Tuesday, March 27, 2012

After taking an unannounced two-week holiday from my blog, due to a wonderful visit from my parents and Poly School taking over my life, I'm back.  It's been a busy couple of weeks and I have lots to write about.

First of all, the DMZ.  Three weekends ago, me and a group of friends took a late night bus to Seoul and spent the waining hours of the night in a multi-plus room (a room with internet, gaming, karaoke and sleeping capabilities. What more could you want?).  In the morning we took the subway to the place where we would be boarding the DMZ tour bus.  The bus took us north of Seoul where the city fell away and the roads were lined with barbed wire fences instead of high rises.
The tour first took us to an underground tunnel, which, we were told, was built by the North Koreans at some point during or after the Korean War in an attempt to attack Seoul.  South Korea has discovered four of these tunnels and we visited the third tunnel to be discovered.  At this site, we were shown a video about the DMZ talking about its purpose and its attractions.  I found it interesting that it talked about the unification of North and South Korea as if it were an inevitable event.  Then we put on hard helmets and walked the long steep South-Korean-built entrance down to the actual tunnel.  It was cool to be able to go inside this tunnel and imagine what it was like for the North Koreans who blasted through the sheer rock mile after mile.  The tunnel was quite stifling to be inside.  It was low and not wide, with jagged sides.  There was just enough room for people to go by each other, and most of the time I had to duck my head.  Interesting fact: a few places in the tunnel are covered in black tar.  We were told that this was because as the North Koreans retreated through the tunnel, they put tar on the walls to make it look like it had been a coal mine.
After visiting this tunnel our bus took us up a hill  from where we could see into North Korea.  There were binoculars that you could look through and view a North Korean village and some farm land.  Mostly North Korea looked like South Korea - lots of mountains and some buildings.  But we didn't see very many people.  We were told that this is because no one lives in the village. The buildings are for show and don't have any floors in them.  Also, in the village, North Korea has built a massive flag pole.  It's 160 meters tall and the flag on top weighs some 600 pounds when it's dry!  But they built it only after the South built its own 98 meter flagpole.  After seeing what we could see from the lookout, Alisa made a pertinent point about how strange it is for people to pay money to come and look at a piece of land with buildings, looking for signs of life, as if they were viewing animals at a zoo.
Then we were on the bus again taking a short trip down the mountain to a train station.  It is an important place because it is the last train station in South Korea.  The track continues into the North through Pyongyang and up to Russia and trains used to travel from beginning to end, but the North ended its crossing in 2008.  It was a strange place to be because it was completely deserted except for the tourists.  At the station, we had a hearty lunch where were were able to buy some North Korean beer (it's actually good because some Germans were hired to come over to North Korea and teach them how to make good beer).
Then came the highlight of the trip: The Joint Security Area (JSA).  This is the only place in the DMZ where North and South Korean soldiers stand face to face and where tourists can see the actual border line and even cross it (sort of).  Interestingly, Korean citizens are not allowed to visit the JSA - we weren't told why.  When we got there, we were told that there was a possibility that we wouldn't be allowed into the JSA for reasons we weren't allowed to know about.  So we sat and waited, hoping we wouldn't be turned back and after a half-hour we were told that it was OK for us to go in - hurray!  Now, the JSA is a military base and this meant that we had to follow some rules.  At times, we were not allowed to take pictures inside the JSA.  Also, when we were standing near the border and facing North Korea, we weren't allowed to raise our arms to point at anything.  At the beginning of the tour, we were briefed on the history and significance of the JSA by a fast talking American soldier.  We were told about a time in the JSA when there wasn't a strict border dividing the two sides and both sides had buildings interspersed throughout the area.  But then, in an incident involving the South Koreans trimming a tree so that they could get a better view of one of their buildings, they were attacked by North Korean soldiers with axes.  A number of soldiers were killed, and since then the actual border line has been strictly guarded.   After the briefing, we got onto a military bus which took us to the actual border.  We were then led into one of three small blue buildings that straddles the border.  Inside this building, we were allowed to 'cross over the border' and walk into the North Korean side of the building.  It's kinda cool that I 'stood in North Korea', but I couldn't get past the fact that we were just walking from one side of a small building to another and crossing a man-made line in the process (true, this man-made line has a lot of significance).  After this we were allowed to ask some questions and then we were taken back to our original bus and we headed back to Seoul.

