Thursday, August 26, 2010

Last of the Nowon old dogs

In continuing with the running theme since I quit smoking - this post is not my best work. I wrote it a couple months ago (hmm, I suppose I was smoking at the time, so maybe that excuse doesn't hold up. Fine. Instead of writing on Wednesday, I went to see The Expendables and then went out drinking.) and I never planned to post it, as some parts of it aren't exactly true. I'll write something much better next week, I swear.

There are two main convenience stores on my street. These are full service convenience stores, which in Korea means tables out in front for the express purpose of drinking beer at. The two stores are called GS and Mini Stop.

Two years ago, for the purpose of this here blog, I had to occasionally abandon these stores and retreat to another store a couple blocks away, which I referred to as “The Fortress of Solitude.” Creative, I know. The reasoning for the Fortress was simple - I couldn’t write at home (and usually, I still can’t) and I couldn’t write at the Mini Stop or GS. Writing at home sucks - I’m too easily distracted. Mini Stop and GS presented the same problem - there were simply too many people around every night. Mini Stop was the realm of my friends, while GS was populated by people that ranged from those I was less friendly with to those I had no use for at all.

If I wanted to write (one night a week), I went to The Fortress . If I wanted to socialize (many nights a week) I went to Mini Stop. Even if I went to the Stop alone and it was empty when I got there, generally somebody I knew would pass by within five minutes and sit down for a beer or twelve. In a city of tiny apartments, Mini Stop was like the local version of the social house in college that everyone hung out at on weeknights, weekend pre-games, and weekend after hours.

Before it got to be too cold to hang out there in November of 2008, the tables in front of the Stop were always occupied by Andy, Eric, Martin, Don, Ryan, Drew, Weston, and various other external cats that would cycle in and out. We had street cred with the owner and got the occasional freebie, including some cheap champagne for Ryan’s birthday. The graveyard shift guy regularly hung out with us and even came out to the bar with us on weekends.

I left the neighborhood first. That’s on me. I returned to America and presumably left the neighborhood forever. During my 8 month American sabbatical, Andy and Ryan left Korea, and Eric and Weston moved out of the hood.

I returned to Korea, to the same neighborhood, in the late summer of last year. I moved into a building that was half a block down from where I used to live. Everyone else remaining from the old crew lived there too. GS is in the building I live in now. As the unhip element that used to occupy GS had also left town in my absence, GS became the place to go. I happily returned to a life filled with nights spent on a plastic chair with a cheap beer in hand.

First Drew went back home. Then, it was other regulars that I didn’t know during my first Korean tour, like Ashley and Ses. Eric and Weston stopped hanging out in the old neighborhood as often. Don briefly got a job, getting him out of his months-long cycle of couch surfing at Martin’s place and my place. Like swallows to Capistrano, Don returned to his couch-surfing ways, but by this point winter had struck. Ryan came back to Korea, but lives across town. Don got another job, this time in the burbs, 3 traansfers away.

It got a little warmer. Once the mercury climbed up to 45 degrees in March, Martin and I started hanging out at GS again. We did so alone, none of the new foreigners had any interest in drinking beer at those temperatures. Weston moved back to the U.S. Then Eric.

Two weeks ago, it finally got warm enough outside for respectable people, people that aren’t Martin and I, to drink at GS. Still those blue GS plastic chairs remained empty, or occupied by 45 year old Korean dudes. I could write blogs out there unencumbered by social distraction, and did so, although I always hoped that somebody would come by and bother me.

Last week, Martin moved. He only moved a couple of miles away, but it still makes me the last of the old neighborhood crew. I was the first to leave, and now I’m the last to stay.

On a strange note, I’m writing this portion of the blog from the Mini Stop. I haven’t been to the Stop in months, but all of the tables at GS were occupied by Koreans. One table even had two hot girls in not much clothing. Wait a minute, what the hell am i doing at Mini Stop? Screw this convenience store memory lane horseshit, I’m going to go talk to those girls.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Instant Classic*

I started my recent vacation by taking a bullet train from here to Daegu, Korea’s 3rd largest city. While waiting at Seoul Station for my train, I purchased a Korea Times. The Korea Times is a horrible paper, even worse than the Korea Herald. However, the Times has a better crossword than the Herald (which I think gets their crossword from TV Guide or People. I’m no master cruciverbalist, but I can finish the brain-dead Herald puzzle in minutes). I wanted to peruse the paper a bit, but mostly I bought it for the crossword.

