Wednesday, March 25, 2009

#10 - The A's Have It

If you read my last entry, then you know I have loads of time on my hands these days - so much so that I have dedicated myself to reading, War & Peace. But it also means I am hoping to check in here a little more over the next while with a list of the Top Ten experiences over the last two years of running around, and before I head on another head-spinning, jaw-dropping trip of Bali and Canada...
Alright, so I am cheating here a little bit. This isn't about just one beach experience, it's two. I really tried to narrow the last two years of travel into 10 significant or extraordinary events, and it was tough...damn tough. And really where the hell do I begin? I guess at the start, but if I did that, it meant leaving out some other great beaches...sorry Canoa, incredibly, you didn't make the at #10 comes - Atacames and Ayampe.

September 2007 - It all began in Atacames really. We'd been in Ecuador about a month and it was time to get out of the city, at least for the weekend. We'd made some good friends already and were pleased with our decision to make Ecuador home for two years, but felt it was time to get out and explore. This was doubly important because even though we knew it wasn't going to always be sunny and gorgeous, it came as a bit of a surprise just how cloudy and chilly it was. We needed some sun, some heat and some sand.

And so it was off to Atacames. Only 350 kilometres away, but still close to 8 hours by bus. My first South American road trip, winding our way through the coastal mountains of the Andes, traveling down some 3000 metres to get closer to the level of the sea. And while this was not the best of the beaches we were lucky enough to visit, it was the place I fell in love with ceviche, the wonderul Ecuadorian dish that still gets my mouth watering. And having arrived in the middle the night, we were not sure exactly what we were in for (other than the obvious sun, ocean, and sand), but waking up and then walking towards the beach we saw that it was clearly screaming, "Welcome!"

We knew we had arrived!

But the beach trip that truly earns it's spot on this top ten has got to be Ayampe. It was March 2008, Carnaval! An extended long weekend for all in Ecuador, and wonderful party scene around the country. But what we did instead was gather some of the closest friends we'd made (traveling really does make for close friends, quick) and head to the sleepiest beach town we could find, with a wicked beach break directly out front.

Four days of chilling with your homies, with not a care in the world except if we really were going to go surfing today and stop all the chatter about it, or if we were going to continue to kick back because, "You know, the surfs not all that great, anyways!?!"
(Blogger's note: Truly I am still very much gun shy of the waves after just about killing myself in Byron Bay - on a boogie board of all I tend to stall by trying to come off as some expert wave dude because of my legendary Australian experience - where I drove more than I surfed!)

But what set this weekend apart from so many other great weekends was the Finca Punta Ayampe - a glorious hostel-tree house...

...sitting up the hill just far enough for spectacular views...

...but not so far that getting to the beach was anything resembling a hassel.

Another joy for me, and what firmly placed Ayampe (sorry again Canoa) in the top ten was the road trip where we dodged buckets of water (and at one point, even a 2L full pop bottle) being thrown from other moving vehicles - usually pick-up trucks with 10 or 11 people in the back armed with water guns and buckets - as is the Carnaval custom, out to a provincially protected beach, Los Frailes. Here we managed to soak in some rays at a spectacular beach in a beautiful inlet, all the while trying to keep my beers cool by burying them in the sand. Quickly discovering the sand was never going to keep them anything below boiling and that the surf was too strong for my plastic bag, I had no choice to suck a few back wherever I went....

.... and I even got in a nice little "beer-can body surf"!!

Up next...The Wall!

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Cinderella has left me with nothing but time...and hair

First of all, I have to get this off my chest - Cleveland is a city, not a state! And not even a particularly great city!! The fact that Cleveland State, this year's media darlings as the cinderella story, completely ruined my bracket by beating former #1 Wake Forest has got me seething beyond my yearly frustration - it's usually not until the end of the Sweet 16 that I am angry, and out of my March Madness pools!
And so, with nothing but time on my hands now - although I had loads of it before but I needed to vent, I mean, come on, Cleveland State!?! - I am going to do my best to check in here a little more regularly over the next 6 weeks as we wind up our time in Korea, getting ready for our next adventure. In May we head to Bali for a month of relaxation, surfing, and relaxation, and then in June, I fulfill a life-long dream of traveling across our great country , while Tasha fulfills a dream of her own, becoming a yoga instructor . In all respects, those 10 weeks are going to be pretty awesome and exciting.

