City bus tour purgatory, more octopus adventures and, of course, fireworks: A look at the 2010 Busan Fireworks Festival [video]

In October, Chickpea and I visited the dynamic port city of Busan to attend the 2010 Busan Fireworks Festival. Intrigued by “Korea’s San Francisco” we arrived early to see the sights, smell the smells and eat wriggling octopus from the Jagalchi Fish Market (for the second time – natch!).  Here’s a look at that day, all the way to the exploding climax!

A guide to New Year’s Eve in Korea

Since arriving in Korea five months ago, Alex and I have been trying to do things the Korean way. We’ve sacrificed burgers and fries for live octopus and samgyeopsal. We’ve foregone shopping malls for immense, age-old markets. We’ve ignored Gap in lieu of streetside clothes hawkers (um, mostly).

So when it was time to plan our first New Year’s in Korea, we wanted to do it old-school. That means a pilgrimage to Pohang, where a gigantic statue of a hand emerges from the East Sea to cradle the first sunrise of the New Year. Stay up all night, take in a few traditional dance and musical performances, eat rice cakes and shiver on Homi Cape while the symbolic first sun of 2011 comes up. Unfortunately, foot-and-mouth disease had another plan.

So, instead we headed to Korea’s coastal party capital, Busan. Here are a few of the highlights — the must-sees, the can-dos, the be-prepared-fors.

Tip #1: Arrive early. We hopped the 5:50 KTX train from Daegu, and by the time we arrived at 7 p.m., downtown was already in full swing with musical offerings, contests, street food vendors, swarms of people, and, of course, lights, lights, lights.

Tip #2: Stay warm. As a Florida native, I’m new to this concept of cold, so I might be overstating the case when I say that I was freezing my buns off for 14 hours straight. I think the temps were hovering somewhere in the 20s, but try wandering the city and beach for the better part of a windy evening, and you’ll understand why I recommend thermal underwear. Of course, if you do bundle up, you’ll be the only one (especially us ladies). Apparently impervious to little things like below-freezing temps, Korean gals will all be wearing miniskirts, tights and sky-high heels, topped off with a puffy, fur-trimmed jacket. Damn your cuteness, Korean girls. Making me look bad.

Tip #3: Go to Yongdusan Park. Starting around 11 p.m., seemingly half the city congregates in “Dragon’s Head Mountain Park,” just a few steep flights of stairs away from famed PIFF Square and Jagalchi Fish Market. Volunteers hand out free coffee and balloons to be released at midnight. There’s music and merrymaking, and you can rub elbows with Busan’s mayor, who rings the giant Korean Watch-Night bell at midnight. Then there’s the obligatory fireworks show and everyone heads to …

Tip #4: Hit up Haeundae. If you’re willing to drop a few ten thousand won notes on cover, we hear there are some fantabulous parties to ring in the New Year inside the numerous clubs on the strip. From techno to hip-hop (and, honestly, not much in between), if you’re looking to dance, Haeundae is where the party people are at. Being the cheap-os that we are, we took refuge in a warm bar with cheap(ish) beer called 88 in Miami. That way, when we were finally kicked out at 5:30 a.m., we were close enough to…

Tip #5: Watch the first sunrise of the New Year at Haeundae Beach. It’s cold. We’ve have at least five or six cups of coffee apiece. We’ve spent the last few hours prying our eyes open at our last source of refuge, a nearby noraebang.

But it’s finally here. It’s 7 a.m. and everyone in Busan who hasn’t fallen into slumber’s sweet, sweet embrace has trudged their way to Haeundae Beach to watch the indescribably beautiful seaside sunrise. Camera crews, monks tapping out a steady tune asking for alms, bleary-eyed foreigners, kids in pajamas and ajumma in track suits, and the ever-present mascots — they’re all here to start the Year of the Rabbit together. Depending on your frame of mind, it’s an awe-inspiring sight or something straight out of a Hunter S. Thompson novel.

It’s a rough road — we lost a lot of people along the way to the siren song of sleep — but it was worth it. Especially when I passed out in a nearby McDonald’s a few minutes later. (Hey, I deserved hash browns after all that.)

A few quick hits: Eat hodduk in PIFF Square, where the street stand rumored to have originated this salivatingly sweet stuffed pancake fries up hundreds of the tasty treats every night. Play sa-gu in any one of the hundreds of billiard bars (a misleading name, as they often don’t serve alcohol). And eat the tiny, meat-filled, mandu-like packets of noodle goodness at No. 18 Wandang, where you can get a front row seat to watch the artisans rolling and stuffing the noodles for their famous traditional soups.

