Wednesday, July 28, 2010

We're going on a summer holiday

Just a note to say that there will be no new posts until 6 August 2010 because we are going on our summer vacation! Whooop whoop!

We will be heading to Gyeongju and Busan so I am sure that we will have many new and cool entries for you once we get back!!!

Ciao..oh wait..I'm in Korea...I meant to say Anyeonghi gyeseyo

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Masks, spit and other hygiene woes

This entry hopes to highlight some hygiene woes we have encountered while being in South Korea.

And yes, some of these woes are in the bathroom itself.

Although our bathroom (kitted out with sky and all) is wonderful, not all Korean bathrooms are as welcoming. As is the case in most countries, public bathrooms are scary!

But brace yourself, in Korea it is not always customary to flush your loo paper down the loo. The plumbing system in Korea is not too good so people have resorted to wipe and throw (in the dustbin) tactics.

This often isn't an issue but some places never check the loo and you end up with paper stacking up to crazy heights.

While on the topic of loo paper, it would be in your best interests to carry some tissues around with you because many public toilets will have none.

Other hygiene woes include spit everywhere and it is becoming more common for women to spit in public too. Many women however wait until they are in the bathroom before they pull flem from some or other place deep within.

Furthermore, people tend to not cover their mouths when coughing or sneezing. So watch out for any flying mucus coming your way.

It is no wonder why some people decide to cover their faces with face masks. Instead of following basic hygiene practices, face masks are used widely.

What makes this bizarre perception of hygiene even more peculiar is how feet are obsessed over. You need to have shoes on at all times (probably to avoid the large clumps of spit everywhere) and you cannot wear outside shoes, inside.

So now you know, when you are in Korea you need to ensure that you cover you feet but don't worry about anything else, except for the fact that the only thing other people cover is their feet so there may be a couple of unwanted germs flying around!

Post by Claudia

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Ridiculous Koreans...

...ridiculously efficient!

Living in Korea comes with its ups, and with those, it obviously, come the downs. One of those downs is the fact that we're still living within this very weird time/space called reality.

Reality dictates several things.
1) You jump off a tall building, you will get hurt.
2) You play with fire, you will get burned, eventually at least.
3) You want to live somewhere...there will be bills that need to be paid.

It's somewhat unfortunate, but as everyone out there (who has lived by themselves) knows that things need to be paid. Houses and apartments don't pay for themselves. There are things like electricity and gas bills, apartment complex levies and waste removal fees, and yes, regrettably, these things also apply in Korea. The difference in Korea is how you go about paying for this horrible accumulation of bills.

Coming from South Africa (which I will add I love and think is a beautiful, amazing country) I know all about inefficiency. I know what it's like standing in a queue at a bank or, more realistically, government department, for an hour, only being told that you were in the wrong queue once you get to the counter. Or the feeling of getting to a counter and being told you cannot be helped with your problem or enquiry, as you need to go the other city's department and do it there. Or possibly even the worst, being told you can be helped but then having to wait ridiculously long periods of time for a simple process.

Why you wait you don't know. Maybe the person behind the counter had a horrible accident and is lying at the bottom of a staircase with blood streaming from their eyes and mouth, unable to muster up enough energy to cry for help. Maybe they have been called in for a disciplinary hearing by their boss and have been fired and are, as you are waiting, in the process of unpacking their desk, crying because their family now has no one with an income to support them...dreadful stuff!

The reality however is usually more the middle of processing your request, they realised it's 12.01 and time for their lunch break, which was then promptly taken!

It came as a huge breath of revitalising fresh air, when we had to pay our first set of Korean bills. This is the process: Walk to the bank. Open the door. Walk to the counter. Greet the person behind the counter (who wants to do his/her job). Put down bills and the corresponding amount of money. Wait approximately 13.249 seconds for them to put the money in the till, stamp your bills and give you the appropriate change. Say goodbye. Leave.

I kid you not. And this process takes about 4 minutes. And those 4 minutes usually include the time you've had to wait after taking a number.

It truly is mind-blowing. I know there are other countries around the world that are as efficient, but I'll say it again, coming from SA this is simply magnificent!

