Monday, March 16, 2009

Seoul, take 3

The next day was our last day to be in Seoul so Mal and Lu were thinking of doing some shopping while Alick was thinking of doing some walking tours. Since Alick was thinking of covering some areas that I had already seen and there was a book market I wanted to check out, so I decided to go with Mal and Lu, as said book market is near the clothes markets they were going to. So we looked at some of the outdoor markets which were pretty cool, with their "adidas" hoody sweatshirts and tracksuits for $10 and all the shoes that probably don't fit me for $10 as well. After looking around, Mal and Lu head into the stores we were at a couple days ago and I go heading off to the used book markets.

After some investigation at the tourist center, I was able to find the book market which was just the side of one street with these tiny closets packed with books with no rhyme or reason. To give a little background information, my main reason for going to the book market was to find something in Spanish because I had already read most of the materials I brought with me and if there is a place that will have a book in Spanish it would be Seoul, right? Another side note, this is a used book market, so it's really like going down a street with churches or libraries doing a book sale. I looked in various ones and saw some of the most random stuff, some books in French, German and English, dictionaries from korean to almost any language, and then some. After a diligent search, I found a Spanish text book and a religious book from Nicaragua and bought them along with an English-Korean/Korean-English dictionary.

Having spent my last won (I only had like $12 on me), I decided it was time to meet up with Mal and Lu. We started our trek back to InsaDong and decided to do the scenic route by walking along this stream that is in the middle of the city. I don't remember the name of this stream but I think it's pretty famous because I've seen it in a couple of k-pop videos. From there, we take some pictures, I make a fool of myself and draw more attention to ourselves, and all in all we have a good time.

Getting back to Insa-Dong in the middle afternoon, we decided to make a dash to this dumpling restaurant. Now we could get dumplings in Ulsan, but this restaurant had something we hadn't seen before, pizza dumplings. We passed by this place on Saturday and talked about going there everyday but just never got around to it, so the build-up for these dumplings was quite big. When we finally get there on Tuesday, we first find out that they don't have the pizza dumplings. What a crushing blow that was! Then the ones we got were good, but it wasn't anything spectacular and definitely not worth the 4 day build-up. Lame!

So we're still in Insa-Dong and we have some time to kill before we were going to try and meet up with Alick so we decide to go to another teahouse. This time though, Mal seemed intent on getting us to a teahouse with actual finches (like the bird) in it. After a couple of bad turns here and there, we finally find the magical finch tea house, which did not disappoint. The actual atmosphere of the teahouse was a lot better than the first one went we to. The previous one was pretty modern but kind of plain, where as this one had all sorts of funky korean decorations and trinkets all over the place. Way cool. Plus, it did have actual live finches flying around in the place, how cool is that? So there we were, sitting on the floor, sipping our tea while finches were flying around us. The actual tea wasn't that good but I think that was due to a poor personal selection more so than them having bad tea. Lu enjoyed hers very much, so it wasn't all bad. On a sidenote, each of these places had probably 15 different flavors of tea so it's quite feasible to get one that may have a different taste, one that you might not enjoy.

We finished our tea, collected our things and then met up with Alick to grab some dinner. From there, Mal, Lu and I booked it to the Metro station to get to the train station on time. In full out rush mode, I go through the first turnstile without much thought, only to realize 1.4 seconds later that I was on the wrong side of the metro. Sugar! Of course, it was just my luck that it was the only metro station that didn't have access to both sides of the metro, which took me a couple of minutes or so to figure out. I finally came to my senses and bit the bullet, exiting the one side of the metro and paying the $1.00 for a new ticket.

I get on the next train and speak with Mal and Lu, who at this point are at the train station to go to Ulsan, and everything was fine, I was 2 stops over and had some 20 minutes to spare or so. Then, with 2 stops to go, the train shuts it down for a bit. They were having some malfunction as the light in one of the cars went out and they said something over the loud speaker, which of course was in Korean so I didn't know what was going down. Now, I'm back into panicking. Please start up, please start up. Time is going by and I'm sitting there thinking to myself, one more minute and I am getting off here to get a taxi. After what seemed like an eternity, the lights finally came back on and we were on our way. In an anti-climatic fashion, I book it to the train station and meet up with Mal and Lu with some time to spare. From there, it was just a 5 hour train ride back to Ulsan, only to have to work the next day......

Sunday, March 15, 2009

After much anticipation

Ok, so some 2 months later, 3 trips to noraebang, 1 league soccer game and about 13 pounds of Korean B.B.Q. later, I am finally getting down to writing the second half of the Seoul Trip. I am awesome.........

Picking up where we left off, Mal, Lu and I whad just finished our excursion to N. Seoul Tower and were on our way back to the guest house. Alick arrived to the guest house while we were out and about, so we had a short break and then moved on for dinner in Insa Dong.

