Thursday, October 30, 2008

Pop Goes the Weasel

I went back to Mt. Palgongsan and Donghwasa Temple on Wednesday. (Actually, that sentence belongs in the Departmental Bureau of Repetitious Redundancy Department, as those names mean Mt. Palgong Mountain and Donghwa Temple Temple, and you can see the photos.) (And yes, that's a picture of the spot where I tripped; I told you the sidewalk was bad.)

I was supposed to go with Micah, the newest guy at work. For me, teaching in Korea is a huge adventure; for him, it's the Ritz: he's spent several years tramping around Afghanistan, Pakistan, and a bunch of other places that end in stan, sleeping on the locals' floors. Be that as it may, Micah contacted me that he'd barely slept the night before, so I went alone.

I learned something about myself on the ride out. The bus was packed to the gills, and I ended up standing down in the stairwell at the exit door. Every time we came to a bus stop, I'd come up off the stairs to let people out; at one stop, everyone around me (but me, for a moment) noticed that I'd step up, someone would disembark and the door would start to close, I'd step down, and the door would open. I'd step up, it would start to close, I'd step down, it would open. This happened three or four times. Inside of five seconds, everybody in the back of the bus was laughing.

I thought it was funny too, and I was laughing as much as anybody. Not long ago, I would have been humiliated because I thought they were laughing at me; now I just felt how funny it was. So here's what I learned: I've shed a lot of my defensiveness and ego. Knowing my ego is shrinking makes me so proud of myself! (Wait; what?)

The trip up the mountain was challenging and uneventful, so I'll skip to the trip down. I just kind of struck out on a new trail, which ran out, and I blundered about a bit, sharply rightward and steeply downward (kind of like the Bush administration).

Within ten minutes, I made two unexpected acquaintances. A big ol' ferrety animal popped out from under a rock and froze when he saw me. I froze too. We stared at each other for quite a while, then he skittered under a log. When I came home, I searched the 'net and determined he's a Siberian weasel; I don't know if he tried to google me. (I've been trying to upload a picture from the Web, but apparently the tech department at Blogger is also run by weasels. You'll have to search for Siberian weasel images yourself, or take my word for it: he looked like Frank Burns.)

Then, way out in the woods, I was greeted by a Korean lady who knew some English. I thought at first that she was taking pity on my befuddled expression and was going to help me find my way, but then she said she was Jehovah. I was pretty impressed till I realized that none of the bushes was burning. She meant she was a Witness. She asked me if I could read Korean and wanted to give me a J's W tract. I played dumb (that is to say, acted naturally) and went on my way.

I finally found a real trail and the way to the Donghwasa complex. It's hard to encapsulate how I feel about it. There are many buildings of various degrees of religious importance, and a mixture of worship and rubbernecking going on. I saw a monk in an Adidas track suit, and people touching their heads to the floor in a pavilion facing the giant standing Buddha (which, the brochure says, encases two pieces of the historical Buddha's bones.) As I've said before, I find the icons and music offputting, and there was a deep tuneless chant, which I thought sounded vaguely menacing, playing over loudspeakers the whole time.

But I still feel very peaceful there; I don't know if it's the setting, with the mountains looming above and all around the courtyard, or the earnest belief of the pilgrims, or what. But, for whatever reason, it's one of the most serene places I've ever been. Afterward, on the walk down to the main road, I passed three women kneeling in front of a Buddha image carved into a boulder; the sign said the image was carved between 1200 and 1400 years ago. St. Augustine calls itself the "Ancient City" because it's 443 years old; I guess it's all a matter of perspective.

Then I walked down to the bus stop, checked for blood on the sidewalk and found none, and came home.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

... I look like a monkey, and I smell like one, too.

Ninety percent of my birthday on Sunday was really frustrating, mostly due to me. But I confirmed something important... I just don't get really down anymore. For many reasons, I guess, my downs are better than most of my ups used to be. And the day turned out well, anyway, so hurray for me.

Heeduk's away for three weeks doing mandatory military service, and he asked me to cover one Sunday morning class for him each week. So I did. On the walk back, I stopped at E-Mart for a few groceries, wandered into the CD department, and found a two-disk compilation for 7000 Won. (These days, that's about five bucks.) The labeling was all in Korean, except for the song list: Desperado by the Eagles, Tears in Heaven by Eric Clapton, Yesterday by the Beatles... thirty songs in all, half of them favorites of mine. So Happy B to me! Visions of a loaded iPod dancing in my head (wait... that's from a Christmas poem...), I hurried home with my find, stuck it in the computer... these are not the original artists; they're imitators.

I got a birthday call from the New World and talked to my best friend for awhile.

I knew I was supposed to meet Ray at 6 p.m. for dinner, but I couldn't quite remember what the rendezvous point was. I tried to call him, but he was out for the day with his church activities. I had a vague memory that he'd said to meet him by the Beomeo subway station, but that didn't make sense... must have been from earlier in the week, when we'd planned a walk to a lake... must be at the dorm... I think... maybe... yeah, that's the ticket.

I'm not embarrassed that I couldn't remember where to meet him; I'm the spaciness champ, a regular ADDeity. But I am embarrassed that I know that and hadn't written down the location, or remembered to double-check with him on Saturday.

Armed with a pretty good map, I headed out, via 20-minute walk, long subway ride, and 15-minute walk uphill, to find the entrance to Apsan Park, at the base of one of the mountains on the southern edge of the city. I wanted to check out the Korean War museum and then take a nice mountain hike. Got there; no entrance, no signs, no hint, nothing but a green mountain completely blocking the view to the south. Walked along the sidewalk two hundred yards to the west: library, no park. Went back four hundred yards to the east: enormous stone staircase, like the Lincoln Memorial's, but longer and steeper; at the top, a surreally vacant plaza with an oddly shaped memorial tower of some kind, with no entrance, no signs, no pictures, no park entrance.

We now return you to complete sentences, already in progress.

