Birth Control

So I'm out walking my dogs today and I'm heading down the path towards the pond near the park. School let out and a couple of boys are heading up the path towards me. Two moms, a stroller, and a leashed dog are about 30 yards behind them. The boys, about 8 years old each, look up and see us and suddenly start yelling, "Mom! Mom! The huskies! The huskies!"

I figured they were excited to see the dogs and the mom would tell them to ask if it was okay to pet my dogs. This happens all the time. There's probably over a hundred kids in the area that have at one time or another thrown their arms around Kimo or Annana's neck and hugged them.

That's not what happened though. Instead, mom stops in her tracks and starts to back up. She tells the boys to come back to her, that they'll go a different way. At this point I had stopped walking. I know some people are really averse to having dogs cross paths along a relatively narrow trail corridor (though it is about 15 feet wide). I ask the boys what's wrong and he tells me that they try to keep away from my dogs because my dog, Kimo, bit his dog in the nose.

What?

Having no idea what the kid is talking about, I ask him when this happened. He says a while ago. The lightbulb goes on.

"Did it happen about four years ago?"

He says it did, putting him at about 4 or 5 years old. Clearly second-hand information that needed correcting.

"Actually" I explain, "your dog jumped the fence and bit my dog. That's what happened." I had totally forgotten about this but, it's true. Not long after we moved in, Kristin was out walking the dogs and this family's dog leaped over their picket fence and attacked Kimo. Kimo defended himself -- and their dog may have gotten scraped -- but the end result was the owners of that dog (the boy's mom and dad) paying our vet bills.

So I yelled to the mom and told her it was fine, to keep coming and that I would stand off on the side with my dogs and let her pass. I knew at this point she was probably telling the other woman she was with all sorts of nasty untruths about my dogs. So when she got close I asked her if the dog she was with "was the one that jumped the fence and attacked my dog four years ago." A minor detail that I wanted to make sure was known.

She said it wasn't, that they don't have that dog anymore, but that "the incident really affected our other dog and I try to keep her away from them." Them was a reference to my dogs. She and her dog and kids passed without incident. My dogs stood on the grass and looked on. Her dog didn't even glance towards us.

It was at the them remark that I remember a brief run-in with her husband years ago, about 8 months after their dog jumped the fence and bit Kimo. I was walking down the sidewalk and he came out and essentially said my dogs were a nuisance and that I shouldn't walk past yards that I know have dogs in them (every yard is stylishly fenced by the way, this is a rather tidy neighborhood I must admit). Nearly one out of every three homes in the development has a dog. To not pass corner homes with dogs is an impossibility, not to mention it was his dog that jumped the fence. Not mine. I told him flatly to quit the "blame the victim" campaign and kept walking. I've walked past the house nearly every day for four years since and, again, never even thought about it.

But now it makes perfect sense. These parents are out of their mind. First, even though they had to pay our vet bills, they acted like it all our fault and tried to keep us off the sidewalk near their house. Then they apparently brainwashed their kids who were clearly too young to remember the incident that our dogs are mean and need to be stayed away from. And last but not least, they seem to think that this 20 second incident that happened over 4 years ago has given their other dog post-traumatic stress disorder.

All of this because of a relatively minor scrap the dogs got into years ago. An incident incited by a dog who is no longer even around.

I feel so bad for their kids. What's going to happen the first time the kid comes home after getting picked on at school or... GASP! with a black-eye from a fistfight? I'm surprised she just doesn't home-school them to better keep them away from all those mean kids who might be a nuisance. It's clear she can't handle living around other people unless everything is perfect. That's right, don't just act reasonable and pull in the leash on your dog, it's best to walk a completely different way. What a message to send to the kids. Run and hide. Stay home. Tell others to keep away. It's safer that way. Wouldn't want them to be "traumatized."

There are a lot of reasons Kristin and I don't want to have kids, but not wanting to have to deal with parents like these is in the top ten.

Kind of glad her boys didn't want to pet my dogs. I'd hate to see how she'd react if Annana managed to slip him the tongue, as she's known to do.

A Korean Mouthful (Part 3)

There was something missing in Seoul that I couldn't quite put a finger on; a feature that marked the difference between western cities and their Asian counterparts perhaps even more than the exotic smells, unpronounceable foods and labyrinthine markets. I didn't notice its absence until I finally saw what it was: begging. We saw him in Busan. He was on a landing in the stairwell leading into the  subway station in Seomyeon. A cigar box lay in front of him containing a few thousand won: loose coins and crumpled notes. Bent forward over his knees on a small piece of cardboard, the man maintained a motionless half-tortoise pose, the world's ultimate submissive.  He draped a ragged blue jacket over his head and perfected an anonymity that was impossible to ignore. He was there in the morning and again in the night. For three straight days we saw him. In the same place, holding the same position. Never did he speak, never did he move. We knew nothing of his appearance other than he clearly had the hands of a man who had seen hard times. The South Korean society had imparted a burden of shame on this man heavy enough to crush. As a westerner, witnessing such a pathetic sight for the first time, I was conflicted. I found myself simultaneously hating this land that would force someone into such a state of surrender, yet also wishing the beggars and panhandlers at home in the United States would consider adopting his passive technique. I threw some coins into the box each time we passed him, South Korea's loneliest man.

The drive to Busan took nearly three hours, due in part to a lengthy pause for breakfast at a highway rest stop that would have been right at home on the Garden State Parkway. Mr. Jang led us to the lone traditional-style eatery on the otherwise vacant second floor of the complex, but the body language of our delegation was as vivid as the most brightly-lit neon signage: We wanted to finally eat real breakfast food. To his credit, Mr. Jang didn't force the issue, especially when a row of short-order cooks were downstairs assembling their own unique takes on ham-and-egg breakfast sandwiches, and pizza-flavored corn dogs (that contained neither cheese, sauce, nor a hot dog). Mr. Jang was a very likable fellow who I'm sure is very good at his day job, guiding Koreans on trips to Europe and China, but in this assignment he was set up to fail. He had never before led a tour in his own country, nor was his command of English up to the rigors of guiding people from the United States. He hopes to never do either again and I can't blame him one bit.

In continuing our gastronomical tour of the country, the itinerary called for just a brief one-hour stop in Busan for lunch. Though driving to a city hours away to do no more than have lunch is precisely the kind of decision that makes me long for independent travel, Mr. Jang couldn't have picked a better spot to eat, especially since the generous Mayor Hwang was still picking up the tab back in Gangjin. We pulled up to the Westin Chosun on Haeundae Beach, Busan's premiere western-style hotel, and were escorted to a window-side table overlooking the surf. It was the most splendid buffet I've ever seen with mouth-watering food from four continents and an endless selection of deserts and espresso drinks. Plate after plate of delicious food was put away into a stomach that was guaranteed to ache. Searching for a restroom, I felt my center of gravity being pulled to the right, as if the building was going to slide into the ocean. I thought it may have been something I ate. Turns out it was just the autographed photos of former President George W. Bush and Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice in a display case; a disruption in the Force if you will. The case also contained photos of the Duke of York, Crown Prince of Norway, President of Azerbaijan, and Prime Minister of Iraq, among others. It wasn't empty guidebook-praise, this was the place to stay in Busan. 

Though the tour bus would be departing immediately after lunch for the UNESCO-cherished historical sites in Gyeongju, some 90 minutes north of Busan, Kristin and I would be staying behind. Though I felt like a deserter, abandoning the group in such a manner, the initial tour was planned to last just three nights and I already had reservations in Busan. It was only by coincidence that Mr. Jang was leading the group to Busan the day we were planning to take a bus there. And when that coincidence happened to include a five-star buffet lunch, all the better. We really enjoyed spending those few days with Mayor Matt, Tina, and Andrea and Bob and are glad for getting to know each of them better. We were also happy to be back on our own, free of a schedule, and able to enjoy one of our favorite hobbies: wandering aimlessly in foreign cities.

Busan, South Korea's second largest city, is home to some 4 million people and sits on the jagged coastline in the southeastern corner of the country. Though the aforementioned Haeundae Beach attracts nearly a half-million visitors each day in the summer, Busan is very much a hard-nosed port city with precious little to offer visitors seeking a cultural or artistic sojourn. It's subway system pales in comparison to Seoul's -- due in part to the irregular coastline -- despite the seaside city occupying a larger footprint than the landlocked capital. As a result, the visitor looking to explore the city has to rely more heavily on taxis and buses than perhaps expected.

Our first order of business after waving goodbye to the tour bus was to buy a suitcase. Kristin and I packed light for the trip and though we had room in our bags for one or two mementos, our three days in Gangjin left us inundated with expensive Celadon pottery and other gifts. We didn't dare lug several hundred dollars worth of tea sets, bowls, and statues into the metro system in loose shopping bags so Kristin staked out a corner of the Westin Chosun's lobby and watched over our embarrassingly large pile of bags while I made my way to a nearby department store to buy a cheap suitcase. Suffice to say, when we finally did show up at the Zen Backpacker's Hostel later that afternoon, we didn't exactly fit the mold of the typical hosteler. Then again, Zen barely fit the definition of a hostel either. 

