Wednesday, November 26, 2008

A few stimulating reads...

The teacher book club I'm a part of has read a few books recently that have made me think a lot about current social issues. About a month ago we read Pyongyang: A Journey in North Korea. This book made me think a lot about the conditions in the country just north of my present home. The graphic novel, written from the perspective of a French Canadian, shows a foreigner's experience in the country. It was crazy for me to begin to think about how different the social conditions are just 3 hours north of me. People are extremely poor and subject to the whims of a crazy leader. This particular issue is one that I have been learning about at work as well. TCIS's Amnesty chapter is focusing it's winter campaign on raising awareness of North Korean refugees in South Korea. What I have learned through my involvement with this group is that is that if any North Koreans try to escape, they put their entire family at risk; whole families are jailed for the "wrong-doings" of a single extended family member. People are beaten or killed for much more trivial actions. Justice or fair trials do not seem to exist. From my perspective, there are so many motivations that people have for wanting a different life. However, it is heartbreaking to know that when people survive the strenuous process it takes to safely make it to South Korea (usually involving moving as an illegal immigrant through numerous other countries first... people have to flee to the north before they can safely get south), life does not get much easier. There is a good deal of discrimination that occurs in this country against refugees. Anyhow, this book is a good first read for anyone who knows little about social conditions in North Korea.

This month's book was also a powerful read. In A long Way Gone, Memoirs of a Boy Soldier the (now) 28-year-old Ishmael Beah shares his true personal story of his involvement in Sierra Leone's civil war. At the age of 12, rebel attacks forced Beah to flee his village and wander the forests with several other children. By the age of 13, Beah was faced with the choice of death or joining the army. After he became a soldier, Beah spent nearly three years doing horrible things under the influences of copious amounts of cocaine, unimaginable fear, and emotionally manipulative leaders. When the UN finally rescued him at the age of 16, Beah entered a rehabilitation center with unimaginable emotional scars and palpable anger. The book takes readers through his journey as his sheltered happy childhood is ripped from him, as he is transformed into a numb violent soldier, and then as he stumbles along the road to recovery.
One of the things that I found hardest to cope with in this book was that Ishmael and I are not very different in age. While I ran around toilet papering my friends houses, Beah dodged bullets in the forest had to hide in trees to survive. While I practiced homecoming skits or soccer drills, Beah watched hundreds of people get slaughtered. Even harder to imagine, Beah himself slaughtered. I finished this book with a restless desire to do something. This book gave me a new face for conflicts in Africa. It helped me to have a more vivid understanding of what the countless headlines at the bottom of news pages are referring to. The problem is, I have no clue what to do to fight problems like that. But this book sure left me with a desire to, at the very least, encourage others to read about the devastating affects that war can have on children.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

18 km closer to being Korean

I feel like every Korean adult over the age of 50 spends at least one weekend a month hiking. This weekend, I joined the mobs, and experienced the full-fledged Korean hiking adventure. At about midnight on Saturday night I met with two friends, Mike and Emily. With our organized backpacks and layers of clothes on, we taxied to the smaller train station in Daejeon. To our surprise, the 12:45 am train we wanted to take was completely booked for the first leg. So we stood in the back of a car as dozens of older people slept in the chairs, aisles, and against the walls. People were sprawled everywhere in the car, snoring, hiding under eye masks, or loudly bellowing at fellow drunkards. We were relieved to be able to sit for the second leg and attempted to sleep in the stuffy cabin for the remaining two hours of the journey.

At about 4 am, in a tiny dark town, we clambered out of the train car along with dozens of other hikers. As we marched between the sweatsuited pros suited with real hiking shoes, trekking poles, and headlights, we suddenly looked quite unprepared. We staggered out of the mini-station and were ushered towards a bus. The bus ride was terrifying. The bus swerved around mountain passes and creaked with each severe cut. We sped past signs warning about all the different wildlife in the mountains: bears, snakes, and my personal favorite, frogs. You know how scary frogs can be! After about 30 minutes of our roller-coaster adventure, we were safely dropped at the foot of a mountain. Mike, the only one of us with any real hiking equipment, secured his headlight and we began our ascent. However, first we had to stop and laugh that the regularly schedule bus had dropped a mass of people, at 4:30 am, at the foot of a sign that proclaimed that night hiking was prohibited. They CLEARLY cared a lot about that rule.

The hike up the mountain was a bit of a challenge for me. Being the genius that I am, I completely ignored the fact that I had been sick all week leading up to the hike. Despite the fact that I was on 7 separate medications just to sit still without having coughing fits, I thought it was a great idea to climb a massive mountain. Needless to say, I had to slow my pace a bit. Yet the ascent went surprisingly fast. Just before the summit, we stopped to take a break at a shelter. Mike boiled water on his fancy hiking stove and then friend us some spam to eat with it (I am sad to admit that I enjoyed it). We crammed into the wooden lodge between mobs of other hikers and waited for sunrise.

