A Family-Filled Chuseok

For ESL teachers in Korea, Chuseok is a godsend. The variable-length break falls shortly after the start of the summer semester. It has allowed Kris and I to escape from child-induced madness for a few days every year. This year, Chuseok is even sweeter. Kris’ mother Dalene and her boyfriend Dave have visited us all the way from South Africa!

Dalene and Dave arrived last week, in the middle of our final week before Chuseok. Both Kris and I were strung out from the semester and looking forward to the visit and upcoming Chuseok break. Our batteries were drained, and we couldn’t wait to recharge. They arrived on a Saturday of an Ultimate weekend. Their first taste of Korea was the glorious insanity of a ROK-U weekend. While it wasn’t Dalene’s first time in Korea, Dave must have had a peculiar first picture of foreigners in the ROK.

In the following week, Dalene and Dave had to entertain themselves during the day. Kris and I still had five more days of child-wrangling before Chuseok. They took the Seoul city tour buses, zooting about between all the tourist attractions. In the evenings, we did our best to give Dave and Dalene a taste of Korean cuisine. We have eaten more different Korean dishes in the past few days than we had in the previous few months. By day, Dalene and Dave took in the sights. By night, we devoured our way across Seoul. There was a brief interlude in the Korean eating for a surprise birthday party for me. Kris and my friends in Seoul plotted behind my back. They gathered in secret to celebrate my birthday and that of Cam, another friend in the group. Dalene and Kris even managed to make and hide a birthday cake. I was surprised, and didn’t stop smiling the whole time at the party.

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Once we had served our last remaining time at school, we packed up and headed on a day hike of Manisan, on Ganghwa island. The tour was organised by Seoul Hiking. We stopped at various cultural points of interest before hiking the mountain itself. We saw a medieval fortress, neolithic rock structures, and a cultural market. Then it was time to lace up our shoes and tackle Manisan. It took us an hour or so to reach the top, slowed by Kris’ recovering leg and sightings of squirrels. At the top, there sat an ceremonial alter and various cultural implements. It was a meditative reward for our hour’s exercise. It was a delightful day trip.

Next, we set our sights on Busan. Kris and I have been to Busan many times, but most of our visits have been for Ultimate. We hadn’t visited Busan as tourists since our second month in Korea. We were excited to explore a place where we were far less familiar than Seoul.

Our first destination in Busan was BIFF square, a massive street market. Like Myeongdong in Seoul, we wandered between the food carts and storefronts. We took in the wares and eats on sale. The selection rivaled that of Myeongdong, particularly in the food department. We ate Turkish kebabs and rolled ice cream, and bought more than we probably should have.

Our next major highlight was Gamcheon Culture Village. A large suburb in the hills on the edge of Busan, Gamcheon is a hub of shops and artists. It is famous for being mostly comprised of small, single-storey houses. This is in contrast to other areas, where houses are rare but apartment complexes litter the land. We thoroughly enjoyed walking among the colourful houses. We read stories of the area’s history and marveled at the artwork displayed in the streets.

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Our last two days in Busan were mostly spent in the Haeundae area. The only major excursion not in this area was to Busan Tower, the beautiful building featured at the top of this piece. In Haeundae, we first visited Busan Aquarium, where we saw, amongst many other marvels, otters being fed. Kris squealed in delight at their cuteness. After leaving the aquarium, we walked the streets once more. We explored the hills on the edge of Haeundae’s famous beach. Then, we lazed about on the beach, reading books and taking in the beauty of the area. It was a good way to refresh our bodies after the running around that we had done in the previous few days.

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Dalene and Dave’s time in Korea is drawing to a close. They leave on Friday afternoon, leaving only one more full day to show them what Korea’s got. Kris and I adore having family visit, as showing them what we love about Korea reminds us as well. Our hearts will be heavy when we say goodbye to them, but we will treasure the memories of the things we saw when we were all together. We will go forward refreshed and ready to face the months ahead.

