Saturday, August 14, 2010

"The Jacket"

The dog, "The Jacket" and I

Some time ago in the Netherlands, a person might save an entire lifetime to buy a precious tulip bulb. Surely, at least one person thought ill of this motivation but went along with the masses in order to keep up with the Knickerbacker's. In the survival sense, everything that one spends money on (well, paper money itself is a rather ridiculous notion) that isn't directly related to food, water, shelter, and depending on how one views semantics, reproduction, might seem extraneous.

In a recent study, 68% of Koreans thought that "money" was the ultimate marker of "success". When the same question was posed to Americans and Canadians, the results were markedly different; 33% and 28% respectively. As an American, I was slightly surprised at the results. Upon further reading, here were two possible explanations; America has been wealthy for quite sometime and perhaps people have come to the assertion that amassed riches don't necessarily bring happiness - or - perhaps in light of our recent economic troubles, people are bracing themselves for the worst and trying to make themselves feel better.

Korea, with an economy that boosted 100 USD per capita figures in the 1960's, has rose to the world's 15th largest. There's a lot of money flying around over here and it's a fairly new phenomenon. For example, it's been heard of for people to take out bank loans to buy expensive cell phones. Any item bought on clearance or through the internet is inferior to an item bought at an expensive brick and mortar name brand store. A Papa John's large pizza costs 25 dollars and there are no shortage of people waiting in the line throw down that kind of money.

There's a saying that goes something along the lines of "less is more" but here in Korea it feels like "more is everything"

When Alla and I were at the gym our first few weeks here in Daejeon, we met this nice group of Koreans there and exchanged pleasantries every time we saw them. From that, they invited us to go rock climbing. On the day previous to the climb, I succumbed to one of the 8,000 flu viruses going around. When it became obvious that I could barely lift my head off the the pillow, let alone climb, we called them and cancelled. We both felt bad knowing that they had to make arrangements at the climbing gym to squeeze us in so we offered to buy the group of four dinner.

When dinner came around, we were quite surprised to see the old group of four balloon to seven. There wasn't a whole lot we could do at that point. It's not like we could ask people to go home so we were forced to eat the 100 plus dollar dinner tab. This wasn't a big deal really because if I tallied up all the dinners that have been bought for me over here, well, you get the idea. It was one week later where the situation turned for the weird.

The next week we saw the group at the gym. The oldest man of the group insisted that we come to the Fila clothing store that he managed at Lotte Deparment store to go shopping. We told him that since we'd only been in Daejeon a month, we hadn't been paid yet and therefore were a little short on money. I mean, at the end of the day, I'm a lot of things but a shopper I am not. He insisted further and said we didn't need money, he was going to buy us a gift. After respectfully declining several times, it seemed dude wasn't going to budge. We were going shopping.

A car arrived at our apartment to pick us up then we went straight to the department stores. For those not familiar with Korea, Lotte Deparment store is one of the more expensive places that one can shop. I knew this pre-hand and that's why I deflected so heavy upon the invite. When we arrived at his store I was partially ready for an awkward situation but knowing the competitive nature of Korean men, I should have been prepared for something more akin to the final seen in "Carrie".

We walked around his store looking at the items mostly catered to middle-aged golfers. I've got nothing against middle-aged folks it's the golfing attire I despise. I like my argyle patterns inside of my shoes, thank you. Alla bailed out of contention with a ballsy and bold "it's really not my style" comment and left sole responsibility of making this man happy up to me. We perused and I found two passable items; a shirt and a jacket. I picked up the shirt and was making my way to the dude when Alla intercepted me and vetoed it immediately. "It's ugly. Pick something else." she said. "It's ONLY 90 dollars, let's get the hell out of here." I retorted.
It was then onto the other item that if I wore would only get me mildly made fun of in Montana; the jacket. "That's a nice jacket. Does it fit well?" the man said with pleasure. I requested a size up and about 5 minutes later a jacket from the store room was brought to the register and paid for immediately buy the man. The register screen said "410,000w". In an instant, I'd become the shameful owner of a 400 dollar jacket!

