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Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Koalas! Kangaroos! Krazy!

An emu chased me down the sidewalk.

Well, not so much “chased” as followed me down the sidewalk. And this didn’t happen in the middle of Sydney but at Taronga Zoo.

There’s a reason Taronga Zoo is one of the most famous and well-respected zoos in the world – its commitment to natural animal habitats and conservation places it well above most other zoos, and it offers many opportunities to interact with animals and see them as closely as possible.

For instance, the emu, kangaroo and wallaby enclosure. Rather than put the animals behind glass or bars, visitors actually enter an outdoor area where nothing separates the animals from humans. And this means that the creatures (like the aforementioned emu) can wander onto the path and attempt an escape.

There are signs clearly telling visitors to stay on the path but that didn’t stop one mother from saying to her toddler, “Okay, honey, go pet the kangaroo” and watching the child wander up to the animal before a zookeeper noticed and quickly scolded both child and parent. You have to wonder about some people’s parenting skills…

It was fantastic to get so close to the animals. Definitely makes for some stunning photos. Normally I’m not much for taking pictures at a zoo – after all, a gorilla looks the same no matter what country you’re in – but I couldn’t resist those cuddly koalas.

Did you know it’s against the law in New South Wales to hold a koala? You could pay to have your picture taken next to one but you can’t actually hold it.

The highlight of the zoo (besides the native Australian animals) is the giraffe enclosure. This is often the picture you see advertising the zoo – stunning shots of a giraffe in front of the Sydney skyline, Opera House and all. Brilliant.

If you’re coming to Sydney, definitely spend a day (or just a few hours) at Taronga Zoo. Originally I was planning to visit Sydney Wildlife World because that’s what’s advertised in the Sydney map I have and it specializes in Australian animals. But after reading online reviews where people either complained or loved that you could be in-and-out in 45 minutes, and hearing that all of the animals are indoors and behind glass, Wildlife World sounded much less appealing. Taronga Zoo is definitely worth the extra travel time (only 10 minutes ferry ride from Circular Quay) and slightly higher price.

Olga arrived in Sydney today so we took a nice long walk down to The Rocks and midway across Harbour Bridge – fantastic dusk views of Sydney Opera House and downtown – before grabbing dinner. Tomorrow we’re taking the ferry to Manly to see the beach and explore the national park there.

Does anyone have suggestions for an easy day trip from Sydney? I have one day open with no plans until the evening (theatre at 8pm) and was thinking about going somewhere outside of the city. The question is: WHERE?

Monday, June 29, 2009

Eucalyptus-scented fresh air

(Blogger is being a bugger and not letting me upload pictures -- they ARE on Facebook though.) 

The amount of pita I’ve eaten the past two days may be the death of me – if nothing else, I’m determined to get my fill of pita before heading back to the land of none. Just today, I had pita, hummus and tzatziki for lunch and a veggie burger on pita for dinner. Mmmm… Which was promptly followed by my all-time favorite candy bar, impossible to find in the States, a Mars Bar. What a delicious day!

Today I was up early to see the Blue Mountains. It’s an easy day trip from Sydney – trains leave about every hour from Central Station and it’s a 2-hour ride to Katoomba.

Why are the Blue Mountains blue?

The blue haze, unique to the Blue Mountains, is of a different hue and deeper than anywhere in the world. It is caused primarily by Eucalyptus trees emitting oil vapour into the atmosphere, which along with fine dust particles and droplets of water, scatter the blue light (blue is short wave-length) more than any other colour in the spectrum.

This is an absolutely gorgeous part of Australia and a World Heritage Site and National Park. There’s an easy hop-on/off bus that goes around the park so you can see as much as possible in a short amount of time. It’s nice because the bus makes it easy to get from place-to-place but also suggests a ton of hikes for each location. The drivers were really friendly, too, making sure you knew exactly where the path was and how to get to the end-point. Highly recommended.

My first hike started at Katoomba Cascades and wound its way along the cliff-line for a couple of kilometers, ending up at a cheesy tourist destination called Scenic World, which offers train and cable car rides into the mountains. I skipped the rides and hopped back on the bus to see the famous Three Sisters and Echo Point, enjoying another nice hike there with some stunning views of the valley.

Because it’s winter, there aren’t nearly as many tourists here as in, say, January, so the paths were deserted for the most part. It wasn’t too cold either – I was worried about freezing temperatures and almost packed gloves and a hat – but I was comfortable in a pea coat.

Yes, a pea coat. And ballet flats. Despite being completely unprepared for strenuous hiking, I still saw a lot of the area and was able to be active. Most of the hikes are extremely easy and some are even paved, so don’t ever let a lack of sneakers stop you!

Lunch was in Leura Village, a small town that caters almost exclusively to tourists. It wasn’t nearly as beautiful as my brochure suggested (I was expecting something like those gorgeous Cotswolds towns all the buses go to) but it was a pleasant place to grab lunch and people-watch.

Breathing in fresh mountain air – ah, my poor pollution-ridden lungs feel 100 times better. The air smelled like eucalyptus at times – lovely!

Olga arrives in Sydney tomorrow so I’m excited to have a travel buddy for a couple of days. I think I’ll spend the day at the zoo (yes, I want to see kangaroos and koalas!) and maybe go to the top of Sydney Tower before meeting up with her in the late afternoon.

I already feel at-home here. The train even went by a Westfield Shoppingtown (hello, Montgomery Mall!) that had Borders and Target. Someone also stopped me on the street this evening to ask for directions and – woo! – I actually was able to help him. 

Sunday, June 28, 2009

I'm in love

...with Sydney! And I’m happier after one day here than I’ve been in probably the last two or three months in Korea. Wow – I forgot what it felt like to be really happy. (Is that terrible?)

Sydney is filled with tons of energy, a huge diversity of people, gorgeous parks and wide open spaces, so much to see and do…. Driving from the airport to the hotel, I couldn’t stop smiling. It felt like home seeing people lying on the grass in the sun (even walking on the grass is strictly verboten in Seoul), families cheering at a school soccer match, just the general atmosphere reminds me of America. Aboriginal culture excluded (much in the same way we generally ignore Native American culture), Australia is the youngest country I’ve been to besides the USA, which may explain the similarities. There’s also a ton of London infused in Sydney – even many of the place names are the same – which also makes Erin a happy girl.