But whenever I get ready to move on, it gets me looking back on the past a little, as I try to remember the things I've seen and done, both good and bad. Fortunately, the good has far exceeded the bad over this two-year sojourn. And with that, over the next few weeks I am going to try and trim the list of incredible experiences to ten to share with you.

Of course, this leaves me feeling pulled in many directions - thinking about what's next, trying to recall the past, all the while trying to be here and now, which is a pretty sweet place to be. Spring has fully sprung here on the southern tip of the Korean peninsula, and I hope to share some incredible pictures of the cherry blossoms and beaches in the next week or two. Plus, there is still a baseball game or two to catch, which supposedly ranks up there as one of the true great live sporting experiences. The World Baseball Classic may have fizzled somewhat in North America, but here in Korea, they are captivated and taking 4-hour long lunches, with the excitment surely to peak now that they are in the finals.

With all this excitement going on, what is one to do?

Well, here in Korea, I believe they have the answer - the Jinjabong! This wonderful place caters to the stressed which, as I've stated before, is many here in Korea, and not just because of six-day work weeks (although that is enough if you ask me). Essentially what this place is, is hot rooms, steam rooms and baths. As a modest North American I was unable to fully enjoy the experience, as there are sections seperated by the sexes, where nudity is required. But aside from the uncomfortable nudity - for me only - in certain places (although I am told there is no judging), this place is a virtual cornocopia of relaxation....coin operated massage chairs and tables, masseuists on site, and sleeping rooms to crash, although if you just feel like laying down in the middle of the floor, do it.

As I learned, these Jinjabongs are an institution here in Korea. Families spend entire weekends. Turns out, these places can double as a hotel being that they are open 24 hours and most have tasty little restaurants. And as long as you don't leave, you can use the place for as long as you like. There is no alcohol permitted inside, but it would be a pretty great place to crash after a good night of socializing, as it seemed many were doing. Just roll up at 3 am, grab a spot in the 56 degree celcius room and sweat out your transgressions. (Bloggers note: Rooms range from a pleasing 40 degrees celcius to a sweltering and ass-burning 78 degrees.) And when you wake up, take a naked plunge into the pools, coming out fresher than the day you were born. Not a bad way to start a day considering the many ways I've tried after a night out.

Now if we could just get over ourselves - and when I say ourselves, I mean me, and by me I mean everyone thinks exactly like me, right? - we could open up a few of these places in Toronto, melting that collective stress away. And whether it is stress from day-to-day life, or because your bracket got busted by some geographically confused cinderella team, the jinjabong is a sure-fire cure.

But since there isn't much chance of that happening, you can look at some pictures of my hair instead:

Relaxed? Thought so.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

These Economic Times

Going to get up on my soapbox for what I hope is just a little while here. May catch some flak for this one, but then, this is also why I think.

Seems we've heard nothing but bad news for the last number of years - sometimes seems like forever, but that is a conspiracy theory for another time. Aside from the U.S. putting in a president everyone can be proud of, it's mostly been war, famine, more war, bombings, and now this with, "These Economic Times". And while I have tried my best to keep my head up and feel good about what I do on a daily basis, it is getting harder.

Maybe this is the darkest hour before the dawn?

But that seems so silly to me. I mean really. We live in Canada. Most of us have families. And we have a government that at least attempts to be for the people. It may not be the one you enjoy, and it may not feel like it is for you right now, but it is. And if you want to complain about your lot in life, go ahead, but I'm not going to feel too badly for you...chances are, if you're reading this, you're Canadian, possibly Australian, and we've all got it pretty fricken sweet! It's never been all that dark for us.

Yes, "These Economic Times" are tough, and a little scary. Uncertainty always is. But when and why we were ever so certain? We've all heard, there are only two certainties, and jobs and prosperity aren't on the list.

