All the Small Things

Trip Start Feb 12, 2006
Trip End Mar 02, 2007

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Wednesday, June 7, 2006

There will be no apologies for the huge gap since the last time I wrote. Far from it being a sign that I have fallen off the continental plate, it actually means I finally got myself a life!
Alas, my busy schedule means that I have a lot to say. Good for you loyal readers though, it means I'll be a little more selective about my stories, and I will pare down the drunken shenanigans tales. Hopefully, it will be an exercise in brevity...
Children's Day in Korea is a bigger holiday for the little'uns than Christmas or their birthday. It is a day devoted entirely to kidlets and the things they thrive on: games and candy. It's all super for us grown-ups because it's a public holiday! The parents have the day off to spend with their darling offspring, while us sonsangnims have the day off to get away from them!
In an effort to do something productive with my open Friday, I took myself along to ID Hair, a fancy hair salon that looks like everything my dream home would be. The place is all decked out in the shiniest of shinies, with lovely squishy couches to submerge yourself in while you wait for your personal consultation. The most impressive thing about hair-dressers in Korea is that you don't need to make an appointment. You just stroll on in, flop onto the couch and wait around ten minutes for a spunky young dude to come and kneel in front of and ask you about you hair care history and maintenance techniques and discuss the future of your head in the long term. I almost felt I was going for a bank loan, but with much more soft patting, meaningful looks, thoughtful pauses and a nice glass of iced-tea.
My hairdresser - sorry stylist - was in fact a spunky dude with a haircut that was much more high maintenance than mine would ever dream of being. At first he thought there was a problem in the translation when I told him I'd never had a perm - the curly mass on my head was what I got by default. He was suitably aghast when I told him I wanted to get rid of the aforementioned curls with a magical straight perm, deleting them for all time (or until it grows out). He did a lot of hair stroking and taking single strands of hair in his fingers and gently tugging it to test it's bounce. He ran his fingers through it a lot, and separated it into different sized sections for his own personal enjoyment before finally declaring my head was fit for the treatment if I was sure I wanted to go through with it.
Indeed I was. My dreams of shiny swishy hair would soon come to fruition.
You might assume that sitting in a hair-dresser for five hours would be boring. You are in fact, mistaken. Many many things can happen in a hair salon in a five hour span to keep one entertained, such as singing the entire repertoire of the Animals Animals Animals CD, everything from Little Peter Rabbit to The Ants go Marching. Things also took an odd turn when my hairdresser asked me out on a date.
Ok, first I have to clarify something here. In Korea, male hairdressers are quite the norm. They are neither gay nor fruity, and are very highly respected. They are even given the same title as me, sonsangnim, which means that like us fine educators, they are held in high esteem. So, back to the narrative.
My apologies to Ina who had to translate the entire incident. The conversation started with the hairdresser (HD from now on) saying my hair was glorious like Barbie's and soft like a child's, which, apparently is very sexy in this country. He told Ina he wanted to be my boyfriend, to which I replied, "Ina the guy is joking." "No I'm not," says he, "yes you are" says I. This went on for a while until he gave an earnest look in the mirror and said "Velly selious!"
I jokingly told him he couldn't be my boyfriend until he bought me dinner. He took this suggestion to heart and started a hardcore quiz on what kind of food I liked to eat, what I liked to drink and what my hobbies were. I learnt in turn that his dream was to become a model and that he was quite obsessed with how people in Australia would like his "look." As I mentioned, these HD types have quite high maintenance hair-dos, and this dude put my simple needs to shame. I was also concerned that he wore sunglasses inside - not because he had a hangover, but because he wanted to look spunky. Most guys I've dated simply get out of the shower, dry their hair, and it's done. I've come to learn that any man who uses more beauty products than me should be avoided at all costs.
The other large problem with our potential whirlwind romance was of course, the language barrier. While he claimed he would learn English to go on a date with me, I assume the phrases "Please follow me" "Where are you from" Water too hot? Too cold" It's okay?" "Please sit down" and "hold head still" while very flexible, would exhaust their conversation potential pretty quickly in a dating scenario. Ina asserts that words are not necessary between a man and a woman, but I was already concerned with the whole sunnies inside thing and I don't believe he's the man I want to father my babies. So while I left the salon without a boyfriend, I was sporting my shiny new hair. I don't quite know how he managed to so successfully make me look like a blond Asian, but he did it. My kids laughed hysterically the first time they saw it, but I was only the object of mocking for a short time. Children can be so cruel.
Taking full advantage of the long weekend I headed into Insadong the next day with Erin. Insadong is one of the few remaining parts of Seoul that has maintained a high degree of it's cultural heritage. It's where the Lantern Festival was held for Buddah's Birthday. The streets are cobbled and the buildings are all cute little things with tight alleys running between them. Everything is traditional, the restaurants, the street stalls, the tea-houses. It's the place to go if you want to buy something "authentic" and has become quite the tourist hub.

