Friday, October 30, 2009

The View from Home

Yes, we've been to many exotic places lately, but today I went to the pumpkin patch with Desmond, now almost 16 months old. Here was the view, and it knocked my socks off! This was worth coming home for!

Thursday, October 29, 2009

We're Home Safely

Just to end the episodic journey, we arrived home safe this afternoon, doggies were ecstatic to greet us, and we are SO dazed and jet-lagged and discombobulated that we are going straight to sleep, hopefully for a very long stretch! What a terrific trip we had!

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Korea Day 13 - Annyeonghi gaseyo (goodbye!)

Our last full day in Seoul had all of us feeling nostalgic for the many things we've come to love and admire here. We took a day of revisiting special places, soaking everything in as best we could, and just taking a long, final, look around us. We hardly took any photos all day, just gazed and admired, and sighed at the wonders of this city. First thing was to take a subway, at long last, back to Domdaemun Market. Even though the signs throughout the subway system were clear and in English, people came from all directions to help us with the process of getting the right tickets, finding the right gate, finding the right exit, and bestow the usual Korean kindness on us. One man even went out of his way to take us to a special machine where he put each of our tickets through for us, at the end of the ride, and we each got a 500 won refund! Cost of each ride, less than $1. Both stations and train were spotless.

At the market, we went to the "toys and stationery" buildings, then to "shoes", then finally back through some of the apparel buildings. Each of these is literally blocks long and teeming with activity. We read that 400,000 buyers visit this market every day, not surprising. We bought a few odds and ends, then came back to Insadong, where the four of us separated into two pairs for the first time since we arrived here, and went off our separate ways.

Daniella and I had a scrumptious dumpling soup lunch, then wandered through the streets. We ended up once again at the huge Buddhist temple, where a funeral was in progress, the participants all dressed in rough white garments and hats, a small bier being carried around, behind a large photo of the deceased. When that had passed by, we went inside the temple for the first time and sat at the back. It was full of worshippers, mostly women, down on their knees on pillows, bowing repeatedly. The monks circulated around and there was continuous ringing of small bells, wooden gongs, and deep, sonorous chanting. The atmosphere was so peaceful and spiritually uplifting. The building was stunning, with the three giant golden Buddhas up front, and every inch of the huge room decorated in hanging red and green lanterns on the ceiling, walls painted in all the temple colors, stacks of fruit and books in front of the statues, golden alcoves lining the back walls, and so much more!

We reconnected with Wendy and Judy for a bit of a shopping frenzy later in the day. Korea has the most amazing women's clothing designers, many selling out of small alleys, with their goods hanging along the walls and perhaps a closet for trying on things (perhaps not). All four of us have indulged in buying some of these designer clothes, and we feel like a million bucks walking around here lately wearing them! We visited a couple of gallery openings (here the galleries change shows every week, and every opening is a big party!), and loved a textile show put up by a bunch of delightful young graduate students.One more "chicken and beer" dinner for us just hit the spot at the end of this wonderful day, then home to contemplate how to pack all of our stuff. Wendy began the process by packing one entire large suitcase full of paint brushes. One of my suitcases will be mostly filled by a carton of india ink. We have a huge box of paper, as one of our pieces of luggage. All of us are holding our breath about that ink and flying around the world with it......

This afternoon (Thursday here) we fly for home at about 5 pm Korea time, and we arrive in San Francisco on Thursday at noon! It feels like a science fiction event, back to the future - very strange indeed! Can't wait to see all our left-behind loved ones! Annyeonghi gaseyo.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Korea Day 12 - Palaces and Playing Around

We all felt that we hadn't seen enough of the many palaces here in Seoul, so this morning we returned to visit Deoksugung, near City Hall. This is one of the smaller ones, but is famous for its elaborate changing-of-the-guard ceremonies, held several times a day. It is a big tourist attraction, and includes the opportunity for tourists to dress up in traditional clothing and pose with the guards - an opportunity we didn't take, but these two dorky American guys were all over the place in their outfits and white sneakers. If you feel so inclined, Youtube has several short videos of the Changing of the Guard at Deoksugung Palace, showing the full ceremony. We wandered all over the palace grounds. Much of it has been reconstructed after fires and various plunderings over the 500+ year history, but it is still quite beautiful. It is miniscule in size, compared to former times, when it would have occupied a huge tract of land in the middle of town. Today it is surrounded by government buildings and Dunkin Donut shops (which the guards march past on their changing route).