I know the man was just wanting to give me a gift and I thanked him perfusily for that. In the same breathe though, I thoroughly insisted that he need not buy me anything but he pushed and pushed. Looking back, it was one of the more awkward situations I can recall being a part of.

I feel it's worth mentioning that I have owned 6 cars costing equal to or lesser than 400 dollars and if I have any say about it, I will own 6 more of the same value before I die! Fancy jacket be damned!

Monday, August 2, 2010

Le' Ranch

We call the 11th floor of this filing cabinet "home"

Home. What does it mean to you? To many, and in its absolute literal interpretations, it's a shell composed of sticks, wire and furnishings. Figuratively, however, the views begin to broadly widen. What some see as an anchor of stability others see simply as an anchor. Home to me, well at least"home" in Korea, represents respite in an otherwise confusing world. It's also worth noting that I refer to home as any place I take three consecutive morning bowel movements.
About as effective as Homeland Security minus the price tag.

Welcome to our apartment! Allow me to take you on a virtual tour. Do please take your shoes off as you enter. As far as apartments go, it's tough to beat ours. It's spacious, modern and most importantly, free. Easily the nicest place I'll ever live in with more gadgets than you can shake a stick at. We moved our bed into the living quarters to be next to the A/C during these sweltering summer months.
This is the "view" from 'Le` Ranch' - This view would give some Koreans a boner but it's somewhat lost on me.
The living room
It's uncanny as to how the dog always seems to make it into the shots!
The kitchen - On the left under the counter is the wash/dryer. On the kick plate under the sink is a sink on/off switch. It's pretty slick.
The master bedroom with auxilary room to the right.
The second bedroom - What started as a hobby, then a necessity, finally manifested itself into an obsession. You're looking at "Dong Brother's Brewery" (Dong in Korean means "neighborhood")
The crown jewels. Yeah, the trophy wife is cool but if shit hits the fan and I needed to get the fuck out Daejeon, I could likely trade these for a raft or something.
A bar that I've never been to but always chuckle when I pass their sign.
The place I get my hair cut for 6 dollars and their vending machine that always rings another 2 out of me.
The "coal mine" - If you can spot the the blue "EDI" sign than you've likely got a sharp enough eye to see strands of my soul seeping out of the heating ducts.

Friday, April 30, 2010

Sobering work arrival and the "flaming shit"

"Dak-Galbi" Spicy Korean chicken with Cabbage

I've never been one to lament over days I "could have worked." This comes from the guy who was intentionally-unintentionally unemployed for 18 months. What I mean by that is, after my Hawaii teaching stint I wasn't super eager to jump back into the employment saddle, but at the same time, I had no intention of being unemployed for a year and a half . That, folks, was just a pleasant surprise!

So there Alla and I were: in Montana without jobs and itching to travel yet again. We accepted jobs in Daejeon thus officially starting Alla's second and a half and my second stints. A two week rendevouz in Thailand renewed our wanderlust for foreign lands and made the planning of our next vacation quite a bit easier. In addition, Thailand was the perfect way to cut down the nasty 'morning after bitch,' known as jet-lag.

After Thailand, we departed on a 14 hour trip to Korea. Typically these flights only take 6 hours but we were unwilling to spend this type of money so we ended up on a flight that routed through Kuala Lumpur. "Where?" you are asking. I understand your sentiment completely.

We arrived in Daejeon after our 14 hour trip, followed by an hour through immigration and baggage claim and one upped by a 3 hour bus ride to arrive at 10 a.m. By saving 500 USD each taking the Malaysia route, we ran into the jet-lag we were aiming to avoid. Just so happens we arrived smack dab in the middle of the school's lunch outing --Fantastic!