The blue buildings and the North Korean side of the border.
To be honest, the JSA was too militaristic, intimidating, and propaganda filled for me to feel really comfortable and enjoy it as much as others did.  DMZ tourists are presented a message of hope for unification, but the language that was used by the American soldiers in the JSA when they talked about North Korea very much distinguished the two countries as completely different groups of people, and, in my opinion, it upholds the currently tense relationship between the two sides.

So that was our trip to the DMZ.  North Korea certainly is a fascinating anomaly, and I'm glad I had the chance to learn more about it.  Interesting fact: that same weekend that we were at the DMZ - perhaps even the same day - perhaps even the same time that we were there - Kim Jong Un was also at the DMZ!  And I swear I saw a man who looked just like him peering at us through binoculars from the North Korean side.  Our half-hour wait before going into the JSA confirms it for me. Interesting fact #2: Barack Obama just visited the DMZ this past weekend.  He is in Korea for the nuclear summit in Seoul.

Then my parents came!  Though their visit was more significant than the DMZ trip, I won't be able to write about it in as much detail here.
It was really good to have them here - as good as the last time they came.  It was different from last year, though, because, with Alisa here, our group was four not three.  Also, since we moved across town, mom and dad had a different part of Pohang to explore while Alisa and I were at school.  Having them here was so good for a lot of reasons: mom's homemade lunches, dad's fixing of the computer, their ability to de-stress me so easily, talking with them about the future, having them meet a lot of our friends, bringing them to church on Sunday, going on walks through the city and the nearby hills, visiting the cool Buddhist temple, having them come to school and meet some of our wonderful kids, playing Settlers of Catan together, and much more.  For me, the highlight of their visit was when Alisa and I talked them into getting on the back of our scooters and going for a ride through the countryside to a nice lake near GyungJu.  It was fun to share the joy of scooting with them.

But now they're gone and this past week has been a hard one.  At school, we have been given a lot of extra jobs to do that suck up our break times.  I feel like I'm in need of my breaks more than ever right now because I'm having a tough time managing my kindergartners and one of my afternoon classes.  Also, our female director seems to be barking at our students a lot more lately, which takes a tole on everyone's moral.  So my days have consisted of 10 hours of stress and a couple of hours at night spent trying to regain sanity.  But I have good co-teachers and we'll get through it.  I'm hopeful that it'll get better.

Unfortunately the busier schedule means I have very little time to write my blog each week.  So I will have to deviate from my one blog a week schedule for a while.  I will still write them, but they won't be as frequent.

Thanks for reading,

Friday, March 2, 2012

Typhoon week

This was moving week and it's craziness resembled the craziness of the typhoid fever experience.  I now have a new neighbourhood, a new apartment, a new school building, a new co-teacher, a new kindergarten class, and a new manager.  It's been an overload of new information, but I'm happy with the changes.  My new apartment is nicer than my previous one.  It's not smaller, not bigger, but the orientation of the rooms is nicer.  I like our new school building also.  The classrooms are smaller, but it has a much friendlier atmosphere to it than the other one did.  I met my new class today and, while I can see that some of my kids will be a challenge, I'm pretty excited about them.
To add to the craziness, though, tonight a group of us are taking a overnight bus to Seoul.  We're leaving tonight because tomorrow morning we're taking part in a tour of the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ).  The DMZ is a strip of land that acts as a buffer zone between North and South Korea.  The two countries are still technically at war, and, contrary to the name, the DMZ is the most heavily militarized border in the world.  Other friends have gone on tours of it and have come back saying it was a memorable experience, so I'm curious how it will go.  But weekends to Seoul do tend to be somewhat typhoon crazy themselves, so I'll have no break from it.

This past Thursday was a national holiday - Korean Independence Movement Day.  This meant that we got a break from the craziness of moving, which was good, but we never get holidays here so that was a bit crazy in itself.  For this holiday, my co-teacher Roman had the great idea to get a group of friends together and do a scavenger hunt downtown.  So that's what we did, and it turned out to be great.  For the scavenger hunt we broke up into teams and then took pictures and videos of ourselves doing and finding random things amongst the holiday shoppers and shops (ex. holding someones baby and ballroom dancing in the street).  We all embarrassed ourselves and no doubt some Koreans have now realized that they have crazy way-gooks (foreigners) living in their city.  Here are some pictures:

That's it for this week.  I'm heading to dinner now.  Then to hockey.  Then to the bus station.
Thanks for reading,