Spring is here!
As April rolled in, so did warmer weather and the first shy appearances of the much anticipated cherry blossoms. Every new day awakened more pale pink blossoms until bam, one morning while walking to school you realise without a doubt that you are experiencing the South Korean cherry blossoms in full bloom. Glorious.
However, once the cherry blossoms are out, it’s a race against nature before they disappear into a new mass of green leaves. So, when there is a limited 2 week frame for the best blossom viewings, you best get yourself to Jinhae for this iconic cherry blossom festival!
Despite the threats of rain, we caught a bus (about an hour and a half ride out of Busan) before 8am on a Saturday to soak up the beauty along the river, over bridges, taking photos, enjoying the abundance of quirky love-centered sculptures and wire frames decorating the path below and framed by cherry blossoms.
07/04 – 09/04: Seoulful Adventure
Spoilt not only by having my boyfriend come visit me from Australia, I also got to go to Seoul for the first time for a weekend away! It was… an adventure.
Best parts: Gyeongbokgung Palace (beautiful and expansive – my highlight!), our accommodation and area we stayed in (Amare Hotel, near Jongno 3-Ga Station – central, cherry blossoms, nice restaurants and pubs), Myeongdong shopping area (gigantic Artbox, the Myeongdong Cathedral with the views of the N Seoul Tower) and beer and soju is still great wherever you go.
Lesser parts: KTX train (DO NOT book unreserved seats!), Seoul is huge (too huge) and with too little time, too many foreigners (despite being one) and Itaewon is overrated (it is Foreigner Town after all – we found Braai Republic while wondering around though).
Back to Busan.
Travelling helps make you appreciate your home situation more! Busan > Seoul (although I’ll be back to give it another chance).
Back on home ground, I got to play tour guide and tourist with my BF around some of my favourite spots in Busan (like Haeundae Beach, Nampo-Dong and Deokcheon-Dong) and ones I’ve been excited to visit (Gamcheon Culture Village) with lots happening in between.
21/04: Zip it.
This was an interesting, uncomfortable and bizarre moment. Dressed in sports clothes, I stood on a street in my area, leaning against a wall, waiting for my friend to go running when I saw an ajumma approaching. I quickly looked down at my phone, hoping it’d put her off talking to me (presuming she wanted to speak English, as often happens with some locals). She kept coming closer, so I greeted her awkwardly. She greeted back and looked me in the eye as she slowly raised her hand to my chest where my zip rested. With crusty nails, she slowly zipped up my jacket >10cm to the top. And with a nod of satisfaction, she walked away.
22/04: At the chop shop.
When you live in a foreign country that’s written in symbols where everyone speaks a different language, things like getting a haircut feel particularly overwhelming. Where should I go? Will they want to cut a foreigner’s hair? Do I have to make a booking? That one has English in their name – maybe they can speak it? But will we be able to communicate enough? And so you start coming to terms with maybe just letting your hair grow wild for the year to avoid all this uncertainty!
But at some point you decide there’ll be safety in numbers and you go with 2 friends to a place a friend-of-a-friend has been to (even if it’s not in your area). You find the hidden elevator, pluck up the courage for one of you to walk into the salon first, find out the hairdressers are suited-up Korean men (with little-no English) with no booking required… and there’s a resident bull dog inside.
We each had a turn to have our hair dry-cut by the men with mad scissors-skills and about an hour and a half later we each walked out with a great haircut for only W10 000.
27/02: Alone, at last?
On the last day of Orientation we stood like hopeful orphans on the side of the road with our bags waiting to be adopted by our soon-to-be co-teachers. One-by-one, we were separated from our newly acquired comforts and friends and taken away to our new homes.
My co-teacher was welcoming and organised. After dropping off my bags, she took me on the subway (so daunting!) straight to the immigration office to get my residence card, she showed me how to work things, was my translator, took me to the bank and even helped organise my phone plan. On my first day of school she met me at my bus stop to go together so I’d know how to get to school – something much appreciated during a particularly overwhelming week of aloneness/reality.