At the lunch buffet, we met our manager, other teachers and our boss. Alla and I weren't exactly in tip top shape for a meet and greet and I'm sure their first impression of us was likely the first impression of anyone who has ever met me; suspicious and hopelessly pessimistic. Because this was a company lunch, it was thankfully -- on-the-house. Unfortunately for me, I had to pass on the delicious raw fish, steak and other exotic foods. I was able to muscle down modest amounts of plain corn flakes though I'm sure I was nowhere near consuming 15 USD worth. A scruffy looking corn fed foreigner. I'm sure the brass was delighted.

Let's fast forward a couple of days to our first day at work. Our manager told us to make a lesson plan for our first day. I've heard things are pretty scattered in Hagwon land (Korean private school) but making a "lesson plan" for a month without a book, knowledge of the students' abilities or number of classes, seems to me to be the definition of wasting time. But like a good little foreigner, I obliged. With as much effort as I sink into anything, I produced some chicken scratch on a 6 x 8 inch piece of notebook paper. A Rembrandt it wasn't, but Korea isn't exactly The Louvre, either. Delighted at the fact that this took me about 2 minutes and included no references to scope, standards, knowledge or student centered learning, I gazed away in amusement over the fact I get paid a decent wage to speak my native tongue. To best summarize what exactly I do, imagine this: "pick up a book off the shelf and "teach". Those were the official instructions relayed to us from our boss. He also added other poignant advice like "finish the book" and "make sure the kids are happy". I suppose I shouldn't complain as that beats the hell out of "make sure there aren't any fry chunks when you clean the deep friers"

I can't speak on behalf of anyone else in the same Korean-made rickety boat we call an 'ESL career', but "teacher" is a moniker I can't don whole heartedly or even half ass-edly. Out here , well, I refer to myself as a "book guide". I help students complete textbooks. That's what I do. No more, and on occasion, less.

Well, the educational deity that apparently monitors the thoughts of underachieving book guides must of caught wind of my negative thinking and summoned the power of Montezuma and his revenge, who apparently thought nothing of a trans-Pacific flight to attack an unsuspecting traveler. It hit me like a freight train and off to the toilet, or hwa-jung-sil as I now know, I went.

There isn't a hard and fast rule about international toilets, supplies and etiquette that one can hang their hat on and it's prudent to scout out these facilities before you encounter an emergency. For instance, some toilets in England cost money. Did you know it's illegal to flush a toilet loudly in Switzerland? In Korea, bathrooms don't have hot water nor do they supply their own toilet paper. So there I was atop the porcelain thrown purging the contents of my lower intestine from the night's previous dinner of "dak galbi". I surveyed my options and when "Yo chief, can you spare some TP" met the echoes of an empty bathroom, I had to improvise. As it turns out, for once a lesson plan that I wrote came of some use :)

Saturday, January 23, 2010


Alla's "Baywatch" audition photo

If there's one thing I learned whilst traveling, it's this: if the "should I take the bus or an airplane"conundrum ever presents itself to you, you should most often chose "a plane". It's very simple but my cheapness has been clouding my judgement for years. Every once in a while a situation presents itself that even I couldn't choose the wrong answer; 18USD for an 11 hour bus ride or 50 USD for an hour flight. We chose the latter but probably only because of the Ko Chang broken AC/urinal bus incident. Something inside of me, especially when it comes to frugality and/or bargaining, brings out the worst/best in me. Because of my frugality, I've met many lovely people staying on random couches and hitchhiking both in foreign and domestic lands. On the flip side, I've managed to find my way onto the floor of an austere Austrian women who told me when I could and when I couldn't eat my own oatmeal, nearly beaten down by a Hawaiian man who saw me sneak into a hottub and ended up calling a park bench in Fukuoka, Japan home for an evening in early May last year.

We called this place home for four days.

