Wednesday, July 30, 2008
Months ago, I became a fan of a raw food website called Gone Raw, which had one incredibly cool feature: you could browse recipes not only by the standard search box, but also by clicking on any of the hyperlinked words in what I later learned was a "label cloud." I thought it might be cool to add this little feature to my weblog, and was able to find a tutorial for configuring a label cloud that, although a bit intimidating, I was somehow able to follow successfully.
If you look to the right sidebar, you'll notice the label cloud, which contains keywords I've pulled from my blog posts to date. Click on any one of them, and it will take you to other postings tagged with the same label.
And in case you're interested in adding the same to your weblog, check out this link for the how-to.
Tuesday, July 29, 2008
But an hour later, still swatting at the biting bugs that were making nosedives for my ankles, I had to assume he wasn't coming. Probably I should have left much sooner, but I knew the doctor made special arrangements to meet with me at night after his clinic had closed, and the thought of him arriving late only to find me not there seemed somehow disrespectful. It was late, and dark, and the air was heavy, but I walked home, letting my mind empty and hoping that perhaps a little extra circulation might reverse some of the necrosis that had been spreading beneath the bandage.
At today's checkup, my suspicions were confirmed. When I asked Dr. Shin about our missed appointment last night, I could see that he was was confused. "No, tonight," he said, almost as if it surely must have been me that had misunderstood our arrangements. So it was. Somehow I couldn't be angry or upset. I'd become quite fond of this gentle man with tufts of gray at his temples whose hands had cleaned and cared for my wound more than a handful of time.
So tonight I went "under the knife" again, this time with the benefit of knowing in advance how the procedure would unfold. It made for a much more comforting experience, despite the pain and discomfort of the massive pressurized wrap around my leg. Laura, Dr. Shin's daughter, was there again to help with the translation. That was a kind touch on the doctor's part, as well. Everything seemed to go smoothly, him inserting injections and making incisions in all the right places, tightening up the stitches that he had placed during my first night surgery, sewing my leg up with all of the skill and grace of a well-practiced surgeon. "There will be some scarring," Laura had told me, translating for her father. "But don't worry," she added, "my father is like a plastic surgeon. He will make the scar as small as possible."
It wasn't until the surgical procedure had ended and I was nursing my left leg back into circulation again that I met the rest of Dr. Shin's family, a second daughter, younger than Laura, and a third child, his son, the youngest of the three. As it turned out, tonight was the last night the family would be together before all three of the children left for Vancouver, Canada, where they lived during the school year and studied in an English-speaking public school. I felt somewhat horrified to realize that this surgery had been scheduled during their last night at home, feeling guilty for having taken time away from their togetherness. At the same time, I felt quite honored that the doctor would go to such trouble to meet with me, his foreign patient, and give me the treatment that my wound apparently needed.
I left his office that evening feeling gratitude again for the people that have been placed in my path since coming to Korea. I couldn't have chosen a more caring doctor to help nurse my wounded body back to health, and being surrounded by his children last night, talking to them in English about their upcoming return to Canada, I felt almost as if I were part of the family. It's always a beautiful thing to be reminded of the goodness, the giving-ness, that exists in others. It tends to bring about the same response within us. When you receive a genuine gift from another, you somehow can't help but feel the desire to give back.
Monday, July 28, 2008
It's a strange thing, the transiency that permeates life living abroad. I've always considered myself an adventurer at heart, a free spirit with a soul that longs to experience life firsthand from a wide range of geographical perches. My family and friends who know me well, I hope, appreciate this as one of the qualities that defines me, while others who are perhaps less in tune with my curious yet genuinely humanitarian nature might write me off as some kind of a gypsy.
It's true that my life has been a constant stream of movement. Since my early years as a youngster, following my parents along on cross-town and cross-country moves, I became well practiced in the art of packing my things, settling in to a new home, and finding my place among new friends. And the pace only quickened as I reached my college years. I don't think I can truthfully count the number of places I have lived, or the number of times I have moved. But that's okay with me. It's part of the learning curve that is my life, and I wouldn't change it.
Still, it's a reality I have had to adjust to, that here in Korea, I am rubbing shoulders with so many others for whom life is also a sea of change. Most of the foreigners in Korea have come to work as an English teacher for twelve months. That's the standard contract length. Of course, there are a host of expats, mostly settled in and around the suburbs of Seoul, who have chosen to make themselves more of a permanent fixture in Korea. I'm somewhere balanced between the two, for once -- not particularly eager to sprint out of Korea at the first chance I get, though certainly not ready to put down the kind of roots that would keep me for years on end.
With Penny gone, I'm reminded that life is fleeting, that friendships are to be appreciated and savored, and that I am blessed to have been touched by people who have come into my life, bringing rays of sunshine with them. Penny is off to begin another chapter of her life, in the same way that each foreigner I meet will in turn. And then one day, it will be me again who spreads wide my wings and soars to some new perch from which to take in the world around me.
I am grateful to have learned through my life experiences that hellos and goodbyes, while often tinged with emotion, are never final or absolute -- that the world, despite how tremendously large it is, can still in its own miraculous way bring people full-circle back together again. I am grateful that I have learned how to take that feeling of "home" with me wherever it is that I have chosen to be, and that I can be thousands of miles away from family yet still somehow feel "surrounded" with the love, support, and care of those who matter most to me.
Life is a sea of change. Sometimes we drift, sometimes we swim against the current. But always, in the end, it is the sea that carries us beyond our humble beginnings and into the vast and open space where more than we have ever imagined can become possible.
Saturday, July 26, 2008
I left Dr. Shin's office with relief that the severe swelling I experienced yesterday was a normal part of the healing process and nothing to be alarmed about. The good doctor gave me the green light to loosen or remove my bandages when the swelling gets unbearable and give my ankle a gentle stretch to get my circulation flowing again. (This, of course, is my loose translation, but I think I got the gist of it.) And also, I've graduated to 48-hour stretches between appointments! This means I can stop single-handedly keeping the taxi drivers of Seosan in business! :) Today's trip to the doctor marks my tenth since my leg troubles began. The statistics: 1 emergency room stint, 1 hospital visit, 2 surgical procedures, and 6 office visits. Wow, I'm becoming a regular in medical circles all around town.
After leaving Dr. Shin's office, I stopped in at the pharmacy next door to refill my prescription. The pharmacist always greets me with a warm hello and a chilled mini-beverage from his "vending refrigerator." It's always some kind of energy drink laced with gobs of vitamin C, which is probably a good thing, as I don't get much citrus these days (it just goes against my grain to pay as much for a kilo of oranges as I would for a gallon of gasoline). I sipped down the cool drink while I waited for my prescription to be filled, and I felt a welcome, if odd-timed, smile wash over my face and a quiet contentedness start to kind of ruffle through my insides like the tickling of a feather. Wherever this feeling was coming from, it felt fantastic.
In a bright mood, and joyfully aware of the absence of rain at the moment, I decided that rather than pile into yet another taxi cab to whisk me home, I'd just hoof it. The skies were chalky gray, and ahead I could see a dark cluster of storm clouds building up for another downpour. But for the moment, at least, no rain was falling, and I could make out the tiniest whisper of sunshine from behind the gray haze. As I walked slowly back down Seosan's main street, I felt that my senses were somehow heightened, that I was, for whatever reason, taking in the buzzing of comings and goings around me with more than my normal dose of perception. (Maybe there was more than straight vitamin C in that energy drink...)
I passed a young mother, dressed to the nines, with her three little kids in tow, traversing the hectic sidewalks and detouring around the cars that had unkindly pulled up onto the pedestrians' walkway. The youngest looked to be about four, and he toddled behind with full concentration on the puffed rice cake he was trying to navigate to his mouth. My eye caught a colorful umbrella to my left, down the narrow little where a local woman usually sets up shop. Today, she had laid out baskets of carefully portioned tomatoes, and a large, steaming tub filled with purple-flecked corn on the cob, steamed and ready to eat. I sidestepped two taxis that were about ready to sandwich me just outside the bus terminal, and put on a little speed to make the green light across to Seosan Mart (where I do most of my grocery shopping these days. You don't want to get stuck at this light, as it's a minimum 3-minute wait -- trust me, I've eyed the clock more than a few times this week from the back seat of my taxi ride to the doctor's).
