Rachel’s Blessing as I Leave Seoul

Rachel accompanied me today to Incheon International Airport, where I jumped on a plane and flew home, feeling very bittersweet and really glad I took this not-summer vacation. In between subway stops, she crafted a blessing for my trip, which was just so gosh-darn touching that I had to share. Her words go something like this:

May the road rise to meet you, for starters, because Irish blessings are a good place to start. May the road not rise too meet you too fast, however, because you are leaving Seoul by plane, and too-fast-road-rising generally indicates crashing. May the road rise to meet you at exactly the right pace, and may the pilot time that correctly because she/he is well-rested, well-fed, alert, and gifted with an unprecedented inherent talent for airplane-maneuvering, which has become near-perfect through years of training.

KoreaCollage

A Cultural Demonstration (and so many shop-signs) in Myeong Dong

May the security line not be too long, and may you not get pat-down, felt up, or rushed through like herded cattle. May all the security officers smile, instead of doing that scowly thing some of them sometimes do, which almost always garners some degree of sympathy. May your feet not stink too much when you take off your shoes, for the benefit of everybody.

May you not sniffle and look busy like you’re maybe trying not to cry in the security line. It’s ok to be the leave-er in an airport. Tuck it in.

May you get a window seat. I know you requested that, and it’s way easier to sleep when there’s a wall to lean on. You really ought to sleep. Maybe drink until you’re sleepy? Just kidding. Don’t do that. Or do. Or don’t. (Don’t.)

Street decorations for a cultural festival, bridge near Haneul Park, marigolds near park entrance, biking/running train on Han river

Street decorations for a cultural festival, bridge near Haneul Park, marigolds near park entrance, biking/running trail on Han river

May your seatmate be a tall, thin, smokin’ hot single man of appropriate age who is whip smart and totally down for conversation if you want to talk. May he be all about leaving you alone if you’re listening to that awesome feminist book I put on your ipod, or sleeping. May he buy you overpriced airplane drinks. May he be totally willing to join the mile-high club if you’re into that (please please may you not be into that, because it is impractical and gross and porny and you are way classier and it is illegal), but may he be too tall and and also too classy for this to work anyway. May he also have an awesome feminist book on his ipod. May he be a gazillionaire intent on spoiling you rotten.

May you experience no flight delays, for any reason. May you not have to idle on the tarmac, because that is obnoxious. May you experience perfect flying weather always, but most especially on landings and takeoffs, because those are scary.

May the meal service start quickly and consist of food that does not require chopsticks. May you be surprisingly upgraded to first class! May you sleep at times that make sense for your final destination, so you have no jetlag.

May the movies be fabulously entertaining, and also ones you haven’t seen before. May they be The Hobbit and The Lord of The Rings, because those are my favorite, except that you’ve seen them.

Cosmo from Haneul

Cosmos in Haneul

May the weather at home be beautiful and full of fall.

May the wind be always at your back–you’ll get there faster.

And may I see you soon.

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Namsam Tower (of looooooove)

On Wednesday, I ventured out to Namsam Tower (and I didn’t get any decent pictures of the tower, but it looks like this).

Namsam Tower (AKA North Seoul Tower) is the highest point in Seoul, and it’s like a needle sticking straight up out of the top of a hill near Myeong Dong (a shopping/tourism district in the city). Rachel and I actually approached the tower on my second day in Seoul, but I was wearing inappropriate shoes for hiking, and I was jetlagged, and we were distracted by myriad coffee shops (first. world. problems.), and so we didn’t make it to the top. Nonetheless, I hate to leave a hill unconquered, and so I came back while Rachel was at work.

There are three ways to get to the base of North Seoul Tower: you can take a gondola for $7, you can hike on a windy road for 90 minutes, or you can climb stairs for 30 minutes. I opted for the stairs.

NamsamSteps

About 15 minutes into this stair-trekking adventure, I was seriously questioning my decision. I am not a very coordinated stair-trekker, and these steps were uneven and slanted. I feel twice, and started wondering at what point in your life “fall” becomes a 4-letter word (like, kids fall all the time, but when someone’s of a certain age they “have a fall” and that maybe means you should head on up to their hospital room and visit them). I was very grateful that these stairs, unlike the ones in Haneul Park, were unmarked.