I walked back down to the subway station, took the train downtown, lost 1000 Won in a coin locker setup that turned out to be indeciperable, walked to Kyobo Books, and sat down at their Starbucks for awhile for 3000 Won's worth of bitter coffee. Then I headed over to the dorm, went up to the third floor to Ray's apartment (6:00), but it was just me and my shadow. I jogged a block to the nearest subway stop and took the train to Beomeo (6:15), just in case he was there, but there wasn't even a shadow. Took the subway back to the dorm (6:30), in case he'd just been late getting home: nope.

So I walked a half-mile, took the bus home, and Skyped him the moment I walked in the door (7:00). He picked up right away; we were supposed to meet in front of the DongA department store, and he'd waited till 6:30. Fortunately, Ray is easygoing and forgiving, so I was at the apartment for five minutes and headed back out to the bus and reversed the route.

We wandered around the neon-lit, thronged downtown and ended up at Pizza Hut, which is pretty pricey here: 17,000 Won for a smallish garlic pizza that was so thin it only had one side. Had a good time, though, and a glass of sangria helped. Then we walked over to the incredible waffle place with the incredible waffles and had one o' them big hot incredible waffles with scoops of vanilla and green tea ice cream, chocolate sauce, banana, kiwi, melon, grapes, and a tomato wedge. Wow.

We hung out awhile longer, Ray bought some winter boots, and I came home.

I got another call from my friend, which ended the day very nicely. Mostly I didn't want to be alone all day, and I wasn't. So it all worked out, but maybe most important of all, when I dragged my exhausted carcass up my stairs, after everything had gone wrong and I'd missed Ray and would spend the evening in the apartment... I was okay with that. And that was my best present of all.

(And the next morning I got the world's funniest e-card from my grandboys in California, where it was still my birthday.)

Sunday, October 26, 2008

I can't survive 55

(Above: at the entrance to my apartment: Tigger, Florida shell that was my mom's, Samwise Whale.)

Today's my fifty-fifth birthday, and I do expect to get through this year and many more. But you know me: always go for the cheap pun and the pop-culture reference. It by some chance the title of this post is a self-fulfilling prophecy, we'll all have a good laugh.

Actually, I might be 54 or almost 57... it's not my birthday for another 32 minutes in the time zone of my birth, and the Koreans count you as one year old when you're born and everybody officially ages a year on January 1, so... ah well, age is just a number. (Sometimes a really high number.)

I confess to being a little blue around the edges this week. I think I've settled in, and it's getting rather routine. Sometimes I feel about as I often have, as we all do sometimes: "Oh crap, I gotta go to work today." On the other hand, my face is healing up pretty nicely and I finally got into the twenty-first century when I found a cute little iPod Shuffle for 30 bucks. I'm listening to "Wait Wait Don't Tell Me" from NPR a lot. Also, the World Series is on, although having the commentary in Korean is disconcerting. Besides that, there must be some glitch in the satellite, as the Mets' uniforms look oddly like the Phillies'.

I have schoolwork to catch up on and a little later I may go for a mountain hike at Apsan Park on the edge of the city; it's a gorgeous fall day, sunny, breezy, not quite 70 degrees. Fahrenheit, that is. My friend Ray asked me to dinner at 6 tonight, so that will be nice. I'm thinking pancakes, or possibly octopus. It's a tough choice.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Vote early and often

I went and voted today. Sorta. I think. I got my ballot via email, printed it out along with the cerificate that said I wasn't cheating (because if you were going to cheat on your ballot, you wouldn't dare lie on the certificate), then got two envelopes, stuffed the ballot in one, then that one in the other one along with the certificate, then unstuffed everything because of course I'd addressed the inner envelope, then did it the right way around.

Then I walked it four blocks from work, through the traditional market full of radishes and mystery meat on a stick and a guy carrying a pan of still-alive, wriggling, suffocating, piled-up-like-sandbags fish-- I'm afraid I'm going to have to alienate everyone sometime by writing more about that general topic-- to the post office and handed it and some funny coins to the nice young lady behind the counter.

Even though I vote in Florida, I'm hoping against hope that my vote will count. Apparently I learned nothing from the 2000 election.

In the end, though, I haven't had a satisfying voting experience since 1994. Back home in Ithaca, you went into a real booth with a curtain and a big red wooden lever. Pull it to the right, you hear a satisfying clunk and the curtain closes, you push down the little metal levers with a nice little click next to the cute little logos for the parties (eagle and star and liberty bell and torch) and the candidates' names, pull the lever to the left- thunk- and the levers reset, the curtain opens, and your votes register.

Now that's votin', you betcha!

Sorry... too much Sarah Palin on the 'net. Anyway, in St. Augustine you just take a pencil, go to a little six-dollar plastic table, connect two halves of an arrow to register a vote for a DEM or a REP, and stick it in a machine that may have been recycled from Lucy and Ethel's candymaking adventure. Not nearly as satisfying.

The absentee way is even less so. I just want it to count. If the Republicans win again, I swear I'll leave the coun... ah, never mind.

Odds and... well, frankly, odds

It's been an interesting few days, at least if you're living it. As you're only reading about it, I make no promises. Actually this is probably going to be pretty dull. I hope I don't lose either of my fans.

It's been a week since I decided to take a really, really close look at the local sidewalks, and I've healed up remarkably well. I had my stitches out yesterday, although it will be a couple more weeks before the doc wants to stop covering it. He told me to not get it wet for a week. I suspect that if I don't shampoo for that time, I'll look like Larry from the Three Stooges, or maybe like our friend in the picture above.

The purple has receded under my eye to the point that it's only visible in a thin line where I have a wrink... a wisdom crease. The doctor says I'll have a small permanent scar, which bothers me, as it may cut my appeal with the local chicks. Maybe if I say it's a dueling scar...

