Tuesday, 31 January 2012

Barbequed Streaky Pork Belly

Why has nobody told me about Samgyeopsal (삼겹살 ) before?? I've been here two months and I had it for the first time last week when I went out for dinner with a friend.  It's basically barbequed streaky pork belly but my god is it delicious!  Koreans are pretty big into their barbeques.  Nearly every second restaurant here has grills in-built into the tables.

The meat arrives and you lob it onto your grill with a set of tongs.  You're given a scissors (Koreans dont really use knives at the table) as-well, so once the meat has cooked a bit on each side you chop it up into bite sized pieces.  Then all the banchan arrive.  Banchan are side-dishes, and no Korean meal ever comes without them.  They vary hugely from place to place, and often from dish to dish, but you always get at least Kimchi and some sort of pickled radish.

We got loads of tasty banchan with the Samgyeopsal the other night.  Garlic cloves, onions and big pieces of Kimchi, all of which you through on the grill too, some shredded spring onions and bean sprouts and a few sauces.  You also get lettuce leaves and seasame leaves, the idea being that you use them as wrappers.  Pop a bit of everything into the leaf and make a little parcel.  Then lob it all into your mouth, mmmm!

It was so tasty that I dragged Nick to a BBQ joint on our street on Sunday for more!  We've been a bit wary of eating barbeque here because when we got to Seoul initially, we ended up with barbequed pig's intestine one evening, which wasn't fantastic.  Also, we were sick of smelling of our food for hours after we'd eaten.  Anyway, I promised him it was real tasty and marched him in the door!

It seemed to be a slightly more upmarket place than I'd eaten in during the week.  The barbeque was coal fired, not gas, and the prices were that little bit higher.  The banchan were also better, another tell tale sign of a slightly better place.  We got a big bowl of soup (the black pot in the photo in front of Nicks right arm) and an omlette (in the other black bowl, behind Nick's hand!).  Other than that the banchan were all the same, and just as tasty second time round.

Just as we were getting stuck into cooking our pork, the lady that owns the little corner shop beside our apartment came in with her son, who was about to head off to do his army service.  They sat down at the table next to us, ordered some barbeque and a bottle of soju 소주 (a very common local vodka type drink, drunk straight, in small shot glasses) and bought us the coke you can see in the photo!

If you run out of anything, bar the meat, you just ring the little bell on your table and ask for more at no extra cost.  We didn't need to ring the bell, but we didn't exactly leave much behind us either!!    

 And all this, plus a big beer each, for only 26,000won or about 18euro!

Thursday, 26 January 2012

Mayhem at the Camel Mela

With twelve weeks in India at the tail end of a trip, I had only one plan: to make it to the annual Camel Mela in Pushkar.  I had read that it's a week-long festival in November and that there would be somewhere in the region of 20,000 camels, thousands more cows and horses, and masses of people at it. It sounded like total madness, something not to be missed, plus it gave me the perfect excuse to go back to Pushkar again.
Pushkar, Rajastan

I arrived to Ajmer train station at 5am and took myself off to the waiting room ‘til it got bright.  By quarter to six though, I was fed up waiting and decided to make a move.  After a fair amount of haggling over the price, and refusing to pay extra for my rucksack, I got on a bus and was the only white face in a sea of turban-wearing, lungi-glad Rajastani camel-drivers and cattle-herders, all headed for the Mela.  I couldn’t have been happier, they were all staring at me and I just sat there grinning back at them like an eejit!

When I got to Pushkar, finding somewhere to stay was difficult enough.  The town was hoppin', so lots of the guest houses were full and any that did have rooms, had seriously upped their prices for the Mela.  I was pretty tired, and having just been on two back-to-back overnight train journeys, my patience wasn’t the best.  I did find somewhere to stay though, and after a ‘welcome chai’ with the guest-house owners, I took myself off for a much needed shower.  

There's nothing like a good aul cold-water bucket shower to wake you up! Feeling well refreshed, I wandered off in search of the Mela ground and I got super excited when I saw a camel! I was wandering through the narrow streets wondering where all the action was when suddenly I came across it all. I’m not sure what I’d been expecting, it being a camel fair, but I was totally overwhelmed by the sheer number of animals and all the crazy paraphernalia that went with them!  There were animals and people all over the shop!

I got lost amid all the neon turbans and the stalls selling camel nose-rings and bells for their ankles, but I found the Mela ground just in time to watch the horse and camel dancing competitions.  Hilarious!  I sat down in the shade and absorbed the madness!  One camel spat at the judges, much to the amusement of the crowd.  Needless to say, he didn’t win!  Ah, Pushkar! What a great place!  

Horse Dancing Competition
As part of the fair there were dancing competitions, turban tying competitions, moustache competitions and snake charming competitions.  There was ice cream made with camel milk and paper made from camel dung.  There were free camel rides as well as a full-on fun fair.  There were people collecting fresh dung to sell as fuel.  There were lots of bargains to be had but there were also scams a plenty.  

Moustache Competition

Dung for Sale!
The Fun Fair in Full Swing!
There were hundreds of make-shift tents and restaurants to cope with the influx of people, lots of extra buses and 24hr entertainment for all the festival goers.  On top of all this, the week-long Camel Mela coincides with a religious festival, which comes complete with all the usual Indian trimmings, just to add to the madness.

