When I lived in New Haven, Connecticut, my favorite time of year was early summer (and this is not only because winter was long gone). Every June, New Haven hosts the International Festival of Arts and Ideas.
The Festival of Arts and Ideas is a two-week event bringing world class performances to the small city: dance, theater, concerts, art installations, circus acts and lectures on current events.
Best of all, most of the events were free.
To top it all off, New Haven’s hipster and counter-culture scene put on their own festival, Ideat Village, featuring local music, burlesque shows and the weirder aspects of the Elm City.
On those June days, I would stop by my favorite coffeeshop, grab an ice coffee and bagel, and walk the transformed streets.
I haven’t seen anything like it since … until last month when I visited the annual Hi Seoul Festival in South Korea’s capital city.
The Hi Seoul Festival is held in the spring and fall of every year. It’s a cultural event bringing together hundreds of artists in many different stripes for (mostly free) performances throughout the city. For the 2011 May Hi Seoul Festival, there was modern dance, puppetry, miming, theater, music from around the world, art installations and some very strange performance art.
There’s no better way to share the event with you than through videos and pictures so here we go:
Mimes in Korea? Who would’ve thought?! But there was Ko Jae Kyung, perhaps the best known mimist in Korea, performing a free show.
Pretty women, bouncy balls, a midget: I’m no fan of modern dance, but this performance by USD Modern Dance company held my interest.
A headless old man, killer fish, skeletons — you have to check out this performance by Theatre Nomad.
It was the best damn fish I ever had.
I don’t know what kind of fish. Or what all the spices were that the lady cook rubbed in. Frankly, the whole operation looked rather rustic. But for the next several years, the taste of that whole, sizzling fish will follow me. The juicy, flaky white meat falling from my chopsticks in one hand. The cold beer in my left. The heat, tang and salt mixing together in perfect harmony.
Now this was the fresh fish experience I was looking for in Busan, South Korea’s famous port city. Forget Jalgalchi Market. The best fish in Busan was in a small stand on one of Busan’s sandy beaches.
Chickpea and I were at the Gwangalli Eobang Festival — a three-day event celebrating Korea’s fishing heritage. Eobang means spirit of the fishermen in the coastal areas, so along with the normal trappings of a Korean festival — mascots, food tents, arts and crafts — there is also several ritual-like performances about fishing in the old days.
If you’re around Busan in the spring, I highly recommend it: if only for the food.
Here’s a look at the Gwangalli Eobang Festival:
It would’ve been a bizarre sight anywhere, but watching 50 waygookins walking as many dogs through a park in the middle of a Korean city was downright freakish.
This was a dog walk organized by the Korean Animal Protection Society, or KAPS, one of the few animal advocates in Korea. The 20-year-old organization operates shelters in Daegu, taking in small dogs, big dogs and cats.
When Chickpea and I arrived at the shelter, just off the red line subway stop at Daemyeong station, there was already a crowd of foreigners looking to give these small dogs a much needed walk on a sunny spring day. The shelter itself is not impressive by any means — it’s dirty and reeks of urine — but it shows the nature of animal rights in Korea. The volunteers at KAPS are battling more than a shortage of funding and volunteers; they are up against old attitudes in Korea regarding animals and dogs in particular.
It’s no secret some Koreans still eat dog and the way some merchants butcher dogs is pretty distasteful by Western standards. But there is a general apathy toward animal welfare, too, mostly held by the older generation. One of the KAPS volunteers warned the group to stay away from older Koreans, who in past dog walks, showed verbal and physical aggression toward the dogs.
Happily, there were no issues during our walk around Duryu Park. Children and the elderly alike came up and patted the matted-haired mutts. Women squealed in delight at the site of pint-sized pooches. Men stopped their bicycles and asked questions about the dogs in broken English.
It was a good day to be a dog in Daegu.
For more info on the walks, check out the KAPS Facebook page.
Our mission: To not leave South Korea before giving Andong one more chance.
Regular readers of the blog will remember our last trip to Andong in October for the International Mask Festival. The festival was great, but the whole experience was overshadowed by the first (and only) time we felt ripped off in Korea.
This time, however, we wanted to go to the Hahoe Village outside of town. So we left Daegu on a bus bound for Andong, arrived at the city’s new bus terminal and hopped on another bus to take us the several miles to Hahoe Village, a 600-year-old traditional neighborhood on the banks of the Nakdong River.
