Saturday, December 11, 2010

Medical Care: Differences From "Home"

(Bundang Cha Hospital, where we received care in Korea)

Moving to a new country, you’re bound to notice differences from “home” just about everywhere.  The language, the food, the social mores… those you expect.  Other differences sneak up on you.

At this point, I’m more familiar with Korea’s medical care than I wish to be.  And, this is where I’ve found some of those differences.  It’s been seven weeks today that my husband and I have been sick.  We’ve been dealing with a cold/bronchitis/laryngitis/sinusitis….who knows what really.  At this point, we’ve heard many diagnoses.  We’ve had highpoints and small recoveries along the way, but no cure.  We’ve each been on four doctor appointments, seen three different doctors – one of those trips to the local hospital.

There are many things to praise about the Korean healthcare system.   As an American, two things truly stand out:  the prices and immediate access to care.

So first, let’s talk about the prices in Korea.  I pay fifty percent of my healthcare premium – and that’s less than $60 a month.  It’s incredibly affordable.  It’s even more amazing when you go the doctor.  I’ve seen a specialist for as little as $2.50.  That’s followed by a visit to the pharmacy where $5 will get me what I need.  How about x-rays…$11 for two people.  When we first arrived, Cameron ended up the ER.  At the time we were uninsured and it cost $160 for care, tests, and drugs.  My previous co-pay in the US was $200 just for showing up at the ER.  The affordable prices are truly shocking.  And, healthcare is certainly more accessible when it’s so affordable.

The second plus of the Korean healthcare system; walk-ins are welcome.  I'm not talking about urgent care facilities, which are available both in the US and Korea.  I mean walking into just about any doctor's office and seeing the doctor that day.  I can’t imagine showing up at a doctor’s office in the US without an appointment.  You’re really out of luck if you’re a new patient.  The doctor can see you in a month or two or three, even though you’re sick right now!  In Korea, you can of course make an appointment.  But, you can also show up and take a number.  So, far the waits have been less than if I did have an appointment in the US.  Fifteen minutes tops.

These two factors immediately had me questioning – why can’t this be done in America?  However, there are two sides to every coin.  That means, there are some things about “home” that I miss dearly:  a thorough examination and antibiotics.

I find the level of examination by the doctors in Korea just isn’t as thorough.  Out of four appointments, only one time did a doctor pull out their stethoscope to listen to my lungs.  And, she asked me if I would like her to – yes!  I’ve been coughing for weeks, please listen to my lungs!  There is no paper gown to change into, no table to lie on, and the doctors barely touch you.  There is no feeling for swollen lymph nodes.  All that I’ve come to recognize as part of a typical exam in the US, has been thrown out the window.   After explaining to doctors on our third and fourth visits about our lengthy illness, there seemed to be little concern.  There were no blood workups, no urine tests, and the doctors didn’t prescribe antibiotics.

So, that brings me to the second thing I miss about home – the medicine.  There’s much debate about the prescription of antibiotics.  There’s a fear that taking them too often will lead to immunity.   Although Korean doctors haven’t expressed that concern to us, we have been told “you don’t need antibiotics.”  Instead, the doctors prescribed over-the-counter medications.  Think going to doctor and leaving with Sudafed and Tylenol.  The doctors’ advice included – dress warm, open up your windows to air out your home, and get some rest.  On our hospital visit, I was overjoyed finally to receive some antibiotics.  But, for whatever reason, the Amoxicillin didn’t do the trick for Cameron or me.  Before even finishing the dosage, our symptoms returned.

In America, I’m certain I would have received antibiotics on my first visit to the doctor.  In fact, for a cold or flu-like illness, I can’t ever remember having to visit a doctor twice.  Frankly, that’s the way I prefer it.  Seven weeks of illness and low energy is just too long.  I’ve written once before about the “Korean cold” and the stories from other foreigners that it lasts for months…but does it have too?   

So, what’s the next step?  I just got a good tip today – there are some international clinics in the Seoul area with American doctors.  We can celebrate the differences each country or culture has to offer – but in this case, I want a little bit of care from “home.”

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Our Trip to Macau

(Looking down on Macau from the ruins of Sao Paulo.  I'm not incognito, it's just really hot)

I’ll be honest here – until I arrived in Korea I had never heard of Macau.  Maybe you haven’t either.  Until recently, the small territory was a Portuguese colony.  However, in 1999 it was handed over to China as a special administration region.  It’s a unique situation.  Right now – both Macau and Hong Kong have similar operating systems under a policy of “one country, two systems.”

So, here’s what that really means.  Currently, China is responsible for Macau’s defense and foreign affairs, while Macau maintains its own legal system, police force, monetary system and customs policy.  That means unlike China – US citizens don’t need a visa to visit Macau.  So, after visiting Hong Kong this summer – we decided to spend a few days in Macau.  We hopped on a jet boat for the 40 mile ride southwest.

What makes Macau so interesting is the mix of east meets west.  The Macau peninsula is on the Chinese boarder, and yet you feel as though you are in Western Europe.  Of course, that can be attributed to centuries of Portuguese rule.  There are more Catholic churches here than temples, although you will find both.  The architecture in the old town is distinctly European, and centered around the “Largo de Senado” or Senate Square.