As I rounded the last stretch before crossing the street and heading up the big hill towards home, I passed one of many local eateries, with patrons sitting out front under large shade umbrellas. It was going on noon, and Seosan's version of cafes lining the piazza was, while notably less charming than its European counterparts, equally entertaining. It wasn't the locals queuing for lunch who caught my attention, but a loud, flapping sound, like birds wings rattling against a metal cage. Curious, I looked, trying to place the sound. What I saw evoked a chuckle -- two fish, soon to be on a serving platter, were flapping their little hearts out on the hard cement sidewalk, just out of reach from the safety of the bucket that just moments before had held them.
Splash! My attention snapped away from the flip-finned fish as my foot sent muddy water flying every which way. I had been too immersed in the cafe scene to notice that I was heading right for a mud pit of a rain puddle! Somehow, it didn't seem to matter -- my jaunt across town had been nothing out of the ordinary, yet still quite a walk to remember.
I try to take things with an open mind and accepting spirit, but by this afternoon, I was DONE with the dog bite from hell. I was done with the limping and done with the doctor's visits and done with the iodine stains peeking out from underneath my bandages. My leg hadn't been shaved since.... I couldn't even remember when, and I had just plain run out of smile to paint across my face.
I wanted to be free to hike the hilltops and ride my bike to the grocery store and just... be normal again. It was, then, absolute medicine for my soul to meet up with with Penny, Francois, and Chetty tonight after the workday -- and workweek (hooray!!) -- had ended. This was it, one final round of pizza and beer at our favorite Friday night hangout before Penny left Korea for good. I arrived in it-might-kill-me-to-be-happy spirits but not ten minutes passed by, I think, before I had all but forgotten the worst of my troubles. Good friends will do that, and a few bites of thin-crusted, mozzarella-laden pepperoni pizza don't hurt either!
As Penny handed me a sweetly framed photo of the two of us, yet another parting gift from this little lady with a big heart, I felt my own heart sink a bit with sadness at our pending farewell. In literally three weeks time, I have grown quite attached to this sweetheart of a girl from Down Under. It seems like surely we've been friends for months, so easy and enjoyable has our time together been. I've stopped by her and Francois' place often on my evening walks home from work, and have ended up staying for hours, chatting over slices of perfectly chilled melon and nectarines. We roamed the boardwalk and side streets of Daecheon Beach together in our mud-splattered bathing suits, hiccuping all the way, and climbed the hills of Seosan, which was a perfectly beautiful hike right up until Penny's four-legged friend deciding to give me a laceration or two. And she's been my angel these past days as I've begun, as she says, my "week of healing."
The cuddly little blue teddy bear she brought by Thursday night sits on my nightstand now, a sweet reminder that however far I roam, the genuine caring of good friends can make any foreign place feel just like home. A few laughter-filled hours later, my spirits are high, my tummy is full, and my head is ready to hit the pillow. Good night, world!
Thursday, July 24, 2008
Seaweed soup is a Korean cultural icon. Ask any pregnant or nursing mother about their pre- and post-baby diet, and seaweed soup will rise to superstar status. Harrison's wife, Terry, was the first to introduce me to this wonder food, as she was still consuming it daily when I arrived (just a couple of months after the birth of her third child). And curious about the health benefits she claimed it possessed, I did a little research of my own (thanks, Google!). As it turns out, she was right.
This soup, made from the dried leaves of seaweed, has been part of Korea's history for 5,000 years. Nursing moms rely on it to help stimulate health breastmilk production, and students usually drink up the night before the big exam, as it is believed to support brain function. Seaweed itself contains the broadest range of minerals found in any food, according to one source -- including potassium, calcium, magnesium, iron, and iodine. It is reputedly an excellent blood cleanser, and contains a host of vitamins (particularly B-vitamins which your body needs to produce energy). Seaweed soup is also touted for promoting fast tissue repair, preventing diabetes and heart attacks, and reducing cholesterol, arthritis, and acne.
All this, and it goes down quite smooth...
Later tonight, after enjoying some home-brewed medicine, compliments of Tahira, I found a recipe for making my own seaweed soup (Mi-Yeok Guk, in Korean). If the above health benefits sound appealing to you, you might just want to make your own batch as well:
Traditional Mi-Yeok Guk (Seaweed Soup)
30g dried seaweed for soup
60g flank or sirloin steak, sliced into thin strips
2 garlic cloves, crushed
1 tbsp Asian sesame oil
2 tbsp dark soy sauce
1 tsp instant beef stock powder (can replace with dashi)
1. Soak the seaweed strands in warm water till they have become soft and supple, then discard the soaking water and set aside the seaweed for now.
2. Heat a large pot over medium heat, then add the sliced steak, garlic and sesame oil and sauté till the meat has browned nicely. Add the soy sauce and seaweed and sauté for another minute to make sure that the meat and seaweed are taking on the flavour from the garlic and soy.
3. Add the water and stock powder to the pot and stir to make sure that the powder has dissolved, then bring to a vigorous boil. Boil for about 15 minutes, then put the lid on and reduce the heat to a simmer and leave for another 30 minutes, or till the seaweed is very soft and the liquid has turned slightly milky and thickened.
Note: Photos and recipe from Kitchen Wench
Tuesday, July 22, 2008
I have been taking my time wandering through its pages, pondering after over a phrase or a paragraph and painting large swaths of yellow with my trusty highlighter to mark the passages that most appeal to me. The book is entitled "The Law of Attraction, The Basics of the Teachings of Abraham," by Esther and Jerry Hicks. It's perhaps a little "out there" for those who come from more traditional religious ideologies. But if you're willing to have an open mind to the sources or channels through which messages can be revealed (as I am), then you will find the wisdom packed into the pages of this book to be invaluable.
The core message of the book is that each of us is responsible for shaping and creating the experiences that make up the fabric of our lives -- the very thoughts that we think are the seeds from which our experiences are born. We are like magnets, bringing into our life experiences the things that occupy our thoughts. We can attract abundance, success, good relationships, money; or we can attract loss, failure, loneliness, and poverty. It is all within us.
I find this message so empowering, and precisely in tune with my own personal philosophy on life, fate, destiny. I can accept that there is a mental and thus spiritual creation of all things before they are physically manifested. I suppose this mentality falls hard on those who choose to see themselves as victims of circumstance. But for those of us willing to take accountability for the direction of our lives, willing to see the connection between not just those things that we do, but the things that come to us, this book is pure inspiration.
If you are interested in learning more about this book, you can visit the following link.
Monday, July 21, 2008
experience treating another one of my compatriates, a man who was quite insistent with the minutiae of his treatment, and somewhat untrusting of the doctor's experience and wisdom. I tried to communicate through Harrison that I would be a different patient entirely, that I of course would trust his recommendations and experience. I, after all, had never been attacked by an animal. I was completely at the mercy of those with experience -- in this case Dr. Shin -- who would able to guide me back to good health.
Dr. Shin explained that my wound was quite deep, and that he was concerned there might be muscle damage. He needed to open the wound a bit further to inspect it for any further complications. We would need to wait on stitching until probably Thursday. In the meantime, I needed to come back at 6:00 for the first surgery. I could tell from the exchange that this wasn't a popular idea. 6:00 fell right in the middle of my workday. (I work from 12:00 until 9:00 PM).
Teaching at such a small hagwon, there is absolutely no substitute coverage for me. So if I can't make my classes, they are cancelled. This being the case, I was given the distinct impression that, as concerned and caring as Harrison was, the expectation was that I would of course fulfill my normal teaching schedule despite having an attack just a little over a day ago that had landed me in the emergency room. I was completely blown away, then, by the generosity of this doctor who had just met me, when he agreed to return to his office 9:30 PM tonight for a special visit. Certainly a doctor with his prestige didn't need to be coming back to the office after hours. It was certainly a special favor on his part to offer to do so. I felt humbled at his giving spirit.
