Monday, March 9, 2015

18 Month Interlude

Shortly after that trip to Gyeongju, my time in Korea and my life in general underwent some notable changes. Alex was around another ten days or so. He did some travel on his own while I worked during the week, and we took a daytrip down to Suncheon the next weekend. Then he went home, and a few days later I extended my teaching contract an extra few months, until the winter. About a week after that, I met a lovely woman who has had a huge impact on me that greatly expanded the scope of my experiences in Korea. At the same time, I became reluctant to blog about those experiences because I wanted to keep them private, at least for the time being. She's a great photographer, so I started taking far fewer pictures and enjoyed looking at the many terrific images she captured. We took many interesting and enjoyable trips and ate countless fantastic Korean meals, including many that she prepared herself (and a few I managed to learn from her).

In October of 2013 I took a couple of weeks off work to return home for the first time since I'd left in the summer of 2012. In fact, it was exactly 444 days between my original departure and my return to the states. I was home for my grandpa's birthday and the wedding of one of my closest friends, and then it was back to Korea for my last two-and-a-half months of teaching. However, I realized during that time that I wasn't ready to leave Korea behind for good, and I extended my contract to finish out the last eight months of a second year after taking the month of December off.

That month gave me the chance to do some travel abroad in Hong Kong and Malaysia (where Alex joined me again), with brief stops in Shanghai, Bangkok, and Abu Dhabi. I was thrilled to get to spend Christmas at home with all my immediate family, the first time we'd all been together in nearly two years. And then, on New Year's Eve, I was on a plane back to Korea. I actually didn't have a midnight that New Year's Eve. I just jumped from 2013-2014 by crossing the Date Line. I landed in Korea the night of January 1 and was back at work the next morning.

I didn't do much travel during the final months of my contract. I ended up taking a Korean language class at Cheonnam National University in Gwangju in the mornings for a couple of months in the spring, which inspired me to continue studying the language. After completing my teaching contract at the end of August 2014, I transferred to a D-10 work-seeking visa, which allowed me to stay in Korea for up to 6 months between work contracts. I took an intensive Korean language class at the university, studying for four hours every weekday for 10 weeks. It was a fantastic experience. I was sorry the class had to end, but by December of 2014 I was ready to get back home and see my family again for the first time in almost a year.

My family was all together again for Christmas, just like the year before. I had a terrific time getting to be around my brothers for a couple of weeks before they started dispersing again. I was able to do some traveling with two of them to the Southeast for about a week. Then I was home for about six weeks immersing myself in job-searching. I enjoyed being home again after having been away for so much longer than I expected when I first came to Korea in 2012.

Yet I missed Korea as well. I missed my girlfriend, I missed the conveniences of living in Gwangju, the ability to hop on a bus or train and explore the city and country. I worried my Korean language skills would quickly atrophy without the everyday use they get while living in Korea. I worried that once I found a good job in the states it would be a long time before I would return to Korea.

I kept sending out cover letters and resumes for the jobs I was aiming for in the states, and one day I added an email to Dan, who had been my original recruiter at Teach ESL Korea. And Dan helped connect me with a great opportunity right back here in Gwangju, just in time for me to return to Korea before my D-10 visa expired.

So now I'm back in Gwangju, on the other side of town from last time around. It's only been a week, and I feel homesick from time to time, but I'm loving being back. I'm busier than ever, and I really should be in bed by now, but I want to get this blog started again, and what better time than now (other than the morning, which I might have seen if I'd gone to bed a couple of hours ago).

In the coming months I'll likely double back to cover some of the memorable moments from my eighteen months of blog silence, in addition to the adventures I fully expect to have this spring and summer here in Gwangju and possibly elsewhere in Korea. For example:

Sprite with a hint of mint -
Do we have this in the states? I never noticed it before.

Gyeongju and Busan

Bulguksa Temple in Gyeongju

On the second Friday of my brother's visit we had no classes for the day. Instead, the teachers met in the morning for a meeting and a short workshop and were finished by lunchtime. This allowed Alexander and I to get a bit of an early start on our weekend trip. After I got home from work we packed a few things for the trip and went out for lunch.

After the usual vacillation, we decided to stop in a restaurant near my academy to try their dolsotbap, a mix of rice, vegetables, and chili paste. We ordered it and enjoyed the banjan (side dishes) while we waited, discussing the upcoming trip. We hadn't made any concrete plans, other than that we wanted to go to Gyeongju. We weren't even sure where we would end up that night. Since it wasn't a holiday weekend, I figured we wouldn't have much trouble finding accommodations on the fly. Finally, the server brought out our two hot bowls of...samgyetang. That's basically a chicken stuffed with rice and ginseng and boiled in a soup. Apparently my pronunciation still needed quite a bit of work. Actually, it still does. The soup was delicious anyway.


Lunch took longer than we expected, so we hurried to get back to the apartment to grab our things for the weekend trip, then went quickly on to the bus terminal. Our main target was Gyeongju, which was a capital of one of Korea's kingdoms, the Silla kingdom. Several other teachers had visited before, including Lily, who recommended seeing it.

As we suspected would be the case, there were no more direct buses to Gyeongju by the time we reached the bus station in the late afternoon. Luckily, we had a backup plan in place and bought tickets for the next train to Daegu, one of Korea's largest cities and just a short train or bus ride from Gyeongju. I have to admit I was a bit nervous during the 3-hour trip to Daegu, since I hadn't done much research about what was around the bus station there and wasn't sure where we'd sleep that night.

Still, we figured there'd be plenty of lodging options somewhere nearby, and we turned out to be right. While walking around the bus station area for about an hour after arriving, we passed dozens of motels and hotels. Finally, as it started to rain lightly we decided we'd better stop in one and get rested up for an early start to the next day.

Luckily we stopped in a spot very near the train station, and we caught the Saemaeul for the short ride to Gyeongju the next morning. We got off a stop earlier than we were supposed to, and wandered around a bit on the far side of Gyeongju from where we wanted to end up. But it was a nice day, and we got to walk along the river. Finally, we decided just to hail a cab, figuring that would be the easiest way to end up near the usual tourist spots that we hoped to explore.

We turned out to be even further from that part of town than we thought, and after about a fifteen minute ride the taxi dropped us off at the tourist gateway to Gyeongju's historical sites. There turned out to be a just-opened tourist hotel near the bus terminal with reasonable rates. We checked in and dropped off our bags, then went over to the visitor information kiosk. The woman working the desk spoke excellent English and told us exactly which bus to take to go out to Bulguksa Temple. We decided to start there, since it was the furthest out of the attractions we hoped to visit, and work our way back.

While waiting for the bus to the temple, we met another American tourist who had come down for the weekend from Seoul, where she had been attending a conference. She teamed up with us for the remainder of the afternoon. The bus ride to Bulguksa took nearly half an hour, so it turned out to be nice to have a larger group when we ended up taking a cab part of the way back later.

