In what seems like a perfectly normal coffee shop, Dr. Fish has tanks of little fish that will eat the dead skin off of your feet for 2,000 won. It was really creepy and weird at first, but after about a minute I got used to it. Some Australian guys came and sat down next to me, and were squealing like babies. It made me feel tough, and my feet feel great.
This was a great surprise. Addison is an author from North Carolina, and the book shows it with the imagery and dialogue. I’ve read a couple of North Carolina authors and really enjoy the vibe. This book chronicles the breakthrough of a late-twenty something late-bloomer who is trying to get out from under her mother’s control. She hides food in her closet as her form of rebellion, and one day she finds a local woman hiding from her new boyfriend in her closet . This woman ends up changing her life and helping her find her own strength.
The Last Wish by Andrzej Sapkowski A really pleasant surprise. A coworker leant it to me with high recommendations. Judging by the cover, I wasn’t so sure, but I was sucked into a two day read-a-thon getting through the adventures of The Witcher and his ethical delimmas as a monster hitman.
The Aquariums of Pyongyang: Ten Years in the North Korean Gulagby Chun-Won Kang
The Sea of Monsters
Book 2 in the Percy Jackson series.
Give us a two sentence teaser from your current read.
The Aquariums of Pyongyang: Ten Years in the North Korean Gulag by Kang Chol-Hwan
“The feeling of being isolated in the very place where I lived, to the point of not knowing who else was there or even where the camp was located, seemed particularly inhumane. It wasn’t just a way of keeping me in the dark about where I was, it was a means of attaching my identity.” Pg. 78
Hosted Should Be Reading.
My three day weekends are dwindling. I’m fairly certain that the wonderful four day work week was just my prize for being one of the “newbies,” and that in two weeks I’ll be back to a five or six day work week. It has been great to have to have long weekends to explore Korea, and this weekend we took the bike out again and headed to the nearby Ganghwa Island. Ganghwa, and several of its neighboring islands are all part of the Metropolitan City of Incheon, even though like Buypeong, they have their own city offices as well. I’m not clear on how municipalities work here.
Ganghwa and Seokmo Islands make great day trips. There is a lot of cultural stuff to be seen, and true to seaside towns everywhere, there is a certain relaxed air along with the cool breeze.
The north side of Ganghwa island is spotted with dolmens, archaeological features made out of gigantic rocks stacked in various shapes. The most common in this area are table dolmens, two to four large rocks form a foundation, and a huge cap stone is placed on top. These rocks cover underground burials.
We took a road around the island, and headed south. The island is dotted with military checkpoints, and at one point we took a wrong turn, the soldiers quickly turned us around, looked at our map like they’d never seen one before, and pointed us in a vaguely different direction.
We ended up at Oepo, which we didn’t realize until the next day. Everytime we showed someone our map, first they acted really confused as to how or why we didn’t know where we were, and then they would flip through the atlas looking for something familiar, but it became pretty clear that map reading is not something many folks are exposed to here. I suppose that’s true just about everywhere, especially in places where people tend to lead fairly localized lives.
Oepo is a sea town famous for it’s raw fish restaurants. Neither Jim or I are really big on that, but I talked Jim into being more adventurous about food and we picked one. After much gesturing and getting nowhere, the waiter finally just dragged us over to the fish tank and motioned for us to pick one. There were conchs, which we tried one, flat brown spotted fish, and then regular looking long chubby fish. We tried on of those, having no idea if it was going to be cooked, prepared, or just served whole on a platter. Here’s what came out first:
A seaweed salad, the conch – which was really weird, slimy, salty and slightly bitter, some sort of snail that tasted like clams and we had to fish them out of the shell with toothpicks, the ever-present side of peppers, garlic, and chili sauce, fried shrimp (complete with shells and heads), a fillet of small relatively tasteless fish, some cooked whole shrimp, and basket of greens.
The fish we ordered came out raw on a pile of clear “noodles” cut into delicate little pieces with side of slightly different chili sauce.
It was really good, and then a soup with the head and the tail of the fish in it was brought out. The soup was fantastic, but really, really spicy. We managed to avoid the head of the fish, I never knew that fish eyeballs turn completely white when boiled, until the waitress came out and cut up the head with a pair of scissors, releasing the bones, scales and who knows what else into the broth. It was kind of sad.
Unfortunately, I felt like most everything except our large fish tasted vagely of dirty ocean water, but we got out of the culinary adventure relatively unscathed.
The next morning we hopped a ferry to Seokmo Island, where the very famous Bomunsa temple is nestled on a cliff-side of one of the interior mountains. It was a lovely area, with a huge, gorgeous temple. It was the hottest I’ve felt yet this summer, but the place was still teeming with people.
It is a holy site that has several components that have all been combined into one temple. There is a cave temple that was built around the year 635. I didn’t get a good shot of it, but in this shot from above the cave looking down on the buildings you can see the top of the rock that is the temple. Cave temples are one of the things I am really interested in regarding Mongolian archaeology. Buddhism has been persecuted many times as a religion, particularly in North Eastern Asia. In Korea many of the monks took refuge in the mountains and in Mongolia they went into hiding in caves. This part of Korea used to be the capitol of the country, and was invaded by Mongols in the mid 1200s.