The beginning of the week seemed to be when most of the serious buying and selling of the animals was carried out.  The middle of the week was mainly for the tourists, Indian and foreign alike, with lots of evening entertainment and plenty of events to get the crowd involved.  The last day of the fair coincides with a full moon and it is at midnight on this night that the religious part of the festival reaches its peak.  The devout have been fasting for the previous twenty-four hours and then at midnight there’s a mass-bathing in the holy lake, in the centre of the town, followed by a big feast and lots of loud singing, chanting and drum-beating.  This all continues into the wee hours of the morning.  

The next day the town clears out at an alarmingly fast rate and everyone goes back to the regular humdrum of their daily lives! Pushkar, is once again, returned to the sleepy little town that it is and all traces of the fair are wiped out, until the next Mela!

Nice Calm Sunset over the lake, after the Mela.

Wednesday, 25 January 2012

Generation Emigration

The Irish Times are running a series at the moment called 'Generation Emigration' which is aimed at Irish citizens who are living and working elsewhere in the world.  There is a discussion on their forum at the moment asking how leaving Ireland has effected the emigrated.  It asks 'Have you discovered a different side to yourself or learned something new that has altered your perspective on life since leaving Ireland? Or have you remained unchanged by your experiences overseas?'

Since I'm now an emigrant,  I left the following comment, which can also be found on Irish Times website at http://www.irishtimes.com/blogs/generationemigration/2012/01/24/have-your-say-how-has-leaving-ireland-changed-you/

For me, leaving Ireland was exciting.  It was something I wanted to do.  I have always loved travelling, saving whatever money I could for my next trip.  My college summers were spent off doing my own thing, in places like Mexico and Belize, India, and Thailand.  

In May 2009, I graduated from UCD, with a Joint B.Sc in Pharmacology and Physiology.  The recession was in full swing and there were almost no jobs to be had.  Suddenly, just because you had a degree, didn’t mean you were ‘entitled’ to a job, which to be honest, suited me perfectly!  I’d been dreading finishing college and facing the ‘what now?’ that everyone faces.  All I wanted to do was travel.  No jobs meant no pressure on me to look for one and no guilt when I decided to jump ship!  

I spent the next 18 months travelling and working in various parts of the world.  I went on Safari in Tanzania, I worked as a bar maid in New Zealand, I travelled though South East Asia and India and I worked as a chalet host in the French Alps.  I came back to Ireland in May of last year and spent the summer in Lahinch, Co. Clare.  I worked in a Bar and set up a small baking business.  I saved like mad and longed to be somewhere else.

In August, an opportunity arose for both myself and my boyfriend to teach English in South Korea.  We jumped on it.  We arrived at the end of November and we haven’t looked back.  Since leaving Ireland, my travel bug has been fuelled further, I am increasingly compelled to experience new things and to develop a deeper understanding of different cultures and societies.  I feel that my perspective has remained the same since leaving Ireland but I’m sure I cannot have remained unchanged by my overseas experiences.  Surely no experience at home or abroad, leaves you unchanged.  When I started to travel, it wasn’t my intention to learn.  I didn’t do it to deepen my understanding of different cultures.  I travelled for a laugh.  Now years later, I find emigration to be just as enjoyable as travel and each new experience opens my eyes a little wider.

Tuesday, 24 January 2012

Happy Loolah New Year!

Lunar.  Ruler.  Loolah.  All sounds the same here!!  Anyway yesterday was Lunar New Year.  It's a big celebration here, the equivalent of our Christmas I suppose.  It's all about spending time with family and giving gifts.  The gifts seem to be one of three things: money, especially given from older relatives to younger ones; a toiletries hamper, which generally includes toothpaste and toilet roll; or a spam hamper! Yup, spam!  Apparently spam became something of a luxury item here during the war, it was only available if it had been smuggled or leaked from the US Army.  As a result, i suppose it has a bit of an exotic buzz to it.  Either way, at the moment its everywhere...in the corner shops, in the super markets, people walking down the street have big boxes of it...madness!  Happy New Year to ya Son, have some Spam why don't you?!!

Anyway as I said, New Year was actually yesterday.  We'd been told that shops etc would all be closed but we didn't really think about how/what we'd eat.  I suppose we did have our spam if things got desperate, and in the end they almost did.  There must be the guts of twenty restaurants on the little side street we live on so we were sure there'd be something open.  We were prepared to be beggars, not choosers.  Nothing was open.  Great!  So we started to walk towards Dunsan Dong, a pretty big commercial area about a fifteen minute stroll from where we live in Wolpeong Dong, in the hope we'd find somewhere open there.  We did thank god, the idea of a spam sandwich wasn't really doin' it for me I have to tell ya!  We had dakgalbi which a chicken and cabbage dish with lots of spicy sauce, garlic, onions, cheese, rice cakes and some other unidentifiable ingredients (to me at least!) all cooked up on a big flat pan at your table.

We'd had it once before.  On our first night in Daejeon, Susan and Stephen took us for some and I remember not being all that fussed with it.  Yesterday however, I thought it was the business!  Our taste buds must have altered in some way to let us start appreciating the food more fully here.  Either that or the thought of a spam sandwich had made my tastebuds unusually receptive!

When we'd eaten a fair chunk of the meal, a waitress came and asked us if we'd like rice.  Not really sure what kind of rice she meant, she'd been motioning to the pan, we said yes.  Out came some rice, some dried seaweed type stuff, some more hot sauce and some seasame seeds, and it all got tossed into the pan and mixed up with the rest of it! Yum!

