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Summer Vacation Part 1

You can’t always trust guide books.  If it weren’t for Sokcho’s proximity to Seoraksan National Park, I might have skipped over the city entirely.  The book I picked up before coming to South Korea makes Sokcho seem like a drab little port city with nothing to offer besides a base for visiting the extremely popular national park nearby.  On the contrary, David and I found it to be extremely pleasant and really enjoyed three nights there.  It was the first stop on our two week summer adventure.

Sokcho is a smaller coastal city in northern Gangwon Province.  We took a bus  from Seoul which took just under 3 hours and cost us each about $16.  Since summer is peak travel season in Korea, we booked a few nights at Afterglow Guesthouse prior to arriving and I’m really glad we did.  I highly recommend staying there if you ever find yourself in Sokcho.  A private room with our own bathroom, TV, air conditioner, clean towels everyday, non-fluorescent lighting and a comfortable bed was only $33 per night.  It was the coziest, cheapest and cleanest place I’ve stayed in Korea.  (Outside of Seoul and Busan, guesthouses or hostels like this are hard to come by in Korea.)  The owners are extremely kind and graciously helped us out with anything we needed, including umbrellas when we got caught in a rainstorm and walked in soaking wet, as well as hand drawn maps and weather updates.  They are a younger married couple who have done quite a bit of world traveling themselves, therefore know exactly how to make everyone’s stay as convenient and comfortable as possible.

The Afterglow Guesthouse owners were very excited to have our picture taken with them.

The Afterglow Guesthouse owners were very excited to have our picture taken with them.

We enjoyed dinner at a fish bbq restaurant on our first night in Sokcho. It was delicious.

We enjoyed dinner at a fish bbq restaurant on our first night in Sokcho. It was delicious.

A young man working at the restaurant spoke a little bit of English and was able to tell us the names of most of the fish as he manned the grill at our table. One of tastier ones was simply called "the most delicious". He was right, it was the most delicious, whatever it was.

David can hardly believe his eyes. 😉 A young man working at the restaurant spoke a little bit of English and was able to tell us the names of most of the fish as he manned the grill at our table. One of tastier ones was simply called “the most delicious”. He was right, it was the most delicious, whatever it was.

On our first full day in Sokcho, after enjoying free coffee and cheese toast provided by Afterglow, we headed out with a map to wander the city with no real agenda.  It started out as a cloudy morning and turned into a super windy, rainy day which required a pit stop at 7-11 for a rain poncho.  That didn’t stop us from having a blast exploring, however.  We took the gaetbae boat to Abai Village, a spit of land between the East Sea and a harbor that was supposed to be temporary housing for North Korean refugees during the Korean War, but it turned permanent after the DMZ was established.  It’s now filled with lots of tiny restaurants known for ojingeo sundae (a type of Korean sausage made with squid, rice or glass noodles and vegetables) so we stopped for lunch to try some.

The gaetbae boat.

The gaetbae boat.

The small man powered ferry, or gaetbae boat, taking us to Abai Village.

The small man powered ferry, or gaetbae boat, taking us to Abai Village.

Many older North Korean residents fled to Abai Village during the Korean War, waiting for things to settle before returning to their villages and farms up North. After three years and no sign of settling, the DMZ was established and they were stuck in the South.

Many older North Korean residents fled to Abai Village during the Korean War, waiting for things to settle before returning to their villages and farms up North. After three years and no sign of settling, the DMZ was established and they were stuck in the South.

Abai Village rooftops.

Abai Village rooftops.

We stopped for lumch to try some ojingeo sundae, a type of Korean sausage made from squid, rice and vegetables that is known to be the best in Sokcho.

We stopped for lumch to try some ojingeo sundae, a type of Korean sausage made from squid, rice and vegetables that is known to be the best in Sokcho.

Lunch break in Abai Village.

Lunch break in Abai Village.

After taking in views of the wild, stormy sea and exploring a few lighthouses, we decided to stop for an afternoon green tea latte and a game of cards to catch a break from the wind and rain.  It was then that we noticed how many people were carrying the same box of fried chicken (yes, fried chicken is big in Korea).  David and I decided we should probably figure out where these boxes were coming from because all the Korean tourists seemed to be carrying them.  Thanks to our friend Google and my ability to read Hangul, we were able to locate the famous fried chicken place called Manseok Chicken and decided that’s what we’d have for dinner.  To build up our appetite for this gigantic fried chicken feast, we did some more exploring and walked to the other side of the city and stumbled upon Sokcho Beach.  Unfortunately, the weather was so bad at this point we were told we couldn’t even be on the beach.  We got in a few rainy snapshots beforehand, however, and instead of enjoying a beer on the beach in our rain ponchos like planned, we found a nice park bench surrounded by trees, shielding us from the wind and the rain (there are no open container laws in Korea, by the way).

