Sunday, August 10, 2008

Bye Bye South Korea...

It was difficult to say goodbye to all things that had become pleasantly familiar in JinJu, and torturous to say good bye to Bonnie, Christine, Jonathan and Rohanna who saw me off at the bus terminal. Luckily for me my new home will allow me to rest assured that I am not really that far away. The flight between Seoul and Hong Kong was ~ 3.5 hours.

I arrived in Hong Kong at 11pm and was met by a driver who informed me that there was a typhoon headed for the city. By the morning, he believed, there would be a level 8 typhoon warning in effect, which would mean the city would shut down for the day. "You're quite lucky to have gotten in today!" he remarked. It was definitely gusty outside, and the rain began as we headed away from the airport. In the dark I could see trees sneezing out fistfuls of leaves as the wind fiercely tickled their branches. All along the highway towards Hong Kong Island, around each bend in the road, I kept anticipating that picture-perfect HK night skyline to unfold before me. I could see massive high rises, lit up in endless rows as we approached the city and this small voice in my head quietly whispered to me. She said, "You ain't seen nothing yet! Bu bu bu baby you just ain't seen nothing yet!" Just for an instant before we crossed Victoria Harbour via an underground tunnel, I actually saw the sprawling Hong Kong Island sky line. The next thing I knew we were in it. Roads snaked in every direction, sometimes bridging intersections with up to 2 levels of other roads below. Sometimes I was looking out the window at the first floor of a building, other times I was eye-level with the neon signs hung 10 floors up. The lights were intoxicating, and the speed of everything around me was exhilarating.

My hotel room is on the 19th floor, surrounded on all sides by much, much higher buildings!

My first day out and about was dark and cloudy as the Hong Kong skies where still tempermentally typhoony. It was monumentally rewarding as I accomplished standard, yet unfamiliar, city tasks such as catching a double-decker tram (streetcar), hailing a taxi, remembering that traffic comes from the opposite direction that my brain tells me to check before crossing the road, navigating through the underground railway system, and successfully locating correct addresses of hidden, hole-in-the-wall entrances to flat viewing appointments that I had scheduled with realtors. I don't think I've learned so much in any other single day of my entire life. I saw and heard so many unfamiliar things. I don't recall ever having been so excited about a place before. At times my heart was racing with an adrenaline so overwhelming that I found myself giggling out loud. It is magical and energizing, beautiful, toweringly colossal and so totally like nothing I have ever seen before. I am so happy that I am going to live here for 2 years.

Since arriving, I have spent a lot of my time wandering around SoHo in particular, discovering open-street wet markets, antique Chinese shops, local cafes, flea markets and cobblestone alley ways. The towering buildings are so magnificent. The smells and sounds are potent and penetrating. I feel so safe and comfortable here. I feel, very strongly, like this is already my home. Hong Kong is so completely where I need to be right now, like I was meant to live here. It is perfect.

I made a bid on an apartment, and it was accepted. The rental market here works the same way as the real estate market in terms of bargaining. It is in the heart of SoHo. It is spectacularly central to everything I could ever dream of. It is across a pedestrian-only thoroughfare from a world renowned fitness and yoga facility. It is beside an organic, trendy, hippie-chic food emporium. It is minutes from the liveliest bars, clubs, shops, spas and salons. It is speckled with seafood markets and produce markets and antique markets on grungy, moldy, ancient allies and narrow streets. It is surrounded by one the world's finest culinary hot-spots, where chefs from all of the world come to learn, and establish their fame.

So the apartment hunting is over. I also already have a Hong Kong bank account, a metrro Octopus card and a personal Hong Kong ID card. I managed to do all this myself within my first 3 days here. This city is exceptionally efficient, and so well organized, which really makes the adjustment easier.

Today I explored the outskirts of the city with two new friends, Ross and Cindy, a new teaching couple from Calgary. We set off in the morning hoping to navigate our way beyond the crowed city streets to some of Hong Kong's many outlying green spaces. From our hotel we explored a historic cemetery and then headed up the side of The Peak. About half way up, the sidewalk stopped abruptly and we jumped on a double decker bus heading up. We had front row seats (up top) which provided panoramic views of our route up the "mountain". The Peak is similar to Niagara Falls, in terms of exorbitant tourist traps, even with it's own Madame Tussaud's. We were happy to discover that it is also a hub of hiking/walking trails through parks in numerous directions, back down the mountain. So after a HK $42 scoop of sorbet, we headed south down through Pokfulam Country Park towards Aberdeen. We were in a Hong Kong forest, which was nothing as I had expected. We learned (through a guide book, not an encounter) that there are, in fact, poisonous snakes on Hong Kong Island. The trail took us past a reservoir full of different coloured carp and turtles. The three of us pressed against the metal railing gazing down at an artificial 'pond', like observers at a city zoo, thinking, "Wow... Hong Kong wildlife!". It was pretty sad, to be honest, but we were nonetheless mesmerized.

I took this shot from The Peak, looking down on SoHo and the Central district of Hong Kong Island which is my new neighbourhood!

Tomorrow the new teachers begin an orientation week at school, getting all the details of settling in sorted out. There should be more than one opportunity for celebration and exciting times with new friends as we all explore our new home together. So far it has been better than I could have imagined.

Saturday, August 2, 2008

A long weekend. A long story.

