Wednesday, June 30, 2010

The Ultimate Hike- Seoraksan Mountains

Christine and I at one of the trail checkpoints: not actually feeling as happy and pleased with conditions as we look

This one was actually (obviously) taken after daylight broke, maybe around 5 am. Still feeling pumped up and good to go!!

We really grew to love our headlamps...
START TIME: 2:30 am
The first hints of light, around 4:30 am

Daylight beginning to break...a little bit eerie, but still so serene
FLOWERS?! Lillies and lilacs?! I had almost forgotten what real flowers look like, growing in a real nature setting
First major checkpoint: sky still looks okay, don't be fooled! This was just before the rain began...the rain that lasted the entire day....
Beginning the looong descent, through the deep valleys and river beautiful!
Check out the clock, documenting our finish time: 1:07 pm!! Feels like it should be bedtime, though...
Drink some traditional makeoli (Korean rice wine) after hiking for 12 hours? Okay.
Beautiful mountainside Buddhist temple, just inside the entrance of the national park
Of course you have to sit at the picnic tables after your hike to drink soju (vodka) and makeoli (rice wine) and eat seafood's what all the Koreans do!
The official entrance to the national park
Leaving the park...goodbye, Seoraksan! I'll see you again, promise.
FINISHED! Wet, exhausted, and perhaps a bit delirious. Do we look like we've been hiking for 12 hours in the rain??
Namsan Beach in Sokcho, the coastal town that's closest to Seoraksan National Park. Right across the street from our motel!
Cheesy Ramen: disgusting, I know. But I'll chalk it up to the likely salt deficiency from so much exercise and sweating while hiking the day before. I therefore remove all personal responsibility of actually ordering and devouring it!
A new friend on the beach: this Korean man and his wife entertained us for an hour, with their animated interactions and attempts at English...and their little picnic of Soju (vodka), bottles of Starbucks Frappuccinos, and pigs' feet (which we immediately identified as such and proceeded to bury in the sand when they weren't looking)