Lighthouses in Sokcho.

Lighthouses in Sokcho.

Looking down at the Abai Village ferry crossing.

Looking down at the Abai Village ferry crossing.

View of Sokcho from Abai Village.

View of Sokcho from Abai Village.

Not quite beach weather but still beautiful.

Not quite beach weather but still beautiful.

Dried squid is everywhere.

Dried squid is everywhere.

Wild waves on Sokcho Beach.

Wild waves on Sokcho Beach.

We were able to snap a few photos before being kicked off the beach. Apparently no one is allowed on the beach in really stormy weather.

We were able to snap a few photos before being kicked off the beach. I guess they “close” the beaches in really stormy weather.

Nearly all the Korean tourists were carrying these boxes of Manseok Chicken, an apparently famous chicken stand in the Jungang Fish Market. After enjoying a large fish dinner the night before, we decided we had to see what all the chicken fuss was about.

Nearly all the Korean tourists were carrying these boxes of Manseok Chicken, an apparently famous chicken stand in the Jungang Fish Market. After enjoying a large fish dinner the night before, we decided we had to see what all the chicken fuss was about.

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We opened the box to discover a large amount of fried chicken drenched in a spicy, sticky sauce. Is this much chicken necessary for two people? Probably not.

Magically, we woke up the next morning to a beautiful, cloudless day which was perfect for exploring Seoraksan National Park.  Deserving of its own post, I’ll more about that later.  In a nutshell, it was stunning and only a 30 minute bus ride from of Sokcho.  Thankfully, our third and final day in Sokcho was also gorgeous and since our bus heading to our next destination didn’t leave until the afternoon, we had time to check out Sunrise Pavilion which we weren’t able to see before due to the bad weather.  The water was the most amazing shade of aqua and the sunshine created a completely different view of the East Sea.  It was the perfect way to end our stay in the cute port city before moving on to Gangneung.

The brilliantly blue East Sea.

The brilliantly blue East Sea.

Sunrise Pavilion, looking out to the East Sea. Unfortunately, we didn't get our lazy butts out of bed in time to enjoy the sunrise.

Sunrise Pavilion, looking out to the East Sea. Unfortunately, we didn’t get our lazy butts out of bed in time to enjoy the sunrise.

Enjoying a beer in the sunshine near Sunrise Pavilion before heading to Gangneung.

Enjoying a beer in the sunshine near Sunrise Pavilion before heading to Gangneung.

Sokcho on a sunny day.

Sokcho on a sunny day.

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Next stop, Gangneung.

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The air has become hot and heavy, rainstorms are frequent and monster mosquitoes seem to be everywhere I go.  That  means the first semester has ended and two weeks of vacation are just around the corner.  As I look back on the past five months, I can’t decide if my first semester teaching in Korea flew by or dragged on at a snail’s pace.  There are times when it feels like only yesterday I stepped off that incredibly long flight on that bitterly cold day in Incheon, not having any idea what I was getting myself into.  Then there are times when it feels like I’ve been here forever.  Either way, I’ve learned a lot since arriving in February, both about myself and Korea.  Here are a few brief and random thoughts on the experience so far:

Living and working in Korea has been much more challenging than I’d anticipated.  So much so that I’ll admit there have been days I’ve wondered how I’ll make it through a year here.

This whole experience has been nothing like I imagined it would be.  It seems that all EFL teachers’ experiences here greatly differ depending on where they’ve been placed (big city versus rural town) and how they are treated by their school and co–teacher.  I have to remind myself not to compare my situation to those of others.  I’m where I am for a reason, and that reason may not have shown its face yet.

My co–teacher thinks I’m strange for not eating rice at least once per day, every single day.  However, I am suddenly finding that I miss it if I go several days without it.

I will never get used to having cockroaches as roommates.

My students get very excited when they see me outside of school (well, most of them anyway), and that makes me happy.

When I hear a Korean say maybe I now know that means yes.

I still need to work on not being a perfectionist.  I find myself not posting on this blog as often as I’d like because I’m worried about making each post perfect, and sometimes I just don’t have the energy for that after a long day at school.  Clearly, they’re not perfect anyway.  Nothing is so why worry about it?