There were many, many people visiting Bulguksa that day. It is a popular site, and understandably so. It is one of many Gyeongju attractions that have been named UNESCO World Heritage sites. The temple is nestled on the side of a mountain, affording some gorgeous views of the peaks. Even more impressive to me, however, was Seokguram Grotto, linked to the temple by a several-kilometer long trail around the mountainside.

Trail to Seokguram Grotto
It was a hot day, so we enjoyed drinking from a mountain spring along the side of the trail as we made our way toward the grotto. The path was mostly smooth, but with some incline. However, upon reaching the grotto we realized it was well worth the trek.

paper lanterns below Seokguram Grotto
Hundreds of colorful paper lanterns were strung up at the base of the slope leading to the grotto itself. We bought some much-needed drinks from the vending machines and stood in the shade under the lanterns to cool off. It was pretty steamy that day, as you can probably tell from the mist in these pictures. Once refreshed, we walked up the short path leading to the grotto and waited in line to enter.

The temple was constructed of granite, and is basically an artificial cave. Inside are several stone statues. These are protected by glass, and visitors are only permitted to walk through the main hall area. Photographs were not permitted inside, but they wouldn't do it justice anyway.

In Korea, when people ask me where I've traveled here, I always mention Gyeongju. If the conversation continues and I get to make suggestions for them to travel, I recommend seeing Seokguram Grotto. Koreans consider it one of their great historical treasures. Having an idea of the aura around it, the experience of hiking from Bulguksa and entering the grotto is sure to be a memorable one. It was like glimpsing a hidden treasure and leaving it hidden.

Seokguram Grotto from below
Our temporary companion was running a bit short on time to get back to the bus terminal to get back to Seoul, so we took a taxi from a parking lot near the grotto back toward the city. Yes, there is a parking lot near the grotto, so you can take a bus or taxi there and skip the hike from Bulguksa. But if you have the time and ability I strongly suggest starting from Bulguksa and hiking the trail.


Alex and I had the taxi drop us off near another historical area while our companion continued to the terminal. Evening was approaching, and we wanted to explore Daereungwon Tomb Complex.

This is just a small portion of Daereungwon Tomb Complex
While visiting Seokguram Grotto certainly made a great impression on me, it was our walking around the Tomb Complex that has really made Gyeongju stand out as probably my favorite destination in Korea. These burial mounds are massive, and even more vibrant green than they appear in these pictures. And there are so many of them.

Dusk came on quickly, and in the diminishing sunlight the tombs gave the landscape an otherworldly import. Not that there aren't countless other reminders of Gyeongju's ancient history, but the tombs made it impossible not to be mindful of how timeless this city is. It was a capital of the Silla Dynasty, which over the course of it's nearly millennium-long reign expanded to include nearly half the Korean peninsula.

When it was dark, we returned briefly to the hotel to change and pick a direction to search for dinner. We ended up having a dish which I believe was some kind of skate or ray in a very spicy sauce over rice. After that, we sought out a Cafe Droptop for some bingsu. It turned out to be different from what we had at the Droptop near my apartment in Gwangju, but still good nonetheless. It's hard to go too wrong with bingsu (Cafe Bene's New York Cheesecake bingsu with smashed-up saltine crackers from 2014 is a notable exception.) It was getting near bedtime by then, so we picked up some snacks from a convenience store for the morning and went back to the hotel. The path home led through a park surrounding another burial mound, this one with trees growing on its slopes, a dark, jagged crown of life.

The next morning we walked to the train station and booked tickets for the next Saemaeul to Busan. While waiting we had some ice noodles at a little restaurant down the block. We'd seen a program on one of Korea's English-language channels about different ice-noodle dishes at the hotel in Daegu and were eager to try them out. It's since become one of my favorite Korean foods, which is saying a lot, because I like most Korean foods.

The train took us down the lower east coast, past Ulsan and into Busan, Korea's second-largest city. We exited at the Haeundae station and walked a few blocks to the famous stretch of beach. It was a bit cooler that day, with some light rain falling. There were still plenty of people on the beach, but not nearly the crowds I'd seen in photos covering every inch of sand.

Our time in the city was limited, since I needed to be back in Gwangju that night for work the next day. We didn't stay on the beach long before we took the subway out to the UN Memorial Cemetery.

Busan was a major staging area of the UN forces during the Korean War. In the early weeks of the war, North Korean forces had pushed ROK troops down to the southeast corner of the peninsula. By securing the "Pusan Perimeter", the ROK and UN forces bought enough time for supplies and reinforcements to arrive before the tide was turned with the UN landing at Incheon.

Of course, there was a lot of tragedy yet to come. In fact, no peace treaty was ever signed. A cease-fire brought an end to major hostilities, but as most of you surely know tensions still often run high and violence occasionally breaks out near the DMZ. I wanted to visit the cemetery to pay respects to the UN troops who gave their lives here and to reflect on the continuing impact of the Korean War.

We arrived at the cemetery just in time to witness the flag-lowering ceremony, which was carried out with dignity and great care by the soldiers there. We only had about eight hours to spend in Busan, and we spent nearly two of them in the cemetery, reading the names of fallen soldiers and inscriptions on the various memorials to them. It is a beautiful and well-maintained space that is conducive to reflecting on the sacrifices made.

UN Memorial Cemetery
We exited the cemetery as it was closing for the evening and took a taxi toward the train station. We had a bit of time left to explore the fish and seafood market and grab some dinner. We had our picture taken behind the market just before dark.

After this we walked back to the station and caught the train. We'd considered taking a bus, but many of them were sold out. We realized overall it would be faster to take the KTX, even though we'd have to take it up to Daejeon and transfer to a train down to Gwangju. We enjoy the train enough that we didn't mind the extra expense. A few hours later, after finding our way to the other Daejeon station and catching our other train, we arrived at Gwangju Songjeong Station and took a taxi back to the apartment. We'd filled the weekend with about as much activity as we could, and I was ready to rest up for a full week of teaching.

I'm finally finishing this blog post now, nearly two years after that weekend with Alex in Daegu, Gyeongju, and Busan (but mostly Gyeongju), and it honestly does still stand out as one of my favorite travel experiences in Korea. If anyone is looking for a place to visit in Korea, especially English teachers spending a year here, I implore you to get out to Gyeongju for at least a day if you can. If you have any interest in Korean history and culture, it can be a highly rewarding experience.