Occupying a four-bedroom condo on the fifteenth floor of the Neospot high-rise in Seomyeon, Zen was the opposite of what you'd expect from a hostel. Run by a thirty-something Korean named June, Zen is an excellent place to call home in Busan. June found a way to live the easy life in purchasing the condo and living off the fees of his visitors (he appears to spend his days hanging out, watching pirated movies, and, I suspect, getting stoned). Immaculately kept and decorated with trendy furniture and posters of Bob Marley and Jimi Hendrix, Zen boasts hardwood floors, a spacious kitchen, a high-definition television, and a Playstation 3 and computer terminal. It also has a lengthy balcony with views of the northern reaches of the city. Kristin and I reserved the private twin room for 60,000 won per night ($48 US). Two couples from San Francisco were in the quad across the hall and the six-person dormitory on the other side of the condo was currently occupied by a young Canadian fresh out of college and a soft-spoken guy named Misha who, at 38 years old, had returned to his birth-country from Switzerland in search of his true parents.

Unlike our first Saturday in Seoul a week earlier, we were both wide awake and looking to go out and party that first night in Busan. We hopped onto the subway and rode it 16 stops back to Haeundae Beach late in the afternoon. We walked two kilometers along the boardwalk then bar-hopped our way back in the other direction. It's a nice wide, sandy beach and was not unlike your typical beach town in the United States. Lots of bars, dozens of cheap eateries, and plenty of shops selling everything from giant plastic sunglasses to beach balls to umbrellas. The one thing it had that we certainly could have done without was the horde of Australian spring breakers. In a startling realization and admittance that I am actually older than I feel, I must confess to having reached the age where spring breaking college students is a demographic I hope to never encounter again.

We spent several hours in an unnamed and otherwise empty nightclub two blocks off the beach, shooting pool and drinking bottle after bottle of Cass, a Korean beer. It was a nice place with a massive oval bar, numerous couples booths, and a roped-off VIP area yet it was barely nine o'clock and we were assured that the place was busiest from midnight till dawn. The bartender, Haeyo, was a twenty-something Korean with an androgynous appearance and way about him that reminded me of the Japanese talk show host in the movie Lost in Translation. He was friendly, let us play whatever music we wanted, and even poured me a complimentary glass of Scotch after hearing me comment to Kristin about the Glenmorangie poster on the wall. We were initially going to only stay for a sympathy beer (I hate to enter a place then turn 180 and leave), but wound up spending most of the night there, the only customers in the club, shooting pool and enjoying our run of the place. When we finally did leave, it wasn't without a stutter in our step.

Walking back in the direction of the beach, we suddenly found ourselves hidden behind a wall of concealing hedges placed conspicuously between the street and sidewalk. Before we could wonder why this towering hedgerow was where it was, we had our answer: to our right was a half-dozen dimly-lit abandoned storefronts showcasing a number of scantily-clad Korean beauties. Though prostitution was outlawed in South Korea in 2004, we stumbled onto one of Busan's remaining red-light districts, albeit without any of the attention-grabbing red lights.  Dressed in lingerie and high heels, these women of the night stood not unlike mannequins in the windows of dilapidated buildings presenting their goods to anyone and everyone who walked by. Whether it was because I had my lovely bride by my side or because we were westerners, few of these women so much as acknowledged our presence. Though one or two smiled, nearly all of them looked past us with thousand-mile stares as if we were invisible. The very last one we passed said hello.

She was alone in a doorway, behind a partially-cracked screen door. She wore a yellow chiffon and lace teddy over a light blue thong with matching blue heels and was no more than 25 years old and no heavier than 100 pounds. She was cute, with petite curves, but certainly not gorgeous. To Kristin's amusement, I returned her annyong haseyo, smiled, then pointed to the girl, then Kristin, then back to myself and said, "Kugo olma eemneekka?" The girl laughed and smiled at Kristin who wanted to know what I said. "I asked her how much for a threesome." Kristin knew my query wasn't genuine, that this was simply another case in which my blend of curiosity and lack of taboos was getting the better of me. She shot me a look that told me she'd play along, but to not push my luck. The girl rattled off a fee in Korean that I couldn't understand so I grabbed a business card and pen from my bag and had her right it down. She was laughing, shaking her head in disbelief that she was having this discussion with a western couple, and wrote down 250,000 won, roughly $200 US. Not a bad price, I suppose. She then grabbed my left hand and pointed to the minute-hand on my watch and traced a full circle. One hour. Kristin nudged me in the ribs, as if to remind me that I was approaching the end of my rope, so I quickly thumbed the phrase book and told her the price was too high, to which she simply shrugged her shoulders and smiled. Enjoying the give-and-take, I countered by writing 200,000 won on the notecard and, in unison, both the girl and Kristin emphatically shook their heads no while seeming to fight back giggles. So I smiled and shrugged my shoulders in return and ended the negotiations with a friendly "Hengoonul peemneeda." I wished her good luck and continued our walk towards the beach, allowing the fantasy to play out in my mind while Kristin gave lighthearted jabs to my ribs and playfully reprimanded me.

We were out the door early the next morning, thankfully free of any hangovers, and had a quick breakfast at an overpriced French-style bakery before journeying north to Gyeongju. Two hours worth of subways and buses later, we arrived in this city of national treasures. It was a beautiful day out, sunny and near 80-degrees Fahrenheit, so we were happy to find a bike and scooter rental stall right near the bus station in Gyeongju. We settled on a tandem mountain bike that was both too heavy for its size and too small for mine, yet it worked. The attendant took no information down, no credit-card deposit, never asked for our passports, nor asked us when we'd return it. He gave us a lock and key when I asked for one, took our 15,000 won, and handed us the bike. Just as we started to pedal away I noticed that he had thrown a leg over a scooter and was riding off in the opposite direction, ignoring the crowd of would-be renters still milling around the bikes. Was that actually his rental shop? Did we just hand our money to a thief? Honestly, I didn't care. I welcomed the thought of having rented the bike from an impostor; I previously wondered what we'd do if the bike got a flat tire, but this latest development meant we could just lock it up and leave it. Nobody knew we had it and I was convinced we unwillingly rented it illegally.

The bike, awkward though it was, never did get a flat and despite having had no prior experience riding tandem, we managed quite well with me as the pilot and Kristin the stoker. Though many of Gyeongju's finer sites are located on the outskirts of town, nearer the coast and in the mountains, there are a handful of sites situated in the otherwise ugly downtown area that were within biking distance. We gawked at the massive earthen burial mounds in Tumuli Park (some measuring over 150 feet in diameter and nearly 40 feet tall), followed the well-worn path around Anapji Pond, and wandered amongst tens of acres of rapeseed flowers in Wolseong Park. Our days in Jeollanam-do had left us more burned out on cultural attractions than we had thought so we spent much of our time in Gyeongju simply riding the bike around town and window-shopping. Little did we know how sunburned we were getting.

We stayed closer to the hostel that night to make up for the bar tab we rang up in Haeundae Beach. The Seomyeon area of Busan has a number of neon-ensconced alleys lined with shops, restaurants, and bars as well as dozens of pojangmacha. We settled on a place that offered up a massive bowl of pork and kimchi noodle soup, big enough for two, that was as spicy as it was cheap. As was typical of the places we ate, we were again the only non-Koreans in the restaurant, but we felt right at home with all of the other twenty-something and thirty-something couples, sharing our bowl of soup, and wiping the spice-induced sweat from our brows. We bought a couple of bottles of soju at a convenience store after dinner and went back to the hostel to watch a movie with Misha. For the first time in my life, I browsed the illegal file-sharing networks and downloaded a pirated movie. The hoops one needs to jump to accomplish this task hardly make it worth the effort and I doubt I'd ever bother again.

Monday would be our last full day in South Korea and Kristin and I had a number of options on the docket, ranging from a hike to Beomeosa Temple on Geomjeungsan Mountain to a harbor cruise to a stroll around the coastal path on the Yeongdo Peninsula. Unfortunately, heavy rains forced us to abandon these plans and consider something indoors. We had given thought to going to the Hurshimchung public bath and hot spring for a soak and a scrub, but the sunburn we picked up in Gyeongju made that idea sound no more appealing than trudging up a muddy trail to yet another temple we weren't really that interested in. So we grabbed our books and headed to the luxurious downstairs food court at the awe-inspiring Lotte department store and sat and relaxed at a cafe nestled amongst the shops selling thousand-dollar canisters of tea and hundred-year old bottles of wine. There was even a Whole Foods grocery store in this fanciful basement selling, of all things, the putrid-smelling durian. Frozen, thankfully.

Though LG, Samsung, and Kia are the nation's brands most easily identified outside South Korea, Lotte is the giant within. Arguably responsible for fueling what I sensed to be a rapid rise in the ranks of the most shallow and fashion-conscious countries on earth, Lotte has brought the so-called good life (aka, the western fascination for designer brands) to Korea. Unlike the Japanese whose appreciation for western-style clothing seems to be kept in check by their own honored sense of isolationism and culture, Koreans appeared to be diving head-first, wallets-open into the maw of global westernization. The government's emphasis on learning English has given rise to what I saw was a misguided fascination with everything and anything English, to the point of absurdity. Western was it. To wear an American brand was a status symbol. To wear anything with English print was close enough. And so they did. The most attractive people we saw in South Korea were walking billboards advertising nonsensical gibberish; just a string of pronouns, adjectives, and verbs strung together on a t-shirt. To Koreans, they looked western and hip. To westerners like us they looked like fools.