On the beach before going home
"The Ultimate Seoraksan Hike." That was the name of the weekend hiking trip sponsored by Discovery Korea, a travel and culture group for young foreigners (read: English teachers) in Korea. A fourteen hour hike on one of the highest peaks in South Korea, climbing roughly 5,000 feet of rugged elevation.
A bit daunting, I'll admit, for someone who grew up in the flat state of farm country...where the highest elevation is perhaps Lutsen "Mountain" ski area. And a bit deterring for someone with quite unpredictable leg problems, but quite predictable dependence on physical therapy. Furthermore, the hike was scheduled to begin at about 3 am, as soon as our bus arrived in the Seoraksan Mountains (which lie about 3 hours east of Seoul, right near the coast). Brushing those doubts and uncertainties (and rationale?) aside, I commited myself to the weekend hike, along with Christine. I was definitely anticipating a challenge!
And I was right...although not as much a physical challenge, as a mental one...which was just about the opposite of what I had been expecting. Beginning the hike at 2:30 am, literally stepping off the bus into the pitch-black, rural nighttime and strapping on our hiking shoes and packs, turned out to be exhilarating and energizing. I was on an adrenaline rush for a good 3 hours, just because we had started hiking at such a ridiculous and unreasonable time...trekking up the rugged slope, climbing over rocks and roots, with only the controlled light of our headlamps...feeling the mountain breeze, cool and refreshing...every so often, reaching a break in the forest that offered nothing beyond the ink-blue sky, dark silhouettes of trees, and the rising fog. I felt almost giddy with the excitement of what we were embarking upon, and what we were embarking toward...the ultimate peak, the ultimate view, the ultimate sense of accomplishment. And, I think, giddy with the experience of just being back in far from Seoul...the unexpected scent of crisp morning air (clean! pure! good for you!), of lillies and lilacs framing the trails, of damp leaves and earth. Adrenaline rush! I felt like I could have sprinted up that whole mountain...for the first few hours, at least...
Because of course, the tables began to turn around hour 4, at about 6:30 am. The mountain breeze turned sharp, penetrating even through the thick brush of the trails. The sky darkened, threatened rain. Our bodies started to drag, unsure of what we were putting them through. It actually felt oddly similar to the experience of jet-lag: being exhausted, sleep-deprived, unsure of the time, and place, and what meal you should be eating. Was I feeling sick? Hungry? Sleepy? Deprivedof electrolytes? Overwhelmed by the elevation? I had no idea- but I knew we had to just keep going.
We reached our first major checkpoint about an hour later, a small shelter between two mountain passes. The view was spectacular- endless mountain peaks, shrouded in fog. We took a rehydrate/refuel break inside, intending to head back out shortly in order to make our second major checkpoint on by 9:30 am...which was crucial to our plans for the rest of the day- if we didn't reach this checkpoint by the allotted time, there was no way we could make up enough time to complete the full 14 hour hike that day....and I know that none of us were willing to concede to anything less than 14 hours! Unfortunately, the weather had other began pouring, as we were inside the shelter, the kind of hard, biting rain that hits you like sharp pellets. In other words, not quite ideal for hiking.
We set back out after an extended (and increasingly dismayed and downtrodden) break, intending to survey the trails and keep a check on the weather as we headed in the right direction. It was a rough hour and a half of steep downhill, all jagged, slippery rock. Our quads burning, our attire soaked, and our attitudes similarly dampened, we stopped at our next checkpoint. Eating what felt like my sixth "meal" of the day (and it was only 9 am!), we made a mutual decision to forgo the full 14 hour route and instead opt for the "next best" route that would still take us about 11 hours in full. It would have been very risky, and not very smart, to go for the full 14 hours...the trails could very well have become washed out, and un-hikable, by the time we reached the additional trails...and that was not a risk we could afford to take at this point. Besides, it was so rainy and foggy, what would be the point of reaching that high peak and then not even being able to see anything from it??
We were all feeling pretty down about the fact that we couldn't complete what we had set out to be honest, I was feeling devastated. I had been preparing myself for this challenge, and it just felt as though we had been cheated out of it, despite our best efforts. I think the fact that I truly, and surprisingly, felt physically able to do the full hike was the hardest thing to face...I just kept thinking, "My legs don't always feel this good while hiking or exercising! I have to take advantage of it!"
But, it turned out that we still had our work cut out for us on the way down, for the next 5 hours of the hike. Many, many more kilometers of slippery rocks, cliffs, and wooden stairways, built into the sides of the mountains. The upside- it was beautiful. It was miles and miles of a deep valley, with rising cliffs on either side and the clearest, purest looking mountain spring running directly through it. The rain made the greens of the trees and brush pop. The fog was settling around the tops of the cliffs and distant peaks. Around a curve, every so often, we'd happen upon waterfalls and pools of water...making us wish enviously that it was 90 degrees and sunny, so that we could indulge in these swimming pools.
Finishing the hike at about 2:30 pm was a pretty surreal feeling...for the last hour or so, it had felt endless. Just turn after turn of the same cliffs, the same distant peaks, the same rocks and pools of waters. Someone had even began humming, "this is the hike that never ends...and it goes on and on, my friends..." We were drenched with rain and sweat, smeared with dirt, trucking along with shaky legs from the miles of steep downhill, certainly feeling the effects of the all-nighter we had been forced to pull in anticipation of the early morning start time. Altogether, the hike lasted about 12 hours...not quite as impressive as a 14 hour hike...but pretty darn close. And was I stronger because of the experience? Absolutely- physically and mentally. Was I still on a hiking high and adrenaline rush, 12 hours later:? Absolutely not- but I was already looking forward to the next possible opportunity for a 3 am hike!!
(Which will actually be next weekend- sort of- I'm signed up for a 10 hour hike, through the same travel program. Start time, 4:30 am, just in time for the sunrise!)

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Summer summer summer

A summer day in Seoul: Gwangwhamun Plaza

The closest to a pool you'll get in Seoul...

