Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Seoul to Japan to Seoul again - Seoul

It was a whirlwind of 10 days at the end of my contract at Aqua Planet on Jeju. There will be multiple entries to cover the various cities I visited because there's just too much adventure to fit it all in one post :)


After I finally reached Seoul (you can check out that story in my last entry here), I spent the next week practicing and recording orchestra excerpts and concerto expositions for potential summer jobs. Hopefully it will all pay off in the near future in the form of a paycheck as opposed to just the long term productivity of extra practice hours and more solidity in the pieces.

If you'd like to watch me play selections of some of the hardest music written for violin in the orchestra repertoire you can see me on my YouTube channel here.

Now I'm back in the Unites States, but the following entries are short tales of the various places I visited during my 10 day vacation.


After practicing and recording for a week indoors I had one day on my own before a friend from the United States flew over to join me on my vacation trip.

The day was beautiful, although cold, and I headed to Gangnam-gu and Apujeong for a much desired and long overdue appointment with a highly reviewed spa parlor. The lovely ladies spoke great English and when they realized that I'd booked more services than they'd scheduled in their book they accommodated me and had two girls attend to me to squeeze me through their tight schedule. It was blissful and now I'm spoiled for sure. Everything was super clean and super hygenic and they charged my phone behind the counter while I was being serviced and then spent quite some time calling the place I wanted to visit next to get me directions. The business is called Samantha Waxing and I highly highly recommend!

I felt so so so good and was so happy. They were all laughing
as I danced around the lobby with a huge smile on my face :-D
While I was waiting for the directions to my next locations I spotted an English sign outside the window that said "Super Juice". Some of you may now that I'm a huge fan of juicing and drink veggie juice whenever possible. While living on Jeju I had not had the opportunity once in 8 months and my body was unhappy, as was I, at the less than ideal nutrition I was getting.

So not knowing exactly what "super juice" meant, and guessing it was only fruit juice at best, I walked over to check it out and low and behold, they had a small selection of actual veggie juices just like you'd see at Whole Foods or someplace similar.

They juiced me up a drink right there and I was now so happy I could have burst but instead I skipped delighted out the door and started toward my next destination.

After a few steps I looked down at my half drank smallish cup and thought, "There is no way I will be satisfied only drinking one of these", so I turned around and greeted a slightly confused staff with a smile and another juice order. They'd never had anyone like me I don't think because they took my picture a couple times and asked my name and where I was from and where I lived in Korea and just stopped working entirely for a while.

Armed with two cups of fabulous freshly juiced deliciousness, I headed toward my next destination, a visit with some Dr. Fish. If you've never heard of Dr. Fish, they are fish that eat the dead skin off your feet and hands. They're popular in Asian countries and I'd heard of them, but never tried one and after working 8 months in all the salt water at the aquarium, my feet were more the ready for some love and attention of lots of little fish mouths.

I took this picture at the beginning before all the fish had swam over
and entirely engulfed my apparently delicious feet!
Feeling absolutely superb in all manner of body both inside and out, I concluded my daytime activities and headed toward Sinchon to meet a couchsurfing friend for some live jazz. Jazz is not the typical music of Korea and I didn't have high expectations, but it was quite nice really. Since I hadn't been to a club in over 8 months it was a welcome respite. We drank some tea, chatted, and soaked in the live jazz scene at Jazzda for what it was worth in Seoul.

The jazz club concluded my amazing first day playing tourist in Seoul and was especially rewarding after a long week of hard work put in recording.

I will mention here that I actually did get hired by one of the companies I recorded a video for, so all the time and effort put in was immediately rewarded this go around. If you're anywhere near Ohio this summer, stop by the Ohio Light Opera in Wooster to enjoy a musical with a LIVE orchestra!