It was strange to see the streets so quiet yesterday but I suppose a foreigner living in Ireland would say the same thing on Christmas Day.  There wasn't a whole lot to do, what with everything being shut down, so after our meal we rolled home, got into our jammies and watched a movie.  What else would you do on a day off work sure?!

Calm, Quiet Day in Daejeon 

Monday, 23 January 2012

Washing Elephants in Ban Phapho

I love elephants (really-love-them- think-they’re-amazing-can’t-get-enough-of-them kinda love!) and spending time in Asia means you get to see a lot of them, which is great.  But, you get very few opportunities to be up close to them unless you seek out an elephant trek or some other such touristy tour.  From my experience, these places are usually run with the aim of luring in as many foreigners as possible, making as much money as they can, while the welfare of the elephants is often not high up on their list of priorities.  I had read that in the small town of Ban Phapho in South Eastern Laos, elephants are still used as working animals and, seeing as I’m a bit baloobas about elephants, I decided to go check it out for myself and see if I could have a less touristy nelly experience.  I was in Tat Lo at the time, so the journey wasn’t crazy long and I got to Ban Phapho at about 5pm, just before some of the heaviest monsoon rain I’d ever seen!  I had a surprisingly tasty dinner of fried sticky rice with veg and egg, arranged to take an elephant for a bath the next day and then hit the hay in preparation for my big day!
Bounhome Guesthouse, Ban Phapho

I was up early to have something to eat before my elephant and her mahout arrived.  As I was polishing off the end of my breakfast I heard them coming through the trees and then there she was, all saddled up and ready for me! The place I was staying, Bounhome Guesthouse, had a nelly platform out the back that you could climb up onto it and be level-ish with the elephant’s head, making getting on and off a bit easier.  The elephant was called Ton Ban and was only three so still relatively little and still learning but she was incredibly responsive to her mahout, Ing.  He perched himself comfortably on the seat, leaving me to sit on her neck with my knees tucked in behind her ears, let out a bit of a groan (whether it was Lao or just a noise I don’t know!) and off we went.  I’ve always thought that Asian elephants’ ears look so small in comparison to African elephants.  When I was sitting on Ton Ban though, I remember thinking to myself that she had really big ears.  With my legs dangling down, my toes only barely came to the bottom of her ears.  But then when I got off, I was shocked to see that they still looked so small.  African elephants’ ears must be huge!
Ton Ban and Ing Arriving!

Off we went down the road for about fifty metres and then veered off into a paddy field.  Ing didn’t have much English but I gathered that we were walking in some kind of special elephant corridor, and that although there was rice growing where we were walking, it had all gone to seed so we weren’t doing any damage.  Ton Ban was in nelly heaven, chomping her way through the rice, pulling up massive chunks at a time and giving it a good thrashing before stuffing it into her mouth!  The scenery was spectacular, endless paddy fields and a backdrop of mountains, covered in that mystical looking low-lying cloud, totally untouched and unspoilt.  There were no other people to be seen, no animals, no houses, no roads, no nothing, just the three of us and the sound of Ton Ban sloshing through the water.

We came to a little rocky hill which Ton Ban strolled up ridiculously sure-footedly.  Up on the hill was another platform, so we got off to admire the view.  Sticky rice, sticky rice and more sticky rice as far as the eye could see!  Ing hadn’t had his breakfast so he’d wanted to stop to eat but first he went off, machete in hand, to get some bamboo for me to give to Ton Ban.  She was delighted so she was!  She munched on her bamboo, and Ing and I had goat rolled in basil leaves with sticky rice.  With eating out of the way, we jumped back on and off we went, off the far side of the hill, through more paddy fields and passed a couple going about their daily business in a dug-out canoe.  
Ton Ban Lovin' her Bamboo!

After about an hour, the guy who owned the guesthouse I was staying in materialised to take some pictures of us.  We stopped to take off Ton Ban’s saddle and then brought her to a pond so we could wash her.  This was the part I’d been waiting for!  It was amazing to be sitting on her as she ducked and dived underneath the water, with often nothing about water but her periscopic trunk.  Ing gave me an industrial strength scrubbing brush to get some of the mud off her and I got stuck in, lovin’ every second of it.  I was up to my neck in the water at times but I couldn’t have been happier, given half the chance I would’ve spent all day in that little muddly pond scrubbing Ton Ban!  

After we'd given her a good aul scrub, we put the seat back on and started walkin' back home.  When we got back to the guest house, i climbed down, said my goodbyes and watched as Ing took the seat off Ton Ban, through a bit of a lead rope around her neck, jumped on his moped and burned off, Ton Ban running along behind him!!  The whole day was amazing and easily one of the highlights of my time, not just in laid back, chilled out, Laos, but in Asia as a whole. 

Sunday, 22 January 2012

Not Ready for Lonely London

On the way home after fifteen months of travelling on my own, first to Tanzania, then onto New Zealand and to various parts of South East Asia and India, my head was filled with people saying ‘you must be so excited about going home’ and ‘you must be glad you won’t have to get on another bus or train again soon’ and ‘Oh, it’ll be so nice to be home for Christmas’ but all I felt was not ready! Not ready for the cold, not ready for ‘normality’ and most definitely not ready to slot into the ‘real world’!