One of the best meals in Pohang (and in Korea?): Bibim Mandu

Lovely day for the beach...and the steel mill
Don't worry about the cow in the birthing position...what an appealing advertisement for a beef galbi restaurant Shauna and I: excited for the clams on the grill!
Hands-down, in the Top 5 Meals. Ever.

Fireworks are sold right on the beach in Pohang...

...And we bought some!
Yes, my eyes are closed- but it's because I'm so excited by Tom N Toms coffee right on the beach!! The beach...wish we had one of these in Suji!
Sure you want to swim in the steel mill water????

Successful beach weekend with good friends!!
Happy Birthday, Vicky! Had to include this one- she looked so cute in her white birthday dress!
Summer in Seoul, 2010-
It's been a month now of unbearable humidity and overwhelming World Cup fever- quite a lethal combination for a crowded city of 13 million. Seoul is just beginning to recover from Korea's recent elimination from the World Cup last weekend...I have never witnessed such excitement for soccer, and such a showing of national pride, as I did in the past few weeks of Korea's run in the World Cup. It was so exciting to be in the midst of it! Every storefront bursting with overstocked "Fight Korea!" merchandise, blasting the Korea fight song, random rallies and cheers of fans on streetcorners, students arriving to school each day in miniature red jerseys and blinking red devil horns...unforgettable!
One night, I set out with the idea of watching Korea's upcoming game while working out, on the TVs at the gym. As soon as I stepped out of my apartment, with the start of the game drawing near, I noticed something strange: the streets were absolutely deserted. The city was silent! No students walking home from school, lingering on the sidewalks in front of the street food families out for their late evening walk, towing toddlers in strollers with businessmen stepping off of the buses carting them home from Seoul. Even the street vendors were curiously absent...the fruit truck woman with her $15 watermelons, the old man in the sock truck (literally, he sells hundreds of colors of socks), even the tteok boki truck, usually the most popular hangout at night for Suji-ans wandering the streets! I continued my walk to the gym, soon discovering where the whole city had retreated to...answer: any and every available TV screen in the surrounding area. I saw auto mechanics crowded around an outdoor set in their garage, sitting on crates and passing around bottles of soju (Korean vodka). Groups of teenagers packed into coffee shops with giant overhead projectors showcasing the awaited match. And then, spontaneous occurrences of actual life on the streets, outside of the draw of the television screens: young boys running down the streets with their friends, wearing Pak Ji-Sung masks (the most popular player on the Korean team, and their captain- the Koreans are CRAZY about him!), yelling the Korean cheer in excitement and anticipation: "Dae-han minguk!" (clap-clap-clap-clap-clap)" Finally, I reached the gym...only to find that it had closed down for the night, because of the game. It was official: the whole city, and very likely the whole country, had shut down in order to watch the game...and more importantly, to show their national pride in supporting Korea. Pretty sure that wouldn't happen in America...especially not for soccer!!
Aside from the World Cup frenzy, summer has been passing by with weeks of humidity and weekends spent trying to escape the heat and craziness of the city. Two weeks ago, I went down south to a city called Pohang, which is right on the southeastern coast of Korea. It was such an incredible change of pace from Seoul, being so far removed from the Westernization and overpopulation of the big city. We spent two amazing days on the beach, which is just a stone's throw away from the downtown area of the city...and were blessed with surprisingly pleasant, sunny weather! Quite the opposite of our recent weekend in Busan! Highlight of the weekend: eating grilled clams at a beachside restaurant...they even made the Top 5 of my favorite meals abroad, ever...and that's quite an impressive feat :)
On to experience what else Korea has to offer for the summer...and to hopefully take advantage of the weather before rainy season hits in mid-July!!

Friday, June 4, 2010

Field Trip Fun!

SO excited to be riding on a "big" bus...oh, and for the field trip, too

Everyone was lovin' the bus...

Of course the kids were decked out in their sun gear, Korean style

What a happy camper, always willing to smile for me

Don't worry about this group of schoolkids, just trying to show up our obnoxious yellow LCI sweatsuits with their REAL suits...

BFFs. Nice high-waisted pants, Kelly!

Just me and My Favorite...

Don't look too happy to be on that sheep, Ray

Smile and say, "kimchi!"