The Lotte department store in Busan contained a collection of boutiques that would not fail to impress even the most upturned of noses from Rodeo Drive to 5th Avenue, New York City. But more startling than seeing such obscene sums of money spent in a place whose sewage system couldn't even handle toilet paper (used paper had to be discarded in a foul-smelling waste basket) was that which was on display in the eateries. You couldn't go a minute without seeing someone primping in a large handheld mirror of at least six inches in diameter. Maybe it was my seven years living in down-to-Earth western Washington, but the vanity on display in Busan  was frightening. To be seen or not to be seen, that is the question.

In truth, Kristin and I wanted to both spend the day on the couch back at Zen with our books and a large mug of coffee. We wanted to spend the day doing nothing except perhaps some laundry. And on future, longer trips we will certainly look forward to rainy days such as this one in Busan to do just that. But on a trip as short as this one was, just 11 days, we felt compelled to at least get out and do something, rain be damned. So we took the subway to Jagalchi Fish Market, Asia's largest seafood market, and promptly walked in the opposite direction to see a movie in PIFF Square. We were burned out on markets too, you see. We bought cheap disposable umbrellas from a stand in the subway station and splashed our way around this attractive pedestrian center before going to see Duplicity starring Julia Roberts, complete with Korean subtitles. Not a bad film.

We whiled away the time that final night in Busan at a German-themed brewhouse in Seomyeon imbibing a two-liter growler of their in-house Hefeweizen. We sat for over two hours waiting for the rain to let up, reminiscing about the trip that was, the places we had seen, the people we met, and all we learned. In volunteering to host Hyeon Ju we thought it would give us a chance to travel without leaving the home. We never imagined it would lead to so much more. Thanks to Mayor Hwang's generosity and the Snoqualmie Sister Cities Association, we were blessed to gain some excellent memories, a deeper understanding of a faraway culture, and best of all, a larger family.

Staring out the window of the KTX bullet-train bound for Seoul, my mind drifted back to the dragons at the Buddhist temple we saw in Gangjin. We entered the country with mouths and minds open and were going home with our teeth clenched on an orb filled with knowledge, food, and friendship. The world is a big place, filled with pleasant surprises in unexpected corners. South Korea is one of them.

A Korean Mouthful (Part 2)

As we passed through the elaborate wooden entrance gate to Borim Temple in Jangheung, our guide explained the two dragon statues we saw overhead. Both menacing in their gaze in hopes of scaring off evil spirits, the one with an open mouth symbolized the entering worshipper's need to be empty of distraction and receptive of knowledge. The other, with a large orb clamped between its sharpened teeth, represented the wisdom one would hopefully leave with as they made their way back home. "Maybe each of you will leave with a mouthful of knowledge too," she said. That was terribly unlikely, given that Mr. Jang only allotted a brief fifteen minutes in this Buddhist sanctuary. Nevertheless, I couldn't help but relate the symbolism in those dragon statues to the greater exchange student experience. We opened our minds as well as our home in volunteering to host Kim Hyeon-Ju, but it wasn't until coming here, to her country, and staying a night in her home, with her wonderful family, that we finally gained our own morsel of understanding.  And I was hungry for more...

Our scheduled meeting with the rest of our delegation at Gimpo Airport for a 7pm flight to Gwangju, in the southern Jeollanam-do province, didn't go as scheduled. The plans were muddled at best and suffered from several last-minute changes that left me in a foul mood before we even arrived. It was nearly 7pm when a Korean man with a sign bearing our names walked up in jeans and a khaki sport jacket. He was in his thirties, with a broad smile, and though Mr. Jang would be our guide for the next few days things didn't get off to a good start. Our mayor's flight was delayed and we could no longer fly to Gwangju. We had to drive with him back to Incheon to meet the other host family and wait for the mayor to arrive. We'd then pile into a private tour bus for the nearly 6-hour drive to Gangjin. If we were lucky, we'd arrive in Gangjin by two o'clock in the morning. I wanted to grab my bag and sprint back down the stairs to the subway and disappear into the night. I wanted to put into words just how asinine I thought this plan was. I wanted to tell him to bugger off and that we'd take a train down in the morning. But I couldn't. I was a guest in their country at the invitation of Gangjin's mayor, the affable Hwang Ju-Hong, and non-compliance would be the height of rudeness. Also, I had little to complain about. The other host family on the trip, Angela and Bob, had gotten to Incheon at 2pm from Shanghai, where they were visiting family, and have been held captive by Mr. Jang for the better part of the day. Then there was Mayor Matt and Tina, a board member of the Sister Cities Association, who would be stepping off a trans-Pacific flight and stepping right onto the unfortunate 6-hour bus ride. In comparison, Kristin and I had it pretty easy.

We woke in the morning with a stiff neck from the bus ride and a sore back from a bed that was little more than a boxspring wrapped in a sheet, but the annoyance of the previous night vanished as I pulled back the curtain. It's a strange feeling to go to sleep without any concept of your surroundings and I was too tired when we finally arrived (to a smiling Mayor Hwang and his staff armed with massive fruit baskets and bouquets) to look around or ask any questions. But after my eyes adjusted to the sunlight flooding the room, I saw that our room overlooked a grassy field with tasteful statuary and that we were nestled between a low-lying range of mountains to the west and a misty bay to the east. Between the statues and mountains lay numerous fields of leafy greens and rice. We were staying at the Dasan Center, a newly-built YMCA of sorts complete with hotel-like lodging for out of town guests. The bed made me long for a futon on the floor, but I very much appreciated the surroundings. It was great to be out of the city.

Gangjin, located on Doam Bay at the southern edge of the peninsula, is a town with a heavy reliance on agriculture and feels every bit the lengthy bus ride from Seoul. Gangjin has suffered a massive population exodus over the past few decades with numbers dropping from roughly 100,000 in the 1980's to just 40,000 today and Mayor Hwang is working diligently, along with the mayors of neighboring towns, to reverse this trend by reshaping these towns in a new light. The problems of Gangjin are universal to small towns and agricultural communities around the globe -- the young grow up, attend college, and move to the cities in pursuit of bigger paychecks and faster living. Gentrification sets in, the population drops off, and towns die. Part of the reason for our trip, or at least for our mayor being there, was that South Korea is very interested in the development practices on display in our little town of Snoqualmie. They have an official from Seoul living in our town for 18 months and Mayor Matt as we call him was asked to give a presentation on the "Live, Work, Play" design ethos at work in Snoqualmie Ridge, the community we live in. The presentation was to a crowd of 100 bureaucrats at work in city and county government and that if I didn't already live there, I'd be jealous of anyone who did. I'm sure many were. 

That first day in Gangjin was largely spent on official business with a few stops at local in-town historic sites mixed in. The Dasan Center we were staying at was named after a famous writer and thinker named Jeong Yak-Yong (Dasan was his pen-name) who was banished to Gangjin in the early 19th century for contrarian thoughts. Though he was largely known for authoring nearly 600 books, he also invented a number of devices such as the floating pontoon bridge and a crane for lifting heavy rocks. The people of Gangjin, his home-in-exile, consider him their own private Da Vinci. We'd later pile into a rustic room (crossed legs, shoes off) at Dasan Chodang, where he lived for 12 years upon arrival in Gangjin, and drink a milky rice wine called makkoli while a midday shower sprinkled down on the thatch roof. It was a relaxing break in the midst of a day filled with pomp, speeches, and more group photos than I care to admit. "Everybody say kimchi! One, two, kimchi!"

Following an exquisite lunch of grilled beef from regionally-produced shitake cattle (high quality beef is hard to find and very costly in this land of pork, seafood, and bulgogi), we moved to the county chief's offices for tea then back to City Hall for a lengthy exchanging of gifts with the city council and signing of an agreement that would further cement the ties between the two towns -- they'll be sending an official from Gangjin to Snoqualmie to study our culture and development practices for 6 months . I was asked to read the english version of the contract aloud which, I suppose, gives me the unique experience of having "had the floor" at a special meeting of a foreign nation's city council.

The highlight of our time not only in Gangjin, but of the whole trip, came later that night. Hyeon-Ju and her parents and brothers were waiting back at the Dasan Center to join us for a welcoming buffet that was arranged by the town. It was great to see her again and though her parents speak very little english, we were able to piece together enough to communicate well. Hyeon-Ju's mother (I am positively awful with names and must admit that I don't remember it) was much prettier than either Kristin or I expected. Though we didn't dare say so aloud, her mother had a similar impression of me and commented that I was much more fit than I had looked in the photo she had seen -- damn that wooly Scottish sweater! If this comment didn't make me feel at ease with her parents, then her father's first question certainly did. He asked us if Hyeon-Ju talked much with us in America or if she showed any emotion. He said Hyeon-Ju is a quiet girl who hides her feelings and that he was afraid we might perceive her reserved nature as a slight. Hyeon-Ju smiled and nodded along with her father's fragmented sentences as if she had read our minds and knew that we were a bit disappointed with the ease at which she said goodbye to us in February. It was upsetting to be the only host parents whose student wasn't crying their eyes out, but this set it right. We were unsure how welcome we'd be and suddenly had our answer.