Finding the energy to push through 7 hours of teaching while sitting in a chair with my wounded leg propped up next to me proved to be an enormous challege. Halfway through my fourth class, I could feel my blood sugar drop, and my hands begin shaking. I felt I was near passing out, which was unsettling. Just about then, my cell phone rang. It was unusual that I had my phone with me at school, and even more unusual that it would ring just as a break had opened up in my teaching schedule (today was the first day of the instituted dinner break after my first 4 classes). As I answered the phone, I was relieved to hear the voice of my dear friend Chetty on the other end. He had called to see how I was doing, and it did my soul a lot of good to talk with him for a few minutes, and to be reminded that I was not alone here in Seosan.
Three hours later, when my last class ended, I took a taxi to the surgeon's office. As promised, he was there waiting with his wife, head nurse, and 17-year-old daughter, who was home visiting her family between school sessions in Canada, where she attended high school. I was grateful to have her there, as her English was quite good and she was able to communicate to me each step of the surgical procedure. First, the head nurse fitted my leg with the same kind of wrap used to constrict your arm for taking blood pressure. Only, this was on a massive scale, and within moments, a machine had compressed wrap's grip on my thigh so much so that it was somewhat painful. But I understood: the surgeon needed to restrict the blood flow so that the he could cut into my leg with minimal bleeding.
I was instructed to roll onto my right side so that the doctor had better access to the wound. Lying on his surgical table in this position, I reach my arms across my body as if giving myself a hug. As much as I knew this procedure was what my body needed in order to begin healing, I also knew that more shots and cutting and strange medicines was going to cause some additional stress to my already traumatized body. And though Dr. Shin had the highest reputation for his surgical skills in Seosan, I was going on faith that his expertise would match with the needs of my body, and this his wisdom and adept hand would be enough to ensure the best of all possible recoveries.
So as I lay there, encircling myself in my own little hug, I sent messages to my body of calmness, peace, and faith. And I continued this over the next hour as the surgery took place.
Next came the pain shots. There were several injections of local anaesthetic around the wound. I actually lost count of how many pricks I felt on my lower leg. But I praised his thoroughness -- it would pay off later when he began his incisions. It was an odd sensation, as the numbing medication spread into my tissues. I could feel the pressure of his fingers on my leg, feel tugs and movements that must surely be cutting, but there was no sensation other than the dullest awareness that something was going on doing there.
He proceeded with this for some time, while his daughter asked me questions about the U.S. -- either out of boredom or curiousity on her part, or out of pity for me. It didn't matter the reason, it did help to pass the time. And with each further step of the procedure, she gave me a much-appreciated heads-up. "My father is now deepening the incision." "My father is now cutting out the dead tissue."And the best of all: "My father says you are lucky, there is no damage to the surrounding muscle."
I was so happy to hear those words. His initial diagnosis (during my office visit earlier today) sounded as if the depth of the wound had caused some serious damage, but now, with this news, I felt assured that my recovery could progress much more quickly. In fact, after a closer inspection of the wound, he decided that he would begin some preliminary stitching to begin closing the gashes. So I held on for a little while longer, my left leg completely numb at this point from the pressurized wrap on my thigh. I could feel only a whisper of tingles in my toes as the surgeon sewed two lengths of strong, black thread into my wounds.
With the procedure completed, I sat on the surgery table to regain feeling in my leg. The surgeon's daughter told me that I needed to return to the clinic every day this week for a check-up, so that her father could make sure no secondary infection developed. Later this week, he would need me to meet with him for another procedure in the evening, when he would trim away any tissue that was not healing and close the stitches. I left the doctor's office that night, not with fear or concern, but with a genuine respect and appreciation for this family that had come together at such a late hour to help a foreigner in need.
I took a taxi home, and had been inside my apartment only a minute when my phone rang. It was my mom, checking in to see how I was doing. I couldn't believe the timing of my two phone calls today. First Chetty, calling just at the moment when I needed a boost of energy. And now, my mother, calling just as I had returned home from my surgery. I counted those not as coincidental happenings, but as gracious gifts from the Universe that I had been counted and was being taken care of. It was a serendipitous feeling, and as I settled to sleep for the night, despite the turmoil of the past days, I felt a sweet peacefulness envelop me at the realization that despite the vastness of the Universe, I was Known.
Sunday, July 20, 2008
Incident #1: Drama with Harrison over unexpected contract changes
Incident #2: The Peeping Tom turned intruder turned lingerie thief
Incident #3: My run-in with the jaws of the devil dog
As upsetting as the issue was that I had with Harrison early last week, he has really been there to help me when I've needed it. He actually stopped by my apartment last night at 10 PM after finishing his teaching shift, to check on my wound. His reaction was almost identical to that of the nurse during my emergency room visit last night... but even more pronounced. He offered to drive to a nearby pharmacy for some gauze and cleansing solution so that I could redress my wound before going to bed, and then told me he would meet me the following morning to take me back to the hospital.
Harrison met me in front of Penny's apartment this morning at 10. We drove to the farmhouse so that he could talk to the dog's owners about whether the dog had received its rabies shots. The owners were, naturally, nowhere to be found, and while Penny and I waited in the van, the ear-piercing barking that ensued from my furry white assailant was enough to put me on edge. Harrison eyed the dog closely as he walked back to the van, and as we sped back to town to drop Penny off at home, he offered his advice. This kind of dog, he informed us, is a very common breed here in Korea. It's a Korean fighting dog, and can be very vicious. (Think Doberman -- the kind of dog people keep on standby as burglar insurance, the kind of dog that hesitates not before attacking anyone that attempts to cross its path.) Harrison's final caution was to NEVER try to pet one of these dogs. Chances are better than good that you'll end up with a fate similar to mine.
Next we headed to the hospital, which was quite backed up with weekend people traffic. We got our number for the queue and had a seat. An hour later, I was shown to a cot and told to lie flat while the attending doctor looked at my wound. I was so grateful to have Harrison there to communicate for me. There was quite a bit of verbal exchange as I lay there on the white sheet covering the cot. The doctor flexed and rotated my ankle, obviously checking for breaks or sprains. Fortunately, none of his motions caused any extraordinary discomfort.
Then, as the doctor began literally scrubbing out my lacerations, I clenched my fist and tried to bristle against the stinging pain that resulted. It seemed go on for quite some time before I could hear his footsteps gradually fading. He returned minutes later with bandaging. With the ordeal finally over, he properly wrapped my leg and ankle, and then gestured for me to stand. Even with subtle motions to step off of the cot, my wound was producing so much pain that tears sprang to my eyes. The thought of having to limp around for the next however many days was deeply concerning to me, but my attempts to try to locate some crutches were unsuccessful. Apparently, because there were no sprains, etc., crutches were not being offered to me. Harrison took me to the in-house pharmacy, where the pharmacist behind the counter handed him my prescription (a pain and antibiotic combination), and informed him that it had been ready for me since last night. Why couldn't someone have helped me find the pharmacy!?
Next, Harrison drove me to the office of one of Seosan's most reputable doctors, an orthopedic surgeon named Dr. Shin (haha, that's actually his name, but I just realized it's also quite a pun!!). His office was closed (as it was Sunday), but Harrison told me that he felt it was best I transfer to the care of Dr. Shin, rather than continue treatment at the hospital. I was in full agreement on that count. We would return to the clinic tomorrow morning and talk to the doctor about him taking on my case then.
The last stop before heading home was the local branch of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, which is the religion of my family. After hearing the news of my dog attack, my mom's only request was that I please try to find the nearest church building and request a blessing for my body to heal quickly and without complication. Out of respect for her, and because I do believe that faith and prayer can bring about some miraculous results, I asked Harrison if he could help me find the church building. I was surprised when he replied that he knew just where it was. A few minutes later, we were parking right outside a multi-story building housing a restaurant, several offices, and the meeting rooms for the church's Sunday services.
