Monday, July 19, 2010

Smile! You're Traveling. (part 1)

Holy cats, it's been a whole month since the last time I posted? Ouch. Time flies, I guess. Especially when so much of your energy is focused on planning future vacations and trying to balance your checkbook well enough to have enough money for your vacation. Sadly my vacations this month and next come days before I get my monthly paycheck, so it's been a balancing act all month to conserve enough cash to be able to get out of town for a few days. But you know how it is. Imagine it's a month from now, suddenly it is. (Hmm... how many more Bluetip references can I slip into this blog? We'll see...)

The first half of the school year is over, and I'm currently finishing off day one of my four days of vacation. The vacation plan has mutated several times since I started working on it. First I was considering Ulleung-do, but then I found out the ferry tickets are too expensive and generally travel to Ulleung-do in peak season requires reservations. Strike one. I was planning on going to Pohang for the fireworks festival, but then I found out the fireworks festival is next weekend, not this weekend. Strike two. I thought about going to the infamous mud festival in Boryeong just to check it out. For the uninitiated, the town of Boryeong in Chungcheongnam-do has a beach side spa that's renowned for its healthful mud. Several years ago they started a summer festival to promote it, which was eventually discovered by the waegook community and has apparently has become more of a miry bacchanal with every subsequent year. Now, I see nothing wrong with getting drunk and being foreign in large numbers, and I can see the attraction of doing this in a giant mud pit, but personally I'm not much for the whole rolling around in mud thing. Put succinctly, I am not a hippie. (Also I'm a fairly portly gentleman who does not relish opportunities to appear shirtless in public. As "Wet Hot American Summer" defined it, I'm one of the indoor kids.) Regardless, I was thinking about going for the day and scoping out the scene until I found out that getting to Chungcheongnam-do from my part of the world is a royal pain in the ass, as is returning from Boryeong to the nearest city. Since lodging for the mud festival is apparently impossible to obtain without advance reservations and most bacchanals tend to stay mellow until after dark - and who wants to try to navigate their way home across a foreign country drunk? - I decided that the mud fest would probably not be a good day trip. Maybe next year. In short, foul tip, count stays 0-2.

By the way, my favorite thing about the Boryeong mud festival is that nearly all domestic (and by that I mean Korean) advertisements for the festival depict a group of mud-covered young foreigners, mostly women in bikinis, yet most of the Western promotional material I've seen for the festival, such as the pic in the Lonely Planet guide, shows groups of soiled Korean youths, again with a few prominently placed good-looking females. Exoticism, or blaming the other? You decide! (Personally, I'm happy to put politics aside and celebrate it all in the name of having a good time. Everyone loves beer, mud and hot bods; no reason to get all serious about it.)

My current plan is to hop a train for Masan tomorrow morning and proceed from there via express bus to Tongyeong in Gyeongsangnam-do (the province immediately south of mine), and hopefully head from there after a day or so to Goeje, Korea's second largest island. It's close, it's cheap, it's an excuse to leave my apartment and there'll be water, sights to see, trails to trek and hopefully some sun. (It's the rainy season right now, so there's no guarantee of sun wherever I go. I'm a little bummed that it's going to be Tuesday before I can actually hit the road and technically I've been on vacation since Saturday, but I had a lot of coursework to get out of the way and after my recent trip to Seoul (more on that in a moment) I figured I'd better spend a day or two looking for a decent backpack. Traveling in Korea on a budget often involves carrying your stuff around with you rather than immediately checking into a hotel or stowing it in your car, so it's important to pack light and have something comfortable to tote your stuff around in.