Anyway, ten hours after take-off the plane landed in Heathrow.  ‘Welcome to London, the local time is 17:35, the temperature is 2 degrees and it’s raining’! Lovely! Welcome indeed!  Off the plane with me, through immigration and passport control, got my bag and onto the tube.  I was heading to Wimbledon to stay with my bro for a few days before getting homehome to Dublin just before Christmas.
Despite having been on my own for so long, getting on the tube in Heathrow was one of the loneliest experiences of my whole trip.  There were plenty of people about, it wasn’t that, it was that they were all doing their own thing, in their own little bubbles.  There was virtually no eye contact and certainly no talking or exchange of words between strangers.  Everyonewas on their iPhone or equivalent (which my brother was quick to point out were called ‘smart phones’, a phrase that, at that time, I’d never heard before!), they were all interacting with them and not with each other.  It all seemed a bit surreal, a bit ‘computer simulation’ like, made even more so because I was reading George Orwells’ Nineteen Eighty-Four at the time. There was near total silence, everyone just put their heads down and avoided each other.  I know that at times I’d given out about the lack of personal space in India, especially on the trains, but my god this was the other end of the spectrum altogether!  All I wanted to do was chat to someone about how freezing it was and about how weird it was to be home and I couldn’t even catch someone’s eye!

 Anyway I got off the tube and my brother was there to meet me which was great.  It had been 18months at least since I’d last seen him.  On the drive back to his house all I could think was ‘everything is so clean’!  I was seeing stereotypical Britain for the first time: clean cuts lines, neat and tidiness, order.  The houses were all the same, terraced or semi-detached and not ramshackled and patched together with bits of whatever!  It all added to the ‘lemming-like’ feel of the place, everyone going about their business (or the business they’ve invented for themselves?) in a very robot like fashion.  There wasn’t a huge amount of individual thought apparent, although I’m sure some people would disagree! 

Stereotypical British Houses

The next day I went with my brother, his wife and their daughter, into town.  They had a few last-minute Christmas presents they needed to get, as well as a few bits ‘n’ bobs for dinner.  Granted it was the last Saturday before Christmas, but I couldn’t get over the amount of money being spent, cash and credit cards all over the shop and all for seemingly unnecessary things.  Having just spent so long in India, where nothing is thrown out and nothing unnecessary is bought, it all seemed very strange to me.  As well as that, where was ‘the recession’ I’d been hearing so much about?  And yes, I was in London, not Dublin, which I’d heard was a whole lot worse recession-wise, but still, there was no sign of any shortage of money.  It was everywhere: in the fancy cars that every household seemed to have parked outside their houses, in the clothes and accessories people were wearing, in the shops, in the bars and restaurants and in the wallets that all seemed too small for their fifties!

Nice Car, Nice Clothes!

Reverse culture shock has always been something I’ve laughed at! It always seemed ridiculous to me that you can be shocked by your home culture after being away a while.  After all isn’t that where you’ve spent most of your life?  Isn’t it the culture you’re most used to?  I’m not laughin’ any more I don’t mind telling you, it’s as real as I am and it lets you see the way ‘we’ live in a whole new light.

See this link to verify my feelings: http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2012/apr/26/everyone-connected-death-of-conversation?INTCMP=SRCH

Saturday, 21 January 2012

Sivananda Ashram, Neyyar Dam, Kerala, Southern India

Some of you may remember that while I was in India last Autumn/Winter (2010) I wanted to give ashram life a bash...see what all the new-age fuss is about.  I wanted to go to a fairly strict place that really focuses on yoga and improving your technique, whatever level you are at.  After a bit of research it became clear that in order to find this I’d have to put up with a certain amount of meditation, a lack of garlic and onions in my food (these induce impure thoughts you know!) and a smattering of other minor inconveniences!  I also didn’t want to pay an arm and a leg for this which narrowed my choices somewhat. Ashrams geared towards westerners wanting the yoga aspect without the rest of it tend to cost a penny or two!  So after a bit more research, and granted probably not an extensive amount, I decided to try Sivananda Ashram in a small town called Neyyar Dam, Kerala, Southern India.

I had all but forgotten my experience until two things happened this week.  The first was that I got an email newsletter from the ashram and the second was an article, by Susan Greenwood, in the Guardian entitled ‘10 of the world’s best yoga retreats 2010’ published on Thursday the 12th January.  The Sivananda Ashram was listed at number three.  Here’s what it said:

“Sivananda Yoga Vedanta Dhanwantari Ashram, Kerala
If it's full immersion yoga you're after, this ashram in the foothills of Kerala's Western Ghats will provide that and then some. On its two-week yoga holidays, participation in all aspects of life of the ashram is mandatory, including an alcohol-free vegetarian diet, silent mediation, lectures on yoga and participation in karma yoga which involves an hour a day of helping with tasks around the facility. The idea is that giving yourself up to the timetable in this manner is extremely relaxing and can lead to a deep spiritual awareness within your yoga practice.

What it doesn’t mention is that when you arrive, you are given a list of rules which you must abide by.  You must hand over your money, your MP3 player if you have one, your phone and your camera.  It’s not enough just to suggest you don’t use them, they must be confiscated.  It’s for your own good!  You are asked for your ‘spiritual name’ and if/when you don’t have one you are met with a very disapproving stare.  After signing the form, you’re asked for payment for the first three days upfront.  There’s no leaving before these three days are up and for the duration of the ‘yoga vacation’ there’s no leaving the walls of the ashram at all without an ‘exit pass’ that has to be approved by the ashram director.  One of the reasons I chose this ashram in the first place was because of its stunning location, up high on a hill and right next to a lake but the lake is outside the walls and therefore out of bounds to guests.

My first impressions set off alarm bells but I’m a pretty cynical person by nature so I shut them out and told myself to give the place a chance.  After all I’d only myself to blame for being there in the first place!