The summit was beautiful, and huge–the tower was obviously the main attraction, but there were lookout points for seeing various parts of the city, a misting fountain (patronized almost exclusively by children), cultural demonstrations, and (predictably) a souvenir shop.

The best part of the summit though, was this art installation. Look:

Namsamtree.jpb

Look closer.

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The locks are supposed to represent the shared commitment of 2 people to a relationship. I resisted the urge to call them “locks of love”, but did hear several people refer to them as “love locks”, which does sound better. There were 6 of the trees pictured above, but there was also an entire lookout point with fences covered in locks (which is SO MUCH LOVE). This one melted my heart:

namsamdad

And I didn’t even realize until after I took the picture, but someone up here (besides me) loves Texas, or someone in it.

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In addition to the love locks, this lookout point featured “heart chairs” that are supposed facilitate romance between you and a potential partner. It’s like love potion #9–but in seat form.

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There was a sign suggesting that if you’re shy, you should try to get your crush to sit with you on one of these benches… I think as a more subtle approach, you could just bean them over the head with a bag of heart-shaped bricks.

Or locks.

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Hiking in the Sky

Rachel and I were feeling outdoorsy and inspired after our sea-kayaking adventure, so on Tuesday, we went to Haneul (sky) Park. It’s one of Rachel’s favorite parks, a gorgeous, green oasis threaded neatly into the outskirts of the city.

It used to be not-so-green, in any sense of the word. In the 1990s it was a massive landfill, but South Korea wisely decided to fix that before hosting the 2002 World Cup 3 blocks from the site. Essentially, the refuse was covered in dirt (and other barrier-things), which was covered in grass, which is now carefully but delicately managed, so as not to disturb all the toxic trash-stew beneath the surface. Methane gas is pumped out from the landfill, and used to power the electrical features of the park (bathroom lights, maintenance rooms, etc) and provide supplemental electricity to surrounding city venues.

StadiumHanuel

The landfill really was massive–massive enough that when it was covered, 2 parks were actually formed–Haneul, the one we went to, is the highest of the 2 (though it’s not the highest point in Seoul–that’s Namsam Tower). It’s a popular hiking venue, and the site for several annual festivals–the biggest one being a harvest-themed celebration in October (which we saw some preparations for). The park is very open and free-looking, but meticulously maintained. There are sculptures and lookout points, benches and lined trails that cut through uniform fields of grasses, flowers, or (in one very small location) rice paddies.

In order to enter the park, you climb up 291 steps. They’re numbered, which is either encouraging or soul-crushing, depending on the number.

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After the stairs come some archways.

zuchinnitunnel

These will undoubtedly play a role in the upcoming harvest festival. Also, why don’t we grow zucchini this way in Texas? I’m adding it to my list of harebrained homesteading ideas.

Past the tunnels, the trails splinter off, leading you to lookout points and “manicured” landscapes:

woodrings

and rest stations shaped like weird, alien sculptures. Wait, what?

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This view from a lookout point summarizes my basic assessment of Korean landscape: Verdant, sloping mountains interrupted by swaths of dense, houseless cities.

mountaincitymeet

After exploring the park (and chasing SO many butterflies) for about 2 hours, Rachel and I headed home–only to discover that it was far easier to catch a taxi in the city, rather than find one out in the boonies. We managed, though, and then she went off to work like a responsible adult…

…while I lazed about and took a nap. Vacations are the best.

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The Scariest Thing in South Korea

So, in order to show you the scariest thing in South Korea, Rachel and I had a photoshoot–because really, there are no words that can do this justice.

Here we are!

RachelandIcollage

Lookin’ all normal (well…relatively).

But wait! What’s that!?

whatsthat

That’s our inner (outer?) Hannibal Lectors, and um, we paid money for this product. For some reason.

obviouslybeautiful

This is the South Korean version of a face mask. For beautification. Like, after you emerge from your horror flick, you’re more beautiful.

horrorflick

Or something.

orsomething

It’s not smearable. Or wash-off-able (really, it’s more of a stick on-then-peel-off action). You’re supposed to let it be in contact with your face for 20 minutes, but that’s hilarious.