Don't worry about the wandering student in the rose gardens...he's one of mine!

Looking a bit space-age, Kelly

Jasmin showing off her kimbap lunch

Every student unpacked their little cartoon character tupperware full of homemade gimbap and fruit...and then they shared it with Britney Teacher, yum! I think John made this face at me because I asked for one of his kimbap rolls, and he didn't I just took one anyway...and I don't think that made him happy. Oops.

Jessica- beautiful!

Hannah, one of Shauna Teacher's students- what a visor!

The park area in the zoo where we picnicked- it was beautiful with the surrounding mountains

Keeping track of 100 tiny Korean kindergartners in a huge zoo- IMPOSSIBLE
Hello, class
A bit tired and crabby after a long day in the sun...ALL of us

Goodbye, zoo!

The Field Trip...equivalent to Christmas, for students and teachers alike. There is no greater joy than the experience of shepherding your children around a new environment, outside of the classroom...especially when that experience is accompanied by sunny blue skies and blissful 70 degree weather. Two weeks ago, we took our May kindergarten field trip to the Seoul Zoo and Children's Park. The day began with discoveries of simple joys, namely, the experience of riding on a "big bus" (coach bus), rather than trucking to te field trip site in the tiny 10-passenger LCI vans that typically serve as the school buses for LCI. I think the students were much more excited at the prospect of the big bus than they were about the zoo experience awaiting them later in the day. I have never observed such utter enthusiasm for reclining seats, window curtains, and large, tinted windows!
The bus ride was about 30 minutes long...and I spent the majority of that time squatting happily in the aisle of the bus, caught like a spectator in a fast-paced tennis match as I tried to keep up with the banter and broken English flying fast between my students on either side of me. Of course, there were requests to sing our recent song contest song, the always-popular "12 Months in a Year" (literally, a song which details the exact 12 months in the year).
I also learned a fair amount of Korean words on the bus ride...apparently, being set free from the English classroom provides the tempting (and somewhat daring) opportunity to teach the teacher Korean. The more outgoing students usually first throw out a Korean word once they have initiated a conversation with you (if you can even call it a "conversation," given that it's a 5 year old, and given that said 5 year old is in their 4 month of English), as if to test the waters for how teacher will react. Will she lap up the new knowledge of Korean vocabulary excitedly? Or will she choose to berate the student for speaking Korean, regardless of the classroom borders? I admit I'm a bit choosy with my reactions...I am definitely guilty of sometimes egging the children on to teach me Korean words here and there. In my defense, though, I have to say I've gained a vocabulary of quite useful words that are more applicable to teaching ESL (and kindergarten students, which is an even more difficult experience!) than you'd expect (my all-time favorite being ko pi, the word for bloody nose...because a kindergarten ko pi is an inevitable daily occurrence). Plus, there's no better medicine for when you're feeling down than to hear one of your students say, in a tiny, high-pitched voice, while sitting in your lap: "Teacher! Teacher! Banana in Korean is BA-NA-NA!" (And there's your Korean fruit lesson of the day: banana in Korean is banana, kiwi in Korean is kiwi, and mango in Korean is mango. Good to know, yes?)

It turned out that our day at the zoo was just as exciting and eventful- if not more!- than our bus ride there. Was it difficult to shepherd 10 equally energetic and curious children around crowds of other schools at the zoo? Absolutely. Was it worth it, to observe how my students act outside of the classroom, and to see the pure happiness on their faces when they saw the monkey cage or the guinea pig cage (yes, really) for the first time? Absolutely.
We finished off the day with a picnic lunch in the parks and gardens within the zoo. It was a beautiful setting, feeling surrounded by not only real grass and trees and open spaces, but also by the mountains looming in the distance. Each student dutifully unpacked their lunchbox stocked full with homemade kimbap (rice and vegetables, wrapped in seaweed) in little cartoon character-imprinted Tupperware. Some of the best kimbap I've had yet...because of course, every student shared their kimbap with teacher!
And also one of the best memories I have of teaching, and of Korea, yet...once again, The Field Trip pulls through.