And don't forget to say hello while you're there :)

The next day I woke up fairly late, gathered all my luggage together and met another couchsurfing friend for lunch. It was nice to catch up since we'd met at the beginning of my contract in Korea. Per the usual gentleman that he is, he helped me with all my luggage to check in to my hotel room for the next couple of days before saying goodbye. I gratefully showered, unpacked, and then hopped the metro for the long ride (think between and hour and hour and a half) from downtown Seoul to Incheon airport to pick up my friend from the States. Once you get to the airport it's another half hour walk through the maze of passages to the baggage area. I use the word maze only because there are many passage ways, but not because they are not easy to navigate. I found the Korean subway system far easier to use than the Japanese, although I would use either any day over any "system" in America.... My timing was perfect because as I was walking up, my friend was walking ?down? after just picking up his luggage so neither of us had to wait for the other. After a long flight (with no sleep) my friend was tired so he slept off some jet lag and I finished some backed up internet business I still needed to address.

The next day after a lazy morning and some coffee and pastries, we headed to our first tourist spot, Changdeoukgung Palace. Unfortunately, after we walked all the way there, we discovered it was closed on Mondays. Sigh. Having worked six days a week, I was unfamiliar with the Monday closing normalcy across much of Asia and so hadn't considered it in the schedule. Luckily, we hadn't walked far and the day wasn't bad weather, so we headed on to the next spot, Bukchon Hanok Village. This village is one of the largest in South Korea, and is a protected village of the traditional houses. You can get a walking map at one of the info kiosks and walk around for free. Because people live there they ask you to be quiet and respect their privacy, but it's a neat little area to get a glimpse of the older living style.

Then, after asking if it was open, we headed to the next nearest temple, Gyeongbok Palace, which was open on Monday and closed on Tuesdays so tourist have one or the other to see at least. I was really underwhelmed though. You couldn't get anywhere close to the temple. Even the stairs leading up to it were blocked off. You could walk around the grounds and see statues and displays of various kinds and there was a museum on the property which was all in Korea.

After we left Gyeongbok Palace, we got lost wandering the streets toward the tower, meandering through various underground shopping malls (Seoul has numerous underground malls) as well as above ground street mazes. We finally found the market we had been aiming for and after walking around and asking directions a couple of times, we located "restaurant alley". All the ajummas (Korean middle aged women), welcomed us and tried to direct us into their local restaurant. At the end of the alley my friend spotted a sign proclaiming an English menu so he chose to eat there. We had a pleasant bowl of soup each since it was rather cold outside.

I had a sweet potato chowder and my friend had a dumpling stew.
After the nice warm lunch, we braved the cold Korean winter weather again to hike up to the top of Seoul Tower. It's not the highest tower in the world but it has a fabulous view and the tower windows are not obstructed much so good panoramic pictures are easy to take (as opposed to the Tokyo Sky Tree I'll write about later). 

A city divided in two. The river is actually quite large.

The Seoul Tower was fantastic and we enjoyed it thoroughly. But it had been a long day so it was time to head back toward the hotel to rest before our next adventure; the DMZ/Panmunjom Tour.

Check back soon for the entry of my visit to one of the most intense country borders in the world.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

To get to Seoul

And the journey begins: from Seojikoji to Jeju City to Seoul.

With my good karma angel retired, demonized or off gallivanting somewhere else around the world, the end of my Aqua Planet days were slightly messy.

In long detail, my boss wanted me to work an extra couple of days but was unwilling to give me a bonus for extending my contract. Unfortunately, I needed those days to practice and record for video auditions that had a deadline in less than a week so he needed to make it worth my while to give up a couple or even one entire day. He wasn't interested in the deal so not only did I not make a little extra money on the side I also lost the remainder of that month's salary. I did however retain the time that I needed to finish my practicing and recording. It was several nights in a row of very little sleep and days in a row of an aching body, but I got the first recording done. You can check it out here :)

