Friday, 28 May 2010

Ken’s Birthday!

My plans for Ken’s birthday were cancelled. Thanks to Seoul for being a hotspot for a North Korean attack, all weekend events that I had scheduled were turned to mush. I was trying to make the best of this ridiculous situation, so after school, I went shopping for some festivities.

As I was lugging home one bottle of red wine, one bottle of sparkling wine, nine large beers, a 2-litre jug of milk, and other groceries, I received a text from Ilana on my cell phone. Sounding ecstatic, she asked if Ken and I wanted to celebrate a birthday in Andong.

Completely oblivious about the text’s real meaning, I replied, ‘But, it’s Ken’s birthday today’. I was carrying litres and litres of liquid goodness…give me a break.

She soon texted back, ‘Of course I mean Ken’s birthday!’. So, through a series of texts and phone calls, Ken and I were on our way to the city of Andong to celebrate this glorious day that was Ken’s birthday.


A little uneasy from the bus ride, Ken and I opted for some kimbap for supper. To jump start our evening, a drunken man walked up to Ken, swaying from side to side, and asked for the rest of Ken’s kimbap. Trying to butter him up, the man exclaimed how honoured he felt to talk with a foreigner. After minutes of smelling the beer and soju waft off of the man’s breath and dirt-ridden clothes, Ken gave the man his kimbap, just smiling and nodding as he refused the man’s blackened, grimy hands.

We finally met up with Corey and Ilana, who had just finished doing a write-up on jjimdak (a popular Andong chicken dish). Tagging along were two of their friends, one who had befriended Corey after giving him a ride in his car, and the other, a newly made friend who was a random traveler from the Czech Republic.

All of us started towards our first event – bowling. It was going to be mine and Ken’s first time bowling in Andong. Our scores reflected our lack of practice at the sport, but we had a ton of laughs, nevertheless. Sometimes we were lacking bowling pins and at other times, bowling pins were blocking other ones from being renewed. Calling upon the bowling manager at every occurrence, we watched as he was eaten countless times by the bowling-pin-gobbler, climbing over and through the machines to reset our pins. Not to worry, he made it out alive, every time :).

After our series of gutterballs, and random spares and strikes, we headed downtown towards a fancy bar owned by the brother-in-law of Corey and Ilana’s friend. Downing enormous pitchers of Cass beer, macqueli (Korean rice wine) and bucheemgae (Korean pancake), the night was almost over.

What would a birthday be without a cake? Luckily, Ilana was able to whisk away into the night and return with a delectable chocolate chiffon cake from a Korean bakery. After firing the birthday poppers from the cake, we all sang Happy Birthday to the 23-year-old birthday boy, and dove into the delectable, creamy cake.

However, the night wasn’t over. Stopping by a 7 Eleven for some munchies, Corey, Ilana, their Czech friend, Ken and I bought an array of beer, from Hite, Cass, to Hoegarden. Situating ourselves on the top level of a beautiful pagoda, encasing an old, oxidized-green bell, we discussed the different views people had on the rising tensions between North Korea and South Korea, from the opinions of South Korean natives, to all foreigners alike, residing in South Korea. We put forth ideas for evacuation strategies and suggested possible travel routes across Korea for our Czech friend during these delicate times. It was a discussion topic that fueled itself, although not very fitting for the last couple hours of Ken’s birthday :). However, the night ended on such a good note, with all of us gazing out into the black abyss of the night, calmly taking in the cool breeze, sedated by the cool, crisp beer we had just consumed.

On behalf of me and Ken, I would like to thank Corey and Ilana for turning Ken’s day into an actual birthday celebration. You guys are the best :).

- Jess

Ken’s Birthday! (On Paper)

I had waited a whole month for this day. For weeks upon weeks, I tactfully and secretly scanned the upcoming weather in any Korean weather website I could find. My plan for Ken’s birthday was to be a masterpiece, painted to perfection from start to finish, with daytime events, nighttime events, transportation routes from one place to another, and a heck of a lot of food. I was so antsy for this day, especially since it was going to be a surprise.


We were to begin Ken’s birthday weekend on the Han riverside under the moonlight, nomnoming on some picnic goodies and sipping on drops of sparkling champagne. I had planned to pull out a crepe cake that I had made hours before, drizzled in layers of decadent chocolate ganache, just waiting to be licked off the fingers. I would sing ‘Happy Birthday’ to him, in the best voice I could, hoping that the thought would count, more than anything.


I dedicated this weekend towards fun. I figured that this would be the one weekend where Ken and I could let loose.

The first event of the morning was to spend the day at the Seoul Racecourse Park. Since Ken and I aren’t avid gamblers, I researched and printed off a list of the race times, the fastest horses, the best jockeys of the season, how to bet, and how to collect winnings. Bet limits were from 100 won (10 cents) to 100,000 won (100 dollars). I took out 100,000 won from the ATM to prepare for how risky we were to feel that morning.