We clearly just finished burying someone.

We clearly just finished burying someone.

But luckily, when you’re done, your face looks like your face again.

LookinNormal

And thank goodness.

EDIT: For a fun mini-lecture on why we find things creepy (including lots of information on facial ambiguity), head on over to my favorite vsauce video

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Sea Kayaking and not-cliff jumping

Before I tell you all about the sea-kayaking adventure Rachel and I had on Sunday, we have to talk about jellyfish. We saw several.

The jellyfish we saw were bigger than any I’d ever seen–we saw a few in the water (the biggest about 2 feet across) and several on the sand, beached and dying. The ones on the sand were quite large:

StephwithJellyfish

Brave new friend Stephanie, with scary big jellyfish

And the biggest one we saw was almost the size of a dining room table. I thought this was impressive, so I went home to look these jellyfish up, and guess what?

The ones we saw were babies. Cute lil babies. This is how big they are full-grown. They’re called Noruma’s Jellyfish:

picture courtesy of toosquid.com

picture courtesy of toosquid.com

Anyway.

The sea-kayaking was a daytrip via Adventure Korea, and it was pretty fun. Rachel and I paddled with a group of about 30 people around 2 beaches and an island, jumped off a big rock (they called this “cliff jumping”, but that’s untrue), and lounged on the beach like we were heiresses. Or, I did my best heiress impression. Rachel succeeded at looking dignified. We both got horribly sunburned (really badly…we both had to wear skirts Monday because pants were just TOO MUCH PRESSURE). It was lots of fun.

Post-kayaking, we went on the shortest hike ever, and saw gorgeous, gorgeous rock formations–and 2 houses!

(Houses are really rare around Seoul, so this was maybe a bigger deal than it should have been.)

post-hike, pre-burn assessment.

All in all, it was an awesome day.

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Drinking in Korea (an absolutely alcoholic guide)

Are you familiar with Blackout Korea?

I wasn’t before I came here, and I might not be now, if the downstairs patio of my building wasn’t a perpetual Drunken Uncle convention. On any given morning,  a number of sketchy-looking middle-aged men can be seen passed out in their chairs, surrounded by far too many empties, cigarette burning into an ever-lengthening ash in their hand. I asked my lovely host if this is common public patio behavior, and was directed to be above website.

It’s not a hugely common thing–I mean, it’s not like masses of people are sprawling about common areas in a drunken stupor EVERY day at 11, or even most days. But drinking culture here is definitely…vibrant. This is due mostly to the ridiculous cheapness of alcohol, and the complete lack of open container laws.

Soju is, hands-down, the cheapest way to artificially lose your inhibitions–$4 buys you almost 2 L, and depending on the brand, it’s 17-45% alcohol by volume (have fun guessing! I’ve yet to see a brand with this information listed on the label). It’s tasteless (maybe slightly sweet?), and colorless.

Soju

Foreigners tend to do really classy things, like throw a bottle in a bag for drink mixing out-and-about, while Koreans seem to be more likely to take it neat. When I hear the phrase “taken neat”, I tend to think about aged scotch in a clear glass tumbler, resting casually in the large, manly hand of someone with a well-groomed mustache and too much money, probably consumed in front of the fireplace of a warm and well-furnished master den as a blizzard rages outside. Soju, taken neat, is…not like that. More classy than mixing-on-the-go, less classy than anything served in a clear glass tumbler anywhere.

Soju is the mixer I suppose vodka tries to be–it just does it better. You’d have to mix SO MUCH Soju with something to detect that it was spiked at all, and it gets thrown into everything. Anything sold in tiny convenience store bottles is fair game, beer is fair game (it’s really common to do that in restaurants), coffee is fair game (because who needs FourLoko?).