The next to last day in my double priced room (literally every other place I enquired about was half the price per month but none of them would allow extensive violin playing) I went to speak with my landlord and ask about my deposit and a ride to the bus stop with all my luggage. My landlord speaks very limited English but enough to communicate that he was unhappy with the amount of the electric bill over my four month stay. When I moved in I was told electric, water and internet were included, but oil to heat the floor was not. He had also said the room gets very cold in the winter time. I was planning on living there from November through February so I asked about a space heater, explaining that when I practice I need the air to be warm, not the floor. He voluntarily brought me a large space heater and I used it at night and in the morning when I was practicing. I also ran it on low during the nights and sometimes on high during the coldest nights just to keep warm. When I asked about my deposit being returned he claimed the electric bill was too high and he could only give back a third of the deposit. I inquired as to the cost of the bill to see if he lost money or simply broke even but he was still making more than the previously stated cost of rent of the other locations. He was definitely not hurting for making money on my account. I tried to reason with him that he had not only stated that electric was included but had also given me the space heater and said I could use it. AND I had also tried to save electricity by turning it off during the day and running it on low at night. He refused to budge so I called my boss to plead for help. I'm not sure who was lying between the two men, but in the end, no one cared and I didn't get my money back. Then my boss proceeded to defended my landlord, claiming he is not business minded but is a kind man. I disagree (insert angry fuming emoticon here). And in case you were wondering, I wanted a written contract and asked for one several times but was told it was unnecessary by the people I asked so I gave up trying to get one.

So without any Korean money (for the landlord had given the part of the deposit he did return to me in Japanese Yen) I took the free bus to the airport and handed over my three bags to the luggage storage under the agreement that I would pick them up in 24 hrs for a fee of 25,000 won.

It was pouring rain that day. And I mean pouring, not sprinkling or gently raining, but pouring. I was soaked within minutes of stepping out from under the airport cover and having no money, could not take a taxi. If you are wondering why I didn't change some of the USD that I had, the reason is because it was a Saturday and ALL the banks were closed, even the ones in the airport. So I proceeded to walk half an hour to town. I literally had only 5,000 won so I decided I would go to the large grocery/"walmart" chain and buy a juice and use the internet while I tried to dry a bit. As I was walking into the store two American girls and two Korean guys approached me and asked if I would be in a picture pushing all of them in a cart. Definitely one of the strangest requests I've had in a while, but I was down, so they brought over a cart, all stuck a foot in it and I pretended I was pushing it while someone took a picture. No, sadly, I don't have that picture nor do I have any clue where to find it. As I was speaking with them I mentioned that I was looking for an open exchange place since my landlord hadn't returned my deposit so I only had USD. One of the girls agreed to trade the money she had with me so I traded for 35,000 won. It was enough to pay the luggage fee the next day and have a small meal but not enough to find a place to stay for the night.

You may wonder again why I hadn't already made plans for a place to stay that night, and I will tell you that I actually had, but my plans had been foiled. Before leaving Aqua Planet I had asked a couple of my friends if they would be interested in coming to Jeju to party one last night and then experience a tradition Korean spa called a jimilbang. It's very cheap (only 7,000-10,000 won for 24 hrs) and so we could all go enjoy the spa experience and then sleep overnight and then they could catch the free bus back to Aqua Planet while I caught a plane to Seoul. Sadly, neither girl that had agreed so enthusiastically actually came that night. Now I can hear you thinking, why didn't I just go alone? I totally would have if something else hadn't thrown another corkscrew into my day.

For over a month I'd been asking about flights to my boss and the week that I finished at Aqua Planet I personally told him what day I wanted to fly to Seoul. Then a couple of days later I emailed him that I'd like to fly that particular day in the morning. The email was sent a couple of days before I wanted to fly (there are a lots of flights from Jeju to Seoul) and he tried to book the flight the day before I flew. That afternoon, after taking the picture with the cart, I had wandered to a coffee shop to get some internet and received an email stating that all the flights to Seoul the next day were booked and that I'd have to fly out on Monday. I replied back that I had no place to stay an extra day and no money so now what should I do? Then I went in search of a flight just to check...and what do you know but there were flights available. There weren't a lot and they were higher priced than my boss wanted to pay, but they were there. So I emailed him back with the website and said there were indeed flights, if he could please book me on the day I had requested. Then I realized that I couldn't go spend the night at a jimjilbang because I needed to have internet so I could keep checking when my flight might be.