Friday, August 9, 2013

A Visitor! And a Visit to Seoul

It's been a very busy 10 weeks since I last wrote. That's one thing I love about life here. It can always be busy. If I have an empty weekend ahead of me I can catch a bus or a train and spend a day or two exploring new places. If I can't sleep at night I can go out to a coffee shop to read or write, or pretend to while I soak in the sounds of the conversations around me. There are always people out. There is always something to occupy my time. Sleep is often hard to come by, even when there is ample time for it. There's so much else to experience. I'm in Korea, and I feel much more in Korea when I'm out of my apartment, so I try to avoid it often.

All of this is to say I've been neglecting this blog, and there's so much to catch up on. I'll start with early June.
Our hosts in Seoul
It had been just over a year since the last time I'd seen Alexander when he walked through the doors at the bus terminal in Gwangju, the end of a long, long journey for him. I was thrilled to see him. I'd been in Korea over ten months at that point, so getting to see family was a special treat. It made me feel more connected to home.

At first, having Alexander here was a bit surreal. I enjoyed having the opportunity to guide him around in the mornings before I went to work and to take him to some of my favorite restaurants to eat after I got out of work at night. He had just over three weeks to be in Korea, so we planned to use each weekend to take a trip out of town. For the first weekend, Hyun-ho and his family invited us to visit them in Seoul, an offer we excitedly accepted.

On Saturday morning we caught the slow train from Songjeong station. I've taken a "slow" train before, I think the Saemaeul. That train was q bit slower than the express train, the KTX, but was still rather comfortable. Alexander and I ended up on the Mugunghwa, the even slower train. I didn't realize how much longer that ride would feel. It wasn't very comfortable, and with a travel time of over four hours we could have arrived in about the same time by taking the bus. The train ticket was actually about the same price as a bus ticket, however, if not a bit cheaper.

Another advantage to the train system here is that the KORAIL website can be viewed in English, making it easy to search and reserve tickets ahead of time without knowing Korean. After that ride to Seoul, I used the website while sitting in a coffee shop to book our tickets back to Gwangju on a KTX train. The KTX, by the way, is excellent. It is fast (reaching speeds of around 300kph at its fastest between Seoul and Gwangju) and comfortable, though a bit pricier. The KTX can get you from Seoul to Gwangju, a distance of about 300km, in just under 3 hours for less than 40,000 won.

After arriving at Yongsan Station, we took the subway to Dongdaemun, where we planned to meet Hyun-ho and his cousin Jin-hee, whom I met when I went to Seoul for Chuseok last September. Alexander and I had lunch at Nolboo, a chain restaurant I'd been curious to try. We ordered one of my favorite Korean dishes: dalkgalbi. I tried this for the first time when I was in Seoul in the fall and Hyun-ho took me to a dalkgalbi restaurant in Gangnam for lunch when I arrived at the bus station. It's marinated chicken (dalk) that's usually a bit spicy, cooked with a mixture of ddeok (rice cakes), cabbage, and other vegetables on a big pan in the center of the table. You can also add cheese and noodles or other sides of your choice. Alexander and I had a version that included octopus, which added a tantalizingly chewy texture to go along with the chicken.

After lunch Jinhee arrived at Dongdaemun and met us, followed shortly thereafter by Hyun-ho. We walked around the markets for a while before continuing on to Insadong. After looking around there for a while, we walked along Cheonggyechon to Gyeongbokgung Palace, which I seem to visit nearly every time I'm in Seoul. I don't mind, though. The palace is an impressive site and is a very large complex so there's still a lot of it I haven't seen. This was one of the sites Hyun-ho showed me when I first went to Seoul, and I enjoy going there with people who haven't seen it before. Alexander seemed to enjoy it, and we could have spent a lot more time exploring the grounds were it not nearly closing time.

As it was, though, we were getting a bit hungry and tired from our walking that day, so as the palace closed we left the grounds and started walking toward the Blue House, the residence of Korea's president (currently Park Geun-hye.) From that area Hyun-ho's father picked us up and drove us up into the mountains, where we were able to get some great views of the city, and took the picture shown above.

Finally, it was time to go to Goyang and have dinner with their family. Here's a photo of the food they had prepared. It was, of course, very delicious. Pajeon, galbi, sashimi, jjigae, kimchi, seasoned anchovies...I can't remember all the different dishes we had. The great variety in Korean meals is one of the things I most enjoy about the food here.
A delectable home-cooked meal
I may have written about this back in the fall. If so, it bears repeating; if not, that was a serious oversight. I have been very lucky to have this connection in Korea. Visiting Hyun-ho and his family feels like reconnecting with some deeply caring extended family. That's how I felt during Chuseok, so I'm glad Alexander was able to have a similar experience. I think a large part of what has made me feel so comfortable in Gwangju this year is the knowledge that they're just a few hours away. We may not be able to speak to each other very well, but I always feel welcome and cared for with them.

Hyun-ho's family kindly put us up in their home for the night, and in the morning drove Alexander and me to the City Hall area. We had scheduled a DMZ tour that departed from the Lotte Hotel. At around 8am we boarded our tour bus and departed for Paju, a city near the border. Most of the tourists were Japanese, but the two of us and another group of four Americans also had an English-speaking guide assigned to us.

The DMZ tour was probably the most touristy experience I've had in Korea, which I suppose is to be expected when you consider how strictly controlled activity near the DMZ is. Our tour included a video presentation and a tram ride into an infiltration tunnel, as well as stops at the last train station before the border and at an observation deck from which we could look out into North Korea itself. It was hazy that day so the view was somewhat obscured, but we were still able to make out the Kaesong industrial complex (sadly, still shut down as of this writing, though there's been talk that it will open soon) and the city of Kaesong, which is North Korea's second-largest.

We arrived back at the hotel in the early afternoon, and then Alexander and I went to Hongdae. My friend Miji planned to meet us for dinner. We had some time to kill before she could meet us, so we found the Hongik University campus and walked around it for about an hour before finding a coffee shop to cool off in and utilize the free wifi. Then, Miji found us and took us to a little stand serving some very tasty tacos. As sunset approached it was about time for us to catch the train, so back to Yongsan we went. We bought some snacks at the station and boarded the KTX for the swift and smooth ride home. I don't remember for sure, but it's very likely that after we arrived in Gwangju we stopped my favorite coffee shop for some bingsu before retiring for the night to prepare for another week.

Of course, there were more adventures to be had, which I will describe in future posts. Next up, Gyeongju!

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Honam Gukje Marathon in Gwangju

Sunday, April 21, 2013

When my alarm went off at 6:30 AM I actually woke up and stayed up this time. After eating a couple of bananas I changed into my running shorts and singlet and applied sunscreen to what I thought was all my exposed skin. I grabbed my sunglasses and Powerade, laced up my New Balance shoes (veterans of a previous marathon), and left my apartment.