After joking that my mental perception of Australians is that they are all tall, ridiculously attractive athletes and being dissuaded of that by several people, I arrived at the airport to find about 50 insanely tall, gorgeous university basketball players on their way home from a series of tournaments in Asia.

Despite feeling somewhat comatose after landing this morning (no sleep + 10 hour flight = complete hell), I managed to make a good go of exploring the city today. This was helped by the total ease of getting through customs – there was a MASSIVE queue but one employee was going through and quickly checking everyone’s declaration forms before we got to the counter. When he got to mine, he stamped it and told me to go to the small exit way at the other end, where I simply handed in my form and exited. Not sure why I got the VIP treatment and no one else did, but I’m not complaining!

I set off for a long walk through Hyde Park and the Royal Botanic Gardens, just meandering and following whichever paths looked most interesting. It was nice to stop occasionally and read in the sunshine – I’m totally captivated by Bruce Chatwin’s The Songlines, a travel memoir about Aboriginal culture.

I ended up at Mrs. Macquarie’s Point, famous for amazing views of the Sydney Opera House and Harbour Bridge. Seeing these two sights in person was the moment of realization that yes, I’m really in Sydney.

Everything is such culture shock compared to Seoul. I was unreasonably excited to order a latte this afternoon and be understood on the first go. Small latte with nonfat milk? Sure, no problem. Success! 

It’s also amazing how much easier it is to navigate a city when the roads are clearly marked and organized. It’s something I didn’t realize I missed but it’s been so easy getting around Sydney compared to Seoul. Roads follow a distinct pattern and buildings have easy-to-locate addresses. Love it. I forgot this even existed – Thailand and the Philippines also had convoluted mapping systems. After one day, I feel like I can find my way around Sydney better than I can most neighborhoods in Seoul.

Before my energy was completely extinguished, I spent a couple of hours at the beautiful Art Gallery of NSW (New South Wales), one of Sydney’s free museums. It specializes in Australian art, which I’m not very familiar with but enjoyed, and also has European works by Chagall, Pissaro and more. There are free daily concerts a la Millennium Stage and today’s program featured young violinists.

As usual, museum cafes never disappoint. Sydney is a fabulous place to be a vegetarian. Everywhere offers veggie offerings, even places you wouldn’t expect. For dinner I got a yummy bean and guacamole wrap from a burger place. And the museum’s lunch choices had more veggie than meat options – fantastic and yummy! Sydney seems like a very active and healthy city – tons of people were out running and biking and many restaurants advertised organic, locally-grown, vegan, etc. foods – even the museum had many vegan/gluten-free/organic options.

Okay, this is way too long and I’m exhausted. Up early tomorrow to take a train out to the Blue Mountains, on the suggestion of several friends. Should be gorgeous. 

EDIT: It takes FOREVER to upload pictures -- the Internet is insanely slow here, especially compared to Seoul (score one for Korea). Everything is on Facebook so check it out there. I'll try to put up a few here when I get home next week. 

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Aaaaaaand she's off!

Before I forget, you need to read this: Time Wastes too Fast -- and the Pursuit of Happiness. This gorgeous blog from a visual artist held me completely captivated through each picture and bit of the story. If you've been to Monticello, you can see that Maira Kalman does an extraordinary job capturing the essence of the place. And if you haven't been to Monticello... what are you waiting for? Go! 

I'm taking advantage of Incheon's free wireless Internet to blog before hopping onto an airplane and setting off for Sydney. Sitting here, it's obvious why Incheon was voted the world's best airport -- free wireless, a decent assortment of shops and restaurants (even though it was impossible to find anything vegetarian for dinner so I settled for a lame veggie sub from Subway), multiple Korean cultural centers with free performances and crafts.... Plus the entire place is ridiculously clean and modern. 

Not a bad place to wait for a flight to leave the country.

I was nervous yesterday and earlier today. Not about traveling exactly but just about spending most of the trip alone. Olga arrives Tuesday and we'll explore together for a couple of days but besides that, I'm not sure how much I'll be able to see my Aussie friends, especially during the day. 

But as I sat on the bus coming to the airport, I couldn't stop smiling. I'm SO looking forward to this trip. There's a vague mental itinerary stored somewhere in my brain but besides that, it's a chance to completely detach from Korean life, unwind, enjoy a little slice of home with the luxury of a brand-new country. 

The nice thing about not having a ton of "must-see" sights is that I'm open to see what strikes my fancy at the moment. Fancy an afternoon of wandering through Hyde Park? Okay. Follow a random alley and see where it leads me? Okay!

I'm also excited to see a few shows while there since there are very few English-language performances in Seoul. Even musicals are entirely translated into Korean -- "Dreamgirls" just closed here and seemed like an odd choice to be performed by an all-Korean cast.

Fingers crossed that I'll see something at the Sydney Opera House and Friday night I'm VERY excited to see my favorite British comediennes, French and Saunders, perform on their farewell tour. It worked out so fortuitously that I booked a week in Sydney at the same time they're performing there. Luck! 

Look for the blog and (hopefully) pictures on Facebook to be updated daily. My hotel has wireless but I'm sure there are also a million coffee shops with it, too. 

Going, going...gone!

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Really? Worst day EVER?

In the wake of the deaths of Michael Jackson and Farrah Fawcett, I'm amazed that so many of my friends' Facebook statuses are something in the realm of: "This is the worst day ever." < -- yes, that was literally the Facebook status of several friends.

Really? The worst day ever, eh? Worse than September 11? Worse than the day someone you actually knew and loved (a grandparent/parent/sibling) died or got sick? Worse than the TWO days George W. Bush was inaugurated? 

It's sad for the Jackson and Fawcett families but honestly ... let's cut the melodrama here. 