As time went by though I just noticed more and more things that didn’t add up.  There were (mandatory) talks on the importance of selfless service (Karma Yoga).  The karma yoga you were assigned to varied.  Some people had to clean the dorms, others had to empty the bins.  The lucky ones had to be up before meditation to set it up and I had the privilege of serving food to everyone. The purpose of this karma yoga is to destroy your ego so that you could start to be at one with the world and to teach you that no one person is above anyone else.  All sound enough teaching, except that the staff would stand over you giving you orders while you were doing your job in a very egotistical way!  The first day there, when most people (not all though, because some people seem to love it so much they stay for months) were fresh off the plane, and delighted to have some sort of peaceful reprieve from the madness of Indian daily life, we had a group karma yoga.  The task was to clean the dining hall.  Eating meals was done on the floor, to further humble yourself, so i guess having it clean was necessary!  However, the manner in which it was done, was not. I am convinced that this task is repeated at the start of every two week long yoga vacation when they get a new batch of suckers in!  The staff poured no less than 200 buckets of water onto the floor and then barked at us to mop it up! Work faster, work harder, crush that spirit!!

As well as crushing your ego you are encouraged to renounce the material world.  Again, nothing wrong with that in itself except that they have a ‘boutique’ on the grounds.  Instead of cash (you handed it all over in blind trust when you checked in!) you are issued with a card that you can charge things to.  The boutique sells prayer books, chanting CD’s, yoga mats, appropriate clothing (even with the lack of garlic and onion in the food, they’re taking no chances!), posters, postcards, snacks, soap, toilet paper...the list goes on!  Not only do these items fall under the ‘material things’ heading, they are also being sold at up to five times the cost you could buy them for outside the ashram walls.  A not-for-profit organisation? Really?  And while I’m on about money, it costs 500Rupees a day to stay at the ashram.  Not much you may think, it is after all only just over £6 sterling, €7 or $9.  However, the staff are all meant to be volunteers and a bed like that can be found for 50rupees outside the ashram walls.  Throw in a few meals similar to the one’s provided and they are still making about a 350Rs profit per person per day.  So where does all the money go?   

The basic ashram schedule starts with a gong at 5:20am and runs until 10pm.  Attendance at each part of the schedule is mandatory and ‘bunkin’ off’ or opting out is not tolerated.  It is even stated in the rules: “In the event that you need to be absent from any event or to leave the ashram premises, permission should be obtained from the Ashram Director.”  The 6am Satsang (silent meditation followed by chanting) was one of the most bizarre experiences I’ve ever had.  On the first morning, I got up, full of optimism and ready to get stuck into whatever this yoga vacation would bring.  However, never having meditated before and that not having been highlighted as a problem, I was expecting some level of guidance, especially on the first day.  There was none.  Everyone filed up onto the roof top at 5:55 and sat down in the lotus position, backs straight, eyes closed.  I just looked around wondering how they all knew what to do!  The ashram director arrived, sat down in front of us all, took up the same position and stayed like that for an hour.  No moving, no blinking, no nothing!  The floor was made from concrete and my legs were completely dead after twenty minutes.  The thing I couldn’t get over was all the other newbies like me, sitting there, possibly in pain, lapping it all up, not even a bewildered look amongst them!  When the director opened his eyes, he and a few other staff members started to chant.  We were all given word sheets and again everyone joined in.  It wasn’t that I had a problem with chanting per say, it was just that I had no idea what it was I was being asked to chant.  There had been no explanation here either.  No translation of the words, no reason given as to why we were doing it.  But again, nobody seemed to mind this.  As the days went on, people got so involved in the chanting that some were in trance like states.  They rocked back and forth with their eyes rolling into the backs of their heads, repeating the mantras over and over.  I didn’t join in once (my cynicism coming back out!) but I had to sit through it twice a day everyday, attendance was mandatory after all, and I seemed to be the only one who that bothered.  

When the initial three mandatory days were up, I left.  However, even this was made difficult.  In order to leave I had to obtain an exit pass or the security guard at the gate wouldn’t let me out.  This was not as easy to obtain as you’d imagine.  The office only had very specific opening hours and most of these hours were during satsang or asana(yoga practice), and with the schedule being compulsory, getting to the office made me feel like a child trying to out-smart my teachers.  I did get an exit pass though, and that should have been the end to my troubles, but it wasn’t.  Since being there, a combination of the early starts, the lack of substance in the food and the painful chanting, I’d had a permenant headache.  I struggled with my backpack and found the short walk back down to the village an almost unobtainable goal.  After only three days, doing anything that required any sort of effort or thought at all was virtually impossible.
They obviously have a pretty serious brain working in their marketing department.  Even the name of the two week course (Yoga Vacation) that’s run every month, is well thought out, and very much so with westerners in mind.  The strictness of the routine and the severity of the teachings is played down, again with westerners in mind, wanting to give the impression of a typical easy going ‘holiday’ with the added physical and mental benefits of yoga, as well as a little bit of meditation thrown in for good measure!  They highlight the beauty of the ashram surroundings, failing to mention that its ‘out of bounds’ for the duration of your stay.  Both the price and the fact that the ashram is run exclusively in English, excludes native Indian people from participating, again reinforcing their strong desires to get (vunerable) westerners through the gates.

