Nanji Braai 2017: A Taste of SA in the ROK

Last weekend, I was fortunate enough to attend the Nanji Braai, an event hosted by the owners of the fantastic South African restaurant Braai Republic, at the Nanji camping grounds in Seoul. For those amongst you who are not aware, braai is the South African version of what Americans would call a barbecue or grill. While I did do some braaing on my recent trip to Geoje island, the Nanji braai was the most authentic braai experience I’ve had in Korea so far. For an afternoon, I felt as if I were spending an afternoon back in South Africa, and all it took was a tent, a fire, some raw meat, and some of my best friends in Korea.

A braai is not a complicated event. There are not a lot of airs and graces, and the food that is prepared is not elegant or complex. It is in its simplicity that the bonding power of the braai lies. For my group at the Nanji Braai, all we brought with us were drinks. The Nanji camping grounds rented us some tents, chairs, and a braai. The camping grounds also had a convenience store, where we could buy necessaries like charcoal, ice, and snacks, without having to cart them with us around Seoul. The most important aspect of any braai is the meat, which we pre-ordered and was given to us upon arrival. Within an hour of arriving at the camping grounds, we had a fire going, music playing, and memories in the making.

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Tending to the meat in the early stages of the braai.

The braai that we had been supplied with was large and sturdy, but the same could not be said for the metal grills that covered it. The two pieces of grill were only just large enough to cover the braai, and they were prone to slipping off the edge if they were nudged too hard. This made flipping the meat difficult. More than once, we had to save a rough piece of boerewors (brown sausage) or lamb chop that had slipped through a gap in the grill and onto the coals. However, apart from meat falling into the fire, the actual cooking went smoothly. The ease of preparation allowed everyone to simply kick back and enjoy the sunny afternoon and good company.

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More meat meant more hands needed on deck.

I have missed the experience of a braai during my time in Korea. The unique combination of a gathering of friends around a fire with music blaring over light-hearted conversation followed by everyone stuffing their faces full of well-cooked meat is something that happened so often when I was in South Africa. Going out for Korean barbecue should be similar, as most of the ingredients are there, but it’s just not quite the same. I thoroughly enjoyed the Nanji Braai, and Kris and I are eagerly awaiting the next installment.

Geoje Island, and Reflections on Trips Past

Over a week ago, my cousin departed after an all-too-short visit to our humble abode in Korea. In our time together, we showed her the usual sights: Kris did a bus tour with her, we ate jjimdak (our favourite Korean food) three times, and we scrambled to show her as much of the Seoul that we love in the couple of days that we had. For four of her days in Korea, Kris, Catherine, and I went on a trip with Waegook Travel to Geoje island, one of the most southerly points of Korea. This proved to be the highlight of Catherine’s stay. Between seeing the attractions of Geoje, eating more great food, and spending time bonding, Geoje reminded me of the things that I had enjoyed in the tours we took when we first arrived in Korea.

When we arrived in Geoje after almost six hours on a bus from Seoul, we laid our belongings down in the pension where we were staying, and were quickly whisked to a nearby beach for some kayaking. As an activity that we had done when Kris’ mother visited us in 2015, it brought back memories of that, both in the similarities and differences between the two scenarios. Thankfully, the kayaking in Geoje was on a sunny, relatively windless day, so Catherine and I were able to spend more time catching up and enjoying the view around us than frantically paddling. We paddled around an island at a leisurely pace before returning to shore.

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We found an island! Kris, our new friend Chris, myself, and Catherine

Later that evening, the tour offered us the option to go on a sunset cruise around the smaller islands surrounding Geoje, and we jumped at the opportunity. Drinks in hand, we took in the beauty of the surroundings with mediocre music (blaring from a speaker controlled by women with questionable music taste) and the gentle rocking of the boat to lull us into contentment. The ride lasted just over an hour. This was a good thing, as towards the end, the sun had set and the wind began to gust more intensely, and everyone on the boat was thankful to return to the warmth of the bus.

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The four of us enjoying the sunset cruise

After the whirlwind first day, our schedule settled down. One aspect of the trip that exceeded other trips before was the food. Every night was a culinary event. The first and last nights of the tour were spent braaiing (the South African term for barbecuing or grilling), which was a good mix of longing for home and succulent meat. Red meat is uncommon in Korea, so enjoying thick steaks and lamb chops were rare treats for Kris and I. On the second night, we ventured to an Indian restaurant called Bombay Brau, in the foreigner district of Geoje. There, we ate the best Indian food that we’ve had in Korea. While it was expensive, it was worth the price. Kris has already mentioned plans to return to Geoje simply to visit that restaurant again.