Sunday morning we headed out of Jinju early on a bus to KyeongJu City. It was a speedy 2 hour bus ride and upon arrival, we quickly checked into the KeongJu Park Tourist Hotel. It was old fashioned fancy, very dark with no elevator and casino carpets. On the inside, in many ways, I felt like I was in Korea's version of the Overlook Hotel. The exterior had large scale mouldings to give it a look of misplaced grandeur. It had a nightclub called Sham Poooooo, with it's entrance around the back. Out front, I found this sign.

So we settled into 2 rooms on the 3rd floor and went out to explore and have lunch. The city is full of ancient tombs which look like perfectly constructed, large grassy knolls. After lunch we took a taxi to a mountain park outside of the city where we hiked around and admired old Buddhist carvings and historic temples. We cooled off in a river and just enjoyed being in a forest for the afternoon.The next morning after a couple hours in coffee shops, I was determined to see the top of one of the tombs. It was a hot and sunny Monday morning, and not too many people were around so I chose a rather large one and began clambering up it. It became very steep very fast, and I found I needed to grasp fistfuls of grass, using my arms as much as I was using my legs. It did cross my mind, that getting down might be a spectacle worthy of Bonnie peeing her pants. I reached level ground at the top and turned around to admire the view.

We packed up and checked out of the hotel and Christine, Jonathan and Rohanna headed off to return to JinJu. Bonnie and I set out in search of a lotus patch I'd seen whiz by out the window of our taxi the day before, with thoughts of maybe seeing some more touristy landmarks along the way. We found the lotus patch, more tombs, the astronomical observatory and a massive field of yellow and orange flowers. Around 3pm we headed to the bus station to catch a bus to the Golgulsa Sunmudo temple, which is approximately 20km up the mountain side from the city.

Even though I pride myself on not formulating expectations, the temple wasn't exactly what we anticipated. There was a string of large, modern (cement) replicas of old style Korean Buddhist temples, centered around a contemporary 2-story gymnasium where the martial art of Sunmudo is practiced. It was a tad disappointing to watch a bus load of school kids arrive at the same moment as we entered the parking lot. We checked in with an American woman at the Temple office, who explained the daily schedule. Basically we learned that chanting, meditating, bowing and sunmudo training would all took place in the gym. Sleeping and free time could be spent in the main dormitory temple (where all the summer camp kids from the bus would also be staying), and meals were served in the lower level cafeteria. Interesting. As we got up to leave the office, our host suddenly remembered something. "Oh, you know what y'all," she grimaced a little, "I forgot. The schedule will be different with all these kids here. Mostly in the morning routines and eating times. But just try to follow what everyone else is doing, and you'll figure it out." Alright then.

The surrounding of the temple were gorgeous. It sprawls a section of the mountain completely
hidden from any other buildings or reminders of the outside world (except the cars in the parking lot, the temple souvenir shop and the vending machines). At the highest point there is a stunning temple carved out of the rock of the mountain side, watched over by a towering statue of Buddha, which is encased and protected by a substantial glass awning.

As the evening progressed, first with dinner, followed by chanting and then 90 minutes of Sunmudo practice (not exactly a beginner's class), I started to get this surreal feeling that I was on the set of the next hit reality t.v. series. The Sunmudo master was a young, handsome, and somewhat arrogant man from France, whose Korean was impeccable. There was a 6'4 monk-in-training, also from France, who was maybe pushing 25 years old. There were the two blondes, an American woman and a Norwegian man, both conspicuously attractive, who were the resident English teachers (and translators) on a working temple-stay. The rest of us, who were here for a paying temple-stay, included Bonnie and I, a handful of young, energetic and sporty local Koreans who were studying Sunmudo, a few random drifters and an assortment of young foreigners who work as English teachers in Seoul. Oh yeah, and don't forget the 100 kids there for summer (boot) camp. As I looked around the gym that first night and watched the different families, awkward foreigners, flirting trend-setters, and the seriously hard-core Sunmudo trainers I couldn't help but ask myself, "What on Earth are we all doing here? Searching for enlightenment? Martial arts training experience? Were we all expecting more authenticity?".

The next day we woke up at dawn but missed chanting and bowing ceremonies (because the schedule was wacky and no one knew were we were supposed to be) but managed to join into the line of walking meditation heading down the hillside. We walked along a paved road outside the temple and then along a dirt road through dewy rice fields filled with dragonflies. It was simply beautiful. After breakfast we headed up to the main temple for morning Sunmudo practice and sitting zen. Because the camp kids were using the gymnasium space our French Sunmudo master decided it was a good day to do outdoor stair training. Just picture this - we began by crawling down ancient mountain-side limestone stairs, head first, in the push-up position. Next was high kicking. Then lunges and squats. And we ended with all-out sprinting up the stairs to the stone Buddha. It was still morning, but the sun was wasn't softened by a single cloud. Next to hot yoga, I know I have never before been that sweaty.

I had a nap between lunch and sitting meditation. And another one before dinner. After dinner we did our chanting and regular 90-minute Sunmudo practice in the gym. Following my 3rd shower of the day, I washed my 3rd set of sweaty clothes, hung them to dry and fell asleep before lights out at 10pm.