See EXCO’s Trick Art exhibit before it disappears

If you live around Daegu and are looking for something indoors to do in the next couple of weeks (this Floridian is ready for spring), Alex and I are giving our official stamp of approval to Trick Art, the traveling exhibit that’s landed at EXCO until Jan. 22. You might learn a little about classic art, but mostly you’ll just make rude poses that make other spectators uncomfortable.

Score!

Many buses go right to EXCO, but if you are cabbing it, any taxi driver should know where to take you. Admission is 10,000 won and worth every bit. We spent about three hours making fools of ourselves, but depending on how creative your poses are, you could really make an afternoon of it.

Now go forth and get tricky!

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

And the deskwarming begins ….

Today is officially my first day of deskwarming.

For those of you unaware of the great deskwarming debate in Korean public schools, let me elaborate: Deskwarming is coming to school for seemingly no other reason than to warm that desk of yours.

Students are on vacation. Teachers are on vacation. All of your lesson plans are finished and the principal has approved them. You’ve cleaned your office, your classroom, some other random room just because you’re bored.

You. Have. Nothing. (School-related). To. Do.

And yet, you are still required to be at school for the full 8-hour day. There is no lunch served. There may or may not be heat. There’s a good chance you will not see another soul for the entire day. And still, you are sitting at your desk. Warming it.

Some foreign English teachers get really upset about deskwarming. “It’s unfair!” they shout to friends at bars during December and January. “Why do the other teachers get two months and we sit here for no damn reason?” Just the thought of “missing out” on another month of vacation time enrages them more.

I admit, I would love the extra time. But I signed a contract and knew what I was getting into. If I didn’t like it, I should’ve been a Fulbright Grantee or something. Or went to Vietnam.

Deskwarming is not so bad. Why, I just spent 10 minutes of it on this blog post!

In honor of my first deskwarming day, here’s a link to one of the newest blogs to join my blogroll: The Waygook Effect, which is one of the better expat blogs out there. The blogger has a hilarious video — featuring Hitler — all about deskwarming. Check it out!

Don’t taze me, hyeong!

It was just another Saturday night in Daegu. Chickpea and I met some of our expat friends at Viniroo, a walk-up liquor-in-a-bag drinking establishment, and we made the rounds of our usual haunts downtown.

But we were restless. Our main bar– JEEEP (actual spelling) — was empty and our group of five wanted to dance somewhere new. We were searching for a suitable club when I looked down an alley and spotted a place with a large (fake) fire engine jutting from the building. This was Club Siren.

“Let’s go here,” Chickpea said and our group headed toward the door.

We were 15 feet away when the club’s bouncer came out from behind his podium and yelled to us: “No foreigners! We don’t speak English here!”

Shocked, one of our friends blurted, “That’s messed up.” (Looking back on it, he probably said, “That’s f***ed up.” I honestly can’t remember.)

At that point, the bouncer reached behind his podium and produced a Tazer. Then, he demonstrated its power. Zap!

We walked away at that point — flabbergasted, disturbed and a little sad.

To be sure, this is not common. Chickpea and I have entered several Korean clubs in which we were the only foreigners. We have many friends who have done the same. I find Korean bouncers, bartenders and patrons to be very professional, even overly nice.

But this kind of discrimination does exist. Dave’s ESL has a year-old message board thread listing the bars that have denied entry to foreigners.

A few points to round out the discussion:

I’ve heard there are foreigner-only bars in Korea near military bases and these are run by other Koreans. Also, while I don’t think this makes it OK, I know some bars have had some real problems with Westerners, especially American military. That might account for why this guy had a Taser. It doesn’t make it right, but bad behavior is the same reason why many U.S. clubs have a dress code. And, obviously, U.S. clubs discriminate, too. Just not so flagrantly.

Plus, as some people have noted on other sites, some clubs have complicated rules on drink limits, ordering food, table prices, etc. and some club owners simply bar foreigners because they don’t want to/ can’t explain this in English.

I don’t think anyone should let this play into any decisions about coming to Korea or enjoying the nightlife — it is rare — but words of wisdom: If a club bouncer says “No foreigners allowed,” it’s best to not argue the matter. They might have a Taser.

Welcome to Korea: Another Sunday, another tub of fish eating your foot’s dead skin

Yes, that’s right. We’ve really been enjoying the bounty of seafood that Korea has to offer, from live octopus to giant clams, fish and squid in various states of dessication and more. So, Alex and I decided to give a little back: We went to Doctor Fish.