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Honeymoon in Boracay: Five Days of the Fantastical

Holidays do not come often in our school year in Korea, and Kris and I made the most out of the most recent week break that we had over the end of July and beginning of August. Even though we were married in January, we had yet to have our honeymoon, so we made plans to visit Boracay, an island in the Philippines, to belatedly celebrate our nuptials. We could not have asked for a better week.

We chose Boracay for a number of reasons. First of all, a number of our friends have played Ultimate there in the past, and have raved about the island as a great place to get away. Second, the travel time from Korea was relatively short compared to returning home to South Africa. Third, the island is well-known for its beaches and water activities, which were exciting prospects to both of us. Finally, my mother had managed to find us free accommodation. Who says no to free accommodation?

After a five-hour flight, an irritatingly long 10-hour layover in Manila, another hour-long flight, a cab ride, a ferry, and another cab ride, we finally managed to dump our things and touch base in our hotel. The brief time spent in the cabs and ferries gave us a good idea of the general aura of Boracay: chaos. The island seemed cleft in two between stark poverty and lavish lifestyle. This dichotomy is familiar to us, as it is the dynamic of many cities in South Africa. We even commented how similar it felt to Durban, a coastal city from our home country.

Our first standout experience of the tour was scuba diving. Through help from staff at the hotel, we booked an outing with a seemingly reliable outfit, and woke up early on our second morning to squeeze into wetsuits and see what all the fuss was about. Scuba diving exceeded all of our expectations, and opened our eyes in a way I was not expecting at all. The concept of breathing underwater for more than 12.74 seconds was something I could not comprehend. Nevertheless, after a worryingly brief training explanation and an even more brief freakout on my part, I managed to get the hang out it.

We were led among several coral reefs and even got to feed fish. We generally took in the fact that we were several meters under the water and not simply inhaling water and dying. That was my perspective, anyway. Kris no doubt spent less time contemplating the logistics of it all and more time actually seeing the beauty around us. Luckily for me, there was enough time to get over the fact that I was actually breathing underwater and simply experience the wonder of it all. Scuba diving is something that we will certainly seek out again.  Sadly, whilst we were given a CD of photographs taken during our trip, it turned out to be blank, much to our disappointment. The experience will have to live on only in our memories.

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Our next standout event was island hopping. A popular tradition for the many tourists of Boracay, we spent a day on a boat, zipping between different parts of Boracay and the surrounding islands. We drank from a coconut on the beach, we snorkeled (more marveling at breathing under water on my part), and we tossed a disc around at every opportunity.

The highlight of the island hopping was visiting a cliff diving park. We paid a small entry fee and were allowed to jump into the ocean from boards at varying heights. The jumps ranged from three metres all the way up to ten metres from the water. These sound like small numbers. They are far more terrifying when you look down between your feet and see every last centimetre between you and the safety of the waves below. We both tentatively started at the seven-metre jump (because we weren’t aware that the lower heights existed beforehand), plunging into the watery abyss little more than bundles of nerves falling into liquid. While it was terryifying, it was incredibly freeing to simply jump off of something high into water. We both worked our way up to higher platforms, eventually jumping off of the ten-metre jump with terror and triumph mixing together in our stomachs. I enjoyed it so much that I just kept on jumping for over an hour. Kris, still recovering from her knee surgery, elected to watch and make some new friends, and occasionally took a photo or two to capture the moment.

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The nine- and ten-metre cliff jumps

We also made new friends doing something that we love: playing Ultimate. Whilst we were walking down the beach one day, we happened to see some of the Boracay Dragons (a world-famous beach Ultimate team based on the island) playing some casual pickup. We initially sat on the sidelines and watched, marveling at their speed and accuracy, even in horrendously windy conditions. After a while, they noticed Kris and I on the sideline, and asked us if we would like to join. Whilst I was skeptical that Kris may injure herself and I was also a little tired and my eyes were acting up, we decided that the opportunity to play Ultimate on a beach in Boracay was one that we could not pass up. We spent more than an hour in what became a rainstorm playing the sport that we both love. The Boracay players were incredibly warm and friendly, and the spirit in which they played the game was light-hearted and joyous. They clearly loved every minute of running up and down the beach, trying to best the other team. They didn’t play to win. They just played to have fun, and we all had a wonderful time playing together.