However, one of the things I’ve been looking forward to about moving to Korea is having my own apartment again! My space. My mess. And fast internet! I am happy. A small grumble about the very Korean all-in-one bathroom though.
04/03: Into the depths of Gupo Market.
At the end of my area you’ll find Gupo Market (구포 시장). This very ‘authentic Korean’ market is particularly infamous for being the dog meat market… So maybe a bit too authentic for me in my first week of living here. The market is a maze of alley ways of stalls selling everything from kimchi, fresh seaweed, to raw meats, live octopi and terrapins, and often right next to a clothes stall.
The pungent smells became even stronger the deeper I went in (underground in every sense) but when I stumbled upon the dog alleys with the cages I knew it was time to retreat. Well, that and being spurred on by an angry ajumma as I tried to take a photo for evidence.
Home comforts, where are you??
There were a few things that took me a good few weeks to finally track down. I either had to venture out to bigger, better grocery stores (like Lotte Mart or Home Plus) which are a good few Metro stops away, or find my goods online on Gmarket (Note: setting up payment accounts and Korean online banking in general leads to absolute frustration, and 80% of everything is in Korean). Some of the random home comforts in particular that I had to find were (and celebrations when I did): strong black tea, oats, sweetener, diet shake and wine. And if anyone finds salt & vinegar chips here… YOU PHONE ME!
11/03: Oryukdo Skywalk and Igidae Coastal Walk.
The skywalk is a +-15m long glass horseshoe-shaped structure 40m above the sea. Before walking on, you must put on the sexy black material booties provided over your shoes so you don’t scratch the already very scratched glass flooring. You can see through to the rocks and waves beneath you, but the views around are more beautiful. The ocean spreads out in front of you and you can also see the neighbouring Daemado Island just off the coast.
We then headed off up the mountain along the Igidae Coastal Walk route (I only found the name out later). This was my first [accidental] exposure to the popular Korean pastime of “hiking”. We hadn’t planned to hike and weren’t suitably dressed for the earthy inclines and steep narrow downhills parallel to the the vast ocean. The trail leads all the way to Gwangan Bridge, but we turned back halfway. But I’ll be back. Sans winter dress-coat and non-sport shoes next time.
The hiking efforts were later paid off with my first Korean seafood BBQ in some small coastal nook of Busan (I have no idea where it is, but we needed a taxi to get there. Here’s to having knowledgeable friends!). We had abalone, clams and mussels with garlic and mushrooms warmed up over the coals, then steamed in the large shells. We followed the shellfish up with some eel, all partnered with good ol’ soju along the way.
12/03: The never-ending hike.
The day after going to Oryukdo, we caught the cable car up one of the many mountains in Busan and hiked to the beautiful and impressive Beomeosa Buddhist Temple. But due to detours at the beginning and a lack of better planning it turned into being a pretty hectic hike of over 4 hours. There were many moments I thought I’d got myself into a possible Ultimate Survival episode – lost in the vast Korean mountains with stunning views but with water and hope levels on empty. I’ve been reluctant to go hiking for a while after this one…
28/03: It was a Tuesday.
I teach 21 classes per week, each class has about 22 children. That makes for a lot of kids to say and do amusing things. The typical answer to the ‘how-are-you-today’ question at grade 3 level is often, “I’m happy!” (which is super cute), while far too many of the grade 5s and 6s I teach have the awfully ambivalent response of, “I’m so-so” most of the time.
The confidence of this particular little girl was one to remember though.
Starbucks… Starbucks… bucks… bucks… Ching… Ching. Expensive brand coffee that’s just kinda a rite of passage as a coffee lover. Read: ‘lover’, not ‘coffee snob’ – my coffee consumption is generally cost-based (unless it comes in ADORABLE packaging with a hat-lid like Paris Baguette – see below) so it was quite a deal to fork out W5900 for a coffee. And W5900, in the midst of the recent South African economical turmoil, cost R84 that day (today it’s down to R69.78) – which is damn expensive for coffee regardless! But hey, it was my first Starbucks AND it was the pretty pink cherry blossom edition.