(Senate Square)

(Are we in Asia?) 

The fountains, cobblestone, elegant colonial buildings, and especially the ruins of the 16th century church, Sao Paulo, will all have you feeling as though you’ve departed Asia.

(Sao Paulo -- only the facade of the church still stands)

Both Cantonese and Portuguese are official languages here, and that’s obvious by the dual signage everywhere.   Food is another example.  You’ll find the Portuguese influence in the popular “natas” or egg custard tarts.  Meanwhile, Chinese food can be found at every corner, and some restaurants specialize in the distinctive Macanese cuisine.  While the culture is a melting pot, the population is not.  Most of the people here are Chinese – either the residents or the Chinese tourists who show up for Macau’s gambling.  Yes, there’s a part of town that feels like a mini-Las Vegas with bright lights and ostentatious casinos.  For such a small territory, Macau certainly has a lot of personality.

(The Grand Lisboa is one of many casinos on the "strip") 

It’s been four months since my visit to Macau – and it’s amazing what being removed from your travel does.  The memories already start to fade into fuzzy feelings and impressions.  What I remember is that Macau was unbearably hot in July.  I did not perspire or glisten – I was sweating, soaking through my shirt.  It was an intense heat that I’ve only felt a few times in my life.  That prompted us to spend one of our days at a public pool situated right on the ocean.  Lounging in that water was blissful.  However, the bus ride getting there was stressful.  We had our eyes glued to a map trying to guess where to get off, as there was no signage or annoucements.

(Heaven in the heat -- we're right on the ocean, getting a nice breeze!)

I remember how small Macau was – it’s incredible and convenient to be able to see all the sights on foot.  I remember vendors hawking almond cookies and cured meats in the square.  They lured you in with free samples.  I remember the beauty of the sights at night.  Under the glow of lights, they had a different aura.  At the ruins of Sao Paulo, many people would just sit on the steps enjoying the evening and the cooler air.

(Macau aglow at night)

I remember the oddity of doing so much travel by jet boat.  At the end of our stay – we checked our baggage at the port and sailed directly to the airport in Hong Kong.  After visiting many temples and feeling like a tourist while others worshipped, I remember feeling at home in Macau’s Catholic churches.

(One of Macau's Catholic churches.)

(The famous A-Ma Temple, which is the oldest place of worship in Macau)

(Prayers written and hanging at the A-Ma Temple)

It was a short stop – we only spent three days in Macau, but I’m glad we took the side trip.  It’s a small place with a lot of personality and certainly worth the visit.  So, if Hong Kong is on your itinerary, make sure Macau is as well.

(I'll end with a few more pictures!)

(Fortaleza do Monte -- canons helped drive back the Dutch in 1622)

(Beautiful building details)

(Beautiful church details)

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Living in South Korea after North Korea attacks (Video)

(Just 3 weeks ago, I was in North Korean territory at the DMZ.  Here's our video, which includes footage of North Korean soldiers.  For my original post, click here.)

All eyes are on the Korean Peninsula this week.  That’s after North Korea shelled tiny Yeongpyeong Island in the South killing four people.

Will this escalate further?  Is war imminent?  That’s what is on everyone’s mind.  Especially if you live here.

Yet in and around Seoul, life continues as normal for residents.  This day is like any other.  After all, what is there to do?  We are at the mercy of world leaders.  I hope they have the strength, knowledge, and foresight necessary to make good decisions.  Then again, when dealing with a regime like the DPRK (North Korea) it’s anyone’s guess what could happen next.

When I arrived in Korea, it was a short time after the Chenoan incident, in which 46 South Korean sailors were killed.  It’s suspected the DPRK attacked, but they have never taken responsibility.  I certainly wasn’t happy about the turn of events, but at that point, my bags were packed and my plane ticket purchased.  I was going to Korea.  Still, there was an undercurrent of anxiety within and I soon realized that people who get nervous in Korea are the foreigners living here.  We’re not use to having North Korea as a neighbor.  It struck me odd when speaking to South Koreans how relaxed they were about the escalating tensions.  Maybe it’s a coping mechanism or that they have never known any different. 

This week I’ve received concerned notes from friends.  Some are wondering if we are now coming home.  No, we’re not.  Currently I’m taking my cues from the US Department of State.  When living abroad, they still keep tabs on their citizens if you register with them.  So, on Tuesday I received an e-mail about the Yeongpyeong Island attacks.  Here’s an excerpt:

"This artillery exchange was isolated to the Northwest Island area of the Republic of Korea and ceased as of 3:30pm.  The embassy is closely monitoring the situation.  Should the security situation change, the Embassy will update this warden message.

U.S. citizens living or traveling in South Korea are encouraged to register with the Embassy through the State Department's travel registration website:  Registration is a voluntary way of telling us that you, as a U.S. citizen, are in Korea, whether for a long-term stay or for a short visit.  In the event of an emergency, we use registration information to communicate with you.”

That was it – and that’s pretty standard fare.  In fact, checking the US Department of State's website today there is no travel alert or warning for South Korea.  So, feel free to visit...I'll be here.