It's been a great day for ME so far -- got up early, did some exercise for an hour to enjoy the sunshine before it gets super hot, and ate a pathetic -slash- delicious breakfast of cherry tomatoes, a Clif Bar and almond butter. Yummo. 

Packing, packing, packing! I leave TOMORROW!! And the weather looks warm-ish -- I'm thinking "Vancouver in August" -ish. 

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Won't you be my neighbor?

Searching for the "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" theme song on YouTube to accompany this blog title, I stumbled upon his final goodbye on the show. This was one of the iconic shows of my childhood and I'm grateful to have had educational TV like this, "Reading Rainbow" and "Sesame Street" available on public television. Too many young people then and now grow up on a steady diet of Cartoon Network and Nickelodeon that has no real benefit.

That said -- support public television. It's one of the greatest gifts we can pass on to our children. (Wow, yesterday I was going on about the library, today it's public television. I AM getting old.)

Anyway, wiping away tears from the above video, back to the reason for this post. Neighbors. We all have 'em. They may live in the next apartment over, separated from you by a two-foot thick wall; they might be a few miles away across fields; but they're around no matter what.

If you're lucky, you have a good relationship with your neighbors. Maybe you're friends who like to share dinner occasionally and spend evenings chatting on the porch. Or perhaps they're just the closest person to leave a spare house key with and trust to watch your pets & plants while you're on vacation.

Either way, you hope to have a positive relationship with your neighbors.

My school provides on-campus housing for its teachers. There are two campuses and while the majority of teachers work at my campus, a handful work at the other school. Even though people naturally form cliques, everyone gets along and hangs out in big groups once in a while. 

Except for one of my hallmates. We live on the same floor and, guys, there are only four apartments on our floor. He works at the other campus so we've never interacted much but for some reason, he is beyond rude to me and our other hallmates. 

When I see him (like this morning) walking down the stairs as I go up, I always smile and say "hi." Nothing. Not a nod, not eye contact -- nothing to acknowledge that there's been a noise, much less that he's been directly spoken to.

I don't get it. He's had arguments with the other guy on our floor (who I AM friends with) so maybe he assumes we've all ganged up against him but whatever the case is, I've never been treated so rudely by someone on a constant basis. Everyone talks about what a snob this guy is -- believing that because he speaks fluent Korean, he's somehow superior to us -- but to completely ignore that his hallmates' existences.... 

After the incident this morning, I wanted to shout after him: "What's your problem? Why are you such a jerk?" 

But, of course, I just let my rage seethe inside and watched him walk away.

Seriously, man, what's your problem? I've never said three words to you beyond, "Hey, what's up?" and yet you refuse to even admit that I exist. You're not going to get very far in life if you continually think you're above everyone. Being alone and friendless doesn't make you superior -- it makes you a loser. 

Rant over. 

Official countdown to Australia: 3 days

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Libraries are Love

I never realized how important public libraries were until I didn't have one.

Growing up, trips to the library were a weekly family activity. I was (and still am) a voracious reader and loved filling up the book bag with a variety of interesting reads. Talking to my friend Kristen, she mentioned that she now belongs to three different library systems (Montgomery County, Washington, DC, and her university) and I immediately turned green with envy.

I miss the library. Sure there's a fantastic used book store in Itaewon but used books are always a mixed-bag of choices and require a constant output of money. (Luckily What the Book offers trade-ins so I haven't had to spend much money, instead recycling books in and out of the system.) 

There's so much more freedom with a library though. Think a book looks interesting but you're not sure if you want to commit? Have a friend-recommended book that you're unsure about? Want to get ideas for an upcoming vacation? Libraries are fantastic: borrow a book for a couple of weeks and forget about having to commit to the book for life.

All this goes to show why this story from the New York Times spoke to me. Libraries are a vital public institution and it's sad to hear how so many are closing their doors in these difficult financial times. I especially love this portion:

'Libraries raised me,' Mr. Bradbury said. 'I don't believe in colleges and universities. I believe in libraries....'

I still see plenty of families at the library but I wonder how my generation will raise their children. Is DailyLit, where you can read a book 10 words at a time, the wave of the future? Will we read books via Twitter instead of in physical form? Will books even exist or will our short attention spans gradually phase them out? 

God, I hope not. As fascinating as it seems, I can't even switch over to Kindle. Give me type and paper any day. And that goes for the newspaper, too. I'll keep buying a physical copy of The Washington Post until it's not printed anymore. 

Official countdown to Australia: 4 days

Monday, June 22, 2009

Operation Beautiful

We all have those days when we look in the mirror and immediately think, "Ugh, I'm so fat." Whether its a genuine feeling or a cry for attention à la Mean Girls, it happens to the best of us:

Karen: Oh my God, my hips are huge!
Gretchen: Oh, please. I hate my calves.
Regina: At least you guys can wear halters. I've got man shoulders.
Cady: [voiceover] I used to think there was just fat and skinny. But apparently there's a lot that can be wrong on your body.

I'm definitely guilty of it. There are plenty of times when I walk into my bathroom, in which one entire wall is mirrored, and don't like what's reflected back. There's a huge disparity between what the scale says and what I see on my own body. 

(Full disclosure: As I wrote this post, I walked into my bathroom and the first thought in my mind was, "Wow, my stomach looks huge today." SEE?! Sometimes we're not even aware of these thoughts because they are so deeply enmeshed in our consciousness. This comes just hours after one of my super-slender Korean co-workers talked about her need to go on a diet.) 

It's become routine in our society to throw out phrases like, "I feel fat," "I hate my [stomach/butt/thighs]," etc. 

But this needs to stop now. 

Caitlin, inspired by Gives Me Hope, has launched Operation Beautiful, an effort to stop girls (and boys!) from disparaging their bodies. We're all different. Not everyone was meant to be a size-zero or have washboard abs. Who decided that a flat stomach was a requirement? What about the cultures that find curvy, voluptuous women sexy? 

My favorite thing about Operation Beautiful is that it's such a simple concept. The basic premise is to leave a note in a public place reminding people that they are beautiful just the way they are. Stick a Post-It to the bathroom mirror, put a note in a classmate's locker, sneak a message onto a coworker's laptop. It's easy. 