The next morning Bonnie and I got up one hour earlier to make sure we didn't miss the morning chanting and sitting zen. Although it was hard to wake up in the dark (4am) and even harder to trudge the 20 minute, steep up-hill climb to the main temple, it was worth every ounce of effort. All the monks were present and the ceremony was magical. It ended with 30 minutes of sitting zen meditation, something I was slowly getting better and better at. After walking zen, breakfast and 90-minutes of normal Sunmudo training we proceeded back up to the main temple for the bowing ritual where each person counts out their own 108 bows. Sounds easy, I know. But it isn't. Around bow # 35 I realized that my heart rate was elevated significantly and my leg muscles were burning. I was exerting myself to a similar degree as a regular jog. It was invigorating, but I was happy that 108 is the Buddha's lucky number. When you break rules (such as sleeping in, not finishing every morsel of your food, or putting toilet paper in the toilet) you must do 3,000 bows. Speaking of the number 108, I was of course curious why this particular number holds such significance in Buddhism. Here's what I learned. It refers to the number of defilements to overcome to gain enlightenment, and it is dervied from the following formula:
- The 3 sense expereinces x The 6 senses = 18
- Aversion or craving to/of these experiences (18 x 2) = 36
- Past, future and present incidences of aversion or craving (36 x 3) = 108

Check here for many other interesting aspects of the influence and importance of the number 108

After tea time, but before lunch, we packed up and said goodbye to Golgulsa temple. We were both exhausted. Since arriving back in JinJu I have found a few videos on YouTube that were filmed inside the gym at Golgulsa Temple. Here is one,

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Golgulsa Buddhist Temple

And we're off. We plan to see a few different spots around Southeastern Korea including this temple where we have reservations for 3 days! I will post stories, and pictures, upon my return.

Specializing in the Buddhist Martial Art of Sunmudo

As the home of Buddhist martial arts, a traditional form of Buddhist practice in Korea, Golgulsa is famous for reviving one's mind, body and spirit. Participants awake at 4 am to the songs of birds, attend the Buddhist ceremonial service, meditate and take a mountain hike before taking part in a traditional morning meal offering. The meal offering is followed by Buddhist martial arts practice, yoga, cosmic energy exercises, and the 108 prostrations of repentance. Conversations with monks accompany the tea ceremony, followed by the lunch meal offering and group work. After the evening meal offering and Buddhist ceremonial service, participants continue with martial arts or meditation.

16:00 Arrival
16:30 Rooming
17:00 Time on your own
18:00 Dinner
19:00 Evening Buddhist Ceremonial Service
19:30 Sunmudo training
21:00 Lights Off
04:00 Wake up
04:30 Pre-dawn Buddhist Ceremonial Service
05:00 Meditation
06:00 Jogging or Walking Meditation
07:00 Breakfast
08:30 Working Meditation
09:00 Sunmudo Training
11:00 108 bows
12:00 Lunch
13:00 Departure

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Too much time to think

Recently I find myself drawn down the memory lane of the past year of my life (it sure seems like I have been doing a whole lot of thought ruminating lately, doesn't it?). Well, I suppose that's what happens when you suddenly find yourself on vacation. Free time to ponder. My down time so rapidly turns into time to contemplate my life. I consider myself very fortunate to indulge in such luxurious meditation. It is therapeutic, and definitely an important step in the process of learning about who I am and what kind of life I am pursuing.

One thing is for certain, the past 12 months were full, and I am thankful for the relaxation and rest I am getting now. Last June I left my life as I knew it in Colombia and relocated to to my high-school hometown of Kingston, Ontario, Canada. I spent 2 months rediscovering my independence and quickly fell in love with living alone. School started and I was promptly served a community-in-a-classroom. The first 3 months of the O.E.E. program at Queen's University were an action-packed adventure sequence, fueled with the making of great connections, cooperative learning and eventually creating solid friendships. The following 3 months were characterized by climate. Winter was serious this past year in Ontario; solid and strong. I hadn't seen snow in 4 years. Through the spirit of O.E.E. and encouraged by a promise I had made with myself to embrace and enjoy it, I spent as much time as possible outdoors. Skiing, camping, fort-building, snow-ball fighting, skating, snowshoeing, and just simply walking around in the furry of it all was wondrous. In early February I attended the International Teacher's Job Fair and landed my dream job for the upcoming 2 years. Let me tell you, this achievement falls within the 5 most exhilarating and emotionally draining experiences of my entire life. I spent the next 2 months in the coffee growing region of Colombia completing my alternative practicum with my good friend Brian. We took some time off at the end to enjoy all the fine things that Colombia has to offer (a self-prescribed and well-deserved holiday). We returned to Canada, to face the last month of school before graduation. That 30 days was brimmed with farewell partying, attentive appreciation for all the little things and shining moments with dear friends. Those days, of course, flew by. I spent May packing up and saying some proper good-byes (not my normal style, but definitely worth the time). Then I headed to Vancouver in early June, and the rest is blog history (see previous postings if you're just tuning in).

Wow... what a fantastic year! And what a lucky girl I am.

In just under 2 weeks I will arrive in a crowded city of 8 million people. A stranger will be at the airport to pick me up and take me to a hotel, where I will sleep for 7 nights. In those first few days I will have to figure out how to get myself around the city to see prospective apartments, how to make appointments to see those apartments, how to order/buy food, how to communicate with people who don't speak English, and how to plug in my computer without frying it with 220 volts of electricity. It should be exciting, and maybe frustrating, and maybe scary. But mostly exciting.