The palace had a lovely tea shop and gift shop, and we sat for awhile at the edge of a dappled Monet pond, having tea, laughing, and watching three men who were dredging out unwanted algae from the water. I love this photo of Wendy and Judy, having a sisterly moment!
We wandered down a stunning street next to the palace, all tree-lined with dripping autumn colors, and went in to the Seoul Art Museum for awhile, for a not very interesting show. Then we found lunch at a nearby Vietnamese Pho restaurant, and some shennigans happened with the bean sprouts.
After lunch we went over to Hongik University, to search for a designer shop that Daniella knew about through her friend, Lynn Mizono, from Whidbey Island. We had, as usual, an address written in English, and a phone number, and had asked the hotel to write the address for us in Korean. A bad sign was that the cab driver had no idea where to take us, so dropped us off in front of the university. When we started to ask people around the University for help, everyone seemed mystified. We went into a cell phone store, staffed by hip young people, and they telephoned the phone number on our paper, and then gave us the usual Korean expanation of where to go, with a lot of hand guestures. We made it about two blocks before we lost the thread and were unsure which road to take. Next we went into a beauty salon, and they also telephoned the shop, then drew an elaborate map of how to get to the place we were looking for. Walked many more blocks following that little map, but no sign of the shop. Finally we went into another small designer shop on the street we thought we needed. The owner there seemed clueless as well, but made a third call to the shop and then signed for us to follow her, back up the street we had come, and off in a new direction, where finally she handed us off to a baffled young woman who had walked out to meet us. It turned out that she was an employee of the shop we were looking for. The woman who was Lynn's friend was off in China, so we never got to meet her. And the shop, although charming, stocked only size zero and maybe a 1 or 2, tiny little things for tiny little people! But the neighborhoods we walked through were great, arty, full of young people, graffiti, and cool places to go. I was too stressed out with finding directions to take any photos!

Finally last night we went for a great night stroll down through Insadong and back again, our sweet home neighborhood, so endlessly fascinating and fun! Only one more full day here, then tomorrow noon we have to check out and head home. That will be hard......

Monday, October 26, 2009

Korea Day 11 - Off the Map to Three Markets

All woke up tired this morning after doing battle with a few mosquitos that got into our rooms through the windows we opened to counteract the heat the hotel turned on yesterday. It's warm here and we don't need heat, but we all need sleep! Today we decided to visit three markets that we had not yet seen. We took a cab from one to the next: the Janganpyeong Antiques Market, the Gyeongdong Market of medicinal herbs and finally the Seoul Folk Flea Market. The first, antiques market, was chock full of gorgeous furniture, and collectibles of every imaginable sort, and the outdoor areas were full of stone sculptures. I lusted particularly after a white jade horse with a girl rider ($40), about 10" long, but it was so heavy I couldn't bring myself to take it, even at that price.The Medicinal Herbs market was fantastic, aromatic, and full of strange and unexplainable (to us) baskets of all things useful for medicine - dried frogs, mountains of ginseng, herbs and twigs. It turned out that it was attached to an enormous food market, selling every variety of fruit, vegetables, meat, seafood, and just about everything else - except there was no place to sit down and eat it and by then we were hungry. So we walked and walked, and finally found a great Korean lunch - wild mountain greens and rice for me, with egg and kimchi and so many great little side dishes. No Korean meal is ever served without a handful of small side dishes, pickles, soups, dips, radishes, kimchee, and so much more! I included a menu we considered and decided against - hope you can read it!
The Flea Market was disappointing, especially for two girls who thrive on yard sales, flea markets, and Goodwills. It was several stories high, crammed full of junk (both old and new) but nothing called to us. As usual, just walking on the streets offers endless entertainment. Yesterday we went past a lot of hardware stores. Here are a couple of random photos from the many we took. Check out the tiny tub. We saw them everywhere!Another fun part of the day was trying to get to the flea market, since the cab let us out in a random place, and of course we have no idea how to ask for where we want to go in Korean. We had a page torn out of a guidebook, and one line of Korean words that Betsy had written. So we began asking people to help us. It's tricky, because they help us in Korean, elaborate descriptions of how many blocks to go in which direction, and where to turn, what to look for, etc. But we had really only hand gestures to go on. We went into a police station, and got a similar response. The policeman took us outside to the sidewalk to demonstrate, and a young boy about 10 in school uniform walked by and said, in perfect English, where are you trying to go? He then explained clearly what we needed to do, said he had learned English in Detroit, and off he went. By then we had attracted quite a crowd of onlookers, and a very kind gentleman made us understand that he would take us there. We set off walking at a rapid clip behind him, down a bunch of alleys and small streets, winding here and there, until suddenly there was the building we were looking for. Such kindness!

