Monday, March 28, 2011

I Write for The Korea Blog!

Tomorrow is a very exciting day for me! I am headed to Cheung Wa Dae. What is Cheung Wa Dae you ask? It is both the office and residence of Lee Myung Bak, a.k.a. the President of Korea. Cheung Wa Dae literally translates to The Blue House (the roof is made of blue tiles), so this is Korea's version of the American White House.

A few months back, I applied to an online blogging contest of sorts. It was being held by KOCIS (Korean Culture and Information Services), which is a branch of the Korean government. To promote tourism in Korea they were selecting guest bloggers to write about their experiences in Korea.... and my blog was selected! It is a 10 month long contract and I am not 100% sure of what it consists of (other than blogging) but it seems right up my alley. 

After I found out I was selected things got a little quiet and I didn't hear much about what the deal was. But since then things have picked up and I received an invitation to the "Worldwide Bloggers (that's me!) Opening Ceremonies". The date was a school day so I knew I wouldn't be able to make it. I didn't know at this point what Cheung Wa Dae was but my co-teacher almost blew a gasket when I showed her the invite. She hustled it over to my Principal who was quick to not only give me the day off, but also granted it with paid leave as an 'official business trip' to Seoul. Wahooo! Word got out at school pretty quickly and even though I couldn't understand any of what was being said I felt honoured to be the talk of the town. So tomorrow is the big day. The schedule looks like welcoming ceremonies, followed my a lunch, then a trip to Cheung Wa Dae. I will most definitely be snapping pics all day and will blog about it. It's not everyday you get to go check out the President's stomping ground in a foreign country. 

So the new widget on my blog is a link to THE KOREA BLOG. On the right hand menu, on their page  is a category called Worldwide Korea Bloggers and it looks like this is where the selected blogs will be posted. There is also a huge list of other bloggers' addresses to check out. Any other information I am sure I will find out tomorrow when meeting both the other bloggers and organizers. I love being in KOREA!!!!

Shark Diving in Busan

          Over Christmas one of my girlfriends Jenna, got certified with her Open Water scuba diving certification in the Philippines. When she got back to Korea, she was infused with the fresh enthusiasm of a brand new diver. Diving is a sport that most people don't have the pleasure of trying out in life and even those who do, tend not to get 'out in the blue' that often. I ended off my trip to India last year in Indonesia and probably spent the better half of a month under water diving. I've had the pleasure of diving around the world, in 10 different countries and I am coming pretty close to my 100th dive. I love it. Diving a few times a year is fun. But getting the opportunity to do a lot of diving over a consecutive period of time is out of this world. Just like anything you do, with practice you become better and your comfort levels increase. Diving in the Gilli Islands, just off the island of Bali was so much fun. It is known for it's world class diving environment, but it was just a blast to be able to spend so much time under water and see so much. Because I finally got around to getting my advanced certification, there were fun things to do in the water like orientation drills, fish identification, learning underwater photography, night diving and drift diving. So when my girlfriend came back to Korea having loved her dives, it put the bee back in my bonnet. We were researching where, when and how quickly we could get back into a wetsuit and 30 metres below the surface in Korea. And so the plan hatched to head to Busan.

On a cold and snowy January night we found an advertisement for Shark Diving (all year round) in Busan, which is on the opposite side of the country, and we jumped on it. So a few weeks back Jenna and I, plus another girlfriend Jess (who had never been diving before) were all booked in.

We left Osan late Friday evening and arrived in Busan via the KTX (cross country fast trains) even later on Friday evening. I love Korea, it took us less than 4 hours to get from the Northwest side of the country to the Southeast, just like that. We found a cheap love motel and got a decent nights sleep and then set out for Hyundai Beach.

The Busan Aquarium is situated pretty much right on the beach, so we grabbed coffee and sandwiches and had breakfast overlooking the sea. The temperatures were much nicer down in the south compared to up in Osan. After a cold winter it felt so great to be breathing warm sea air. Even at 10 am the beach was full of Korean tourists feeding the wretched seagulls and just strolling about enjoying the morning.