I believe it has to happen to everyone at least once in their life and it finally happened to me: I was accosted by a maniacal buddhist monk. He grabbed me off the street and started yelling hysterically and gesticulating wildly at me, only stopping to beat the living crap out of an innocent tree that had the unfortunate luck of being in close range.
Now, from the look on his face, he wasn't screaming abuse, he was merely trying in vain to communicate something very exciting to me, and seeing the look of panic on my face tried to soothe me with prolonged high-pressure hugs. It didn't take long for us to gather quite a crowd, everyone assuming I was an involved party in some sort of cross-cultural side show act. He was an agile little guy and would have put any taekwondo master to shame, somehow managing to kick his tiny feet all the way over his own shoulder while spinning on his other toes. It would have been very impressive if it wasn't all going on inches from my face. He had me hold a broken piece of a gate (latch included) while he karate-chopped it in half. At the encouragement of the helpful onlookers, he got Erin in on the act and got us to hold the ends of the now halved gate post and snap both of them in half as well.
He seemed to take a deep breath afterwards, apparently vociferously breaking things helps him let off steam. He gave me a picture he painted himself of some terrifying ugly guy for my troubles. Trying to make a quick getaway, Erin and I ran for cover in the closest shop we could find. Just before we made it inside however, we were grabbed by a Korean guy, who started yelling to his wife and pointing at us in fevered excitement. This must be a common occurrence for the poor woman, who didn't look quite as impressed as he did. None-the-less, she snapped lots of pictures of her husband forcing us into all sorts of uncomfortably intimate embraces with him. Just when we thought we were free to make our escape he grabbed us both by the arm and started hurrying off down the street with us saying "Don't worry, I am Korean gentleman, will be very nice." Indeed, this may not have been the truth, as he refused to let go of our arms, even when we started trying to tug them away in alarm. Erin was obviously thinking faster than I was because she turned around and started pointing to our "friend" who was waiting for us. His pause in stride gave us the opportunity to break free, and we pissed off as fast as we could.
So, after 15 minutes in traditional Korea, we managed to be drawn into a candid camera moment with a crazed monastic elder, as well as have someone attempt to abduct us.
An interesting afternoon to say the least. Alas, that was the height of the excitement and we had to contend with a much more normal afternoon of shopping and eating. Poor us.