I have set a few ambitious goals for myself as I set out to begin a new life in Hong Kong. Redefinition and re-evaluation of who I think I am is a humbling process tied into moving around the globe. Amongst other things, I hope to learn how to use a fancy camera and take better quality photos. I want to join a scuba diving club and get underwater as often as possible (maybe even upgrade my certs). I plan to practice different styles of yoga and maybe take a stab at Wushu, Wing Chun, Tai Chi or even Kung Fu. I also want to write (friends, please remember that I sometimes might need encouragement) both in this blog and on another writing project that I began 3 years ago. Obviously I want to learn to speak basic Cantonese, and I'd love to study Chinese calligraphy. I have discovered that Hong Kong has some fabulous hiking trails and there are groups of expats who organize regular group trips, so I plan to hike as much as I can. I have researched the best city parks for running trails, picnicking and just general parking. I will likely chose my apartment based on proximity to parks and green space. I recently learned that Hong Kong is hosting the equestrian portion of the Beijing Olympics, at the famous Happy Valley Racecourse, so I may end up spending a day at the races!

As for my last 2 weeks in Korea, I believe there are a few adventures awaiting me here before my departure. I will finish up my last English classes on Friday, which gives me 10 days of pure holiday before leaving. In that time Bonnie will have a 3 day holiday, creating a 5-day weekend and we are planning to head East where we will stay at a historic Korean temple. I will also splurge on at least one exorbitant dinner before I go - I am dying to go to this specific Japanese Tuna restaurant, and we'll more than likely hit up another Norae Bang.

Those stories and more, up next! Stay tuned....

Friday, July 18, 2008

A little bit of food life

I finished a great book the other night called Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver. For the record, Barbara and I go way back. I have read everything she has published and I secretly fantasize about what it would be like to have dinner with her, or any number of the characters she has brought to life in my mind. I have conversations with her in my dreams. Her stories of biology, love, family, travel and hardship have soothed me and, at times, enslaved me to the fine pages of her novels. Deliriously inspired by her talents, I have been known to delve into feverish attempts at literary greatness after reading each of her books. She is my hero, in a number of different ways, and I love her writing. So, when I arrived in Jinju to see her latest masterpiece on my sister's desk (in hardcover!) I was, of course, overjoyed and immediately dove into it.

A funny thing happened that same day. I received an email from a friend who, impassioned by reading 100-Mile Diet, has embarked on his own culinary journey of local-food-for-a-year. And whaddaya know, he is sharing his experiences in a blog as well! Check it out at if you are interested. (Colin, I hope you don't mind the plug :) And yes, I noticed that my name is perfectly wedged between loc, tar and ofood in that title.

So I have been pondering food. My culinary adventures in Korea have been rich and exciting. The flavours are so new, interesting and delicate. As soon as I arrived I started noticing the abundance of gardening that takes place in back yards, side yards, court yards, and vacant lots. People use their outdoor spaces to grow food. Food to eat. There are great parks around here, and people take advantage of the outdoor social space. Most houses do not have their own private yard, but most blocks have at least one vacant space full of dirt where plants can be grown. And as June melted into July everything started to grow. From corn, squash and rice to eggplants, peppers and sesame seeds. It's quite beautiful.

As I familiarize myself more and more with the suburban area of Jinju where Christine and Jonathan live, I have discovered that it is more common to see fresh produce for sale on the sidewalks than in grocery stores. Another interesting thing to note, is that fresh grown food here isn't cheap. Going out to eat is quite inexpensive, but food in the grocery store can be pricey. Turns out there is a solid reason behind the discrepancy. Korea pays its farmers very well. Here are some pictures from the farmer's market around the corner from my apartment.

Yes, that is a truck-load of cabbage. Huray for kimchi!

In my life I have been fortunate enough to live in various places where food is produced and consumed locally. Buying fresh grown produce, meats and seafoods is a luxury I have enjoyed and never taken for granted. Through digging a little bit into this local food craze that has begun in North America, the thing that has stood out for me is this - when I am in Canada, enjoying the comforts and familiarity of 'home', I spend very little time really thinking about the background of the food I devour. In most cases I am anxious for the delicacies that I have missed while away, such as aged cheeses, nuts, portabello mushrooms, wasabi, etc. Foods that are exotics and for the most part, imported. But I rarely think about things like, Where does it actually come from? Who grows it? How has it been transported? These are questions I know the answers to in most places I have lived. But not so exactly in Canada. In Canada food comes from gigantic grocery stores with enough selection and variety to intoxicate me into a dizzy consumer-high. I go crazy with creative fantasies about all the cooking I can do with, literally, a world of ingredients. Why have I never stopped to think about the absurdity of that?

So lately I have been thinking more about my food choices. For someone who relishes cooking almost as much as she loves eating, this is important stuff. Lately I find myself daydreaming about a vibrant and healthy future in which I can actually experience growing my own food; savouring the joys of not only cooking it and creating culinary masterpieces to share with friends, but also providing for myself in such a way that actually helps the only home I know, this planet. And I need to find some honest ways of offsetting my embarrassingly large carbon footprint (I spend way too much time in airplanes!). But then I get a slap in the face reality check - Huh? I'm moving to Hong Kong? I'm moving to Hong Kong! What? When? Oh yeah... in 16 days. Ok, Aloni, breathe.... The gardening of my dreams will have to wait a couple years, I guess.

I have just started reading The Botany of Desire by Michael Pollan. I am only 25 pages in, and I would highly recommend this book to anyone interested in plants (hopefully that's each and every one of you!)

