very crowded on the trail. (Hiking is a huge national pass time in Korea.) After about 40 minutes of hiking, we stopped next to a very steep hill. We waited for a window when none of the other hikers were looking, then we quickly started up the hill. After climbing for about 30 minutes, we reached a heavily forested ridge. This was Mr. Son's secret mushroom hunting ground. He even knew specific trees to look under. The key to finding Pine Mushrooms is to look in a 3 meter radius around the older pine trees only. The trees are found in groves, separated by thick patches of brush and oak trees. Inspection of the pine groves is relatively straight forward, since the Pine Mushroom is normally the size of a human hand. That means it was not necessary to get down and really search.

We searched for about two hours, making our way along the ridge. We found nothing. Towards lunch time, we left the ridge. It was hard work to bushwhack down the brush covered slope. We both did our share of slipping and sliding through the ground cover. Sometimes, large rocks would get dislodged and begin to roll down the hill. We could hear them rolling and smashing into stumps and roots. It would take almost a minute before the stone would come to a halt. We finally made it to the bottom of a deep valley where there was a stream and lots of big flat rocks. The rocks must have been worn smooth by the changing course of the stream. This made for a good clean place to sit down. We took lunch there, next to the stream.

At the beginning of the trip, Mr Son gave me a 2 way radio in case we were separated. Upon finishing lunch, I discovered that I had lost the radio. We knew we had to go back up the slope to look for it. We did our best to retrace our steps. All the while, I was using the second radio to help find the first. Near the top of hill I finally heard some radio chatter. Mr. Son and I could hear that the radio was close. I spoke into the radio again, and Mr. Son spotted it. The lost radio was hanging in a young tree. After hi fives, we continued to work our way back up to the mushroom ridge.

We followed the ridge as it climbed to meet its parent mountain formation. We were aiming for another unofficial trail that would cross our path at some point. It was a great relief to reach it. I had worn shorts, and by this time, my legs were pretty cut up. Getting cut wasn't so bad, but having branches continually scratch over the old cuts was annoying.

We followed this trail for about two hours. It followed a ridge opposing the one we had hunted mushrooms on. While on this trail, we stopped at a number of look out points. Each time, Mr. Son would ask "Does it command a fine view?"

At this point we found our one and only mushroom. Although it was edible, it was not a Pine Mushroom. (Later, after our hike, we went to a local restaurant and asked the cook to prepare it for us.)

Finally, our walk on the ridge ended and we scrambled down a very steep section of trail. When we got to the bottom, we found ourselves in a deep ravine. Mr. Son referred to that place as "The Hidden Valley." Indeed, it was hidden. Without Mr. Son's previous trips to explore the area, the uninformed hiker would never find the way in or out. We walked down the length of the ravine and eventually came to a series of water falls. The rocks here were cut slick by the water. There was no way to continue. Mr. Son led the way to a hidden path among the long sharp slabs of rock. The path climbed vertically out of the ravine. After following this, we found ourselves, essentially, back near one of the official Odaesan park trails. We could see the droves of hikers through the trees. We waited for an opportunity, and scrambled out of the woods to mix back in with the crowd. Grinning, Mr. Son announced "We are back on the Highway."

What it is.

Today marks the end of my first month in South Korea. After an amazing 5 days of orientation at a beach resort, and then about a week of serious home sickness, my life is finally starting to stabilize. During the work week, I spend my time at Myeongnyun High School in Gangneung South Korea. I am the guest English teacher for about 600 high school boys.

My job basically resembles a nine to five desk job, with about 19 hours of teaching time each week. That said, this blog will mostly focus on the life I have outside of school.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

So the blog is up and running. That was easy.

Hi all,

This blog is for all of you who are interested in following my progress while I'm here in South Korea. I'll try to keep the text to a minimum and the pics to a maximum. Updates to come! ~a