Also at this site is a 32 foot carving on a cliff face of Buddha constructed in 1928. It was a difficult and really hot climb up the side of the mountain, but we got to talk with some students whose parents were eager to have the money they spent on English lessons put to use. We talked for a while with a college student who gave us some information on the area and was really friendly, until it became clear his father was upset his son was spending time talking to us instead of praying.
Hot and exhausted we caught the ferry back to Ganghwa and did a tour around the south end of the island, which was a huge mistake. There was an enormous sea of people going to the beach that day, and between people trying to park along the road and all the folks walking, it was impossible to get anywhere. The beach wasn’t a sandy beach like we think of it, it was low tide, and a giant mud flat where people were digging for shellfish, rolling around in the healthy benefits of sea mud, and generally getting sun baked. Who needs mudfest? Folks can come to the beaches and get covered in mud anytime.
We finally made it through and made a pit stop at one more temple before riding home. I was so tired at this point, even I couldn’t find much to be excited about. Jeondeungsa temple seemed very new to me, and in fact several new temple buildings were under construction. People were buying slate roof tiles and writing things on them that I assume where going to be blessed and then used on the roofs of the new buildings.
I did like this temple that had “guards” in the doors. I wasn’t sure if they were there to keep evil spirits out, or to bonk lazy practitioners such as myself on the head as people walk in.
We finally headed back to the Incheon mainland, feeling culturally fulfilled. We got quite lost, and a really generous Korean man in a car saw us scratching our heads and looking at street signs. He was trying to give us directions, but then just decided to go out of his way and drive us to the intersection we needed. It was such a great ending to the day to have someone go so much out of their way.
As we were following him, we noticed he was driving a Ford.
Unless you teach at one of the S. Korean schools that is mandating quarantine for everyone who leaves the country, you probably thought you were done hearing about “the Quarantine.”
Sage Tyrtle from the Canadian podcast Quirky Nomads contacted me about doing an interview and I had a great time talking with her about our time in the swine flu madness lockdown. As much as it was up and down while in it, everyone was right, it does make an interesting story to tell.
I think her hook-line for the story is fantastic: “When Shanna Underwood of Ruby Ramblings and her friend Jim were laid off at the same time, they decided to go to Korea and work as English teachers for a year. A week after arriving, Shanna was woken up at four in the morning by a knock at her hotel room door.”
Quirky Nomads has a lending group on Kiva if anyone is interested.
Jim’s grandfather was stationed in South Korea in the late 1940s, right before the outbreak of the Korean War. He was stationed in Yeosu, a then almost nonexistent, and now still small coastal town on the south end of Korea. I learned from a friend that Jeju Island was a stronghold of communist support, sandwiching the mainland between themselves and what is now North Korea. This may be a possible reason for why so many folks were stationed along the southern coast.
We had a long weekend away from the hagwon, and decided to take a trip south. Not just any trip, no, no, we ventured on Jim’s motorcycle all the way from Incheon. Well Jim, did anyway. He left on Friday morning, and as I had to teach Friday, I caught a bus to Gwangju.
Since I don’t work for a public school, and have almost no vacation time for this entire year, the unexpected opportunity to take a long weekend was too much to pass up. Being the kind of adventurer I am though, I always try to fit in too much. My original plan to meet a couple of friends in Dangjin for drinks was foiled by the fact that a huge percentage of the country also had this weekend off, which left me with no train or bus tickets to anywhere I needed to go. I was at the bus station, wondering what the hell to do, when I finally got in touch with Jim, who had been riding his motorcycle all day. He was close to Gwangju, and wonders abound, it was the only bus with any spots left that night at the terminal. I bought a ticket, checked with the guidebook since I really had no idea where Gwangju was, and settled in for a four hour bus ride that started at 11pm.
Since there was no way Jim and I were going to find each other, when I got to Gwanju, I just found a motel and passed out. When Jim called the next morning, it turned out he wasn’t that close to Gwanju, and I needed to entertain myself for a few hours. See, this is where I get myself in trouble. Open the guide book, see what there is in the area – ah, Mudeungsan Mountain, that sounds like fun. I hopped a bus in the right direction, keep an eye out for the Wonhyosa temple entrance, and I’m off.
The bus took a long route up a winding mountain, and it turned out I didn’t need to watch too closely as the Wonhyosa temple was the last stop on the bus line.
Jim called, and was still a while away, so I decided to take a walk up the mountain trail. This is where I really got in trouble. Not wearing good shoes, with a shoulder bag full of books and clothes, but the never ending desire to get a few good pics and a decent hike in, I struck out on a path that said it was headed to another temple, where supposedly I could catch another bus. All would have been well and good, except that I fell twice on my already fragile knees, making for slow hiking, and when I got 9/10ths of the way to the temple – straight downhill almost 3 miles, the trail was washed out and a giant fence was put up to prevent people from trying to scramble around. I looked up the mountain, it was physically impossible for me to get back up that mountain at this point. My knees were a mess, I had no water, and the really crappy Chinese I had for breakfast was long burned up. There was a little path to the right that was my only bet, but I didn’t have the slightest idea where it went.
