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,