Ok, the actual dive. We met our Dive Master and host for the day (a fellow Torontonian), and got the news that everyone else has canceled and it'll be just the 3 of us and him all day, sweet! We went through a brief intro, rules, regs, and an outline of what was about to go down.

This wasn't a normal dive on so many different levels. The max depth we hit was 5 metres, because obviously we were in an aquarium. The weird part was we were diving without fins. So you basically drop down (we were heavily weighted) to the bottom and navigate with a type of hop/jump/step kind of movement. It was like a moonwalk, and I would imagine this would be similar to how zero gravity feels. So keeping our limbs nicely tucked in we hopped around the shark infested waters. The aquarium held about a dozen sharks all way bigger than us. There were nurse sharks, black tipped sharks, white tipped sharks and hammer heads. There were also groupers that could've swallowed Jessica (granted she is 5 foot nothing, but these groupers were masssssssssive!), sea turtles and sting rays. Swimming amongst the big fish were hundreds of schools of little fish as well. What an adrenaline rush.

The aquarium has (safely) been doing shark dives for 9 years, so these fish are accustomed to seeing people strolling around their territory. Saying that though, we were advised to keep all ourselves tucked in and obviously take any other precautions not to piss these guys off. For example if a shark is headed for you just stay put and it will go around you. Yeah, easier said than done when an 8 ft shark is staring you down and headed your way. There is nothing like the feeling of seeing a gnarly toothed carnivorous fish headed straight for you. We had a camera but the pictures do not do any justice. The size of the fish is really skewed underwater and, and with movement and no flash most of the shots are blurry.  There is a great 10 second video on their website that gives you a quick peak of the underwater environment.

Our dive time was less than an hour and for parts of it we just chilled in one spot, absorbing the world around us. Our dive master had told us ahead of time to check out the aquarium floor for sharks teeth. Apparently sharks shed their teeth all the time, and can have about 35,000 in one lifetime. They are not attached to the jaw, they are in their flesh and when one falls out, like on a conveyor belt, the next one moves into place. Sharks have multiple rows of teeth too, which made them plentiful along the bottom. They camouflaged really well into the pebbled floor but we each managed to scoop a handful as souvenirs.

Oh and one of the funniest parts of the experience were the people visiting the aquarium while we were in it. Massive fish, huge sharks and stingrays are surrounding us every which way you look, but the people apparently found us the star attractions. All the kiddies (and most of the adults) had their eyes glued on us hopping about.  Forget Jaws..... look at the crazy foreigners!

After our shark dive we spent a while going through the rest of the aquarium. There were some awesome varieties of fish to look at and fun things to do. All in all  the experience gets a 9 out of 10 for me (10's are only rewarded for being out in the REAL ocean).

This is the view people got of us looking into the aquarium. 
It also gives a better perspective of the size of the fish.
The big one on the bottom was one of the massive groupers.

Saturday night consisted of dinner at the Wolfhound and a few drinks out. Unfortunately we woke up to a dismal and rainy Sunday. Our plan was to stay dry and take the 2 hour city tour bus of Busan, but that was a flop because apparently everyone else had the same great thinking as us. We eventually got on a bus but it was so steamy and gross; all the windows were fogged making for a not so interesting site seeing day. We opted to visit Jagalchi Fish Market. Saturday we watch them in their (somewhat) natural habitat, then Sunday watch people pick 'em out for dinner. Jagalchi was actually an amazing experience. Row after row of ladies decked out in full makeup and pink rubber smocks hollering here and there trying to sell their goods. Such a colorful place.