I didn't know how fortunate I was that the church was located so near my home until I was inside, speaking with a young girl from Arizona, who is volunteering for a year and a half to work as a missionary in Central Korea. This young missionary told me that she came to Seosan several times a week, including every Sunday for church services, because it was the nearest LDS church in the vicinity. Still, her bus ride took an hour. I think I could probably ride my bicycle here from my apartment in under 10 minutes. Finally, I was able to ask for a special prayer, or blessing, for my health and recovery. By the time I left, I felt my spirit had calmed. My mind seemed much more focused on the possibilities for my healing rather than the inevitability of my current pain. I had made a mental shift, and that in and of itself was healing.
As we drove back home, Harrison offered me two parting gifts: an umbrella (the rains which had usurped most of yesterday's daylight hours had returned), and a carry-out bag holding a tuna roll (chamchi kimbap) and a container of spicy rice noodles and fishcake (ddokboki). Being that my mobility was so poor, he had bought lunch for me so that I could go immediately home and rest. I disembarked from Harrison's van feeling very indebted to him for the kindnesses he had shown me today. Truly this was above and beyond the call and responsibility he holds as my employer and sponsor. Still, I felt these kind actions generated from a spirit of genuine desire to help. And it was encouraging, and reassuring, to feel a strong positive relationship in place again between us.
The rest of the day was a parade of cheerful friends calling and stopping by to check on me. Penny brought triangles of sticky-sweet watermelon and a few books I might enjoy reading. Dave stopped by to see if I'd like a few scoops of Baskin Robbins' ice cream as a treat later that evening. And Chetty came by to share some peaceful, meditative music and just be some good company for a while. By the time Chetty had left for home and Dave had returned with my ice cream scoops (walnut, and some kind of blueberry-cheese, delicious!), I literally felt as if someone had wrapped a warm, soft, cozy blanket over me and rubbed my shoulders until my whole body had relaxed.
Even with the terribly shitty experiences this week had brought to me, I couldn't fail to acknowledge that good had surely come of it. Wasn't it a beautiful discovery to make, knowing that despite being so far away from my roots, my family, and many friends, that here in this small little town in the middle of some until-quite-recently completely foreign country, I had a support system, a network of genuine and caring people who would see me through the worst of times? Truly, if we just look below the surface, everything can have an element of positivity.
Saturday, July 19, 2008
. . . We neared a tree on the left shoulder of the road, and I could see a rather large dog lying near its trunk, its white fur matted down with rain and mud. It looked rather beastly, and I kept a bit of a distance as Penny approached him and held out her hand for him to sniff. He recognized her, that was certain, and slowly he proceeded to raise up on all fours and respond to her with some long, wet licks. Then Fido looked in my direction, and walked towards me. I held out my hand, slowly, wanting to give him an opportunity to familiarize himself with my smell.
I've been around dogs as much as the next person, I guess. I even owned a dog for a short time. I know animals can smell fear or nervousness. So as we approached one another, I monitored my emotional base to make sure he could sense trust from me. He sniffed at my hand, my fingertips, the cuff of my pants, my ankle. And then he reciprocated with a few slobbery but gentle licks, which seemed to say he accepted me. All seemed to be going according to plan.
But in a split second, everything changed. A deep, low, fear-invoking growl suddenly surfaced from somewhere closeby, but before either Penny or I had a chance to realize what was happening, I saw a flash of white and felt a burning sensation as something deep and sharp cut into the flesh just above my ankle. I looked down in shock to see this dog, who had just a moment ago given me a token of friendship, tear into my leg with determined aggression. I pulled back, completely stunned, my mind straining to interpret the nerve signals firing up from what had instantly become a bleeding mass. I limped further away from the dog, my only solace being the rope tethering him to the tree just beyond my reach.
I looked down to see blood gushing from a long, deep gash, and instantly the sight of it, coupled with the effect of hiking for over an hour on an empty stomach, left me feeling light-headed and weak. We were only about 3/4 mile from home, but as Penny and I attempted to continue on the road leading back to town, I realized that I was not going to be able to make it back on foot.
Within minutes, Penny had flagged down an approaching car, carring a local farming family headed out of town. Through gestures, we were able to quickly garner their help -- one look at my leg, and they herded us into the backseat of their car, minutes later dropping us off just outside my apartment door. The next few hours were more or less a nightmarish blur. I grabbed my wallet and health insurance papers from my desk, and hopped into a taxi with Penny heading towards the local hospital. Once admitted to the emergency room, I was ushered to a cot while an on-call doctor began removing my shoe and sock and inspecting the wound. His assistant approached and as soon as she took a look at my leg, began making terrible noises that, regardless of language, indicated that whatever was going on down there was NOT pretty.
Two hours later, I had been allergy tested for contraindications to some kind of medicine the nurse was planning to shoot me up with, shot in both the arse and my left forearm with menacingly large needles, and had nearly fainted and vomited from the immediate effect of these unfamiliar drugs as they started coursing through my bloodstream.
With little ability to communicate with the doctor, I had to be content with the shoddy patch-up job that the doctor had done on my wound. He somehow was able to explain to me that I needed stitching, but that because the wound was from an animal bite, they have to wait a few days first. I was still bleeding through the gauze as I hobbled out of the hospital. I thought I had understood something about recieving a pain/antibiotic prescription, but there was no one there to help us find the pharmacy and, as the evening was dragging on and on, Penny and I finally decided it was time to head home.
An hour later, I was at Penny and Francois' kitchen table, my leg propped on an adjacent chair, trying with all of my energy to focus on the plate of clams and pasta and fresh parsley loving laid out before me, and not on the perilous incident that had undoubtedly changed the course of the next few weeks. Penny apologized profusely, but I wouldn't hear it. She was not to blame. No one was to blame. It was just one of those things, and it happened, and that was that. There was no undoing it and it was best that I just start focusing on my healing.
But all kinds of fears creep up under the guise of realistic concern when you're brought head to head with an unexpected crisis. What about rabies, I thought in a half-panic. With the dozen plus jabs that I received before embarking on my round-the-world travels in 2006, rabies had NOT been on the agenda. How would I know if I were at risk? And why couldn't they stitch me? What would happen when I returned to the hospital tomorrow? How was I going to get through the night with the throbbing pain from my ankle?
A few glasses of wine and an hour of candlelight later, and my mood was tranquil, my spirits calmed. I was ready for sleep and anxious to meet with Harrison, who had offered to take me back to the hospital for more treatment Sunday morning. As I laid my head back on my pillow and thought of the trauma of the past few hours, and of the past few days, I took solace in the sweet reminder that I was not alone, that I was so very fortunate to have many caring people around me, and many caring people far from me, whose thoughts and prayers would surely be reaching me over the days to come. It was almost enough to allow me to black out the angry bite that a four-legged stranger had inflicted on me just hours before. The devilish jaws of this insidious animal may have wounded my flesh, but I was determined to see that my spirits stayed high, intact, and unharmed.
Imagine taking the grandeur of Niagara, stretching it out to a width of 15 miles, and then splicing it up into pieces, so that instead of two of three major falls, you have literally hundreds of them (there are as many as 260 on record). It is one of the widest and tallest waterfall systems in the world.
The Devil's Throat is the oldest and largest fall in the complex, one of the most dangerous to approach, and one of the most spectacular to behold. Movie buffs familiar with the classic film "The Mission" will remember the protagonist, a peaceful humanitarian and monk intent on helping the indigenous peoples of the Guarana tribes. He climbed the falls at the Devil's Throat in order to pass into the tribal territory and make a connection with the Guarana people. Flash forward to present day, Seosan... and bear with me as I take a literary leap to connect the dots between Brazil and Korea...
This morning came and went with no change in the steady, heavy rainfall outside my window. Monsoon season had indeed descended upon Seosan, and it seemed there would be no reprieve from the precipitation that was most certainly staying put for the next several days. It was unfortunate, as I had missed quite a few of my daily walks and hike due to the drama with work and with Seosan's Most Wanted (a.k.a. Mr. Lowlife) that seemed to make a complete mockery of an otherwise peaceful entry to Korean life.