It was cool enough outside that I preferred jogging to Sangmu Citizens' Park (just a few blocks from my apartment building) in order to stay warm. I had the feeling it was going to get rather warm during the course of the race, so I decided not to wear a base layer under my singlet. Since the course was to follow the path along the Yeongsangang, there figured to be very little respite from the sun (which became painfully obvious to me when after the race I noticed two red patches behind my shoulders outlining the space between the edge of my singlet and the reach of my hands).

Being so near to the starting line helped calm the nerves I normally feel on a race morning. I didn't need to worry about traffic or catching a subway, just a leisurely 10-minute jog to a park I've visited quite often. With about ten minutes to spare, I went onto the soccer field with other runners and tried to stay loose until the call for marathoners to come to the starting line (which would be translated for me by the movement of a bunch of people in running shorts and singlets toward the start line).

I got my cue and took my place among the other runners. The crackle of a few fireworks shot into the sky above the track started the race, and within a minute I was across the line and rounding the curve of the track toward the path out of the park. With about 125 participants registered for the marathon, including 6 foreigners, this was the smallest event I've competed in. There was also a half marathon, a 10K, and a 5K being run, but the start times were staggered by 10 minutes. As a result, there was a lot more room to breathe at the start.

Once outside the park the course turned onto the street leading to the river path. When I go for runs I usually use the bike path on the riverbank. The marathon followed the wider service road on the levee along the river. The pictures in the blog show different parts of those paths and I took them during a walk the week after the race.
Sign on the bike path showing the distance to Naju
A small part of the course overlapped part of the half marathon course I ran on March 1, which Lily wrote about in her blog. This was near a visitors' center for the bike path, and a water station was set up in front just as it was for that previous race. I was carrying my own sports drink in fear that I may start to dehydrate in the hot sun I was anticipating, so I skipped the first several water stations. It was nice to see a reminder of that previous race, though, and feel somewhat familiar with at least part of the route ahead of me.

Yeongsangang bike path visitors center, seen from the river bank
Here are some pictures of the view from the balcony behind the center:

toward the airport-a plane landing



the road the course followed
The first twenty kilometers were somewhat of a blur, as usual. I tried to look around a lot to take in the views and soak up as much of the experience as I could. I sort of latched onto a group forming behind a couple of pacesetters for a while, but broke off when they slowed at one of the water stations. Truth be told, however, the memories of the early parts of these races tend to be overpowered by what comes afterwards.

A turning point in the race came at kilometer 21. Just before the half-marathon turn-around, I heard a voice call from behind me, "For Boston!" A few moments later, I was passed by a woman I met while running the half marathon in March. She'd suggested in a group event for the race on Facebook that the foreigners in the marathon wear some symbol of support for the victims of the bombing the previous week. I thought it was a good idea and had taped a message on the back of my singlet. As she passed me I reciprocated her words of encouragement, and saw that she had written a message for Boston on the back of her tank top. A few meters later she crossed her halfway mark and headed back toward the finish line. I nodded toward her in acknowledgement and continued on.

While running along the river provided some wonderful scenery. Mountains that had always been hazy silhouettes in the distance during my previous runs approached closer and closer as I chugged downstream. With the half-marathoners no longer among our ranks, the number of runners on the course decreased dramatically, and the course became much lonelier. The only spectators were the people gathered at the aid stations every few kilometers and the occasional policeman posted at mostly empty intersections.

Everything was new for me on this part of the course. After about an hour and a half we crossed a bridge that I'd noticed on the bus ride to Wando the week before. This brought us to the opposite bank of the river, where we stayed all the way to Naju.

After crossing the bridge I finally took advantage of one of the aid stations. They had a bowl of banana halves at one end of the table, and I slowed down to grab one. A volunteer behind the table greeted me in English: "Hi!"

"Hi! Thanks!" I replied, speaking for the second time that day.

"Fighting!" she called as I resumed running.

As we followed the bike path toward Naju I was surprised to see a farm with a bunch of animals that looked like reindeer. It's nice to come across things like that to help take my mind off of the running, which was about to become much more difficult.

I saw another bridge in the distance and hoped we wouldn't cross it, that the halfway point was closer than that. I noticed banners hanging from lightposts along the street next to the path when we came up an incline onto a long straightaway: 나주. I had seen in the registration packet that the turnaround was in Naju, and I felt a mix of relief and dread to know the distance was about halfway done.

Indeed, near the end of the long straightaway was a chip reader laid across the asphalt just beyond a sign marking 21 km. I crossed the reader and rounded the imaginary corner to repeat in reverse all the ground I'd covered in the previous two hours.

Anticipating a drop in my energy, I forced myself to eat part of the energy bar I'd stuffed in my pocket. Long-distance running makes me hungry in that way that makes eating unpleasant, especially when I'm still running. I remember from my childhood days of team swim practices. After swimming for an hour, I'd be ravenous and could eat bowls of oatmeal and several waffles or whatever else my grandparents might cook up when I walked to their house from the pool. After running for two hours, I know my body needs more calories, but the taste of any sort of food tends to make me feel like I do at the end of a big meal, when I sometimes decide that even though I don't want to eat those last few bites of dessert, maybe later I'll look back and wish I had if I don't.

What I really feel like doing by that point of a race is slowing down to a walk, having a nice, cold, lightly sweetened drink like lemonade, and laying down for a nap for a couple of hours before waking up to eat a nice, big, well-deserved meal. And that's what would be waiting for me at the finish line, just 21 km away.

After getting down half the energy bar, I stuffed the remaining half back into my pocket and took a few sips from my Powerade. In about twenty minutes by my estimate I figured I'd be passing that aid station where I'd had a banana before, so I planned to make myself eat more when I got there.

I really did try to remember to keep appreciating the scenery while I ran, and I did look around from time to time in an effort to immerse myself in the thought of how exhilarating it was to be in the moment of achieving my goal of completing a marathon here in Korea, halfway around the world from my home. Look around you! That's Korea! The effect was more muted than it had been before, as the pangs in my stomach and the encroaching fatigue in my legs sent stronger and stronger signals to my brain.

A group of accidental spectators were gathered along the street in front of the Yeongsangang Culture Hall near the bridge. While they were not as enthusiastic as most of the volunteers at the aid stations, it was nice to see a crowd of people and pretend they were there to offer support for those of us who had decided to spend this sunny Sunday morning trudging up and down the banks of the river for a few hours. In reality, I think mostly they had noticed something going on when they came out of whatever event they'd gone to the hall to see and in curiosity or boredom had gone over to see what it was.

Shortly after that, it was time to recross the bridge to the lonelier side. By now the runners were very spread out, and I often felt like an island with the nearest runners a hundred meters ahead of me, with some unseen and unheard runners quickly approaching to overtake me. During this stretch I really enjoyed hearing the occasional "Fighting!" from the bored policemen manning the intersections.

"Fighting!" I tried to shout back at one point. You have to put equal stress on both syllables, which I mangled in my breathlessness.

