Wednesday, June 15

The DMZ 11/06/11

I feel very settled into life in Korea at the moment. Sometimes I need to remind myself where I am. "Oh ya, I live in a little Asian country on the other side of the world." I don't even call it South Korea anymore, just Korea. However, this little peninsula is still split in to two very different halves. There is still tension between the two. Last weekend I visited the DMZ (demilitarized zone). The main reason I went was to hopefully get a greater understanding of the reason for tension, and of course get a North Korean stamp on the passport (success).

The DMZ runs coast to coast. It's 2.5 miles wide and nobody is allowed inside. The walls and landmines keep the people out so the natural life in the DMZ has flourished. Ironically, some endangered species have found protection in between the walls of the North and South. However, there is one place where people are allowed to enter. It's called the Joint Security Area or JSA. This area functions as a place where officials from the North and South can have talks. It is in the middle of DMZ and consists of a bunch of military buildings, conference rooms, and soldiers staring face to face with the enemy. When there are no talks going on it's a place where tourists can get as close as they can to North. Last week we were those tourists.

We arrived outside the DMZ and we are introduced to our tour guide who is an US army officer. He basically told us to do what he says or you will be quickly dismissed. We got on a bus and drove past barb wire, cement blocks, tank walls, and land mines to get in to the DMZ. No pictures are allowed on this portion of the tour. We arrived at the JSA a few minutes later. We are informed that when we get off the bus we must stay in single file line and never gesture towards anything. There is no pointing and especially no waving. If we saw a North Korean soldier near the border then we couldn’t look him in the eyes. We had to stay in front of this South Korean soldier and never pass this South Korean soldier. No wearing shorts, flip-flops, baggy clothing, etc. Only took pictures when the tour guide said it's OK and never left the group because there was no telling what those North Koreans might do. We were told that someone is watching your every move through the scope of a sniper rifle. We stood there for a few minutes just facing the North Korea side of the JSA. There is a row of conference buildings along the border and a large communist style building on the North Korean side. There are several South Korean guards at their post. Some of the guards stand half behind a conference building and half exposed to the border. This is so that if North Koreans start shooting at them then the guards can quickly step behind the building. The guards wear helmets and sunglasses to show as little emotion towards the North Koreans as possible. There was one soldier near the big North Korean building who had his binoculars and he was checking us out.

We entered the conference room. It's just a long room with some chairs and tables. However, because the building sits on the border, when we stood in the north side of the building then we were technically standing in North Korea. There are two South Korean soldiers in the room, one in the middle of the room and one blocking the door that goes on to North Korean soil. They are completely still without any facial expression what so ever. Our tour guide said that they are there for our protection and constantly stand in what is called the "tae kwan do ready" position.

We learned a lot about the history of the DMZ during the tour but perhaps the most interesting, yet frightening story is the axe murder incident. In 1976, the American soldiers decided that a tree was just too big and blocking the view from one watch tower to the next watch tower. If something were to happen at one of the watch towers, then the other one wouldn't know about it until someone called for help. The tree had to be trimmed. A team of American and South Korean soldiers went to the large tree and began using axes to trim it. A group of North Korean soldiers gathered around the border and watched for a while until the commanding officer yelled at the South to stop cutting the tree. Apparently the tree was special to the North Koreans. But we were informed they made it up. They claimed their great leader planted the tree, but it was later proven that this was not possible due to timing. The South ignored him, so the North sent over a truck with twenty soldiers armed with crowbars and clubs. The North Korean officer yelled to stop again but the South kept on trimming. Then the Northern officer yelled, "Kill them!" Two American soldiers were beaten and then murdered with the axes that they had dropped. It was an unfair fight with the North Koreans well out numbering the soldiers of the South. The fight was eventually broken up and three days later Operation Paul Bunyan took place. With the support of hundreds of troops, artillery, jet fighters, bombers, helicopters, and an offshore aircraft carrier, the South cut down the tree. If the North Koreans would have made a move, it would have been the beginning of World War III. It resulted in the most expensive tree trimming in history.