Traditional villages are big attractions in places like Andong, which is a fairly bland Korean city. The Hahoe Village is on the UNESCO World Heritage List and one of the most famous historic villages in the country. It was even visited by Queen Elizabeth in 1999 — something the community is very proud of. They even built a little museum with pictures from that special day.
The village is a nice collection of tile- and thatched-roofed homes called “hanok.” The Nakdong River offers a nice view. A nearby cliff is also photogenic, especially when viewed from the small pine tree forest nearby. But this is definitely no Cracker Country tourist trap with docents and wooden cut-outs to take pictures with. It’s a real community — people actually live in these houses — and offers all the trappings of a normal Korean neighborhood: There is trash along some of the walkways and when we visited, it must have been garbage burning day.
The real attraction for us was the collection of phallic sculptures that greet your entry into the village. Not necessarily weird, unless you consider the normally conservative nature of this country.
Generally speaking, the village offers a nice window into Korea’s past. (I’m still curious whether people actually choose to live in these drafty homes 30 minutes from any conveniences or if the government gives them a subsidy to keep the village alive.)
After some nice photo opps and a little shopping in the traditional tourist trap area outside of the village, we left to find Andong’s other main attraction: the longest footbridge in Korea.
I was excited. I like bridges. I like water. I like things that break records. And if this bridge has a few boards missing to make it rustic and thrilling — all the better to write home about.
So we took another bus to Andong’s more populated center (1,200 won) and began walking toward the city’s other river. The wind whipped through our jackets and I once again cursed my decision to not bring my scarf. A 45-minute walk later, we arrived at the bridge.
Now, I don’t know Korea’s history with bridges or if something was lost in translation, but if Andong’s bridge is the longest in Korea, I think there’s a good chance it is also the only footbridge in Korea. It took about three or four minutes to cross — and that’s including posing for pictures.
After a stroll through a fake folk village, we decided to head back to Daegu to attend a Japan earthquake benefit concert. But we had one more activity on our list.
If there’s one thing our Korean friends have told us about Andong, it’s : “Try the Andong jjimdak!” This kind-of stew with chunks of steamed chicken and vegetables in a spicy, soy-based sauce is the city’s culinary speciality. I’ve had Andong jjimdak in Daegu and I was doubtful my inexperienced Korean palate could taste the difference in the dish’s city of origin.
After some searching, we found a jjimdak restaurant direclty across from the footbridge entrance. We walked in, took off our shoes and sat down at a table. We ordered our jjimdak (22,000 won) and some sides of rice. In about 15 minutes, our server brought us a huge, tire-sized dish of Andong jjimdak.
And, truth be told, Andong jjimdak really is better in Andong.
If you go: From Daegu, catch the Andong bus (7,700 won) from a bus station near Dongdaegu Station. The bus station will be across the street and behind the first bus station you see. The ride to Andong takes 90 minutes. Once there, walk out of the bus terminal to the main road and catch city bus No. 46 for the 30-minute ride to Hahoe Village. The village costs 2,000 won to enter.
In late March, Chickpea and I visited the capital of Korea’s ancient Silla empire, Gyeongju.
Tucked between the Taebaek mountain range and the East Sea, Gyeongju is a small city that has married its ancient past with modern Korea surprisingly well. Unlike Andong, which delegates its historical sites to certain areas of town, Gyeongju has put office buildings next to antiquated tombs, temples near hotels. The whole city is ringed by three national parks and dozens of other historical sites.
It has been called a “museum without walls.” That makes it one of the best tourist spots in Korea. Unlike many other small cities in Korea, you can spend a weekend here and not see everything.
This time, we only had a day so we focused on Shilla Memorial Park. This attraction is basically a theme park based around the history of the Silla empire (57 BC – 935 AD). The park offers recreations of royal Silla villages, crafts, a hot spring spa area (which was closed when we visited) and a grand finale performance of an ancient battle. There’s also puppet shows and an interesting martial arts and horse-riding show.
It all seems interesting, but in reality, the park fell a little flat. Shilla Memorial Park isn’t the worse way to spend a day, but it seems like it would be more entertaining for children and their parents than some young waygooks. When you factor in the entrance fee of 18,000 won, it’s probably best to skip it and explore the actual historic sites in Gyeongju.