When the empty feeling in my stomach and my legs intensified to the point where I felt like walking, I told myself to get to km 30 before I took any breaks from running (which at that point could barely be called running). However, around km 26 I relented and slowed to a walk. I allowed myself to walk to the next km marker, and then I forced myself to run the entirety of the next kilometer, and a bit further. Then I walked again, until I approached the next aid station.

Spectators and volunteers are my favorite part of marathons. Some people find the desire of marathoners to spend hours at a time running incomprehensible. I'm more in awe of the willingness of these people to spend even more time standing by watching people run (mostly slowly) for hours at a time, and cheering them on. Seeing those smiling faces and hearing their shouts of encouragement (even those I can't understand) make a tremendous difference for me when trying to get through those miles after the wall, when the last thing I want to think about is the fact that I still have 8 miles to run. Instead, I soak up the energy they send me and find myself with the energy to run again as I pass them, and walking or running, eventually there's 7, then 6, then 5, then 4 miles to go. And from there the anticipation of the finish line with its celebratory crowds starts to tow me along to the final stretch, where all of a sudden I feel great because I want to get there as quickly as possible and cross the line and have it all behind me.

My parents had been to every marathon I ran to this point. They drove to Chicago to watch me run my first one in 2009, and they were there on the sidelines in the five I ran in St. Louis over the next three years. While they sent their well-wishes to me before this race, I knew it would be much different coming across the finish line and not having them there, that it might feel slightly diminished despite my relief at my accomplishment. So I was thrilled when I came across the line and immediately saw Sarah and Lily cheering from just beyond the finish. Seeing friendly faces is such a joy at that exhilarating and exhausted moment, and these are two of my closest friends here in Gwangju.

After the race I was famished, so we decided to go to the newly-opened TGI Friday's near my apartment building. Lily and Sarah went ahead to the restaurant to order while I hobbled home to take a quick shower. When I made it back, a nice bread bowl of pasta was waiting on the table for me. Friday's is a restaurant I like to go with friends back home, so it felt like a fitting place to be that afternoon.

As hungry as I feel after a race like that, it gets to be a tedious chore finding the energy to make myself eat enough to last more than a couple of hours. I ate very slowly, taking long breaks between bites and enjoying the company on a clear, sunny afternoon. The time I'd recorded is the slowest marathon I've ever run, and I walked more than I have in any other race, but when I got back to my apartment and laid down for a long afternoon nap I felt complete contentment that I'd experienced a marathon in Korea and that I'd been able to share it with some great friends.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

An Afternoon in Wando at Sinji Myeongsasimni Beach

 Sinji Myeongsasimni Beach

Although I didn't blog much about Korea during the winter months, I've still been thoroughly enjoying my time here despite the cold and all the bluster coming from the north. I feel that during the winter, especially January and February, I really settled into some routines and didn't keep up with the blog as I did in the fall. As I head into the final quarter of my contract, however, I hope to go beyond the routine more often and write about it on here once in a while.

The weekend after the Strawberry Festival Lucy and Rufus again invited me to join them for another Saturday outing. This time the outlook for the weather was bright and sunny, and it seemed a trip to the beach was in order. They did a great job of finding a spot and planning it out. Basically all I had to say was "Sure" and they led me from there.

We met at USquare Saturday morning and bought bus tickets for Wando. The ride took about two hours, including a stop in Haenam. From the Wando bus terminal we took a local bus to Sinji, which dropped us off in front of a huge sign for Myeongsasimni Beach, our destination. I've heard the beaches of Wando recommended on numerous occasions, but last fall I'd been wary of wandering down there without a clear idea of how to navigate from the Wando bus terminal to the beaches. It turned out to be pretty simple, and I can see myself making several return trips this summer.

From the bus stop it was a short walk across a small parking lot to the boardwalk and the beach. Granted, I haven't actually visited many beaches in Korea, but I could immediately tell this was the best one I'd seen so far.

It really was pristine-looking, and the fact that I hadn't seen the ocean since being in Taiwan on New Year's Eve added to the impression. The sand was soft and strewn with colorful shells, many intact. While we set up our spot on the sand some other groups wandered down toward the water, looking out over the tide and the distant seaweed farms toward the islands ringed around the horizon.

Eager to test the waters, we dropped our bags and shoes and headed for the edge. The water, as we expected, was frigid. Yet it felt great to be standing in the ocean again, even if I didn't have it in me to go in more than a few inches up my legs. Within a few minutes the sting of the cold was gone, but a numbness was setting in, so I went back up toward the dry sand to sit and take in some of the beautiful unblocked sunshine. After having been burned on the first day of our ski trip, I was well-prepared with a bottle of sunscreen this time, and I carefully covered my face and neck. Even the faint smell of sunblock led me to fondly recall being on the beaches of Florida and North Carolina last summer, and I excitedly imagined future, warmer beach outings this summer.

Shortly thereafter our appetites roused us from the comfort of our sandy seats to seek out a culinary establishment. We followed the boardwalk toward a row of shops, and we hesitated in front of one to examine the specimens in its fishtanks outside the front door. Some people inside called out to us in English, welcoming us in. A couple of tables were occupied by groups of cheerily conversing Koreans, and we sat on the floor around our own table in the middle of the restaurant. Our lunch was abundant and delectable.
Back out on the beach we again reveled in the return of such warm weather, though like the Koreans around us we did remain fully dressed. It wasn't quite hot enough yet to push the boundaries by bringing out the swimming trunks yet. I reclined on the sand and read some of Graham Greene's The Quiet American before going back out to the water to feel the tide rushing in.
There were dozens of people spread across the long stretch of warm sand now, and it was very comforting to hear people enjoying the day so much. I again became somewhat entranced by the tide, letting my eyes roll along the crests of the miniature waves as they broke. From time to time fish would jump out of the water, and I began to watch for their silhouettes in the waves as they rose and were lit by the sun.

I didn't go any further than this. I had rolled up my jeans above the knee and the water was starting to get to them when it splashed against my legs. I wore my hoodie the whole time as well, feeling comfortable with the temperature and in concert with some of the locals who walked along the beach in winter coats. With my feet again becoming numb from the cold water, I waded back to the shore, picking up some shells along the way.

I had noticed this in the sand on my way out into the water:
By the time I got back to that spot some slightly stronger waves had washed it mostly away. Best of luck to those two anyway.

The others had some obligations back in Gwangju in the evening, so we gathered our things and made our way back up the boardwalk toward the bus stop. Before going back through the thin line of pine trees I pulled out my camera for a few more pictures. 

In the next few months I hope to visit more beaches around Korea, especially here in the southwest. Even so, I think it will be worth revisiting Sinji Myeongsasimni at least one more time, during the real beach season, which begins next month. Then my pictures will probably include many more people. From a quick glance at the regional map of Wando we saw at the bus terminal, there are also many other beaches that could be worth exploring in the area.