Inside the racecourse track, we were to walk the sunny paths laid out in between gardens, and perhaps, enjoy the children’s water park, set up for tired parents…

In the evening, I had planned a route from the Racecourse Park to the nationally famous rollercoaster theme park, Everland. Naturally, this item on the agenda was to let out Ken’s inner child (and mine) :).

The cherry on top of our night was to have dinner in the foreigner-friendly region, Itaewon. Since Ken and I don’t have a selection of any ethnic food in Andeok, I thought that a choice of Indian, Italian, Japanese, or any dish other than Korean would be a treat for this night.


Unfortunately, none of the above actually happened. We decided that Seoul was too unpredictable a place for this weekend, mainly due to the current tensions, caused by the Cheonan Incident, between North and South Korea, and the escalated rioting near the Seoul City Hall by Korean War veterans. We couldn’t risk setting aside North Korea’s threats of retaliation against the south, if South Korea continued to put blame on the north for the sinking of the Cheonan ship. It made us a little queasy to know that four North Korean war submarines had gone off-the-grid, and the U.S. and South Korea were aggressively searching for them. We didn’t want to be meandering around the heart of Seoul while South Korea was setting up anti-propaganda speakers along the DMZ, projected at the north. We took into consideration North Korea’s reaction of threatening to blast those anti-propaganda speakers into oblivion, which could commence the second Korean War…

It’s better to be safe than sorry, right?

- Jess

Tuesday, 11 May 2010

Daegu Marathon

A few days ago, Ken and I ran the Daegu International Marathon with some of his Korean co-teachers and high school students. His co-teacher ran 5 kilometers, another Korean teacher ran 21 kilometers, and Ken, his high school students, and I ran the 10 kilometer marathon.

The marathon began at 8:30am and we hadn’t eaten anything in the morning (abiding to the advice of one of the teachers). The only thing that was lying in our stomachs was the Mexican food that Ken and I had eaten the night before. Mexican food the night before a race…it seemed like a good idea at the time.


The 10-kilometer timer began and Ken and I were off, running with a crowd of hundreds of people. There were men, women, students, and children in short-shorts, track suits, and flashy, neon marathon gear, as well as teams of people from companies and banks, running to the steady beats of a whistle.

After about 2.5 kilometers, I lost Ken in the crowd, and was feeling something stirring in the pit of my stomach. It seemed that I hadn’t made peace with what I had eaten the night before. As I rounded a corner, I saw my only chance of ridding the sickly burden that was weighing me down. A gas station was majestically standing to my right and its restroom was bidding me vomit in it. So I did.

I threw up everything that my stomach had to offer and felt pretty good…much better than I had just a few moments before. I spent a good fifteen minutes dry heaving and calming myself down before emerging from the dank washroom.

Avoiding the offers of Gatorade and water throughout the race, and keeping my mindset focused on finishing, I managed to cross the finish line, with Ken waiting for me. Despite being covered in sweat, he was all smiles.

What a great run. I vomited twice (once more after the race), but it was all worth it. 10 kilometers, uphill, in the blazing sun…my participation medal will hang on my wall with pride :).

- Jess

Monday, 10 May 2010

Our Neighbour’s Fire Alarm

A couple of months ago, the incessant beeping began. It was originating from our next door neighbour’s home, and day and night, the noise never ceased, never slowed, never quieted down. We were so worried that we even called Aunt Kimchi to make a house call next door. After she visited our neighbour’s shack, the beeping stopped.

Recently, the beeping started up again. All we can hear is “beep-beep-beep, beep-beep-beep, beep-beep-beep” coming from next door. Aunt Kimchi thought nothing of the beeping when I called her and told me that the noise would pass. Obviously she wasn’t being exposed to the high-pitched sound piercing into the night.

Ken and I decided to take matters into our own hands.

(Our neighbour’s home is much like the traditional homes that Korea had in the 1950’s. With now crumbling concrete walls, a stick roof, and a ratty, wooden, gate-like door, we wonder how she makes it through each winter living inside her paper-thin walls.)

As we gently knocked on her door, we could literally see into her kitchen through the gaping cracks between the wooden planks of her door. Some of them had been filled in with old newspapers and pieces of cardboard. We could see a shadow lurking just beyond the crevices of her door.

She opened her door, and the cause of the repetitive noise was apparent. Her fire alarm was painfully beeping, not because of a fire, but simply because of the steam and smoke that was hovering over her dinner, bubbling on the stovetop. It was clear that she didn’t make an effort to turn the alarm off – it had been going for days on end, and someone had decided to install it a foot beyond her grasp. So, she let it run…while she cooked, slept, and went out.

I explained our unexpected presence, and she distressfully communicated that she couldn’t reach the fire detector, let alone figure out how to reset it.

As Ken slowly pulled the alarm off from the ceiling, he opened it up, and pulled out the battery. After several tries, we both realized that the reset button wasn’t working on the alarm and the only way to terminate the sound was to detach the battery from the unit every time it went off.