We killed a few more wet and soggy hours having lunch and shopping and then finally headed back to the station to catch a fast rain home. Great weekend! I highly recommend, even for new divers to check this out. A really interesting way to spend a Saturday, hanging out with sharks.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Hello's & Goodbye's: Dinner # 2

We had our first day of classes, starting a new year on Wednesday March 2nd. On the Friday we had a welcome meal to say hello to all the new faces replacing the old ones. Although it wasn't as fantastic and drawn out as the goodbye meal, it was fun in its own special way... read on.

Dinner # 2

The 'type' of restaurant we went to for the welcome meal was a samgyupsal one. Samgyupsal is basically really fatty pork, similar to strips of bacon but way chunkier, and fattier. At this restaurant we were served both marinated pork and plain pork. Every table has it's own bbq grill and is served trays of raw meat, and then, well, Bob's your uncle. There are both pork and beef (galbi) restaurants here (and probably some that do both). The beef ones are one of my favorite things in Korea, but because the pork is so fatty, I am not the biggest fan. But luckily, with all the banchal, I still walked away from this meal full to the brim. The selection was not as extensive as at the raw fish restaurant, but still delicious. We had spring rolls, vegetable patties, kimchi, onions, garlic, sweet potato, green salad, and lots of sauces for dipping. The traditional way to eat both galbi and samgyupsal is to take a leaf of lettuce and wrap it up with onions, kimchi or any sauce and just pop it down the hatch in one bite (the strips of meat are cut with scissors into bite size pieces after they're cooked). Going to a Korean BBQ restaurant is such a fun meal, especially with lots of people.

So what set this dinner apart from the goodbye dinner was the noriebang element (noriebang literally translates to singing room = karaoke, OUCH!).  At the front of all  the tables was a discreet little stage, and as the evening progressed and the soju flowed, that's where all the action was.

Towards the end of the meal I could see a little commotion going on (this was before I even noticed the karaoke). I asked my co-teachers what all the fuss was about and she said the singing starts soon and pretty much from that point forward, I knew I was doomed. I have heard stories from my friends that the english teachers are always picked on and zeroed in on to come up and sing under the spotlight and in front of curious eyes. My school is so big so I don't have any interaction with the majority of the teachers  on a day to day basis, so what better way to examine and check out the foreigner, than on stage? Ouch, ouch, ouch! I think I started blushing before anyone even entertained the notion of me going up. I was quick to beg my co-teacher not to make me go and she lovingly reassured me I wouldn't have to. Ha! 

First off, there is always lots of soju at these events. My vice principal, who speaks no english was making the rounds talking to people and was hovering ever so close to me. I heard my name being called and down he squats about 3 inches from my face to have a full on conversation with me, in Korean.  There are so many rules regarding soju drinking etiquette, especially with someone older than you. How you sit, where you face, how you pour, how many hands you hold the bottle or glass with.... it goes on. Needless to say I was nervous. But he was a happy camper and with some coaching from my co-teacher,  the ritual was done. Unfortunately I didn't get off that easily. By this time the karaoke was in full swing and people were dancing on the stage and my VP took me up ON STAGE to dance with him (scroll down to the series of 4 photos illustrating this).  Fun times, hahaha. It was actually really amazing, because both the pricipal and vice principal of my school are nice guys but very proper and pretty intimidating men. But this evening, they had let their hair down! It was so great to see the flip side of them, especially when I was being swung and twirled on the stage, boogying to Korean tunes. 