The funniest thing we saw was the flag competition. Near the JSA, there is a peace town in the South and one in the North. The one in the South is a little community of a couple hundred farmers that get to live tax free. They actually save lots of money. However, they're under constant surveillance and have to be indoors by 10pm. The one in the North is a propaganda village because it has several big buildings that are empty shells and no people live there. Yet the North claims it's paradise on Earth. Each of the peace villages boasts the flag of their respective country and they've been growing in size over several years. When one side would build a bigger and taller flag, then the other side would respond by "one upping" them. North Korea then decided to really give it to the South by building the world's tallest flag pole and attach the world's largest flag. The flag pole is 160 meters tall, and the flag is 30 meters long and said to weigh 600 pounds. The South finally said that's enough and that's how North Korea won the flag war.

Next on our agenda was a visit to the third tunnel dug by the North Koreans into South Korea. They built four in total. We visited the third tunnel found by the South Koreans. It had the capacity to transport 30, 000 North Koreans an hour to the south. The North Koreans originally denied digging these tunnels, but later claimed they were digging for coal. No coal has being found in the tunnels, which are dug through granite. The third tunnel was discovered on October 17, 1978. The third tunnel was discovered following a tip from a North Korean defector. This tunnel is about 1,600 m (1,700 yd) long and about 150 m (490 ft) below ground. We took a trip down inside this tunnel using a sloped access shaft. The roof was very low so we wore helmets. It was interesting but very strange.

After this we visited Dorasan Station. It is a railroad station situated on the Gyeongui line which once connected North and South Korea and has now been restored. For several years the northernmost stop on the line was Dorasan Station, which is served by Tonggeun commuter trains.

On December 11, 2007, freight trains began traveling north past Dorasan Station into North Korea, taking materials across the border, and returning with finished goods. It was scheduled to make one 16 kilometer (10 mile) trip every weekday.

However, on December 1, 2008, the North Korean government closed the border crossing, after accusing South Korea of a confrontational policy. This coincided with the South Korean legislative election, 2008, and a change to a more conservative government.

Our visit in last week showed us clearly that the station was completely shut to all train travel, and that the station was only open for tourists.

It was a very enjoyable, informative day. Apparently you cannot come to South Korea without visiting the DMZ, so I will be able to sleep easy from now on having taking the excursion.

Thursday, May 19

A wee trip to Hong Kong

A couple of weeks back a few of us noticed some of us hard working teachers have a 5 day weekend the beginning of May. Thursday the 5th was childrens day, and tuesday the 10th was Buddhas birthday. Some schools were generous/logical enough to give the friday and monday off too.

So three of us decided to take advantage of this holiday time, and fly to Hong Kong for a few days. Aneesa (South Africa) and I flew thurs afternoon, with one quick stop over in Beijing (China). Andrew, who booked after us flew direct, but paid a bit more.

We arrived in Hong Kong around 9:30pm local time. We purchased 'octupus' travel cards (very similar to oyster cards, I know. We started to see the English influence from the start). From the off, everything was in English, a long with chinese of course. It is very different from Korea, which you will really only find Korean in majority of places, bar the subway. We got the subway to Nathan Rd., the street where our hostel is. From the outside, the building didnt look like much. It was 11:30pm by the time we arrived, and there were all types of interesting characters outside ready to talk to us and offer all types, watches, tailored suits, etc... The majority of the people in the area appeared to be Indian, or from South Asia at least.