Learn More:  CNN had a special webpage devoted to North Korea.  (Click here)  See video from the recent attacks or learn about the Korean War.  They've done a good job at compiling a variety of stories.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Sumo Wrestling in Japan (Video)

(This blog post is a bit overdue, but I wanted to share a great experience we had on our trip to Japan).

Sumo wrestling is the national sport of Japan.  Only six tournaments or “bashos” are held a year.  The timing of our trip this past September was perfect to attend the basho in Tokyo.  We got off the plane and headed straight for the National Sumo Stadium. 

Now…I wasn’t a sumo fan in advance, and about the only knowledge I had of the sport was strapping on a fat sumo suit in college and wrestling with a roommate.  Big men wearing a diaper-like contraption wrestled each other…oh, and it was a Japanese sport.  Yep, that was the extent of my knowledge.  Well, I’m happy to say I’m now much better educated on the sport of sumo…and I’m also a fan.

First, sumo wrestling is exciting.  The matches are very short.  In seconds one opponent has been knocked down or out of the ring.  These men hit each other like NFL linemen, except without the pads.  Their force and agility is impressive.  There are surprises and upsets that have you shouting with surprise in your seat.

It’s not just the fighting that’s exciting, but the ritual and ceremony before each match. The men throw handfuls of salt into the ring to purify it.  The wrestlers then walk to the center of the ring to squat in the famous sumo stance to stare each other down.  They rise again…and return for several more rounds of intimidation before the fight starts.  There’s the wrestlers ceremonial entrance, the grand champions dance, and the bow dance to call to an end the days fighting; they’re all beautiful time honored traditions. 

The wrestlers have names like Hakuho or Tokusegawa.  The names are foreign to us, but they are sports stars in Japan just like we all know the name Peyton Manning in America.  What I saw was how these stars are revered, but accessible.  I ended up walking beside three giant wrestlers after they got out of a taxi (a taxi!).  Dressed in cotton kimonos known as yukata with their hair slicked back in traditional hairstyles these men are hard to miss.  We passed wrestlers walking in the arena.  I even saw one standing in line with the fans to get some food.  I have to admit…I was a little star struck.

The history and traditions of the sport are fascinating, while the wrestling itself is fun.  It was the first thing we did in Japan, and I instantly knew it would also be a highlight of our trip.  I was right.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Precious Children

(That's Yeajin with some silly boys in the background -- children are the same everywhere!)

I have a few students who always manage to make my days brighter.  They are like little angels – sweet and loving -- pure goodness.

Yeajin is girl with such energy and personality.  She comes to class with a backpack of stuffed animals that either must stay in her backpack – or sometimes I volunteer to watch them during class.  We do acting activities in class and she is the best…all action and poise and personality.  Yeajin waits for me after class so we can walk out holding hands.  Sometimes I get a hug or a kiss.  It lifts my heart.  She is happy to see me and I’m always happy to see her.  Last week I was feeling very sick and she walked up to my desk to ask if I was okay.  Her face was twisted up in concern.  I told her I was sick, but I would be okay.  Yeajin immediately did the sign of the cross, closed her eyes tight and said a little prayer for me.  I actually got choked up.  Children can be so precious.

Jane is girl made of sugar and spice and everything nice – she is all good.  Each day, when I ask Jane how she is doing she has a big grin and responds “I am happy.”  I remember on a day filled with chaos, I was picking up papers spilled on the floor.  While children ran past me into the hall, suddenly a small pair of hands were helping me.  It was Jane.  Of course it was Jane – and her little bit of care lifted my spirits.  When I did a “thinking” exercise on what it truly means to be rich, my students answers were money, cars, and fancy clothing.  Jane’s response...“a happy family.”  Children can be so precious.

Hanna left me a note on her homework the other day.  “I love you Lauren Teacher!”  Well, I can say I love Hanna too and my note told her so.  Hanna has hit me with impromptu hugs that nearly knock me over.  Once, Hanna called me “mom” and asked me to come home with her.  On the same day Yeajin said a prayer for me to feel better – Hanna too approached me concerned that I might be sick.  There’s a compassion in some of these children that is remarkable.  Children can be so precious.

I know that some of these girls have a “crush” on me, and I think that’s natural.   But, now I’ll admit I have a crush on them too!  I’m amazed by how special these children are.  I have the desire to meet their parents to see how they raised such spectacular children.  I’m truly thankful to be their teacher.  I’m also happy to see with my own eyes that in all corners of the world children are generally the same – very special.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Chungju Lake

This weekend we ventured out on our first independent trip outside of Seoul – no tour group and no family to point the way.  It was just us, our new/old car, and some maps.  Cameron was driving and I was navigating.  I’m not going to lie – I was a bit nervous.  I’m navigationally challenged, but after years of reading maps while chasing news in a live truck, I’ve improved and it paid off.

We made it to Chungju Lake in two hours without any missteps or wrong turns.  We arrived just in time for the last ferry.  We bought out tickets and boarded the boat for a scenic tour of the lake.  Although we missed the fall leaves at their peak, the views were still lovely.  The lake is surrounded by soaring peaks and mountains in every direction.  It’s very dramatic.  It was a bit chilly, but we enjoyed the open air on the boat for most of the trip.

