9:30 on a holiday Monday night in a smoke-filled, basement gaming ghetto locally known as a "PC-bong" - in the rest of the world a 24-hour internet cafe. A little over a (Canadian) dollar buys you an hour of air time - not a bad deal all in all, if you can get over the sounds of explosions from all of the various machines around you and the number of Koreans who apparently have nothing better to do with their time than crash PC-bong so late in the evening.
If last week was limited to the 5 blocks between home and work, this weekend has been my big break-out. And how!! I'm sitting here with this enormous exhausted smile on my face, not even sure where to begin, so much has happened. If I can pack this much living into all of the next 16 months, then I will not have a regret in the world leaving here. Even if the job does remain vaguely hellish - who cares when the weekends are so much fun?!!
Saturday the 4 Canadian teachers from school, along with one of the Korean teachers, all met our director for a trip into Seoul. We took a chicken-run bus from our happy suburb all the way into the middle of the city - an hour and a half - standing packed in the aisle because all the seats were already taken. Every 5 minutes that bus would come screeching to a jerky stop and everyone would tumble into a little heap in the middle together, then hastily dust themselves off and resume positions, arms locked overhead to the safety straps (going numb) for the next one. The guy in front of me got motion sick, and it was alltogether an, um, exciting ride. The other teachers complained about it the whole way, and I kept thinking, "man, it's been too long since I've done something like this!" Miles and miles of countryside passed by outside the windows, mostly filled with buildings in various stages of completeness, along with the steady stream of traffic. Which should have been prepared for me for the city, but did nothing whatsoever to do so.
Who could even begin to describe the magnificent chaos of Seoul who has not experienced it for themselves?!! Millions upon millions of people absolutely everywhere, all pushing along with the myriad traffic, yet all completely unthreatening. Everyone respectful and polite (after their fashion). Madness, yet in a way that seems completely ordered - almost serene. In this place where banks leave baskets of money on their counters, and people wander the streets perfectly safely at all hours of the day and night, the paranoid tension usually found in large crowds was completely absent. We were free to wander and explore and discover to our hearts delight.
We started in the traditional area of Insa-Dong, a mecca of traditional arts and crafts, and of course tourists. The streets are narrow and winding, thronged simultaneously with cars and pedestrians, full of tiny shops, street vendors, galleries, restaurants and surprising side-streets where traditional pagoda-rooves peek out from between the greenery and skyscrapers. We enjoyed a phenomenal lunch in one of these side-streets, seated at a long, low table on the floor and served dish after dish after dish of traditional food. Delectable. It being late, and me being tired, I will save the details of the feast for another message - suffice to say that it was wonderfully refreshing in the heat and humidity of the afternoon and left us fully fueled to tackle some more of the city. After enjoying some traditional ginger taffy on the street for dessert, which gets shaved off of an enormous solid-amber blob with a metal lathe and handed to you on a stick.
From Insa-Dong we moved to the commercial district on foot - a long, sweaty, not entirely pleasant walk through masses of people and businesses. Although wider, the streets were filled even more completely than before, and tired me out quickly. Shopping is practically the national passtime of Korea, and they are determined to rival the rest of the world put together in variety and quantity of products available - all of which are kept brutally in your face every where you go in the city. Miyang-Dong I did not enjoy.
From Miyang-Dong I seperated from the rest of the group to find my way to the church in Seoul. I had spoken with the American couple currently stationed there as full-time help, Rob and Barb, and was anxious to meet them - also, I had heard exceptional things about the local appointee (steve) and thought that he would be a good friend to make early on. What a smart move on my part!! They were unbelieveable!!!
Fording your way through the subways of Seoul on your own is an adventure all by itself, and one I am proud to say I did successfully my very first try. Apointee Steve, a burly giant of a man who would stand out in America and certainly stands out here, was easy to pick out when he rescued me from the subway terminal nearest the church (and his home) late at night on Saturday. I was made perfectly welcome from the first instant, and found myself quickly at home in the little church-compound oasis where he and the others live. It's the first house I have seen in this country, and it was more than welcome at that point in my adventure. He even has a dog - a cocker spaniel puppy named "Cheese". Halleluia!