We were two-thirds through our first plates of food at the buffet and starting to feel the effects of the day's near-constant feasting when Hyeon-Ju warned us not to eat too much, that her mom was planning a big dinner. Naturally, as a guest and especially when traveling, I always try to eat what's put in front of me and try a little bit of everything. I had even that next day eaten a very large piece of raw, fermented skate called hongeo hoe that tasted of pure ammonia (next time, I'll just urinate in a bowl and save the chef the hassle). I had never thought that being a gracious guest could lead to a dangerous metabolic situation, but I was fast approaching that point (and let's face it, the quality of the toilets in South Korea are something of a crapshoot... pun fully intended). Kristin and I simultaneously dropped our stainless steel chopsticks, intentionally this time, slippery that they are, and barely concealed our gasps. We each tried to muster an excited, flattered smile but on the inside we were pleading for a reprieve. The meal at Hyeon-Ju's would be our fifth of the day and these people weren't kidding around.

We quickly consolidated clothes into a single suitcase and piled into the Kim family minivan, a Kia Carnival, for the drive to their home on the edge of town. It's a modest three bedroom, one bath, single-story brick home at the end of a quiet lane surrounded by rice paddies. The living area consisted of three desks along the wall, a small table in the center, an exercise bicycle, and a state-of-the-art kimchi refrigerator by LG. The massive burgundy-colored chest was a technological marvel and clearly the wife's prized possession. Having a kimchi refrigerator may sound odd, but kimchi is eaten three times a day in Korea and an entire year's worth is made just once each winter -- satisfactory refrigeration is not an option, especially given its powerful odor. The other item in the living area, the one that really made us feel special, was a simple calendar hanging on the wall. The 15th of April, that day we were there with them in their home, was circled repeatedly. Someone had even drawn little stars next to it. It was the only day of the month that had any notation.


Hyeon-Ju and her parents must have sensed our sighs at the Dasan Center and understood how full we were because the big dinner never appeared. Fortunately, they instead laid out several bowls of snacks, and just a few banchan. I'm sure the massive spread put before us the following morning was the dinner they had planned for that night. So we nibbled politely at the snacks, drank a beer with her father, and tried our best to talk. Just when we were starting to really feel at home, they brought out the gifts. Hyeon-Ju's miniature 12 year old brother who spoke very good english (he's hell-bent on getting the grades to be an exchange student and says he only wants us as his host parents), and was forever running around the house doing curls with a pair of 3-pound dumbbells, brought us a box of cactus chocolate from Jejudo Island, an island off the coast of the Korean Peninsula that is the honeymoon capital of eastern Asia. Mom and dad went to Jejudo Island to celebrate their 20th anniversary the previous weekend and not only brought back the chocolate, but also a pair of dol hareubang carved out of a very porous basalt. They come in pairs and are considered to be gods that offer protection from demons and, hopefully to a lesser extent, increased fertility. They placed their half of the set in their garden outside and instructed us to take ours home and place it in our house; they will bond the families and protect us. "And now that you rubbed it, you'll have a baby boy," Hyeon-Ju's mom said as Kristin handled the idol. Hyeon-Ju must have told her parents that we don't wish to have any children because she was clearly teasing Kristin and laughing when she said this.

We brought gifts of our own, though unfortunately nothing as meaningful as the basalt idol. We had brought several one-pound bags of Hershey's miniatures, as big a hit in Korea as The Beatles in 60's America, for Hyeon-Ju and her two brothers and a bottle of wine from the Snoqualmie Winery for her parents. The mother disappeared as her father and I were opening our second bottle of Cafri, a very light-tasting beer that tasted surprisingly similar to Corona. We didn't see her leave, and she was only gone for about 30 minutes, but when she arrived back she had armloads of KFC fried chicken and sweet n' spicy boneless chicken wings. Trailing behind her were her two sisters, their husbands, and two of Hyeon-Ju's young cousins. And for the next two hours we sat and talked and drank and ate and got to know our new family, our extended Korean family. They sent their daughter to live with us, total strangers, and only by the generosity of their mayor did we get to meet, but the bond we felt with them was real. And as if to prove that it wasn't the Cafri playing tricks with our minds, the walk we took in the morning after the kids went to school, and the way Hyeon-Ju's mom held Kristin's hand and thanked us, made it all the more real. The language barrier was real, but you could read her eyes clearly. We returned her daughter home safe and sound, and took pretty damn good care of her while she was with us and gave her an opportunity no student in their town had previously had. We were family now.

Our delegation spent much of the next day feeling what it might be like to be rockstars. Gangjin doesn't see many westerners and when we walked through the halls of Gangjin and St. Joseph's high schools, the latter an all-girls Catholic school, we were greeted with a chorus of cheers and screaming and all-around hysteria. It was fantastic. High school in South Korea is the most important time in a child's life as their studies and placement tests dictate which university they can attend and, in some respects, what their future will hold. School runs from 7:30 am till 10:30 pm five days a week and for class again on every other Saturday. They wear uniforms, most students don't have hobbies, and few see each other socially. There is no time for that now, childhood all but ends at the start of high school for these kids. And knowing all this made it all the sweeter when the kids from a half-dozen classrooms threw up the windows and shouted down at us as we left. They waved and yelled and proclaimed their love, all the while their teachers tried fruitlessly to get them back to their seats. One young stud shouted down to Kristin an invitation to meet him in his dreams that night. I couldn't help but smile; at least he's got good taste. 

We'd see our students one final time before leaving Gangjin. Much to our surprise, all 12 exchange students were waiting in a receiving line for us back at the Dasan Center that night for dinner. The speeches and introductions seemed to drag on forever, but there was plenty of soju and a wealth of food and Kristin and I got to enjoy one final meal with Hyeon-Ju and some of the exchange students who just two months ago we'd never thought we'd see again. Conversation was funny and spirited and a couple of the boys we were sitting with couldn't believe that I had eaten the dreaded hongeo hoe earlier that day and began daring one another to eat it -- right up until one of them ran to the bathroom to vomit. Boys will be boys, all around the world. As fun as the night was, it had to end with a goodbye; this time for an indeterminate amount of time. I hate goodbyes.

We packed our bags and left the Dasan Center the next morning and drove to Jangheung, a vibrant city an hour east of Gangjin. Though I pride myself on seeing through high-gloss promotional videos with a cutting glare, I couldn't help but want to inquire about teaching english in this fascinating town shortly after the mayor's video ended. A small city keenly aware of what they have to offer and what they stand to lose if they don't hold onto their youth, Jangheung is a place I wish we had more time for. It's a place with festivals, parks, a sculpted pedestrian-friendly downtown, natural seaside beauty, and an up-and-coming tech sector, surrounded by farmland and a short drive from national parks. If only Mr. Jang wasn't cracking the whip and driving us onward towards Suncheon just two hours after arriving. But so is the case when dealing with tour guides; always at the mercy of the itinerary they create, a one-size-fits-none schedule assembled in a vacuum with higher importance placed on available bus parking than the traveler's interests.

The one benefit to leaving Jangheung and continuing our trip eastward along the southern coast of the peninsula was that we had finally run out of officials to glad-hand. We left the Jeollanam-do province and headed inland to a folk village that saved itself from being a complete tourist trap of Epcot-proportions by instituting a set of rules that allowed for workers to live in the village, provided they maintained a traditional way of life. Set on the sight of an ancient castle, with some of the fortress wall still in tact (and open for walks), I found the Suncheon Folk Village to be a rather dull locale, albeit with a couple of very photogenic villagers. Sadly, the most memorable aspect of the stop was watching Kristin eat a beondegi.

Our final night with the delegation (whom, if not for the schedule that was out of our hands was a really pleasant group to travel with) was spent at a wild tea house, a retreat of sorts located a mile down a dirt road from the thousand year old Seonamsa Temple. We hiked up to the temple in the late afternoon and wandered amongst the countless brightly-colored lanterns strung up in celebration of Buddha's upcoming birthday and listened to the chanting, drumming, and bell-tolling of the Buddhist monks. Despite their being an entire cottage-industry of restaurants and shops set up near the parking lot, the two mile hike to the temple provided ample buffer and ensured all visitors were adequately reverent by the time they arrived. With a night at the smartly-appointed, yet utterly traditional and simple tea house costing the equivalent of $8 US, I couldn't help but dream about retreating here to while away the days and weeks reading, writing, and making daily trips up the path to Seonamsa or to the far more remote temple 6 miles up a steep trail into the mountain.

I woke that next morning before sunrise and took a stroll in the chill air outside and gawked at the meadows of camellia in the distance, and studied the glow of the sun glancing off the sides of the tea house buildings. On a hill just above the retreat was a group of older Korean men doing their morning tai chi. Though my hands ached with a cold that only an early morning in the mountains can bring, I wrote page after page in my journal and promised myself that I would return to this place one day if I ever needed time to heal.

Prior to the trip, whenever Kristin and I mentioned that we were headed to South Korea, those who know us best commonly replied by saying that we'd be able to remove the country from the list of places to visit in the round-the-world trip we're planning. Truth is, visiting South Korea never occurred to us and wasn't on any list. And up until that moment, sitting alone in the sun, in the total calm of my surroundings, returning to this country didn't really interest us either. Sure, we had the same moments of weakness and passing fancy that people feel when they say they never want to leave that all-inclusive beachside resort they honeymooned in, but that was it.  Yet, there on that hillside, at that traditionally-styled tea hall with the ancient temple up the hill and the monks in their robes and a mountain of trails all around me, I realized I just might return.

When Kristin woke, I told her about my walk and told her that if something ever happened to her and I ended up alone, that this would be where I'd come. That I'd come here to write and to think, and to mourn. That I'd hike up the mountain and listen to the bells and the drums and follow the stream back down as my thoughts flowed out onto the paper. And though nobody on this planet would know where I was, she would know. And that if there really is a way to watch our loved ones from the afterlife, that she would know where to find me. 