I wore my new glasses for two days, feeling drunk, before I had to conclude that the lenses weren't right. (I have astigmatism, so if they aren't at precisely the correct angles, you might as well be wearing SADD drunk goggles.) I went back to the optical store and, through the saleswoman's extremely circumscribed English, my gestures, and a little diagram I drew showing my pupillary distance (needed to get the focal points right), I hope we got it right. I'm supposed to get them back in three more days.

I expected to go back out to Palgongsan today to show off my not-running-for-the-bus skills, but woke up with my body saying, and I quote, "Who you kiddin'?" My schedule's shifted so I don't have to go to work till dinnertime most days, so there's no rush. Especially for the bus.

As you may know, I can be pretty indecisive. Or maybe not. Anyway, on Sunday I couldn't decide if I wanted to go to the Samsung Lions' playoff game or just take it easy and check out a department/grocery store I hadn't been to, HomePlus (which is a branch of the British Tesco chain). Fortunately, as both destinations were north of downtown, I headed in that direction and waited for serendipity.

I decided that the ballgame was too much hassle, went to HomePlus (well worth the trip: a bottle of pomegranite juice and some English shredded wheat/cranberry cereal!) But when I came out, it was an hour to gametime and there were the ballpark lights RIGHT... THERE...

Tickets were all sold out, and I thought it might be just as well, but then a scalper buttonholed me and sold me a 15,000 Won ticket for... 15,000 Won. (I'm not entirely sure how Korean scalpers make a profit.) When I got inside, every single seat in the park was taken, and I ended up standing the whole time on the concrete walkway separating the lower from the upper seats, over on the visiting side along the first-base line. On my way there, I saw three Americans, one wearing a Phillies cap, who, seeing me wearing the blue and orange, graciously taunted me on the Mets' collapse.

Speaking of Mets vs. Phillies, I've been to games in Philly where a third of the fans would be rooting for the Mets, which led to cursing and the occasional drunken brawl. I once had a cup dropped on my head from an escalator at Veterans' Stadium. In contrast, here the sets of fans just ignored each other; in front of me were a few thousand Doosan Bears fans with their cheerleaders and flags and signs-- I was even given a kind of Karate-Kid-head-sash reading "Let's Go Doosan" in Korean. Behind and all around me were the Lions' fans. I never heard a harsh word between the two groups.

They'd tarted up the place (and the prices) for the playoffs, with two huge Lion statues in the stands, flame- and smoke-emitting nozzles for when the Lions scored, and a huge banner, twenty rows high, that would unfurl down the stands at opportune moments. The Lions won, my back decided that seven innings of standing on concrete were enough, and I went home.

I received my absentee ballot via email and want to mail it back today. However, I have to print out a certificate swearing I filled out my own ballot and so on, and I can't get it to print. That's odd, considering that the ballot printed. I blame Karl Rove. I hope that Manager Park at school, who speaks no English but is an electronics whiz, can fix that... I would truly hate to not get to vote.

Please insert your own snappy ending here.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Anybody got a chainsaw?

(This picture is two days after the recent unpleasantness. Six stitches lurk under the bandage.)

On the brighter side, I've found out that the prices here for healthcare and the services rendered can be amazing.

When they took me to the hospital, they cleaned me up, examined me, took x-rays, stitched me, gave me an antibiotic shot and wrote me a prescription. Out-of-pocket cost: $19. Cost of one day's pills (nine pills in all): $2.

Each of my follow-up visits: in and out in 15 minutes, checking the stitches, short consult, change the dressing, new prescription: $3.20.

I went to replace my glasses today; I picked out a titanium frame, which is very very thin and tough. The total cost in the States, even at Wal-Mart, would have exceeded $300. Here? Eighty-six bucks. I could have had them in ten minutes, but since I'm astigmatic, they had to order the lenses. At home, it would take a week. I'll pick them up tomorrow.

(Now, if you see the guy in the photo in your neighborhood, lock up your daughters, your sons, and your small animals... and hide the sharp objects.)

This has nothing to do with Korea...

...but it is the best photo in history. And, no, it wasn't Photoshopped.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Don't fall off the mountain

(The bottom two photos are part of the "trail" up the mountain.)

My first class wasn't until 6:00 p.m. on Tuesday, so I decided to go back out to Mt. Palgongsan, 15 miles north of the city, and hike by myself. I had just read a quote by some old dead white Romantic poet who said that if you walked with somebody, you weren't really walking, you were chatting. Sounds good to me. I believe I think I'm considering mulling over hiking Palgongsang or Apsan every week; I always feel alive when I do.

(For what it's worth, I bought a scale today from a street vendor for about six bucks, and it claims I've lost 12 pounds in the six weeks I've been here. Despite all my walking, that seems ludicrous, as my four food groups are carbs, carbs, carbs, and really really sugary carbs. But Ray tried my scale and his reading matches the one on his, so I guess walking really is a miracle remedy for pudge. I don't look any skinnier, though, as far as I can see. But as the saying goes, I'm in shape; round is a shape.)

The friendly lady at the visitor info phone number had told me that not only the #1 bus with the pink sign (with which I'm familiar), but also the red #1 (which goes within a block of my apartment), goes north to Palgongsan, albeit to a different temple area. So I hopped the red #1, which promptly set off to the far south. This is a big, big city and I'm not sure how far south we went before I gave up and hopped off, but the people all had Australian accents. (Hey, I can get lost going through Palatka, Florida, and people there speak English.) (Sorta.)

So I got a bus and then the subway back north to downtown and got on the pink #1. It got pretty crowded on the bus, but nothing like when I went before, probably because this wasn't a holiday weekend. The old coots will go any day of the year, so the bus was still pretty crowded, but I was able to get a seat.

The weather, as it has mostly been lately, was fall gorgeous, and the air outside the city was as clear as it's likely to get. On the lower part of the climb, your ob't svt., armed with his trusty aluminum walking stick and wearing his lovely new hiking boots, sailed past a lot of people; all those years in Ithaca are still paying dividends. The walking stick really does make a difference in negotiating the steeper bits; nearly everyone on the mountain had one. Higher up, amid the rocks. most of the people whom I'd passed returned the favor.

