Friday, 12 February 2010

Off to America

This is my season of travel, as it seems quite never ending (though I say so happily). My last day at Gilju was yesterday, and I packed up my office before coming home to pack my next set of bags for home. For the next two weeks I'll be back in America between Illinois and Michigan, then back to Andong where I'll start my new job at Sung Hee Girl's High School.

This morning we woke up to our third snowfall in Andong at 4:30am, and this time the most accumulation so far with about 3 inches. Luckily, although the streets were nearly empty, a free taxi came rolling past our apartment to scoop up Scott and I. We met Katie at the bus station with about 10 minutes to spare, and after a 5 hour ride, we are now sitting at our terminal at the Incheon airport quite tired and early. Because the Lunar new year is tomorrow, we wanted to give ourselves a lot of time because of the traffic, which did add an extra hour to our commute. However, we are very excited to go home.

Excited too that we are on the same flight as Katie, which happened coincidentally. When we met up with her, we noticed also by coincidence, that we were all wearing our Converse shoes shirts with horizontal strips, and that Katie and I had on our matching blue penguin hats. We've maybe been spending a lot of time together lately.

Now we have the long flight ahead of us, which will land us in Chicago at 4pm on Saturday (and we're leaving Korea at 3pm on Saturday). The jet lag will be serious.

Tuesday, 9 February 2010

Vietnam- Ho Chi Minh

Along with Scott, Andrew, and Katie, we started out our 2 week vacation in Vietnam from Saturday, 1/16, to Tuesday, 1/19.

We took a 5 hour flight from Seoul to Ho Chi Minh, and were relieved to finally get out of the freezing cold of Korea. Mostly because we were seriously under dressed in our T-shirts and light zip up hoodies heading up to Seoul the night before our flight. That didn't, of course, stop us from venturing an hour away from our guest house to find an On the Border for some Mexican food. Even though we flew Vietnam Airlines, I was still surprised that the two primary languages used were Vietnamese and English, with very little in Korean. English truly is the language of travel.

Ho Chi Minh will always remain in my mind with two dominant images: motor bikes and power lines.

The power lines were so packed together- I can't imagine how the power can all be sustained. What would happen if one of these was hit by lightening?

Riding away from the airport, these were the two things that struck me immediately. There are remarkably few cars, and I felt like we were adrift in a sea of motorbikes until we washed up on the curb of our hotel.

Every bike comes with its own unique personality. It is not simply a road packed with motorbikes, it is a high-fashion woman sitting side saddle on the back of a dirty white bike, a wicker bar stool set up between the legs of a father with his infant propped in between him and the front of the bike, a man weaving through the streets with has balance alone while his hands grip his spaniel, whose paws are planted firmly between the handlebars.

Or a yellow scooter covered in cardboard panels.

Or uncomfortable children.

And several with large unsecured items rushing to their next destination.

Crosswalks were an adventure in themselves. Unless at a major intersection, although they are printed in their familiar block white lines, none of them have lights or walk timers. None of the drivers stop, but are very good at maneuvering. Crossing comes down to guts and confidence in a real game of Frogger.

Katie and I were insistent on getting in plenty of cheap shopping, which we did a lot of in and around the Ben Than indoor market and, our favorite, the nearby night market. Out of one of our shopping excursions came a phrase we continued to quote for the whole trip: "Only for ladies" in a kind of brisk robotic tone. It came from a very joyless vendor when Andrew tried on a pair of pink sunglasses.

Outside of shopping, we spent our time in Ho Chi Minh sightseeing. Our first big stop was to the War Remnants Museum. I'm not sure what I expected being in Vietnam, because in America the primary thing we are taught to associate with it is the war, but it was easy to forget about the war outside of this museum. For that, I'm glad we went. The other name it's known as is the Museum of American War Crimes, so we really had to go in there with the expectation of some bias. Not, of course, that inside or out the Vietnamese treated us with anything other than respect now.

Before entering the museum, a variety of tanks and planes were on display. Inside were guns and shells, grenades and mines, and the most disturbing, pictures of war victims. The most disturbing being the victims of Agent Orange, and I'm not sure how I managed to go my whole life ignorant of it. It was used as a herbicide to spray and reduce the density of jungles, but it has continued to effect the children born to those exposed to it. After leaving, it was much more apparent too. With millions exposed, it would be hard to miss. Everywhere are people with physical deformities on their faces, or with missing or abnormal limbs. Some of them even seem as young as me.

Ho Chi Minh has such a beautiful and unlikely collection of architecture. As it has been heavily influenced by France, there are several building that seemed to transport me right back into Europe. Cafes with tables spilling into the sidewalks, Romanesque arches, and stone carvings made it seem odd to glance away from a building and suddenly see a woman wearing a traditional hat and selling coconuts on the side of the road. It's a very charming mixture.

The most obvious was probably the Saigon Notre Dame Cathedral.

A lot of the buildings in Ho Chi Minh are also very tall and thin when you look at them from the front, stretching far back. Sometimes they weren't even wedged between other buildings so the choice seemed odd to me. I imagine them as buildings full of hallways.

We spent most of our time walking around the city, but one time we took a pair of Cyclos out to China town.

We didn't really care where we went because we were just along for the ride, but the China town market at the center of the district was actually fascinating. It was like an old mall converted to act as a street market, with everything so packed together that it seemed like one endless array. We arrived near the end of the day, so from a second floor landing we watched as vendors packed their wares into giant green bags. I can't imagine what it feels like to organize that every day.

