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: And you can check out Yoga Palace here:

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.


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!

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!

    A Comparison

    24 08 2009

    You can’t help but compare and contrast different countries while travelling through them, or residing in them. We’ve all done it. Thailand has better beaches than Miami. The food is better in Vietnam. Canada is more expensive than everywhere. Korea has better saunas than Morocco and so on and so on. The comparisons never end really. One difference I noticed sort of by accident, is that garbage pick up in different countries is different too. Now this may seem a rather silly and trivial thing to notice, but it’s really quite telling. Something that became most obvious to me while travelling in China.

    I can’t quite remember exactly which city we were in, but I do remember that it was warm and sunny, so it had to be either Kunming, Lijiang or Dali. I’m guessing Kunming. Anyways, we were standing on a street corner, just surveying the scene and taking it in, when a big blue unmarked truck rolled by, stopped about 2 blocks in front of us, and waited. Suddenly, from every street and side street, Chinese housewives, labourers, men and children streamed out and began throwing plastic bags and cardboard boxes into the back of it. We stood in confusion as people ran past us with their bags for several minutes. It took us a bit to figure it out, but the smell helped us realize that this was the garbage truck! And in Communist China, the garbage truck doesn’t stop by your house and pick up your junk. You bring your garbage to the truck. Makes perfect sense in a way.

    Contrast that with Korea, where garbage is sorted very systematically into specific bags and types and picked up on certain days. Garbage is picked up everyday, it’s just that you have to put the right garbage out, in the right bag, on the right day! And because we live on a street that only 1 car can fit through, our garbage truck is a guy on a scooter pulling a cart behind him. It’s efficient in a way that is kind of aggravating, but at the same time, uniquely Korean.

    In Thailand, I don’t think I ever saw garbage being picked up, but I did see big piles of it being burned once a week. Not sure if that is all they do there.

    And in Canada, of course, our garbage is picked up by large outsourced trucks that automatically compress the garbage. It is then sent somewhere else. We don’t know where, and don’t really care, as long as it is not in our backyard. Of course, this is only when the union is not on strike!!

    Tipping is not a City in Asia

    12 08 2009

    “Do you know much the Korean teachers get paid at my school?!” Furry Bear exclaimed as he walked through the front door.

    From the look on his face, I knew it had to be a ridiculously low sum and I was right. KRW5000!! which with current exchange rates converts to about $4.40 an hour! Now teachers are underpaid for their work all over the world, but $4.40 an hour!? This is total insanity. The Korean teachers (who are without a doubt more qualified than most of the ESL teachers here) are earning 1/10th of what the foreign teachers are earning. No wonder Koreans work 10 hour days and on weekends…they have to, to survive!! Of course, you can’t extrapolate one profession to all professions, but…

    We also found out that the average bar or wait staff earns only KRW4000 per hour, which amounts to $3.50! Did I mention that tips are not expected or added onto that amount? The amazing thing is that I still receive customer service that is beyond caring, authentic and professional. Service standards in most Asian countries destroy North America’s, and it is clearly not about the money involved.

    Being here has completely changed my attitude about tipping as a practice. When I was younger, it used to embarrass me when my parents didn’t give the expected 15% standard, and it is a common stereotype that Asians don’t tip well. And d’you know? They probably don’t by North American standards, and here is the problem. When did a tip become expected? I thought tips were for extraordinary service, NOT for run of the mill, bored and lackadaisical work! Waiters, bartenders etc…EXPECT they will receive a tip for a completely substandard service experience and will even feel slighted or give you a dirty look if you give less.

    Many Asians get labeled as cheap or worse in restaurants for not tipping, and I know I have probably overcompensated in the past to avoid looking this way.  In actuality, I think they have it right. It just took for me to get away from the North American way of doing things in order to see it clearly. It’s amazing what we will do under social pressure.

    If you are just doing your job (taking my order, picking up my plates etc…), then as far as I’m concerned, you are already being paid by your employer. But give me extraordinary service and believe me, I will give you a deserved and extraordinary tip!


    6 08 2009

    Yesterday, Furry Bear, Michel, (a French-Canadian friend I met on a flight between Seoul and Vancouver), and I headed to the 63 building. The 63 building is one of those Seoul landmarks – a tall, skinny building that I assume is 63 floors high. Pretty hard to miss in the skyline actually.

    Inside was a predictable zoo of bratty, screaming Korean boys having temper tantrums, well-behaved little Korean girls, ajumas, Chinese tourists, and a few foreigners. We purchased our tickets, and headed up the glass elevator to the art gallery and views at the top of the building. What an eye-opener! I knew Seoul was huge, but the pure visual impact of the geography from the 63rd floor was unbeatable. Simply put, SEOUL IS MASSIVE, and I must say, quite beautiful from up above.

    Han River - Seoul

    This is the Han River, which basically runs through the centre of the city and divides North and South. I’ve been over 3 or 4 of these bridges, but seeing them all stacked out into eternity was pretty cool. The Han River is over 1 km wide. It is by no means, a small river, and everyday millions of cars, people, scooters and dogs dressed in funny outfits cross those bridges.


    Here’s another view. Buildings upon buildings upon buildings. It’s kind of mind-boggling to actually think about how many people are living in all those buildings. Twenty-five million in metropolitan Seoul, which is approximately the same geographic size as the GTA. Almost 11 million in Seoul – a city the size of Toronto. Imagine 11 million people in Toronto!! The city can barely sustain 3 million. You know the craziest part? There’s no more traffic here than there is in Toronto…

    Red Lights

    3 08 2009

    Korean drivers run red lights all the time. All of them do. Really. Scooter drivers, taxis…even public bus drivers. In fact, I may have even seen a few police cars run red lights. Not to mention that people seem to have no qualms about roaring on through the light in full view of said authority figures! I don’t get it? How did this start? and why is it so totally acceptable?

    Personally, I think it’s great. Why should you wait at a red light when there’s no need to. I don’t think more accidents occur because people are doing this. I would even argue that less accidents occur because of this. You KNOW everyone does this, so you have to be constantly vigilant at intersections. Even as a pedestrian, you must be fully conscious of what’s happening around you. You can’t take it for granted that all the cars will stop just because you have a green walk signal. Actually, it’s quite likely that some scooter punk is going to swerve around you to save time.

    But what is it with Koreans and the rush-rush all the time? Korea has been nicknamed the Italy of Asia, Land of the Morning Calm AND most appropriately balee-balee (hurry-hurry) culture.. Where are they all going in such a hurry? Surely, all 23 million inhabitants of metro Seoul are not late for an appointment?? On any given day, at any given moment, in any given situation, mothers across Seoul yell at their poor children balee-balee. Gesturing wildly, they trot across the street ahead of them…

    …and maybe straight into a car running a red light if they are not careful!