Sunday, July 6, 2008

Happy Birthday Me!

I inhaled a great weekend of celebration with my family, in a new and exciting place. On Saturday we spent the morning getting ourselves packed and organized for an island getaway. We planned to head to a place called Nam Hae (South Sea) to soak up the sun on a white sand beach. As most of you probably know, this is precisely my favourite kind of adventure. On our way out of Jinju, in the early afternoon, we stopped by the school to pick up Jonathan and say hello to Kyung-Me. Bonnie bought a goguma (Korean sweet potato) cake - So yummmmmy.

After a 2 hour bus trip, we arrived in the small village of SangJu, and checked into a hotel. We strolled to the beach at dusk. The air was full of moisture in a thick layer of fog that blanketed the tops of lush mountains around us. The street that ran parallel to the beach was lined with neon signs highlighting seafood restaurants. In front, their welcome signs were large salt-water tanks full of squid, octopus, abalone, crab, eel, and an array of fish.

We decided on a spot where Christine and Jonathan had eaten before, and ordered what the people behind us were having. A huge bubbling seafood stew served on a propane stove with a multitude of Korean side dishes. I could feel that this was going to be exciting.

So far my Korean culinary adventures have been as diverse as they are extraordinary. I have tried and loved jelly fish, octopus, stingray, and dried whole anchovies. Not to mention the many other delicious unnamed, unidentified items I have tried. We eat out about 50% of the time here, and as per my experience, a meal in a Korean restaurant - any Korean restaurant - is a culinary adventure.

So picture this: you have a minimum of 20 different flavours to compliment the main dishes, creating combinations that satisfy every square mm of your tongue. We enjoy the standard proteins (pork, beef, fish, chicken or soy), accompanied by sides of fresh vegetables, marinated vegetables, pickled vegetables and fermented vegetables, bean pastes, seaweeds, dried fish products and spicy hot things galore! I have not yet experienced the sensation, at least that I am aware, of trying dog, which is common fare on dining tables here.

We spent a lazy Sunday on the beach, grateful that the Korean holiday crowds were not yet out in full force. We all loved watching Rohanna put her feet in the ocean for the first time, and feeling the texture of sand between her toes for the first time. The beach was beautiful, and I found hours of inspiration in the shoreline shells, my new book, a little white wine and the warm sun.

We took a late afternoon bus back to Jinju. As we travelled through the Korean hillsides on our way home I recalled as many previous birthdays as I could. This is a personal tradition I engage in every year, and this time I decided it might be a good idea to document these events somewhere. Lately I am addicted to journaling and I am excited at the opportunity to share these memories with all of you. It is a little like cheating for next year, but some of these memories are far too good to let slip away into the depths of my well-withdrawn memory bank. There are some very special moments, and monumental experiences tied into these past birthdays. The people who shared this special day with me over the past 29 years are all dear to me in an assortment of ways. I am grateful to have shared my life with each and every one of you who have undoubtedly played a major role in the development of who I am today. I thank you and I love you.

2008 (29) - NamHae, South Korea -

2007 (28) - Kingston, Ontario -
I woke up at Pine St. having spent my first 2 nights sleeping there since returning to Canada from Colombia. I had only a backpack of clothes, no food, or household items because I hadn`t actually moved in yet. I drove a rental car to the public library to check my email, activated my cell phone and headed back to Burlington to get all my belongings. Nana cooked me dinner.

2006 (27) - Southern Ontario -
I woke up in the peaceful surroundings of Ellie's cottage on Bala Bay in Muskoka. Aaron and I hit the road early, with plans of making it back into Toronto before things got too busy. Half way home we detoured into Orilla and spent the afternoon exploring Casino Rama. Then we headed back to Ellerbeck St. for dinner and a hot tub.

2005 (26) - Cali, Colombia -
Aaron, Theory, Mark and I woke up early and enjoyed a LaBuitrera morning with coffee on the front porch. We headed out to the Cali artisanian district and checked out the galleria market before an afternoon of bowling and beer at Linea 10. In the evening, Aaron and I splurged at SunSai, and had superb sushi in style.

2004 (25) - Grand Cayman Island, W.I. -
Jason and I woke up at our apartment in West Bay. Bonnie was visiting and we picked ackees from the back yard for a traditional Jamaican breakfast. We also had Colombian coffee and Californian fruit smoothies. By noon we were on a catamaran headed for Stingray City. We followed that with cocktails at a pool bar. Next, we drank a bottle of wine on the rocky coast beside the turtle farm watching the sunset before an exquisite meal at Passione with friends from the Westin and the Hyatt.

2003 (24) - Lunenburg, Nova Scotia -
Rita, Shelly, Dustin, Aaron, Nana and Bonnie were all visiting Jason and me in Lunenburg. Diane and David planned an amazing backyard BBQ party to celebrate my birthday. I finished off the night with Jason, Karen, Sandy, Hoss, Lohnes and a few others at the Knot.

2002 (23) - Wolfville, Nova Scotia -
Jason and I planned a birthday getaway weekend in front of the fireplace in the Bayport house I rented for 5 weeks. On my birthday we woke up early and headed to Wolfville. We drank daiquiris on the back patio of Joe's Food Emporium all afternoon. Later, as we strolled down main street, we made an impulsive visit to a tattoo parlor, barely leaving us enough time to get ready for our reservations at Grand Pre Winery. We had a spectacular 4-hour dinner, wrapped up with Pomme D'or apple ice wine under the grape vine pagoda. We continued to celebrate after dinner with Lohnes at the Anville. The next day we returned to Lunenburg to meet Karen, Sandy, Dan, Jeff, Kevin, Jill and the rest of the OFF crew at the Knot.