I noted my surroundings in anticipation of a return in the near future as we rode the bus back to the Wando terminal. From there it was a relaxing two-hour ride back to Gwangju as the day faded into evening.

Nonsan Strawberry Festival (논산 딸기 축제) April 6, 2013

                When my alarm rang at 7:00 I turned it off carelessly. In fifteen minutes the next alarm would wake me for good, as it always does, usually.
                When I next woke I was ominously refreshed. Sure enough, I checked the time on my phone and saw it was 8:05. The bus to Nonsan was scheduled to depart at 8:30. “Shoot,” I grumbled as I jumped up and went to the stairs, doing some quick estimates. If I could leave my apartment by 8:20 I could get to the bus with a couple minutes to spare. Fifteen minutes to shower, dress, and brush my teeth? Possible, but I hadn’t a moment to spare.
                It was the fastest I’d gotten ready in years, and even with the stroke of good luck of a taxi waiting directly in front of my building, I was running to the bus and boarded a few minutes after 8:30. Fortunately it was a charter bus, and the tour leaders were waiting on a few more people; we didn’t start moving until around 8:40, by which time I’d found a seat near Sarah, Rufus, and Lucy at the back of the bus. We were in for a cold and rainy day according to the forecasts, but, as I learned on our ski trip to Muju, those three are such great travel companions that I didn’t much mind the prospect of bad weather.
                We had somewhere between an hour and a half to three hours of bus ride between us and Nonsan. All I really knew was that it was somewhere north of Gwangju. Once Sarah had mentioned the trip I was sold immediately by the prospect of getting out of Gwangju for the first time since the trip to Muju and I didn’t do any more research. Nonsan is not Gwangju, and it has strawberries; that was more than enough for me. I could figure out the details whenever I woke up and we were there, so I put up the hood of my coat and leaned back in to the softly jittering rumble of the bus.
                We were about half an hour nearer our destination when the tour leader got on the microphone to end our naps and give us slightly more information about what we’d be doing that day. It would be cold, yes, but when we arrived at the strawberry farm we would be able to pick strawberries inside. For 10,000 won we could eat all the berries we wanted, and then either fill a small box with some to take home or take a jar of jam.
                And now, please tell us, what is your name, where are you from (which state if you’re from the states, please), and what is your job? I remembered doing a few of this sort of introduction from my first months here. In most circumstances, being in a place for eight months leaves you in a situation where you’re still very new. If this were school, I’d still be a freshman, after all. But in Korea, most of us work on one-year contracts, putting me closer to the end than I am to the beginning, with more farewells before me here than hellos. It’s not a great attitude to take up, I admit, but it’s basically the sense I had as I casually stated, “I’m Trevor, from Illinois, and I’m a hagwon teacher,” into a microphone for a bus full of strangers whose faces I couldn’t see. And then I heard a string of names with no faces and states and countries. It was a strange exercise. Our tour leader would have done better to just ask each of us conversationally as he collected our money.
                The next time I woke up I looked out the window as we crossed a bridge. On the banks of the placid grey river below, next to the expansive parking lot, sat a few figures encased in well-fluffed jackets. They huddled over their reels, watching the lines reaching beneath the surface.
                From a lightpole on the bridge a sign with one corner untethered flapped violently in the wind, with brief respites that were just long enough that my gradually-improving Korean-reading skills were able to make out the words “논산 딸기 축제” Nonsan Ddalgi Chukje. Nonsan Strawberry Festival. 논산 (Nonsan) is the name of the city. 딸기 –ddalgi – strawberry: I learned this word when I grabbed an appetizingly pink bottle from the cooler at 7-11 on my way to work one particularly bleary early afternoon last fall. When I sat down at my desk and unscrewed the cap, I slowly read the label: 딸기 라떼 – ddalgi latte – strawberry latte. 축제 –chukje – festival: I picked this one up during January intensives, when I was giving my class of middle schoolers a quiz of twenty vocabulary words every weekday morning at 10:10 a.m., and grading the quizzes over lunch. This was when I made most of my progress in reading Korean. Some of the words were given in Korean, and they’d write the English word, and some were the other way around. Festival was the other way around, so after reading over 13 quizzes to make sure 축제 was written correctly it stuck with me.
                The sign, with its crisp picture of a strawberry halved so that its white interior outlines the shape of a heart, suggested we were near our destination, though according to the clock we’d only been on the road for an hour and a half. The low estimate gladly proved to be accurate; we took the next right and came to a stop in the parking lot near the chilled fishermen.
                Alright, we’re here. Come back to the bus at 3 and we’ll go pick strawberries.
                Got it. 3 o’clock. So we have…5 hours. I forgot to bring an umbrella.
                We stepped off the bus and into the rain, and looked out toward the festival to see what the next five hours might have in store for us. I think we were all a bit underwhelmed. Somehow I’d imagined a sunny afternoon spent in some hilly fields among rows and rows of strawberry vines. Even when people warned me the weather wasn’t going to cooperate that weekend, the scene still played in my imagination as an afternoon of squinting in the bright sun while surveying vast stretches of rich green with luscious red blotches hanging out over the columns of recently-plowed soil, gently reflecting some of the warmth it had taken in from the intense sun.
                The bridge we’d crossed on the bus provided some relief from the rain, and we stopped underneath it for a few minutes to get a closer look of the setup. Beyond the concert stage set up near the edge of the river in front of the paved parking lot ran three columns of white tents, waiting for us to come peruse their contents while we strolled past in the rain, our feet pushing down the mesh the organizers had stretched over the ground so we wouldn’t sink into the mud but only into shallow puddles of murky grey water that formed around the soles of our feet at each step.
At the entrance to the festival
                Some of the vendors we passed called out to us with exhortations to come sample their wares, warming themselves up for a day of hard selling to try to mitigate the damage done to their business by the grey skies and cold winds. I did try a bit of jam, though I passed up the kimchi and some other concoctions I didn’t go close enough to identify. Most of the vendors paid us no special attention, watching us pass while saving their efforts for those who could understand what they would say and possibly buy what they sold. I spent enough hours standing damp and chilled in the pit of Harvard Square shouting to potential tour-takers to understand their resignation. I also gave enough hour-long tours to groups of Chinese tourists with minimal English skills to have some idea of the self-consciousness and futility one can feel while giving a pitch that’s doomed to incomprehensibility. I could empathize with the vendors’ reticence.
                We then came to a tent whose contents I hadn’t expected. We first noticed the snakes, mostly motionless in their bare, barely secured glass cases. Not far away a group of children leaned excitedly over plastic crates containing baby bunnies, mice, chicks, and hedgehogs. They hummed gleefully as they held the furry creatures or watched the tiny mice crawl over the sleeves of their coats, and I like to imagine the animals were thankful for the warmth offered them against the unseasonable chill by those miniature hands. We looked on from a distance for a few moments to discern what animals were there before moving along to the bigger cages.
                A larger enclosure surrounded a group of branches on which various tropical birds perched, including a parrot patiently enduring the persistent efforts of a young couple to teach it to say “Annyeong”. I listened intently, hoping they would succeed. Until then I hadn’t realized how much I’d like to hear a parrot mimic a language other than English. This parrot, however, seemed to content to show off only its listening skills, and we walked to the other side of the birdcage, deeper into the miniature zoo.
                Pressing against the far side of its cage was a skunk, stripped, we assumed, of its noxious potential. About a meter away was a brown raccoon, pacing back and forth, dipping its snout into the corner each time, involved completely in the business of looking busy checking for a way out.
                The porcupine in the next pen seemed to be making more progress. His pen was really more a loose affiliation of short wire fences without a covering on top. He repeatedly reared up and dove into the lower portion of the back side, sliding the fence back a few centimeters before he immediately commenced scraping away at the ground at its base. If the ground hadn’t been paved over with landscaping bricks he may have had some chance of escape that way. As it was we hoped he’d figure out that a strong pounce above the short fence’s center of gravity might tip it enough for him to make his way over it, and then perhaps under the loose back of the tent undulating slightly in the wind, and safely across the road and sidewalks, and maybe on to some semblance of a natural habitat somewhere, though I hadn’t had a good look at our surroundings on the drive in to know where that might be. I didn’t think that far ahead at the time. I just wanted for him to get out of that enclosure in what I was beginning to recognize was a bleak and likely miserable existence.