If you go: From Dongdaegu station in Daegu, hop on a bus leaving from a terminal directly across the street from the Dongdaegu subway entrance (4,200 won). From the Gyeongju bus terminal, catch a city bus to Shilla Memorial Park. The park fee is 18,000 won.
I’m not always happy about living in Korea.
I’ll admit that on some days I roll out of bed and begin my day like a very grumpy zombie. On my walk to school, I curse the sun and the garbage piles and the construction crews destroying the stream near my apartment. Every time a Korean driver speeds up toward the intersection while I’m walking across, I inch closer to having an all-out conniption fit in the middle of the street. As the days get colder and my patience with winter thins, I wonder why I left my sunny city on the beach.
But as soon as I step foot on the schoolhouse grounds, my melancholy lifts. Little children in bright blues, pinks, greens and reds run around, giggling, hugging their friends and sending some very exuberant “Hello teacher!” words my way.
Of all the things that could make an English teacher in Korea hate their job, it shouldn’t be the students. (At least not elementary school students.)
Just the other day, one of my 5th grade classes did something that gave me that same “I’m-s0-glad-I-decided-to-leave-my-life-behind-and-come-teach-English-to-a-bunch-of-kids-in-a-strange-country” feeling. The previous week, they learned the days of the week and so I downloaded a song that would let them use their new English skills. I was a little worried, because they didn’t know all the vocabulary in the song’s lyrics, but I decided to give it a try anyway.
This is what happened:
We’re back from our travels — and what travels they were. Southeast Asia was good to us (especially Thailand), but it was oddly comforting to be back in the land of anyeong haseyo, norae bang and Big Bang. That’s why I thought I’d share these sentiments from my students before launching into the tale of our myriad misadventures.
One of my winter camp lessons was on e-mail and letter writing. My kids were thrilled about the prospect of writing to my best friend Kalynn, once I convinced them that yes, she would really be reading their letters all the way in Florida.
So, without further ado, here are the burning questions my middle schoolers had for the world’s best biffle (entirely unedited, except for names):
Since arriving in Korea five months ago, Alex and I have been trying to do things the Korean way. We’ve sacrificed burgers and fries for live octopus and samgyeopsal. We’ve foregone shopping malls for immense, age-old markets. We’ve ignored Gap in lieu of streetside clothes hawkers (um, mostly).
So when it was time to plan our first New Year’s in Korea, we wanted to do it old-school. That means a pilgrimage to Pohang, where a gigantic statue of a hand emerges from the East Sea to cradle the first sunrise of the New Year. Stay up all night, take in a few traditional dance and musical performances, eat rice cakes and shiver on Homi Cape while the symbolic first sun of 2011 comes up. Unfortunately, foot-and-mouth disease had another plan.
So, instead we headed to Korea’s coastal party capital, Busan. Here are a few of the highlights — the must-sees, the can-dos, the be-prepared-fors.
Tip #1: Arrive early. We hopped the 5:50 KTX train from Daegu, and by the time we arrived at 7 p.m., downtown was already in full swing with musical offerings, contests, street food vendors, swarms of people, and, of course, lights, lights, lights.
Tip #2: Stay warm. As a Florida native, I’m new to this concept of cold, so I might be overstating the case when I say that I was freezing my buns off for 14 hours straight. I think the temps were hovering somewhere in the 20s, but try wandering the city and beach for the better part of a windy evening, and you’ll understand why I recommend thermal underwear. Of course, if you do bundle up, you’ll be the only one (especially us ladies). Apparently impervious to little things like below-freezing temps, Korean gals will all be wearing miniskirts, tights and sky-high heels, topped off with a puffy, fur-trimmed jacket. Damn your cuteness, Korean girls. Making me look bad.