About 6:30 we finished hiking to the summit to watch the sunrise. The three of us huddled together on a massive boulder to await the beautiful sight. Mike pointed due East and we mentally pictured a glowing ball of heat. We tried to ignore the (literally) freezing temperatures and the rapidly intensifying fog. For 30+ minutes, we shivered and silently cursed ourselves for not bringing scarves. About 7:15, we finally admitted to ourselves that the wall of clouds was impenetrable. Defeated, we began our ridge hike and entered some barren fog-laced forests that reminded me of Sleepy Hallow.

The morning continued and the sun finally made its way through the clouds. The views became spectacular as the light reflected off the waves of fog that rolled between the layers of mountain. Mountains stretched as far as I could see. Little peaks shoved their heads through the white blanket before me. It was incredible. After about 9k of hiking, we turned off the mountain ridges and began to descend into a valley.

When we hit the sign that said that we only had 9 km left of our hike, we were happy. “It’ll be a piece of cake,” we thought to ourselves (even though we knew the projected time was 3 ½ hours). We imagined sloping hills gradually cushioning us into a fall studded valley. Then, after hiking for about 15 minutes, we were greeted by several Koreans telling us “Not far! 1 hour, 1 hour half!” Our spirits soared and our legs were only a little bit shaky. However, 1 hour later, we had only trudged one kilometer down the rocky uneven trail. Our enthusiasm began to diminish. A beautiful creek with hundreds of mini-waterfalls mirrored our path. The beauty of the river boosted our energy momentarily. The water was exceptionally clear and the water plummets were intriguing and beautiful. Mike and I clambered off the trail to get better shots of the water while Emily waited patiently. However, the hike began to feel very long (much like this blog, I apologize). By the time we made it to the bottom of the mountain all three of us were acting a bit grumpy, staggering on jello legs, and ready to eat our own arms.

For some strange reason, as we boarded a bus, and later a train, we vowed to do the same hike next year, just 3 weeks earlier (timed better for fall leaves). Yes, I guess we’re a bit crazy. Or maybe our decision was tainted by the circumstances: we were sitting in massage chairs on the train and our legs had not completely stiffened. Regardless, I made a vow: same hike next year, three weeks earlier. Korean mountains, look out, here I come. A few of my pics:

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Restless stirrings

Maybe it's because I just committed to staying still for another year. Perhaps it's because I have been sick for the last week and have only recently returned to the normal world or because I'm teaching all the smae classes this semester. Or maybe it's my school schedule, with not even a three-day weekend as a respite from work from the start of September till Dec. 20. Whatever the cause, I'm feeling stir-crazy in a major way. So I'm trying to focus on my spring, where I'll probably be longing for a single weekend home. My spring, where I travel all over Korea for soccer games. My spring, where I go just a little bit crazy with the international travel.

My future at a glance:
Trip #1: Go to CA for the holidays (Dec. 20- Jan 8)

*Return to Korea, a few days later Sanaz visits! (assuming ticket sales go as planned)
*Sanaz leaves, 1 week of classes till trip #2

Trip #2:Lunar New Years= 5 day weekend= tentative ferry trip to Japan to see Hiroshima

*Return to Korea, soccer starts, 3 weeks of classes

Trip # 3: Winter break -- LASA trip to the Phillipines (same service trip I went on last year-- housebuilding with students for Habitat for Humanity)

*Return to Korea, 3 weeks of school

Trip #4: EARCOS teacher's conference in Malasyia

*Return to Korea, 1 week of school

Trip #5: Spring break- a tentative beach trip somewhere (likely Vietnam)

*Back to school 3 days

Trip #6: Fly with the soccer team to Beijing for the Asia Pacific Activities Conference

*Return to Korea--only 2 months left of school till summer vacation ! Throw in a few weeks of soccer-within-Korea travel to round out the school year.

Okay, I guess my life isn't so boring after all. I can maybe survive the present lull.

Just 1 month and 7 days till I'm back in California!!

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Spreading the Peppero cheer... and staying another year

Hi friends! Happy Peppero Day! Peppero Day is a blatent excuse for a major sweets company (Peppero) to sell ooddles of chocolates. Koreans go nuts for this holiday and buy all their friends and loved ones choclate dipped cookie sticks. In true Korean fashion, vendors doll up their products with massive ribbons and bows and stuff them in giant life-sized teddy bears. Many adhere to the bigger is better approach. As I strolled the streets downtown tonight, I even saw giant baguettes dipped in chocolate! See some pictures below.

those giant baguettes I mentioned:

yep, that's a massive peppero in his hand...

and if that isn't some serious overly glammed-up packaging, I don't know what is...

On a more serious note, I resigned my contract on Friday. I feel like my time here is not up yet. So I committed for another year. I can't believe I will have been in Korea for 3 years by the time my contract expires!!! Certainly not something I would have predicted for my life. You can see some pretty fall shots of my city in the fall below. All three pics are pretty trees/leaves from my neighborhood.

One final note... I have to mention that last weekend I hung out with my friend Ruth up in Seoul. Ruth, who has known me since kindergarten, was in Seoul for work. We got to play together during the wekeend after her conference ended. It was so fun to show her around and introduce her to a few of my friends. Who would have guessed that we would get to be in Korea together !?! One highlight pic below. You can follow the link to my facebook album with about 60 pics from her visit.

Click here to see the Facebook album of Ruth's visit