Thank you Korea for making the worst part of my reality a completely painless experience!
Post by Oliver

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

1,2,3...I better stop there

In western cultures many buildings will not have a 13th floor because the number 13 is considered unlucky. No one really knows why 13 is unlucky but there are many speculations. For instance at the last supper there were 13 people (Jesus and his disciples) and long before the invention of calculators people could only use their fingers to count, there were 10 fingers and 2 fists, so counting to 12 was easy but 13 was illusive.

However, in Korea, 13 is not unlucky, rather, it is unlucky number 4 (pronounced sa). In fact 4 is considered unlucky in most, if not all parts of Asia. Unlike with 13, people know why they consider 4 unlucky. It's simple, the pronunciation of 4 in Chinese, Japanese and Korean cultures is similar to the pronunciation of death in their respective languages

One first realises how entrenched the idea of unlucky number 4 is once they set foot in an elevator. The dial of the elevator is 1,2,3, F (backwards), 5. So a backwards F has been used to replace the death symbol of 4.

What I did not know is that this belief in unlucky number 4 has stretched into the most suprisinging spheres. Nokia has never released a line that begins with the number 4.

Now you know another fact/superstition about the East which is quite different to the West.

Post by Claudia

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Let's get muddy!

This past weekend, we (together with hoards of other English teachers and foreigners) headed for the 2010 Mud Festival.

Who would have thought the idea of rolling around in mud and getting super dirty would be so appealing. It took us close to four hours to get there, but man did we have a good time.

The festival is held on Daecheon Beach in Boryeong, South Korea. The beach is beautiful and the water surprisingly warm.

After a short walk we realised that we had literally walked smack into the middle of a mud fight! What fun! After a couple of bruises and some good laughs it was time to find out where the rest of the soft mud was. We then found a small area covered with several slides which all involved a fair amount of mud and water.

The downfall was that there were queues at each slide! Booo, so we only got to go on a limited amount of rides.

Other than that, we were somewhat disappointed by the lack of mud at the festival. There was no area to just paint yourself in mud and relax. It is also hard to tell that the festival is in fact a Korean festival because there are swarms of foreigners everywhere and suprisingly few Koreans. The other downfall to this is that prices of food and accommodation had exploded and everything was simply expensive.

It was for this reason that we decided not to get any accommodation (not that there was any left) and did an all-nighter. Phew! It was actually achieved more easily than I thought simply because restaurants stayed open...we ate a second dinner of samgyeopsal at 3:30am....Mmmmm, best food ever. We were back at the bus terminal by 6 and we all crashed for an hour and then it was time for the long haul home.

All in all it was a fantastic day and we had a wonderful time. On top of that my skin is feeling really nice and soft!

Oli couldn't take his camera for obvious reasons so here are a few snap shots to prove that we did in actual fact get muddy and dirty!

Serious mud goers, meet our mates Brock and Lauren!

Oliver, Rob and Chrissie couldn't resist a swim before I took a photo, hence why they look like fake mud festival goers!

Post by Claudia

Thursday, July 15, 2010

The best food yet!

Sitting in Korea in the middle of summer without airconditioning is not fun. It's an experience that drains your energy, and makes you lazy. It leaves you sitting and wondering what to do next, and how to go about it. For one, you don't feel like cooking anything, and at the same time the thought of eating something hot or even warm just does not seem appealing.

And this is where I have an intense urge to pat some old-school Koreans on the back, and say:"Well done, my friend, I thank you with all my heart."

What would I be thanking them for? Only the greatest summer food dish you can think of. They really did come up with the most appetizing dish in the world when it's 35 degrees outside and sweltering hot.

The dish? Neangmyeon. Bibim, or preferably Mul.

Let me start off by explaining a little. Neangmyeon are noodles that are served ice cold. Not room temperature or just fridge cold. If possible they are served ice cold. The noodles are made from several ingredients, the main one being buckwheat. They are incredibly thin, a light brown colour, and somewhat chewy and bouncy (for lack of a better word).

The noodles are boiled in hot water for a very brief period (about 3 minutes, if I'm not mistaken) and are then cooled down by running them under some cold water. They are then thrown into a (usually) big metal bowl, along with a substantial amount of ice cold broth. The broth is apparently made from a mixture of chicken broth, beef broth and kimchi brine(kimchi is another Korean speciality, but more on that in another post).

Added to the noodles and broth are a few thinly sliced (or julienned) summer veggies. Most often the vegetables will be cucumber and radish. One thing that cannot be forgotten is the half boiled egg.

