Land of the Morning Calm

4 11 2009

South Korea is sometimes called “The Land of the Morning Calm.” This originates from the Joseon Dynastry which was established by military coup in 1392. The Chinese characters for Joseon (朝鮮) were often translated into English as, “morning calm,” and thus one of Korea’s nicknames became “The Land of the Morning Calm.”

Now anyone who has resided in Seoul for any length of time will tell you that “calm,” is not really the first word that pops to mind, when describing it. Between hurry-hurry culture, the florescent jacketed ajuma brigade and 25 million inhabitants living, working, eating and socializing virtually 24-7, “calm” and “Seoul” would seem to be nothing short of polar opposites.

I, however, have done the impossible, and found a bastion of calm and serenity in the middle of this crazy city. And yes, while this may seem rather cliche, this bastion of stillness is none other than 6:30AM yoga classes at the Yoga Palace in Apujeong.

The Yoga Palace focuses on real Bikram yoga, which is definitely not to be confused with the multitude of other “hot” yoga studios in Seoul. A REAL Bikram yoga class is taught by an instructor who has been certified by Bikram himself (yes, he’s a person). It entails a very specific series of postures, which are conducted in a very particular way, for a set period of time, in a 40 degree Celsius room. Each class is 90 minutes long, and is designed not only to improve your flexibility, but also to detoxify and cleanse your system.

In Toronto, I took both REAL Bikram yoga classes at a studio downtown, and “fake” hot yoga classes at another studio in midtown. Believe me, there was a huge difference in how I felt during and after the classes, so finding an authentic Bikram yoga studio in Seoul was really important to me.

Yoga Palace is owned by 3 Thai siblings: Fame, Fair and Ball. Ball was the Bishnu Gosh international yoga asana champion in 2008, so you can imagine what the quality of the classes is. You can see a video of his winning postures here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vwZTgPCln-k. And you can check out Yoga Palace here: http://www.yoga-palace.com

Initially, waking up at 6AM just to go to yoga class, seemed like a tremendous sacrifice, especially since I don’t have a “j-o-b,” and have the luxury of sleeping in all day if I choose. But after the first tough week of transition, I must say, that I began to look forward to these 6AM sojourns. At this time of the day, most of Seoul is still asleep, and the hush of a city on the cusp of coming alive has a wonder all it’s own. I am surprised on one of these mornings to see a uniformed and jacketed ajuma brigade sweeping the streets bit by bit with good ole fashioned brooms. I should have realized that the streets did not magically clean themselves, but still, I am amazed by this sight, and once again a little awed by the stubbornness and strength of the Korean ajuma.

On another morning, we see a flock of mini-skirted and high-heeled Korean girls, giggling and hailing a cab. It’s Monday morning, and they are just heading home from the night before, so again I am surprised and reminded that life, beautiful life, is happening while I have been slumbering peacefully.

Moments like this are strangely astonishing at the break of dawn, when you feel as though you could be the only star in the whole of the solar system.





Eh, Yeh, Eh, Yeh…Eh??

8 10 2009

Korean language classes started on Monday morning. Four days a week, three hours per day, I am immersed in the listening, speaking, reading and writing of Hangeul.

There is one Brit, 2 Chinese, and 12 Japanese in my Elementary Korean for Foreigners class. Sadly, I am the only person of Korean descent in the class. (I mean, sad, as in pathetic…sigh). I’m not exactly sure why all these Japanese people are in Seoul learning Korean, but I’m guessing it’s for one of two reasons:

1) They have business relationships in Korea, and it is an asset to know the language.

2) Like the rest of Asia, they are addicted to Korean soap operas, and have somehow fallen prey to the idea that Korean men are as romantic as they are on tv (they’re not), and that Korean women are as beautiful as they are on tv (some are), and language skills are required to woo someone of the opposite sex.

But of course…I’m only guessing.🙂

Hangeul was created by King Sejong of the Lee Dynasty in the 15th century for the purpose of enlightening illiterate people. Most native Koreans will tell you that Hangeul can be learned in just one morning. And while this is common rhetoric among Koreans (since it is a point of pride for them), it makes those of us who can’t learn it in one morning, feel well, how to put this delicately, kind of dumb.

They are right to some extent, I suppose. With 14 basic consonants and 10 basic vowels, it is pretty simple. You can read Hangeul in a morning! Well, elementary level stuff anyway. Great! I can read the Korean words for sun and bird and pants and bridge. Unfortunately this isn’t going to help you much in your daily life. By Day 2 (I guess with the alphabet under our belts), it was time for compound vowels. And this is where things became much more complicated.