Our hostel was named Australian Hostel, but there was nothing in it that referred to Australia at all! It was run by a few Indian men. It was very very small, but it was clean, and cheap so couldnt complain. The next day we did the bus tour of the city. We took a short ferry ride across to Hong Kong island, the main part of the city to the starting point of the tour. The tour cost about twenty euro, it seemed the best way to see the city. We saw lots of different buildings, including the one Batman jumps off in 'Dark Knight' (The International Finance Centre). Other sites we saw were Victoria Park, Victoria Harbour, and Far East Finance Centre.
We got off the bus tour at one stop, to go up to 'The Peak', the highest point on the island. We got to the top using the Peak Tram, one of the world’s oldest and most famous funicular railways, rises to 396 metres (about 1,300 feet) above sea level. It's so steep that the buildings you pass look like they are leaning as you travel on a gradient of between 4 to 27 degrees. It's a real tourist trap at the top where they have lots of restaurants, shops and gift shops. I had to be pursuaded not to buy a pair of sunglasses that had Mp3, and a video recorder built in with 8gig memory! Seemed so practical to me! From the view point at the top, we could see all over the city, even though it was a little bit foggy.
That night we ate in a lovely Indian restaurant on Hong kong island, one I saw recommended online. Still tired from traveling and the days excursions, we hit the hay early around 12.

The second day we got up early and went to Lantau Island. On this island we took a very long cable cart trip to the summit of a mountain where we visited a giant Buddha statue (Tian Tan Buddha) and a Buddhist monastery. Andrew and Aneesa are afraid of heights so I enjoyed torturing them on the way up. I was a little surprised again to see the amount of shops, and restaurants up there, considering we were visiting a very old monastery. It is one of the five large Buddha statues in China. The Buddha statue sits on a throne on top of a three-platform altar. It is surrounded by six smaller bronze statues known as "The Offering of the Six Devas" and are posed offering flowers, incense, lamp, ointment, fruit, and music to the Buddha. These offerings symbolize charity, morality, patience, zeal, meditation, and wisdom, all of which are necessary to enter into nirvana. We had to climb 268 steps in order to reach the Buddha.

That night we went out for some chinese food, or 'food' as they like to call it there! It was very tasty, but actually resembled 'chinese food' from home. I think to sample real chinese food we need to go to Beijing, or different smaller parts of China. When we finished there we hit Soho, a trendy part of the city with lots of bars and restaurants. I spotted a lad from home I know from when i was in Sligo. He just happened to be in Hong Kong for a couple of days visiting a friend. Once again, I'v been shown the world is a tiny place, between meeting a school friend in the desert in Peru, and the neighbours in New York!

Sunday was beach day!! After a quick trip to a Methodist church for a quick prayer and quick exit, I woke up the other two and we headed to the beach. We couldnt find the correct bus stop for the bus needed, so we took a cab. It worked out to be about 8 euro, for about a 40 min trip. The beech was grand, but there wasnt an awful lot of people swimming. They must be waiting for it to hit 40 degrees!

On the last day, myself and Andy went shopping at 'The Ladies Market', which is an outdoor market that takes up four streets. Dont be alarmed, they do cater for men also. There I picked up some bits and pieces for the apartment, etc. Picked up some shirts and jeans also. I do enjoy the haggling. You really have to admire their stubbornness sometimes! That night we went to watch a light display. Every night at 8pm there is a light display on Hong Kong island, but the best viewing point is at the harbour beside where we stayed. The tourists flock there every night to watch it. There is chinese music in the back ground, and the lights that are on the sky scrapers across the harbour move in harmony with the music. Its quiet impressive!

It was a very enjoyable trip. Hong Kong is a beauitful city, with so many different kinds of people making up the population. Its a very fast moving city, Id say faster than New York even. Its nice to be able to get away from the hustle and bustle, whether at the beach, or Lantau island. Id reccommend a visit to anyone, but perhaps book into a cheap hotel, rather than a cheap hostel!

Tuesday, April 19

On Saturday last, I went to my first gaelic football training in Seoul. I registered for emails with notifications of training etc. at the St. Patrick's Day festival. I arranged to meet Tom Gaughan (Ballycastle) along the way. Took about two hours to get there, but thats including waiting for Tom, and getting lost along the way! So, hopefully wont be too bad next week!