Palgongsan is easily the hardest uphill climb I've ever done, if you don't count marriage. Long ago I did the three-waterfall climb in Yosemite, and that probably had a bigger vertical rise, but Yosemite doesn't have boulders and loose rocks all over the trail or a section with a rope to help you along. For that matter, Yosemite has a trail; about halfway up Palgongsan the trail is mostly a rumor.

In a warmup for what was to happen after I came off the mountain, I bashed the top of my head pretty good on one of the aforementioned boulders. On a particulary steep, rocky stretch, I had to look down to negotiate a tricky, twisty area of rocks and didn't notice the huge rock bowing out just above. However, it noticed me. My head hurt like hell, but I checked, but I wasn't bleeding. I don't think it caused any dain bramage, but I've noticed that I can no longer type the letters and .

The weather, as I've said, was beautiful, mid-seventies and sunny, and I was the only person on the mountain appropriately attired: t-shirt and shorts. Everyone else was wearing long pants and windbreakers or sweaters. It might be because 75 degrees for me is 24 for Koreans; who knows? Also, every single woman on the mountain was wearing some shade of pink or purple, for some reason.

At the restaurant that was the terminus for this "trail", I began to appreciate the warmer gear; it's kinda windy up there. I settled down to a lunch of bibimbap and a bottle of well-earned beer and marveled at the view, which included much of Daegu. The city sprawled out under its own soup of smog: you could literally see a blanket of haze, held in by the mountains, sitting on the city like a blanket. The air was much cleaner over the first range of hills around the town.

The restaurant is also the upper end of the gondola ride, which in a moment of madness I considered taking back down. Then I recalled that I get nervous standing on a chair and decided to pass. So I headed out and around and down. (My odds of surviving the descent on the same route I ascended would be about the same as my chances of being voted Miss America.)

I struck off up and down and up and mostly down a different trail. At a couple of points, squirrels let me know in their best rodent Korean that they didn't want me in their neighborhood. Korean gray squirrels look like American gray squirrels with just a touch of Romulan. Their fur is a dark charcoal gray, their bellies snow white, and their ears long, pointy, and tufted. They look as if they're wearing two little party hats with tassels. (Sadly, I didn't take the squirrel picture above.)

I had gone 95% of the way down toward Dongwhasa Temple, the place I mentioned in my last Palgongsan post, close enough to photograph some of the temple complex's roofs from just above them, when I came to plastic tape across the road and hundreds of yards of fresh cement, covered in plastic. There had been no sign in any language on the descent to say the temple was off limits. So I had to climb back up for three-quarters of a mile, cross the dry river bed, and head back down again toward my original route.

I saw something really touching on my way back: a fortyish woman was backing down a steep, rocky stretch, holding the hands of a twentyish man, presumably her son; he was blind. They were going at a decent clip, too. I almost got a little tear in my eye, then I laughed out loud: as they neared me, I called out "AnnyeongaSEYo!" (hello) in my best Korean. The blind guy's face lit up and he said, "Hi! How are you?" in English. Apparently my accent isn't fooling ANYbody.

I finally made my way back down. I had a very strenuous workout, and a wonderful, interesting time, until...

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

...I broke my face.

I fell on my head-- on the sidewalk, after the hike!-- and got taken to the hospital for x-rays and stitches.

Upon demountaining, I walked a quarter-mile to the first pick-up point for the bus; the second stop is right where you come off the mountain, but I wanted to make sure to get a seat. I stopped at the men's room and resumed walking to the bus stop, carrying my daypack and my walking stick in front of me. Why? I don't know.

Then the bus turned out of the parking lot (not visible from where I was) where the drivers take their breaks, and I started to sprint for the bus. I got within thirty feet...

I've been meaning to post about how if Korea were America, there would be lawsuits flying around faster than character assassinations at a McCain rally. There are loose paving stones, little stumps of what once were signposts, concrete pillars below knee level... I always thought somebody was going to get hurt.

Somebody did. The sidewalk in the little town by Palgongsan is made of square bricks, maybe a foot across. A couple of them were sticking up an inch or two. Running as fast as I could, I caught my toe on one and pitched forward at an impressive velocity. I remember a split-second thought: this is going to be embarrassing, almost falling in front of the people waiting for the bus. My next thought was: look at all the blood.

I fell on the left side of my face, broke my glasses, cut my lip a little, scraped my hands, ripped and bled all over my t-shirt (I guess I'll have to go back to Jax and run ANOTHER Gate River Run), broke my watch strap, and laid open my face next to my left eye pretty good.

Luckily, I had an angel. A Korean man about to get on the bus came over to see if I was okay, wiped off as much blood as possible, using paper towels and his drinking water, stayed with me, tried to tell me where I was bleeding from (though as he had no English...), let me call Heeduk on his cell phone, and called an ambulance. I was getting so frustrated that I couldn't tell him how wonderful he was to me. I just kept saying "kamsamida" a lot, and shook his hand and bowed from the waist when the ambulance came. He must have taken 45 minutes to help me.

Hey, at least I didn't have to pay for the bus fare home. It's a long ride back to town, even in an ambulance, and I was embarrassed that I wasn't really hurt badly enough to have one come all the way out for me. George from school met me at the hospital and helped walk me through everything. At least I got a doctor with fair English.

The doctor determined I had only contused my shoulder (yeah, that's a word. It is now, anyway.) He either didn't consider that I might have, or determined somehow that I didn't have, a concussion, and sent me for x-rays in case I broke my crown.

As Yogi Berra said, they x-rayed my head and found nothing.

Then they stitched my up. I must say it's disconcerting to be lying there with a mask over your face while people work with a needle an inch from your eye and say what I'm pretty sure was "oops" in Korean. The doctor said the laceration was narrow but deep, and that he would do his best but couldn't promise it wouldn't leave a scar.