Since Wednesday was the last day of school, Thursday the teachers were kind enough to invite me on their two-day getaway to celebrate the end of the semester. The plan: head by chartered bus (package tours seem to be one of the most popular forms of vacation here) to Namhae, another island in Gyeongsangnam-do, do some hiking, hit the beach, eat a lot of raw fish, drink a lot of soju, sing a lot of karaoke (the preferred term here is "noraebang," which means "singing room," indicating the private room where the singing usually happens) and visit a spa on the way back. The trip didn't exactly go down without a hitch - by the time we got back to the hotel at night it was pouring rain, and it continued to rain for all of the next day, so there was no beach time. Also I of course managed to get completely smashed and make an ass of myself at the hotel after dinner, but apparently that's the point of drinking in Korea. (By the way, if someone here asks you how many drinks you have in a week, never tell them more than one. Koreans don't really understand the concept of wine with dinner or a beer after work; to them "having a drink" means getting fall-down drunk and nothing else.) It's also fortunate for me that few of my co-teachers speak much English. At least I hope they don't. The next morning I discovered why the slogan of Korea's most popular brand of soju is "Good Morning," - a few of the teachers were still sipping it at breakfast. I, however, was in one of those hungover states where a little hair of the dog is not going to help - you're either going to have to get piss-ass rolling drunk all day and be twice as sick the next day, or just deal with it. I opted for the latter. Luckily I spent most of the day sleeping on the bus due to the weather, so by the afternoon I was actually feeling halfway human. We had lunch at Bugok Hawaii, a hot spring and water park rolled into one in Gyeongsangnam-do. After lunch came my first Korean spa experience, which was horizon-expanding if anything. The basic idea of the Korean spa or bathhouse is that you all get bare-ass, Full Monty naked and hang out with a bunch of other naked dudes in pools of water. Surprisingly -in stark contrast to the Western concept of a bathhouse - this involves no crystal meth or overt homosexuality. Personally I was extremely glad to be nearsighted once I got inside since it saved me from having to observe too much man-ass and wang in full resolution. Being a tubby, hairy, blonde, circumcised Caucasian individual I felt a little bit body-conscious throughout the experience, and honestly I don't see how the whole thing would have been dulled by the inclusion of swim trunks, but hey, when in Rome. Apparently it's tradition for close friends or fathers and sons to wash each other's backs at bathhouses, but to my infinite gratitude no offered to do mine. One thought did strike me as I was sitting in green tea-infused hot water trying to keep my face away from other dudes' junk as they entered and exited the water: that somewhere, perhaps on the other side of a thin wall, was a room full of naked women were also showering under artificial waterfalls and lounging in pools of spring water in a state of absolute nature. I wanted to be in that room. I would still have wanted a towel to cover my shame, but I would have appreciated the sense of inclusion.

A couple weeks before the Namhae trip I finally made it to Seoul for a weekend. Didn't get to do nearly as much as I wanted to there but I got the chance to snap some pics of some temples and palaces, eat some good Mexican food in Seoul's foreigner enclave, Itaewon, watch Aussie-rules football with a large group of Aussies, Kiwis and South Africans, and check out a couple of jazz bars with some of Mo's acquaintances. I also spent the night in a jjimjilbang, which is probably best translated as a "naked hotel." Okay, strictly speaking the jjimjilbang is another type of bathhouse with gender-separated sleeping rooms, but that doesn't describe the experience nearly as well as "naked hotel." Oh, sure, they give you a pair of shorts and a T-shirt when you com in, strip, and abandon all your worldly possessions in a locker, and the genders are allowed to mingle in the floors with the snack bar and the arcade, but I still missed my underwear. The jjimjilbang near the train station in Seoul is actually pretty nice, I highly recommend it if you need a place to sleep and take a shower for about 12,000 won if I recall the price correctly. This particular jjimjilbang had bunks instead of just letting you sleep on the floor and the facilities were very nice. At the same time... maybe I'm just a prude, but I personally believe that breakfast and the male genitalia of strangers should be kept separate, and such was not the case in the lobby/locker room in the morning. What's with the nudity, Korea? You have pants. I've seen them. Why not use them?

Gaar. It's past 11PM and I want to jump on an early train to Masan tomorrow. This is why I haven't been blogging - there's not enough hours in the day. Especially with accounting courses stacked on top of the husbandly duties I owe myself and my living space, and the occasional attempt to see a little of the countryside. Okay, what else was on my mind... Korea didn't win the World Cup, so that's unfortunate. I went to Daegu for what were to be Korea and the USA's last matches, and saw the Korea/Uruguay game in the rain in Daegu's municipal stadium with a fairly healthy crowd of Koreans and a few Pakistanis. I've decided that I'm probably not going to Taiwan next month - can't afford it after the Philippines trip. Maybe in September if I'm a good steward of my resources. I'll probably go to Jeju-do instead when I get my vacation at the end of August. Been watching a lot of The Wire courtesy of iTunes, my iPod and a TV adapter, which so far has been the easiest way for me to get Western TV and movies. This summer's movie selection in theaters kind of sucks and some of the good stuff like Toy Story 3 isn't coming out until after school lets out. Inception is out Wednesday so I've been ducking spoilers on social media outlets all week. Korean classes in Daegu are done for the quarter, I still can't speak much Korean and I'm waiting until fall to start up again because of trips and such this summer, but I did get a perfect attendance certificate for my efforts. Remind me to look up the Korean word for "express bus terminal" before I leave tomorrow morning. Hmm, suppose I should pack before then too, huh?

Stay sexy, world. I'll try to post another update once I get back from my travels this week and next weekend.

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