The scariest thing about it all was the other people who were staying there.  Nobody seemed in the least bit inquisitive as to the reasoning behind what it was that we were being asked to do.  Nobody objected to the rigid timetable.  Nobody voiced any of their own opinions.  The all seemed completely happy to let the ashram take control and teach them a ‘new, better way of living’.  There was no rule breaking, everyone chanted along and followed the rules like a bunch of lemmings.  We weren’t even allowed talk during meal times.  Given that the vast majority of us had just arrived, from various corners of the earth and all sorts of walks of life, it seemed like a natural time to speak to each other but it was banned and nobody questioned it.  The lack of independent thinking and the speed at which people just gave in and conformed was frightening.  The majority of the people there seemed to be ‘searching’ for something.  They were unhappy with certain aspects of their lives and wanted to make changes.  They seemed unsure of themselves and vunerable and it appeared that they had all flocked to Sivananda likes moths to a candle in order to find that ‘something’.  When I left, after only three days of being there, the mantras were repeatedly going round and round in my head.  I found myself waking in time for morning satsang, and inadvertently eating meals at ashram meal-times.  It just goes to show how easy it is to form habits and how easily people can be manipulated and stripped of independent thought without them even realising it.  It was a scary place to spend a few days but it was a fascinating experience in hind sight.

Friday, 20 January 2012

I'm an English Teacher!

This is the end of our 5th week teaching at Lexis Foreign Language Institute and so far so good!  Lexis is a Hagwon, which is the Korean term for a private after school institute.  It seems that most kids go to some form of hagwon every day after school.  Hagwons tend to specialise in one subject (Lexis is an English institute surprisingly enough!) so kids maybe go to an English hagwon one day, a maths one the next, piano the day after that etc etc.  There are something crazy like 70, 000 hagwons in South Korea.  The kids appear to be worked very hard, often not getting home 'til after 11pm at which stage they still have all their homework to do.  It's not uncommon for high school students to survive on less than four hours sleep a night because the competition for university places is so great.  There's also a big culture, amongst the upper levels of society, to try to get their kids into Ivy League colleges in the States, putting even more pressure on the already stressed students.  One of the students I had in the first couple of weeks, a fourteen year old girl called Christina, has since left Lexis to move to Vancouver with her mum to increase her chances of getting into an American college.


Our timetable seems to shift about a fair bit which means we're never all that sure how many hours we'll work and what time we'll finish at on any given day but generally we seem to finish between 8:30pm and 9:30pm and so far its been working out at about 25 teaching hours a week.  We've to be in a 2pm and classes start at 3pm.  Sometimes we have back to back classes 'til we finish and other days we get a few breaks spread out through out the day.

The Staff Room: Mine's the desk with the hat on it!

I reckon we have about 100 students each.  The class sizes vary but I think my biggest one has 9 kids in it so not massive.  We both have some one to one classes too.  The bigger classes are generally 30 or 45 minutes long while the one-to-one's are generally an hour and a half long.

All the kids have English names which makes  it a bit easier to remember them, I'd say I just about have a handle on their names at this stage but if we used their Korean names I'd be pretty much horlixed!  The age of the students varies from as young as 6 or 7 up to about 15 or 16.  I'm never really too sure how old they are though, Koreans have a bit of an odd way of telling ages.  They are 1 when they're born and then on the first of January each year they get another year older, not on their actual birthdays.  So a kid born on the 31st of December could be 2years old when in fact they are only 1day old!! It's all a bit confusing!!

The teaching itself is going pretty well! I had one nightmare of a student in one of my classes to begin with but I've just off loaded him to Nick, delighted!! He seems to be dealing with him better than I was though which is good!  I had notions of the students all being nice, polite, reserved, well-behaved little Asian kids but not a bit of it, they're just a bunch of kids!  Some quiet and shy, some loud and boisterous, some clever, some not so clever!  On the whole their level of English is pretty bad.  There seems to be some sort of missing link in the way English is taught-they can all (more or less) read pretty well (some of the kids are reading sherlock holmes and romeo and Julliet and the likes!) but when it comes to speaking, forget it!  Their pronumciation leaves a fair bit to be desired at times too.  I'm often at a total loss as to what it is they are trying to say, I have to get them to spell for me!!  I've only just realised this week that the Korean teachers (who are also teaching English) use the same class textbooks that we do.  The tend to stay one or two pages ahead of us, so the kids are already familiar with the content when we get to them.  Our big thing is to correct their pronunciation so its all about getting them to read and say things aloud repeatedly.  The curriculum is pretty set so its really a matter of just going in, getting through 2 or 3 pages of the textbook and then playing some sort of game with them for the last 5 minutes.

There's a reward system in the school that seems to provide pretty good incentive to the kids.  When their homework is done well etc they get a stamp.  Five stamps makes a dollar.  A fake US Dollar.  These dollars are highly prized and every six weeks or so the school holds dollar parties where the kids can buy things with their dollars-sweets, chocolate, pens etc etc.  Anyway they go mad for it are are always asking for 'dollar teaching, dollar'!  Six year olds with dollar signs in their eyes...possibly not something to be encouraged but if it works....well, that's good enough for me!!

That fairly sums up or daily working schedule I think.  Monday and Tuesday are public holidays for Lunar New Year so after work today we're off til Wednesday at 2pm which is sweet :)  Giving hampers and gift sets seems to be the thing for Lunar New Year.  In Home Plus and E-mart etc (Tesco equivalents) there are tonnes of hampers for sale...the most popular of which seems to be hampers full of spam! yup! Spam!  What a gift!!

Spam Hampers at our local convenience shop 

The upmarket, elaborate spam gift set we got from our employers to wish us 'A Happy New Year'

Tuesday, 17 January 2012

No Smoking or you'll get the evil eye!