There’s a lot to do in the region, and I think we’ll be back to visit some of the national parks.  But, this day was a test run.  We made it – now time to head back.  Unfortunately for us road construction on the return trip turned a 5 lane highway into 2 lanes.  That means our 2 hour journey turned into 4.5 hours.  It was long…too long, but at least we didn’t make any wrong turns!

The sun was beginning to set during our ferry ride.

When the wind kicked up, it was cold on the boat!

Friday, November 12, 2010

License to Korea

When I was 17 nothing mattered more than having my driver’s license.  It was oh, so important.  It was my ticket to freedom.

But, I never had any plans to drive in Korea.  We have the subway a block away from our home…that was my ticket to freedom.  I didn’t want a Korean driver’s license and I certainly didn’t want a car.  Guess what?  I now have both… and the insurance, gas bill, and repairs that are part of the package deal.  Why, you ask?

Our extended family in Korea moved – it was only a 25 minute drive to their new digs, but a hellish two hour bus ride each way.  Without a car, that was our only option to see them.  So, when they decided to sell their beater car…we reluctantly bought it.

Yes, I didn’t want the expense of driving, but more than that; Korean drivers terrify me.  Overall, traffic laws are the same as in the USA.  The problem is people don’t abide them.  It’s common for people to run red lights – they often treat them like stop signs.  Signaling to change lanes is unheard of.  And, apparently you can make a u-turn anywhere you want.  Now let’s throw mopeds into the mix, which abide no rules and even hop up onto the sidewalks if it’s more convenient.  Oh yeah, and then you have to figure out where you’re going!

Fully aware of what we were getting ourselves into – we went to apply for our driver’s license.  It ended up being quite an affair of red tape that included a visit to the US Embassy and lots of paperwork.  You would have thought we were applying for citizenship.  The final step was a written test.  I almost burst out in nervous laughter mid-way through the exam.  I was surely failing.  Well, almost.  I barely passed with a 65. (To make myself feel better I would like to say at 17-years-old I got a 98 on my driver’s test…the highest in the class!)

So, for our inaugural drive, we go out to the car and - drum roll please - the battery is dead.  I’m instantly rolling my eyes wondering again why I have a car.  The next day I bought some jumper cables and a quart of oil to keep in the car…just in case.

The good news is after a jumpstart we made it to our family’s home safely without any wrong turns!  We’ve since ventured into Seoul for shopping and next on the list is a long distance trip.  Cameron has big romantic ideas about driving throughout the country.  I picture us getting lost – but I guess that’s part of the experience.  Hey, it could end up being fun or at the very least it will be memorable!

My Korean Cold

(The ENT office where I went for my first doctor appointment)

Apparently it’s the stuff legends are made of…cue in scary music…it’s the Korean cold.  No, not the weather.  Cold as in sick, coughing, sniffling, and sneezing.

Typically I don’t get colds, but apparently my great immune system was no match to the strain floating around Korea.  My boss tells me, it never goes away and you just get used to it.  Complaining to a friend that I have been sick for three weeks, she responded “Just wait until you’ve been sick for five months.”  Five months – really? 

But, I started to get scared.  First, I had the most painful sore throat of my life.  Then it was laryngitis and swollen vocal chords, and now it’s the coughing that’s driving me crazy and keeping me up at night.  It can’t last for five months….it just can’t!

So, I ventured out to the doctor.  I had once tripped across a medical office where the only English on the door was “E.N.T.”  I had tucked that information away, and now it was coming in handy.  Yes, I needed some help for my ears, nose, and throat.  Amazingly, I walked in and was with the doctor two minutes later.  The staff didn’t speak English, but the doctor did.  Soon I had a prescription, and I walked next store to the conveniently located pharmacy to get my medication.  The entire process set me back about $15.  I thought I was on the way to recovery.

Well, recovery lasted about 3 days and then it was back…the Korean cold.  Could the legend be true?  So, I was back at the doctor.  This time the doctor and medication cost $6.  If this is going to last five months, thank goodness it’s this cheap!  Side note – I haven’t examined the Korean health care system, but overall medical care is extremely affordable.

So, here I am one day into my second dose of medication praying this works.  If not, I may have to opt for the “butt shot.”  That’s what Korean’s do when they get sick…go to the ER and get a shot in their rear end.  As I cough, sniffle, and sneeze,  that’s suddenly starting to sound appealing.

Pharmacies don't doll out prescription medine in bottles, but in little packets like this.  It makes it easy to know exactly what to take at breakfast, lunch, and dinner.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Noryangjin Fish Market (Video)

If you’ve watched my blog videos – you know that my taste testing of seafood doesn’t usually end well.  Seafood doesn’t agree with me – the taste, texture, and smell all induce my gag reflex.  So, you may be surprised to hear that I thoroughly enjoyed a recent trip to Seoul’s Noryangjin Fish Market. 