At night, we dined like kings, and during the day, we filled our time with activities, relaxation, and good conversation. We ziplined over a beachfront, we climbed up the side of a mountain to reach a disappointing waterfall, and we saw some more of Geoje’s natural attractions. We made new friends, and rekindled our friendship with Catherine. The lazy afternoons in Geoje were great times to find out what was going on in her life, and the lives of my family in Australia. Other trips that we’d been on before had kept our schedules jam-packed with stuff to do, but I quite enjoyed the fact that we had decent time to ourselves. As an introvert, being around a lot of people for long periods of time tires me out both emotionally and physically, so having the time to recharge in the middle of the day kept me cheerful for the most part. There was one stage where all 60-odd people on the tour were under one small roof braaiing, and the noise was too much for me, but I was mostly very happy to be with my wife and cousin, exploring somewhere new.

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Life’s a beach sometimes. Yes, I went there.

All three of us look back fondly on our time in Geoje. The balance between exploration and relaxation, the quality of the food, and the decent level of organization all aided our ability to kick back and enjoy a rare long weekend in Korea. Catherine may only have been gone for a few days, but we already miss her. The next major holiday to look forward to is at the end of July, where we take summer vacation. It might be a tough few weeks, but we’ll stick it out for the chance to have another holiday like our one to Geoje.

All images in this post credit of our friend Chris McMaster, except for the final picture.

Week One, Take Three

Eight days ago, I started my new contract in Seoul, after the chaos that was packing up our Wonju house and leaving for the big city. Some of the few things that I knew about the job included that I would be teaching five different levels of kids for at most five hours per day, and that I would have a Korean teacher to assist me for the first time. Although this meant many more working hours per week than 2016, it was a far better arrangement (time-wise, at least), than the nine-hour-per-day academy job I held in 2015. I didn’t know what the five different levels would mean – would they range from never-exposed-to-English-before to virtually fluent? I was also wary of the effect of a Korean co-teacher on the class – would they be helpful and make my life easier, or were they simply a set of eyes and ears that the school would use to keep tabs on me? In the first week, my work would go from the chaotic fog of the unknown into the comfortable familiarity of another year of teaching kids in Korea.

The first aspect of my work that I explored was the commute. Every day, I have a painless, four-subway-stop trip from our home, with a brief walk from the station to the school. Leaving the door of our apartment to reaching my classroom takes only thirty minutes – a brief commute for a city as vast as Seoul.

Upon reaching my class, I met my co-teacher. She is a lovely lady who is very capable at communicating in English. I was worried that I would constantly be piecing together what the school wanted to me, but my co-teacher instantly filled me in on the exact situation. I was relieved. The only unfortunate part is that I do not have her in my class for the whole day.

The kids came next, in five waves. Each class was more advanced than the last, although not by as much as I was hoping. Level 1 kids have had little to no exposure to English, whilst Level 5 kids are on about the same level as the mid-tier children I taught last year. My dreams of a purely conversational class where I would be exploring complex issues and fiddling with grammatical minutiae were dashed. At least they were all relatively well-behaved. The only times that I struggled were during the Level 1 and Level 2 classes. My co-teacher is not present in these classes, and they were not able to understand most of my instructions, and this frustrated both the children and myself. Of all of the levels, I’d rather have a co-teacher in lower levels (at least for the beginning), but we can’t always get what we want.

Despite some small niggles, I can see myself being comfortable at the new school. The first week was mostly spent giving children books, learning names, and playing games. Only towards the end of last week did we actually start to do any book work. Once that started, the teaching rhythm came easily. Another year, here I come!

The Winds of Change Blow Again

When Kris and I returned to Korea, we were simply expecting to have a relatively quiet couple of weeks, with Kris finishing off the last few weeks of her old school year and myself quietly waiting to start a full-time position at the academy that I was working at. All we were planning on doing was coasting until the new school year, where Kris would resume her position at her old school and I would move from part-time to full-time. That was the plan. That was not at all what happened.

In the days following our arrival, Kris did some serious thinking about her job at the time. She considered all of the extra hours and effort that she put in to her work, with no notice from the school. She was feeling unappreciated and undervalued. She expressed this to her liaison to the school, and even wrote and signed a letter saying that if the school continued to treat her merely as a resource, she would not re-sign her contract. The school accepted this decision. Kris was out of a job, and we thrust ourselves into the job market once more.