There was bit of a mix up with training times, and booking the pitch. We all arrived for 12, but didnt have the pitch until 2. So in the meantime, we did a 'warm up'. So for two hours, with a few water breaks, we had pretty intensive training. About 25 lads turned up, and the standard overall is pretty good. While it was obviously mainly Irish people playing, there were some Americans, English and Czech. The sun was scorching, hottest day since arriving.

At 2 o'clock we went onto the pitch. We train on a soccer pitch. Probably the best pitch iv ever played on! The rules are slightly different over here. Its 9 aside, and you can pick the ball up off the ground. The Irish people pick the ball up the 'right' way most of the time anyway, because its what we're used to. I think the reasoning behind it is, its one less skill to teach the other nationalities. Also, there is no square ball. Its a good game, with a lot of running.

After training, we talked about tournaments coming up this year. There is a tournament in Daegu (Korea) in May. There's a tournament in Japan in June, but I dont think i will be going because of funds. Iv already booked a long weekend to Hong Kong for May. There's another tournament in August in Singapore. I hope to make that one.

But in September, its the big one. We're hosting the A.G.G (Asian Gaelic Games). Most major cities across Asia have some form of Gaelic team to compete in this. Seoul Gaels were favourites to win it last year, but under performed. So they are determined to win it this year, especially when its at home. So that is something to look forward to!
Here is a pic of the team crest.

Friday, April 15

Cirque du Soleil-14/04/2011

Had heard a lot about Cirque Du Soleil from family and friends who had visited Las Vegas at some stage, and everyone had only good things to say about it. So when a few of us heard it was coming to Seoul in April, we decided to go for a look. It was 92,000won, which equals about €55.

Admittedly, I did not know a whole lot about it. While I didnt go with low expectations, I still didnt know what exactly to expect either.

An Icarus character drops from the sky, who sets the tone with an exciting act involving twisting around in a large hammock up in the roof of the tent. Below, performers in a riot of carnival-style costumes form a constant background to a generous series of amazing feats. Three or four boys, (cant remember) twirl what look like metal bowls on the ends of ropes around their heads and propel them 50ft in the air. A juggler does his thing with clubs and Panama hats quite wonderfully.

Most impressive, however, is the Russian Swings that end the show, with acrobats hurtling across the stage between a pair of revolving swingboats and then managing to land on the waiting hands of their partners. Truly amazing and the best circus act I’ve ever seen, live or on tv. There was a lot more in the show, but it would take me forever to even try to describe what they did! There was no real dialogue in the show, they just spoke jiberish!

They had some audience participiation at one stage, when they dragged a elderly gentleman on stage for a few "magic tricks". While I do think he was planted in the audience, it was entertaining all the same.

It was a great night, unfortunately the pics dont do it any justice!

Wednesday, April 13

St. Patricks Weekend

Ok, I know St. Patricks day is a while back now, but things have been pretty busy with work and what not! (Sorry Ciara, I know you didnt complain this time, but i sense your judgement)
So, anyway, the weekend after St Patricks, we went into Seoul on the Saturday. Andrew (few of you might know him) friend from college joined us for the day. He arrived in Korea about a month ago now.

The festival was held in Insa-dong. A vibrant part of the city, well known by all the foreigners.

This was the layout of the festival!
12.30-1.00 Traditional Irish Music by Banú
1.00-1.15 Irish folk dancing display
1.15-1.45 Irish folk dancing
1.45-2.00 Intermission performance
2.00-2.30 Deafening Street – U2 covers band
2.30-2.45 Intermission performance
2.45-3.15 Traditional Irish music by Bard
3.15-3.30 Irish folk dancing display
3.30-3.45 Irish folk dancing – participation by the audience
3.45-4.15 Fotla – Irish rock-music group
4.15-4.30 Intermission performance
4.30-5.00 Finale – all musicians gather on stage and people dancing
5.00 End.