                The furry creature we saw in the next cage rushed frantically from the front to the back of its few square feet, ramming its head into the bars, its rapid breathing audible from a couple of meters away. I was beginning to feel guilty for looking, yet I kept a grin affixed to my face. ‘Who am I to frown?’ I thought. ‘I’m looking at this of my own volition, after all. And what good would it do to reflect the misery of these creatures back at them, only to walk away, having done nothing?’
                Near the end of the line was a monkey, sprawled out on his back on the floor of his cage, two of his long limbs reaching up and out, gripping the bars. He’d roll his head around from time to time to glance at his audience. I watched him in amusement, taking some comfort in the carefree and bored expression on his face. Among the rattle of skulls against metal bars coming from other parts of the tent, the monkey existed calmly in his miniscule space, patiently waiting for the end of the day when he’d be taken back to wherever they came from, warm and fed (I hope) before setting out for wherever was next.
                A moment later he sat up and reached outside the cage for a piece of straw, which he raised to his mouth and chewed a couple of times, then dropped it to the ground. With his expression unchanged he hopped up and down a few times, grabbing the bars and spinning himself around a bit in an effort to amuse himself.
                From the cage at the end of the line a domesticated cat looked on in complete stillness as though it were stationed on a living room windowsill looking out on the senseless commotion of the world outside. I’m not sure what the owners felt they were lacking to round out their collection of caged wildlife with a housecat. Goodness knows asking them would bring about no understanding. Not that I’d know who to ask, anyway. The whole exhibit seemed to be devoid of caretakers, of anyone to look upon with a disapproving glare.
                We made our way through mud puddles to the opposite row of tents, looking for a place to conquer our appetites. The line of open-air restaurants stretched out for a couple hundred meters, presenting us with no shortage of options. We briefly surveyed the whole length of it before deciding to return to the most enticing option we’d passed, which presented an animal in a much more palatable form than any we’d seen that day: a pig roasting on a spit in front of the tent. A labored perusal of their hanging menu suggested we could get a platter of roast pork for 25,000 won. We asked for that and sat down at a table, finally out of the rain.
                In my rush to get to the bus that morning I’d failed to eat anything. It was around 11 when we sat down to eat, around the time I’m finally getting out of bed on many mornings. Thus, while I wasn’t uncomfortably hungry, I eagerly scooped up some of the kimchi and other panjan once it was placed on the table. Even with the chilling effect of our ceasing to move around, having a dry place to sit out of the wind with a bit of kimchi in my stomach provided some sense of warmth.
                This cold! Shouldn’t it be warm here by now? It seemed like it was going to stay nice after the good weather we had during the week. Of course on the weekend it would decide to create a disturbance.
                I began to notice the disproportionate number of foreigners in the clumps of passers-by contemplating the array of lunch options. This wasn’t surprising; there were likely many foreigner-oriented groups like ours that had planned outings to the festival for that day. Since we’d already transferred funds to book seats on the bus we were much less likely to be dissuaded by the less-than-ideal conditions than Korean families who may have been considering a drive out to Nonsan to check out the festival. For most of them there’d be next year, anyway. It tends to be easy to spot foreigners in Korea, and several more groups of them sat down at tables near ours while we waited, perhaps having been drawn in by the presence of other foreigners and, of course, the pig on a spit. To ourselves, we commended the proprietor for her keen advertising.
                How nice it will be when it finally warms up for good. I’d like to try to visit Haeundae at some point in the small window I imagine exists between the first warm weekends and the rush of immense crowds that will pour over the sand when beach season begins. Doing so may cause me to miss out on the real spirit of Haeundae, however. But this cold! The warmth seems a remote dream that comes more slowly the more we ache for it.
                The pork was served over fresh onions and garlic on an iron skillet, heated so that we could hear that appetizing hiss and sizzle as we stirred up the contents, pushing the pork down against the bottom to heat it up for optimal enjoyment.
               I swear the temperature’s dropped since we sat down. It was cool this morning, but it’s getting downright cold now. I thought we were done with this. This should have been done weeks ago. What happened to global warming?
                The proprietor filled another platter with pork for another table of foreigners. Another worker was stripping meet from the mostly-emptied animal with gloved hands, her hair wrapped in a bandana and her mouth and nose covered by a surgical mask. Behind her sat two children, one a teenager and the other younger than ten, both visibly bored and impatient. The older one fidgeted on a phone while the other glanced frantically about with a frown. I assumed all the people working the food tent were family, and the kids had to come along for a cold day watching the adults run the business.
                As much as some of the kids I teach can drive me up a wall at times, you can’t help but develop some sympathy for them. Kids spend a lot of time in school and academy here, and I remember very clearly the strong desire to please and impress parents and teachers. For many of these kids, that task involves a huge time commitment, much greater than it ever did for me. So I did feel bad for these kids, sitting under a tent in the rain and cold –on a Saturday – and maybe Sunday as well, before going back to their routine of regular school in the morning and afternoon, and academy for a couple hours in the evening, and a few hours for homework. There are many challenging moments for me in teaching, but whenever I stop doing it I’ll miss those occasions when I know the kids are learning something, and they know it too, and smile.
                On the other side of the entrance another worker - an aunt, perhaps - had begun frying up some pajeon. On display next to her were some deep fried goodies we thought might be squid, so we ordered a plate. Once it reached our table we saw that it might actually be deep-fried ginger root. I grabbed one a took a bite, confirming this suspicion, to the chagrin of the lot of us. We worked on it for a while in order not to seem rude. Really, it wasn’t too bad, though it was not nearly as delicious as fried squid would have been. Still, it helps to have an affinity for fried ginger to work through such a large amount of it in the absence of considerable hunger, and we were already quite sated from the pork and the vegetable side dishes. That’s when the pajeon arrived.
                Pajeon is the first Korean food I remember trying. My neighbor made some using vegetables from her garden. Alexander ate it enthusiastically, having much more knowledge at the time of Korean cuisine than I did. Actually, at that time I knew nothing about Korean food, so I tried a bit with no real expectations, though I did find the idea of a vegetable pancake exotic. I loved it, and I try not to go too long over here without enjoying some variety of pajeon.
                In fact, I’ve been indulging even more frequently in the past couple of months in anticipation of the relative scarcity of Korean food that will confront me when I return to the states. But the plentitude of our meal at the food tent had pushed beyond our limits with a couple of ginger roots and a third of a pajeon left on the table. I continued to pick at the pajeon, breaking off sections of it with my chopsticks and lifting them to my mouth out of nostalgia and a desire to delay the hunger I’d begin to feel in a few hours, perhaps out of habit.
                I hate to harp on the cold. I’ve often heard others point out that the weather makes for dull conversation. But it’s there, and we can all feel it, and if it makes us uncomfortable or annoyed, isn’t it natural to commiserate with each other over that? Particularly since this cold seems so stubbornly persistent, so determined to get us to talk about it, to shiver in its wake, whereas if it had shown up in the dead of winter we’d have shrugged it off.
                One of the adults must have given the younger girl some money, because when I looked back up toward the spit she was standing in front of it with a grin on her face, presumably brought about by the cookie-like snack in her hands. A group of the workers went to the back of the tent. A few minutes later, the lumbered through the aisle alongside our table, hauling between the four of them a pig that must have been five feet long, wrapped loosely in a clear plastic bag. I was tickled to witness this, accepting the spectacle as an enhancement of the dining experience. I was also quite glad it was occurring after we’d finished eating, sa what I watched wasn’t exactly appetizing.
                They roughly lowered the carcass onto the surface of a table diagonally across from ours. Two of them lifted one end of the pig high enough for the others to slip off the plastic bag, so we could see the deep slit across the entire length of the animal’s underside, through which the organs had been removed. The first pig was little more than a well-cooked spine and ribcage now, so this new specimen was being prepared to draw in and feed more customers as the lunchtime rush continued. I wondered how many more they had waiting out of sight behind the tent to replace this one once it too had served its purpose. I imagined a truck bed covered with decapitated pig carcasses waiting to be paraded out to command the attention of the busloads of foreigners wandering by.
Pig being readied for the spit; pajeon in the foreground