But yeah, bargaining. The travel books tell you to bargain with the local merchant but what sick son of a bitch leaves a five dollar T-shirt, ahem four dollar T-shirt, on the bartering table in a sweltering tin shack over 30 baht (1 USD). Sadly, I do. If I had money, I'd more than confirm that trickle down economics doesn't work.

It is what it is - beautiful!

Alla, who was in charge of all bookings when it came to exactly where we stayed, chose a beautiful little bungalow on the northwest shore of Phucket. It was highly recommend by Lonely Planet (I'm sure "Lonely Planet" has made its way onto Stuff White People Like). The bungalow, called Seaside Cottages for those interested, was absolutely beautiful and extremely remote, as promised. Best of all, we met up with my buddy Kirk! I met Kirk nearly three years ago when I hosted him in Maui and we stayed in touch since then. Which brings me to my plug. If you aren't a member then you need to be. My parents in ding fuck Montana have even hosted someone. The potential exists that you could meet someone as cool as Kirk! Ok, so it looks as though that was a Couchsurfing AND Kirk plug.

Kirk, you sand baggin son of a bitch! We took a 45 minute "public bus" ride into Phucket-town. The "public bus" was an 87 diesel Nissan truck flatbeded out. At one point, there were 18 people on it!

Mosquito's: 125, Garrett: 0

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Ko Chang

One of the shanties we stayed at in Ko Chang. This bitch put us back 13 USD/night.

After four days in Bangkok, we made our way down to Ko Chang via bus. What started out as a very comfortable journey turned near death sentence a mere one hour later when the A/C decided to go out. To exacerbate our plight, our seats were located mere feet away from the latrine. Just when I thought it couldn't get any worse, the A/C line above my head exploded and immediately saturated me with at least 20 ounces of water. That turned out to be a gift in disguise as the water was ice cold and for that brief moment, I felt like I wasn't going to melt into seat 14A.

Wild monkeys dine on garbage.

After arrival at the bus terminal, we took a taxi (and by taxi I mean an old Toyota truck flatbeded out to seat 15) to catch the Ko Chang 45 minute ferry. Arrival at Ko Chang meant another hotel/hostel. Something that made itself quite apparent to us within the first few hours of being in Ko Chang is that this place is absolutely teeming with Germans. Germans in the resturant. Germans on the beach. Germans watching an evening screening of "Dodgeball" in the open air theater. I only mention this because it would be precisely three days later that a German would nick my newly purchased sandals. (I didn't exactly catch him/her in the act but, you know, fucking Germans - nothing changes)

Doesn't get more international than this. Russian girl, German styled helmet, Japanese scooter, American photographer on left-hand drive Thai soil all at the Isreali price of 7 USD/day.

One of my lifelong dreams has been to drive a car in a "left-hand drive" country (shooting for the stars, I know). Well I got half way there. Being balls deep in an economic depression, we didn't have quite the paper to put down on a Lambo rental, we was able to, however, scratch up enough coin to rent the next available class, a Honda Click. Remembering only a few short years back of the nearly daily auto/scooter accidents on Maui made me slightly skidish but I'm glad we rented it as we were able to see 85 km worth of the island at our leisure.

We rode a fucking elephant! A fucking elephant!

On a more local culture note, I took to the guy who sold us the elephant trek. His name was Paum. Anyways Paum grew up about three hours outside of Bangkok. His career options were a) work on the family rice farm for next to nothing in the intense Thai heat or b) learn English, talk to tourist and work for next to nothing in the intense Thai heat. He choose the latter and makes about 4,100 baht (125 Usd) monthly. This makes returning to Korea and teaching children slightly less nauseating. Scratch that. I just threw up in my mouth a little.

I laughed as a tourist taunted this leashed monkey with an umbrella. I wouldn't be laughing minutes later as that disease infested son-of-a-bitch clung to my arm as I walked to close to his parameter.

Near Maui-esque beauty minus the Hilton pretension and the Gucci price tag.