And how did we get here? Have we grown up in such a wonderful country we think it is our birthright to be prosperous and successful? And if something attempts to get in the way of that, we lose our heads (or at least attempt to bury them)? We've become as materialistic as our neighbours to the south - who often times we like to laugh at for some of their consuming through liquour stores?? Oh wait, we drive through for our coffees!?! - and when you compare what we do for our relative size, we aren't nearly the champions we like to think we are. But this is not to jump all over Canada or Canadians. In fact it is the opposite.

We live in the greatest country in the world. Bar none. And it is for this reason, we need to chill. Relax. Take a deep breathe, and truly evaluate where we stand. We are not the United States. We are not China. We're not Europe. We are Canada. Thirty three million people spread over the second largest country in the world - you should see the Korean kids eyes bug out of their heads when I point to Canada and then tell them we have less people than they do - "Teacher! No! You lie!" I do not lie (about this).

But we must cherish this gift of space. Nurture it. While death and taxes may be the only two certainties we used to think about, there is no denying another certainty, this is our planet, and as Canadians we got a pretty sizeable chunk of it to protect, love, and be proud of.

We also live in a country - ok, I don't live there now, but I am coming, boy, am I coming - where we have the freedom to do as we please - a gift that can never be understated. We live in a time and a world when truly anything is possible - the fact that you're reading this on your computer sometime after I wrote it on my computer, after I clicked a little button that said 'publish' in the corner of my screen with my touch pad mouse, speaks volumes to me.

And it is for these reasons, as Canadians (okay, you too Aussies), it is time for us to step up. Not our government, not our! Put our money literally where our mouths are. Invest our time and energy (much more valuable than our money anyways) in our youth, in our neighbourhoods, and most importantly, in ourselves.

I know "These Economic Times" have got everyone a little scrambled. And if you've been affected because of down-sizing or closing, then I am truly sorry, and will do what I can (which sadly isn't much) to help. But I bet someone can.

And I don't want to preach about how we're lucky to be in Canada in these times, and not somewhere else, but it is true. The thing is, it's true all the time, not just now. But I also know that doesn't make things any easier right now. But what might, is the belief in yourself and in us as a country. You are a person who has the opportunity to do whatever you want, in a place where we can honestly say, anything can be done.

What have we dreamt about that we have not accomplished?

This is no time to stop dreaming. In fact, it may be time to do just that. Or even better, to remember what it was we were dreaming about not so long ago, and make it happen.

We can choose. Nothing can take that away from us. Not even "These Economic Times".

Monday, March 9, 2009

What's with Korea? Part III - Korea the Good

If you've been following over the last couple of posts, you might be thinking that the cramped living spaces and a stressed population would be a recipe for craziness, and possibly even violence. You would probably be right if you were talking about any place other than Korea.

I'm not exactly sure how they've done it, other than to program it into their DNA (which really wouldn't surprise me), but Korea is safe. Safer than any place I have ever visited. It might be the robotic like schooling they receive, or even the two years every male must spend serving Korea in some fashion (armed forces, police, or coast guard are the options I believe), but whatever it is, this is a country where you really do feel, and are, safe.

Bikes go unlocked. Shopping bags, full of loot from the mall, are left at the bus stop while the owner finds a public washroom (which are everywhere, and pretty darn clean), only to return and - amazingly to me when I first saw this - find no one has taken, or even touched their goods. Sidewalk cafes are literally, in some cases, tents on a sidewalk. The owners simply zip up when closed, leaving refridgerators full of food and booze there with a lock smaller than the ones we used to keep our lockers at school shut. Tables, chairs, you name it are simply left where they belong - no chains, no guard dogs, no nothing.

Women aren't harassed, men aren't acting all macho, and there does not appear to be a neighbourhood you don't want to be in at night.

It is incredible. And it is nice.

Now I am not so naive as to believe this is a utopia where nothing bad ever happens here - just refer back to my last post - and a friend of mine did have his $20 bike helmet taken, but they left behind the $200 quick release seat and a saddle bag with a camera in it. However, reading about all the horrible stuff curently happening in the world, and at home in Canada, has got me truly appreciating what Korea has been able to create here.