A couple of buses, an impressive mountain and a teapot full of Makgeolli

Seeing as I’ve been so bad at updating my blog, I’m going to back date it a bit…not too much, just a little bit about our Christmas holidays.

On Wednesday (28th of December) we headed for a place called Danyang, which is north east of where we are.  First problem-where do we get a bus from? Answer-Ring Brian! (Brian is the husband of the woman who runs the Hagwon we work in and he’s our self-proclaimed guardian angel!) He told us to ring him back when we were in a taxi and he’d give the driver directions! So, that’s what we did. Too easy! 

Got to the bus station, a really new looking modern terminus (complete with an 'Irish Potato Cafe'!) in the middle of a particularly run down looking area and attempted to buy a ticket.  We're just about at the stage now where we can recognise places written in Hangul but speaking is still a non event. Got the message across we wanted to go to Danyang, but somehow managed to get a non-direct bus and only bought the ticket for the first leg which was fine, except that we had to go through the whole buying process again at the next station!  All part of the fun though!

Four hours later we got to Danyang, which was a much bigger town than we’d expected.  I thought it was going to be more of a village but it was actually pretty big.  It's on a river though which makes it really nice.  The river was maybe 300metres across and frozen totally solid.  It looked beautiful.  Found somewhere to stay...hostels and the likes aren’t really a big thing here, there's no real budget tourist industry but you can get motels pretty cheaply.  They're called ‘love motels’, and can be a bit seedy but are generally clean and the rooms tend to be fairly big.  Under-floor heating, en-suite bathroom, towels, internet, water cooler etc...for about €20 a night!  So found ourselves a love motel and went for an explore.  But it was FREEZING we ended up just diving into a coffee shop, ordering hot chocolates, throwing blankets over ourselves and playing cards until it was time to go for dinner!  

It was the first time we’d been out of Daejeon since we’d arrived and we'd forgotten how hard finding restaurants can be...we generally eat in a few places we know of and we have a bit of a handle on the menu or the staff help us out but now, in this new town, where there’s even less English than in Daejeon, we were a bit stuck! Back to good aul point and shoot! We went for the safe option and managed to ask for dishes we know we like which they had but it was good food all the same, nice and cheap, with a free coffee thrown in afterwards, and all for about €8! Happy days!

The next day we went to a Korean Buddist temple complex, called Guin-sa, about half an hour away.  It was so impressive...for any of you that've seen Kung Fu Panda...that’s exactly what it was like! If you imagine a massive temple complex, all colourful, with big dragons everywhere, and huge eaves, all tucked it to the side of a mountain and joined together by sky walks...that’s it!

The next day we got a bus to Darian, about 15mins further up the mountains to the entrance to Sobeaksan National Park, with the intention of going for a bit of a hike but by the time we got there we didn’t have time so we just wandered around as long as we could (it was baltic, the coldest we've experienced yet), then ordered a big pot of some sort of tasty goodness and a teapot of makeolli (unstrained rice wine).  We got up early the next day to climb Birobong Mountain, all 1429m of it!  It wasn’t like doing a hike at home, there were no ups and downs,just straight up to the peak, then straight down!  It was a 14km round trip but it was such an amazing walk, up through forest until we got out the otherside of it.  The view was like some sort of oriental painting, all blue/grey mountain peaks in the distance with whispy clouds hanging in between the peaks and a piercing blue sky.  Stunning but far too cold to hang around and admire.  The summit was really exposed (as summits generally are!), we'd walked along a ridge for about 700 metres to get to it so it was really windy and bitingly cold.  Touched the marker, took a quick photo and legged it! 

 The Start of the Walk

The ground was snow covered for the most part so we thought going down-hill would be really slow and slippy but our shoes were up to it and we bombed it.  All the korean folk we passed walking the mountain had proper ice grips on their shoes and walking poles...bfff...out of my way you over dressed eejits, we're grand in our runners!!

Got back about 5 hours later, had another pot of tasty goodness, a couple of new-years-eve celebratory beers and hit the hay well before the new year rang in!!  Back to Daejeon the next day, and then back to work on Monday!

Awkward Oncheon!

Apparently falling off the blogger bandwagon can't be blamed entirely on Christmas Cheer, it being the 17th January at this stage and not a post in sight! My bad! I'll try to do better! So what's new since I last posted? Well...myself and Nick had a week off after Christmas and on one of the days we decided to check out an oncheon (spa)...see what all the fuss is about!

We’d heard about Korean sauna’s or jjimjilbang, mainly just that they are an altogether naked affair, men in one, women in another, but also that they are places with games rooms, relaxation rooms, places you can stay overnight- all in all a bit of a ‘must do’ while in Korea.  We came across an oncheon  in Yuseong (an area of Deajeon, the city we live in) and decided to give it a go.  Maybe spa’s are different, maybe they aren’t all naked, who knows?! So with a fair bit of optimism and a couple of pairs of swimming togs we headed off on the subway to find this place and see what it’s all about!

‘Excuse me, where’s the spa?’
‘Thirl Floour’
‘Eh…just wondering…we’ve heard that eh….is this a naked kind of place or….'
'Yes, naked one’. 
‘Right, yeah, great!’

Great!  Big red embarrasses heads on us!  Got to the 3rd floor and there was a reception desk with a pricelist.  No idea what any of them were…basic entry was w12, 000 (€8) after that who knows what else you can pay for!  The girl at reception gave us a key each and we peeled off, me to the left into ‘Womens Spa’ and Nick to the right into ‘Mens Spa’.  And then the fun really began!