And there wouldn't be a tour guide hurrying me onto a bus to Busan...

A Korean Mouthful (Part 1)

The bridge disappeared off to the right; a grand concrete and steel span crossing Kanghwa Bay and vanishing out of sight in a thick mustardy haze. Whether land was a mile out or five, I couldn’t tell. The air was impenetrable. Disturbing as the scene was, I couldn’t fault the people of South Korea for this unfortunate first impression as the suffocating blanket of smog rolled south out of China, rising on the onshore breeze like a tsunami of pollution. I was warned well in advance of the seasonal dust storms blowing out of China’s massive deserts, but this was no dust storm. There, on public bus #6011 from Incheon to Seoul, I began to wonder just how pointless my eco-efforts back home were as long as China continued to make 20th century industrial mistakes on a 21st century scale. I’d see only half of this bridge again, out the left-hand window eleven days later on my way back to Incheon International Airport, and though these wouldn’t be the only times my senses were so assaulted (Seoul’s sewage system is vastly outmatched by the population, as told by my nose), the vanishing half-bridge was a reminder of how this peninsula’s future will be just as influenced by its neighbors as was its war-torn past.

We arrived in Seoul four days ahead of the rest of our small-town delegation. Kristin and I were staying in a small hanok located in a traditional neighborhood known as Bukchon Village on the north side of this sprawling megalopolis. Once home to the city’s nobility during the fifteenth century, and nestled between the palaces of Gyeongbokgung and Chandeokgung just a few short blocks from Insadong, a popular pedestrian center home to numerous antique and tea shops as well as a few dozen street merchants hawking a number of snacks and kitsch, Bukchon Village was now the focus of historic preservation. Our hanok at the Seoul Guest House was devoid of furniture save for an unnecessary television cart and was a generous 90 square feet in size. It had no windows; we slept on a pair of thin futon pads stretched out over unplugged electric heating pads in a room in dire need of a breeze. We wanted traditional and paid for Spartan. It suited our needs perfectly.

Seoul is a city unlike any I've been to. It's routinely ranked in the top 5 most populated in the world with estimates placing the population between 10 million (city core) and 20 million (greater metropolitan area). One need only stare at a map of Seoul's ten subway lines and nearly 300 stations to realize the scope of this capital city. Partially ringed by mountains and bisected by the Han River, there is the feeling of some natural splendor amidst the concrete, but not much. Seoul is a utilitarian city, designed not to impress through inspired design and architecture, but to move large volumes of people from drab high rise lookalike apartments to work and back again. Space is not at the premium it is in Japan, as evidenced by the lack of the island nation's famed micro-cars and the overwhelming presence of American-sized Hyundai Santa Fes, yet you do feel that few people in Seoul have much personal space. We certainly didn't.

We woke our first morning in Seoul, Easter Sunday no less, at the uncivilized hour of five o'clock and found ourselves alone in the city under a blue and surprisingly smog-free sky. Nothing was open. We were starving and each of the convenience stores and coffee shops in Bukchon were closed. In this primarily Buddhist nation, our predicament had nothing to do with the holiday I once celebrated as a child, but because Seoul is a city that stays up late. Instead of opening, these stores had just closed a couple of hours before we woke up. I spotted a few shopping arcades on the map and led the way into a labyrinth of shuttered stalls and shops, hoping something would be open, that somebody would have some food. We called out random turns at each intersection and wandered deeper and deeper into what, judging by the drawings on the signs, was a maze of shops catering to electricians and machinists. None were open. No people were to be seen. I'm thankful the sun always rises in the east, else we might still be searching for a way out.

We wandered along the jogging path through the manmade canal, Cheonggye Stream, and practiced saying anyong haseyo (hello/good morning) to the smiling runners we passedWe spent much of that first day in Seoul searching for the most outrageously named counterfeit clothes we could find at  Namdaemun Market. The ten-buck Bulgari and Gucci watches merely whet our appetite for ogling fake goods; it wasn't until we spotted the fake outerwear that we realized what a treasure trove this place was. Kristin spotted a fake Pore-Tech jacket with a "The Black Face" logo (we'd later spot one with a "The Red Face" logo in Busan -- so wrong, but so funny) and my big find was a pair of sandals with an otherwise indistinguishable red, white, and blue "Fira" logo. Unable to help myself, I promptly did my best animated Kim Jong Il impersonation and sang a few bars of "I'm So Ronery." Ultimately, our favorite was a tribute to a timeless movie classic; a hat that simply stated "I Love Cake: Goodgies Never Say Die". Baby Ruth, anybody? The upscale Myeongdong shopping district, home to very legit boutiques carrying every American, Italian, and French luxury brand you can name was just a few short blocks away, but we were far more interested in the festival-like atmosphere at Namdaemun. Trying to stick to a budget of just 120,000 won per day ($100 US) as practice for our round-the-world trip, we lunched on chicken heart skewers and ddukboki (rice cakes in a spicy red-pepper sauce) at a pojangmacha with a small plastic table and stools. We'd come to realize that each of Seoul's markets specializes in its own local street food, all the more reason to carry plenty of spare change and resist the temptation to have a sit-down lunch in a restaurant.

Knowing that our time in South Korea would unfortunately take the form of a guided tour come Wednesday morning and that I would have to surrender all independence and be led unwillingly from one cultural site to the next as an honorary -- and very appreciative -- guest of local government, I set to immerse myself in real-world Seoul as much as I could in the short time we had. I struggle to think of a better way to accomplish this than heading to Jamsil Stadium for a game between the LG Twins and Doosan Bears, Seoul's two baseball teams. Watching the Korean teams on television during the Olympics and World Baseball Classic only tells half the story. While there's no denying the talent on the field isn't quite on par with your average Major League club (though they are very, very good), we American fans are downright bores compared to the Koreans. This wasn't a baseball game we attended; compared to an MLB stadium, this was like going to a Brazilian soccer match.

For starters, nearly everyone in the 30,000 person crowd had a pair of inflatable clapping sticks (including us) and at least half of that crowd could be heard banging them together every moment of the game. I sat mesmerized in the first inning as the fans of the Doosan Bears, sitting along the third base line, clapped in unison during every at-bat. Supporters of the LG Twins, the home team that night, tried to outdo them once the pitcher had gotten the count to two strikes. Each side had their own style and each had their own unique songs for nearly every batter that came to the plate. The noise was tremendous, thundering through the stadium into the night sky, and never let up. Nine nonstop innings of singing, banging, and stomping. The only time the synchronized banging of the clapping sticks yielded was during the sixth inning stretch when a couple of fans were invited onto a miniature stage for an impromptu karaoke contest. 

The choreographed use of the ubiquitous clapping sticks and singing was a far cry from the uninspired "Yankees Suck" chants that serve as the height of fan creativity at MLB games back home, but it wasn't the only difference. The game turned on a sixth inning fly ball to right-centerfield. The right fielder ran over and seemed to have the clearer play on the ball, but was waved off by the center fielder moving in. The center-fielder presumably lost the ball in the lights. It fell, untouched, eight feet in front of him. Nobody booed. The Doosan Bears took the lead on that play and never gave it back. The non-catch happened right in front of us and the other LG Twins supporters we sat amongst, yet nobody disrespected the player for his error. Everyone was disappointed, for sure, but I can only assume the fans knew he felt enough shame and there was no reason to pile on. The fans immediately went back to their singing and stomping as the pitcher struck out the next batter. We moved over to stand amongst the diehards near first base for the final two innings and were overwhelmed by the passion. It was only the third game of the season and it had all the electricity of a pennant race, multiplied (click here for video; forward to the 3:00 mark for where it really heats up).

Kristin and I fared much better in our search for breakfast the following morning, a Monday. We'd visit the same small cafe in Bukchon Village both of our remaining days in Seoul and sit for an hour or two, drinking our coffees, eating our spongy bagels with their vanilla-flavored butter,  and relaxing. Traveling can get pretty exhausting if you don't sit and do nothing every now and then; I learned this lesson fast. Kristin couldn't escape mandatory reading for business school and was nose-deep into books on leadership and the economy of China whenever not scribbling away in her journal. I was reading "Dark Star Safari" by Paul Theroux and simultaneously wondering if I would ever make the leap from writing strategy guides for videogames to writing about real places, like Theroux. Would I ever possess his mastery of the language? Could I ever be as perceptive? Would I ever dare attempt a trip like his? Or should I just go on trying to master my own niche and accept my lot? Traveling can get pretty depressing if left to sit with your thoughts for too long; I doubt I'll ever learn this lesson.

We sped through nearby Gyeongbokgung Palace, a grand royal residence torched by angry Koreans in 1592 after the frightened leadership fled the city for fear of Japanese invasion. It was rebuilt some 300 years later and is impressive for its size and for the brightly-colored paintings that adorn the ends of each and every roof beam. Too bad about the chicken wire being needed to protect it from pigeons. We wandered the myriad dirt paths that linked the dozen or so buildings; we gawked at the iron dragons perched on the corners of the hip-and-gable roof; and we climbed the stairs of the primary structure and stared out over the palace grounds to the gate and noticed no less than twenty tour buses offloading their cattle. We sprinted down the stairs, out the temple gate, and escaped to Anguk Station.