The homesickness that I thought would go away after a month of arriving is still lingering, heavily.  I feel that has something to do with living in a small town, which can be quite isolating at times.  That being said, I still can’t say I would rather have been placed in a large city.

Learning foreign languages is not my forte. I try to study at least a little Korean everyday, and it’s just not sticking (the speaking part, at least).  It’s amazing how much you can still manage to communicate with someone even if you don’t speak the same language, however.

I really do love kimchi.  I think I need to learn how to make it for when I return to the States.

That’s all for now.  This week and next I am busy teaching summer camp, which tends to be more relaxed than regular classes (more games and less grammar), and then I have a full two weeks off.  I am very excited, as David will be visiting from Denver and we’ll be exploring the eastern coast of South Korea, as well as Jeju Island.

I knew living and working in Korea for one year was not going to be easy, but there are times when I still automatically reach for the easiest, most comfortable route. When I was asked to go on an overnight trip with the staff at my school, I will admit I immediately tried to find a way out of it.  Staff dinners on a school night are one thing, but 2 days and one night with 26 Koreans who don’t speak English sounded a bit uncomfortable. I was wrong though. Despite the awkwardness, I did have fun and am happy I experienced the Korean version of team building.

The trip started off at 1:00 on Friday afternoon.  We boarded a bus at school with our overnight bags, all the Koreans whooping in excitement.  I, on the other hand, was busy looking around and noticing how the bus looked an awful lot like a noraebang.  Turns out that’s exactly what it was–a noraebang on wheels.  As soon as we left the school parking lot, the disco lights came on the serenading began.  Wait, really?!  I though I’d at least be tipsy for this!  Each time the song book and remote was handed to me, I quickly passed it on hoping no one would call me out to sing a song.  Seriously, I needed soju if they were going to make me sing.  No such luck though, they demanded I sing and after taking too long to look at the song book they decided I should sing a Beatles song (among the English songs this generations of Koreans know, I assume).  So, Hey Jude it was.  It was terrible, but I think they were very entertained.  They didn’t ask me to sing again though.

I was given an itinerary for the trip right before we left, however it was all in Korean so I really had no idea what we doing or where we were going (information is rarely passed down to me, I’m really learning to just go with the flow).  I just knew there would be lots of hiking, eating and drinking involved.  After an hour on the noraebang bus, we arrived at Goesan Lake which was absolutely beautiful.  It was a very hot, humid afternoon and after being handed a frozen bottle of water, I followed the group for a “hike” around the lake.  About halfway around the lake we stopped for makgeoli (a slightly carbonated alcoholic drink made from rice and wheat) and pajeon (a savory pancake with vegetables).  Makgeoli and pajeon are typical snacks along hiking trails at any hour of the day, and both are quite tasty.

Goesan Lake

Goesan Lake

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Crossing strange suspension bridges at Goesan Lake.

After downing makgeoli out of traditional style bowls and walking away with a pretty good buzz (apparently makgeoli is gulped, not sipped) we hopped on a boat the took us across the lake and back to where we started.  Then we boarded the mobile noraebang for more singing and arrived at our housing for the night 20 minutes later in Mungyeong.  The bus was unable to make it up the steep hill to the houses, so we walked up to the unique-looking vacation homes–one for all the females, one for all the males–that had a beautiful view of Saejae Valley.

Chestnut trees surrounded the lake making chestnut flavored makgeoli popular in this area.

Chestnut trees surrounded the lake making chestnut flavored makgeoli popular in this area.

The boat that picked us up to take us to the other side of the lake.

The boat that picked us up to take us to the other side of the lake.

View from the boat on Goesan Lake.

View from the boat on Goesan Lake.

We quickly toured the house and chose sleeping spots.  As I admired the view, wondering what was up next on the itinerary, I turned around to see all the women sitting in a circle on the floor doing yoga-like stretches.  They waved me over to join them, which I did, and followed their stretches, continuing to wonder what all their conversations were about (my co-teacher speaks a decent amount of English, but she wasn’t joining us until later).  It was suddenly announced that it was time for dinner, or at least that’s what I assumed, and we once again boarded the bus.  I thought we were going to a restaurant, but instead we pulled up to a spot by a river where BBQing had already been started by a few teachers who drove all the supplies there.  Tons of pork and sausages (aka hotdogs) were passed around along with rice, kimchi, garlic, onions and some sort of salad with zucchini and onions covered in spicy dressing.  This was of course chased down with soju (a distilled, vodka-like rice liquor) and beer.  I was thinking how full I was when suddenly more food appeared on the grill and I was encouraged to keep eating.  Grilled eel and more pork, followed by grilled mussels, clams and corn on the cob.  I was so full, but I pushed through.  It’s very hard to say no to Koreans when they offer you something.