There is another cheap way to spend the night in Korea: it's at a PC bang (room). These are small cubicles with really nice chairs, some snacky food, a pc and coat rack, etc, so that you can spend the night. I figured, well, I can rent a room for the night there and have internet access and privacy to shed my soaking wet clothes and try to dry out. My clothes were so wet that when I sat down I left a puddle when I stood up on the seat. My hair had water droplets running down it and my book bag was so wet that all my clean clothes were soaked as well.

As I sat in this coffee shop wondering what to do, where to go, and how to pay for everything, I got an email asking where I was from an acquaintance in Jeju. This person had an office in Seoul and when they found out I was homeless and penniless for the night and needed wifi, they offered to let me stay for free in their office in town. So I emailed back my location at the coffee house and was picked up and taken to this empty office building. One highlight was my acquaintance actually bought me dinner which I was so desperate for since I hadn't eaten food all day. Once I got settled in the office room I realized there was no heat. I hung up my "clean" clothes hoping they would dry over night and that the next morning I could change. Then I waited at my computer for an email from my boss. Soon it came with confirmation of a flight booked two days away. Since I had his phone number I signed onto Skype and called him up and sitting in front of my computer screen verifying that there were flights the next day I asked him to please book me a flight when I had asked since I had no place to stay and nothing to eat and no money to pay for anything if I wanted/needed. He wasn't happy but an hour later I received a cancellation of the previously booked flight and a confirmation of a flight booked the next afternoon. Finally, I could go to sleep. Or so I thought.

There was a cot with a blanket in the room, but it was so cold that I did something I've never done in my entire life, I covered every part of my body, including my head completely with the blanket. I had taken off my drenched socks in hopes they would dry and my feet were so wet that they stuck to the blanket every time I tried to move them. I didn't sleep much that night.

The next day my acquaintance took some pity on me and picked me up and took me to a Korean 5 day market. These are very famous markets and lots of fun to walk through. I couldn't buy any food, but I enjoyed walking around smelling it and seeing all the different wares for sale. The market was quite large and we spent the late morning wandering around it.

My other boss was in town that day and I made contact with him and he brought me along to a Korean wedding around noon and I got my free lunch for that day. Then with time to spare before my flight (4:15) he asked where I wanted to go and I told him a certain museum I had intended to go to with the girls the night before but then hadn't managed to get there. So he dropped me off and I toured it for an hour. Then it was off to the airport to get my luggage. Since I still had no Korean money and it was Sunday so the banks were still closed he offered to take my USD in exchange for buying my bags out of storage. When we got to the airport the banks inside were open so I was able to exchange money for the luggage and then when I went to retrieve my bags, was informed that the 25,000 won price was now 45,000 won! WOW! Almost double the cost because I had an extra 6 hours past the 24 hr mark. What could I do though? Stay in Jeju indefinitely? I angrily paid the fee, told my boss goodbye (who was the boss who had defended my landlord and so knew of my money predicament and brags of his financial status, yet didn't offer to help me pay the fee as a parting gift or show of kindness), and went to check in for my flight.

It has now been two solid days since a shower, I'm still wearing wet clothes, have only eaten two meals in the last two days, and slept approximately ten hours in the last four days. All I want to do is get to Seoul, meet my couch surfing host, take a shower, eat some food, and go to sleep.

BUT, my flight was delayed. First only 15 minutes, then 30 minutes, and then 45 minutes. WHY? I was starting to wander through the duty free shopping looking for sample perfume to spray on me to help cover the odor for the people who were unfortunate enough to sit near me on the flight. After 45 minutes we started to board. YEA! I was so tired I almost slept through getting bumped by the beverage cart multiple times and the kid behind me kicking my chair and the kids in front yelling and playing boisterously but I just ended up with a neck cramp from trying to tilt my head too far to one side in my attempts to fall asleep.