Three subway lines and 9 stops later we emerged on Yeouido Island, a massive island on the south side of the Han River and home to Seoul's financial district. Nearly every worldwide banking acronym from AIG to ING has their logo on the side of a towering building here, but that's not why we came. We came for the parks, or more specifically to see the cherry blossoms and to rent a bicycle. South Korea's President Lee Myung-Bak is working hard to get Koreans cycling and is actively pushing for cities like Seoul and Busan to build more bike paths. Two such paths run along either bank of the Han River and stretch for over 40 kilometers.

A young couple approached us as we were exiting the subway station at Yeouido to tell us the park is all torn up for construction and there's nothing to see. "Sorry to tell you this, but you came here for nothing." He was the first westerner we had seen since leaving the airport. He was pale, red-haired, and had a baseball cap on and what looked like lacrosse shorts. He seemed a bit overly friendly, and a little too eager to share this major discovery. He knew something we didn't and wanted us -- westerners that we are -- to know it. The female half of the couple, a cute Korean of about 25 years, quickly cycled through the photos on her camera to show me the destruction. It was true, the riverside park was one giant mound of dirt, laced with orange plasticized fencing, and sprinkled with heavy machinery. 

"What about the other parks," I asked "are they torn up too? We were really hoping to go walk around Yeouido Park and then rent a bike."

He didn't know there were other parks on the island. In fact, though he made reference to the Lonely Planet guidebook, he clearly never looked at the map it came with and focused too much on the recommended sites. The island has no less than four parks. Only the one along the river and nearest the subway was undergoing renovation. So we smiled, thanked him for the tip, and continued up the stairs. We hurried across an eighteen-lane intersection to Yeouido Park, where we whiled away a warm spring afternoon. We walked aimlessly along the paths watching children feed enormous strawberry-red carp in a pond; we sniffed at the cherry blossoms floating to the ground on a gentle breeze; and  we smiled at the sight of business men in fabulously tailored suits sitting on the grass licking ice cream cones. It was lunchtime in one of Asia's most important business centers and we were among thousands of Seoul's wealthiest in a beautiful park, all out for a midday walk. Some even making use of the exercise equipment, suit jackets and all. Not to be left out, women in skirts kicked off their heels and walked along the winding Zen-like stone path designed to stimulate the pressure points on your feet and toes. Kristin and I bought a couple of giant buckets of instant ramen at a lunch shack in the park and slurped our noodles alongside the well-heeled, both of us outrageously underdressed for present company.

Knowing it was our last night in Seoul, we thumbed the guidebook in attempt to find a restaurant that we could splurge a bit on without disappointment. We settled on a place that specialized in black pig -- they smoked it outside then it was grilled table-side. Plus they had soju, and we were certainly in the mood for a drink. Unfortunately, Lonely Planet's directions to Jongno Gol couldn't have been more wrong if the guidebook author had been dyslexic. Each of the exits in Seoul's massive metro stations are numbered and face a particular orientation on a specific side of the street. Get the number of that exit wrong and all of your further directions become useless. Now, as an imperfect guidebook author, albeit of videogames (I commonly describe what I do by saying I write travel guides for fictitious places), I can sympathize with the author and understand that mistakes can and do happen. That said, we were really, really looking forward to eating at this restaurant and he certainly didn't help our cause.

I sensed something was wrong with the directions almost immediately and decided to ignore them post-haste. We wandered around on the wrong side of a busy avenue (the crosswalks were underground) for a few minutes before journeying to the other side. I had a map of unnamed streets and a dot corresponding to the location of the restaurant. Addresses don't exist in any meaningful way in Korea, especially in Seoul. In many ways, this was just like using one of the maps I include in my own guidebooks, minus my expertly-crafted instructions on where said secret item is located. We wandered down a couple of alleys until finding one that zigged and zagged in agreement with the lines on the map. Yet where the map showed just one alley to the right, we found three. I led us down the first one, a narrow path barely wide enough for three people walking abreast. We passed some bars, a couple of sketchy restaurants, and a brothel posing as a barbershop. Not an english sign to be found anywhere. We reached the end of the alley and were just about to turn around when I smelled it: smoked pork. I breathed deeply and followed the scent down an alley running perpendicular. It was dark, we were between buildings in a back alley, and it certainly didn't look like any place tourists would venture. Yet that delicious scent intensified with each step and just a few short minutes later we were sitting on a floor cushion, legs crossed, shoes off, with a bottle of soju and a waitress placing a cauldron of red-hot coals in a grill in the center of our table.

I'd like to say the night ended with a drunken taxi ride back to the hanok where we made love and capped off a wonderful day overseas wrapped in one another's arms. And I can, after all it's my story, but that wasn't the case. Well it was, but not before breaking one of my cardinal rules: Don't pay for an elevator ride. Ever. I can't tell you how many visitors I've had to talk out of taking the lift up into the Space Needle in Seattle on account of it being a giant ripoff and there being better (and free!) views of the city to be had from a nearby park. You'd think I'd take my own advice, but no.

We left the restaurant and promptly hailed a cab for Namsan Mountain in the center of Seoul where we then paid 15,000 won for two tickets on a cable car that leads to the top of the mountain where the city's iconic N'Seoul Tower is located. Again, think Space Needle. The ushers packed about 50 of us into the cable car. Nobody could move; we couldn't even turn around. At the top we realized that the powers-at-be cunningly planted a number of trees so as to block the views of the skyline. If you wanted to see the city lights at night, you had to ride the elevator. Another 15,000 won for two, thank you very much. We hemmed and hawed and ultimately decided that we were eight time zones from home, dinner was cheaper than we expected, and what difference does twelve bucks make anyway? I'm embarrassed by how easy it is to convince me to do something when I'm traveling.

The windows on the observation deck were filthy on account of the periodic April dust storms and the constant pollution but even if they weren't, a ring of horrendously-placed fluorescent lights in the ceiling made it all but impossible to see much more than a glare and your own reflection. We walked the ring and noted the signs indicating that we were over 8,000 kilometers from Seattle and nearly 12,000 kilometers from our family in New Jersey. I tried to take some photos, but it was pointless. And it's not as if Seoul has a really distinguishable skyline anyway. If anything, we were inside the one noteworthy feature in the night's sky. I suppose I could have taken a photo of the floor.

The cable car was much emptier on the way back down the mountain. Once there, we brushed past the extortionists in the black "translation services available" taxi cabs and walked back down the hill towards Myeongdong and into the city until spotting one of the silver cabs. We had one more day in Seoul on our own and used it to explore Bukchon Village's nooks and crannies and to hike up to a Shamanist Shrine on Inwangsan Mountain, where we heard an otherworldly blend of instruments and chanting emanating from the closed doors of Guksadang shrine. We sat outside quietly and listened to the Korean Shamanists for several minutes, before continuing our hike up the mountain to Seoul's fortress wall. As suspected, the views (free!) from atop Inwangsan far surpassed any we could have hoped for from N'Seoul Tower. Lesson learned. Until next time...

*This is the first of what I expect to be a three-part story. Please submit any comments or questions either here on the blog or by emailing them directly to me via the link on the top-right corner of the page. I hope to have part 2 completed within a couple of days. Kamsahamnida.

The Rivalry

It's that time of year again; April. Time to break out the lawnmower, dust off the barbecue grill, put away the winter coat, and most importantly, it's time to PLAY BALL! And nothing knocks off the winter-rust like that first meeting between hated rivals.

It just occured to me that you probably think I'm writing about this weekend's series in Fenway Park. If so, then you clearly came to the wrong blog.

No, this post (and accompanying video) is about a lesser-known rivalry, one that may not have the history of the Yanks-Sox, nor its made-for-television over-commercialization, but it has the spirit, the fierce competition, and at the risk of drawing some hate mail, I'll say that it's got a stadium full of fans that were more creative, energetic, and passionate than any I've ever seen at any MLB game. Not Yanks-Sox, not Cubs-Cards, not Dodgers-Giants. And especially not the fans down at Knott's Berry Farm, aka Safeco Field.

I'm talking about Seoul's cross-town rivalry between the LG Twins and Doosan Bears. Kristin and I woke up our first morning in Seoul and, on a whim, I decided to check to see if there was a game playing at Jamsil Stadium that night. There was, and it just so happened to be the hottest ticket in town. It was only the third game of the season and the two teams that normally share that stadium were squaring off against one another. Imagine if the Cubs and White Sox both called Wrigley Field home... that's what we were heading to.

We got to the stadium in time to get one of the first-come-first-served outfield seats for 6000 won apiece ($4.80 each) and, after picking up a couple of beers ($1.80 each for cups of Hite, a beer that all-too closely resembles Natural Light, a brew that should be outlawed for those actually above the legal drinking age) and a pair of the ubiquitous inflatable thunder-sticks. We sided with the home team and took our seats in right field. The first base side of the stadium and right field was filled with fans of the LG Twins, nearly all of whom either had a flag or a pair of red thunder-sticks. The third-base side of the stadium was home to supporters of the Doosan Bears.

From the first pitch to the final out, the noise and fan involvement was unlike anything I had ever seen. The only sporting event I can compare it to was the NFC Championship game we attended the year the Seahawks went to the Super Bowl. The fans had songs for each and every player, they were as synchronized as a team of Olympic swimmers, and they never, ever, took their eyes off the field. The fans of the team at-bat would sing and stomp and bang their thunder-sticks during each and every at-bat. The fans of the team in the field would try to out-noise them once the pitcher had two strikes on the batter.