For those who want mixed drinks (in the most literal sense) on the tightest of budgets, convenience stores also have these little juice or coffee packs (similar in packaging to capri sun?) you can buy for $1. And, because convenience stores here take that classification very seriously, they will pour your coffee/juice into a provided cup of ice for you (with lid and straw!)…and let you just go ahead and spike it right there on the counter. I cannot imagine how it could possibly be any more convenient. For you mathematicians out there, that means that if you buy the $1 juice/tea/coffee, and add 3-5oz of soju (at the price of about 6 cents an oz, from either the $4 1.8 L bottle or the $1 .5L bottle, which is small enough to fit into the average purse), you can get a pretty formidable drink for $1.18-$1.30. And because you’re in Seoul, you can carry that cheap drink with you and consume it all the live-long day. And because there are convenience stores at least every 2 blocks, you can do that forever and ever amen, without ever hitting a bar.

If Soju isn’t your thing, you can always hit a bar and order something familiar. Might I suggest a Hot6 and vodka (Hot6 is essentially Redbull)? Because everyone will, invariably, refer to the drink as a “hot sex and vodka”, and how funny you find this is a good gauge for how soon you should stop drinking.

The beer selection, barside or otherwise, is in general not awesome, but I say that coming from Austin, and we’re all hipster-proud of our craft brews. Heineken is always easy to find, Budweiser’s available, and there are lots of japanese beers to be had. These can all be bought relatively cheaply ($1-3 per can or bottle), in various quantities at (where else?) your local convenience store.

You can drink here, you can drink there, you can drink anywhere, but if it’s the weekend, you should probably be drinking in Hongdae (cheap and full of clubs, with a free park that is generally full of foreigners who are happy to gather and mingle and speak english) or Gangnam (like the song. More expensive than Hongdae, a bit classier, caters to a slightly older-but-no-more-responsible crowd). The subway system closes down around 1, and won’t reopen until 5:30, but there are cabs aplenty, and lots of options for staying out–the clubs don’t close, restaurants will be open and willing to give sobering patrons all the water they need, and you can buy a temporary stay at a public bathhouse for $10-$15.

And all of those options are better than blacking out with the drunken uncles.

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A Chopstick Tutorial

My first meal in Seoul was a very humbling experience. It consisted of  (in ascending order of difficulty): miso soup, kimbap, rice, coleslaw, kimchi, Weird Unnamed Gelatin Block, and fried pork. Rachel was super-patient, but it took me forever to wrestle with the metal sticks beside my plate, and she was kind enough to give me pointers, over and over, until I got it.  Now meals aren’t nearly as hard.

Maybe, dear reader, you are all kinds of wildly proficient with chopsticks. That’s awesome!

But maybe you’re not.

And maybe Rachel can help.

After 9 months in Korea, she’s kind of a chopstick master. This is her basic guide:

Chopstick 1 goes in your hand like this.

firstchopstick

And then you add chopstick 2:

chopstick2

You’ll know you’re doing it right when the top chopstick feels like an extension of your index finger–it’s the only one that should be moving. Good luck!

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Drinking in Korea (a non-alcoholic taste test)

There are a huge number of small, cutely-labeled drinks sold in Seoul’s convenience stores.

Being hopelessly monolingual, I can’t read the labels– but that’s hardly stopped me from sampling. Does it still count as a taste test if you can’t check your answers?

KoreanDrinks

1. Soymilk. Nuttier than expected. Weird particulates at the bottom. Delicious.

2. English translation! This is “corn silk tea”. Tastes like what would happen if you took unpopped popcorn kernels, soaked them in water for about 9 hours, and then drank the water. I’m a fan.

3. Black coffee. Coffee is universally permissible. You are absolutely not allowed to eat/drink on the subway…unless it’s coffee. You also can’t eat/drink in school…unless it’s coffee. Consumed at entirely unreasonable hours, by nearly everyone.

4. The most controversial drink on this list. This is barley water (I think?) and so it mostly tastes like a nonalcoholic bourbon, which I find tolerable and interesting. Rachel says it tastes like ass.

