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.

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