Tuesday, 25 October 2011

Oct 22, 2011

I never really got around to writing about my first weekend here, did I? Not during my first week anyway. I’ve been attempting to chronicle it bit by bit in my paper journal so it doesn’t get lost to the passage of time, and eventually you might even get some photos of the places I mention here. I still haven’t even photographed my apartment yet and I’m here all the time.

I will now share the After Airplane Adventures with you. Heh. AAA. Don’t they specialize in travel?

October 17, 2011

Holy shit, you guys, I’m still alive.

Last week was the most epic, exhaustion-inducing week of my life. I think half of the reason I got so dehydrated was because I was crying and sweating so much. And stressing. Shirts that once hugged me are much more casual with their affection now. It’s like they don’t even know me at all anymore.

Today was a million times better. Still fairly stressy and nuts, mind, but less… hm… what’s the best word to describe last week? “AAUUGHRGHLBLEGH?”

Sounds about right.

It occurs to me that so far this has been a journal filled mostly with a lot of whining on my part, and I do apologize for that. I shall try to recall my first and second days in this very cool country, rather than rehash my scary scary first week at work.

When the plane was approaching Seoul, part of me wanted to whip out my journal and write everything down—but then I would have missed so much!

The sea (yes, SEA) was dotted with what looked like tiny little boats, that were in actual fact pretty large, considering how high up we still were. Every ounce of tiredness I was feeling toward the end of the flight—POOF—gone. Instead, I was damn near bouncing around in my seat with thoughts along the lines of “Ohmygod, that is KOREA, we’re landing in KOREA, ohmygod,” and other such eloquent turns of phrase running through my head.

Once I left the place (after thanking the captain and stewardesses with a ‘kamsa hamnida’), suddenly I was paranoid about my luggage having gotten mislaid. When my cousin went to Oz for school, some of her stuff was nearly a week getting back into her hands, but Australia and Canada share a mutual national language. Korea and Canada, not so much. I was lucky though! Everything arrived safely! And because I am a giant dork, while I was waiting on said luggage, I whipped out my laptop and made a Facebook update to let everyone know I was in one piece. It was a very thought-out, detailed update. Something like: “So, um, I’m in Korea. Like this second.” I’m nothing if not articulate.

From there, it was just a short trip through customs, and then I went in search of a sign—a sign with my name on it, to be precise. The gentleman meeting me didn’t speak much English, so the drive from Seoul to Pyeongtaek was pretty quiet. I probably would have dozed off except there was so much to look at!

First, there was all the water. The daylight was shimmering on its surface, the boats were indeed enormous, and I nearly blurted out “KOREAN SEAGULLS!!” when I spotted some winged seabirds that resembled the Great Canadian Shithawk. I didn’t get a close look since, but I think it was a bit darker in colour and maybe a bit smaller. Come to think of it, I don’t think I’ve seen many birds since getting to Pyeongtaek. Maybe even none at all. Mental note.

The roads to Pyeongtaek were fairly busy, it being mid-Saturday afternoon and all. The skyline of Seoul reminded me a bit of Toronto’s with its big gleaming towers and company logos, but at the same time, it was completely different. They make the towers into different shapes here, not just big tall rectangles (no offence, Toronto). I don’t even know how to describe them, but they were just plain cool. Another feature that differed between Seoul and home was the expanse of mountains looming in the distance. Mountains. I’ve never seen mountains like these, big and dark and covered in forest from bottom to top. All evergreen, I think because I saw zero trace of autumn colours, but then it might just be too early in the season. South Korea’s a bit further south than Southern Ontario. (Truthfact: one of my students said she wants to visit Canada because it has better snow than Korea. It is of pretty excellent calibre, I will admit.)

So these mountains. We were driving THROUGH some of them. The highway actually tunnels through them, which I thought was kind of awesome. Of course in Ontario we’ve blown through the odd rocky hillside in the name of transportation… anyway. Couldn’t have slept even if I’d tried.