2001 (22) - Lunenburg, Nova Scotia -
Another birthday party at the Knot. This was the infamous Grey Goose year. I lived in a grey house on Montague St. with Bub, Todd, Craig, and Ashley. There were many fun nights spent on the back lawn, front stoop and crowding in the carpeted living room to play Excite Bike and listen to Pearl Jam. On the night of my birthday as the crowds returned from the pub someone shouted with excitement, "Oh goody, look! There's a tent on the lawn". Whoever it was fled in embarrassment after almost curling in with Bonnie for the night.

2000 (21) - Lunenburg, Nova Scotia -
I worked the lunch shift at the Fish, knowing that small party arrangements were being carried out for the evening. Pete and I lived in a small apartment across from the Bank of Montreal on King St. Along with a few others, Bonnie, Pete, Jacqueline, Bub and I drank fresh strawberry daiquiris and ate strawberry shortcake. We celebrated the night away at, well yes, I am sure you guessed it - the Knot.

1999 (20) - Lunenburg, Nova Scotia -
My first summer in Lunenburg. I worked at the art gallery all day and then followed Trevor, Todd, Kelly and Lohnes out to Bub's shack in Sunnybrook. We played no-friend-o and drank beer.

1998 (19) - Kingston, Ontario -
I worked the dinner shift at Whiskey Willy's and proceeded to celebrate turning of legal drinking age with Dan and his boys at The Brass. We played pool all night and ate Bubba's poutine on the way home to Bear who was waiting patiently for us.

1997 (18) - Kingston, Ontario -
Dan and I went to A.J.'s to celebrate with friends. I remember our celebrations couldn't be overly public because the I.D I had used to get in said my birthday was December 12th, 1975 (my sister's birthday). We had moved into the Quebec St. apartment 4 days prior. Around 4 days later, we adopted Bear from Dan's mother.

1996 (17) & 1995 (16) - Kingston, Ontario
My sixteenth and seventeenth birthday celebration happened in the same place, with more-or-less the same people. I share the same birthday with Jen Rodney and Sara Thompson and for years they had been celebrating together. These 2 years I jumped on the party bandwagon at the Rodney's place in Grenadier. On my seventeenth birthday my family came to Kingston and we went rock climbing at th Boiler Room. With many fun Kingston family friends we had a picnic-style party in the back yard of the Russel St. house.

1994 (15) - Kingston, Ontario -
This is where things begin to get a little fuzzy, which may or may not be am effect of how this summer was spent. I believe I spent this birthday with Katelyn, Ryan, Adrian, Johannes, Fraser, Alyssa and Malissa at the John St. house. The deck hadn't been built yet and we sat on lawn chairs around a wagon wheel table in the 2-meter by 10-meter strip of grass between their house and the next. That's about all I can pull from the depths of the memory bank. Sad, I know.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Happy Birthday Canada!

Yesterday my thoughts were with many of you who live in Canada, as I wondered what you may be doing to celebrate our nation's birthday. There are some small things I am missing about Canadian summers - lunch on a patio, sitting on a lawn of cool, thick grass, beer, late sunsets, swimming in a lake and blueberries. I've noticed varieties of berries available in places I have travelled, including all different types of strawberries and raspberries. However, my memories of big n' fat blueberries seem to correlate with summer in Canada. I hope everyone is enjoying the freshness and warmth of summer, wherever you may be.

I am slowly getting intro the grove here in Korea. I am enjoying the challenge and playfulness of teaching a few private English classes, I am absolutely loving being an auntie, and I am learning through living in a place where I can't communicate with the majority of the population. It is amazing how much we take language for granted after short periods of being surrounded by our native tongue. It has been a humbling process to immerse myself in a foreign place where language has become a constant, and thick, barrier around me.

As I write this, the sky is dumping buckets of rain outside my window. The strange darkness of mid-afternoon is occasionally sliced with a flash of lightning, followed by a crashing roll of thunder that actually seems to echo off the steep banks of the river. Monsoon season is here.

At around 7 pm last Friday I proposed a weekend trip to Seoul. We could catch the bus Saturday morning and return Sunday night. Bonnie seemed excited and then further encouraged when the women we work with (Kyung-Me, Sunny, Clair, and Gaylene) agreed that we should all go on this adventure together. They would undoubtedly show us the hot spots for shopping and eating and partying. In asking them some details about what we could see and do and where we would stay, this conversation ensued. At first Bonnie was confused.

We can sleep at a sauna/bath-house for 8 or 9 dollars.
- Sleep at the sauna?
Yes, they have sleeping rooms and provide pajamas.
- Oh. Where will you put your bags before going to the sauna to sleep?
- Yeah, like... will you carry your backpack around Seoul while we go shopping, drinking, dancing and stuff?
Backpack? I'm not taking a backpack.
- Well what are you taking with you?

At this point Clair reaches around behind her to pull the small purse off the back off her chair and with a big smile, holds it up to show Bonnie.

I'm taking this.