Such kindness everywhere! We were talking today about something so striking in this culture, that seems to permeate everything very deeply. Everyone follows the rules. People don't jaywalk, or insult each other, or steal, or cheat tourists, or display road-rage, no matter how crazy it gets. We always feel completely safe and trusting, wherever we go, day or night, because there is an unspoken understanding that everyone will be respectful, civil, and polite. Even the few drunks we have encountered are polite and friendly, and ask for nothing from us. People seem happy, cheerful and super-industrious. Children go to school even on Saturdays, and usually attend after-school enrichment programs. Where the population goes wild and crazy is in artistic expression. It is so refreshing, and really shows us the dysfunction of much of our own country in a revealing light.

Anyway, I digress, as usual. Now 6:30 am. I fell asleep after writing this at 7:30 pm and slept through. I was so worn out! Today I feel like a new woman!

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Korea Day 10 - Meandering on Cheonggye Stream

Since it was Sunday yesterday (yes, we're a day ahead of you here, neener neener neener) we started the day by sleeping in, then loafing around the apartment in our jammies, and didn't hit the streets until 11 am. We decided to take a long, leisurely walk in a direction we hadn't yet explored. We headed south from our hotel, through a vibrant neighborhood filled with activity. Next we headed into the Cheonggye Streem walkway that we had briefly glimpsed the night before. This time we walked it to the end, and it was just as beautiful and playful by day as by night. So many families had their children out playing on the stepping stones, and listening to the music, and taking in the many fountains and water features. Some of the walls were decorated with a long tile frieze depicting Korean history. One particularly beautiful section was preserved using stones from ancient times instead of the more modern ones on most of the course, both on the ground, the walls, and the overhead bridge.We emerged into a huge, open plaza where the atmosphere was like a giant party. People were swarming around enjoying the sun, the giant sculpture, some musicians, street food, and a number of tents where artisans were working with children (and also adults) for free, making jewelry, ceramics, masks, paintings, etc. At another place we passed earlier, there was a small alley filled with booths offering activities for children. It seemed as if this was a normal weekend activity, not some special occasion.We walked south again, went to the big Seoul Plaza in front of their city hall. This old building is now covered with a dotted fabric facade, while construction of a new, ultra-modern, ultra-high tech city hall goes on behind the screen. Across the street, at a distance, we saw the changing of the guards in front of Deoksugung Palace (this happens three times a day, with sonorous drums and bells that can be heard at a great distance).We went back to Lotte basement for a fabulous teriyaki lunch at about 3 pm, then set out again for the Namdaemun Market, an area where there are street vendors hawking their wares for about 10 blocks in all directions. Up and down the alleys we went, taking in the local color, looking at the people and the children and the endless wares for sale. Didn't buy much of anything, but we sure enjoyed looking! By about 5:30 we had walked for 6 hours, and so we did what we have come to refer to as "use the idiot card". Betsy got plastic cards for each of us that must say something in Korean like "I'm a hopelessly clueless foreigner. Please return me to the Fraser Suites. Here's how to get there". Works every time in the very inexpensive cabs ($3 for that ride).
Last night we stayed in, had a nourishing beer and potato chip dinner, kimchi of course, (courtesy of the local 7-11) and played Spite & Malice until late! Only a few days left, so sad..... Oh, and of course we practiced our nightly ritual of looking at the computer hoping for emails from back home (wink wink, nudge nudge!). (Note: some photos courtesy of Daniella today). (Note: photos of the family on the mirror behind the computer).