After so many interesting city adventures, I decided it was time to get out of the Big Smoke and go bush. My Partner Teacher Grace has a friend called Ellie, whose parents own a "pension" in the mountains of Kangnam-do. A pension in Korea isn't what you would equate it with at home. It is, in fact a big lodge style house nestled in a quiet mountain area. The rooms are rented out to weekenders at ridiculous prices. It works out well for old folk in Korea. With no National Pension plan, this is a good way for them to fend for themselves. It's an ingenious idea in a country where peace and quiet is such a highly prized commodity.
Christie, Grace and I roused ourselves on Saturday morning and took a trip to Walmart to buy supplies. If anyone has ever wondered what the staff of Korean supermarkets get up to on Saturday mornings it is this: they dance. They actually stand in formation in the aisles and do the World Cup dance (the very one my Director displayed for me in the office last week - he wants me to teach it to the kids when I take them for drama.) I thought it would be fitting to jump in the midst of it all and get some practice in, much to the embarrassment of the staff. It was worth it for me though, I think I'm starting to get a hang of the moves.
So we began our journey, which apparently should have taken 2 and a half hours, but, due to some ineffectual misdirection and unfortunate traffic conditions, ended up taking more like, um, six.
The six hours weren't wasted however. On the way we saw some pretty strange things, such as the smurf village, where there a lots of cute squat buildings in the shape of mushrooms, complete with painted spots on the roof. There was also some strange dome building thingies which would have fit in quite well in the Tunisian desert where Star Wars was filmed. A quick inspection revealed no Luke Skywalker, nor a light-sabre, but it was a queer place none-the-less.
Finally arriving at the mountains was the metaphorical breath of fresh air that I was gulping down as quickly as I could. I had forgotten that there are places in Korea where trees grow naturally and the air is clear.
The pension was about halfway up a mountain, only accessible by a very rough rocky road that could be made more user friendly, especially as we had to drag ourselves away from the view in order to jump out of the car and shift rocks out of the way.
We did finally arrive safe and sound, and were all quite chuffed to be greeted by Ellie's mum, who was waiting for us at the top of the driveway, bowing as we drove up. The house is enormous by Korean standards. It is, in fact, the first actual house I've been in during my Korean sojourn, and the first Christie has been in since she's been here, and that's almost three years. Almost the entire population lives in high rise apartments, so the chance to get away somewhere comparatively huge and stunningly quiet is a real treat for most people, hence why they pay through the nose for the opportunity. We were shown to our room which opened directly onto the front verandah and the spectacular view it afforded. I must admit though, the view was somewhat marred by the ugly green-houses just a little way down the hill, but it really didn't hugely detract from the ambience. It was like the quintessential Asian painting, the hills that get greyer as they reach further back into the distance, a peaceful rocky river running at the foot of the verdant mountains. It really was, in a word, beautiful.
We were all completely stoked to discover there was a fully decked out nurebang in the lounge room, and proceeded to create the most enormous set list in the world. Our singing abilities only increased with the amount of vanilla vodka we drank, and we soon sang ourselves hoarse enough to retire to our room... for the most intense Jenga games you could possibly imagine.
There were some heart-stopping moments, some blocks were pulled that we felt would most certainly send the tower tumbling but didn't. There were some silly mistakes made, opening ourselves up to the cruel jeering of our friends. There was some stacking of blocks that couldn't possibly be allowed in the rule book but were accepted anyway because no one wanted to show their fear. Never before has my concentration been so perfectly honed while I've been so perfectly drunk. While I admit I wasn't the Champion, (that title must go to Christie) I wasn't the worst, so I happily conceded defeat knowing that being average keeps me in the majority.
We eventually rolled out our traditional Korean sleeping mats and went to snoozles with every intention of getting up early to take full advantage of our Sunday. (Yes, you may laugh.)
Admittedly, I did better than I imagined we would, rolling off the mats at around 10am. I'd forgotten what an amazing luxury it was to open a door and step outside onto the grass. I drew back the curtains and took some deep breaths and relished in the sound of silence. Soon enough though, I felt the day wasting away and bounced on the others until they joined me in the land of the living.
Ellie's mum cooked us a traditional Korean breakfast; kimchi, rice, soup, noodles and just for something special, she made a 'hangover soup' - the recipe handed down for generations and generations only to land in the bowls of four debaucherous wenches regretting their taste for vanilla vodka. Unfortunately for me and Christie the main ingredient was dried squid, which isn't so easy to handle first thing in the morning, particularly when one is hung over.
When we were eventually waved off amid much more bowing, we hit the road again, stopping from time to time to allow me the opportunity to photograph Koreans doing cute traditional things like standing knee deep in rice fields or fishing in the middle of a river. We also had to jump out for photos in front of one of the strange Star Wars buildings.
We took a detour from the main road to head to Mt. Yongmun, which is apparently famous with Koreans, but it isn't mentioned in the Lonely Planet book (nor is Kangnam-do for that matter).
It really was quite beautiful, if you managed to block out the theme park that had been installed at the foot of the mountain and the tourist strip all along the road leading to the Temple gate. The crowds would rival what you'd find in a busy shopping centre on a Saturday afternoon. While foreign tourists haven't heard of the place, it is evidently very popular with the locals.
While I've never been one for hiking, I can't imagine what some of these Korean girls were thinking when they got dressed. Did their boyfriends say "Hey Honey, let's go climb Mt Yongmun!" only to have them reply "Ok! I'll just put on my most ridiculous sparkly killer stiletto heels and denim miniskirt with sequined halter top, fashion myself an elaborate up-do, plaster myself in make-up and be right with you." Any Aussie guy seeing those shenanigans would promptly say "Oy love, don't be a bloody idiot, put on some real fucking shoes." Alas, these guys must face the fact that they will inevitably be piggy-backing their girlfriends all the way back down the mountain with a pair of pink heels slung around their neck.
The act of hiking in the mountains in Korea is an entirely unique experience. All along the trail up the mountain are stall selling drinks and food and key rings and enormous wooden statues - you know, the kind of stuff you'll buy on a whim and want to drag up a mountain with you. The image of a quiet mountain where you won't see another soul for days is an unimaginable reality in Korea, where you sometimes feel like you're standing in line to crawl up the slope. What we encountered at the top was a challenge to the imagination. Yongmunsa Temple was built almost 1000 years ago by a lonely monk. It's a feat of history that it still actually standing. The huge majority of the temples were destroyed during the Korean War when the mountains were crawling with North Korean and Japanese soldiers who didn't appear to have much reverence for traditional Buddhist sensibilities. Taking all this into account, it's quite an experience seeing something that has sat undisturbed in the hills of a tiny country while history unfolded around it.
Yongmunsa Temple shares the mountain with something else apparently famous that no one has heard of; the Great Gingko of Yongmunsa. This monster is 39.2 metres tall and more than 11 metres in circumference and is believed to be the largest Gingko in far East Asia. It's estimated to be about 1,100 years old. There are a couple of legends surrounding the tree, mostly revolving around the notion of being planted by some Prince or other. The locals call it the 'heavenly tree' on account of it surviving so many wars. My favourite fun fact about the big tree is it's status in Korea. Much like Napoleon naming his horse the commander of his armies when he went mad from syphilis, the Great King Sejong (1418-1450) of the Joseon period honoured the tree with a high government rank. Whatever it's official title, it is quite an impressive site.
The trip home took an excruciating further five or so hours. Grace poured us out of the car around 10pm - nine hours after we left the pension, grateful to feel the ground under our feet once more.
Ah, not quite the exercise in brevity I hoped, but when have you ever known me to take the quick way round something? I continue to educate the minds of tomorrow while getting to sing The Wiggles songs every day. So many adventures, so little time. Has it really been almost four months?
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