Visit Operation Beautiful to see some of the pictures people have already sent in. Make your own note, whether its to a stranger, your coworker or yourself. We could all use a reminder once in a while: You're beautiful. Don't change a thing. I like you just the way you are.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

100 Days

100 days. 

That's it. 100 days until September 30 and my last day of work in Korea. 

It's crazy, really. It feels like I moved to Seoul last week. A year ago, I was at home researching potential teaching opportunities here. I hadn't even accepted this job yet but here I am, facing the homestretch.

To say this causes mixed emotions is an understatement. I'm overjoyed at the prospect of going home and seeing my friends and family. I rejoice at the idea of a familiar environment, the return to my old stomping grounds, a place where I truly belong. (No, not Chipotle, although that will certainly be an epic reunion.)

But the idea of leaving Korea also saddens me. I probably will never come back to this country. Never say never, but it certainly won't make the top of my travel list any time soon. Barring work sending me here or a change of heart sometime in the far-away future, I will most likely never return to Korea after October. 

That's not what makes me sad. It's the idea of leaving behind some amazing Korean friends, people whom I hope to encounter elsewhere in the world but know the odds are stacked against it. Thanks to the Internet, we can stay connected even thousands of miles apart but that can't replace face-to-face contact year in and year out. 

I love to travel. Originally upon moving to Korea, I planned to stay here a year and then return to Washington and find a nice, safe job. That's all changed. I can't imagine moving back to the US and settling down. One day, sure, but not now. How, at 23, can I be chained to a desk with a mere two weeks' vacation when there's an entire world to explore? 

Joyce wrote a fantastic blog post about this a few days ago. There's a part of us that envies our friends who went the route of domesticity -- job, house, car -- "real life." I crave that kind of stability, too. Being able to decorate an apartment with the cool mirror from Belize and cute tea set from England and interesting candle-holder from the Philippines. 

But I know that when I'm 60 or 70, I won't look back and regret traveling for a few years versus working. I might be a little poorer for a while but ultimately richer for life experiences. My grandparents didn't do much traveling until all of their children moved out and my grandfather retired. Now I email back-and-forth with my grandmother and she tells me what places she missed and knows now she'll never see. Every time I talk to her, she encourages me to keep traveling and exploring. She even joked once that, "You have the travel bug, just like your Omah."

THAT is what I've discovered living in Korea. It's become about more than just daily life here. It's become about reshaping MY life in the future. 

100 days to explore, discover, eat, travel, learn, interact, encounter, adapt, enjoy and conclude my Korean life.

100 days. It's not very long.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

A rainy day adventure

Korea is such a beautiful, green country. As you drive around the countryside, there are rice fields absolutely everywhere!

Monsoon season is here in force. From the time I woke up (6:00, completely oversleeping my alarm!) to this very moment, it's been pouring rain. Sometimes a light drizzle, other times a downpour, but the rain hasn't ceased and the sun never showed its face today. 

On that note, a group of teachers went whitewater rafting today!

Okay, so it wasn't the best weather to be outside. If the trip hadn't already been on the agenda, I would have been perfectly happy to spend the entire day watching movies and wearing cozy sweatpants. But everything was booked and, hey, you're going to get wet anyway on the raft. Right? 

Goodbye, Seoul!

This random guy kept his hood on the entire ride, but at the rest stop WHERE IT WAS RAINING, he took off his hood to go outside! And then put it back on when we were back on the bus. What?!

From our pick-up point at Jonggak Station, it was a three-hour bus ride northeast to embark the rafts. The tour company provided a buffet lunch before the trip. It's can be difficult to eat vegetarian here but my plate had some seaweed, potatoes, bean curd noodles in fish sauce (too salty!) and the old standby, white rice. Yum? 

My little plate. The glazed potatoes were the best part. Bean curd noodles? Not so much.

Good thing I packed a backpack full of snacks. People teased me for this but I managed to avoid getting sucked into buying chips, cookies and candy at the rest stop. It's always smart to pack your own -- money-saving, too! Although I was "forced" to get a latte after rafting to warm up. Such a nice afternoon pick-me-up! 

Before. Dry and waiting.

Getting set up with gear -- paddle, life jacket and helmet.

Super-cool Korean water shoes. 

We finally got into our rafts and spent more than an hour going down the river. At one point, the guide said that we were entering a 300-meter stretch of world champion rafting and warned that it was very dangerous. It might have been a little more bumpy than the rest of the trip but it certainly was nothing death-defying. (Although apparently a tourist did die there once. Hmmm...) Methinks the tour company overstated a bit to drum up a little excitement. 

The frequent rains had raised the water level quite a bit and made it a pretty good rafting trip, much better than whitewater rafting in Thailand. I'd say it's a Class 3, maybe.

Only in Korea. I love Shelly's rafting outfit. Heels, skirt and goggles (around her neck). 

It actually wasn't too cold once we got used to the pelting rain and constant splashing from the river. At one point, everyone jumped it to take a little swim but by the end, I was absolutely freezing. Remember, it's the middle of June. I was wearing a cotton tank top and shorts; my change of clothes was a sundress. I was definitely not adequately prepared for temperatures in the high 60s and constant rainfall. Second time in a week that has happened....

Our guide was really funny. She didn't speak much English (Lydia translated) but she was able to constantly tell James and Oliver how handsome they were and her first question was whether they have girlfriends. The entire trip was full of, "Hey handsome guy!" "Handsome guy, you are so powerful!" So clearly the rest of us were just dead weight! 

Even another guide (male) jumped onto our raft to tell the guys how handsome they were and to find out if they like to drink soju. It was bizarre but hilarious. 

By the end of the trip we were all soaking wet and COLD. A quick change of clothes, a little snack and we were back on the bus for the return drive to Seoul. I managed to make a serious dent in my current read, Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader: North Korea and the Kim Dynasty, an absolutely fascinating book. It's taught me a lot about what Seoul was like during the Korean War -- it's crazy to think that almost exactly 59 years ago (June 29, 1950) Seoul was invaded by North Korea -- and what life is like just a few miles to the north.

