Tuesday, March 25, 2014

a (Korean) mash-up

There were so many things about Korea that had me dragging my feet as I made my way to the airport.

First, there was this dynamic duo:

There were the artistically religious artifacts. 

Gyeongju burial mounds

Gyeongju Buddhist rock art

And the food.

French fry corn dog


grilled cheese sandwiches

(Although... not this):

a smorgasbord of blood sausage

But mostly, it was because of one family and their extraordinarily warm hospitality...

Saturday, March 22, 2014

a meter from the enemy

On July 27, 1953, an armistice agreement was signed between North and South Korea, to "insure a complete cessation of hostilities and of all acts of armed force in Korea until a final peaceful settlement is achieved." The situation was pretty tense before that. Not that things have changed much over the years. 

The two countries have remained separated at the 38th parallel ever since - a divide marked as the DMZ (Demilitarized Zone). Ironically, the demilitarized zone is all but filled with military personelle, from both countries and the USA. But where the two sides meet, where they stand face to face, where they see the most action, and where 100,000 tourists a year can say they've "stepped into the other side", is the JSA... the Joint Security Area. 

Joint Security Area

But just to make every visiter wary of how dangerous it is to visit a location that holds more an air of boredom than anything else, they're asked to sign a waver indicating their acceptance to enter "a hostile area" with "the possibility of injury or death as a direct result of enemy action."

U.S. and South Korean military work side by side at the JSA. The South Koreans, all of whom have a black belt, take on the additional roll of front line protectors in a modified Tae Kwan Do stance. 

Visitors are required to walk, single file, it two separate lines. They are to speak in hushed tones, and they are to never, ever communicate with anyone on the other side of the line - whether verbally or by gestures. 

"In" North Korea

The moment those tourists journeyed 2.5 hours north of Seoul along the Han River (dotted with stationed outposts nearly the entire way looking for possible enemy spies) in order to "enter" North Korea, comes as they're corralled into a one roomed conference building on the border line.  The conference table situated squarely on the divide. Entrance doors are located on either side of the room. When in session, political figures never cross into foreign territory. When tourists visit from the southern entrance, two South Korean militia stand guard on North Korean ground. 

Once, at the end of a long day of tourist visits, a South Korean guard went to lock the door on the North Korean side. As he did so, the North Korean guards flung the door open and tried dragging him into their country. He grabbed hold of the nearest wall corner as his military counterpart used his black belt skills, enticing the enemy to retreat. The marks on the wall corner are still there. 

guard standing near the now historic corner wall
The tourist visited section of the DMZ, on the other hand, is wildly chaotic. There is a far greater number of people allowed to visit compared to the JSA. While unable to "cross the line", tourists are still able to enter the tunnel built buy North Koreans trying to enter South Korean territory (although they adamantly deny it). They are also given a hillside vantage point to 'look right into the neighbors window'... from 4 kilometers away. 

photo line for all those wanting to capture their far-away glimpse into North Korea 
All either glimpse does, though, is create an even greater desire to see what life is truly like on the other side. 

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

"And in this corner..."

Jinju, a southernmost town in South Korea, is not only known for it's yearly lantern festival (which draws in hoards of luminary lovers), but it is also renown for its bull fights. Unlike the Spanish variety where a bull fights to its death, the Korean variety involves considerably less blood and two bulls instead of one - both of whom continue living long after the fight is over.

The tradition, spanning centuries, goes a little something like this:

Two bulls are pitted together by their owners. The bulls, who at times appear bored by the prospects, lock horns and dance the Korean tango until one - or at times, both - of them backs of. A fight can last anywhere from mere seconds to over 30 minutes. The winning cow is decorated with ribbons and flowers before being led off the ring.

But it's not the fight itself that draws the most pleasure from its foreign onlookers. Oh no. The pièce de résistance comes from the owner of the winning bull. Or, at least, one winner in particular. 

Note: despite all appearances from the stands, there were hoards of Koreans present. They were all crammed on one side to avoid the sun. 
Also, the owner continued dancing until he was eventually kicked out.  Watching him was nothing short of amazing. 

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

the kindness of a stranger

Becky joined her (recently moved-in) family, with whom I was staying, in Seoul a few short weeks before I arrived. She was as new to the country as I was, and eager to explore its countryside. But neither one of us knew where to go.  After asking around, we were directed to Yeonju Moon.

"Jinju is a nice area," Yeonju said. "We're actually heading there tomorrow for their annual lantern festival. You both can join us if you like."

And to think we only just met.

As an afterthought, she continued, "there probably won't be any rooms available though because of the festival... so you can stay at my brother's house with us as well."

Our small words of thanks didn't feel sufficient enough.