You know, it doesn't sound so bad having a pretty Korean woman telling you to take down your pants, but it turned out to be a pain in the butt.

I'm supposed to take three pills three times a day, use an icepack 15 minutes on and 15 off, and go back to the hospital every day so they can check the stitches, and for the next few days, get antibiotic shots. Meanwhile, now it's time to go to work and for some reason I have a headache.

...if I hadn't decided to go to the farther bus stop, if I hadn't stopped to use the bathroom, if I hadn't been wearing my brand-new hiking boots instead of my running shoes, if this country bothered to fix the sidewalks, if I hadn't been carrying my gear in front of me so I couldn't see the pavement... ah, well, why dwell? I fell. What the heck.

Kind of ironic, negotiating a rock-strewn, root-laced mountain only to split my face on a sidewalk. That was my day, from 1 to 3 a.m. US Eastern time. Was that two hours as interesting for you?

Monday, October 13, 2008

How I became a Filipino Presbyterian sports star

On Sunday morning, I went with Ray to his church's annual Family Day. (Ray's church has a service in English on Sunday afternoons.) I hoped to meet a few new friends, and I did, sorta. Nothing turned out as I expected, but it was worth it... it might turn out to be a very big deal in my life. Sad to say, if you want to learn more, you'll have to keep reading.

The buses that run to Samduk and downtown were unusually dilatory, and I was a little later than planned getting to the dorm, but still within operational parameters. However, Ray wasn't waiting out front, nor was he in his apartment. I dithered for a moment, then decided to walk to the subway to go back home, and there was Ray at Samduk Junction, waiting to cross the street. He had gone out to the main street near the dorm to wait, I had come in from the side street, and we probably missed each other by a minute when he gave up and decided to go alone. But, because the light was red, he was still on the corner when I got there.

We walked to the church; I thought we'd have a short service there (in English), then play some games. I also thought there would be many Americans I could schmooze with. When we got there, though, we had to walk a few more blocks and board a tour bus. To my surprise, other than Ray, Jonathan (more on him in a bit), and me, everybody on the packed bus was a Filipino. It turns out Jonathan and Ray are the only Western members of the church; everyone else is a Filipino, mostly farmhands and factory workers who have come to Korea to make some money to send back home. They all speak English to a degree; they go to the English service because there's no service in tagalog.

The greetings at the bus were effusive; there was clearly a lot of agape (love) there, and people welcomed me warmly. I have to say that I really miss having a nurturing spiritual community. But I won't go to church every week unless I can find one that comes close to my own beliefs... and the nearest possibility that I've found is a Unitarian group. That meets once a month. In somebody's living room. In Seoul.

Anyway, we took a pretty long drive east and north out of the city, on the road to Palongsang. We pulled up at a massive, new, expensive Christian school complex, with three schools covering everything up through high school. There were perhaps a thousand people packing the place: 920 Koreans, 40 Chinese (the church also has a Chinese-language service), 37 Filipinos, Ray, Jonathan, and me.

You know, a service can seem interminable when it's in Korean. The choir was excellent, and we had a handout with the highlights in English, but still. But the session was just beginning; after the hour-long service, there was another hour with groups and more groups of kids, and some adult ensembles, singing what I'm sure were Christian songs. Mostly they were about at the level of your nephew Phineas' second-grade assembly. But the penultimate act was a wonderful Chinese teen group with a male and a female lead singer, four backing boys and eight backing girls, and their harmonies were I'd-buy-a-ticket-to-see-a-concert good. The final act was a glee club of Korean church elders, and they were excellent, too.

Then we filed into the massive lunchroom to fill our metal trays with a variety of local food, then went outside to the big sports/playground area. (All of the playgrounds here seem to be hardpacked dirt.) The weather is still fall-gorgeous and there were tables set up with fruit, pizza, munchies and drinks. I was sorry at that point that I had just eaten lunch.

There were three teams organized: the Korean speakers, the Chinese speakers, and the English speakers. The first events were dodgeball for the girls and volleyball for the guys. Jonathan and I volunteered for the Anglophones. Jonathan ripped something in his calf during warmups and was in a great deal of pain. So when the game began, there were nine guys chattering in Chinese vs. eight guys chattering in tagalog and me. (It's quite a burden, being the athletic representative of the world's billion Caucasians.) (Come to think of it, I was also sole representative of the billions of people over 30.) I played till we were up 10-1, making several decent hits with no mistakes, and retired before I humiliated or crippled myself. I loved playing and got out while the getting was good.

I talked with Jonathan for quite a bit; he's a visiting professor at one of the local universities. Like Ray, he is right about my age, and he's a witty, interesting guy. (There were little packets of coffee crystals but no hot water, so he swallowed the coffee try and then drank some water to let it heat up internally.) We hit it off right away and I want to stay in touch with him, maybe go to dinner, that kind of thing. It's gospel (so to speak) in the Anglophone teaching community in Korea that teaching in a hagwon is the least rewarding level, public school is better, but university is the best of all.

Jonathan told me that with my credentials, I would certainly be qualified for a faculty position when the new school year starts in March. The university retirement plan is golden, and I instantly got excited about the prospect of teaching there. (This is where the part in the first paragraph-- if you can remember back that far-- about this outing's possibly being very important in my life-- comes in.) Me, a university instructor: many of my teaching friends have said I should be teaching in college anyway. And with a decent salary and a good retirement plan...

My ardor was cooled somewhat when he told me that the full professors rake in the bucks, but a beginning instructor teaching the younger kids whom the university also trains actually makes less than I do now. I don't know why he mentioned that grade level; that's not where my certification or experience lies. Maybe that's just what he knows. At any rate, my schmoozing skills are a little rusty after 54 years of disuse, and I never got around to asking him about college-level pay. I need to find out, and if it's good, I'm going to go for it full steam. This just might be a life changer for me. I know I came to this odd and fascinating place to be open to possibilities; here's one now.