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Not pictured: the litres of rain soaking through our clothing.

Our final unforgettable experience from Boracay was mermaid swimming, which is exactly what it sounds like. We put on special swimsuits that wrapped our feet together like a mermaids, took some photos, and proceeded to have a lesson in how to make the most of our altered swimming state. We learned several ways to kick, a couple of tumbles, and even failed at doing handstands. We looked less like the majestic creatures of myth and legend and more like drunken seals flailing around in the water. But damn, was it fun. It was uniquely challenging to modify our swimming styles to best suit the mermaid tails, and we both relished learning something new. Our instructor was so impressed with us that she certified us as level 2 mermaids (out of a possible 5), even though we should by all rights have only been level 1. She was very gracious.

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D’aww. So cute.

Permeating all of these experiences was food of a constantly high quality. Boracay can quite easily be called a tourist trap, and there was no shortage of food that was far from traditional Filipino cuisine. We gorged on delicious burgers which rivaled those of Brooklyn Burger Joint for quality of ingredients. We ate local variations on pizza. Where possible, we tried to experience local cuisine, and all of it was reasonably-priced and delectable.

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A delcious Filipino oxtail stew.

Our experience in Boracay was well worth the wait. We did things that we had never done before. We relaxed and simply recharged after several months of draining teaching. We ate delicious food. We reveled in the warmth and friendliness of the Filipino people. We played Ultimate on the beach with some of the best players in the world. We honestly did not want to leave. Our honeymoon was exactly what we had hoped it would be, and more.

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Sheer majesty

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.

Pre-Guest Prep

Later today, a cousin of mine will be visiting Kris and I in Seoul. It will be the first visitor that we’ve had in a long while, and it is a visit that we have been looking forward to ever since the plans were first forged at our wedding in January. By now, we are well-drilled in getting ready to have someone over, having had quite a few of our family at our various houses in Korea over the years that we’ve spent here.

The first thing that we did was try to make a rough plan of what we will do whilst my cousin is here. Luckily for us, there is a long weekend coming (Kris actually has this whole week off, while I still have to work 2 of the 5 days), so there were a number of tour group trips available. We selected one that we thought sounded the most exciting – a trip to visit Geoje island (the home of the beautiful beach in the featured image of this post). There were options to visit Jeju island, the Hawaii of Korea, but we’ve already been there, and the itinerary of those trips was identical to that which we had been on before, so we decided against that. We are all excited for Geoje, as it is a new place for all three of us, and the activities sound intriguing.

With four of the seven full days dedicated to Geoje, we only had to fill the remaining three days, which will be spent exploring the vibrant culture and sights within Seoul itself. This is much easier this year than in previous visits, as we actually live here now. While I’m working, Kris will play tour guide, giving my cousin Catherine an idea of what Seoul has to offer. Once we return from the trip on Saturday, we can revisit those attractions that she found most interesting and take her to some of our own personal favourite places.

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Beyond planning the days out, we have made sure to keep the house clean. Instead of the normal piles of dishes in the sink and dirty clothes festering in the laundry basket, we have maintained empty vessels for discarded cutlery, crockery, and clothing. We have vacuumed the house three times this week. We have even deep-cleaned the couch that our cat Catsby loves to sleep on, returning it to its original royal blue form from a mixture of blue upholstery and white fur.

Even though we have been busy with two Ultimate tournaments in the past two weeks, Catherine’s upcoming visit has been the event that we have been most looking forward to for a long while. We cannot wait to show her a glimpse of the country that we have called home for a time far longer than we expected to. Between going on an adventure to Geoje together and seeing as much of Seoul as we can squeeze into the all-too-short time we have, we hope to craft an experience that we will all remember and talk about for years to come.

We’re Going…Home?

When my fiancee Kris and I first started planning our holiday to South Africa, we were extremely excited to be going ‘home’. We would be returning to the friends and family that we’d left behind all those months ago, and it would be a momentous, happy occasion. Sitting here in Incheon airport, waiting to start the first of two flights that we need to take to return to Johannesburg, I feel strangely different.