An hour later, on the train, I took out my paper, planning to read the front page and then do the crossword. When it came to crossword time, I realized that I had no ink in my pen. Nowhere to get a pen on the train either. Drat. Fortunately, I had packed beer and my DS as a contingency plan.

I had hoped to steal a pen from my hotel in Daegu, but the room was pen-free. As penance, I stole a towel to use as a sweat rag on the 8 minute walk from the hotel to the bar district. Seoul is hot in the summer. Daegu is brutal.

The next day. I ultimately ended up on a bus to Jinju. I hoped to purchase a pen at the bus station, but sadly no pen was available for purchase. I asked around at all the makeshift bodega/lunch counters. Pen is an easy word in Korean - Boll-pen. West Daegu Intercity Bus Terminal, sadly, has no pens for purchase.

That night during dinner, I simply took my newspaper with me. I still hadn’t read most of it. Before leaving for dinner, I tore out the crossword and left it in my hotel room, so that I could trash the paper upon leaving the restaurant. On the road, you have to think like a rocket, always ready to jettison previous stages. Since the road this time only lead me about 350 miles from home, previous stages are fairly minimal.

The following day, I did my Hadong - Cheonghak dong - Samsung gung trip. At the Hakdong bus station on my way back to Jinju, I finally found a pen. Woohoo!. Sadly, I’d left my crossword in Jinju, but I would see it soon. I looked forward to a bowl of Jinju Bibimbab (superior to the Jeonju variety IMO) over a nice crossword.

Of course. when I returned to my hotel, I found it was gone. Yar. In my continuing (still continuing) quest to quit smoking, I’ve been chewing straws a lot. especially on vacation. For whatever reason, the maid at my hotel deemed the chewed up straws I’d left all over my room to hold some sort of value to me, but the meticulously removed crossword to be trash. In Seoul, this would not be an issue - I could walk down the street and buy another Times or Herald. Jinju, on the other hand, was likely at least 100 miles away from the nearest English newspaper for sale.

*or not.

If everything goes according to plan, that should be the most boring story to ever make this page.

I passed a store the other day called “Happy Time.” What a strange, cliche Asian name for a store, I thought to myself. I looked below the sign. Turned out it was a clock store. Fair enough.

While in Daegu on vacation, I discovered 3 gems. I happened across the bar that I imbibed at during my first Daegu trip, my first Korean road trip, way back in 2006. I didn’t recognize the name of the bar “Old Skool,” and it is entirely possible that the bar could have changed names in the intervening years. Rather, I recognized the stairwell inside. It looked the same as every other stairwell leading to a non-ground level bar in this country, yet I was sure the bar was the same.

Later, I found a bar that was dedicated to Sonic Youth. In fact, the bar’s sign was in the shape of Sonic Youth’s iconic laundry machine album cover. The bar did not disappoint. The interior was filled with all kinds of 90s alt decorations, and the clientele, both Korean and foreign, seemed to legitimately care about rock and roll. Far too establishments, here in Korea and elsewhere, care about rock and roll enough these days. I liked it considerably more than Old Skool. I liked it enough to bum a smoke, something that I’ve done only 4 or 5 times since I quit. I made it count, of course, and bummed a Red.

Finally, while searching for lunch, I stumbled upon a place called Warung Indonesia. It was up 3 flights of stairs, but it was the real deal. I was shocked, as I don’t think there are any Indonesian places here in the big city, I didn’t expect to find one in the provinces. Amazingly, it was cheap. Most non-Korean non-McDonald’s places in this country are steeply overpriced. This restaurant also featured a large store of Indonesian goods. I happily nabbed some instant mie goreng to take home.

In conclusion, Daegu is a land of contrasts.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Korea Vacation photoblog

I have to admit, I am not a good netizen. From what I understand, bloggers are somewhat of an online community, out to help each other. While a shameless self promoter, I admittedly don't give a whole lot back to the "community."

Here's the thing - I'm always trying to get people to read this space, but I don't like reading blogs myself. My problem with blogs are that they can all, all, be divided into two categories - those that are better than mine and those that are worse. The blogs worse than mine bore me, and the ones that are better generally piss me off or make me jealous.

This blog really doesn't have a "niche," (a prime reason that it also doesn't have an "audience") but it often falls into the somewhat specialized "life in Korea" genre. There are lots of bad "life in Korea" blogs, a few good ones that annoy me in their popularity, and one particularly useful one that I'm out to pimp tonight., particularly this post, clued me into perhaps the coolest place I've ever seen in Korea. I saw this post via a thread on Dave's ESL a couple months ago, and decided then and there that my next Korean roadtrip would be to Samseong-gung.