Perhaps the strangest thing we did was get blind massages at the Vietnamese Center for the Blind. It sounded like a good idea at first, until Katie and I were ushered down a creepy chipping hallway to the girl's section. I'm glad nobody could read the anxiety on our faces as we entered a dim, isolated, room and were greeted by a woman with one bulging white eye and one closed eye. Not that I want to sound insensitive, of course, but the general ambiance of the surroundings made me feel like we were just sent into a dirty hospital where our organs might be harvested for the black market.

Katie and I were put into separate curtained sections, and I was told "off" as the woman felt me and tugged at my clothes. I laid down on my bed and gripped the stained bear pillow reading "happy time," listening to an aged woman in the room next door repeating "are you OK?" to herself in a deep raspy voice that made her sound like a dying witch of old. After awhile I calmed myself and closed my eyes, and realized the whole place smelled like fresh wintergreen and everyone was very kind.

One of the biggest surprises of Vietnam was the coffee. It was by far better cold, but it tasted like dark chocolate, and never needed creamer. While most people our age might come to the city for cheep beer, we probably spent most of our time downing coffee.

Not that we didn't also sample the local beer. With our options of cheap beer being limited to three light varieties in Korea, it was nice to expand our palate. With countless options, we finally found a wonderful bar called GO2 with a section on the top floor overlooking the city. It was the most relaxed we were since we left Andong, chilling out in the company of each other without any itinerary.

The best meal of our trip was also in Ho Chi Minh, and I believe I can safely speak for all of us here. Down by the night market we stopped by an outdoor restaurant, lured over by the delicious smell of fish on the grill. Because the whole place was set up with cheap tarps and plastic tables, we knew that the place had to be all about the food. Correct. I have never devoured such a giant fish before. It was so soft, and each bit of it was dipped in a dish (right) with fresh squeezed lime and a kind of special pepper combo.

All of the food in Vietnam was incredible, especially the large pho noodles in a kind of soup. Most meals came with a plate of bean sprouts, fresh hot pepper and mint leaves to add. My only difficulty might have been my unnatural aversion to cilantro, which was quite plentiful.

I might still have dreams about dodging motor bikes, but Ho Chi Minh was a memorable city.

Monday, 8 February 2010

Not Quite Vietnam

Although I promised the post on Vietnam today, I found myself quite ill after a lunch of giant pork-spine soup . I could do little but lay in bed when I came home and try to keep other foods down periodically. That said, I will use this post instead as a kind of preface to tomorrow's real post on Vietnam.

The week before we left Korea, it finally snowed in Andong (the first real accumulation of the season). Two main things can be said for how the city handled snow: the public buses shut down, and the snowmen sprang up. As for the first, it didn't much affect me because I live close enough to school to walk, but I felt bad for the clusters of people huddling around bus stops, when I didn't see a single bus run for 2 days after the snow hit. Luckily, there are cheap taxis all over the place and I imagine it was a good few days for them.

The snowmen were much more fun. The only people I saw making them were middle aged men, which made me smile. With snow being so infrequent, it isn't a season of play only for the young. Actually, the children were probably all in school for the day, as they continue to take classes through their winter breaks.

I took these on my phone walking home from school:

(This one is modeled after a Korean "yangban," a traditional aristocrat (you can tell by the black hat style. It's hard to tell in this picture with the truck, but the hat also includes the wide brim sticking out on either side).

Although it was sad to leave behind the snow of Andong (and I dearly missed the epic Michigan snow this winter), I definitely looked forward to the warmth of two weeks in Southeast Asia.

The only problem was figuring out how to make the 3+ hour journey to Seoul (with the Han river being frozen up there) from Andong without excessive bulky winter clothing, since each of us only packed a single backpack for the trip. Socks with sandals? Oh yes.

Sunday, 7 February 2010

Back in Korea

I'm back from Southeast Asia! With all my pictures now sorted through (over 10 took a bit of time) I'll be posting on Vietnam tomorrow, followed by Cambodia and then Thailand.

As for this week (yes, guilty, I've been back since Monday), I made it through my last English camp in Elementary school. I'd say it was bittersweet, but I'm also glad it's over. Unlike the others, where the gender spread was equal and the student count was about 8-10, this week I was gifted with 11 extremely energetic boys and 2 shy girls from the 4th grade.

Like the other two English camps I had at my school this winter, I was alone without a co-teacher. Usually I find the freedom kind of liberating from the routine of the school year, so I don't mind being completely in charge. In this case, teaching was near impossible when the boys refused to go near the girls for circle or team work, and wanted to spend most of the time swiping mop handles from the supply closet and having sword fights.

Even though it was tempting to play movies all week, I resisted (limiting it to one- Home Alone, a popular choice for little boys) and added more race and guessing games to tire them out. Using newly taught vocabulary and words they already knew, a popular game was one where two students faced off with a bell between them. With hands on their heads and backs to the TV screen, I showed the other students pictures to act out, and the opposing students had to hit the bell and say the correct vocab word. I put the girls on separate teams so they could pair up in the face of time-consuming opposition from the boys. Another variation was to use the same team and bell format, but show them scrambled vocabulary words (after, as a warm up for the day, giving them a word worksheet so they were familiar with scrambled words). In this case their teammates weren't acting, they could look at the TV screen this time, it was just a race between the two students to figure out the answer first.

Another invaluable activity I found was Highlights (the magazine for kids) hidden pictures. The kind where a bunch of little pictures are hidden in a big one, with a picture and word key at the bottom. After a search online I found plenty of places to print them out. A great way to get them to speak in English without noticing (because in looking for the pictures they would say the English words when talking to their friends). Very fun and surprisingly challenging. Meanwhile, I could covertly hide the mops.

Now I can rest. I really will miss all those kids, no matter how difficult they are.