Over the past few days, we have been frantically trying to scramble together all of the things that we need for our wedding (the main reason that we’re heading to South Africa in the first place). We took our cat, Catsby, to the home of friends where he will be staying for the month. We collected my suit and received Kris’ wedding dress back after modifications. We bought Christmas presents for the close family that will be there when we return. As the date of departure drew closer, I began to feel like we were actually leaving home, and not heading towards it.

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The more I thought about it, the more conflicted I became. Surely South Africa was my home? It was where I was born. It was where I went to school and university. It was where I met and fell in love with Kris. I had spent the vast majority of my life there. Surely that was my home? I couldn’t put my finger on why I felt otherwise until I mentioned my feelings to Kris this very evening, and she hit me with wisdom that I simply couldn’t see.

You see, home isn’t about where things happen, or where you have property. It isn’t about how many experiences you have in a place. It isn’t about how long you’ve spent there. Home is about people. The people around you are what make a place a home. Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros accurately expressed this feeling in their song ‘Home‘, which Kris just happened to be whistling for most of the day.

Sure, we have friends and family in South Africa. We have many people that we frankly can’t wait to see, people that we haven’t seen for months or even years. But, now that we have spent many months living in Korea, we are also leaving a host of friends behind. These friendships, like those in South Africa, were forged through board games, Ultimate, food, or late-night deep conversations. And they are why Korea has felt like home – the amazing community that we have built around us.

In the end, my home will always be where Kris and I are together. For the next month, that will be South Africa, and we will relish our time catching up with those that we haven’t been able to hang out with due to the inconvenience of being on the other side of the world. After that, our home will once again be in Korea, where we will share our stories with our newer friends. Wherever Kris and I are together, we are home. And that is a pretty amazing feeling.

 

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!

Seattle Trip Day 1: Purgatory

After months of trying to coerce English into the minds of children and adults, Kris and I left for our two-week holiday to Seattle today. During the day, we time-traveled, watched far too many movies, completed the entirety of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, and dreaded American immigration. All of this before we even landed in the US!

The different time zones that lay across our world are not something that we, as humans, often think about. Even in a family like mine where members are spread across three time zones and 14ish hours, we have just become used to only calling each other at specific times to make up for time differences. Yet today, when we left Seoul just before 4pm on Thursday afternoon, flew for about 10 hours (during which we watched 4 movies each), and landed in Canada at around 10am on Thursday morning, we felt rather like Phineas Fogg must have done. Time travelling was awesome!

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What was significantly less awesome was the 8-hour layover that awaited us at Vancouver airport. After clearing US Customs (yes, in Canada, as bizarre as that sounds), we walked around the airport, checking out all of the shops. Once we had completed the shop rotation, we decided to buy Harry Potter and the Cursed Child and see how far we could get. As it is a play, we devoured it in its entirety within 3 hours. We tried to get Pokemon Go to work on the spotty WiFi at the airport. While we did catch some Pokemon, what we caught the most during our hunting was frustration at the lack of consistent Internet connection. Finally, Kris settled down for a well-earned nap while I re-read some of the graphic novel masterpiece that is Fabio Moon and Gabriel Ba’s Daytripper.

By the time I was two-thirds into the story, it was finally time to board. We left Canadian soil and, 40 minutes later, touched down in Seattle. We knew that one hurdle lay ahead of us: immigration. Would they turn us away? Would they let us be? Would they force us to recite minute details about our life for no reason? As we made our way through the terminal, all of these possibilities weighed down on us. We needn’t have worried. There was no immigration. We simply picked up our bags and left the airport, finally loosed onto the American soil that is to be our home for the next two weeks.

We are now both quite content to take it easy tomorrow. We plan to find a suitable camera for the trip, visit a local board game store, and browse the wares of an Ultimate shop. Our short time with my brother and our TI6 experience both begin on Saturday. Tomorrow, however, we will take in the sights, sounds, and retail experiences of Seattle. We may get fat, but at least our wallet will be lighter!