Children behave. Teens behave. And adults behave - except for the few who like to howl at the moon on occasion at 2 in the morning after leaving the Soju hut. They seem to truly enjoy their lives when at the beach or at the mountain. Families are everywhere, and seemingly all are having a good time. And there is a tangible feeling here to the saying, "it takes a village to raise a child." Kids run and play in the parks and beaches, and everyone has an eye out for the other. A baby crying?? Instead of rolling their eyes and being annoyed, people make faces and soothing sounds. Want to act up on the bus?? Instead of asking, "Where are this kid's parents?", they will say to the culperate in Korean something along the lines of, "I am going to beat your ass if you don't sit down and shut up!" or I assume something to that affect because the kid doesn't even seem to consider talking back. And then some lady will probably offer some candy as a token of appreciation.

And to top it off, they are as friendly and helpful as anyone I've had the pleasuer of coming across.

Despite constant language barriers, Koreans are always quick with a smile and a helping hand. Twice, we've not only been given directions to a place we wanted to go when coming out of the subway (which by the way is as efficient and clean a public transport system I have seen), but we've been guided. On both occasions these people took the time from their day to help a couple of confused looking foreigners, but then literally went out their way to show us where we needed to go. Sure it's meant a few akward minutes of stumbling through English, Korean and a combination of both with some sign language thrown in, but it has always left me with a nice feeling - knowing I am never going to be left to my own devices while here. Which is a truly comforting thought when considering my devices.

So Korea is good. A little cramped, a lot stressed, but ultimately enjoying themselves in the safety of their family - which just happens to be everyone. Nice.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

What's with Korea? Part II - The kids are stressed!?!

There are certainly many countries in the world where it would be worse to be a kid than in South Korea, but in the developed world, I can't think of many.

Sure, kids are kids, and they are generally a happy lot. Wherever I've been I see kids making the most out of any situation, and the inevitable shrieks of laughter seems to be a universal language - kids laughing in Canada sound exactly like kids laughing in Korea or Ecuador or anywhere else, and it's nice to be around. One of the true reasons I like being a teacher is laughter is generally involved in my work as much as anything else.

Here in Korea, those kids are still laughing, just not nearly as much. If in Ecuador kids were trying to make do with playing games on steep hills or a patch of side walk, here is Korea it is kids trying to make do with a spare minute, because they don't get many.

What follows, I certainly don't pretend to know for a fact, but is from the information I have gathered through conversations with, and observations of, the students I've met.
Blogger's note: I do not work at an elementary, middle or high school. Instead I work at a Hogwon, which I think is Korean for after-school torture, working with kids from all three levels of schooling.

As my week started this Monday, I was not expecting anything different from my weekly routine, until I got to school. I was surprised to learn that kids returned to school this week after their school holidays and the evidence was as clear as mud on their faces. Red eyes, frowns, and irritability.

While it might not be surprising that I have no idea what's going on (as it is often the case), what was surprising was that I thought they had returned at the beginning of February. As it turns out, they did return in February - after having most of January off - to their 'old' schools and classes for two weeks - in the middle of their holidays!! And it was during these two weeks students found out where they would be going to school 'next year'. They then got the final two weeks of February off to make the necessary arrangements (books, uniforms, etc.).

So you may be wondering how it is I didn't notice the kids were gone for two weeks at the end of February?? Well, the truth is, the kids never, EVER stop coming to these academies - whether it is for English, Science, Math, or even Study Hour, these kids are always coming - 52 weeks of the year!!

So essentially, the school week sets up like this for most kids in Korea: 8:00 am off to school; 2:00 pm head home; 3:00 pm - 6:00 pm go to the academies; 7:00 pm - 9:00 pm it's Taekwondoe or a study period to make sure that the accumulated homework is completed. This schedule gets later and later as they go through school, with most high school kids getting home at roughly 11:00 pm each day. And this doesn't even take into consideration that they go to school on Saturday's too!! So it's school 6 days a week for roughly 10 months and academies 5 days a week for the full 12 months. It makes me sick thinking about this. These are kids!