Our interesting looking vacation house.

Our interesting looking vacation house.

View from the house.

View from the house.

Dinner being prepared by the river.

Dinner being prepared by the river.

My co-teacher who goes by Chloe.

My co-teacher who goes by Chloe.

Grilled eel.

Grilled eel.

After the pork, eel, hotdogs, and corn, they threw on a bunch of shell fish.

After the pork, eel, hotdogs, and corn, they threw on a bunch of shell fish. (Notice the grill master holding a bottle of soju…can’t cook empty handed!)

My co-teacher finally showed up, and I was a bit relieved to have someone to communicate with (even though she’s not much of a translator).  After enjoying dinner beneath a nearly full moon by the river, we headed back to the house.  At this point it was close to 9:00 and I wondered what was next.  More drinking, I assumed, as three tables were set up in the middle of the living room.  Soju bottles and beer cans were placed on the tables, followed by plates of watermelon, bowls of chips and nuts, huge plates of cold noodle salad and platters of pork, along with the most disgusting smelling raw fish that is apparently eaten on special occasions.  So I guess this was going to be dinner number 2?  I was already stuffed from dinner number 1, and the pajeon and makgeoli.  They were very insistent that I keep eating, though, and I guess that’s a good thing with the amount of alcohol being consumed.  The next 3 hours consisted of chit chat around the table, endless speeches, soju shots and cheers…all in Korean.  Suddenly I heard my name and everyone was looking at me.  I guess it was time for me to give a speech.  At least I had soju in me now.  I stood up and babbled on about how appreciative I was for the experience, and thanked them for welcoming me…something along those lines.  They had no idea what I was saying so I suppose it didn’t really matter what I said.  I raised my glass and said cheers, expecting my speech to be over, but they all just kept staring at me.  I looked back at them, giggly and confused, wondering what they wanted me to do.  I looked at my co-teacher, searching for an answer so I could sit down, and she finally said they wanted me to cheers to something, I think…so I yelled “Champions!” and everyone cheered and clinked glasses.  No idea why I said champions or why that made them cheer, especially when I’m not sure they even knew what that word meant, but it worked.

Dinner, round 2, accompanied by many shots of soju and speeches that I didn't understand a word of.

Dinner, round 2, accompanied by many shots of soju and speeches that I didn’t understand a word of.

The drinking and eating finally wound down around 1 am and I was happy to escape to my blanket and pillow on the floor to get some sleep (most Koreans sleep on the floor, not on comfy Western style beds), as I was told we’d be climbing a mountain at 7 am the next morning.  I woke up with a slight headache and a stiff body from an unrestful night of sleep and was immediately offered breakfast, which consisted of ramen (ramyeon), kimchi, corn on the cob and watermelon.  I took a piece of watermelon and a bottle of water and called it good.  I do like kimchi, but still can’t bring myself to eat it for breakfast, especially that particular morning.  As I sat sipping on terrible instant coffee that is so popular in Korea, I wondered if I’d misunderstood the part about climbing a mountain.  All the women around me were diligently doing their hair and makeup while wearing quite fashionable outfits.  I came prepared for hiking and was not looking my best.  My c0-teacher even asked me where my earrings were.  I told her I didn’t wear any because I thought we were going hiking.  She then confirmed that we were.  Hmm, I guess I am just not a fashionable hiker.

After cleaning up the rest of last night’s mess, we finally headed out for the mountain I thought we were about to climb.  Turns out it was more like a long walk in Mungyeong Saejae Provincial Park.  It was really beautiful and I was slightly relieved to not be climbing a mountain at that moment in time.  All signs were in Korean so I’m not sure about the history of the park, but it was a lovely walk.  We stopped for a break after a few hours and enjoyed some more makgeoli and pajeon (yes, more alcohol at 10 am).  Then we headed back to the entrance to get on another bus which would take us to have lunch (thankfully it wasn’t a noraebang bus this time).  We drank more beer and enjoyed grilled yakdol pork for lunch (Mungyeong specializes in this brand of pork, which comes from pigs that are fed germanium and selenium, supposedly making it healthier and tastier) and then went a ceramic museum that happened to be next door to the restaurant.  To wrap up the afternoon, we toured an omija berry farm that is famous for it’s omija sparkling wine.  The omija berry (red in color and translates to five tastes) apparently has many great health benefits including boosting the immune system and lowering blood pressure.