When I landed I gathered my luggage, which was all accounted for and only wore very mild signs of luggage abuse before heading for the subway. The public transportation basically everywhere other than the United States is really easy to use, so I had no problem finding the way to the right train and riding to the correct stop. When I arrived my host was waiting outside the subway stop and he directed me and helped me haul my luggage all the way to his place (It really wasn't that far. It just felt like it in the condition I was in at the time.). The sundry greetings were given and then I asked for a shower. Humorously, after I emerged my host declared I was a new person. Apparently when I had arrived I seemed exhausted and worn down and after my shower I seemed happy and alert. It problem had something to do with the fact I was literally jumping around his apartment in glee...

This is the adventurous tales of the journey from Seopjikoji to Seoul.

More tales will come of my Seoul adventures :)

Sunday, March 2, 2014

A short story: The She Puppy

It's not often I venture to town. Not that I don't like town, but because I'm too cheap to pay for a taxi, too busy to really enjoy the walk, too energetic not to wish I was running instead of walking with my purchases, too scared of the drivers on the narrow road in the dark with no sidewalk, too cold from the blistering wind to deem it worthwhile.

But it happened. My first day after I finished my contract, I went to town. It was a surprisingly sunny and beautiful day and since I wasn't so pressured with work constraints I could truly enjoy meandering around. As I headed down a less busy street with just a couple restaurants and a preschool I spied a bounding puppy across on the other side frolicking playfully behind a young boy. 

It's been a long time since I had any pets and it seems just as long since I've pet any animals. The sight of this playful and delighted puppy caused me to stop in my tracks, and catch my mouth hanging open several times wishing to call to the puppy but not wishing for it to cross the street in case of cars and also not to abandon its owner. As I stood there, mouth silently flapping up and down with my indecision, the puppy spotted me and sensing a friend started to bound out into the road. At first I turned away to discourage the puppy's direction, but soon realized that it didn't matter what way I was facing because the puppy was still doing its wandering puppy frolic dance slowly across the street. The boy wasn't calling it nor going after it so I jumped into action as I saw a car coming its way. I picked up the bundle of energy and wet tongue and crossed to the other side of the street.

When I get stressed my Korean language skills cease to exist entirely so mumbling something under my breath I made a questioning look and held the puppy out to the boy. He shook his head at me. Huh? The puppy isn't his? There was only a little grandma sitting at the bus stop left and she was already violently pushing away a phantom puppy in her vicinity and speaking very quickly in Korean.

Well, now what? There was no one else around. There were no houses nearby. 

I did have plenty of time so I decided to take full advantage of my lack of animal love in the recent months and carried the puppy to a small area just off the street very nearby. She was so well behaved but had no idea how to act like a puppy. She didn't know what to do with a stick. She didn't know how to play fetch. She didn't know how to even go get something I threw a foot away. She didn't know how to play tug of war. And she didn't know how to roll around in the dirt and just be a puppy. She nuzzled me and licked my hand and squirmed abundantly but if I picked her up she was a little baby. I could hold her any way I wanted and she didn't struggle once.


After "playing" for a half hour or so she climbed up in my lap and promptly fell asleep. I sat there and watched her and watched the people walk by. The boys would laugh and point. The men would ignore me. The girls would giggle. The women would start speaking immediately in very fast Korean and one even walked over and stomped her foot on the ground next to the dog as if to squish it?! 


Dogs are pets in Korea, but they are all very tiny ones that people paint pink and purple and dress up. There are also guard dogs chained up outside that always bark if you walk by. But there aren't really any dogs in between in the villages. And yes, Koreans still eat dog. 

Needless to say, I enjoyed my time with her and when I realized I didn't have all day to sit there nor was I really warm sitting still, I was conflicted about what to do with her. I couldn't just go house to house and ask if she was someone's puppy - there were no houses and I don't speak enough Korean. I've never seen an animal shelter here so I didn't know where to take her for adoption. I decided to just start walking and see if she followed me. I really wanted to take her home with me, but I was only going to be home another couple of days and the road between town and home is most certainly not safe from young puppies. 