So why all this schooling you ask?

Well first I believe it based on nearly 40 years of brutal colonialism/dictatorship at the hands of Japan. And then only a couple of years of peace after that, as communism and capitalism had it out on the pennisula for the better part of a decade before coming to an understanding that neither side was willing to give in, so we'll just agree to disagree, arm ourselves to the teeth, and hope neither side does anything stupid.

Second, I think it is based on a language barrier. See it was the Americans who triumphantly freed the Koreans from Japanese dictatorship, only to be replaced by the American style of colonialism which essentially gives you freedom, but gets you thinking it's not nearly as nice as the freedom enjoyed by Americans. So you better learn English to have greater access to America the Great.

In more recent times, the Asian economic meltdown in the late 80's-early 90's, and the effect "These Economic Times" is having and has had on Korea, certainly isn't helping.

For these reasons, I believe South Koreans suffer from an enormous inferiority complex, which has been handed down through generations, resulting in this constant effort on the part of the population to be better, which means for the kids - competition. Competition to be better than before, but more harmfully, competition to be better than the student next to them. See in the effort to be better, the Koreans have created an education system that is designed to identify and celebrate greatness, which in theory may not be bad, but in practice has had devestating effects on the psyche of kids. Students have repeatedly told me, "I have to get better marks than so and so, because his/her mother is friends with my mother, and my mom will kill me if I am not better than so and so!" Just nutty!

It has gotten so pervasive, students are given yearly standardized tests earlier and earlier. And these tests are not just measures of accountability, as so many have become in North America, but are tools to classify. See if you manage to get yourself into a certain percentile on a elementary test, you are elegible to go to certain middle schools - MIDDLE SCHOOLS!?! Essentially Grade 7, 8 and 9 at home. Then you go through another battery of tests over the next three years to see what high schools you are eligible for. And of course, depending on what middle school you went o greatly influences which high school you go to.

And in Korea there are two levels of high school - university entry and everything else. If you do not make it into the university level high school, you will not be attending university. EVER!! (at least that is how the kids understand it) Your future has essentially been decided at the ripe old age of 15. And to top it off, there are then select high schools for the trade you want to go in. Didn't make it to the university level? That's okay, have we got a high school for you - How about Tourism High School? Or Police High School? It's nuts. I can't imagine having to make a decision on my life at 32, let alone 15.

And all this testing and competition has had drastic and tragic results. Numbers from the National Statistical Office indicate that more than 1,000 students between the ages of 10 and 19 killed themselves from 2000 to 2003 (Asia Times, November 2005). The fact that 10 year olds are included in that number is sad. It's sadder than sad. And for those that do manage to get through each day okay, by the time they get to me, they are stressed, burnt out, and exhausted. Emotional breakdowns are common at hogwons, as students are constantly being measured by the state, and by their parents.
Blogger's note: you can refer back to the comment of kids needing to be better than the kids of their mother's friend here.

In the days leading up to the entrance exams for each level, temples and churches around the country are packed with mother's praying for the future of their kids. And on the day of the univeristy entrance exams?? Airports are shut, businesses open later, and traffic is diverted away from high schools, all in an attempt to ensure students get to their tests on time and have no distractions during them. This government initiative is done to relieve the stress of the day, but can you imagine what you'd be thinking heading into a test where they have shut down the airport for you?? I'd be freaking out!

There are of course teachers fighting back - there was an organized field trip across the country on the day of the middle school evaluative tests for 5th graders - 10 and 11 year olds - one of three state tests they would be taking in the school year. Unfortunately, because of bureaucratic and parental pressure, many did not take part. Those teachers that did were fired, and some were even attacked by parents for hindering the future of their little ones.

It is a sad situation, one I cannot wait to share with my students in Canada when they complain I've given them too much homework (which by the way I never do, because I think homework sucks too!), and one I hope they find a solution to soon.

In the meantime, I do my best song, dance and pony tricks to keep the kids laughing and hopefully feeling good about the 45 minutes they have to spend with me.