After rafting. We were completely soaked and freezing but it was a great trip! 

It's still pouring down outside and the forecast for tomorrow shows more rain during the morning. Plans are somewhat up-in-the-air but I'll probably be attending a traditional Korean wedding in the  afternoon, so that should be a lot of fun and a good photo opportunity. 

*Fingers crossed for sunshine*

Official countdown to Australia: 7 days

A little entertainment in the subway

Friday, June 19, 2009

I don't want to grow up

I might not want to grow up, but maybe some people should: I love this story from Politico. Sounds like someone needs to lay off the caffeine and practice a few deep breathing techniques. But for future reference, please refer to me only as Erin. Er, Ruby and, my personal favorite, Airhead, are not appreciated.



My favorite childhood TV show and favorite current TV show combined. Does it get any better?!


To celebrate her 25th birthday, Diana decided to have a big water balloon fight on the field behind our apartments. A looming thunderstorm couldn't keep us inside and the rain held off long enough for everyone to enjoy a few games ("egg" toss, relay and one massive free-for-all) and some delicious chocolate cake. Generally I don't like Korean cakes -- strange flavors and a weird texture -- but this one was delicious. Way to go, Paris Baguette. 

Defensive moves? Fighting! 

Waiting for the others...

Trying to light candles despite the wind.

Birthday girl is princess for a day.

The boys liked their noiseless blowers.

Action shot. Too bad I was about 2 seconds too early to catch the balloon exploding right in Randy's face. Missed the moment.

I have to be up at the crack of dawn tomorrow to go whitewater rafting somewhere in southern Korea. Funnnn!  

Also, my blog title reminds me that when I was a kid, I always wanted to go to Toys "R" Us. It had ads filled with princesses and flashy colors and a catchy theme song. But for some reason, I also remember never or rarely being allowed to shop there. Why was that? Of course, now I don't want to take my future kids there. Something about supporting a huge corporation that relies on sweatshop labor.... And what's with teaching kids that it's okay to spell "are" incorrectly? Seriously?! 

I also never got to go to Chuck E. Cheese but somehow was okay with that one, even back then. The whole "giant rat as an adorable mascot" really freaked me out -- and still does. 

It scares me to realize I'm slowly turning into my mother. And probably a little bit of my father, too. Eek! 

Official countdown to Australia: 8 days

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Getting my act together

My friend Tira made a funny comment today: "Erin, you always eat healthy." It's especially funny if you've experienced one of my classic Chipotle-Coldstone dinner dates -- and if you haven't, be prepared for the greatest culinary experience of your life. Yummm.

She said that after witnessing my snacks over the past few days: an apple yesterday and today's winning trifecta of applesauce, crackers and carrot slices. (The applesauce was especially hilarious because Tira had never heard of it and thought it was baby food. So she asked if this was something adults it, too. I let her take a bite but she didn't like it -- maybe because it was the all-natural, sugar-free kind. The other Western teachers in the office had to convince her that applesauce is not just for babies!)

And yes, I bring a snack everyday. I get SO hungry by 3:30 that I need something to keep going, and I know that without packing a snack, 7-11 would make itself part of my daily routine. 

It's hard eating healthy in a country that more often than not doesn't have healthy options. People argue against this by saying, "Well, why are so many Koreans thin if the food is unhealthy?" Good question. In my mind, health isn't just about calories. It's also about what's IN the food. Or ON the food, as the case may be with produce. Fruits and veggies here are doused with harmful pesticides and I know of one Korean family that soaks all produce in water for 20 minutes to clean it. 

Since making the decision to go vegetarian, I've been doing a lot of reading about food in an effort to become more educated. I didn't give up meat for moral reasons, although those certainly bother me. But the more I read on this subject, the more convinced I become that I can never go back to eating non-organic meat and dairy. 

Scratch that. The more educated I become on food issues, the less I can imagine going back to America and buying traditional, non-organic groceries. I was always lucky to live in a family that did a lot of grocery shopping at Whole Foods and Trader Joe's (my dad is even shipping me a Trader Joe's care package this week!) so I'm excited to go back home and have these options again. Organics are available here but there's less variety and a much higher price tag. Produce is already more expensive here than at home, even at the market, so I just try to wash everything well and tell myself that a few more months of ingesting chemicals won't be too harmful. Ugh. 

(Side note #1: It could totally be a placebo effect, but since cutting out meat completely I have 10 times more energy. I wake up every morning and bounce out of bed. Even though I don't have to be at work until 1:30, "sleeping in" now means waking at 8 instead of 7 or 7:30. I was never a super-late sleeper but the difference is really incredible.)

As the cliche goes, knowledge is power. And with the help of the internet, it's never been easier to make informed shopping choices. There are websites like GoodGuide, which let you enter a product's name to find out its environmental and health statistics. Sites like this are gaining public attention as we become more concerned about what we're putting into our systems. 

I struggle a lot with eating healthy and certainly, it's not something that happens everyday. I LOVE food and that Chipotle-Coldstone combo sounds fantastic any day of the week. So does its Korean counterpart, Tomatillo-Baskin Robbins. And weekly curry is always a joy.

But I'm trying to be more conscious and listen to my gut instincts. When a plastic package of raspberries at the grocery store gives me a moment doubt, better to avoid buying them than purchase a container only to realize they were completely tasteless. 

(Side note #2: The best raspberries I ever ate were from the Rose Park Farmers Market in Georgetown last summer with Allie. It was my first time trying golden raspberries and they were sweeter than candy. So delish!)

It's not about counting calories or losing weight for me. I'm pretty comfortable with myself and my body. But learning about the harmful chemicals we're all unintentionally putting into our bodies certainly makes me question my food choices and make a conscious effort to do better.

Official countdown to Australia: 10 days

Asian poses

If you ask most ESL teachers here in Korea to do an "Asian pose" for a picture, you'd get a variety of looks. And no, I'm not talking about any Miley Cyrus stuff here. Korean kids and adults alike choose the most adorable poses for photographs. Emulating their favorite pop stars and TV personalities, the choices range from your typical peace sign to hand hearts. It's precious -- especially when you get a group of boys all making hearts with their arms.