Does the embarrassment stop there? I think not. Before I even had time to get off the stage and scurry back to my seat I was swarmed by other teachers throwing the song book at me to choose my song. AHHHHHHHHHHHHH! I hate singing. Let me rephrase, I hate MY singing. Honestly, you have never heard anything so bad. Karaoke has never caught my interest for this reason. I like watching other people, but have avoided it most of my life, so I didn't have to look like the spoil sport who wouldn't join in. And actually, in Korea, I have overcome my phobia of singing a little bit. I have been pretty much forced to cause I have to sing songs with the kids in class, and a lot of them I have to teach them the lyrics. It is painful but it must be done, just like my 5 minutes of fame at the staff dinner. Oh ya, karaoke when I am really intoxicated isn't that bad either. But I was sober here, obviously. So I picked Kokomo, by The Beach Boys, not only cause I have always had a soft spot for that song, but I know all the words and how it is supposed to sound. Anyways..... thank god the lights were dimmed because I was giggling the whole time I was so nervous, and my face MUST have been a beautiful 10 shades of red.  I sang, I danced a little, I conquered. And of course, for 5 full minutes all the teachers got to unabashedly stare at me, but it was all in good fun. The following are my photos to prove it (the first photo I had to include, take notice of the painful look on my face when being introduced). 

And on one final note, the highlight of the evening for me was watching my VP drag the Principal of my school up on stage for a good old fashioned dance. It was awesome. Korea = Fun!

Hello's & Goodbye's: Dinner # 1

The academic school year officially ended on February 16th. We had a staff dinner that evening as an official farewell to the 10 or so teachers who were leaving the school. (Note: The pictures below are taken just in our section of the restaurant, it is only one of the many big rooms that could fit huge parties. I tried to squeeze everyone in the photo, but with over 1000 kids in my school, we have a HUGE staff).

Dinner # 1.

The goodbye meal was held in a sushi restaurant, and though it was delicious, sushi is done a little differently here, (typical, as Korea always puts its very own twist on things). So in essence, we went to a raw fish restaurant. It seems most restaurants in Korea specialize in something, so it's either a galbi/samgyupsal (beef and fatty pork on a grill) resto, or a crab resto, or an eel resto..... you get the picture.  So raw fish it was. Unfortunately everything happens in Korean so, I didn't understand any of the speeches or thank you's or general table talk, but we have so many teachers in our school that even with just the sheer number of us, it made for a festive atmosphere. In typical Korean fashion, first an onslaught of banchan (small side dishes) were served as we arrived. There was cooked (whole) fish, fish heads, salad with cubed raw salmon, cole slaw, tofu, mini hard boiled eggs, corn (fun to eat kernel by kernel with chopsticks), kimchi (but of course), mini frozen yams, small pork pieces, mussels, mandu (dumplings), donkatsu (breaded pork cutlet), garlic cloves and hot peppers, amongst a few dozen others I was sure to miss out on, and not to mention all the sauces. Although everything was served in mini portions, there was enough food to feed an army. I love all (okay, most) of the Korean side dishes, it's so fun to just pick and choose and snack on them all, like going out for tapas in Spain. Because I don't really do a lot of talking, I was full so quickly. Wrongly I assumed this was it.

Next, massive platters of seafood were brought out. There were lots of different shells in a variety of sizes. Some looked like oysters, some clams, maybe more mussels? Some of the jumbo sized ones I didn't even know what they were. There was also a selection of octopus, shrimp, salmon, and (ugh!) sea cucumber. So much fooooood!

Next, each person was served a little seaweed cone filled with rice, cause really, what's a meal in Korea without rice?  Like kimchi, they go hand in hand. Because this was presented so beautifully and there was a nice gap of time after the seafood, again I wrongly assumed this was it. I was informed the main dish, the raw fish hadn't even come out yet (I just assumed it was the raw bits interspersed throughout the meal).

Next course, the fish. I was stuffed but still had some of everything. It was presented really nicely, laid out on a bed of white sea-something (weed?) but it looked like noodles, and eaten wrapped in lettuce with a sauce or just on it's own. No clue what the fish was, but it was really nice and delicate.

Finished? So soon. Nope, not yet. Along with some white rice bowls, out came the mini burners and soup pots.  Soup was a combination of mushrooms, greens, fish, and noodles. Unbelievable. Everything was delicious but I felt like I could've been wheeled out of there I was so full, I have no idea how Koreans stay so damn skinny, they have amazing appetites.