Sunday passed in a delightful blur of new faces and activities around the church - the regular service, lunch, english classes, discussion groups, tea parties, bible study and supper out. The people were mostly young - around my age - and without exception Korean. It was my first chance to interact with the locals on any kind of social level, and this group was so welcoming and warm and wonderful - I may never leave! I was quickly befriended, and felt by the end of the day like they were all old friends and that I have known them forever. Highlights of the day included a lengthy deliberation over what my Korean name should be (they finally settled on - and this in an anglicization here, keep in mind - Chin Hae-Lin, which means roughly translated "woman of wisdom", "flame" and "neighbour to all" - not a bad statement for a name to make, in addition to which they all assured me the name sounds beautiful here), the Korean lesson to teach me how to say/write and read my new name (I have already picked up a significant portion of the alphabet thanks to that lesson and am getting decent at reading signs, even if I have no idea what they mean yet), and the visit to the Karaoke that night. There is so much more to say about all of that, but I am trying to fit so much in and want to get it down before I forget - perhaps details will follow...
Today I got up early and hiked up a mountain with Barb. Wow. I was so longing for green space and nature, and here is this mountain rising up right in front of the church with paths all over it. We climbed up to a traditional buddhist pagoda on the top - resplendent in its bright paint and carvings perched on the lush hill-top, where there is a view of the city for miles and miles. I felt so much better for the exercise, the companionship of someone who so quickly feels like family, and for the flowers and trees growing the whole way there. I think I shot a whole roll of film on the way, and am anxious to see how the pictures will turn out.
From the restfulness of the mountain, us 4 from the church ventured out on the subway all the way to Suwon (an hour away and near where I live) to take in the Cultural Heritage Village in my "home" town. It being Children's day here, a national holiday, the place was packed - yet it was surprisingly relaxed and enjoyable. I will save my descriptions of the village for when my (masses of) film are developed, since I think it will be more effectively shared with pictures than words. For now, it was like stepping out of modern Korean and back in time to when men and women made all their own tools and clothing, when buildings did not populate the horizon, and when community was close and, even if highly ordered, atleast uncomplicated. An old man we met there thanked us in Korean for saving his country from the communists during the war - not something I anticipated EVER happening, but it did add to the ambiance of the place.
Leaving the village, it was time for me to return home. Thankfully, Steve and the others did not leave me to find my way alone (like my schoolmates did in Seoul on Saturday), but rather escorted me the whole way back. Again, halleluia! I had absolutely no idea at all where I lived or how to get there in relation to where we were. Typically people here don't navigate by addresses like we do at home, so having my address scrawled on a slip of paper was no help at all. We rode around on a bus for a long time, looking lost, before a friendly man suggested that he thought our stop may be coming up next. That we had the right bus in the first place was a small miracle, but nothing compared to what was coming up. Nothing at all was familiar to me, but lacking a better option than following the man's advice, we all decided to get off. Steve points to a random person outside the bus as we contemplate this and says, "see, this is right, there's one of your teachers now!" and, unbelieveably, it was in fact Jason - another Canadian teacher from my school (who Steve has never met nor seen before)! In exchange for an amazing traditional meal (which you cook right at your own table), Jason showed us how to get home, and gave us all the neighbourhood tour. Now Steve and co. know where I live, and how to get there for future reference, and will be able to give me good directions for the next time I wander into town - hopefully soon. They finally set out to find their way home after 9pm, making it a very late night for them, since it will probably take another couple of hours from here before they walk in their doors. Jason commented with amazement that I have now managed to pack more things into my first weekend in the country than he's managed to see in his whole 8 weeks here. Maybe now that he's met the troops we might persuade him to try a few more things during his stay.
And now it is 10:30 and if I don't make my way home soon I am liable to fall asleep right here. Besides which I haven't been paying attention to the length of this message and suspect it might already be monstrously long. I will have to go into work very early tomorrow to do all the lesson planning I was going to do this weekend before all the excitement got the better of me, but at least Thursday is Buddha's birthday and another national holiday...
I hope this finds you all well and happy. My love to each of you, and a prayer that a grain of the excitement of these 3 days finds its way into your heart and excites you too - Roberta