Later, I got volunteered to be on the Filipino team for a "mystery" game. I knew this might be a mistake when they had everyone squat in lines to count the teams' members and I couldn't get within 18 inches of squatting as low as everyone else. When it turned out that the game was to bend at the waist while a child, supported by two adult helpers, walks across everyone's backs, then to continually scramble to the other end of the line until the rugrat walks all the way across the playground, I demurred.

Eventually, we all got on the bus, except for Jonathan, who got a minivan ride to the orthopedic hospital, and returned to town. Everyone on the bus received a Ziploc bag full of various sweets and munchies and a cute little gummy-bear-colored-and-textured clock with a big suction cup for sticking on the wall. One guy hadn't gotten a ticket, so he didn't get a clock; I gave him mine, as I have two rooms where I spend all my time and two clocks.

All in all, it was nice to be around so many warm, friendly people, to play volleyball (maybe for the last time; who knows?), and make a new, interesting friend. And just maybe it will turn into something very big.

Thank you for taking 90 minutes out of your day to read this. I love sharing my life here with my friends.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Material boy

Did you ever see "Survivor", when the tribes have been out on the island of East Kumqatki for a few weeks, and they go bull-goose loony over the opportunity to win a hamburger or a beer? Well, I've been something like that in regards to a few things.

I have searched and searched for frozen veggies (not available here), fresh broccoli, cauliflower, and so on (not available till I found some expensive broccoli at E-Mart a few days ago), a flat (top) sheet, flannel lounge/pajama pants for wearing around the apartment... Yesterday (Saturday), I hit the mother lode.

I was paid for the first time on Friday and was worried because the bank the school uses for direct deposits is way out of my way, as the various banks' ATMs do not display English on their welcome screens. But I found that the ATMs for all four bank chains I've tried do display English once you've put your card in. And that includes one in the school's building and one a block from my apartment!

I wasn't certain I wanted to join Costco; for one thing, I thought I had to go all the way downtown to catch the bus there. But the bus stops a block from my place (right across from the ATM). So I went. Costco is the only really English-friendly store I've found; one of the women at the customer service desk spoke excellent English, and every item at least has a sign in English saying what it is. (That's important; I'm afraid to buy half the food at E-Mart because I don't know if it has dead animal in it, and when I do buy something... well, a few weeks ago I bought what I thought was tube-like pasta, brought it home and slathered it with Prego, and found it was some kind of sweetened Chinese extruded rice pellet stuff.) And a lot of the stuff at our Costco came straight from the US. Even half the clothes are in American sizes.

And. I. found. A six-pound bag of frozen mixed veggies. Flannel lounge pants (two pair for nine bucks.) A flannel sheet set (fitted and top sheets and pillowcase: fourteen bucks). Winter gloves. A soft, lightweight fleece blanket. Soft, thick socks for hiking and surviving winter. And, on my way out, a gigantic, delightful, greasy, sinful slice of New York-style pizza. Also, though I didn't get any on this trip, they have (absolutely essential for me) glucosamine at a good price and nice, heavy cold-weather shirts in my size.

So the place is feeling a little more homey all the time. And later, in the building next to the school, I found some good hiking/winter boots for 1/3 off.

The Won has fallen from 1,000 Won=96 cents two months ago to 1000 Won=76 cents today. I don't know what up wid dat, but I hope it goes back up before I go back to the states. Still, most things are pretty cheap here... a few days ago I got the best haircut I've had in a long time (at the "Blue Club Men's Beauty Shop") for $4.50.

I've come a long way in my thinking in the last year or so, realizing that I don't need a lot of stuff to be happy. But it feels good to have at least a little stuff to make this place seem more like home.

Now it's back to the $15 a day regimen for me.

Friday, October 10, 2008

No soup for me!

As I've said before, many Korean letters have sounds in between different English sounds, such as B and P, D and T, L and R, and so on. Their character that looks like a doodle of Space Mountain and is supposed to sound like "S" actually, in their pronunciation, sounds more like "Sh", which makes it fun when the littluns have to read "Sit down" in their books. (There are three or four channels on cable that carry nothing but English lessons, and I actually saw that very point discussed on one program-- the Korean people on the show, when it was explained to them, thought it was hilarious.) I've seen the same Korean place name in English with a B on one sign and a P on another across the street.

What I didn't expect, though, was that somehow that can lead to mixing up letters even when they're writing a word that's already in English. Who knew? For example, I've seen a street sign directing people to the "Seoseung Brdg." and another for "Samduk Hosbital".

The champ, though, is a menu item in a little restaurant near the US Army's Camp Walker:


Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Not all who wander are lost

It's Tuesday, another gorgeous fall day, and Ray and I decided to hit Hami Mami's over by Camp Walker for brunch and then do some hiking on Mt. Apsan. Apsan Park, which is huge, blankets the mountain at the southern edge of the city, and along with Palongsan is a favorite destination for the many, many outdoorsy locals. It allegedly has a cable car, an amusement park, an archery range, three Buddhist temples, and an "anti-communism hall".

I discovered that the Hami Mami's pancakes are nearly as good as their French toast, then we asked for directions to Apsan Park. Following the instructions, we found a single-lane road up the mountain. We never did find the main attractions I mentioned in the last paragraph, but that's cool because we really came to hike.

Hike we did, because Oh. My. God. It was steep. For my Ithacan friends, it was like hiking Buffalo Street hill if Buffalo Street hill never ended. I think you can get a taste of how steep it is by the picture with me in it. What you can't get a taste of from the photos is how HUGE Daegu is... it sprawls out for many, many miles, and the main architectural feature is its innumerable 15-to-40-story apartment houses. What you're looking at in this photo is the east end of town, over by my apartment, and I think you're seeing maybe ten percent of the city.

(See how high we are above the city? Yeah, we climbed that.) We went so far and high that eventually the traffic noise of 2.5 million people faded and it was quiet.