Walk into the Noryangjin Fish Market and you’re senses are instantly on overload.  The market is massive, with more than 700 shops selling sea creatures.  There’s the exotic from small sharks to stingrays and octopuses.  You’ll see them both dead and alive.  Rows of bins of fresh crabs, shrimp, and clams seem to be never-ending.  And, of course you’ll find some fish.  This is the epitome of fresh seafood.  Pick your fish and within minutes you can be having sashimi, as your catch is expertly filleted in front of you.   

The South Korean peninsula is surrounded by the Yellow Sea, the East China Sea, and the Sea of Japan…and fifteen seaports deliver fresh seafood to Seoul daily.  From ocean to table, this is as fresh as it gets.   

So, if you don’t come to Noryangjin to eat fish, you can still enjoy the atmosphere.  It’s the colors and the energy that draw you in – the market is alive.  In fact, this seafood is so fresh… you’ll be surprised there’s not even a seafood scent to turn your nose up at.  So, come to shop or come as a tourist.  Either way, Noryangjin delivers. 

(Directions to Noryangjin Fish Market: Take Subway Line 1 to Noryangjin Station. Exit #1.  After exiting the subway station, turn right and cross the railway tracks on the pedestrian bridge) 

*For market hours and additional details, click here  

Sunday, November 7, 2010

DMZ (Part 2)

(Sign to Pyongyang, North Korea behind me at Dorasan Station)

Dorasan Train Station:

Travel into North Korea isn’t possible for South Koreans.  But, there’s a symbol of hope that this will one day change.  Dorasan Station was built in 2001 to connect the north and the south via rail lines.  Signs in the commuter station show this is the way to Pyongyang, North Korea’s capital city.  But, inside security stations are unmanned and rows of seats remain empty.  The trains are not running.  I bought a train ticket for fifty cents – for now tickets are sold strictly as souvenirs.  With tensions still running high right now, I wonder just how long it will be before this station is ever in use.

(Exterior of Dorasan Station) 

The Third Tunnel of Aggression:

As part of most DMZ tours, you will take a walk underground into the Third Tunnel of Aggression.  Discovered in 1978 this tunnel was dug by North Koreans, evidently as a means for a surprise attack.  After putting on our hard hats, we were able to walk down into the third tunnel which is just over a mile long and runs under the DMZ.  It’s only 30 miles from Seoul.  If completed, the tunnel would have allowed up to 10-thousand armed soldiers to cross into South Korea within an hour.  Three similar tunnels were found, and it’s believed many others exist.  Walking down here was fascinating and eerie.  I will say, walking back above ground was exhausting.

(A view from inside the tunnel.)

Dora Observatory: 

Located on Mt. Dorasan, Dora Observatory allows people to look across the DMZ to get a rare glimpse of North Korea.  I’m told that you can see the North Korean propaganda village, which flies one of the largest flags in the world.  I’m also told you can see an industrial complex in the city of Kaesong.  Unfortunately, I didn’t see any of these things.  The fog on the day of our tour was so dense there was no view of North Korea, even using the observatory binoculars.  This was a disappointment, and may be cause for me to spend another $77 to go on the tour as the general public cannot enter the DMZ area without an escort.

(All I can see is North Korean fog.)


When we decided we would move to South Korea, I knew I wanted to visit the DMZ.  It’s the most heavily fortified boarder in the world…it’s a country divided…it’s the mystery of the North….it’s the threat to our security…it’s living history.  All of this was pulling me toward the DMZ.  I wanted to see this with my own eyes.  Now that I have, I wouldn’t mind going back for another look and some more time to reflect.

(Outside the Third Tunnel of Aggression)

Walking Into North Korea - The DMZ (Video)

I can now say I’ve been to North Korea.  This weekend I walked into North Korean territory, if only for a few minutes.  This odd experience was part of a tour to the DMZ and JSA.

So, first here’s a brief explanation.  The DMZ (Demilitarized Zone) is the most heavily fortified border in the world.  It’s a 4km wide swath of land that cuts across the Korean Peninsula, separating South and North Korea.  It’s essentially a buffer zone to ease tensions between the two countries.  On either side of the DMZ are military installations.  And in the middle of this is the JSA (Joint Security Area).  This is where truce talks were held after the Korean War and where both sides still meet for negotiations.  In July, both US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates were here in a show of solidarity with South Korea. (Read more here on their visit)

The buildings at the JSA are small and somewhat shabby, but their history is impressive.  It’s named the“Joint” Security Area for a reason.  On one side of the room you’re in South Korean territory.  Cross the center line and you’re in North Korea.  So, this is where I ventured into this secretive state.  Our escorts were US soldiers (about 30,000 US forces still remain in South Korea) and we were simultaneously guarded by soldiers from the Republic of Korea (ROK).  The ROK soldiers are dressed in their Class A uniforms.  They wear sunglasses in order to show no emotion and they stand absolutely still, maintaining a Taekwondo fighting stance.  They are facing and watching North Korea.