The game had several home runs, some really good defense, and a pretty costly error. The video starts out a little slow in the first inning then really picks up after the 3:00 mark.

South Korea in Photos

I went through the nearly 1500 photos I took during the 11 days I was in South Korea and of those, 167 made the cut. And as is so often the case, I only really like about 10 of them, but I'm my biggest critic.



Anyway, the photos are in sequential order: four days in Seoul, three days in Jeollanam-do in the southwest corner of the country, then three days on the coast in Busan. I recommend viewing them via the slideshow with the info pane open since I spent the time adding captions to each of them, but I'm sure you can find the way that suits you best.

Here's the link to the set, I hope you enjoy.

South Korea: The Debriefing

It took 25 hours, 2 taxis, a bullet-train, a bus, and two planes to get from our hostel in Busan to our house in Snoqualmie and, naturally, I have a lot of catching up to do around the house. Suitcases to empty, a lawn to mow, groceries to buy, dogs to play with and walk, etc., etc., etc.

Kristin and I had an overall amazing trip, but not for the reasons you might expect. I'll elaborate in what I expect to be a rather lengthy three-part travel story later this week or next. I took many notes during my trip and gave thought each day to what I would write when I got home. The answer didn't come to me until one night when I laid awake in the bed belonging to Hyeon Ju's parents. I'll explain later.

First I have to sort through the more than 1200 photos I took to collect the best six or so and send them to our mayor who we spent a few days with. There's going to be an article in the Snoqualmie Valley Record about our trip (we spent part of the trip as "Official Delegates" and I even got to read the english version of an agreement between Snoqualmie and Gangjin during a meeting of Ganjin's City Council) and he needs the photos right away. Speaking of photos, everyone knows the Japanese take their photography very seriously, but so do the Koreans. It seemed like every other person had a Canon 450D and at least on in every ten cameras I saw was a Canon Mark-II 5D. That's a several thousand dollar piece of equipment, excluding the lens. My favorite were the people with the little Canon and Sony compact cameras mounted to giant studio-grade tripods. Awesome.

I do want to give a major tip of the cap (and definitely not a wag of the finger, for my fellow members of the Colbert Nation) to Air Canada. I had left a small black journal and pen in the seatback pocket on the plane that I flew on from Incheon to Vancouver. I didn't realize this until 2 hours into my layover in Vancouver on the way home. I searched the small US-only concourse for an Air Canada agent to ask for help (I was already through US customs in Canada and this portion of the airport is, as far as security is concerned, US soil so I couldn't leave without going through Canadian customs). I couldn't find one. The journal had all my notes from the trip, not to mention a detailed outline that I wrote last Friday morning during a stroll outside a wild tea retreat we stayed at near a thousand year old Buddhist temple. I returned to the bar where Kristin waited and sulked in my beer. Moments later I spotted an agent sporting the Air Canada red maple leaf and ran up and explained my problem. I felt pretty stupid copping to leaving something so important (to me) on the plane, but he wrote down my info, the flight number, where I was heading, and so forth on a scrap of paper and said he'd do what he could do.

Fifteen minutes later he walked past and glanced at the scrap of paper in his hand after seeing me spot him in the crowd. It looked like he had completely forgotten already. Figures. He walked back to me five minutes later to explain that the plane was likely already gone, that nobody found it, and that sometimes "lost means lost". He said not to give up hope, but that it will likely require some phone calls when I get back to Seattle.

He showed back up at the bar ten minutes later with my journal and pen. The book was only about 3" by 5" in size and could have very easily have been overlooked or even tossed aside. It only had writing on about 15 to 20 pages. But it was important and they found it. And Air Canada earned a loyal fan.

I didn't catch the guy's name who found it for me. I tried to buy him a beer but he was on duty. I offered to buy him lunch when he took his break (I had a long layover and our flight landed 45 minutes early), but he waved it off and simply walked away.

Well, whoever he was, he really made my day. And made his company proud. Thank you, whoever you were.

Leaving Seoul, Heading South

Just a quick post before heading to the airport to meet our group from Snoqualmie and continue the journey through South Korea. We had a great three+ days in Seoul, which I will certainly be writing about when I get home. From here we head to Gangjin for a couple days with our respective exchange students and their mayor, then Kristin and I will bid goodbye to the group on Saturday and spend our final days in South Korea on our own again, just how we like it.

Seoul isn't a glamorous city and isn't anyplace that you need to spend more than 3 or 4 days in. The markets are incredible, the baseball game we attended was one of the more incredible sporting events I've been to, and, well, the food isn't bad. We did a stiff hike Inwangsan Mountain today to pass by a shaministic temple and gaze out over the city. We sipped tea and ate broiled rice cakes on a flower-lined balcony in the afternoon and we were almost run over by the exact same moped twice in two hours.

Going to miss the metro service, hoping Busan's is of comparable quality.

Two Weeks Without Games & Rocks

I've spent the better part of this week trying to convince Kristin to get some sleep, but to no avail. She came home from school on Saturday with a rather deer-in-the-headlights look on her. When asked what was the matter, she simply told me she had 5 papers to write before we leave for South Korea on Friday morning. In case that wasn't bad enough, one of the professors waited until Wednesday evening to tell the class what the topic was. As of Thursday morning, another professor has yet to reveal his mystery subject. So each night, around 1 in the morning, I began talking her into going to bed. Force was threatened on more than one occasion.

Yesterday I woke up at 4:15 to find the other half of the bed empty. She woke at 4 to get more work done. I can't tell whether I'm more concerned for her health and sanity or because she's starting to make me look bad.

Yeah, I know I know, "what do you mean starting?" Very funny.

As dumb-luck and Murphy's Law would have it: Puzzle Quest: Galactrix finally released yesterday on XBLA for the equivalent of $20. Why do the games I'm always most excited to get release the week I'm about to leave on a trip? It has happened far too many times. From what I can tell, it seems to be a deeply engaging puzzle-RPG hybrid just like the original game in the series, yet this one has a space-theme instead of your standard fantasy realm with knights and elves. I played the first game on the DS and was wondering if I would miss the point-and-tap controls on the XBLA version and the answer is... drumroll, please... sometimes. The shortcomings of the Xbox 360 controller's D-pad have been widely discussed (Cliff's Notes version: it's utter crap), but it wasn't until playing Galactrix that I realized the Control Stick isn't the most accurate tool either.

Maybe it's me (it probably is) but I would recommend to everyone about to play the game on the Xbox 360 that they pause a moment before pressing the A Button to confirm a move. If you're anything like me, the gem you want to swap won't always be the one you select -- even though you clearly believe you pointed right at it.

The new Gears of War 2 maps and title update have succeeded in giving the group I play with incentive to eject their COD4 discs and return to the dark side that is third-person shooting. If only for a night or two, then it was straight back to COD4. As much as I absolutely do enjoy playing Gears 2's multiplayer mode, it's the only game that I've ever experienced any sense of lag in when playing online. And that's not hyperbole, it really is the only game I notice this with. And the 8 or so guys I play with regularly all say the same thing. It's also the only game I know of whose title updates and glitch-fixes get immediately hacked and exploited upon release. I don't know if it has to do with the Unreal Engine or if people just have certain affinity for exploiting Gears 2, or what. But there have been three "title updates" now to fix myriad glitches, hacks, and exploits, yet the jerkoffs among us still find ways to cheat. Name one other game this happens in? Time's up. You couldn't, could you? Me neither.

The latest title update added a rather simplistic XP leveling system. In short, you get experience for kills and downs, lose some for deaths and for quitting and you level up. You don't actually gain anything with reaching a new level, well nothing aside from the sense of pride you feel when you show the world how large your e-penis is. Mine's currently a 16 out of 100. Despite it being said to require 7,000,000 XP to reach level 100, a few of Xbox Live's premier douchebags found a way to hack the system and level up instantly. This is a good time to let you know that it's very difficult to average more than 800 to 1000 points per match. Note that I said average there. As much as I would like to place all of the blame on the jackasses who exploit games and cheat their way to a larger Gamerscore, I can't help but wonder if any of the code for this game is bullet-proof. I've been to Epic multiple times now and I've seen how hard the devs and designers work. That's why I wonder if it's the Unreal engine -- something ain't right for one game to be so heavily glitched & exploited.

The XP needed to level up is only attainable through Public matches which tend to be the most laggy. I wonder how many levels higher than me my friends will be by the time I get back. Right now we're all somewhere between 12 and 25. Again, the number only indicates how little sunlight you see, err, how much time you spend playing Gears 2. There are Achievements at milestones for 5, 15, 25, 50, and 100. I'll never see 100 and probably won't see 50 this year. Then again, the newest map pack -- Snowblind -- is pretty awesome. They remade Fuel Depot, one of our favorites, and finally included the Courtyard map that shipped with the original PC version of the first Gears of War game. There are also two others, Underhill and Grind Yard.

As much as I'm looking forward to going to South Korea tomorrow, I'm going to really miss rock climbing. Kristin and I have been going twice a week now for nearly two months now and though my hands are completely torn up, we're both really enjoying it. Kristin got a little frustrated the other night because I had a minor breakthrough and was able to do a few trickier (albeit, beginner) routes that she couldn't. She admitted later to hoping that bouldering would be something that she would finally excel at over me, but it wasn't too happen. She's doing really good, and gets better each time, but she has a bit more of a fear factor at work against her and my longer arms and height make a lot of the routes easier. Not to mention I just have more upper body strength.