I walked in through the door way and there was a little room of cubby holes on my right (which in hindsight was so obviously for shoes seeing as Koreans don’t wear shoes inside) but I just looked at it with bewilderment thinking to myself ‘am I supposed to get naked in here??!’.   I walked past it into a fairly plush looking locker room, carpeted not tiled.  Reminded me of the locker rooms in Riverview when Derval took me there as a child.  Except for one thing- there were no benches or chairs to get changed at, just lockers, full length, narrow lockers.  I wandered  around looking like a total eejit until some woman came running at me (naked obviously!) ‘your shoes, your shoes, take off your shoes!’  She didn’t only seem put out I was wearing shoes, she seemed offended….great start Stef, nice one!

Taking my shoes off gave me a few minutes to gather myself.  I’d seen (some of) the inside of the place now, did I really want to do this?  I did think about just walking out, there and then, but then I’d only have to sit there and wait for Nick so I sucked it up and braved myself once more!

I wandered around aimlessly again trying to get a grip on the place before I took my clothes off so I could head straight to the nearest  spa pool with a bit of purpose!  Another lady (not naked this time!) stopped me:
‘Excuse me, where are you going?’
‘I don’t know’
‘OK, do you have a locker key?

I showed her my key and she took me to my locker, all the while trying to keep my eyes from popping out of my head from starring at all these naked women walking around, not a bother on them! ‘Now, take your clothes off!’ and she disappeared!  Ok….try not to act too weird, this is obviously perfectly normal for them.  The woman came back a second later with a robe for me (delighted!) and I pulled it on quick-sharp and headed for the door into the pool and sauna room. 

The room was pretty big, rectangular in shape, and consisted off a shower block immediately to the left.  Ten showers in all, five opposite five.  To the left was another shower area, hand held showers, more of a hose-and-a-tap type job in front of a mirror.  Pull up a stool, sit down, get stuck in!  To the back of the room were the three hot spring pools.  The water comes from a source 350m under-ground and is pumped into these pools.  One is between 19-21°C, the next between 37-39°C and the last between 45-47°C.  No bubbles, not Jacuzzi style, just still water about waist deep so sit on the floor and be up to your neck in it, sit on the shelf and be only waist deep or sit on the edge of the pool and just have your lower legs in the water, the choice is yours!

I stood at the door in my robe feeling like a total eejit, thinking ‘what in gods name am I doing here?’  It wasn’t that busy, maybe ten or fifteen others there in total but it can obviously cater for a lot more, there must’ve been 100 lockers at least.  Anyway a woman was on her way out, had a towel around her shoulders making her seem less naked so I asked her if she could speak English.  She could. 
‘What do I do?
‘What do you need?’
What?!  I don’t need anything!  She explained that only soap is provided, no shampoo or conditioner (it was then I noticed all the other women, or the ones at the sit down showers at least, had plastic baskets with products in them…shampoo, conditioner etc)  I tried to explain I was clean, I’d had a shower before I came, I didn’t need a shower I just wanted to see what all the fuss was about!  She told me about the different pools, and the different sauna’s, of which there were three:  one dry one at 97°C, one wet one at 47°C and one much cooler one that was all stone inside where she said I could lie down and sleep if I wanted to!  Yes!  A nap, while I’m naked in a strange place, surrounded by strange people, sounds great! Absolutely!

I thanked her, asked her where I should leave my robe and made a bee-line for the body temperature pool.  Got in, tried to act like it was a totally normal thing to do and was just beginning to relax when someone came over to talk to me!  Apparently I needed to go back out and get two towels.  One to cover my hair (obviously!) and the other….well, no idea actually! 

OK try the sauna Stef, go on, try it!  Then have a shower and get the hell outta here!  Into the sauna with me so and as soon as I’d sat down more bloody women started talking to me!  Two women, in their fifties I reckon, both sitting cross legged without a care in the world, started asking me if there were oncheon in Ireland and did we wear clothes.  I obviously looked as awkward as I felt!  I made my excuses and left fairly pronto!

The whole thing was mad.  Apart from the naked part, and the fact that I’m a good aul Irish prude, it was really nice, really really relaxing, and such a nice way to spend an afternoon.  I think I was probably in and out in less than an hour but it is somewhere you could spend a while, a long while.  There was a dressing room when you come out of the saunas with lots of individual stations, each with a hair dryer, hair spray and gel, cotton buds, tissues, body lotion, eye gel etc so pop your robe back on (or not!) and spend some time there doing girly things.  There’s also a relaxing room.  You can pick up a pair of pyjama type clothes from the same stands you get the towels and robes from, pop them on, and head in.  There are loads of lazy boys, big comfy lookin’ armchairs, a magazine rack….stay there as long as you want.  Nobody will bother you, nobody will tell you your time is up.  You get such a sense of it being about personal time and maybe that is what it’s all about.  Maybe it’s to counter-balance the madness out on the city streets and the fact that the entire population lives on top of each other in massively high rise buildings.  Something like 90% of the population live in urban communist era style apartment blocks that don’t look like they have room to swing a cat in.  But here in the oncheon and as far as I’m aware in the jjimjilbang it’s about you.   Nobody will talk to you (unless you’re an offensive foreigner walking around with your shoes on, or letting you hair touch the water!), nobody with bother you and you can have time to yourself to think or just to be and to unwind and relax.