I was eager to get out and stretch my legs a bit, but with the rain coming down in heavy sheets, it was nothing doing. So, I stayed holed up in my tiny little one-room apartment, losing myself in one project after another -- a recipe hunt for a Korean-style cabbage dish, reading up on yoga poses, tweaking my Facebook page, finding good excuses to procrastinate entering report card grades for my 115 students. The day literally evaporated, which seemed quite ironic, given that just outside my window, the weather was doing anything but. Finally, about 5:30 PM, the rains died down and I seriously contemplated picking up my tennis shoes and going for a walk. After I finish this one last project, I told myself.
A few minutes later, there was a knock on the door, followed by a familiar voice. It was my friend Penny, stopping by to see if I'd like to join her on a hike. Realizing that my good intentions would all too possibly fail to materialize if left to my own timetable, I thought there seemed no better plan than to go along. A little company after a lonely Saturday sounded like the great way to round out a relaxingly quiet day, and I knew I'd enjoy Penny's company. Plus, with Penny leaving the country soon, I knew I had precious few opportunities remaining to learn from her where some of Seosan's best hiking trails were located. A few minutes later, I was sporting my workout gear and we were out the door.
We climbed and chatted for nearly an hour, clomping our way uphill through seldom traveled mountain trails and then downhill again, ducking under spiderwebs that had become illuminated by the strings of pearly dewdrops from the afternoon rain. We turned off of the trail connecting one mountain to the next, and continued on along a rural but paved road leading straight through some of Seosan's most picturesque farmlands. The backdrop of rolling hills and late afternoon sun, coupled with the lifting clouds and deep saturated greens made for some awe-inspiring sights. About an hour into our hike, we started down a narrow one-lane country road that snaked past yet more farmland as well as some dilapidated lean-tos and shacks.
"I have a little secret," Penny began, "and now that I'm leaving, I think you're the right person to share it with." My mind quickly started turning circles, my curiosity trying to pin down what this secret might be. She hadn't hinted at anything all afternoon, yet I could tell from her tone that it was something important to her. But first, she began with a question: "How do you feel about dogs?"
Penny explained to me that she had befriended a poor dog that was chained to a tree right along the road, and that she often stopped to play with him and give him some attention. It's true that Korean dogs, in general, are treated quite miserably. They are tied to trees with short leashes, given no opportunity to run or play freely, and quite often look despondent, neglected, and downright depressed.
Being a country girl herself, Penny had a natural affinity for animals that seemed to know no bounds. Where she had gotten the idea to get chummy with a strange dog, who probably had fleas and a whole host of other maladies, not to mention a sharp set of teeth was beyond me. But her secret was this: she was worried for the dog's wellbeing and hoped that she could pass the torch on to me to befriend her "pet."
(to be continued)
Thursday, July 17, 2008
That was, until about 11:00 this morning, when I managed to pry the sleeping mask off of my eyes and face the world. It had been only a little more than 5 hours since nodding off to sleep post-sunup. But I had less than an hour to get cleaned up and dressed and make my way to the school for our daily staff meeting. And after all the drama that had presented itself between my boss and I earlier this week, I wanted to make damn sure I kept things as positive as I could until I was certain the storm had all blown over. (Yesterday's meditation session, by the way, was significant in helping me center and getting things back on a positive track again.)
After rising from bed, I unlocked the sliding glass door leading out to my balcony and stepped onto the damp tile floor to open the blinds. Just the thought of touching the vertical blinds a few hours before had send chills up and down my spine as I thought of the whistling stranger who had been positioned just on the other side. But now, with the coming of a new day and fresh morning sunlight trickling through the narrow gaps between me and the sidewalk running along the length of my balcony, I was ready to emerge from my self-imposed "lockdown."
As I went to adjust the blinds, I couldn't help but notice that something didn't seem quite right. Was something missing? Or was it my imagination? Where had my brand-new black lace bra gone, the one that I had bought in the States just before leaving for Korean, the one that I had hung on the drying rack on my balcony last night? What about the pair of underwear I had left to dry on top of the washing machine? Was it gone too? It was then that I noticed the rather obvious gap towards the eastern end of my window where the blinds had been misaligned by some outside force. Anger shook me as the reality of the incident settled over me: the ill-intending stranger who had stood outside my window for the better part of an hour last night had done more than just stand there. He had reached his ugly hand right up through the bars on my window, knocked my blinds out of the way, and stolen my bra and undies.
I went through the scenario a few times in my mind, hoping that maybe I could come up with another explanation for my missing bra. But no, I was certain, I had hung it out on the laundry rack on my balcony, just as every other Korean family does every single day of the week. I suddenly felt that familiar and entirely unsettling feeling of being both vulnerable and violated seeping into my skin, which reciprocated with an outbreak of tingles and bumps that confirmed to me the worst of my suspicions. And in that moment, it was apparent to me as well that the menacing door-ajar discovery I made at half-past midnight last night was much, much more sinister than a case of mistaken identity.
The lowlife who had stood outside my window and watched me, the same lowlife who had taken my underwear, who had reached inside my balcony just a few short feet from me, had also entered my apartment building, found my room, and deviously attempted to enter without my knowledge. This was beyond what I was prepared to keep my mouth shut about. With the full force of last night's incident weighing on my mind, I proceeded to the school, knowing that I needed to break the news to Harrison.
An hour and a half later, Harrison had all but completely restored my faith in the goodness and helpfulness of the Korean people. He had contacted the police, who came to my apartment with him to take down a report. He had told them that for the next few weeks, it was their obligation to make additional night rounds to look for suspicious characters near my apartment. He had even volunteered to drive by my street on his late-night/early-morning drive home after finishing the last of his TOEFL prep classes at 1:00 AM. He had spoken to many of my neighbors to warn them of the perpetrator and to ask them to keep an eye out for anyone suspicious. He had written, laminated, and hung several posters warning the apartment community that the police were looking for a man who was stealing women's underwear. And he had brought his toolbox and muscled several screws into the mosquito screen outside my balcony, so that there was no way anyone could reach his or her hand inside or out of my balcony window again. Wow, Harrison really came through on this one.
It was amazing the difference in my feelings of overall safety, knowing that so many measures had been taken to ensure a safe living environment for me. I don't know whether the S.O.B. who came around last night had any intentions of returning, but I'm willing to take it to the bank that any plans to stand outside my window again will be quickly discarded when he is shamed into submission by one of Harrison's "Most Wanted" posters!
At the conclusion of a tiring yet fulfilling day in
And yet, as things always seem to have a way of doing, barely 24 hours after uttering these simple words, the bottom dropped right out from under me. It all started on Monday afternoon when my coworker Christine enlightened me with the fact that we were entering the “busy season” at our hagwon (private school). This week we needed to prepare the written exams for all of our classes, next week administer them, and the week following, grade them and write up report cards with comments for all 120 of our students. And before I could even exhale, she informed that this cycle would repeat itself again two months later, and two months later, and two months later again. (And I was feeling pretty sorry for myself until I found out that the previous teacher experienced this whole assessment insanity every single month!)
My jaw started to gravitate towards the floor at the realization that this was no small thing. I have fifteen classes, only two of which overlap in curriculum, and writing up exams to match classroom instruction alone would take, I knew, more than a little midnight oil. But there was no wisdom in ignoring it. Denial was only gonna dig me in deeper. So that very night, I started drafting up multiple choice and true/false and fill-in-the-blank and matching and oral dictation questions for one class, and then another. (Yes, I know, I can be a bit OC about whatever it is I wrap my head around doing… why should this be any exception?)
So a week ago yesterday, I had worked a full day at school, gotten home at 8:30 PM, and put in another 5 hours on the test-writing project. Wednesday night, I was hitting the books until 2:30 AM. By Thursday night I was dragging, but I knew with Mud Festival on the wings (and standing plans to leave either Friday night or Saturday morning with Penny, Francois and Chetty) for Daecheon Beach, I had better try to get as far along as I could. I managed to squeeze out another late night Thursday and even an hour or two on Friday after work before meeting up with “the gang.” I was 90% finished, but was seeing fill-in-the-blanks in my sleep, and knew the best medicine was to just take the weekend off!