Complicated because they all sound the same. At least to me. There are 2 “ehs”, 2 “yehs,” 3 “whes,” 1 “wha”, 1 “whu,” 1 “whee,” and 1 “eu-ee,” which incidently has 3 different pronunciations depending on where it is in a word and how it is being used! To add to the confusion, all of these compound vowels are also made up of vertical and horizontal lines attached in different directions and facing up or down. When asked, my strategy thus far has been to pronounce all of them “whe,” since there are 3 of them. It’s a game of odds as far as I’m concerned.

Day 3 dawned, and we were treated to double final consonants, final consonants and silent vowels among other things. Many of which have no rules at all, but just need to be memorized.

Korean in one morning, eh?? Ha! I think not!





Placement Test = Humiliation : (

30 09 2009

So after 7 months in Seoul, I finally got my act together enough to register for Korean language classes, which is ostensibly the whole reason I came here in the first place! After doing a bit of web research and emailing different schools with questions, I decided to register with Ganada Korean Language Institute. (http://www.ganadakorean.com/en/main.htm)

I chose them because they actually responded to my questions pretty quickly, and answered them effectively. A lot of the schools didn’t even bother to respond!! Now, it’s been a really long time since I was a student, so the thought of registering for full-time studies at Yonsei or one of the other universities seemed a bit too much to handle. This class was 4 times a week, for 3 hours per day, which seemed like exactly enough time to get started. I’ll be immersed enough, but it won’t overwhelm the small (very small) portion of my brain that is effective at language learning.

Today, I went for the placement test which would determine the level I would be placed in. Let’s just say that it was a somewhat humiliating experience. I arrived and was immediately rushed into a small classroom with 3 other students already writing the test. One was Caucasian, and the other 2 appeared to be gyopo (overseas Korean). I picked up the 3 page test and stared in horror at the first page. It was all in KOREAN, with only a few English words!! I felt a sudden moment of panic, my palms began to sweat, and I was transported back to a traumatic 5th grade math test experience, (which also ended badly).

The feeling was identical! Truth be told, I thought that I would be a little better than beginner level, but woe is me, this proved to be nothing more than empty arrogance. The only difference between THIS test and my 5th grade math test, was that I had been able to fill in most of THAT test, albeit with wrong answers! I flipped through all 3 pages, hoping the situation would improve, and upon realizing it would not, attempted to phonetically sound out the letters on the first question. One word and five minutes later, I decided to take a break (my brain was hurting), and observe the other students in the room. I surreptitiously snuck a peek at the Caucasian girl…surely she would be as dumbfounded as I. Imagine my horror when I saw her merrily filling in the answers!

Fortunately, one of the instructors entered the room at just that moment and asked me if I wanted to have the interview. (I guess they knew that I wouldn’t be able to write the test, since they gave me exactly 15 minutes to do it in!!!) I stood up so quickly in relief that I almost knocked the desk over! I am happy to report that the interview went much better, since my comprehension skills are passable. I wasn’t able to (or was too humiliated to) answer in Korean, but at least I could understand her!

At the end of the interview, she smiled at me sadly, and said that even though I could understand Korean pretty well, perhaps it would be best if I started with the beginner level. I wholeheartedly agreed. Class starts on October 5th.





Venice

19 09 2009

I visited Italy for the first time in 2007, as part of a whirlwind European tour. It was the first real backpackers trip I had taken since 1998, when I had travelled through Greece for a month. These travels helped me remember how much I love to travel! I promised myself then that I would never wait another 10 years to travel, and so far, it’s worked out.

This is a view of Venice from the airplane window.

Venice

It was interesting to actually visit Venice and Italy, because I think it’s one of those destinations that everyone has a pre-determined idea about. It’s so romanticized in popular culture. You imagine canals singing gondola drivers, and the Masquerade, and some of that is there, but of course, reality is never the same as your imaginings.

This is a pretty iconic image of Venice – the view of the canals from the Rialto Bridge. It looks lovely, doesn’t it? And it is! If you wake up early in the morning and get a picture before the rest of tourists wake up. After that, it’s a foot stepping, elbowing battle to the side of the bridge to get a clear picture. And those gondola rides?? They cost 100 euros and last about 30 minutes. Plus there’s no “O Sole Mio,” singing. The drivers do wear those striped shirts though.

Canals

The best part of Venice wasn’t the great lattes, amazing carbonara pasta, gondola rides, or endless canals. The best part was getting lost in these narrow, winding, cobblestone pathways. Late at night, the streets are deserted and Venice seems to take on a hushed and haunted feeling.

Deserted Streets





Baby Turtles!!

15 09 2009

Selingaan Island

We took a trip to Borneo for a few weeks, and while there, we were able to stay in Turtle Islands National Park. The three islands of the Park cover approximately 17 square kilometres and are famous for the green and hawksbill turtles that come ashore to lay eggs on its beaches.

We stayed on Selingaan Island, which is a hair tugging, face numbing speedboat journey that takes you 40km off the coast of Sabah in Malaysian Borneo. After an hour of listening to the whining roar of the engine, you end up on a deserted and peaceful island in the middle of the Sulu Sea. The first turtle hatchery in Malaysia was established here in 1966, and is managed by Sabah Parks.