After a lot of scenery and car-watching (I honestly had not expected to spot three Chevys, but I did), I started to feel a bit drowsy and might have dozed off but for my driver’s talking GPS, and these stations along the highway that we kept having to slow down for. They might have been toll booths except we didn’t have to pay for anything that I could see. In fairness, I was a little tired, and I couldn’t read what the signs said to see what these places actually were. I really need to learn more than k-o-k-a k-o-r-u-r-a (if you know me at all, you will be utterly unsurprised by what that word is)

A lot of the other highway signs had English too though, so I kept my eyes peeled for the ones that said Pyeongtaek, and after nearly two hours of driving, we were pulling off of the highway and into the middle of a city.

The main streets of Pyeongtaek are broad and busy, and the intersections would be like to make even the hardiest driving instructor say “whoa.” I have since spent a lot of time watching the lights and the actions of the drivers and I really can’t figure it all out. Needless to say, I obey my pedestrian signals! By comparison, the side streets are very narrow and filled with parked cars, thus making them narrower. I have since walked several of these narrow streets and to not watch your surroundings it to potentially get nailed.

At one point during the drive into Pyeongtaek we were actually face to face with another car down one of these streets. The other vehicle simply reversed back onto the street it had previously been on, let us pass through, and then it resumed its turn. Not a single car horn was sounded. I think that’s about when I clued in that I was definitely not in Ontario anymore.

We drove down a few more side streets and stopped so my driver could make a call up to one of my new bosses to let her know I had arrived. Only minutes later we were moving again, off to what I would quickly learn was to be my home for the next twelve months.

I’m glad that I knew to expect a small place, or I probably would have fallen over in shock when we first opened my apartment door. It’s a very nice place though, bigger than my bedroom in Oshawa, and I don’t require much more space than this, but lord help me, I would kill for a soak in a bathtub. You see, in most Korean apartments, the bathroom is also the shower. Not ‘has a shower’. It IS the shower. There’s a drain in the floor next to the toilet, and you turn a handle on the sink to switch the water flow from sink more to shower mode. A member of my family might have since commented on the brilliance of this setup, as it allows for the ultimate in multitasking in the morning: Shower, shave, shi—aaaaanyway. Ahem. My god, I miss them.

Right. Story times.

My fellow foreign teachers were called to come to my place to meet me and to help me get settled in. I was praised for my Canadian outfit (Olympic hoodies, woo!), and then informed that I was being taken to the grocery store to pick up some basic needs like, y’know, food. Afterwards, there would be dinner. My hungry gut approved of these plans immensely, so off we went to Lotte Super, a local grocery establishment.

Lotte, I would soon learn is one of many companies that owns a metric ton of everything in South Korea, including restaurants, a baseball team, and (dadaaaah!) grocery stores. I picked up some basics. Rice, fish, veggies, eggs, and some drinks. Lotte Super is pretty much a corner store in that it’s literally around the corner from my place, so I figured I could buy more things later. I could only carry so much too, even with the others to help me, which was nice.

I don’t actually know the name of the place where we had dinner, only that it was close, that it specialized in beef Korean barbecue and it was AMAZING. Two words: Beef. Bacon.

I think I have mentioned this experience in another entry, but I left out just how much FUN Korean BBQ is!

First of all, you cook it yourself. They bring you spices, sauces, spoons, chopsticks, a bowl of rice each, and water. The water is an especially important part because some of these spices and sauces are hot enough to peel paint from the roof of your mouth or something. Then they bring you your chosen cuts of meat and a pair of scissors to chop it into smaller pieces for cooking.

But before they did all that, they brought a pan of hot coals to heat the metal grill pan with, and they would periodically change both so we always had a hot, clean grill to cook our meat with!

Once the meat was ready, we took our chopsticks to it and dunked it into the sauces and spices, and put it onto a big lettuce leaf with kimchi, other spiced and pickled vegetables. Then we rolled the lettuce and its contents into a dumpling shape—or in my case, burrito—and consumed. The trick is to manage this without wearing a lot of it. It’s super delicious and definitely something I will miss having easy access to when I get back to Canada. Toronto has a Korea Town though, I hear. And who knows, I might yet decide to stay. But right now I’m still very homesick, even after two weeks. Every day I wear my Inukshuk necklace that I got at the Toronto Zoo last winter, a fake maple leaf tattoo, and I keep a single Loonie in my wallet, like they’re protective talismans or something.

Feeling more settled, but still vaguely unsettled.

Next, my adventures in Songtan!

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