These are tiny fish — a little bigger than a minnow, maybe? — that eat the dead skin off your feet. It was originally used to treat eczema and other skin problems, but now it’s mostly used as a spa treatment. I’ve been wanting to try this this I came to Korea (If I’m being honest, since I saw it on the Tyra Show a couple years ago. Full disclosure).

On Sunday, I found  Namu Story, (for Korea peeps: it’s across from the UniQlo in downtown Daegu) and convinced Alex to go with me. Just as interesting as the experience itself is where the Doctor Fish are: in a a big cafe. Yes, a tank of fish sunk into a raised platform at one end of a large, posh, second-story cafe. So while people are drinking their coffee and eating their pastries, Alex and I (okay, mostly me) were giggling in a corner while tickly little fish ate dead skin off our feet. I thought it would take a while to get used to, but in a matter of minutes I was able to stop laughing and enjoy. It’s like a little massage!

The best part is this: there’s a $3 entrance fee to get into the cafe, but it’s all-you-can-eat croissants and coffee, and the Doctor Fish treatment is less than $2. It was a great way to spend a relaxing Sunday afternoon.

UPDATE (3/8/11): Namu Story, the coffeeshop where we first experienced Dr. Fish, is no longer offering the service. Check back here for updates on other nearby Dr. Fish proprietors.

Continue reading

Andong Mask Festival: The sights, the sounds, the scams (video)

OK, maybe it wasn’t a scam.

Perhaps I should just chalk it up to linguistic miscommunication. It’s my fault for not knowing more of the Korean language, right?

But Chickpea is convinced. We were taken for a ride (forgive the pun).

We stepped out of the Andong Train Station at 8 a.m. and quickly realized we were some of the only people out and about in this city of 185,000. So, with no pack of tourists to follow, we aimlessly wandered the downtown region looking for a hint of the famous Andong Mask Festival. Except for a small stage downtown, we didn’t see anything that resembled the reviews we saw online. So, we wandered back toward the train station.

While looking at map, a taxi driver approached us.

“Hahoe?” he asked us. “Hahoe?”

We responded, “Mask festival.” We did absurd gestures of wearing a mask.

“Oh yes, yes,” he said and motioned for us to follow him to his taxi.

As a preface, most expats will tell you South Korean taxi drivers are truly honest. And although this was the first time a taxi driver solicited us, which was kind of weird, we have had nothing but pleasurable experiences in the taxi cabs here (if you don’t count the hair-raising driving skills).

So, we hopped in his cab and looked out on the city of Andong. That is, until we left the city of Andong.

“Where is he taking us?” Chickpea asked.

“I don’t know, but maybe it’s somewhere cool,” I reasoned.

While stopped at a red light, we talked again with our taxi driver.

“Mask festival,” we said. “Mask festival.”

“Oh yes,” he answered.

After glimpsing a sign on the side of the road announcing the historic Hahoe Village — 20 more kilometers ahead — we realized what was happening. We had the taxi driver pull over and explained we did not want Hahoe Village, we wanted the Andong Mask Festival.

“Oooohhhh,” he said. And proceeded to take us to the front gate, which was about four blocks from the train station.

Twenty-five thousand won poorer, we walked around the festival grounds (which were huge) and decided to head back downtown until the actual performances began. Once we hit the area near the train station, three taxi drivers approached us.

“Hahoe? Hahoe?”

You be the judge.

P.S. Although we never made it, the Hahoe Village is supposed to be another must-see in Korea. But instead of a taxi, take the bus no. 46 that leaves near the tourist information booth a block or two down from the train station. At about 1,000 won, it’s a much cheaper option.

***

The Andong Mask Festival should definitely be on your must-see list if you make it to South Korea in the fall. With a full schedule of traditional Korean plays and dancing from all over the world, you won’t be bored. And even if your butt starts to hurt, the festival grounds are full of craft tents, food stalls and dozens of strange mask-related characters to pose with.

Check out our video!

10 lessons I learned from unemployment

Department Of Labor Hosts Job Fair For Veterans At U.S.S. Intrepid

So my long lapse of unemployment has ended. No, I’m not writing news again — just product descriptions for a few well-known online retailers. Not the ideal job, but in this economy, I’d be lucky to have a job at Taco Bell.

So, how do I feel? One part relieved, two parts depressed and another half-part anxious. The latter comes from a feeling I’ll always have after my first lay-off: This could happen again. In fact, my current employer already seems a little shaky; they laid off 8 people just last week.

Anyway, I’ve been working for a few weeks now and I’ve had some time to reflect on my year of unemployment. What have I learned?

Continue reading