This is a country that loves everything cute -- cute stickers, cute clothes, cute boys (one Korean friend told me that our white friend is so popular among Asian girls because he is cute like an anime character) -- so naturally posing for pictures can be nothing less than, yep, cuuuuuuute. 

Well now YOU can get in on the action with AsianPoses.com, "the definitive guide to Asian poses." The peace sign is an old but still-popular classic:

But there's so much more! It's time that crooked bunny ears, smiling with your hands over your mouth or pointing out your dimples invaded America. 

So stand in front of a mirror, study this website and perfect your moves. I think Tyra might have a new signature pose in the near future....

(PS: I'm going whitewater rafting on Saturday! Not sure how much "whitewater" is actually in Korea but if nothing else, it will be a fun day trip with friends.)

Official countdown to Australia: 11 days

Monday, June 15, 2009

The Korean Inquisition

The GREAT majority of Koreans I meet go out of their way to be friendly and helpful. 

I stopped in the middle of the sidewalk to respond to a text and an old man came over and, in perfect English, asked if I needed directions somewhere. 

Sitting on the subway last weekend, a woman came over and asked where I was from. This 60-something woman told me that she had started teaching herself English over the past few years and pulled out a battered notebook full of vocabulary words. I was impressed by her initiative in learning English but she insisted that it was just something that interested her. 

Running up the stairs from the subway, I tripped and fell. Everyone walked around me and I wasn't hurt. But as I stood in line for the bus, an old woman who had seen me fall walked over and just put her hand on my arm and smiled, gesturing to my knee before walking away.

I had another fantastic people experience yesterday. I sitting on a bench at the park when a woman (she later told me she was 51) sat down opposite me. She asked, "American?" and when I said yes, she started asking questions.

Anna didn't speak fluent English, far from it. The conversation was mostly Korean with just enough key English words so that I could respond to questions and have a vague idea what she was talking about. I even used my extremely limited Korean skills to tell her where I worked and how old I was

Yes, how old I was. After establishing the basics like where I'm from and what I'm doing in Korea, Anna began finding out my life story. How old are you? How old are your parents? Do you have any siblings? What do your parents do? What does your sister do? How much money do you make? Are you married? 

It was like being on trial! Anna was trying to be friendly and I appreciated that, but it's so different from a typical first conversation in America. Americans are often reproached for being too forward upon first meeting someone -- Watching the English mentioned how horrified Brits are when Americans strike up a conversation by stating their name and job -- but this went beyond anything I'd ever experienced. 

However, I appreciated Anna's interest. Even though we certainly didn't always understand each other, how many Americans would approach a stranger in the park to try out their fledging language skills? I'm guessing not a lot. I also realized how much Korean I've picked up living here, even though I can't say much beyond, "Hello, how are you?" Using English context words, we were actually able to communicate.

An ajumma with a coffee cart walked by. You see these old people a lot in Korea, pulling a wagon with a few large thermoses of coffee. For 100 won (about 10 cents) you get a Dixie cup of weak coffee. 

Anna insisted on buying me a cup. At first I demurred -- who really wants a cup of steaming coffee on a hot afternoon? -- but after she literally said "please," I gave in. 

The torrential downpour cut our conversation short but not before Anna got my email address (although she confessed to not having an English keyboard) and mentioned that her son is also 23. He doesn't speak much English, she said, but since that didn't stop Anna, I can't imagine it's holding Antonio back either. 

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Caught in the rain

Before heading out for a walk to the park and market this afternoon, I ran a quick mental checklist of what was in my bag. Book? Check. (Reading in the park is one of my favorite Sunday afternoon activities.) Wallet? Got it. iPod? Yup. 

Anything missing? After contemplating throwing in an umbrella, I shrugged my shoulders and confidently left my apartment. Despite a forecast of afternoon thunderstorms, the sun was shining with nary a cloud in sight.

How quickly things change. 

After finding a comfy, shaded bench at the park and indulging in some shameless people-watching (I stare at others as much as they stare at me, so it all evens out in the end), I cracked open Michener and settled in. Maybe half an hour passed before:

Rain! And not just a light summer drizzle. No, the heavens completely opened up and sent down BUCKETS of water. I took shelter under an awning for a few minutes before deciding that it was ridiculous to find cover when I was already soaking wet. Luckily before I had to face a walk home through the downpour, a bus I recognized drove by and I was able to hop on. 

It's a 5-minute walk from the bus stop to campus, so by the time I got home, I looked (and felt) like I'd fallen into the pool with all my clothes on. The security guard laughed when I came walking up the steps looking like a little drowned rat. 

Ah well, you live, you learn. And some people never learn because it's happened to me before and will certainly happen again. 

The gates to the temple near my house were slightly ajar so I snuck this picture. Notice the pretty hanging lotus lanterns. 

After a couple of hours the weather cleared and I was able to hit up the market and grocery store for some key ingredients -- I'm making lentil-grain burgers this week. Yummm!

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Island hopping: Ganghwado

Rice as far as the eye can see. 

Desperately needing a change of pace and a break from Seoul, I searched through Lonely Planet this week eager to find nice day trip. After reading about the rural idyll of Ganghwado (Ganghwa Island), I decided that was the perfect place to be today. And luckily, Natalie wanted to go too -- it's always more fun with a travel buddy!

There's a direct bus from Sinchon to Ganghwa for 4,200 won. Bargain! It's about 2 hours door to door, allowing for traffic, crazy drivers, etc. The Sinchon bus terminal is SUPER sleek and modern:

Or not. 

We arrived at Ganghwado a little after 11 with absolutely no game plan. It was fun to have the entire day up in the air and just play it by ear. After consulting the always-helpful Lonely Planet and tracking down an English map of the island, we decided to start at Ganghwa Dolmen (burial tomb), a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Ganghwa Dolmen is the largest in South Korea, although there are about 150 dolmens just in Ganghwa; according to Wikipedia, more than 40% of the world's dolmens are found in North and South Korea. They exist all over Europe, Asia and the Middle East, too. 