If the restaurant where you are eating your Naengmyon is on top of their game, the broth will literally be icey, as in it will contain some frozen bits....oh yes!

This is how the dish is served, and then often you will be given a little coindiment tray, on which you should find some vinegar, mustard, and chilli (red pepper) sauce. These are then added to your dish according to your taste. The vinegar obviously gives a little sour-ish kick, the mustard adds tang (together with the vinegar) and the chilli sauce adds spiciness.

One of my Korean co-teachers showed me how to eat Naengmyon properly. The way to do it is to hold your chopsticks in your right hand, and have the left hand free to pick up your bowl. After putting some noodles and veggies in your mouth with the chopsticks, you pick up the bowl and drink some of the ice cold goodness.

Above, I mentioned Bibim and Mul. Bibim Naengmyon are served with a sauce made mostly from red peppers and garlic, and have a great flavour, and Mul (literally translated = water) are served in a much greater amount of broth and have a much tangier taste. Definitely the more refreshing of the two.

I can only imagine that to many of my western friends this sounds like a really strange dish. I thought the same when I was first offered noodles in ice cold water, but man oh man...Naengmyon really is something else. I LOVE Korean food. All of it. But Naengmyon is the one dish that has had the greatest impact on my life so far. They really are that magical.

If there is one dish that I will miss when I got back home, (which, luckily is not for a loooong while) it's the cold, icey, tasty goodness called Naengmyon!

Post by Oliver

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

vroooom vrooooom

Something we have yet to talk about is the driving style in South Korea! Driving in Korea is something else I tell you!

We have not yet been able to drive, so all of these experiences and observations are based on what we have seen while walking around or while being in the back of a taxi.

The first thing that took some getting used to was the fact that everything was on the wrong side of the road. In South Africa we drive on the left-hand side of the road where as in Korea they drive on the right. Just being in a taxi was disorientating, never mind trying to cross the road without getting run over.

The next thing that took some getting used to was the utter lack of use of seatbealts. People just don't use them, it's like they are a strange decoration in the car. After being here for about two weeks we hopped into a taxi and tried to use the seatbelts in the backseat. After some tugging, the taxi driver turned around and motioned that we did not need to use them, he then proceeded to pat the back of front passenger seat, implying that if we are in an accident the front seats will save us (huh?)

Then there are the scooters...hmmmm. Now this is something quite unlike home. I am used to scooters and cars being on the road, not the pavements. Several times I have had to do a quick skip out of the way as I realise that a delivery boy is going down the sidewalk and I am in his path! So if you are ever in Korea, pay attention when you walk around, not for criminals but for delivery boys on a misson.

On the other side of the spectrum the driving is quite relaxed and people don't seem to get too worked up about things. People often cut through intersection, turn from wrong lanes, or just sit in intersections on their phones when the light is green and no one does anything but give a light hoot. If anyone tried to do those things in South Africa (barring the taxi drivers of course) they would be met by a person who is foaming at the mouth from pure and utter road rage.

Hmmmm.....what else is there to say about the driving?

Oh, zebra crossings, do not think that they actually mean anything to motorists. Drivers tend to plow straight through the zebra crossings whether or not someone is standing there. Actually I am being too harsh, if you as the pedistrian and step onto the Zebra crossing the driver will stop, you just have to take the lead, they won't stop voluntarily. So in other words, just be careful.

Other than that I cannot think of anything! The driving is erratic but has a bizzare clamness of its own! It is not quite the craziness of the roads in South Africa or Ghana but it definitely does not have the culture and grace of roads in countries like Germany!

Post by Claudia

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Fan Death....Dom dom dom

Every culture has its own set of myths and Korea is no different!

One of the most commonly believed myths in Korea is fan death!

It is the only country in the world where the belief in fan death is prevalent, but what is fan death exactly?

Well, it is thought that if a fan is left running overnight in a closed room, the inhabitants will die...but why?

Aparently, there are several ways someone can die of fan death, these include:

  • A fan left running overnight will create a vortex which will create a vacuum in the room and deprive the sleeping person of the oxygen they need to survive

  • The fan literally halves oxygen particles by chopping them up, therefore rendering the oxygen useless which will result in suffocation.