Jim calls again, “I’m in Gwangju.” Well, that’s great, but I’m lost in the woods.
After much walking, slipping once again and getting chastised by an old Korean man for my poor choice in hiking foot attire, I found my way to an entrance to the park and another bus stop. As is pretty common, none of the bus stop signs were in English, so I just had to get on a bus and hope it was headed toward Gwangju. Luckily it was, and although I couldn’t figure out how to get back to the station, I was able to get into town and then take a taxi to the bus station.
On the bike, 22 to 17 south.
Yeosu is nothing like what it was fifty years ago. Although it is still a fishing town surrounded by rice fields and farms, it has fallen into the concrete pattern of the rest of the country. One thing that strikes me here are some of the places that food is grown. You will see corn plants right up the road, with no break or ditch like there would be at home. Squash and melon plants are spilling onto the streets and hanging off roofs where they are grown on sheets of plastic lined with dirt.
There are several islands off of Yeosu, and a road that connects them all. Well, almost. When we passed over the first bridge, I was thinking it looked suspiciously new. Sure enough, half way through the first island, and the road ends in a corn field. Development is so fast here that roads that are still “to be built” are labeled as real roads on the map, because it would be pointless to update maps every time a chunk of asphalt is put in. The geography of Korea changes constantly. A country that was once completely leveled and deforested is now 90% re-forested and covered in amazingly lush mountains top to bottom.
We turned back around and decided to try and take the road around the islands from the other direction and see if we could get any further. We pulled off onto a road that said it had a temple on it. A long, winding, partially paved, hole-filled road. At the end, it just looked like a row of dilapidated buildings. Just as we were about to pull away, a very excited woman calls out in English, “Oh please come up!!” She saw Jim’s Ohio State t-shirt and was immediately ecstatic over seeing a couple of fellow Americans. She is a Korean woman who emigrated to New York over thirty years ago, and had come back to Korea to reconnect with family and her roots.
As we came up the stairs, we could see what we couldn’t see from the road. This was indeed a giant temple, complete with retreat cabins, giant statues, and a huge temple shrine. Twenty years ago a lone monk decided he wanted to start a temple in this gorgeous location, and set out raising money on his own.
What struck me was how much the area looked like the Maine coast. Pine trees and mountains that come right up to the ocean. Some of the pics here could be confused for pics I took living in Bar Harbor.
Chong, our new Korean-American friend, went out of her way to ask the resident monk if he would mind meeting us. He invited us in for tea. This is why I came to Korea, to meet monks and hang out in temples. He was wonderfully gracious and talked to us for a couple of hours. He even gave us a meditation lesson, and gave me homework. Chong said he gave me homework because he wants to see me again. I asked if I could come back to do a retreat and he told me if I practice, I can come anytime, but if I don’t practice meditation, he will know. It was great, and one of the most beautiful places I have seen. Chong said she wasn’t even planning to come to this temple when she first came, she did like we did and just visited on a whim – and then never left. She’s been studying there for a year and plans to stay for two more.
The monk also said that if any foreigners are interested in coming as a group for a retreat, he would be really interested in teaching it, so if you are interested, we can coordinate, and I will contact them about having a group receive a teaching.
The hardest part of the trip was getting back. We made it the entire length of the country in a few hours, and then spent the same amount of time just getting from Seoul to Bucheon. It made me wish we lived somewhere like Gongju where we would be close enough to Seoul to bus in, but far enough away to enjoy the country.
The bike getting a rest from our butts, or our butts getting a rest from the bike. I’m not sure which.
Filed under: Books
July disappeared faster than a short February holiday in Bermuda. Hence, I read very little, but travelled much.
All of my reading this month was mandatory. It was either for a book club meeting, or something I owed to someone on BookObsessed.
An Acceptable Timeby Madeline L’Engle The fifth book in the Wrinkle In Time series. Polly, the grandchild of the infamous time traveling couple, comes to visit for the summer and gets wrapped up in a time warp that leads to Celtic times. It was cute, and better than the 4th book, but nowhere near as good as the original three.
Child 44 by Tom Rob Smith
Probably the best book I read this month. A detective during Stalinist Russian times uncovers a serial killer who is using the notion that the only violence that exists is controlled by the government to his advantage. When Leo decides to investigate, he finds himself targeted for crimes against the state.
A Thousand Splendid Sunsby Khaled Hosseini
I read this for the Seoul Women’s Bookclub, and I’m glad I did.
The Lightning Thief The first in a series of books where a young boy discovers he is the son of Olympian God. Fantastic, made me want to run out and find the next ones, alas, they don’t seem to be here yet.
*Ruby looks woefully at this list.* I must have read more than that?