Tip #3: Go to Yongdusan Park. Starting around 11 p.m., seemingly half the city congregates in “Dragon’s Head Mountain Park,” just a few steep flights of stairs away from famed PIFF Square and Jagalchi Fish Market. Volunteers hand out free coffee and balloons to be released at midnight. There’s music and merrymaking, and you can rub elbows with Busan’s mayor, who rings the giant Korean Watch-Night bell at midnight. Then there’s the obligatory fireworks show and everyone heads to …
Tip #4: Hit up Haeundae. If you’re willing to drop a few ten thousand won notes on cover, we hear there are some fantabulous parties to ring in the New Year inside the numerous clubs on the strip. From techno to hip-hop (and, honestly, not much in between), if you’re looking to dance, Haeundae is where the party people are at. Being the cheap-os that we are, we took refuge in a warm bar with cheap(ish) beer called 88 in Miami. That way, when we were finally kicked out at 5:30 a.m., we were close enough to…
Tip #5: Watch the first sunrise of the New Year at Haeundae Beach. It’s cold. We’ve have at least five or six cups of coffee apiece. We’ve spent the last few hours prying our eyes open at our last source of refuge, a nearby noraebang.
But it’s finally here. It’s 7 a.m. and everyone in Busan who hasn’t fallen into slumber’s sweet, sweet embrace has trudged their way to Haeundae Beach to watch the indescribably beautiful seaside sunrise. Camera crews, monks tapping out a steady tune asking for alms, bleary-eyed foreigners, kids in pajamas and ajumma in track suits, and the ever-present mascots — they’re all here to start the Year of the Rabbit together. Depending on your frame of mind, it’s an awe-inspiring sight or something straight out of a Hunter S. Thompson novel.
It’s a rough road — we lost a lot of people along the way to the siren song of sleep — but it was worth it. Especially when I passed out in a nearby McDonald’s a few minutes later. (Hey, I deserved hash browns after all that.)
A few quick hits: Eat hodduk in PIFF Square, where the street stand rumored to have originated this salivatingly sweet stuffed pancake fries up hundreds of the tasty treats every night. Play sa-gu in any one of the hundreds of billiard bars (a misleading name, as they often don’t serve alcohol). And eat the tiny, meat-filled, mandu-like packets of noodle goodness at No. 18 Wandang, where you can get a front row seat to watch the artisans rolling and stuffing the noodles for their famous traditional soups.
I’d avoided it for weeks. For months. I’d been amassing a collection of Korean goodies for my friends and family since I arrived in August. But I just couldn’t make the final leap, the last and most crucial (and painful) step: tackling the Korean Post Office.
I hate post offices. They’re sterile. They beat the DMV for long, slow-moving lines. The employees are generally, to put it kindly, less than helpful. And I can never, ever, get a straight answer about what kind of shipping to use. These issues arise when I try to send mail in the country where I speak the language. I’ve been having nightmares about the Korean post office for weeks.
As Christmas rolled around, I knew I had to bite the bullet. It couldn’t be avoided any longer. Packed and labeled Christmas packages had been sitting in my apartment for weeks, taunting me.
But I had no reason to fear the Korean postal service. It rocks! It was the least painful post office run I’ve ever made (aside from the $150 I dropped on shipping). We just jumped in a cab and asked for the nearest post office.
Immediately after opening the post office doors, we were greeted by an English-speaking employee who not only showed us which shipping containers to use, but helped us to set up, pack and label them with lightning speed and efficiency. I’ve already written about the outta-this-world customer service in Korea, but it continues to leave me in shock and awe.
Tip #2: Wait to pack your box until you get to the post office. For one, they may not accept your box. There are limits to the types and size of boxes. The second reason is you may end up paying more for an oddly sized box. Third reason? They will help you pack and tape up the box at the post office.
Tip #3: You have to fill out a customs form before sending packages overseas. It doesn’t take that long, but allow for a few extra minutes, especially if you are sending multiple packages.
Tip #4: Post offices in Korea are generally open from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Friday, although during the winter months (November to February) they may only be open until 5 p.m. Also, most post offices are closed on the weekends, although some forum posts suggest there may be a few open on Saturday.
After double-checking that each of my five packages were correctly labeled, we lugged our haul to the counter, where they quickly weighed and tallied it. The downside of sending mail from Korea to the US: even the more expensive option, shipping by air, takes two weeks to a month to arrive. Shipping by boat (what the post office calls “surface”) is considerably cheaper, but takes two to three months to reach it’s destination. Still, the shipping experience itself was about as pleasant as could be.
So, a big apology to all of my friends and family, whose Christmas presents are still hurtling across the world to land on your doorsteps (in a week or two). I guess I should start sending birthday gifts now…