I don't know what this hut is or why it was roped off. Reading Korean but not understanding it is really unhelpful. 

It was a little anticlimactic. Based on what I'd read and pictures, I envisioned climbing to the top of a mountain and seeing a massive structure, at least on the scale of Stonehenge. Instead, it's a single 3-rock structure in the middle of a grassy field, surrounded by fencing. Exciting?

What did make me laugh were the replicas of other famous world sites -- Stonehenge, Easter Island, etc. These replicas were MUCH tinier than the actual structures, which I assumed was as to not diminish the size of the dolmen. 

Natalie and I wandered around a nearby nursery before heading back to the main town. The nursery was half greenhouse, half Jurassic Park. There were huge statues of dinosaurs all over and a special fenced-off section that looked somewhat like a small-scale Jurassic Park ride.

Next on the agenda was Chojijin Fortress, built in the mid-17th century to protect Korea against invaders. The brochure kept referring to "disturbances" from other countries -- the French disturbance, American disturbance and Japanese disturbance. My favorite line: "Despite Korea's inferior weapons to these foreign countries, Korean soldiers fought against them fiercely." In other words: "Korea lost but put up a good fight." 

Fortress exterior.

We thought being near the water would provide a ton of seafood lunch options but the few restaurants there were way too expensive. Instead I settled on ice cream and my pre-packed snack of Cheerios and raisins for lunch. Delish? 

We snacked on mulberries fresh from the tree. Yummmm...

Before heading back to Seoul, it was time to make a stop at the the local market. Ganghwa is famous for its ginseng and an entire section of the market was devoted solely to ginseng products. There was also more variety of produce here than in Seoul -- I even saw my first raspberries of the season! 

Ginseng city

Despite being so relatively close to Seoul, Ganghwado is not nearly as touristed or Westernized as one might expect. There were no Western chains (that I saw) on the island and very few signs in English. Even the bus station didn't have information in English. People went out of their way to be helpful and friendly, though. One man from the information booth ran out to the bus stop to make sure we were going the right direction and give us travel advice. Another woman, sitting at a stand selling tea and snacks on the side of the road, tried to make sure we got on the correct bus as well.

Today was a gorgeous day, truly the perfect weather for walking around outside and exploring someplace new. I want to see as much of Korea as I can in short day trips over the next few months.

I'm happy that some traditions never die. 

Ideas? Bring 'em on! 

(The rest of my pictures are posted on Facebook. Check them out if you're interested!)

Thursday, June 11, 2009

My school plays the Mamma Mia! soundtrack on a continuous loop

Having mornings off is fantastic! Today I woke up, ate my usual peanut butter-and-banana toast and took an hour-long walk to E-Mart. It turns out it doesn't open until the surprisingly-late time of 10:00 so I was a few minutes early. 

There were a lot of people standing just inside the main doors but being held back from crossing the threshold into the actual store. I could see all of the employees taking position, one standing at the end of every aisle. Finally 10:00 rolled around and suddenly, a God-like voice boomed from the loudspeaker.

I couldn't understand what he said beyond repeatedly saying "Thank you," but each time he said it, all of the employees chanted something and bowed. This happened for about a minute straight, the chanting and bowing. It was a fascinating ritual that could never happen back in America.

And then I entered the store and had another laugh. As I perused the frozen spinach, the song playing sounded familiar. What was it?

"Happy Talk" from South Pacific! It was in Korean and the English chorus sang about E-Mart but it was the same tune. I couldn't stop laughing to myself -- the song is pretty stereotypical about Asians so I wonder who had the bright idea to use it to promote E-Mart.


Speaking of random songs, a ton of kids over the past few months have been singing this song (in Korean, natch, besides the "bibbity bobbity boo"). They will literally break out en masse as we walk to and from class or in the middle of a lesson. I've even heard children singing this on the subway.

It must be in a commercial here or something... I can't imagine that Cinderella has gained such a massive following overnight. 


One student's English name this week is Obama (a very popular celebrity name ranking right up there with Rooney, Beckham and G-Dragon). Every time Obama sees me -- pretty frequently, since I've been teaching all of his evening classes -- he says loudly, "I love you." 

This happens multiple times a class. Even today, he said it when class first started, when I called his name during attendance, during the experiment AND when I gave out stamps at the end of the period. 

Sucking up? Teacher crush? Possible Mary Kay Letourneau situation?  


I recently started teaching Science class. Yes, go ahead and laugh. I know absolutely nothing about science but since the entire lesson plan consists of explaining solid-liquid-gas and then doing an easy experiment, even I can handle it. You'd be surprised.

Most of the students this week are pretty low-level so it's more "repeat after me" and less actual teaching. But I got through to at least one student today.

As we were cleaning up, one very quiet girl was in the corner playing with her pens. She hadn't said anything during class. When I walked over to her, she showed me her highlighter and said something in Korean. 


She repeated the Korean and gestured toward the small puddle of green goo on the table -- clearly, the highlighter had broken and the chemicals inside were spilling out.

And that's when she surprised me. 

"Liquid," she said.

YES! If I've accomplished nothing else this week, one 12-year-old Korean girl now knows what a liquid is. Success!

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Mel Brooks corrupted my brain

We have Russian students again this week, in addition to our usual contingent of elementary school Koreans and (cue scary music) fifth grade orphans. Yes, it's hectic. 

Most of the Russian students -- ranging between ages 10 and 14, it seems -- are integrated onto teams with Korean students. There are only four Russian students who chose to remain on an all-Russian team.

It's been heartening to see how well the Russian and Korean kids interact, considering that wasn't nearly as smooth when we had Japanese students a month or two ago. For the most part, the kids really seem to get along and help each other out. Last night during group activity, for example, one of the youngest Russian girls started crying. Immediately, her entire team rallied around her, offering tissues, candy or just a pat on the back. Considering that the students had just met that day and their only shared language was a limited grasp of English, it was a touching scene. 