That means North Korean soldiers were facing us.  In fact, our tour group had a highly unusual experience where more than a dozen soldiers marched right up to the dividing line.  While we were snapping pictures of them, each North Korean soldier posed for a picture with us in the background.  The tour guide said she had never witnessed this behavior before.  ROK soldiers quickly radioed in this unusual behavior.  (see my video posted)

While we don’t know what these pictures were for, we were given strict instructions about our behavior in the JSA.  We were told not to communicate with North Korean soldiers in any way.  It seems obvious, but this also means no nonverbal communication or gesturing.  We were assured that we were being watched and photographed and that ROK/USA forces didn’t want us to do anything that could be used as propaganda for the North.  In fact, a man on our tour who was making the peace sign for a photograph was quickly and harshly scolded by US troops.

This is not a place to joke around.  Tensions still run high.  In fact, about 10 days ago North Korea fired two shots at a ROK/USA military guard post.  The ROK responded by firing two mortars.  This is just the latest violence in a year of rocky relations between the two countries, who are still technically at war.

Being in the JSA was an incredible experience.  This is living history – the danger, the tension, and the negotiations here are still ongoing.  Seeing the troops on both sides made the conflict between this divided nation really hit home.

USO Tour:  My understanding is the USO is the only organization that can take groups into the JSA.  For civilians, the tour is $77.  To book a tour or lean more, click here to go to their website.

Inside Panmunjom, the JSA 

Our US Army guide and ROK soldier in a Taekwondo fighting stance.

 North Korean soldiers posing for pictures at the boarder inside the JSA.

I'm in North Korea.  You can see the concrete dividing line outside the window.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Namhansanseong Cultural Festival

I had no intentions of attending the Namhansanseong Cultural Festival on the outskirts of Seoul.  I had no idea it was ongoing when my husband and I hopped off the bus headed for our first hike in Korea.  It was the music that lured us there.  We had to find out what was going on.

This festival was a local event and Cameron and I ended up being the only foreigners there.  The Koreans seemed tickled by our presence.  At every turn, we were offered food and wine.  We were welcomed with smiles and hellos.  I even ended up with a personal escort to the ladies room!  Koreans can often be reserved, so this reception was a welcome change.

My favorite encounter of the day was with a Korean man who spoke absolutely no English.  He saw me watching people writing wishes to be tied to a straw tower that would later be burned.  I was watching like a tourist, but he thrust a pen in my hand and literally pushed me toward the table.  So, I wrote a wish, and then he showed me how to tie my paper to the tower (see pictures below).  With gestures, grunts, and smiles we communicated and I was pleased to be included.

On the surface, the festival was like any other we would see in America.  There was music and entertainment, craft booths, food and even coverage from a local news crew.  Of course, upon closer inspection it’s all so different – everything is meant to celebrate the Korean culture.  A couple of hours were well spent here.  People were in a festive mood, and we were happy to watch and celebrate with them.

A picture together after I wrote down my wishes for the year ahead.

Securing my wish -- and learning how to tie it the proper way.

All the wishes.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Hiking Korea

(Great views!  At the mountain top with Seoul sprawling behind me)

One of the most popular sports in Korea is hiking.  I know, it’s not the first thing that comes to mind when you think “sports.”  But on any weekend day, you will see Koreans heading to the mountains outfitted in their color coordinating hiking gear, with walking sticks in hand.  There’s plenty of beautiful scenery to choose from in Korea, so Cameron and I decided to give it a try.

We set out for Namhansanseong Provincial Park, which has trails running along fortress walls built hundreds of years ago to defend Seoul.  Temples, pavilions, and fortress gates are tucked away along the wooded trail.  It’s a mix of historic Seoul and the great outdoors.

As it turns out, I enjoy hiking.  The scenery was beautiful and this was a great way to get a workout.  Anyone who knows me knows I’m not a fan of the gym or running in place on a treadmill.  But huffing and puffing while hiking just feels good.

As the sun began to set, we ended up at the top of the mountain.  That’s where we came across a dozen hikers poised with their camera gear, ready to watch Seoul fade to black.  The views of the southern portion of the city were fabulous.  Seoul is sprawling, and it rolls on for as far as the eye can see.

This was a great first hike, and I’m certain it won’t be our last.  Who knows…maybe I’ll even have some color coordinated hiking outfits in my wardrobe soon, although they don’t have boots my size…

(Directions to Namhansanseong:  Subway Line 8 to Namhansanseong.  Take Exit 1.  Then hop on Bus #9 to get to the park entrance.)

A "watch tower" along fortress walls used to protect Seoul in the 1600's

This beautiful painted detail has been restored.  The same motif is found at local palaces and temples.

The fortress wall we hiked along. 

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Namdaemun Market

I’m certain every woman knows the sensation.  It’s the urge to shop.  After nearly 5 months of showing restraint, I was overcome.  I wanted to shop!

So, I decided to do some shopping Korean style.  I went to one of the country’s largest and most famous markets, Namdaemun Market.  It’s a maze of pedestrian streets lined by vendors with outdoor stalls.  You can venture inside too.  Each building is packed with an endless array of specialty shops.  One alley is just for bedding, another for stationary, and another for camera gear.  This list goes on.  A full day spent here only scratches the surface, considering there are 10,000 stores.  Nope, that wasn't a typo.