Without further delay, I give you the longest photo-blog that this particular space has ever seen, based on my longest domestic vacation (presumably) ever. I rolled down to Daegu on a Friday night after work, then continued on to the southern Korean city of Jinju on Saturday afternoon.

Jinju is largely known for its large fortress, used in a sixteenth century war against Japan. The fortress, like most in Korea, is recreated. Jinju is a city of 200,000 or so, which means it feels like a 20 some thousand person American city. The fortress was a beaute.

Here's a view of the Jinju bridge crossing the Nam river from the high side of the fortress wall.

the only way to do it, I supppose...

A view of the riverfront area with the entrance to the fortress in the background. The woman in blue in the foreground was an ever-classy small-town daytime streetwalker, a strange and rare sight indeed. She was trying to get every single-passenger car that drove by to pull over and pick her up.

Come on. At least this is a fitting name for a knockoff Korean hotel, as Korea is known for its four distinct seasons. This would be a fine place to take a daytime streetwalker.

This is along the same 4 Seasons Hotel idealism line for those of you outside Korea. Gangnam-ro is one of the grand boulevards of Seoul. Jinju giving another street the same name is like having a Broadway in Monticello, Indiana. Wait a minute...

Hadong is the city near Samseong-gung. I'm glad I opted to stay overnight in Jinju, as there wasn't much to do in Hadong. Fortunately, I found a BBQ Chicken restaurant to kill time in during my bus layover.

That sign says "Seoul" in Korean. Even here in BFE Hadong, there were nonstop express buses that could whisk me back to the capitol. The Korean bus network is amazing. Almost all of the most remote places in the country can be reached from Seoul via 1 bus transfer or less.

Rafting, Korean style. On the bus from Hadong to the Samseong-gung area, we passed lots of rivers filled with Koreans tubing and having barbecues and camping. Looks fun, eh?

Here is the end of the bus route from Hadong to Cheonghakdong, an area near Samsung-gung.

Here is the same place, though I took this picture later when my bus back to Hadong was waiting. From this middle-of-nowhere bus stop, it's a 20-30 minute walk to Samseong-gung. There is no other way to get there without a private car. No taxis in this neck of the woods.

Now we get to Samseong-gung. Gung, by the way, is palace in Korean. And yes, Samseong is pronounced the same way as Samsung, and in fact is the same word when written in Korean script. Both the company and the palace derive their name from the same ancient Korean myth. This picture is from the outer gate of the palace area.

After walking past several stone structures and up another large foothill, the real entrance to Samseong-gung is here. At this door, the visitor is required to hit the gong on the lower right three times. I happened to get to the door at the same time as several other people, so I didn't get to hit the gong. A man dressed in traditional Korean clothing emerged from the door, addressed the group (in Korean of course. I was the only non-Korean I saw this entire day). We all walked through the door and into a tunnel through the hill.

This is the other side of said tunnel.

This is the view upon arriving on the other side of the tunnel. After passing through various gates, this is Samseong-gung's final form, to put it in videogame-speak. Jirisan, or Jiri Mountain, national park looms everywhere around. In fact, from the bus stop on, I was within Jirisan National Park.

Walking down from the ridge the gate was on, a view of Samseong-gung from a lower vantage point.

One of the better pictures I took of the palace from closer range. In the foreground, we have a near-perfect representative of Ajumma culture. Ajummas are Korean middle-aged women. Technically, any married Korean below Social Security age is an ajumma. This woman, however, sports the full-on ajumma look. Notice the loose floral pants, the visor, and the short haircut. She has no umbrella, which is surprising as Korean women, particularly those in the ajumma age group, are notoriously fearful of the sun. However, her lack of parasol is made up for the fact that she is actually rocking Allan Iverson-style arm guards. OK , I'll shut up and let you enjoy pictures of this amazing palace.

I would just like to point out here how worthless the Korea Lonely Planet is. Samseong-gung is unlike anything else in the country, and actually unlike anything else I'd seen in the world. Samseong-gung is the type of attraction that could easily make the cover of a Lonely Planet. Instead, do you know how many words LP dedicates to it? If you guessed "one," you're infinitely too high. Samseong-gung was also totally unknown to all of the Koreans that I talked to about it in Jinju or Namhae, each 50 or so miles away. Again, thanks to I would have never known about it without this blog.

Here stands the,um, modern bathroom.

Amazingly, the place doesn't photograph well. You should click on these pics to enlarge them, they look better that way, but still don't look a fraction as good as the palace looks in real life.