Mungyeong Saejae Provincial Park

Mungyeong Saejae Provincial Park

Mungyeong Saejae Provincial Park

Mungyeong Saejae Provincial Park

My co-teacher drinking omija flavored makgeoli.

My co-teacher drinking omija flavored makgeoli.

Pajeon and omija flavored makgeoli (regular makgeoli is milky white in color).

Pajeon and omija flavored makgeoli (regular makgeoli is milky white in color).

Mungyeong Saejae Provincial Park

Mungyeong Saejae Provincial Park

We ate yakdol pork for lunch.

We ate yakdol pork for lunch which was grilled at our table.

Omija berries, which turn red when they're ripe.

Omija berries, which turn red when they’re ripe.

The bus ride back to our school was pretty quiet.  I think everyone was exhausted from all the eating a drinking.  I certainly was, but not just from that.  Trying to communicate with a huge language barrier can be very tiresome.  Walking into my quiet apartment, I felt a wave of relief for having survived my first overnight trip with the staff at my school.  I was hesitant to go mainly because I had no idea what to expect and it meant feeling quite awkward at times, but I am very happy I went and am grateful for the experience.  Champion!

I stumbled upon this amazing gallery made out of shipping containers in Seoul. On display was an artist named Lee Gil Rae who makes tree-like sculptures out of metal.

I stumbled upon this amazing gallery made out of shipping containers in Seoul. On display was an artist named Lee Gil Rae who makes tree-like sculptures out of metal.

View of Seoul from N Seoul Tower.

View of Seoul from N Seoul Tower.

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Sunset in Seoul.

My small school plants its own vegetables. We will soon be eating a lot of squash.

My small school grows its own vegetables. We will soon be eating a lot of squash.

Yesterday's school lunch consisted of spicy kimchi soup with pork, rice, green beans with dried shrimp, kimchi, tofu dressed in a vegetable tomato sauce and a slice of a Korean melon.

Yesterday’s school lunch consisted of spicy kimchi soup with pork, rice, green beans with dried shrimp, kimchi, tofu dressed in a vegetable tomato sauce and a slice of a Korean melon.

Rice fields in Eumseong.

Rice fields in Eumseong.

Hanok village rooftops in Jeonju.

Hanok village rooftops in Jeonju.

Hanok, a traditional Korean style house in Jeonju.

Hanok, a traditional Korean style house in Jeonju.

You see a lot of t-shirts and hats with English writing in Korea. Sometimes they make sense, sometimes the words are spelled correctly, other times not so much. I found this one in my local grocery store.

You see a lot of t-shirts and hats with English writing in Korea. Sometimes they make sense, sometimes the words are spelled correctly, other times not so much. I found this one in my local grocery store.

Koreans love their karaoke.  Big time.  A noraebang (노래방), which translates to singing room, can be found anywhere in Korea and are popular with both younger and older generations of Koreans (and usually foreigners, too).  Whether you’re in a big city or small town, you are likely to find one on nearly every block.  They even have them on buses and trains!  More often than not, plenty of soju is involved and it is often looked at as a bonding experience among co-workers.  So, as an English teacher in Korea, the noraebang experience is unavoidable.

Unlike western style karaoke where you usually sing in front of a crowd of strangers in a bar, you get your very own private room complete with a disco ball, strobe lights and a giant remote to enter song numbers which are picked from a giant song book.  Typically, you pay at the front desk for a certain amount of time, order snacks and drinks, and then are lead to a private room.  I am not particularly fond of singing in front of groups of people, but I’ve learned to deal with the fact that once you step foot inside of a noraebang, you probably won’t get out without singing.

I have yet to visit a noraebang with a large group of Koreans, however I just found out I will have that chance this weekend.  I am going on an overnight trip with all of the staff members at my school (only one of which speaks English) and was told I better have a song prepared.  Eeek!  If I don’t, I hear they will just pick one at random for me…I better start practicing!

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The first noraebang I stepped foot in during EPIK orientation with fellow English teachers during my first week in Korea.

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I got away with not singing for the first few times. Luckily I was with a group of foreigners who were very excited about hogging the mic.

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Noraebangs seem to be open at all hours, day and night. They are often the last stage of a long night full of eating and drinking.

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I was finally convinced on my 30th birthday (it may have been the soju) to sing with a group.