With a couple of friends in town and kicking it in Itaewon, a district in Seoul, we decided to meet up with them there after dinner. Itaewon is known for being the foreigner district in Seoul which became evident as soon as we left the metro station. Literally, the area looked like a western area that had a few Korean restaurants/establisments in it. We saw restaurants that can't be found in Ulsan, like a Saudi Arabian restaurant, French cuisine, various American chains that aren't in Ulsan, some that are in Ulsan, and even Cold Stone Creamery.

After getting over the initial culture shock of being in our respective countries again, we catch up with our friends in Gecko Terrace and Bar. The Gecko furthered the attempt to make us feel at home by carding us to get into the bar. Seriously, what countries i.d. apart from the U.S. and maybe Canada and England? Another note about the place was that apart from the staff, all who could speak perfect English, I could count the Koreans that were in the bar on my two hands. This is saying a lot for a relatively large bar which was so packed that we literally had to pounce on the first chair that became available. So we imbibe some beers there, and decide to move on the next bar after the Gecko. There's not much to be said about the second bar because I was pretty much gone at this point, but I will point out that a few of my friends decided to get in on a poker game with what seemed like some of the sketchiest people in Korea. I swear there were at least 4 potential bond villains in there, or so it appeared in my impaired vision. That, my friends, is Itaewon....

Despite planning on starting day 3 at an earlier time, we pull ourselves out of bed soemwhere around midday, wah-wah. All right, half the day is complete, we need to cram some culture for the rest of the time. So we show Alick around Insa-Dong and it's main cultural street, get to this park, Tapgol park, just by chance and then finally get to our main site for the day, Changgyeongung Palace and Jongmyo Shrine.

We first walked around a park that surrounds Changgyeongung, which was literally a trail and a manmade lake. We also stopped in the "botanical garden" at the park, or as we call it in the U.S., a "greenhouse". There are florists in my neighborhood that have a more impressive selection of plants than this so called botanical garden. So Shortster, if you're reading this, you'll be happy to know that the DBG is still the most impressive botanical garden I've seen. The actual palace part of Changgyeongung was ok, more of the same from the day before (Gyeongbokgung), but not nearly as impressive. The best part of the palace was seeing handfuls of Korean children in 한복 (han-bok), which is the traditional garb. We also saw these Korean playing these carnival type games like kicking up some hankerchief type thing, throwing some sticks in some game and many more. Alick and I tried our foot at the kick-up game but we were nowhere near as good as the Koreans.

We finish with the palace and move onto the shrine across the street. We get into the park, get up close to the shrine only to be completely unimpressed. It definitely was not as cool as the previous palace, which wasn't as cool as the palace from the day before. Moving forward, we decide to get out of there and head towards the downtown area and maybe see some government buildings.

We get off at the metro station with the hopes that we might see some of the municipal buildings but the first thing we see when we get on ground level is an outdoor ice rink. Yes, Yes and Yes! To backtrack this a bit, Lu Mal and I had talked about how cool it would be to good ice skating but it seemed very unlikely. Who would've guessed that it would actually happen, right? So after waiting some 20 minutes for them to resurface the ice, we got to hit the ice, and it was awesome! I was in 7th heaven and there is photographic proof of me jumping up and down with the thought of ice skating. Unfortunately, I couldn't express my satisfaction with the ice skating after the fact because my knees were so sore, but it was worth it regardless.

With ice skating finished we were looking at dinner time, so we decided to make a break for Itaewon and see if we could get some western food that we might not be able to find in Ulsan. Within 5 minutes we found a Mexican restaurant, which was pretty much a consensus number 1 pick for the 4 of us. Now the food wasn't as good as you'd find in most places stateside, but it was still pretty ridiculous. And yes, mom, you can get fajitas. As a matter of fact, I not only got fajitas, but got a mojito as well. Not only did we have good food but we were served by a really friendly, outgoing filipino guy that was wearing an afro wig (not really sure why), which just heightened the experience.

We finish dinner and decide to stay in Itaewon for some drinks, why not right? We head over to the Gecko but it was so crowded we couldn't get a table or a place to sit. We move on to another bar, which is really packed as well but we jockey ourselves into a table next to these Moroccan guys. So Lu and I find ourselves talking to the two guys and watching people play pool, which was rather intense, while Mal and Alick routinely beat these Korean guys in darts. After being there for a while, some guy pulls Alick aside because a Korean female friend of his thought he was cute, and this is where the night gets crazy.

So Alick is over at this table talking it up with this girl and I somehow get coerced into sitting over there (I say coerced but it probably didn't take much at all). And the guy who got Alick over there, let's call him random middle aged dude from Florida, decides that he needs to find some girl for me, despite me telling him that I was cool just hanging out. So the guy comes back some 5 minutes later with some girl who claims to be Indonesian-Australian (turns out that she was born in Australia to Indonesian parents and never lived there) so we talk, blah blah blah, she goes away and then comes back and suggest that Alick, myself and Korean girl that Alick was talking to, go to some night club. So we say our goodbyes to Mal and Lu as they head home and Alick and I get ourself into some fun, Itaewon style.