Yes, it really was Saudi Arabia hot out.

Rare Korean wildlife. This is like seeing a wild zebra in Iowa.

This goofy guy is the entrance/exit to the Samseong-gung area. The whole Samseong-gung complex is amazingly adept at suspending disbelief. Disney couldn't do a better job. There are no views of anything modern looking anywhere in the palace. As shown above, even the bathroom fits into the theme. There aren't even any signs in English anywhere on the temple grounds. This blue crane head makes for a local landmark, but is the one cheesy visible thing from parts of the outer palace. However, once through the "gong" door, there are no views of this blue crane head.

My awesome motel in Jinju. Flat screen TV, computer, surround sound, jacuzzi tub, and a killer remote that controlled the TV, the lights, and the A/C. Centrally located, 40 bucks a night. Korean motels absolutely rule.

On to San Fr..wha? This is the Namhae bridge, connecting Namhae Island to the mainland.

Namhae town seemed a little weak. This sign (Harvard English Academy) reminds me that there's at least one poor whitey that has to live in this town. Taco Bell finally comes to Korea, and this poor bastard is still a 6 hour bus ride away.

Konglish is best when it *almost* gets it right.

Peak season at Sangju Beach in Southern Namhae means I was stuck with this room. This is the whole room. It featured an air conditioner and these hooks. The woman who ran this guest house was awesome though. She looked to be at least 120 years old, and she spoke to me only via pantomime.

Here is Namhae/Sangju beach. Peak season. Lame. Tons of umbrellas (again, the Korean fear of the sun), zero lounge chairs, and yellow tubes. Koreans swim with their clothes on, and they are really into tubes. Everything around was massively overpriced. My answer? Booze, of course.

I'm on a boat.

Here are some of the "couple shirt" types that I ran into on the boat.

The craggy shoreline of southern Korea. I took 50 some pictures on the boat ride. I'll spare you, as many looked much like this.

The next day, I went home. I planned on going to Busan for a day, but I was too hungover after my beach-side bender. Also, I kind of hated Namhae beach, and I think it was because of the peak season. I love the Busan beaches, so I don't want to ruin them by seeing then at peak time.

Friday, August 6, 2010

Cheap night out

This originally appears in The Point, Northeast Kansas's finest news source. Pick up a copy today!

This is the last in the Bali series. My other stuff on Indonesia is here, here, here, and here.

Sunday in Indonesia seemed to be a fine time to see how drunk I could get for roughly $10. After exchange rates and fees, my 100,000 Rupiah probably cost me as much as $11.28, but the general thought is that 10,000 rupiah = $1.

This was no premeditated plan, but rather resulted from my standard mix of laziness and incompetence. After spending most of my daytime money on tourist attractions, poorly made T-shirts, smokes, water, dinner, and a couple beers, I returned to my hotel to shower, put on clean-ish clothes, and to get nighttime money from my hotel safe. I walked down to my neighborhood Circle K and bought a large bottle of Bintang beer, then strolled into the night. I’d spent the last night out at clubs on the inland road, Legian Street, so I opted to head for the beach road to walk north (always north, south was the airport) with plans to stop at the first interesting looking bar I saw. The beach road was fairly dead at night, and after I’d finished my beer I still hadn’t found anything. I came across another Circle K and bought another beer. It was only after buying this beer that I realized that I had exactly 100,000 rupiah left. I had taken my nighttime money out of the safe (maybe $50) but I’d left it sitting on my hotel bed. I was a 25 minute walk or $2 taxi ride from home. Going back was out of the question.

It was at this point that I made the decision to see how drunk I could get for ten bucks. Yeah, I’d already had five drinks since the sun set to lead off, but five drinks for a cat like me is simply a base. I generally consider any night that I have five drinks as a “non-drinking” night. Plus, Bali is hot. Everything gets sweated out. Despite the lakes of water and beer that I was drinking there, I pissed once every other day or so. I established some rules for my $10. I couldn’t cheat and go back for more convenience store beers. I couldn’t buy a bottle of arek either (arek is the Indonesian national hooch, it falls somewhere on the scale between Listerine and wood varnish.)

I walked inland from the Circle K on the beach. I had a good feeling about it, that a cool cheap bar was right around the corner. I found a nice loungy tropical outdoorsy place that was selling gin and tonics for 10,000 rupiah until 10. It was a little after 9:00. Nice.