After frantically ravaging Facebook’s various Korean job boards and groups for a few days, a friend connected us with an employer that would offer Kristen shorter hours for higher pay than she received last year. She jumped at the opportunity. This meant that we were moving from Wonju to Seoul, Korea’s capital and largest city. As for myself, I followed a couple of leads towards a communications company where I might have a chance to do editing or writing work. Sadly, those opportunities didn’t work out. I was disappointed, but soldiered on. I decided to work with the same company that Kristen had signed on to. The shorter hours would mean that I would still have time to write and pursue my hobbies, while retaining a full-time paycheck and a visa.

Once our jobs were settled, we hunted for houses, settling on a slightly expensive but very modern and wonderful apartment. We are now two minutes away from two subway lines, with a 10-minute walk to a third. There is even a gym in the building, to help me work off the weight I put on eating all of the food in South Africa.

A slow running down of the clock may have turned into a panicked search for new opportunities, but Kris and I are optimistic about the change. It will be an experience to live in Seoul, and hopefully our positions work out for us. We start our contracts shortly, so we will soon see whether we jumped out of a cozy nest into the lion’s den, or whether we simply upgraded into a job that is better for both of us.

Andong: Mask Dance and Jjimdak

For months, our friends who live in the pokey town of Andong have been begging Kris and I to visit. We always thought that they were so intent on having us there because there was literally nothing to do in Andong, so they needed people to spice up the atmosphere there. So, during the annual Mask Dance festival in Andong, we decided to visit. We saw some performances, we shopped, and, most importantly for us, we tried our favourite Korean dish, jjimdak, in the town where it was born.

The Mask Dance festival is an annual celebration of Korean culture held in Andong. I thought it would be a small gathering with a few stalls and a handful of performers. What met us when we arrived was a sprawling city of tents, filled with food, curios, carnival games, and multiple stages of constant musical and dance shows. These ranged from foreign cover bands, taekwondo displays, and traditional Korean dance and music. My friends even showed off their Korean drumming skills, and gave an energetic and noisy performance that was enjoyed by all. If you’re in Korea and haven’t gone to the Andong Mask Dance festival, you really should go. It is a wonderful weekend. There is even an extravagant fireworks display (which we sadly missed).

For me and Kris, the attraction in Andong that drew us there the most (apart from our friends, of course) was jjimdak. I have raved about jjimdak in a previous post. Whenever someone asks me what my favourite Korean dish is, my answer is always jjimdak. Jjimdak is hard to describe – it is a hot, massive pot of steamed chicken and noodles in a sauce unlike any other. Kris and I both love it. Before eating it in Andong, we had only enjoyed it at one particular chain of restaurants. We were interested to see how the traditional style of jjimdak would differ from our favourite variant. We were nervous, but excited.

In the end, traditional jjimdak is drastically different from what we had experienced before. The option we tried had bones in the chicken, didn’t have cheese, and had more spring onions than our favourite variant. While it was still delicious, we still would rather have the jjimdak from the chain we’d loved before. Sorry, Andong. I’m definitely willing to try all of the other shops on jjimdak street though!

All in all, our time in Andong was full of exceeded expectations. Whilst it is nowhere near as large as major metropolitan cities, it is definitely worth a visit, especially for the Mask Dance festival. Even if I’d never been to Andong, I would still be thankful for the city’s existence, purely for the existence of jjimdak. I will keep you updated for further explorations into the world of Korean cooking!

Sun, Sand, and Sore Bodies

Over the last weekend, Kris and I traveled together with the rest of our Ultimate team to compete in the final round of league play in the ROK-U Spring 2016 season. Games were hosted on Dadaepo beach in Busan. Some of you may recall that Busan was the home of victory in our previous season in ROK-U. This time around, the Wonju Knights headed to the southern tip of Korea with the goal of doing our best and having fun. And boy, did we do so.

Like most destinations in Korea, Busan is a fair commute from Wonju. We sat for 4 hours on a bus and an additional hour in a taxi before we arrived at Dadaepo itself. We kitted up, warmed up, and mentally prepared for our first game. We knew that our games on Saturday would be tough, especially considering that the majority of our team had never played competitive Ultimate on the beach before. The most notable effect of sand (apart from getting literally everywhere and needing to be washed out for days) is that everyone generally accelerates and runs slower. For the players on our team used to using their athleticism to outclass their opponents, it was a challenge. For players like me who are slow to begin with, we enjoy seeing everyone else on our level for a little bit.

The adjustment wasn’t easy, and we lost our first game quite severely. We did not make too many mistakes, but the experience from the other team allowed them to capitalise and score from every opportunity we gave them. After the game was over, we picked our heads up, gathered ourselves, and prepared for the second game. This game was played against the team currently at the top of the league standings. We should have been destroyed. But we weren’t! We learned from our mistakes in the first game and made them work for every point they scored. We ended up equalling our highest goal tally as well, showing that we could break the defense of the best teams in the league. We still lost, but it was a game where everyone played their hearts out.