One benefit to market shopping is that you can find just about everything you need in one location.  You can also comparison shop.  After all, the vendors are lined up competing for your business.  And, then there are the bargain prices.  At the market, you can find some fabulous deals.  How about a sweater for $3 or a new purse for $10?  Yes, I picked up both!  I even fit in some Christmas shopping, because the market has some beautiful traditional items that are hard to find elsewhere.

But, Namdaemun Market isn’t just about shopping, it’s about the experience.  The vendors call out to the tourists and everyone wants to know where you are from.  One woman gave us a strange fruit that looked like a tomato from the outside and a sweet potato on the inside.  We stood in the street and ate them together.  Another shopper helped me pick out a fall coat ($10) and did some translating for me.  Later, a woman stopped us when she heard me say “thank you” in Korean.  She was so impressed!  Turns out she’s Korean American and just here for a visit.  These are just little moments in our day, but all stitched together they make for such an enjoyable experience.

We stayed late into the night – and we watched the market transform.  Makeshift restaurants with grills, tents, and plastic tables are erected in the middle of the street.  New merchandise appears along with some new sales.

The market is full of energy.  It’s authentic – this is where Korean’s do their shopping.  But, if you’re a tourist, this is also a must-see in Seoul.

(Directions to Namdaemun Market:  Take subway line #4 to Hoehyeon Station.  Take Exit 5, which will put you right at the market entrance.)

This is what the vendors' stalls look like -- crowded and overflowing with merchandise.

Searching for some shirts.

Namdaemun transforms as night.  This is one of the makeshift restaurants set-up for the evening.  Namdaemun is a great place to try traditional Korean dishes.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Curious Alice

(Playing the role of "Lauren Teacher" I'm ready for your questions!)

Alice is one of my favorite students.  She is smart, sweet and affectionate.  But, that’s not what has won me over.  It’s her unrestrained curiosity – about the world and mostly me.  She has no filter.  She asks whatever is on her mind, whenever it pops into her mind.  This could be in the middle of a lesson, but the curiosity must get the best of her…she interrupts with a question.

One day her simple question actually had an incredibly complicated answer.  Calling out “teacher” to get my attention, I see Alice pinch together her adorable nose to make it pointy.  She then asks in a nasal voice why in America are noses like this – why is my nose like this?

Okay – I’m not in a position to discuss race or ethnicity with any group of 6 year olds, let alone ones that barely understand English.  Please understand that part of this class involves doing charades in order to explain concepts to each other – drawing pictures is also a staple.  So, I take the easy way out.  I say it’s because I’m from America and some people look different there.  I show them a map and how far America is from South Korea.  Another little girl then asks; is that why your eyes are green and mine are black?  And what about my yellow hair?  My appearance is an unending source of fascination for my students.

Luckily the map soon diverts their attention.  They mention how big America is compared to South Korea, and I can see they are concerned.  I explain that both big and small countries can be good countries.  They are happy with this answer.  Since America is my “home” they ask if I go to America on the weekends.  So, I explain how it’s too far and I must take a plane to get to America.  Again, they seem satisfied with this answer.

And then I get hit with another bomb from Alice.  In her broken English Alice says “Teacher, why in America, English and why here, Korean?”  Translation -- why do we speak different languages?  Wow, what an excellent question.  I won’t go into my answer, because I’m certain I failed miserably.

And so it goes….one answer leads to another question.  With Alice, this could go on for an entire class.  Typically, I field a few questions and then manage to steer my small class back to the lesson at hand.

But, I have to admit, everyday I look forward to this class and to seeing Alice.  What questions will she ask me today?  Of course, the better question is, will I have an answer?

Nothing To Envy: North Korea

The lives of the people in North Korea are nothing to envy.  With only a basic knowledge of this communist country, that much is clear.  However, the title of Barbara Demick’s book, “Nothing To Envy: Ordinary Lives In North Korea,” has a dual meaning.  The first seems obvious.  The second becomes clear well into the novel when we learn “nothing to envy” is one of the propaganda catch phrases of the regime.  In other words, North Koreans are so fortunate, they have nothing to envy in the world.  A childhood song goes like this:                     

Our father, we have nothing to envy in the world.

Our house is within the embrace of the Workers’ Party.

We are all brothers and sisters.

Even if a sea of fire comes toward us, sweet children

Do not need to be afraid,

Our father is here.

We have nothing to envy in this world.

With my change of address to South Korea, I suddenly find myself fascinated by the hermetic nation of North Korea.  It’s not really the politics that fascinate me.  It’s what this book is about – the ordinary lives of the people.  What are their lives like?  What do they know about the world?  What propaganda are they taught?  Are they happy?  Do they know that better things exist?

Each of these simple questions has complicated answers, as every North Korean has a unique experience.  But, this book follows the lives of six people who eventually defected to South Korea.  That’s the only reason their stories can be told.

We learn of adults in the 2000’s defecting and learning of the existence of the internet, cell phones, and how babies are conceived.  Raised to think they were the luckiest people on earth, after crossing the boarder to China, one woman discovers the dogs are eating better than her.