I sat down at an empty stool next to two beautiful Indonesian girls. After throwing down three G&Ts (which took roughly 15 minutes) I decided to talk to them. A magical bouquet of unreal looking tropical flowers sat on the bar halfway between the knockout to my left and myself. I felt a petal of one. It seemed otherworldly. I said to her “are these real flowers?” Not much of an opener, but within seconds we were on another topic. Like a number of other local girls that I’d met in the Indo-Malay world, she was well-traveled and her English was as flawless as her figure. I downed a couple more G&Ts while chatting with her, though my pace slowed considerably.

At 10 PM, I’d finished 5 gin and tonics and had to buy a Bintang beer for the bar’s normal price, which was still just 15,000 rupiah. At some point, the girl boyfriended me. I didn’t flinch, Instead, I girlfriended her back.

The previous night, on the beach, I’d decided to invent a girlfriend. At first, it was just for dealing with touts and whores. There’s literally thousands of touts in Bali. They all use the same general script. “Hello, my friend. Where you from? “Your first time in Bali?” “How old are you? 19, right?” “You married? You have girlfriend?” Well, I got tired of saying no to that last one. I started saying yes. Though it lead to more offers to buy gifts for my “girlfriend,” it shut down the touts that were actually pimps as well as the whores. It also allowed me to tell jewelry-selling touts that their wares weren’t her style, which lead to more and more of a creation of a backstory for my fake girlfriend. She’s Korean. We’d been dating two years. I met her at a bookstore in Seoul. She wasn’t with me on the trip because she couldn’t get off work, and also we’d been going through a rough patch when I booked my ticket 4 months ago. Things were fine now, or they weren’t, depending on who I was talking to. We were considering marriage. We were considering breaking up. I had a lot to think about. I even changed my iPod screensaver to a picture of myself and this girl I dated a while back. It was fun to girlfriend this girl at the bar. She didn’t see it coming. You can be anyone you want on vacation. I chose to be the farthest thing I could think of - a real person.

As I didn’t have a follow up chess move for the girlfriending, I headed to the next bar. I only had 35,000 rupiah left. I needed a new happy hour special. I headed toward Sky Garden, a club that I knew had happy hour until 11. On the way, I passed another club that advertised 15,000 rupiah screwdrivers until midnight. Good to know.

I got to Sky Garden at almost 11, just barely in tie for a 15,000 Bintang rather than their usual 25,000. Sky Garden is part of a complex of clubs called Legian 61, and it’s right next to where the Bali bombs in 2002 went off.

After finishing my beer, I headed to the club with cheap screwdrivers. It turns out they aren’t available on Sunday nights. I headed for Bounty, another Kuta club institution. It was after midnight by the time I got there. I had 20,000 rupiah left. Fortunately, that was the exact cost of a non-happy hour beer. Bounty features what I later found to be a Bali specialty - open mic night every night. Essentially, it’s live karaoke. Choose a song, the band plays it, and you sing with the band. Watching drunken Aussies do it made for a wild scene.

I headed home at around one. As I walked, I realized that I was suitably liquored up. I had been to four bars and downed 8 drinks for $10. Even Lawrence can’t match that. As I walked home, I had a blast with the touts. “Transport sir?” “My friend, where you go?” I had 300 rupiah left, worth roughly 3 cents. I showed off my empty wallet and 3 cents to every tout on the way and joked with them all. One tout actually offered to give me a lift for 3 cents, but just the notion that he would made me not trust him.

I got home, and decided I wanted one more beer and some drunken internetting. I went into my hotel, took $5 off the stack of cash lying on my bed, and went to Circle K for a beer. As I was walking to the internet cafe, which was 40 feet from the Circle K, I was stopped by three whores. They were hanging out on a couple of scooters in the alley. “Hey, we go to your room? You take all three!”

I was really drunk at this point, the last beer from the bar hit me as soon as I opened my road dog. “Sure, come to my room. I have two bucks.” I pulled open my wallet to show them the 20,000 rupiah.

“Oh no, you have money in your room right? Come on, take us there.”

“Well sweetie, that’s not gonna happen.” I sat down in the alley next to them. One of the three, even in my obliterated state, was clearly a dude. They sat down with me, and I passed my beer around. I asked them why they were hanging out in this particular neck of the woods. Bali has a small smattering of whores, but I never saw any on my street before this night, or after for that matter. When the beer was gone, they all got onto one scooter. They didn’t own the other one. They sped off to fish for johns in more fortified waters. As for me, I was quite possibly too drunk for the internet. The night had been too loony. I walked the fifteen feet it took to get back home.