Immediately after the game and post-game celebrations and discussions were finished, our team all took off their shirts and ran into the ocean to cool off. It may sound like a simple thing, but it was one of the moments that I’ve felt closest as a team. That refreshing swim began an afternoon and evening filled with revelry, smiles, and shouting far too loudly along with music. I mean, look at those fools in the cover photo. Do we look like we lost two games? Not a chance. Because we know that the most important things to us are growing as a team, giving everything we have, and having fun. And we did that.

As the sun dawned on Sunday (far too early for us that stayed out rather late), with some of the team nursing hangovers, we returned to Dadaepo for our third game of the weekend. The effects of the night before were clearly felt, as players on both sides were slower and tired more easily than they would have been on Saturday. Once more, we fought hard. Once more, we were defeated. But our minds were not entirely in the game. We were saving ourselves for the second game of the day.

This game was played against the team just above us in the standings. They were also from the same region as us. We had even trained with them before. Needless to say, there was a tense atmosphere in the air. Both teams knew that this was going to be a good game. And it most definitely was.

It was a back-and-forth game, with good play and mistakes present on both sides. Every player on both sides was giving their all. Points were long and obtained through continued strings of good play – no cheesy full-field hucks here. Our team managed to pull to a 2-point lead with around fifteen minutes to go. We thought we had it. Then our opponents turned it up a gear. They passed quicker. They cut harder. They found something deep within themselves, and pulled it back to even as the last minutes of the game approached. On what would be the last point, both teams were screaming from the sidelines, trying to give their players on the field whatever inspiration and energy they could muster. With one last break-side throw, the defense was broken. An inspired cut into the end zone. A score. We had lost, 4-5. We should have been gutted.

Instead, we were filled with pride. Pride at ourselves for giving it everything we had. Pride at the other team for doing the same. The loss stung, but that sting quickly faded away. Kris and I had never been more proud of our team. In that game, we showed how far we had come. From a team made up largely of people that had never played Ultimate before, we had become a calm, collected unit, capable of solid defense and flowing, devastating offense. Sure, we aren’t the most consistent, and our mistakes cost us, but as we sat on the beach afterwards, we knew that we had played our best. And that next time, our best will be even better.

 

 

Board Games: The Universal Unifier

Gaming is a pastime that permeates almost every aspect of who I am as a person. I play games to relax. I play games to challenge my reaction times, logic, and emotions. I play games to tell stories. I play games to have stories told to me. The most social way that I play games is to have some fun with others. These games most often take the form of card or board games. Whether I play with my family, my friends, or my students, I find that games are a way to bring people together, regardless of circumstances.

Everyone has to start their gaming life somewhere. For most, this was playing simple games like Snakes and Ladders, Monopoly, or Bingo with their family. I am no different. I remember many weekends spent at my grandmother’s house trying to outwit my cousin and brother in order to win Monopoly. A board game or two were always present on family holidays, and a pack of cards was always at the ready. Anecdotes of hotly-contested games formed part of family banter – “Yeah, but you still couldn’t beat me at Monopoly!” was an oft-used retort to expressions of superiority. And yes, we played Monopoly to death.

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As I grew older, particularly when I entered university, the door into the true world of board games was opened to me. All around me, dozens of games that I had never even heard of before were played and enjoyed. I took one last mental look at Monopoly and dove in. I played games of all sizes, lengths, complexities, and themes. I hunted for Thunderstones and Munchkinned my way to level 10. I became a successful, profitable bean farmer and laid train tracks throughout Europe. I planeswalked and fought giant monsters. I even fended off cannibals in a little house on a hill. I did all of this whilst bonding with friends that I keep in touch with to this day (although not as much as I should!).

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When I landed in Korea, I thought that the attitude towards board and card games would be different. In the land where League of Legends and Minecraft reign supreme, I held little hope that my students would even want to open a game that wasn’t an app on a phone or computer. I should have rather remembered the experiences that I’ve been lucky enough to have throughout my life. When I first showed my students one of my board games, their eyes lit up, and I saw my young self in them. Now, board game lessons are a highly effective reward for good behaviour and work ethic.

Life without board and card games would be a lot less interesting. They bring people together like nothing else. Just this week, I have already had one board game night, with the potential to have two more before the week is over. Every time I pick up a game, I think of all of the memories that I have made with that game. If it’s a new game, I am filled with the giddy anticipation of what is to come. In my next post, I will list the games that I couldn’t live without (it will be out this week, I swear!). Until then, play more games!