We walked and walked and walked, with only about 83 stops to catch our breath; after a while, we kept thinking that at the next little level spot or at the next turn, we'd see some sort of summit. We never did; absolutely the only landmark of any kind was an hour into our climb, when we found a little clearing with a picnic table and a little obelisk of some kind with writing in Chinese on one side and Korean on another.

We never did find a summit; the road goes ever on and on.

...and then we came back down.

This is going a little too far...

...don't you think? I mean, I know Koreans will kill and eat anything, but... gee.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Son of the beach

Ray and I hopped the KTX "bullet train" to Busan on Saturday morning. The one disappointment we had was that the train did not so much bullet as mosey. It turns out that it's only super-fast from Daegu north to Seoul; they're planning on making it un chemin de fer de grand vitesse from here to Busan sometime, but it isn't there yet.

Still, KTX is an amazing thing; the trains run from Seoul in the north to Busan in the south every 20-30 minutes or so all day long, and from here to Busan, a 70-minute ride, costs nine bucks for economy or thirteen bucks first class. We rode economy on the way down and that was pretty comfortable, but the first class on the way back was well worth the money: wide, reclining seats with lots of legroom, along with free newspapers and "flight attendants" pushing refreshment carts, can make all the difference at the end of a tiring day. We were disappointed that first class didn't get back to Dongdaegu Station any faster than economy did, though.

I really wanted to see something of Korea other than Daegu, and I saw a lot, or rather the same few things repeatedly: endless ranges of hills and mountains, almost untouched but for the occasional lone road over one or another of them; every square inch of arable land being cultivated for food, everywhere that was flat-- orange trees, cabbages, you name it (there were many hundreds of mini-greenhouses, plastic half-tubes a foot off the ground and fifty yards long); and an ever-present, severe haze. The weather was gorgeous, and not nearly hot enough for a thick heat haze; I guess the entire country is just smoggy.

Busan is a real city of four million people (unlike Daegu's piddly two and a half million), and I've read that it's the world's busiest port, though we didn't see that part of town. At Busan Station, we ate at a food court, where I had a delicious udon and tofu soup that's the closest thing to Campbell's chicken noodle I've ever had; even the seaweed was m-m-m good. Then we went out to the wide square plaza in front of the station-- Daegu has nothing like it, all full of sunlight and life-- and caught the subway to Korea's most famous beach.

Haeundae Beach is in an upscale neighborhood on the east side of the very large city. The streets by the beach are chockablock with ritzy hotels and restaurants. The beach is a mile long and may have up to 100,000 people on it on a weekend in midsummer; I've seen YouTube videos in which you could walk the length of the beach on sunbathers' backs. We wanted to come while the weather was still nice but the beach was much less crowded.

I can't tell you how much I've missed the beach. Busan really was my first choice as to where I'd like to live, because of its relatively mild weather, its relatively large number of Westerners, and its absolutely essential ocean. (They can call it the East Sea all they want, and the rest of the world can call it the Sea of Japan, but it's obviously really the Pacific. For that matter, there's really only one ocean, you know; it just has islands, such as America and Eurasia, of various sizes in various places.)

Anyway, unlike Florida's beaches, there are hills that come down almost to the water. There was also an International Film Festival Promoting Asian Cinema, which St. Augustine somehow failed to host. We saw, briefly, a panel interview of various gorgeous and unrecognizable (to us) actor types. There were tents and booths for all kinds of promotions, my favorite being for Tsingtao beer from China. (In a fit of temporary insanity, I failed to get my photo taken with the two people in panda costumes.) I caught the same red balloon scudding along the beach three times for the same little kid. And I saw more Americans in a half hour than I had in five weeks in Daegu. And I'd like to say that the lifeguard on the jet-ski, however buff he may be, should not have been wearing that thong.

Afterward, we entrained subterraneously and returned to the train station, then walked across the street to Texas Street, and the "Shopping Area for Foreigners". Ray had hoped to find some clothing stores with large sizes. It has a reputation for being a seedy and dangerous red-light district at night, but at three in the afternoon, it's a sad collection of little shops, bars, and massage parlors, most of which have signs in Russian-- I always forget that Korea actually abuts Russia, barely, and Kim Jung Il can practically see Sarah Palin's house-- because the American sailors who gave Texas Street its name have been replaced by Russian merchantmen and stevedores.

Well, Steve doesn't adore the Russian Quarter. We were approached, halfheartedly, by a few women speaking in Russian whom I think were hookers, but they may have been trying to sell time shares in the Poconos. Hard to say. So we got back in the station and on the train and came home. Funny how I sort of think of Daegu as home already...

I had taken the bus to the subway to the train to the subway to the beach to the subway to the train, and I was tired. But even an hour at the beach, on top of a mountain hike the day before, can revitalize me in ways I never would have expected. My spirit is as high as my body is sore. And that's better than the other way around.

Saturday, October 4, 2008

Climb ev'ry mountain

Gale, who will be returning to her family's Oklahoma ranch in a few weeks, guided Luke, who just arrived from his Idaho farm, and me about Mt. Palgongsan on Friday. We have a three-day weekend (my first, because I worked over Cheosuk weekend) due to National Foundation Day, the commemoration of the nation's mythical founding 8000 years ago. (I wonder if the really, really conservative Christians here celebrate it, since fundamentalists believe that the earth is only 6000 years old... but then Buddha's Birthday is a national holiday, too, so I guess they have to deal with a lot of stuff.)

We crammed into the bus downtown at 9 a.m. The bus was almost literally bulging, as we were packed in like sardines' more jammed-in cousins-- hiking Palgongsan is apparently the local, regional national pastime, and it was a holiday. We should have started at 8:00. After a very uncomfortable 40 minutes of standing with my neighbor's daypack pressed into my giblets while the driver careened around curves at an alarmingly high speed, we arrived. I wished I hadn't seen that awful House episode with the highly realistic bus crash...