And so, on the 17th of February I stood ready-not-ready at the airport with my parents close and a year’s worth of selected belongings in two large plastic-wrapped suitcases on a trolley. The time had come. After two years of dreaming and 6 months of applications and admin, the time had finally and suddenly arrived. It had begun, four flights and 25+ hours of traveling into the unknown for the biggest and most exciting adventure yet! South Korea, here I come!
First stop: Joburg
And wow, the nerves. The headache. The nausea. I ordered Rooibos tea at Mugg & Bean to try calm down during my layover. My hands wouldn’t co-operate while I tried to draw, shaking from the impending flights to far far away.
Second stop: Dubai
After a long 8 hour flight (plus an unexpected extra hour frustratingly spent chilling in the air), I walked around the Dubai airport at 1 o’clock in the morning to stretch my legs and try prepare myself for the next long leg of the trip. A lovely 7+ hr flight with a very short layover time in Beijing lay ahead – one in which I needed to wait for, collect, check in my luggage and clear customs in time for boarding. I was doubtful.
Third stop: Beijing
Due to rains in Dubai (yes, in the desert) our plane had been grounded for almost an hour. The hour I needed to transfer at my next stop and grab my bags. I sat there panicking, convinced I was not going to make my next flight, not going to make my hotel, not going to make it. Not a great way to spend 7 hours, stressing.
I flew out of the plane in China as fast as possible, clouded by panic. Somewhere in the clouds of worry and running, I bumped into equally stressed passengers at the right desk with an airport official who made it his mission to fast track us through everything, shouting at us by the end to run faster than possible with minutes to spare before the plane closed its doors.
18/02/17 – First night in Busan: AIRPORT HOTEL
Finally. I made it to South Korea! Pity my luggage wasn’t so lucky as my precious cargo (which held my credit card to pay for my hotel…) found itself left behind in China. But wow, this hotel! I’d had to book accommodation prior to leaving because the only flights from SA landed a day before Orientation. But getting in the day/night before and being able to rest in this most magnificent room after a long and stressful journey was the best decision ever! My room included a glorious and comfortable huge white-linened bed, 2 computers (excessive but noteworthy), WiFi (FINALLY!!!), a bidet toilet and of course a huge bath with water jets.
Lying in the huge glittery black tub at midnight with jets and pink bath salts bubbling away my troubles with a TV just above it was the most amazing reward after a 29 hour journey and the best way to prepare for the next day’s excitement of Orientation.
19/02 — 27/02/17: EPIK Orientation
A very busy 8 days of meeting 100s of people, long crash-courses during the day in teaching and in Korean life, little sleep, strange food, cold winter days, hills and stairs, being late for class and sharing a tiny room with a stranger (soon-to-be-friend) from equally far away (hey Bekah from New York #Roomie!). And hard beds. But all on a stunning campus in the hills – Busan University of Foreign Studies.
P.S. My bags were welcomed with very open arms two days after landing. Yay fresh clothes and all my belongings!
Money is great. Money in a foreign currency is good. Money in a foreign currency but all in the largest bills they offer, not so great. And there are so many zeros in won (₩)! One day though, I plucked up the courage to buy coffee down the hill and whipped out a ₩50 000 note (thanks to Forex) to pay for a ₩5000 drink. Without the language to say please, let alone to apologise, I walked away with a hot cappuccino and a chunk of their cash register in change.
On a couple of rare occasions during orientation, somewhere after late classes and between WiFi catch-up sessions, longing for warm bed and sleep and with an 11pm curfew, we managed to go out (and down the steep hill) into town. We found a small discreet pub of sorts and had a few of the local brews and picklings. I made my soju debut one night, with grapefruit flavour of course.