Sunday, August 13, 2006

The Korean Summer

My computer is disallowing me to upload photos at the moment, so check back soon because there will be some here shortly.

I am startled with how little we have been writing recently, and so my apologies to those kimchilovincanuck lovers who check our posts regularly - here we go, so stop with the irate emails! Actually, the irate emails aren't bad... it's so nice to know someone cares!!!

Joe has been having a tremendous summer, namely because his Grandpa came to spend a month with him (and, to a lesser degree, his parents). Dad arrived on July 9th, and left on the 5th of August. It was a little cramped, as we put our space juggling skills to the test again in order to accommodate three adults and a rambunctious toddler in our studio apartment for a month. Funny how it changes your perceptions, though. After Dad left, we couldn't believe how much space we had! (Just an aside - it's funny realizing how much less important you become after you have a child, both to yourself and other people. Before leaving for Korea, my parents both informed me that they were perfectly willing to care for Joe while we spent the year in Korea. They also showed no hesitation in telling me that they weren't going to miss me at all - "of course, if you didn't have Joe, things would be completely different, and we wouldn't really care if you went or not" - and the only one who was on their minds was, of course, our little man. It's as it should be, really).

July with Dad was a lot of fun. He quickly became friends with Kim, Kim, Kim and Oh, the regulars down at the Wa Bar, as well as the servers. In fact, not two weeks after his arrival in Korea, they had a framed photo of Joe on his Grandpa's shoulders hanging over the bar. I really enjoyed showing Dad around this crazy and fascinating country that we currently call home. I think what he found the most impressive of all though, and truly it is amazing to contemplate, was the well-organized and incredibly efficient public transportation system. After his first trip on the subway, Dad did some quick research on Wikipedia and found that the subway has 8 million visits ... a day. A few clicks of the mouse later, he informed us that Seoul and the surrounding cities (essentially just a never-ending conglomeration of urban banality connected by well-organized public transit) comprises 23 MILLION people!! It's mind-boggling.

The seasons in Korea are well-defined. Winter is, well, cold, as my beginner students eloquently tell me. Spring is beautiful, warm and filthy when the dust blows in from China. Fall is apparently the best time of year in Korea - it's warm and all the leaves turn amazing shades of red and gold that colour the mountainous landscape. And summer is divided into two stages - rainy and humid, and DAMN FREAKIN' HOT and humid! Korea gets pounded in July with monsoon rains and typhoons from the Pacific, and everyone's favorite fashion accessory becomes the umbrella. And it's not the refreshingly cool rains that we get back home. It rains, the 12-inch trenches they call gutters fill to capacity, becoming small yet raging rivers capable of carrying away those irritatingly tiny, yappy dogs, and the humidity doesn't even think of dissipating. For three or four consecutive days last month, there was a constant downpour. The day after the heavy rains let up, I remarked to my students how nice I thought it was, because for the first time in months, the sky was noticeably more clear than usual. They looked at me very strangely before telling me that this was the heaviest rain they could remember, and that in South Korea alone, 25 people had died, 50 were missing, and thousands more were homeless (and apparently, the situation is much, much worse in North Korea). I felt like an ass and realized what an incredible bubble of ignorance I live in, considering I don't speak the language, and the news I read is almost always of Canadian origin. Imagine something of that magnitude happening in Canada, a couple hours drive away from where you live, and not even knowing about it!

In any case, the monsoon season has passed, and the dead heat and humidity of August is now sitting on Seoul, sapping me of my strength and will to live. The only thing that keeps me going is the constant blast of the air-conditioner in our apartment, and the thought of falafel and baba ghanoush from Pharaoh's, a little Egyptian restaurant in Itaewon that we first visited last month. The owner/chef is a fantastic man who makes fresh pita bread, loves Joe and always encourages our guy to race around the restaurant to his heart's content. And I'm just thrilled to eat something that is not rice.

We had a week of vacation at the very beginning of August, because the owner of our academy decided to renovate. We took the opportunity to attempt another visit to Gyeongju, this time with Dad. Admittedly, I was a little nervous to board another 4-hour bus trip with Joe, not frightened by the prospect of potential misbehaviour, but more by the thought of having to sit in dampness for hours on a bus reeking of vomit after having been successfully rained out of our vacation, which is exactly what happened in May. Well, Joe was fantastic on the bus, but the first week of August also happens to be the one week where everyone in Korea goes on vacation. We chose the precise moment to travel chosen by every single Seoulite, and found ourselves in gridlock on the highways for the first 4 hours of the (ordinarily) 4 hour trip. 4 hours into the trip, we began to leave the outskirts of Seoul. I have never been so happy to reach a highway speed of 50km/hour.

Gyeongju was magical - it's a region where a thousand years of history seep out of all the nooks and crannies, where houses are still built low to the ground, with curled tiled roofs and tiny courtyards, and where massive burial mounds of famous historical figures dot the landscape of the city. We visited Bulguksa, an incredible palace complex from the Shilla Dynasty, before ascending a narrow, winding mountain road at breakneck speed on a teetering bus to see Seokguram, a great stone figure of Buddha carved into the side of the mountain in approximately 750 A.D. Seokguram is a UNESCO World Heritage site (as is Bulguksa), and is thought to be the most important piece of Buddhist artwork in East Asia. Unfortunately, it's encased in glass and photographs are not permitted, so we stocked up on postcards at the gift shop.

The temperature in Gyeongju was an incredible 35 degrees Celcius, not accounting for the dreadful humidity, so a particular highlight for me was the air-conditioned hotel room and the cold beer from the corner store down the street.

1 comment:

Farideh said...

Hanna - i dreamt last night that you were charged with something in korea and fled the country, i met you in australia, this is the second dream where I have met up with you in another country where you are on the run. funny mind i have - luv farideh