Selingaan is the only island equipped for overnight visitors, and though you can book through various independent tour operators, the best choice is to plan ahead and book with Crystal Quest, the sanctioned operator for the Island. It’s much cheaper, AND with them, you are able to stay overnight at one of the island chalets. There is only space for about 50 people to stay overnight. This is important because the turtles only come to the beach at night. If you want to see this miracle of reproduction, you must be on the Island overnight!

Once upon the island, there are some pretty strict rules. It is a turtle sanctuary after all, and their protection is priority number one. Still, we arrived early in the morning and were free to walk around the island, swim and snorkel  until evening. After dinner, we were told to stay in the cafeteria and wait for a ranger to call “TURTLE TIME! TURTLE TIME!” This was our signal to head to the beach to watch the mother turtle lay her eggs. Essentially, we were at the mercy of the mama turtle’s timing.

We waited for about an hour and after one false alarm, we were called to the beach. The entire process happens in the dark, and only one flashlight was used to light the event. Here you can see the back of the mother turtle and the eggs she has laid so far. The eggs are perfectly round and about the size of a small apple. In total, the mother turtle laid 89 eggs!! The funny thing is that the mother turtle goes into a trance while she is in the egg laying process (about 2 hours), and she had no awareness of our presence.

Mother turtle laying eggs

As the mother laid the eggs, the ranger took them and placed them in a blue bucket, for placement in the turtle hatchery. This protects them from predators and from being dug up by other mothers laying eggs on the beach. The eggs incubate for about 30 to 60 days before they hatch en masse, and help each other struggle to the top of the sand. An interesting fact is that it is a few degrees of temperature difference that determines the sex of the baby turtles.

Turtle Eggs

Finally, the baby turtles are released into the Sulu Sea. Here they are making a run for it!! Some of them get confused and run the wrong way, and this is when you have the privilege of picking them up and turning them in the right direction.

Baby turtles making a run for it!

Still, it was amazing how most of them knew exactly which direction to run. Mother Nature really is incredible!





Barcelona

28 08 2009

Last night we were looking through pictures of old travels and I was trying to find a few images that would sum up each particular city. It was of course, easy for some cities, and downright impossible for others.

I’ll start with Barcelona, which I visited for a week in July of 2007.

A trip to Barcelona has a lot to offer – great seafood (paella to die for!), modern interior design, a nice beach, and lots of nightlife. This pic was taken on Las Ramblas, late at night, after all the bars had closed and the streets were being washed and cleaned.

Las Ramblas

Let’s face it though, nightlife aside, a trip to Barcelona is really all about modernist architect, Antoni Gaudi. He died in 1926, but before he passed, he created some of the most unique and interesting buildings in history. A walk through the streets of Barcelona can sometimes feel like a trip down Alice’s rabbit hole.

This is a picture of the interior of Gaudi’s iconic Sagrada Familia. It’s still not completed, but well worth a visit.

La Sagrada Familia

This is Gaudi’s Parc Guell. An outdoor wonderland of architecture, art, music, performance and nature.

Park Guell

Next up, Venice!





A Visitor

27 08 2009

We’ve had a visitor for the last 10 days.

Furry Bear’s mom is here! She took a crazy connecting flight from New York to Helsinki (Helsinki???) to Seoul. Though she’s traveled to and lived in many countries around the world, she’s never been to Asia, so I was a little curious about how she would react to Korea. It’s always interesting to get an outsider’s opinion of something you take for granted.

Since Furry was at work, I met her bright and early at Incheon airport. We boarded the KAL Airport Limo bound for the Grand Hyatt Hotel by our apartment. A little while into the ride, she commented that Seoul reminded her of Albania of all places!! Furry had mentioned this to me earlier, and now his mom had confirmed that something about Seoul was reminding her of Albania – and Tirana in particular. It’s so interesting to me that 2 cities that really should have nothing in common, were so similar to both of them. It must have something to do with the energy that both cities are carrying. Needless to say, Furry’s mom felt immediately comfortable and at home.

Here are a few more of her observations about Seoul:

  • She did not expect Seoul to be so modern. She was extremely surprised by this and mentioned it a few times.
  • She loved the tomatoes – the ones Furry has grown – and the store-bought ones. She said that you could tell they were local.
  • That it’s a myth that all Asian people look the same! She started to really notice the difference between all the people, and the differences between different Asian races.
  • That Korean women are beautiful, tall, very slim, and stylish. (lol…not me, I am Canadian-Korean!!🙂
  • The children are angelic and innocent compared to North America, and that it would be a great place to raise children.
  • That’s what I can remember off the top of my head. I’m off to Kuala Lumpur, Borneo and Brunei tomorrow. See you in a few weeks!