Being unfamiliar with Russian names did lead to a funny moment in class today, though. Whereas the Korean students are given English names while studying at SEV, the Russian kids kept their own names. They're fairly basic -- Andrey, Antony, Katja, etc. 

One of the students is named Igor. As soon as I saw it on the list, I knew I was in trouble. Why?

Because all I could think of was Igor from Young Frankenstein and it dawned on me that I had no idea whether the name was properly pronounced EYE-gore or EE-gore. And then, naturally, I said it wrong. Oops!

As if to clarify, Igor held up his name tag so I could clearly see what it said, but of course that didn't help. Instead I just nodded, smiled and continued taking attendance.

Ah, well, you can't win 'em all. 

Monday, June 8, 2009

Burned out

Breaking news: Laura Ling and Euna Lee, the two American journalists arrested in North Korea for illegally entering the country, were just sentenced to 12 years in a prison camp. There's no way to appeal this ruling, as they were tried in the highest court in North Korea. Wow. Truly a sad day for journalism and US-North Korean relations. 

I'm feeling a little down on Korea at the moment, despite the stunning spring weather and bright sunshine. It's not the people -- I've made some amazing friends here -- or the country itself. I think it's a feeling of being trapped, stuck in one place for too long. Yes, I realize that this "one place" is a foreign country many people back home would love to visit, but I'm getting anxious to move on and explore somewhere new.

So many books I've read lately have contributed to this wanderlust: books, both fiction and non-fiction, about Israel and Palestine, the Inca Trail, Eastern Europe, England, Australia, the United States northwest. There's so much to see and I'm getting itchy feet just sitting here, following the same routine day after day.

There's no real reason to complain. I leave for Australia in 19 days and that will be a MUCH-needed break from work/life in Korea. And after that, it's less than 3 months until my return to Washington. 

In short, I'm trying to embrace life here and see as much as possible before it's too late. But at the same time, I'm definitely in need of a vacation. There's only so many screaming kids I can deal with before I feel like my head will explode. 

(Possible day trip Saturday to Ganghwado -- let me know if you're interested!)

Sunday, June 7, 2009

National Museum of Korea

Hazy view of N Seoul Tower from the museum entrance.

If you have any interest in Asian art in general -- specifically, ancient Korean art -- the National Museum of Korea is somewhere you should visit immediately. If this isn't your cup of tea, you might do better to steer away from this huge museum in Ichon, central Seoul. 

Asian art isn't my favorite genre. I know I shouldn't generalize and label all Asian art with a big "not interested" sign, but overall, it's not my favorite. But what drew me to the National Museum of Korea today had nothing to do with Asia. I wanted to see the special exhibition about ancient Egypt, which is a subject that fascinates me. 

No trip to a museum is complete without a visit to the cafe. So cute!

Egypt has been on my must-see list of a LONG time and I know that I'll make it there at some point, just not sure when. But in the meantime, I love visiting Egyptian art galleries at museums around the world. London's British Museum, in particular, has an amazing permanent collection with many Egyptian artifacts, includes several mummies -- it's absolutely worth checking out if you're in London and, best of all, it's completely free! I love London!

The National Museum's exhibit was interesting as well, although not as comprehensive as I expected. There were a couple of human mummies, as well as mummified cats, birds and alligators, but there was less art than I hoped and many more carvings. Nothing jumped out as being unique or something I hadn't seen before. (Actually, I'm not altogether sure I haven't seen this exact exhibit before -- it's been touring the world so I may have seen it in Washington sometime in the past few years.)

If you're interested in Egypt, you should totally visit this exhibit. It's a bargain at 10,000 won and includes entrance to the entire permanent collection of the National Museum. My favorite part, naturally, was the cafe. What's a great museum without an adorable little cafe to go along with it?!

Ultra-modern ornaments in the cafe contrast ancient art.

My latest crazy travel idea: taking a quick weekend trip to Beijing in August. I really want to see the Great Wall and the Forbidden City and since it's only a 2-hour flight -- WHY NOT?! Stay tuned...

Saturday, June 6, 2009

It's a beautiful day, don't let it get away

Sunshine, hot weather, low humidity, no plans -- the perfect combination for a lazy almost-summer day. I decided to hop on the subway this morning to explore Yeouido, an island in the center of Seoul. 

Yeouido is the economic and financial center of Seoul. Many of the city's tallest buildings are here, including the famous 63 Building, formerly the tallest building in Korea and still the country's third-tallest. 

But beyond the skyscrapers, Yeouido also boasts several grassy parks including the one I visited today, Yeouido Park. Although it's impossible to truly escape the city -- the park is only a few blocks wide so the entire time you're walking around, you can hear traffic honking and see giant buildings -- there's an abundance of trees, ponds and benches to provide some sort of respite from the heat and otherwise congestion of Seoul. 

Lots of people clearly had the same idea as me. The park was full of picnicking families and people zooming around on bicycles, scooters and inline skates, all of which you can rent. It's definitely something I want to come back and do!

Off to Ichon and the National Museum of Korea tomorrow to see a special exhibition about Egypt. 

If you've been to Seoul (or greater Korea) and have tips of things I MUST do before leaving in October, please let me know. I don't know if I'll ever be back in Korea so if there are any must-see attractions, please tell me before it's too late!

Ah, Engrish. Although I do enjoy being told that this is somewhere I can either "stroll or rest." It's nice to have the choice.

Pavilions like this are common in Korean parks. Shade + clean picnicking area. 

King Sejong, one of Korea's national heroes. He invented Hangul, Korea's written language.


Tablet showing traditional Korean life. Okay, that's just a guess. There weren't any signs in English.

I had to get a cider to blend in with the table and chair (and umbrella!). Cider is basically Sprite. I get mocked for pronouncing it "sai-duh" instead of "sai-ee-duh."

Visors: a vital family fashion trend.

Koreans can sleep anywhere, anytime. I've seen men lying in the middle of the sidewalk and assumed they were homeless before realizing they wore the uniform of the store they lay in front of. Strange-ee. 

Take off your shoes and walk along this path for a natural foot massage.