After I walked the rest of the way to said road I turned around and there she sat, looking up with those big puppy eyes and floppy ears. "Now what"? She asked. 

I sighed. I didn't really have a good way to take care of her and I didn't know what to do with her either. But my selfishness for some puppy love and my fear of abandoning her found me picking her up and carrying her all the way home. 

The close passing cars scared her but she just clung to me tighter and would reach up to lick my neck and chin with apparently gratefulness. 

Once we got home I put her down and she very hesitantly came inside. She was very nervous and yet excited. She also was hungry I knew so I started looking up what human food I had that would be ok for dogs because I certainly didn't stock dog food and wasn't going to walk all the way back to town to get some with my last five dollars. 

I figured out some food for her and threw down a spare towel on a spare blanket on the floor next to my bed. She immediately jumped on it and checked out every square inch before running off again to discover more hidden places. It wasn't soon though before she was back to the towel and curled up fast asleep. She slept the rest of that day. I fed her again that night and took her outside to walk around and potentially do her business before going to bed myself.

The next morning I woke up to a pee puddle in the middle of the floor. I wasn't surprised.

The she puppy was more awake than yesterday. I fed her breakfast and then realized it was poring rain outside. I tried to lure her out in it but she wasn't going to leave the warm comfort of her new home so I gave up and found an old sock for her and started teaching her tug of war. She was a fast learner and soon she was chewing on everything. It seemed half my day was spent taking something out of her mouth and replacing it with her sock. That night she stayed with me again. I didn't know who to call or where to go so I delayed doing anything.

After four more accidents on the floor she started whining relentlessly if she wanted to go outside. It took me a bit to figure that out because she wouldn't whine at the door but if I walked toward to door she would run after me. 

She spent two days and two nights with me. I taught her how to be a respectful puppy and she learned quickly although she also learned how to be a challenging puppy. "How about this mom? Can I chew on this? No? Then how about this?" Before I caught her one night she completely chewed through my external computer keyboard. One less large awkward item to pack home I guess :-/

On the third morning I packed up two blankets and her sock and we headed to the beach for my last sunrise in Seopjikoji. She followed me, nearly tripping me sometimes, all the way there and romped around in the sand and made a toy out of some hard seaweed while I sat curled up in a blanket staring at the complete cloud cover that was entirely obscuring the sunrise.

When she tired out and grew cold she came and curled up with me. We laid there together like that for twenty minutes until it was time for businesses to start opening and time for me to see if I could find someplace to take her.

She was so reluctant to uncurl herself and join me on my walk into town, but with a little persuasiveness she trotted right along behind me all the way to town. Once we reached the edge of town I picked her up and as I headed up the first street a thought occurred to me. There was a couple that owned a local pharmacy that spoke a little English and had been very nice to me during my stay. Their pharmacy was nearby so I thought I might ask them for help.

I entered the pharmacy, the she puppy in my arms and greeted the husband working behind the counter. He smiled when he recognized me and then laughed confusedly when he spotted the she puppy in my arms. I explained as clearly as I could that I had found her and couldn't keep her but didn't know where to take her. He nodded and said, "Follow me".

He led me outside the pharmacy and two doors down to what I learned was his house. He called to his wife and left me standing in the doorway as he returned to his business. I waited and soon his wife emerged with one of their children. It was almost the same greeting she gave me that her husband had given me. I found this comical. But the smile on her face remained as I again explained I was looking for help because I didn't know where to take her. 

Her daughter peeked out from around her and I smiled and held the puppy out for her to pet, but she shrank away and her mother took the puppy from my arms. I handed the she puppy over and slowly realized; this was her new home. My friends were taking the she puppy into their home as their new puppy. It made me so happy. There weren't many people I had met that I liked as much as this family in the small village and to know the she puppy would be taken care of, loved and even have children to play with healed my worried and sad heart.

Today I am sure she's frolicking around, content and fed in a warm home with kind and gentle people to care for her. 

Finally, a story with a happy ending.