Enter Mud Festival. (I’ll write-up about this one separately, so check for it later this week!) I’ll just be really brief for the moment and say that some R&R, great company, quality conversation, and some in-depth pillow time was just what I needed to be ready to face work again on Monday.
If only! I found out Monday that a new class (which I admittedly had been contracted for, so no surprise there) was going to be added to my plate – a “kindy” class, with zero-proficiency students. After just finishing a hellishly long workweek, it wasn’t exactly a sugarpill to get that little memo. But it didn’t end there. The drama kicked up a notch with a lot of junk that I also won’t go into, only to say that my boss and I had a bit of a “difference of opinion” when he presented me with an unexpected change to my contract schedule. Trying to navigate through the layers of cultural nuances without making a complete ass of myself proved to be, at the outset, more of a failure than a success. But two days, some fitful sleep, and a good cry session later, I’m feeling like things are back to good.
And then, tonight... Wow, I’ve got a horror story that just takes the take. Maybe I’m just overreacting a bit because I’m a single woman and I live alone and I’ve had more than my fair share of exchanges with creepy men. But I swear, that old saying “When it rains, it pours” couldn’t be more accurate.
Finally tonight, with all of my exams printed and copied and ready for tomorrow, I decided to take a little time off this evening and start to do some planning for my upcoming vacation. (My school closes during the week of August 4th, which means I’ve got a week to do some traveling). So I settled in at my desk in a strappy black tank and short shorts, trying to keep up with the heat and humidity that’s been building relentlessly from one day to the next. My head bobbed back and forth between my computer screen and my Lonely Planet
Seosan had a nasty day of rain today, with the tail end of the typhoon spinning up from
As I continued my reading, my concentration kept breaking with the sound of a repetitious whistle outside my balcony window. It was dark outside, but my blinds were “closed” and my bedroom ceiling light was on, so there was no seeing out. (Eerily, it is entirely possible to see IN to my bedroom, as my blinds don’t seem to shut entirely, something I learned after experimentally “stalking” my own apartment last week. The fishbowl factor is terrible; I feel totally exposed most of the time I am in my apartment.) I kept working. The whistling continued, and it was apparent to me that it was more than just some random whistling outside my window. You know how you just have that sense sometimes that something is directed at you, even when you don’t exactly have any circumstantial evidence to prove it? Something in your gut just seems to know. Inner wisdom, I guess.
This was definitely a male voice, and my insides were all signaling me that this person had me on his radar. The whistling went on for over an hour, a series of calls followed by a few minutes of silence, before the whistles would resurface from the silence again. The longer it went on, the more bothered I became, but I figured the best thing for me to do would be to ignore it. At this point in time, if whoever was standing out there got some kind of a reaction from me, then there’s no telling IF they’d ever go away tonight, right? Finally, it seemed the whistling stopped. Relieved, I kept at my reading.
It wasn’t but a few minutes later that I had the shock of my life. Sitting at my desk, which is at the far end of the same wall as my front door, I thought I heard something, a faint noise. I glanced across the room to the door and couldn’t tell exactly, but it seemed as though my doorknob might have moved. Just typing this now is making my skin seriously crawl.
Weeks ago, when I first moved in to the place, I started a little habit of flipping the safety latch over the door after coming home. You live alone, it’s smart to take precautions, I suppose. It doesn’t matter that
So, I thought I heard a noise, and popped off of my chair to check things out and put my mind at ease. I HAD locked the door, right? It was then that I realized that someone (who I could only purport to the whistling prowler) had helped himself in to my apartment complex, had sneakily turned the doorknob to my room, and had succeeded in opening my front door without my even knowing it. As I stepped closer to the doorway and saw the gaping 5-inch gap, large enough for someone to put their hand through, I was overtaken with rage, fear, vulnerability, incredulity, all in the same moment. I could feel the adrenaline, my fight response, burgeoning up from that powerful reserve within me that has sprung into action on those rare occasions when my safety has been threatened. And I yelled – top-of-the-lungs yelling, mind you – to the S.O.B., wherever he was hiding, who tried to walk right into my apartment. My stomach literally flipped at the thought that, had I failed to chain my door after coming home from work tonight, my situation could have been far, far worse.
It was after midnight by this time, and my hands were shaking badly as I walked back to my desk and picked up my cell phone. I texted Tahira, my co-teacher, who would be getting off work shortly. I then called my friend Dave, who lives just a 2-minute walk away, and told him with rattled breath of my near-miss. Tahira and I talked for a solid 45 minutes after she got off work. By 2 AM, she was heading home. It’s now 5:10 AM and I haven’t yet been able to get back to sleep. But I’ve got to try. The teaching day will begin again before I know it.
My only saving grace is that Koreans are a drinking bunch. It’s very possible this perpetrator, whoever he was, was just some slovenly drunk dude who had a little too much soju in his belly to be thinking clearly. It’s hard for me to contemplate the possibility that this was premeditated and intentional, and I actually don’t think I’ll be sleeping soundly for quite a few nights now, as all of my instincts will be on the alert for any unsafe signals out there. One thing’s for damn sure, I’ll be getting some kind of decals to cover my balcony windows pronto, and I am going to fight tooth and nail to be moved to Tahira’s 2nd floor apartment next month when she leaves for home. Signing off and praying for a little shuteye,~Melanie
Wednesday, July 16, 2008
I knew that sooner or later, it was to be expected that there would be a disagreement or conflict of some sort between my boss and I. I just didn't realize that it would be quite on this scale. I also didn't expect that he'd fight so dirty. But it was what it was, I lost a fair amount of sleep over it the last two nights. During this little crisis, if I may call it that, I worked hard to hold onto my belief that the best course of action would be to maintain a positive mind, and to believe in a swift resolution. I coached myself in trusting in my own gut-level feelings and intuition to steer me toward the best possible outcome and as little collateral damage as possible.
And I worked at the sentiment of blame that seemed to be lying obtrusively just below the surface that somehow, from a perspective other than my own, this whole issue of disagreement was brought on by selfishness, shortsightedness, and inflexibility on my part. I didn't believe those things to be true, but beyond any criticisms or accusations pointed at me, I knew that I needed to find a way to bridge the gap of offense and misunderstanding that had tarnished what had been a mutually fulfilling working relationship and friendship. That was the hardest to bear: that this person whom I had spent several months building bridges with, had suddenly turned into someone that I didn't recognize. Small, close-knit EGA (my academy) had become my "family" in the weeks since my arrival here, and the thought that now my relationship with the key person linked to my livelihood here was strained and tense was something I just couldn't stomach.
So, what did I do? I used this experience as a springboard for my explorating and ashamedly spotty study of meditation. I came to Korea with many goals in mind, one of which was to begin a solid practice of meditation. I have yet to show any real consistency with my practice, but I am learning to use it as a tool to help me transcend the noise of daily life and experience the stillness of what is. And that's the point, after all.
What follows is an intimate look into my innermost thoughts as they surfaced during this most recent meditative session. I wrote this journal entry separately, intending it to be for my eyes only, but as I think about the purpose of my blog, and particularly of the shaping and growing that my experiences here in Korea are providing for me, I felt inclined to share it here, hoping that it will perhaps spark within you some questions or curiosities about how you can tap into the wonderfully calming, centering influence that meditation can bring.
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I am still a complete beginner in the practice of meditation. Sometimes it seems an overwhelming thing to wonder at how I can sit in utter stillness and contemplate only the rhythm of my breath, to still the thoughts that swirl inside. But after the past few days in which things have been weighing heavily on my mind, I knew that meditation was calling me.
I started out simply, sitting cross-legged on my plush yoga mat, the doors and windows in my small room closed, a fan circulating a cooling breeze, and the flow of simple melodies through my headphones. I felt I needed something other than the silence to help me lift out of the weight of the world that I was feeling.
As the melody carried on in my ears, I tried to simply focus on my breathing in and out. Just breathe, breathe, breathe. And then naturally, I started to picture all my strains and tiredness, my fears and uncertainties, my frustrations and sadnesses, being emptied out through my breath. And as I breathed in, I could picture healthy, clean, loving air entering my lungs, infusing into my body. I continued this for some minutes.
