Saturday, February 16, 2013

South Korea!

I haven't been able to keep up with my blog posts as much as I would have liked.  My schedule was tight while travelling, and when I got home, I learned I had sustained an injury to my thumb flexors and extensors by pushing around my heavy 4-wheeled carry-on too much over carpeted areas in hotels and airports, and they're not the best surfaces for such luggage to glide over.  In any case, it has been fairly uncomfortable for me to type a lot, which is unfortunate, but now my hand is getting better, enough so that I can type out some stories now :o)

Frozen reflection pond outside National Museum
I went to Korea to visit my friends Matt and Mischa.  They live in another city outside of Seoul, and because their jobs as ESL teachers don't allow them to take time off or get substitute teachers, I decided to fly into Seoul and spend a couple of days there and then head out to their place by train and visit them for a few days before having to return to Malaysia for work.

Plug earrings
Because I was already fairly exhausted from work this time, coupled with the cold Korean winter air, which is a little humid but was mostly windy while I was there, I didn't feel too motivated to walk around too much, but I tried to see what I could.  I went to the National Museum of Korea, which was super interesting.  Photos will be posted soon, and I don't think I'll need to say a lot that the pictures can't say.  But I did come to a couple of conclusions.  One, Buddha used to wear ear plug jewellery.  I noticed that a lot of the Buddha statues showed him with elongated earlobes, and when I looked closer, they looked like people's ears the way they droop when they aren't wearing their plugs.  From what I can tell, this was indeed a normal style of earring for the time, and some of the artefacts demonstrated that people were wearing large gold plugs at the time.  For me it was mainly significant because I didn't realise that this style of jewellery was worn in that region before.  I thought that was only found in certain regions of Africa.  The other thing that I realised is that early on, every culture in every part of the world has developed personal adornments that seem to be fairly universal.  I've been to museums in a lot of countries now, and I've noticed that everyone fashioned necklaces, earrings, rings, and bracelets.  The materials they used to form them might vary, and some might be more modifying of the body than others, but everyone around the world has worn these types of jewellery for thousands of years.

The next day I went to the War Memorial.  This year marks the 60th anniversary of the end of the Korean War (1950-1953), so it seemed like a fitting thing to do.  I'm not a huge war buff, so I can't say I really took my time here, but it was still interesting.  There are letters signed by Joseph Stalin and Gen. Douglas McArthur, and it was interesting to see--in some cases--to see original signatures.  One thing I can say is that it's not a place for anyone to go to if they have PTSD.  They have really great sound and visual effects that are motion-sensitive, and when you walk in a room, it will set off the light show and gunfire.  But there is no warning this could happen, and I fear that a war vet or former POW going to this museum could lose it sometime if he happens to have PTSD.  It's a good museum, and I was surprised to see how many countries participated in helping the Koreans against China and North Korea and how may Americans died in the war: over 33000 as compared with fewer than 1000-2000 for any other country that participated.

Scene from Folk Museum entrance
In the afternoon, I met up with a former student from Mexico that now lives in Seoul, Luis.  He has been studying Korean, and it was such a treat to have a guide that speaks the local language.  Luis claimed that his Korean wasn't very good, and granted, he may not yet have native-like proficiency, but it was good enough that we could go to a hole-in-the-wall restaurant that had just three tables and a stove next to the cash register, it was so small, and he could ask if there was a free table, read the menu, and order all in Korean.  The menu did not have any small-print English, and it's exactly the kind of place I could never go into alone but would want to in order to get really good, authentic, local food.  In the afternoon, Luis took me to the Folk Museum.  We walked around the palace grounds but didn't end up getting to go into the actual museum as by the time we walked over there, it was closing for the day, but it was still really nice just to walk around, despite the cold, and appreciate the scenery.  The terrain is quite mountainous in parts of the country, and it makes for some beautiful spaces that I find more contemplative than many of the other temple-museums I've been to that are often just overrun with tourists.

That evening I headed to Ulsan on the bullet train.  I'd frequently heard that Korean people are really friendly and helpful, and I definitely found that to be the case, even if their English wasn't good.  I couldn't find anywhere to put my luggage, and my seat mate looked around the train for a free spot for me, which was really nice because there definitely wasn't space at my seat for all my luggage.  I arrived and hopped on a bus that took me close to where Matt and Mischa live; Korea is very much a place for efficiency in public transportation.  I spent Friday just bumming around Ulsan a bit but took it easy, and then Matt and Mischa and I spent the day in Busan on the Saturday, going to the fish market and to this tower there from which you get great views of the city.  At the fish market, Matt noticed that some of the boxes were labelled as being from Spain, so then we wondered how much of the fish and seafood were local catches!  Matt also introduced me to the grossest fish I've ever seen: the penis fish.  See the pictures to know why it's called that.  It's just so gross.  We spent a lot of time eating, drinking coffee, watching episodes of Idiot Abroad that I have on my laptop, and playing hearts.  It was good to just relax and laugh and talk and share stories of what it feels like to be ex-pats and what it feels like to come home again.
Penis fish

Generalities about Korea:
1. There are lots of coffee shops, a few for every block it seems, almost!
2. There is no "Gangnam Style" paraphernalia for sale anywhere
3. People seem to like to get everywhere really fast and will cut you off on an escalator or to get through a door
4. There is so much good food! I tried hot pot and BBQ and Korean-style sushi and ramen...I think I was eating constantly there!
5. Matt and Mischa described the concept of "skinship", and I don't know if this was part of it, but we did witness a guy applying eyeliner to his girlfriend in a coffee shop!
6. It is a very nice country to travel in, and I'd highly recommend it!

No comments:

Post a Comment