The little suburb we disembarked in reminds me a bit of Gatlinburg, Tennessee, although it's smaller: a collection of hiking shops and hotels at the base of the mountain. At a distance, I saw a long, futuristic building with a sign reading "Korean Safety Theme Park". Fortunately, like so much here, it showed no burning need to be understood by me.

Gale, Luke, and I started up the trail. I had envisioned a long, steep dirt road or a trail with perhaps an occasional tree root to stub my toe on. Wrong again, Tofu Breath! The struggle up the mountain was astounding: long, steep, mostly dirt, all right, but it was mostly tripping over roots and climbing up thigh-high rocks; at one point, there were some very long, very steep stairs because it was too hard to climb any other way. There was a section with a rope to pull yourself up with like Adam West and Burt Ward, although I admit there was less chance that Milton Berle would stick his head out a window in the climbing surface than in the original. (What am I talking about?! I must be crazy.)

I never did get out of breath, as I was going fairly slowly to stay with Gale, but my running shoes kept slip sliding away (perhaps they should call them "No Balance"), my knee started to twinge, and my calves got awfully stiff. What I was scared of was the thought that I might lose my balance and fall on my butt on a rock. Once, thirty years ago, I saw a guy fall and hit his tailbone square on a sharp rock at Seneca Rocks, West Virginia. He screamed. I wished not to emulate him.

The funniest thing: there were scores of other people going up, a lot of them a good deal older than I, and they sailed up the mountain. Little old ladies who look like half-dead sparrows were doubling our speed. At the top, right near the upper terminus of the gondola (yes, we could have ridden the whole way up) we found a cafe among the pines with a gorgeous view and we sat for awhile.

As you may know, I love birds, and my favorite is the chickadee. My spirits were lifted even higher when, sitting at the cafe, I saw and heard two Korean chickadees. What a great surprise! I looked them up when I got home; they are actually called marsh tits, no kidding. (Don't think it was easy to not word the last couple of sentences as a joke.) But they were chickadees, all right; they looked exactly like American black-capped chickadees, except that their backs and wings were chestnut, not gunmetal gray. And no, I didn't take the picture.

(An aside, as if I ever stayed on topic anyway: I'm writing this on Sunday afternoon and I've been thinking since Friday how almost every single person going up the mountain had an aluminum hiking stick. Such a stick is collapsible for carrying and storage, has a pointed end that you cover with a rubber tip when you're on pavement, and really does make walking easier in up- and downhill trips, as well as possibly when somebody is, oh, I don't know, in his mid-fifties with arthritic knees and walks on a lot of hard surfaces. Some people used two of them, and I restrained myself from telling them that somebody stole their skis. Anyway, I've been checking them out at stores: they range from $8 to $80, and I don't see a lot of difference among them, so I bought an eight-buck model today.)

We went down a gentler route. Even so, there was one steep bit where I probably would have fallen if I hadn't grabbed onto some poor Korean guy's arm at the bottom and do-si-doed. I bet he'll be glad I bought a stick.

Near the bottom, we visited the Donghwasa Temple. It was originally built in 439 a.d., though the current buildings seem a bit newer. There were many hundreds of paper lanterns with paper slips-- prayers, I think-- attached to them, fountains with dippers for the cool, clear water, pavilions with golden Buddhas and other statues, gift shops selling prayer flags and prayer beads, and a 110-foot-high stone Buddha, the tallest standing Buddha in the world.

Having already offended fundamentalist Christians in this post, let me now say that, although many of the tenets of Buddhism, such as letting go of attachment, resonate with me, I find a lot of the doctrine, the Noble Eight-Fold Path and all that, bewildering and unpleasant, and the art ugly and almost frightening. Nonetheless, I felt a tremendous sense of peace throughout the grounds. Despite my reservations, Buddhism has always seemed to me to be supremely peaceful, and that's something I've aspired to for years, so I found the experience delightful.

The bus ride back was relaxed and uncrowded, as most people leave the city early and make a day of it; there are many trails and one of them (along the ridge, I think) runs for 12 miles. All in all, it was an exhausting, exhilarating trip. I'm in a very polluted city of 2.5 million every day, so breathing the mountain air and hearing the chickadees sing (still avoiding the cheap jokes, as you can see) was worth every minute. I'm going back-- maybe every week, maybe every other month, but I'm going back.

Don't argue with me; I have a pointy stick!

Thursday, October 2, 2008

The best laid schemes o' mice an' men...

I have big plans (relative to my usual tiny ones, at least) for the three-day weekend. Friday morning, Gale is planning to lead several of us newbies on a mountain hike on Mt. Palongsan, which apparently is the most popular and I guess the highest of the mountains that surround the city.

For Saturday, I thought I might go to the Samsung Lions' final game of the season, but Ray wants a companion on a bullet-train trip to Busan, Korea's second city, to walk on the beach and check out the town. I'd figured on going there after payday, but the weather is glorious-- the most beautiful autumn weather you can imagine, though the leaves haven't started to turn-- so we're planning on this weekend. Busan was my first choice for a posting, anyway, but it came through a few days after I'd accepted the job in Daegu. I miss the ocean! Busan is on what the Koreans call the East Sea; that's the Sea of Japan to us heathens.

Also, Ray and I have been talking about going to Apsan, Daegu's huge, hilly park; we might do that on Friday or Monday.

This all beats sitting home and watching Oprah, which is an alternative here.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

But my friends call me Seuteeb

I just noticed that my new bankbook has my name in English and Korean characters. I can't type the Korean characters on my keyboard, but it's pronounced:

Keunmaen Seuteebeun Jeun.

Korean is written in blocks of letters, each block representing a syllable. If we did that in English, "Batman" (for example) would be written with b,a, and t squished together in an invisible square, followed by m, a, and n likewise. And each letter can be squooshed around to fit into the block, so "a", for example, might be three times as high as wide in one syllable and the reverse in the other.

Everybody here crazy.