She refused to have the alarm installed in her bedroom, and opted to have it moved to her bathroom (an outdoor port-a-potty). I explained that the purpose of the fire alarm was to detect smoke, and that there would be no use for it by placing it in an open bathroom. She shrugged, and suggested other walls outside on which to attach it. After a few suggestions thrown around, she finally agreed on the kitchen (despite it being awfully drafty).

Ken installed the alarm on the wall (within her reach), and left the battery to dangle out of the bottom of the device for easy disconnection. He then explained to her how to disconnect and reconnect the battery (a difficult task for a woman of her age). It took a several tries and some assistance, but she finally got it.


(10 minutes later…)

Ken and I were heading out to the convenience store and had just reached the end of our driveway, when the utterly pestering beeping sounded again. We stood silently; waiting patiently for her to follow the steps we had taught her… After a few minutes, we gave up and decided to once again pay her a visit. We found her in the kitchen, thoroughly frustrated with the entire situation. She had decided to leave the alarm going again, and urged us to disconnect the battery and leave it alone. She didn’t want to deal with it anymore. Defeated, Ken and I suggested that she have a new one installed (hopefully with a working reset button), and prayed that she would take our advice.

There have been no new incidences…

- Jess

The Long Ride Home

I was returning home from Daegu. What was supposed to be an hour and a half bus ride to Andeok turned into a horrible, horrible experience.

I remember it well… Getting my bus ticket from the booth at the Dongbu (East Daegu) Bus Terminal felt like routine. I was greeted by the man sitting beside the turnstile, checking tickets. He immediately recognized me after past countless times of “Andeok? You mean Andong, right? Why do you want to go to Andeok?” This time, however, he just smiled, punched a hole through my flimsy ticket, and let me pass.

I was heading towards the bus that was labeled ‘Yeongcheon and Andong’ – my usual route. The driver, who was smoking a cigarette on the bench beside his bus, shouted to me, “Where are you going?” I shouted back, “Andeok! Not Andong…An-DEOK.” He nodded, yelled back a Yeeaah! (the Korean equivalent of yup) and I proceeded to get onto the bus.

The bus stopped first in Yeongcheon, which seemed normal to me. The bus I usually take always stops in Yeongcheon. I was satisfied that I didn’t have to stare out the window to make sure of where I was going…so I dozed off for a little bit.

When I opened my eyes, everything was fuzzy. For a few minutes, my eyes were glazed over and I couldn’t distinguish blur from blur outside the window. When I could finally make out the word MOTEL plastered on many of them, I started to get suspicious. Everything looked out of the ordinary. I glanced up at one tall building and thought that I saw the word Pohang in big, vibrant, blue letters. Shaking it off, I waited until I could see something that I recognized. I went over the securities I had set before I entered the bus – I had confirmed with the bus driver that I was heading towards Andeok and that the bus onto which I was boarding was labeled ‘Yeongcheon and Andong’.

The bus stopped. The bus driver started coming down the aisle, collecting tickets along the way. I handed him my ticket and he studied it intently. Then there was the shouting. The driver was screaming at me and I had no idea why. Of course, I found out seconds after the foam had disappeared from his mouth. This bus was directed towards ‘Yeongcheon, Pohang, and then to Andong’. I countered his screaming with the fact that I had confirmed my destination with him, twice. He didn’t listen. Frustrated, he continued down the aisle, until he had collected all of the tickets, went back to his seat, and continued driving.

Only a few minutes had passed when we stopped at the next bus station – Pohang. I was far east of my destination, an hour and fifteen minutes away from home, and the last bus to Andeok had left an hour earlier. As I exited the bus, he snatched my ticket from my hand and shooed me off of the bus. Thanks Mr. Bus Driver. You really screwed up my night.

Now, I could’ve stayed in Pohang for the night. I could’ve slept in a motel and enjoyed the luxuries of a moderately-sized city. But no. I wanted to be at home, relaxing with Ken and watching a movie.

As I was trying to reason with the women at the Pohang ticket booth, a bus moderator tried to help me with various routes that I could take back home. Each potential option was shot down by the women…it looked like I was stuck in Pohang.

However, the sweet old moderator grabbed my arm and wasn’t going to give up. He was determined to get me back to Andeok. He explained my situation to the manager of the bus terminal, I was soon swarmed by five men, all trying to find a solution to my predicament. I don’t know how they did it, but after twenty minutes of talking on their cell phones, they found one taxi driver who was willing to drive me to Andeok for 40,000 won ($40). I was flabbergasted that they had arranged this for me and I was also a little scared that a stranger was willing to drive me an hour and a half northward to Andeok.

The taxi ride wasn’t too bad, except for the eerie silence that lingered throughout the car. The mysterious darkness of the countryside and the vast emptiness of the farmlands kept me wide-awake for the entire duration of the trip. My hands were quivering, ready to strike at the eyes, or throat. My feet were shaking, ready to kick the groin of anyone coming too close to my personal bubble.

Luckily, I didn’t have to maim anyone. Except for the unforeseen situation where the driver tried to charge me 10,000 won more, I arrived home safely, learning my lesson to never put my trust in bus drivers again. This experience will not happen a second time around.

- Jess