I went to Stone Gardens yesterday alone for the first time after my dentist appointment. I spent an hour or so upstairs in "the cave" and was very happy to finally a ceiling route that Kristin and I have been trying for over a month. It was all in the feet. It's only rated V1 (out of a scale of V0 to V12) because the holds were really big and not too far apart, but I wasn't even close to getting it last week and yesterday I did it on my second try. I also came within one hold from getting a V1+ too.

My brother said a lot of the V0 and V1's that he saw at Stone Gardens would have been V3's at the place he climbs in at Boulder, CO so that makes me feel a little better about struggling with what, mathematically at least, is "the easiest" route in the building. I should add that they do have a number of VB rated routes for total first-timers too. For the past month I would focus mainly on the V0 routes and try one or two V1's per night. Sunday night, I solved four V1 routes (none I had seen before) and then yesterday I almost got that V1+ and was actually able to start a V2 that I tried just before leaving. A lot of times even figuring out how to get on the wall to start a route is really hard.

Anyway, I know I'm going to miss the climbing while we're away, not least because I'm enjoying the increased muscle tone in my shoulders and arms, but also because I don't want my hands to fully heal and get soft again. I'm trying to get them nice and calloused and not climbing for 2 weeks isn't going to help that.

Posts will be few and far between while I'm in South Korea. I'm not bringing any blackberries, laptops, or netbooks. I'm sure we'll pop in at a cyber-cafe every other two or three days to check email and maybe post something short, but those who know me IRL will likely find it easier to get a hold of me through Facebook than on the blog.

Have a good couple of weeks. See you back Stateside on the 21st.

Author Blog

Doing something a little different today. My editors at BradyGames have invited me to make an occasional post about recent books that I've written and my current projects. You can follow these posts here on RG or by becoming a fan of BradyGames on Facebook. Feel free to leave any questions or comments here or on Facebook, but do try to keep it civil. Thanks.

Hello everyone, I’m Doug Walsh, a strategy guide author for BradyGames. I’ve been writing for BradyGames for almost 9 years now and have had the good fortune of authoring guidebooks for many of the best games to come out in recent years.

My editors have been keeping me busy this year with writing duties for Blue Dragon Plus, MadWorld, and X-Men Origins: Wolverine – not a bad way to start the year. And let me just say that if you haven’t played MadWorld, then you’re really missing out. MadWorld truly is one of the most artistic, entertaining, and hilariously violent games I’ve ever played. And I’m not just saying that because the good folks at Sega and Platinum Games stuffed me full of sushi and shochu while visiting Platinum’s offices in Osaka.

Speaking of which, you can see photos from my trip to Japan right here.

Our book for X-Men Origins: Wolverine will be on shelves later this month and though I’m a bit biased, any fan of the X-Men or comic books in general needs to check this game out. I really enjoyed the game’s light RPG elements and unleashing my inner Berserker has never been more fun. The Uncaged Edition (PS3 and Xbox 360 versions) is definitely not a game for the kiddies – Wolverine’s claws are razor-sharp for a reason – but it’s certainly one of the best comic book games I’ve played and is sure to be a great compliment to the movie releasing in May. Just be warned that if you want to find every Mutagen and collectible, then you had better pick up our book. Some of them are very, very well-hidden.

Lastly, and speaking of games based on comic book characters, I’m currently writing the strategy guide for Batman: Arkham Asylum (is this shaping up to be a great year for me, or what?). Naturally, I can’t reveal any details just yet, but having experienced nearly everything the game has to offer, I won’t hesitate to give it my highest recommendation. The blend of exploration, stealth, and combat is done exceptionally well and the developers at Rocksteady have done a phenomenal job capturing the Batman universe. I can’t get enough of the various Batgadgets and the writing, art style, and presentation of the game is very impressive. I hadn’t even heard of the game a month ago, but now it’s one of my favorite games of the year. And I expect it will be one of yours too.

The Best Rotten Ride Ever

Finally, after what seemed like weeks of steady rain, snow, and grey skies, the clouds parted and the sun shone through. As luck would have it, I posted a mountain bike ride at Moran State Park on Orcas Island for this very day. A group of 9 solid riders met in Anacortes for the early morning ferry to the San Juan Islands. Spirits were high, especially for me. We were headed to one of my favorite places to ride and many in our group hadn't ever ridden there, and nobody who had, had ever done my proposed route. Except me, that is. One of my favorite things about leading rides is getting to share my favorite places with those who have never been. The weather would be chilly (how chilly, we couldn't foresee) but the sun was out and the trails were a lot of fun.

After a mandatory coffee & bagel stop in Eastsound, we continued the drive around the horseshoe-shaped island to the trailhead I like to use near Cascade Lake. The route begins with a 1.8 mile kick-to-the-teeth. Good luck keeping your heart-rate below 180 as you grunt your way up and over the first few hills.

The group was keeping together well and I was confident we'd have a really great day. We regrouped at the start of the double-track climb up to Mt. Pickett and pedaled on. And that's when my ride ended. Despite it taking 6 hours roundtrip by car and ferry to reach this jewel of a trail system, despite it being my beloved bike's two-year birthday, and despite -- no because -- of me bringing my bike to get a tune-up in March, my derailleur hanger ripped in two at the start of the benign climb up Mt. Pickett and my day was done. The guy at the shop informed me when I picked it up that he straightened the derailleur hanger for me. I didn't know it was bent and if it was bent, the lack of ghost-shifting or chain-skippage is an indicator that the bend was minimal at best. I'm guessing the force he used to bend it back wasn't. As it simply sheared in two while pedaling a non-technical, debris-free, double-track path.

I have never in 11 years of mountain biking broke a derailleur hanger. I kept a spare with me for years when I owned my Giant, but hadn't gotten a spare for the Moots. I never heard of one breaking before.

Not wanting to stand around and listen to 8 different opinions about what I should do next, I tutored the group on the route we'd be taking (they had maps and Moran State Park is very well-signed) and I turned around and coasted back to the truck. Well, after taking off the chain and derailleur that is.

As luck would have it, one of my friends who also has a Moots mountain bike was driving by when I got out to the road -- she and her friends were going to shuttle Mt. Constitution (my group would climb it on their bikes). I asked if she had a spare Moots hanger, but no she didn't. She hadn't ever heard of one breaking either.

I decided that rather than take my broken bike and go home, I would drive to the top of Mt. Constitution, convert the bike to a single-speed, and wait for my group and do the descent with them.

The first sign that this wasn't going to be possible came when I reached a gate across the road before the summit. The road was closed for snow & ice. I thought about the route they were climbing and realized then that the uber-steep climb from Twin Lakes to the summit was on the north side of the mountain. I hadn't ever heard of snow lingering this late in the season at Moran State Park before, but it turns out the trail was buried with a few fresh inches from earlier in the week. There are portions that are unrideable in the best conditions. They would certainly be walking.

I knew converting a bike with a soft-tail and vertical dropouts to a single-speed was an iffy proposition. And I was right. It was simply impossible to keep the chain tension where it needed to be to keep the chain from falling off to a lower cog. I took out as many links from the chain as I could while still being able to actually close the loop, yet it took only a couple minutes of pedaling on the road before the chain popped off the cog. I tried to make a chain guide with zipties, but that didn't work either. My day was, indeed, done.

There are worse places to be stuck on a beautiful day with a broken bike than Orcas Island. I decided to not dwell too much on the misfortune and instead got cleaned up, drove back to Eastsound and got myself a cup of coffee and wandered the bookstore for a little while. Come 2 o'clock I drove back to the lake and napped in my car while listening to the Mariners game on the radio and feeling the chilly breeze blow through the open windows. I shook my head in amazement at the 8 year old boy swimming in the lake. The air was in the 50's and the water couldn't have even been that warm. Snow continued to melt on the hills around the lake.

The other riders returned shortly after 3:20. They descended from a direction I hadn't expected them to, and over 30 minutes later than I anticipated. They had to cut off a sizable portion of the route. The snow had slowed them down far too much. They had to walk the best portions of the trail due to snow, push uphills that could have been ridden, and simply didn't have enough time to do the backside portion of the spiral descent and certainly didn't have time to get around Mountain Lake.

In their words, I certainly didn't miss much.

And that's the last thing a ride leader ever wants to hear, especially after convincing people a 6-hour round-trip commute is worth it. And normally it is. I try to ride at Moran at least 1-2 times a year and there's no way I would if the trails weren't really fun. The trails are closed to bikes from May 15th to September 15th and I won't have time to return this spring, but I hope these 8 riders do indeed give it another chance in September when I return.

Now where did I put that phone number to the bike shop...

And Then, After We Leave Bali...

I admit, my first thought upon seeing the headline "Komodo Dragons Kill Indonesian Fisherman" wasn't that I wanted to go and see these things in person. No, that thought came immediately after looking at the map of "Komodo National Park" and seeing that it's just a couple islands over from Bali, where we will definitely be spending time on our RTW trip after working our way down from Vietnam by train (and boat).

Man, I like the sounds of that: Komodo National Park. I've always been fascinated by these large predatory lizards and, well, the idea of visiting a park named after them and going on a hike with rangers to see them (preferably from a safe distance) is just surreal.

Can't wait.

Too bad about the fisherman though, that must have been awful way to go.

Details about the park and how to get there.