Shortly after treating the Indonesian-Australian girl for the cover fee of the club, she is off on her own. And by shortly, I mean with-in 1 step of entering the club. That was sign #1 that this was not a good idea. #2 was realizing the clientele of the place was the shadiest group of people in Seoul. If the people at the bar from the previous night were villains from a Bond movie, these guys were the henchmen, the butlers with the killer top hats. And to top it off, Indonesian girl knew all of them, on a first, middle and last name basis. Why did anyone think this was a good idea. So after kicking it there for a bit, Alick and I decided it was a good idea to probably leave that place, which included bringing back the Korean girl Alick was talking to. Horrible idea #2 of the evening, as it turned out that this girl was a lot more drunk than we had thought, and a lot more instable than anyone outside of an institution should be. The 3 of us were in the cab and she would be fine one minute, only for her to go crazy the next, sobbing and asking us what we were doing. We tried to let her get out and have the cabbie pull over, but she would magically pull it together only to fall apart some 2 minutes later. And it went on like this for the whole 15 minute cab ride. Thank you Itaewon!!

So I was writing some more to this post and realized that it was going on for too long, so I'm going to wrap up part two and add a short third segment. Don't worry, I've already started it so it will be up in no time flat.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Tales of the Waeguk life

Ok, first of all, I'm sorry for not having the second Seoul post up, I've been extremely busy/lazy as of late. My apologies. This post is done by a guest writer, a friend of mine here in Ulsan. He had this incredible story that I felt you the reader needed to read so I asked him if he could type up his story for you all. So no Seoul post today but you do get a special guest blogger. Enjoy!

Well, let me preface this by saying I’m generally not one for telling stories- at least not any of my own- but Chris liked this one and I suppose it can at least serve as a testament- or cautionary tale- for the tenets of spontaneity here in Korea.
I feel like being a waegook here must be paired with a certain kind of suggestibility; a willingness to dive into an endeavor blindly, for the sake of growth and experience. It’s this kind of attitude that buoys you to trying strange, new foods, seeing different places and meeting interesting people. For the most part, it’s a sound principle to live by.
Where this convention perhaps leads to a dilemma is when you find yourself employing it after imbibing some seven screwdrivers and an indiscernible amount of beers, as was the case for me Saturday night at Benchwarmer‘s.
As the bar is emptying out, I’m approached by a few guys I know asking me if I’d maybe want to go a casino.
“Where?” I ask.
“In Busan.” Brian says.
“Cool,” I say. “When?”
“Now,” Nathan says.
Without thinking that it’s four in the morning, or how I rarely gamble and am terrible at it, I readily accept.
Brian drives us there in his car.
The ride to Busan is long, much longer than I would’ve imagined it to be had I imagined anything at all when I accepted. Drunk and tired, I fall asleep in the car, leaving the guys to think I may not even make it to the tables.
At first, it seems that it would’ve been far better for me to have stayed in the car. I lose much of my money playing blackjack, and in the most deflating ways possible, always ending with the dealer robbing me of my chips with that cold distant stare that every dealer in the world seems to practice in front of a mirror. Casually and unapologetically, they drag your chips away from you and deal out the next hand.
For me, there’s no greater self-loathing than the feeling of gambling my money away. I feel weak-willed and bitter against the world.
By around five thirty in the morning, I’m out three hundred dollars, and finished.
“I’ll never gamble again,” I’m thinking to myself.
I sulk in a corner near the slot machines for hours while I wait for everyone to finish, depressed, defeated and still drunk.
At around nine thirty I make my way back to the tables to check on the guys. They’ve moved to three card poker, and they’re doing well enough to where they won’t be leaving any time soon. I sit down and watch and, soon enough, I’m tempted to join once more. I exchange 100,000 more won and watch as my sensible stack is, once again, bled away.
Down to my last chip of 10,000 W, I toss it in pathetically and sink in my chair.
When the dealer hands me my three cards, I’m already expecting to lose. Or- even worse- to get a low pair that will string me along and raise my spirits only long enough to crush them once more.
What I do see when I finally turn them over both chills me and makes my heart race- a strange dual feeling, perhaps due to my fleeting drunkenness and exhaustion.
In my hands I hold a 7, 8, and 9 of diamonds, beaming at me in sequential order so as to remove all doubt that I indeed had a straight flush.
When the dealer sees it, her humor almost seems to change, that coldness leaving her eyes, replaced subtly by a sympathetic glimmer. For a moment, she almost seems happy for me.
Acknowledging my victory, she screams out, “Straight flush-uh!” She calls for her supervisor to watch as she counts out four chips of 100,000 W for me.
Four little chips.
I gladly take them from the dealer, gam-sa-ham-nee-da her a million times over and cash out. Wait- first, I play the last 10,000 W chip once more, hoping for that absurd luck to strike once again which, of course, it doesn’t.
In hindsight, I probably ought to have kept the chip as a nice memento of the night. Something I could carry around and use to remind myself of the merits of pragmatism and restraint here in Korea, maybe even take it out as a conversation piece with a girl at a party someday.
But things like that aren’t always well thought out with me. Many things here, for better or worse I guess, aren’t.