I am reaching a stage where the "honeymoon" is ending, and the realities of navigating a career and a life in a foreign place are becoming more and more daunting. I have had some upsets in the past 2 days with my boss, which have been weighing on me heavily. And yet, I know that what I put out into the universe, what I think about, what I believe in, will be echoed throughout the waves of life and ripple back to me again. So I have been working with myself to continue creating the positive, the envision the best of all outcomes, to believe that the wisdom and love that I need to exist with peace and happiness in my life is within reach.
So it was a beautiful and empowering thing what I next experienced in my meditation session. As I continued to center my thoughts on my breath, other smaller thoughts continued to surface. I would simply acknowledge them and set them aside, and return to the thought of my breath. But then, a thought came to me with a more powerful force, a force which my body responded to special attention. I felt my breath deepen, as if I were entering into a deeper cognition. The thought was simply this: "The answer is within you." I felt it then, as I feel it now, like the tenderest of touches of divinity, a soft and loving energy sliding down my shoulders, surrounding me. I melted into this awareness. It felt so inviting, so beautiful.
As I continued my contemplation on this thought, another came to me, with even more power. It was such a clear and simple, yet profound, awareness that I felt as this thought introduced itself to me: "The answer is love." And suddenly, it was as if I was being washed by a waterfall of energy. I felt love radiating around me. I felt the absolute truth of it, the truth of those words, the truth that the anwer inside me, the answer to the essence of what I need to find a joyful existence, is LOVE. It is that simple. I sat for the next few moments wanting to just hold on to that beautiful feeling surrounding me, like a bubble, a shield, that seemed to put any negative thought or reality so far from my reach. Tears streamed down my face, as my body deliciously enjoyed this feeling so strong that it could not seem to be contained.
After a time, my thoughts turned to my colleagues, my "work family," with which, until these past days, I have given and exchanged love and respect. I saw Sunny, our school secretary. I saw Terry and her little boy Ben. I pictured Christine. And Tahira. And I pictured Harrison. As I saw each one in my mind, I enfolded them one at a time in an embrace and, with my arms wrapped around them, spoke in a genuine voice, "I love you." I made it as real in my mind as it could be in physical form. I wanted them to feel and know absolutely that I loved them.As I ended my meditation session, I felt a stillness and peacefulness that I hadn't felt for some time. It was a necessary reminder that the fruits of meditation are worth the time to cultivate. My meditation experience today was sweet and full, and left me feeling lighter somehow, reminding me in the simplest of ways that the answers I seek are within my reach. The answer is within me.
Sunday, July 13, 2008
Mineral mud. In liberal doses. This is the attraction that draw thousands to what has become in a short time Korea's most popular annual festival. Daecheon Beach, renowned for its unique blend of minerals naturally occurring in the soil, has carved out quite a name for itself as the home of the mud "makeover." For nine days straight, foreigners the country over (and a fair amount of Koreans, which was pleasantly surprising) turn out for morning-to-midnight mud-a-thons, mud wrestling contests, mud slides, mud massages, mud races, swimming in mud fountains, and of course, the ubiquitous mud painting that is most likely each visitor's first exposure to the grayish goo.
Mud is the single unifying element bringing together people from a wide cross-section of backgrounds and nationalities, and giving them reason not only to slap a fresh coat on perfect strangers, but then turn around and tackle them (all in good fun) in the wrestling ring two minutes later. And then, when they've had enough dirty fun, it's time to head to the beach and let the ocean waves wash their bodies clean. (This of course, is soon thereafter followed by a return visit to the mud buckets... at least, that was the case for me.)
When Chetty, Penny, Francois, and I started discussing the prospect of attending the Boryeong Mud Festival together, we knew right away we were on to something good. Penny had access to a tent from the school where she worked, and Chetty and I had sleeping bags to contribute. Penny and Francois had a connection with a Korean guy living in nearby Taean who was planning to drive to the festival, so we even had "wheels." And before we knew it, we had schemed up a pretty spectacular weekend -- wallowing to our hearts' content in mud, splashing in the ocean, partying it up, and camping somewhere near the beach when our bodies finally caved from exhaustion.
We left Saturday at noon with Jeff and some of his Korean friends, and drove south along the coastal highway, dodging pockets of light rain that sprung up along the way. The views of Korean's emerald hills and brilliant green rice fields were enough to keep Penny and me entertained as we headed towards Daecheon. Before long, we had arrived and managed to find one of the beach huts housing buckets and paintbrushes and mud that seemed to be practically evaporating into thin air. Everyone, literally everyone, seemed to be in on the fun, and if you didn't think quick, you were left without a paint brush or left to wait until the bright-orange-shirted Mud Festival official helpers came to replenish the buckets with another dose of mud.
After spending some time all muddied up, I have to say that pigs are a lot brighter than they get credit for. Being covered from head to toe with liquid clay actually offered an immediate relief from the stifling rays of the sun (which had managed to overtake the rainclouds and make a fine appearance for the balance of the afternoon). Not only did the mud provide a natural "sunscreen," but as the breeze would blow in from the coast, my wet body would prickle with goosebumps, and I could feel my outsides tightening as the mud dried into place, enveloping me in a grainy, light plaster. (Girls, you know that feeling, when the mud mask you've painted onto your face starts drying and you can hardly crack a smile because your skin has turned into a semi-permanent museum exhibit? That's what I'm talking about.)
We spent the rest of the day flitting from one mud exhibit to another, resting here and there with a bottle of something cold to wash down our parched throats, wading in the salty ocean, and relaxing on the golden-brown sand spilling up from the shore. My camera, unfortunately, had to go into hiding as my fingers were in absolutely NO condition to try to operate it. (You can either be an onlooker, or be in on the fun, but unless you are toting around some kind of mud-proof disposable, it's next to impossibly to do both... that being said, there were a LOT of folks there with big expensive cameras, making the most of this very lively photo op. They were, however, in all cases staying a pretty safe distance from actually touching any mud themselves.)
Later that night, we managed to make friends with a very outgoing party of Koreans camped out for their dinner meal under the large canopy umbrella where we had carefully stashed our valuables earlier that afternoon. As we arrived and started poking around for our backpacks and cameras, a jovial guy seated at the outdoor table picked up on our plight and helped us locate our things. Then, in what turned out to be one of the highlights of the entire Mud Festival experience, one by one he and his friends drew us into their circle, offering a bite of this, a few words of that, a shot of soju to swig down together. By the time we left, we had posed for several photos from cameras belonging to both camps, and we all had that "natural high" feeling that comes when, as a traveler, you've made a connection with others that feels genuine and authentic and in no way touristy. It was definitely memorable.
The rest of the night was a blur. We fed ourselves well on freshly caught -- and raw! (but oh so delicious!) -- white fish fillets, got a bit hammered with a few too many rounds of soju, took a stroll along the boardwalk and caught a few glimpses of fireworks lighting up the night sky, and ran our voices into the ground in an underground karaoke room. By 2:30 a.m. we were ready to start scouting out a place to call home for the night, and started heading back to Jeff's car to unload our tent and other gear. Just then, it was as if the sky split a seam, because rain began pouring down in torrents. We quickly ducked under a hotel awning and stood for a few minutes in disbelief at the downpour, and then, as if we were reading each other's minds, unanimously decided that now was as good a time as any to head on back. The Mud Festival had far exceeded any of our expectations. It was a definite not-to-be-missed experience, and for the uninitiated, my only hope is that you'll make it a point to cover yourself in mud from head to toe at least once in your life, so you can understand first-hand what all the hype is about :) Don't be afraid to show the world how dirty you can be!