What’s also fascinating is that North Korea was a developed nation.  It was the fall of the Berlin Wall and the Soviet Union that brought disaster and eventually famine.  The loss of these allies and their money brought industry to a halt, job losses, and power outages.  So, while it was once plausible that lives were bearable, it’s been hard to imagine so for two decades.

It’s interesting how the change of address has me fascinated.  But, when living in the States, North Korea is a half a world away.  It feels even farther – it feels unreal.  Now, if I could cross the boarder, I’m just a short drive away.  It’s hard to believe such a juxtaposition of modernity that is South Korea, is so close to people who may still believe they have nothing to envy.

This book was fascinating and insightful.  As the author chronicles the lives of six North Koreans you learn about the power of the human spirit and the will to survive. 

Author:  Barbara Demick

Title:  Nothing to Envy:  Ordinary Lives In North Korea

Click Here for the author's website

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Trying Octopus Balls in Osaka (Video)

Watch this video in HD!  Click to play, then improve the resolution by hitting the "360p" in the right hand corner.  Change it to "720p."  Enjoy!

You can call them Octopus Balls or Takoyaki.  Either way, Osaka is known around the world and in Japan, for this local delicacy.  They are battered bits of octopus that are then fried.  Watching the Takoyaki being made on the streets of Osaka was a lot of fun -- eating it was a regrettable adventure.  As I've admitted before,  I'm a ridiculously picky eater who thinks seafood is a punishment.  So, okay...I'm not the best judge.  But, my husband who is the lover of all things ooey, gooey and fishy wasn't a big fan either.  That's okay.  We still loved Osaka --- the people, the atmosphere, the sights and some of the food.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Map and Slideshow are New!

I've added two new things to my blog with the help of my husband (thank you Cameron!).  Check out the "Map of Lauren's Travels" where we've pinpointed important places in Korea and other parts of Asia that we've visited.  The map has some nice pictures and explanations to go with it.  It will be a constant work in progress as we add more to it.

Also, under Picture Galleries you will now see there is "Lauren's Slideshow."  These pictures are pulled from various travels and we'll update them periodically too.  After clicking on the slideshow tab, just wait a minute for the pictures to load.

I love these new features and I hope you enjoy them too!

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Japanese Shrine Matsuri

Our travel guide noted that festivals are so common in Japan, there’s always a good chance travelers will stumble upon one.  I’m so glad that we did.

We were eating lunch in Tokyo when we first heard the drums beating, signaling their arrival.  Looking down from our second story window we had the perfect view as dozens of men and women came dancing down the street proudly carrying a golden shrine on their shoulders.  Each portable shrine was attached to wooden planks so that about 40 people could carry this holy object.  And one group was quickly followed by another group…with another shrine.

We quickly finished eating to join the crowds at street level.  The festival participants were dressed in cotton kimonos.  They seemed tireless as they bounced the shrines above their heads all the time chanting, the goal being to draw more power to their gods.

Soon, an even larger shrine was wheeled through the streets followed by speeches and prayers.  I can’t say I understood them, but it was still wonderful to hear.  I’ve seen similar shrines before in a temple, where they’re typically housed and worshipped.  But this was different.  We were catching a glimpse of a Japanese tradition.

I’m starting to discover that some of the most wonderful travel experiences simply can’t be planned or scheduled in advance.

Here's a close up look at one of the portable shrines carried through the streets of Shibuya.

The larger shrine, being wheeled down the street.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Japanese Bathing Etiquette

Part of the experience of staying in a traditional Japanese house or ryokan is taking advantage of the common baths.  Large cedar and granite baths filled to the brim with water that is piping hot.  It’s considered a luxurious way to relax.

But beware... there is strict bathing etiquette.  From the sign posted in the bath and instructions in my room, it seems apparent Westerners must make faux pas quite often.

I studied the rules, put on my cotton kimono, grabbed my towel and headed to the bathing room.  In the entry room, it’s time to strip down and leave your belongings in a basket.  No underwear allowed – this is not a time for modesty, the signs make clear!

Now the key to understanding the bath is that it’s for relaxing, not washing.  Also key is that it’s shared, so you need to be clean before stepping in.  That means you must shower before bathing.

As for the shower, standing would be an embarrassing mistake.  You must sit on the little stool provided.  You have a shower nozzle and bucket to work with.  It’s a little awkward, but I accomplished my goal.

Feeling good about my progress – I step in the bath.  Wow, it’s hot!  But, soon I’m relaxing.  Thinking I’ve got this whole Japanese bathing etiquette mastered, I notice my first error.  Towels are strictly prohibited from being placed in the bath.  I didn’t mean to do it…I just placed my towel on the edge of the tub.  But, soon it was in the water and soaking wet.  Luckily, there were extra towels for those slow learners like myself.

Ten minutes later I’m ready for shower number two, a new towel, and then it’s time to get into bed.  It was a pleasant experience, but then again I had the bath all to myself.  So, if there were any other missteps along the way, no one was there to witness them.

The sign inside the bath advising you to enjoy the bath with manners.

Your clothes are left here -- underwear too!

The shower set up.  Those stools are short!

The beautiful bath.  The picture doesn't do it justice.  It was very large and filled to the brim like an infinity pool.

The exterior of our lovely ryokan.