We arrived around 2pm. The place was jammers. There were a few different stalls. One GAA one, an Irish music one, etc. Couldnt tell if there were many Irish people at it, it was basically seen as a opportunity for all the foreigners to come together in one spot and chill out for the day and wear something green! Most of the musicians were actually Korean, so that was interesting! It was good fun. Apparently there was free Guinness, but it had ran out by the time we got there. Guinness is plentyful over here, but quite expensive. It costs 8000w, in comparison to local beer costing 2500-3000w. For the day that was in it, I had to splash out and have a few of Arthurs finest. Be rude not to!

After this we went to an American bar, forget the name now! It had a few jerseys on the walls from around the world, but only one Irish one! You might spot it in my one of my photos!

Wednesday, March 16

Parents day

Well, the Koreans never cease to amaze me with their short notice! Today is Parents day, which means the parents of the students come into the school, have a look around at the classrooms, and meet the teachers. I asked my head teacher, will I be meeting them and she said no, no need for me really to be there. This, of course made me very happy!

So with the afternoon off, Im doing a bit of prep for tomorrows classes. Theres a knock at the door, and its Hank, a young teacher I know out of breath. Tells me, I have to come down and meet some parents, that the principle has told them I will introduce myself. I said no problem; shake a few hands and smile and head back to my classroom. Just as I arrive into the gym hall, Hank tells me there are lots of parents. I am ushered at the door to the top of the hall, handed a microphone, and told to wait a minute, before I am introduced onto the stage. My head teacher nudges me, and says sorry! She said, try and talk for about two-three minutes. Its a good size gym hall, which was full! Never been a big fan of the whole public speaking, but did pretty alright. I started off by saying An nyoung ha seh yo (hello), which was met with a massive applause! If they werent already standing, im sure they would have stood up! I had my co-teacher up with me, who translated the rest of what I said. Basically just said their kids are great, English is important language, and I will try making English a fun and interesting language to learn. Ah sure, its all a bit of craic!

Saturday, March 5

Staff "meeting"

On Friday last, in true Korean tradition, I was informed at the last minute that I was to join the staff for a staff meeting, in which we eat and drink together. Its purpose is to wish a warm welcome to any new teachers, and to look forward to a good year. In Ireland I think we call it a session, because thats what it really was. We dont give it different titles to make it sound more civilised!

The pictures above are from early on the day. It started at 5:30 and finished up at 10:30. My head teacher (picture #1) drove me to the restaurant 40 mins from the school. Must have been a top restaurant since we passed hundreds on the way there! I had read up a bit on Korean traditions and mannerisms, so this was my first opportunity to practice them with superiors. Politeness is very important to Koreans and there is a lot of emphasis placed on sharing meals and drinks.

We had to wait for the oldest person to be seated before we could take our seat/cushion on floor.
The meal appeared to be a mixture of different foods iv had since arriving. Im still brutal at remembering names. Again, we had to wait for the oldest person at the table to lift their spoon or chopsticks first before we could start eating. I was very happy with my progress in my continuous battle with the chopsticks, thinking I had gained the upper hand, until one of the teachers asked me if it was my first time to use chopsticks. Back to square one!!

They have a lot of customs relating to alcohol and the pouring of drink. You always pour drinks for others first, especially for those senior to you. And when you finish pouring their glass, they take the jug/bottle off you to pour yours! Seems like a waste of time, but its just what they do I guess! It's not considered polite to refuse an alcoholic drink offered to you, especially from an elder. So, if you have a generous elders at your table(which I had), you could be in bother!! When someone senior pours a drink for you, I had to hold out my glass with both hands to accept. Its the same when it comes to food!

Over all, I had a great evening. Ate plenty and drank.......what I was offered!! I had to really, out of respect for their customs! The vice principal, in his drunken manner, with a translator, expressed his delight at my efforts to follow their customs. He was very impressed. He explained how Jeff, last years foreign teacher from Canada, made no effort to speak Korean, to eat Korean food, or to follow Korean customs. So, it was going to be easy to improve on that!

The school paid for it all, along with a few social-able drinks next door in a bar. There were almost 50 teachers there, so you can imagine, its a big school. I was seated with all the six grade teachers.
(Apologies Ciara for the delay) :P