Thursday, July 10, 2008
I've had some extremely rewarding kitchen workshop sessions during these past few months, and have managed to cook up a whole host of Korean dishes ranging from miso soup with tofu to barley rice to my own version of bibimbap (rice topped with fried egg and seasoned seaweed strips). I've delved into the art of banchan, the deliciously seasoned side dishes mostly consisting of cooked and raw vegetables that populate the tabletops of restaurants from one side of this nation to the other. I've blanched bean sprouts, stir-fried garlic-laden eggplant, marinated tofu cubes, and stir-fried gorgeous mixtures of fresh vegetables which are found in abundance at my local grocery store. But what I really wanted tonight was a taste of home... which in all honesty is actually more a taste of Italian meet Vegetarian, but happens to be the kind of food I absolutely love when I'm listening to what's good for my body.
During my shopping spree at Lotte Mart with Terry weeks ago, I bought a tall, cylindrical bottle made of dark green glass, bearing a tempting label: "Extra-Virgin Olive Oil, imported from Crete." I find the prospect of anything imported from Greece here in Korea highly exotic, and I simply couldn't roll my cart on down the aisle until I had managed to pluck a bottle off the shelf to take home with me. I was so excited to saute some vegetables and drizzle some of the intensely flavored green gold over the entire plate... or mince up some garlic and craft some of that mouth-watering Italian dipping oil that has won quite a few accolades from friends, family, and roommates with whom I shared my secret :)
But alas, the metal lid factory-sealed on my purchased bottle had an unfortunate flaw: it wouldn't release or unscrew. So I was stuck with this gorgeous bottle of EVOO and no way to get at the goods. It was like the old adage come to life, "Water, water, everywhere and not a drop to drink." Miserable. So Harrison came to the rescue. I brought the bottle to the staff meeting today and, with a pair of high-quality wire cutters and more elbow grease than I personally could muster, he was able to pop the seal and open the bottle which I had almost resigned to being no more than a piece of fine kitchen decor. I could contain myself no longer... Back in my humble little kitchen, I julienned several red peppers into thick, meaty slices, and chopped potatoes into cubes. I tossed the potatoes with sea salt, black pepper (oh, how I wish I had a pepper mill at my command!), and rosemary, and drizzled them generously with olive oil. Minutes later, the timer on my teeny little toaster oven was clicking away as the potatoes began sizzling away.
Separately, I sauteed the red pepper strips in a puddle of EVOO and doused them with a generous sprinkling of herbs. The end result transported me back to late autumn evenings last year in Pennsylvania, when I first began experimenting with and quickly fell in love with roasting vegetables in all forms. Roasting seems to bring out the subtle and temptingly delicious flavors latent in even the mildest of vegetables. You really can't go wrong. I would give up my microwave in a heartbeat any day of the week, as long as I can keep my tiny little portable oven on hand. (To be honest, my microwave has been demoted from kitchen countertop to the balcony, where it has been sitting unused since I arrived.) Some things, a girl can live with out. Fortunately for me, here in Seosan, a bottle of EVOO isn't one of them!
Tuesday, July 8, 2008
Seosan hasn't done much for my tan, unfortunately. Color doesn't come easily to this fair-skinned, freckled girl, and in all honesty, I worked quite hard for the base tan I built up before arriving here. It's funny, but just as was the case in Taiwan, women actually go to great lengths to keep any unsuspecting sunrays from bronzing their delicate skin. They carry parasols down busy city sidewalks in full sunlight, and don long cotton gloves that cover them from sleevecap to fingertip to keep their arms milky white. On the hiking trail each morning, I pass dozens and dozens of women covered literally from head to toe in long pants, long-sleeve shirts, visors, and some kind of face mask. I've seriously contemplated the reasoning behind these last two, particularly since we are, after all, on a MOUNTAIN trail, which is practically covered with a thick canopy of trees, and hence very little sunshine filters through. I still haven't come up with
a good explanation for it...
I had a discussion yesterday with one of my middle school classes about this very thing. We've been talking about vacations and summer break lately, which is coming up in a few weeks for them (one month off of school, beginning July 19th). And last night we read an article about how tempting it is to spend a day soaking up the sun on the beach, and that "healthy glow" we get when we've spent some time in the sun. Four girls looked up at me with a puzzled expression on their faces, and after a few minutes of conversation on the topic, I had at least convinced them that, to the Western mind, a tan is a beautiful thing. Still, I don't think they'll be turning in their umbrellas for sunglasses anytime soon...
So as the days go by here, I feel my hard-won suntan fading away. I suppose I could just accept the fact that, at least in this part of the world, "white is beautiful." On the bright side, I may have
stumbled upon the Korean secret to longlasting youth!
Monday, July 7, 2008
And so, when I found myself with an opportunity to spend a Sunday morning soaking in the tranquility of ancient rituals being carried out in the foothills of Seoul, I knew the experience would be its own reward. After exiting the metro at Dongnimmun, I followed north along a nondescript alley until it became a steep road leading up into the mountainside. I felt my breath escaping forcefully as drops of sweat fell from my face -- with monsoon season in full swing, the weight of the air was nearly suffocating. Still, I kept one foot in front of the other until, rounding a hairpin turn, I began to ascend a series of shallow, jagged steps cut into the mountain stone. Here, a Buddhist temple stood proudly atop a hill, its golden-painted rooftop shining out from among the deep-green trees. And there, a middle-aged man tossed handfuls of rice to pigeons clucking in symphony near a modest shrine which had been decorated with candles and fresh flowers.
Another turn and upward climb took me to a stairway leading to the Zen rocks, two monolithic rock formations eroded by centuries of wind and rain, a sacred spot for many, as I was about to find. As I crested the steps, I paused at the entrance, suddenly very aware that I was not alone. A simple platform flanked the rocks, and upon it were several men and women, in various stages of worship, their bodies posturing in prayer poses on soft woven mats. I slipped off my sandals and settled onto a mat at the far end of the platform, listening to and watching the humble prayers of these serene strangers. A door opened next to me and a wrinkly grandmother stepped out from her hut, the strong perfume of incense wafting through the cracked door. Behind me, pigeons pecked and gaggled, and she took a broom to sweep them away. To my right, an elderly woman kneeled with a thin book in Korean script and a chain of wooden prayer beads. Her mouth moved in silence, but nothing needed to be said. The atmosphere was spiritually charged yet peaceful. Though I looked a bit out of place, I felt a part of me connected to these people and the serenity which permeated the mountain air on Inwangsha.
I stepped back into my sandals and headed back towards the main gate, then turned east onto a pathway leading along the spine of Inwangsan Mountain. As I ventured further upward, I paused at the entrance to yet another shrine. Candles flickered from inside the dim cavity of a room, and I stood quietly as another elderly woman prostrated in bows of respect before a golden statue. Only a few paces separated us, and I continued on, not wanting my presence to distract her from her worship. I continued upward, minutes later glancing back through a clearing to view a remnant of the Seoul Fortress Wall, its gray stone rising up in a curving ridge along a lush, green background of rolling hillside. I contemplated what this wall has seen and heard in its 700 years of life.
Rounding the corner along the trail, something tinny and rhythmic filtered through the dense, cloudy air. I listened with interest, hoping I was climbing closer to the source of the drum and high-timbered voice which echoed throughout this little pocket of mountain foliage. At last, I found it, at the apex of the trail, in a spot marked with a large slab of flatrock yet somehow tucked neatly out of sight. From the stone steps where I stood, I leaned my torso over the wild brush and watched, my eyes and ears finally nodding to one another in agreement -- this is where the magic was happening. I felt transported, almost, as I gazed on this middle-aged woman, dressed simply yet colorfully in vibrant blue. Here I was, on a peaceful mountaintop, soaking in the fervor of this shaman's prayer, studying the melody, the rhythm, the solemnity with which she chanted. Never once did her eyes open or her voice weaken; her prayer went on in one continuous loop, beginning again and again where I could still not perceive that it had come to an end. I tiptoed quietly back the way I had came, feeling some kind of soulful satisfaction at having stumbled upon this mountain, this woman, her song.
For a few hours of my morning, I felt another world away, swept up in the spirit of the mountains and the religious traditions that coexist here. It has been awhile since I last sat on a church pew, listening to a sermon. Yet I felt spiritually satisfied and at peace. And for me, it was simply enough.