                The four adults struggled to maintain solid grips as they hoisted up the pig and hauled it to the second spit. Three of them supported the weight as they lowered it, blocking the view of those passing by while they prepared the display. After a few moments, the pig was in place and spinning, and we rose to pay and return to the cold and rain.
                The level of activity had risen dramatically during our two-hour lunch. While we had grown colder, the festival had marched on. Plush strawberry mascots trudged through the muck with ecstatic smiles stitched onto their faces. Families crowded under the tarp overhangs sheltering strawberry rice cake vendors. Couples queued up to purchase pairs of fresh berries skewered and dipped in melted chocolate with a rainbow of sprinkles drizzled on top, one or the other holding two in his or her hand while turning around to pass off half of the sweet, juicy burden. Parents edged up beside their children as the little ones leaned heavily over large rounded pots, their gloved hands mashing masses of the blood red berries into jam, soaking up the warmth of the gooey pulp engulfing their fingers.
                With about an hour to kill before the departure of our bus for the strawberry fields, we came upon the tent of a couple of caricature artists. On display were some interpretations of Korean celebrities. Sarah suggested we sit for a caricature of our group, and we quickly agreed. It seemed a good way to pass the time out of the rain while we waited for the greatly-anticipated strawberry picking.
                The artist welcomed us when he had finished drawing a trio ahead of us, and we relaxed into the four chairs facing the back of his easel. I began to unzip my coat, the one I’d worn for our ski trip, the same one I’d bought last year to wear on the Mt. Washington hike, the one that had gotten me through the winter here and continued to ward off some of the cold still confronting me. I zipped it back up to the neck, figuring he wouldn’t draw our clothing anyway, and later realizing that if he did, I would want to be drawn in it anyway.
                I tried not to move too much when the artist signaled to me that he was beginning my caricature. He spoke a few words in Korean and studied me briefly but seriously. I bounced my legs up and down on my toes to generate some heat. Although I tried to keep my eyes open and facing in his general direction, I wasn’t comfortable looking at him for however long it might take, which wasn’t clear to me. He seemed hard at work and deep in concentration, his gaze moving carefully from me to his canvas, his pen or brush moving rapidly and smoothly. It was interesting to watch for a bit, but I almost felt as though I might disturb him if I seemed to be making eye contact, so my focus drifted across the activity outside the tent.
                Another Korean tour leader with an excellent American accent shepherded his foreigners around the grass between the rows of tents, taking pictures with some in front of a strawberry sculpture. Some schoolkids with backpacks, perhaps enjoying the outdoors after Saturday academy classes, stared at us in curiosity while walking by. The strawberry mascots approached the tent next to the artists’, pulling off their oversized heads as they entered, eager to be rid of them at the end of their shift.
                A young couple with a young child maybe three or four years old and a baby came up to the side of our artist, watching him work. The familiar beat of “Gangnam Style” found its way into the tent from the loudspeakers in the parking lot, introducing an adorably muted version of the horse dance from the couple’s older child, who bounced slightly up and down as though it were an involuntary reaction she was either fighting to suppress or struggling to develop. She and her father sat for the neighboring artist a few minutes later while the mother and baby watched. We sat mostly in stillness and silence, waiting patiently to discover what it was he and the more curious of the passers-by found notable, or at least noticeable, about us. Here's the result:
I think we look warm
We scurried to get to the bus at the scheduled meeting time once the caricature was complete, and I sank into my seat with a full stomach and a deep appreciation of the heater. At the strawberry farm about half an hour later we went into a greenhouse and had half an hour to eat berries straight from the vines and fill up a small container to take home with us. They were delicious and provided a sweet end to a refreshing day away from the city.

Inside the greenhouse