5. I am 90% sure this is sweetened aloe juice, and 100% sure I don’t want to drink this again.

6. Vinegar fruit juice concentrate. I’ve heard that this “is good for you”, but I’m not sure why. Similar to Mio in the states, this is just a way to spice up whatever water you’re already drinking. Tastes slightly bitter, mostly fruity, comes in lots of flavors.

7. Caramel coffee (also available in vanilla and chocolate). Seems to be mostly milk.

8. Unable to identify. Tastes like bark.

9. OH NO THIS IS BANANA MILK. I thought this was just regular milk, or at least not-banana milk, and now I have trust issues, deep feelings of regret, and a stain on my soul. I cannot believe this occurred. I was aware of the danger of accidentally picking up a bottle of satan’s fruit juice (because milk comes in lots of flavors, and banana is one of them), but I took precautions against it by not selecting anything that had a picture of a banana on it, or that had yellow writing, or that looked vaguely thick, and I thought I had identified everything that could possibly be banana milk, and I was wrong. So very, very wrong.

10. English translation! Raisin water. Tastes mostly like tea, with a bitter-fruity aftertaste. Not even a little bit grape-y. Good for flushing disgusting banana flavors out of your mouth.

On a totally unrelated note, I’m going to go learn how to read the word “banana” in Korean…

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Greetings!

Anneyonghaseo!

I arrived Friday night, and successfully made it to Rachel’s apartment–I was initially worried about subway navigation but it turned out to be a huge non-issue. Weird observation: when you’re riding the subway and all the seats are taken, people stand (duh)–but they stand facing inward, towards the people who are sitting, as opposed to outward, towards the middle of the car/opposite windows, which feels most normal to me. I didn’t notice this norm until I was clearly facing the wrong direction, which felt very similar to standing backwards in a crowded elevator. When I corrected myself, I had no idea what to do with my eyeballs. Do you drill holes into the forehead of the person sitting in front of you? Stare out the window? Look to the side (what if there’s someone there? If there’s not, how do you choose who to stand in front of?)? Make awkward eye contact? Close your eyes (tightly? In a relaxed way? How can you tell when you’ve arrived at your stop?)?

It was fine. It was so beyond fine; I worried over nothing. Almost as soon as the train started moving, the person sitting in front of me pushed up his glasses, took out his neon-yellow phone, pulled a 12-inch antenna out of the side, and began furiously playing something that beeped a lot. His friends were enthralled. Looking cool (or my version of cool) was clearly not the goal.

The goal, actually, was getting to Rachel (the lovely lady in my last post), and oh my gosh, is it good to see her again. It’s amazing to me how, 7000 miles from home, she has managed to make her apartment so very home-y. I basically felt like I’d just walked into her old room at the co-op.

RachelCollage

We went out on Saturday night and danced until I couldn’t move my arms. Rachel showed me how to get far too drunk on far too little money in Hongdae (a district with myriad clubs and cheap food), and we spent the next day “recovering”…which is a one-word term for “watching 7 hours of Game of Thrones”.

So, um, I might never go home.

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Three reasons why the 24-hour trip to Seoul was awesome

  • This girl. Oh, how I have missed this trilingual badass. Look at her. LOOK AT HER. How can there be that much fantastic all in one place? Even if the trip had been a nightmare (it wasn’t), it would have been worth it to see this lovely lady.

IMG_0273

  • Vanilla gelato. I’m a long-standing lover of all things chocolate, but you know what? They did not serve chocolate anything on the way to Seoul. They served vanilla gelato, along with a little packet of pretzels and a ham sandwich, and it was the first meal I’d been able to eat in far too many hours and it might possibly have been the best thing I’ve ever put in my mouth. I ate the pretzels on the gelato and it was amazing and I was so hungry and I just don’t think I’ll ever be able to think about vanilla in the same way again. United Airlines, and their little in-flight snack pack, kind of changed my life.
  • Birthing books. I am super-excited about not having to work for the next 3 weeks or so, but I love my job, and so I spent part of my flight to Korea reading Spiritual Midwifery (by Ina May Gaskin). I was feeling a little self-conscious about some of the birth photos in the book, until I looked over at my seatmate and saw his book…which was full of birth photos.
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