Her brother Lee's generosity exceeded even hers. Because of our two extra bodies, in addition to Yeonju, her two children and the Smiths, a couple she was touring around, Lee and his wife left the house to the lot of us; sleeping instead at his mother's. He treated us to dinner at a traditional bar-b-que restaurant, spoiled us with a lavish breakfast in the morning, and rented a van in order to drive us around the surrounding countryside.

In his kindness he offered the Smith's their bed, as they were older, while the rest of us slept on the floor.

"Their generosity has been outstanding, and we couldn't be more grateful," the Smiths whispered to the both of us in the morning. "But as much of an honor it was to sleep their marble slabbed bed, it would have been much nicer on the floor."

Friday, March 7, 2014

high speed growth

"In 1960, in the aftermath of a devastating war, ... exhausted [South Korea] was one of the poorest countries in the world, with an income per head on a par with the poorest parts of Africa. By the end of 2011 it will be richer than the European Union average... South Korea is the only country that has so far managed to go from being the recipient of a lot of development aid to being rich within a working life."  - an excerpt from the Economist Magazine, November, 2011.
And today it's capital city is so robust and diverse that there's something in it for everyone. Seoul is comprised of 25 different districts, the newest having been infamously captured in a song boasting its name: Gangnam. The others, having evaded the mocking tunes of Korea's most world renowned musician, Psy, have distinct personalities of their own. From financial districts, historical sights, underground discount shopping, university havens, American military posts, to hipsters paradise. It's hard to imagine 30 years ago the city lacked even the most basic necessities, including soap and toothpaste.

Monday, March 3, 2014

"Toto, I've a feeling..."

Arriving in Seoul on what would become a three week sabbatical from an essentially open ended one... (minus the job to return to), I realized that despite the proximity, I definitely wasn't in Japan anymore.

The city felt more lived in (i.e. dirtier) than Tokyo. Little old ladies push (and I'm talking, a two handed shove with a little hip-bump as they brush past you for good measure, action) the person in front of them who's blocking their way without a word of apology. In fact, the words "excuse me" are not even in the Korean vocabulary.

And then there were the unsettling signs. Encased in breakable glass-front cabinets in all the metro stations are gas masks, in the unlikely event that the brothers from the north began a chemical warfare. Not that there are enough to go around, which is where Darwin's theory comes to play. But aside from the metro stations, the government equips every home with gas masks to accommodate each family member, and they request that all have a 72 hour survival kit. In addition, expats are requested to have a packed back always at the ready.

But novelty fades fast, and soon enough the only threat you focus on comes in the form of little graying firebombs who creep up from behind and send you stumbling to regain your balance after being thrown aside for walking too slow. 

Saturday, March 1, 2014

travel confessions: the wall

"So where's home?" an American lady asked me at one point in my travels.

I never know how to respond. My family is spread out from Germany to Hawaii, I've moved to a multitude of States while in the US, and the longest place I've ever parked myself was in Amsterdam - a city I won't be returning to after this venture is over.

"Uhm... I... I don't really have one," I responded.

She gave me a quizzical look. "You don't have a place to call home? Where did you grow up? Where do your parents live?"

I took a deep breath and began a condensed version of what could be a 15 minute explanation.

I watched her eyes as she tried to gain an understanding. One she never attained. She just stared at me in a pitied disbelief, unsure of how I could be happy as a vagabond.

And sometimes, brief moments, while I'm wandering the streets of a new town I've arrived in, watching people go about their daily routines, my breath catches when I realize: I don't have a home. Not more than a medium sized, expandable, flowery suitcase (which the Japanese love) and a black backpack, that is.

No home.


I know where I've come from, but I don't know where I'm going to. Not a clue where I'll end up. And it's exciting! Freeing.

But I can't say I don't sometimes yearn for a routine. Watching hoards of commuters seated on the back of motorbikes during rush hour in Jakarta, eager to get home after a long day's work, had me longing for the days I spent bicycling home on the congested streets of Amsterdam in the early evening hours.

Daydreaming about a kitchen to use, a sofa to veg on while watching a mindless movie on TV, the same bed to sleep in for more than 3 nights at a time, is something I've caught myself doing on occasion.

It's funny, that. While most daydream about their next holiday destination, their next beach excursion, I daydream about normal life. Not that I'd give up this travel gig for anything. Not yet, at least.

But I'd be lying if I said I never hit a travel wall. A moment where I need a break from hostel, hotel, or guesthouse living. A break from constant planning and movement. And gratefully, in a moment where I hit my first wall, where I wanted nothing more than to lounge around a house for days on end, I was handed that opportunity on a golden platter. And I took it.