So off we went to Seoul. We woke up to rain the next morning and headed off with half-full back packs. We hailed a taxi, got inside and said "Bus Terminal?". Luckily the driver smiled and nodded. At this moment something dawned on Bonnie and I both at the exact same time. In our excitement, and haste, we were heading off without any of the standard foreigner tools that would probably come in handy, if not be entirely necessary, to keep us out of frustrating situations. No guide books, no phrase book, no maps, no instructions and no real plan except to meet the women at a Burger King in a neighbourhood called Itaewon around 8pm (they had classes on Saturday morning). What were we thinking?

Amazingly all went well. Bonnie and I mastered the bus terminals, the sub-ways and ordering food (which was a breeze because Itaewon = toursit central). We met the women , had dinner and went to a fun area of town for some partying, Seoul-style. Bonnie and I were still entertaining the idea that we may find a cheap motel. No luck. But hey, staying in the sauna seemed like an adventure we may never have the chance to experience again, so why not? We both agreed. It's just one night, how horrible can it be?

Korean baths are interesting cultural centers which have been fascinating tourists for many years. It turns out, you can visit variations of them in many countries around the world. Wikipedia explains them as such,

Jjimjilbang (찜질방) are large, gender-segregated public bathhouses in Korea, complete with hot tubs, showers, Finnish-style saunas, and massage tables, similar to what you may find in a Korean sauna or mogyoktang. However, in other areas of the building or on other floors there are unisex areas, usually with a snack bar, ondol-heated floor for lounging and sleeping, wide-screen TVs, PC bang, noraebang, and sleeping quarters with either bunk beds or sleeping mats.

If you are interested, write me an email and I will elaborate with all the details, but here I will just say this: It was wild. After crusinsing around Hongdae district in the rain, the six of us found a sauna to stay at. It began with a scrub down in the communal baths at 2:30am. Then, decked out in matching hot pink pajamas we joined over 100 other people who were sleeping at the sauna house. It was unbelievable. Multiple floors of people spawled out, hardly any of whom were actually sleeping. More than 35 people stretched out in front of big-screen televisions. Kids played cards. Groups of people had their own little social gatherings everywhere. There were cold rooms, hot rooms, quiet rooms, dark rooms, a computer room and a restaurant. It was fascinating. You had to scavenge for a linolium mat and brick-shaped pillow. You had to pay for a blanket and then attempt to lay claim to an area of floor (not easy when you are a group of 6 people and you arrive late). Gaylene summed it up perfectly when she said, before settling down to sleep, "I feel like we're at one of those emergency shelters set up after a natual disaster."

Through all the excitement, the bright lights, the loud noises, and thieves who stole our mats and pillows at 6am, I actually managed to sleep quite well.

Monday, June 23, 2008

The first fortnight

So I have been in Jin-ju for 2 weeks now. The transition between cultures has been less shocking thanks to having my family here, but nonetheless I still stumble around in amazement at times. The sights transfix me; neon lights of the narrow alleys packed with people and cars and things for sale, rugged cliffs and flat rice fields, temples and architecture from fairy tales. The smells are a dazzle of newness; salty foods from the ocean, flowers that smell of banana and coconut, soil of strange compositions from a different geography. And the sounds inspire me; new bird calls that persist through a downpour, the quiet sharpness of Korean tongues, and the innocent giggles of children when they see my adorable niece, with her uniquely recessive characteristics.

Trying to speak Korean has been challenging. When in a foreign place I am usually most concerned with learning my 3 basics - Hello, Thank-You and I'm Sorry. In Korean, the word for hello is AHN-NYUNG HA-SEH-YO. Seriously. It took me 5 days to say this in public. The word for thank-you is GAM-SAH HAM-NEE-DA. I'm am not joking. I haven't even tackled I'm sorry yet. I just smile and sometimes bow my head slightly and swallow my pride. I have accepted my foreignness in a new way.

I have begun tutoring English lessons through the school where my sister, and now my mom, teach at. Mostly I work with individual students who have requested extra practice lessons in reading and writing. I work with 2 young women who will be attending a Canadian school next year on an exchange program.

Last week I experienced one of many firsts, and promised not be my last, Noraebang. For those of you who haven't had the pleasure in Asia or elsewhere, Noraebang is Korean for "Singing Room". A private, personal karaoke bar in a 5 x 5 meter below-ground living room. Imagine excessively loud 80's rock (mainly Jon Bon Jovi and Bruce Springsteen), 6 television screens, flashy tambourines and neon disco balls. Add beer, snacks, 3 foreigners who can't sing and 3 Koreans who can, and you have my night at the Noraebang. Am I the only person who didn't realize the origin of the word 'karaoke' is Japanese?

Another adventure ensued this past weekend when we made a day-trip to the ocean. We travelled just over an hour by bus to reach the ruggedly island-studded coast of the Korea Straight between Japan and South Korea. It was truly breathtaking.

Highlights, exciting things that have caught my attention, and funny experiences since arriving here include, but are not limited to the following: the reflexology zen foot park, assorted baked goods made from rice flour (tripple yummmm), ringing my bell while cruising around the neighbourhood on my new red bike, experimenting with different Korean candies and delicacies, listening to my niece's fist real baby-belly-laugh and watching my sister's adoring face while it happened, meeting and spending time with Jonathan's mother and sister who are here visiting from Australia, and giggling into the wee hours with my mom in our dorm room apartment above the pajama store, across from the GS Mart.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

My 16-hour trans-Pacific voyage

I left Vancouver at 12:45 on a direct flight to Incheon, just outside of Seoul. The flight was great. Entertainment-on-demand is a real bonus (I watched 4 movies!). I was surprised as we left Vancouver to see coast line out the window for about 2.5 hours. I had expected the plane to set off directly across the Pacific Ocean, but instead we seemed to be travelling north. I checked out our route, and was amazed to see our flight path took us up all the way to Alaska and across the Bearing Straight.