  • This is perpetuated by the fact that high levels of carbon dioxide are left in the air (because the oxygen has been all used up ) which will further aid your death through asphyxiation.

  • The fan can cause hyperthermia.

  • The fan actually sucks air away from the sleeping beauty meaning that they will be unable to breath.

Although all of these beliefs are unfounded and have no scientific bearing, they are, like most myths, staunchly believed in. This has meant that fan companies in South Korea have had to add timers onto all of their fans so that fans switch off for certain periods of time during the night so as to prevent any chances of fan death.

Due to the sweltering hot weather at the moment (between 29 -34 degrees) Oliver and I needed to buy a fan for the bedroom. And luckily we have yet to suffer any fan trauma. Phew!

Post by Claudia

Friday, July 9, 2010

Korean music is somewhat odd....but oh so awesome

OK, here goes.

I'm pretty sure we haven't done an entry on any sort of Korean music or any other pop culture realted topics. So, what I will do is introduce you to the wonders of a (amongst others) Korean girl band, called Girls Generation (Son Ye Shi Dea).

They are one of the first Korean bands I was introduced to, by my friend, and fellow Safa, Rob. He felt it necessary to show me what kind of goodness Korean pop culture has in store for us. The first video is the one that Rob showed me the first time, and it's still one of my favourites. I know I probably shouldn't admit to that, but hey I am living in Korea, I might as well embrace the culture.

As is blatantly obvious, the girls are all super cute. But that's a given, even in western pop culture. But what smacks me in the face is not so much the cute girls, as it is the 'cutesie-ness' of the music video. And it's not just this one, it's most of the videos that follow that same sort of vibe. It might be a little more obvious to us, living in Korea, as it's not just the music videos, it's on TV and also, a lot, in the advertising. Funny thing is, it's not just the girls doing it, there is a lot of cutesie-ness, featuring guys in TV commercials. If you ask me, they don't do it half as well as the girls, but then I have a little bias towards the chicks!

Here is another one. This time, pay close attention to the wink-headtilt-smile. It's a often employed tactic to show you how cute they really are...

Rob also did me the favour of introducing me to this guy, MC Mong, who is a Korean MC, and he proves to me that Koreans are able of making really cool, 'regular' music. The song I'm posting is a gut wrencher, but it's a really awesome song. Listen to it, read the subtitles, cry a little, it's OK.

This might have been brief, and not very in depth, but there is only so much of this awesome, small, Asian country's music I can show you. The rest is up to you to go out and find. And yes, I am busy trying to work something out to get Girls Generation to come out to SA to do a tour. It's proving somewhat difficult getting hold of them though. We'll see!

Post by Oliver

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Eyes on you!

One thing we have been unable to get used to in Korea is is being stared at. Sure, I have had some stares back home, but as soon as that person realised they have been caught staring they stop looking!! That is not the case in Korea!

Nope, you will catch someone staring...almost to the point that you are staring back at them...but they are unwavering and stare with an impressive amount of dedication.
At first we realised that we must look pretty odd, our features are very different and Korea is a very homogeneous society so being different is reason enough to stare!
Children do it all the time...just yesterday we went to the grocery store and a little girl (who could not have been older than 2) stared at us and followed our every much so that I was left impressed by her concentration capabilities!
But it is not just children that stare! EVERYONE stares, in a way that is so blatant it is difficult to ignore. Here are a couple of our staring moments so far:
  • We were leaving our apartment building when a man inside his apartment noticed us walk by, after we had gone past his window he proceeded to stick his head out of the window and follow us for a good 5 minutes before we were out of sight. Yes we turned back and looked at him a couple of times, but this did not deter him, we were far too fascinating!

  • Oliver and I were in the back of a taxi at a traffic light when a fellow motorist noticed us. He drove up next to the taxi so that he was in line with us. He sat for a couple of minutes (traffic lights take forever here) just staring at us! He then plucked up enough courage to ask where we are from and give us his card!

  • On more that one occassion Oliver has scared women and young girls...not's just that his height appears to honestly frighten them. How do we know this...well, first they gasp and flinch, then they giggle, and then they stare, and stare, and stare just a little bit more.

These are just some of the many moments we have been stared at. The only place where we attracted very few gazes was in Seoul, but I guess you can expect a certain amount of multiculturalism in any big city!!!

The only thing that seems to break the unwavering gaze of people staring at us is if we greet them! Just a light bow of the head! However, sometimes not even this works.

So if ever you have wanted people to stop, stare ( and I mean really stare) and take notice of you when you walk into a shop, go grocery shopping or walk down the street...Korea is the place for you! You don't even need to get dressed up, you are special as you are.

Just remember, the people mean no harm and it should not be read as a sign of rudeness...rather they are curious! You are different and they are curious!!! Embrace it....

Post by Claudia

Friday, July 2, 2010

Where we watch(ed) the Korea games

So, we've already done an entry on watching soccer games in a sports bar in Wonju and also about going to city hall in Seoul and watching a game amongst tens of thousands of other people(here).

Now I want to show you where we watched some of the other Korea games here in Wonju. There is a sports arena, that belongs to the military's marching band, called Wonju Tattoo, and it has a huge arena, a baseball field, a soccer pitch, a running track and several other amenities. The arena is often used for big events such a public holiday celebrations (when they are called for) and also World Cup soccer game screenings.

What they do, is build a relatively small stage area, bring in a huge crane, and let the crane hold up a very large screen. The screen is rested on and secured to the stage, and that's it. Now you're ready to project your soccer game onto the screen. The awesome thing is that this whole process only takes them about an hour to set up and an hour to break down.

The crowd will usually sit/stand on what is the running track and the basketball courts. There is enough space for at least about 5000 people, although it seems there arent that many die hard soccer fans in Wonju. If it does rain, as it so unfortunately did during our loss to Uruguay, people tend to huddle into the stands of the adjacent arena. The only problem is that from this angle you're watching a reverse projection of the game, which isn't really an issue, as it beats standing in the rain!

Pity our World Cup campaign is over. Koreans really are one of the most hardcore soccer fan nations (when it comes to the national squad), and it was really an amazing experience to be a part of all the festivities and cheering and chanting; and Korea has no shortage of chants which everyone from the youngest to the oldest sing along to!

Good Bye Korea, it has been awesome!
Post by Oliver

Thursday, July 1, 2010

The Wonderful Won

The currency in Korea is won and it has taken some getting used to. This is because everything sounds expensive as a result of most items costing thousands of won.

Won denominations are as follows: coins 10, 50, 100, 500, and notes 1 000, 5 000, 10 000 and the big 50 000. Hmmm but what does it mean?

Well 1 000 won is about 1USD which is about R8 in South Africa. Now that is all good and well but telling how cheap and how expensive a country is is all based on what you get for your money.

In some regards Korea is very very cheap and in others not so much. For example:

  • An average taxi ride will cost you anywhere between 2 200 - 3 000 won (super cheap!)
  • A Shabu Shabu dinner (a four course meal which will leave you stuffed) for four excluding drinks will cost roughly 35 000 won (very cheap)
  • It is about 6 000 won for 150g of beef (flippen expensive...)
  • In a restaurant a draught beer will cost 3 000 won (average)
  • A cheap free standing fan...because you need one in these stinking hot summers... is roughly 35 000 won (resonable)
  • When it comes to take away joints, pizza in particular, prices can fluctuate dramatically from one place to another. In one pizza place a decent sized good tasting pizza will cost 5 000 won but in another it will cost 15 000 won.
  • Vegetables are also dirt cheap in Korea, they form the basis of most meals and you can only buy in bulk. For three massive cabbages you will pay 2 000 won.
  • Depending on where you buy it, a bottle of Soju is anywhere between 1 000 and 2 000 won (cheapest hangover ever)
  • A decent room at a pension or motel will cost between 35 000 - 50 000 won for the room (not too bad)
  • A city to city bus ride (about two hours) will cost you about 10 000 won (cheap cheap cheap) and might I add that these buses are also incredibly comfortable!
So in general it is cheap to drink, eat and get around (what more do you need!) but if you are planning on staying for a while then electronic items are likely to be more expensive than you would expect from an Asian country. Oh, and you can pretty much forget about eating beef (unless it is a treat) because it is just too pricey.

If a beef craving does attack...then I would suggest finding a korean buffet (yummmy) where there will be some decent beef available (not quite a South African medium rare rump steak but good nonetheless).

Hopefully this insert has given you some insight into the expenses you would encounter if ever you decided to visit Korea.

Post by Claudia