We landed in Incheon almost an hour late, which meant I was pretty sure I wouldn't make the connecting flight. I needed to get my luggage (which is always the very last off the plane), clear customs, buy a ticket for and find a bus to Gimpo airport, check in at Gimpo and find my new departure gate. I had exactly 95 minutes to accomplish all these things. I knew that the airports were about 30 minutes apart travelling by bus. It seemed likely that I would be sleeping in a hotel in Seoul.

I couldn't think of what to do other than follow the plan I originally had. What else was I going to do? Getting off the plane and simply getting to the customs area took 21 minutes. "Perfect," I thought to myself sarcastically. Luckily, customs was easy. The customs man and I didn't even speak. I handed him my passport, he smiled, scanned it, typed a couple quick things on his keyboard, nodded and that was that. Exactly 30 minutes later, my luggage barrelled down the conveyor belt, second from last. I looked at the digital clock. 44 minutes till my next plane was scheduled to leave. I found the bus, loaded all my baggage and snagged a seat in the front row. Yesssss! I planned to spring from the bus once it stopped and run madly through Gimpo airport. I spent the 30-minute bus ride rehearsing how I would plead with the check-in personnel to let me on the plane, seeing that I would be arriving at Gimpo within about 14 minutes of take-off. I also soaked up the scenery and relished in amazement of my surroundings. "I am in Asia," I kept telling my brain, "Asia!"

Gimpo airport, domestic terminal, 9 minutes till take off. The bus let us off directly in front of the Air Korea check in counter, but on the wrong level. I dashed for a cart, loaded up my bags and pushed my way into a crowed elevator. "Come on, come on, come on...". The doors open, and there's nobody in line. Is this a good thing or a bad thing? "Am I too late?" I panted, out of breath, as I handed the woman my passport. She looked at me a little sideways, and told me she didn't speak much English. She then carried on to check me in as casually as if I was the normal 2 hours early. She pointed me towards the gate, which was 50 feet away, took my bags and said with a smile, "Have a good trip."

And that was that. No problem. Easy. Perfect.

As I walked calmly towards my departure gate with 3 minutes to spare, I wanted to yell really loudly, "I love Korea! I LOVE Korea. I LOVE Gimpo!" The impulse probably came from having not spoken to people very much over the past 16 hours. Or maybe the idea that I was surrounded by people who would probably not understand me, and not think of me as any less or more crazy because of an English outburst. Who knows. Maybe it was the fact that it was sunny and beautiful, I hadn't slept a wink in the last 21 hours and I had made it. I was just 55 minutes away from seeing my family. As I boarded the flight, I felt like I was on top of the world. A new and exciting world.

Sunday, June 8, 2008

The adventure begins

The indulgent month of May wrapped up with a convocation ceremony, warm celebrations and teary goodbyes in Ontario. Amazing experiences and memories had been forged over the past 10 months in Kingston, Ontario and although it was a tough departure, I set off with keen energy for a new adventure in Asia. I made one important stop along the way.

I left Toronto at 8:30pm on a plane bound for Vancouver. We took off in a dusky twilight, and as the plane tucked its wheels into its chest cavity, I caught a glimpse of an ember-red sun slipping beneath the horizon line. As the plane ascended skywards, to my surprise and splendor, I witnessed a reverse sunset. An evening dawn. My face pressed against the window, corners of my mouth curled up in delight, I could hardly believe the spectacle before me. The glowing, red sun resurfaced slowly, inch by inch until it hovered above the cloudless Toronto horizon. It stayed afloat long enough to slightly illuminate the Bruce Peninsula below us as the plane chartered it's course westward. We were chasing the sun.

The colours of the sunset spread out in thick layers. First a fiery orange, lifting up into a dusty yellow, and then fading into a hundred smoky shades of blue. The landscape below was a dark mixture of silvery greys, just out of reach of the sun's light. I sunk into my chair and rested the back of my head on the seat. I exhaled deeply and closed my eyes. The perpetual sunset lasted 4.5 hours, almost the entire way to British Columbia.

10 days in Vancouver

My dad, Bruce, his girlfriend, Barb and I went on many small adventures in and around Vancouver. We checked out marshes and gardens, and spied on birds with binoculars and zoom lenses. Barb and I took in a few yoga classes, including one on the grass at Kitsilano Beach. It was refreshing and energizing to stretch and balance under the trees, looking out over the ocean with healthy spring grass below our mats.

We went on a road trip to White Rock and then crossed the boarder for a day in Bellingham, Washington. We also took in some art; galleries, openings and shows of inspiring printmakers from all over the world. We walked Wreck Beach and admired the Vancouver skyline from the Jericho Sailing Club. We explored VanDusen Botanical Gardens on a sunny afternoon. And we ate countless portions of good grub at fun Vancouver eateries (Naam, The Red Burrito, Capers, Go Fish Ocean Emporium, and The Noodle Box, to name a few). My dad and I explored the touristy venues of Vancouver, like Stanley Park, Granville Island and Kitsilano Beach.