Archive for April, 2010

The Last Day

In just about ten hours, our trip to Korea will be over.

It’s been a hell of a ride, and I’m certainly glad to have had the opportunity to be here, but I am really looking forward to landing in Seattle four hours from now and being able to power up my phone and feel like I have some of my self-determination back.

Yes, that’s right, four hours from now I’ll be in Seattle after getting on the planet in ten. The international dateline is one hell of a thing, and with time zones as they are we will be landing in Reno two hours before we leave Incheon. I think I understand quite clearly how people can find themselves jet lagged, but we’ll see just how badly that hits James and I.  On the way here, it wasn’t that big of an issue.  Coming back… it just might be.

I still have plenty of posts to make, and plenty more pictures and even some video that I want to share.  I’ll just be doing it from the comfort of home, unless I manage to get one more good writeup managed before I hit the sky.

The tool I’ve had much use out of – my iPad – is going to find a new home while I’m here, as it isn’t available in Korea yet.  Someone at home base would like to buy it, so I’m selling it at cost so I can pick up a new one when I get home.  I think I’ll go for one with a slightly larger capacity, for an extra hundred bucks.  That’s going to make the flight a little more boring, but I’m hoping to be able to try and nap while onboard the plane this time.  Fortunately, James and I have decided on a method for trying to squeeze a third, free seat out of Asiana Airlines that looks like it’s working out well.  The “Three Seat Straddle”, where we book our seats as both aisles in the 3 seat row at the center of the plane, expecting that the last seat anyone will possibly want on the flight is that one in the very middle.  According to the online seat reservations tool, the straddle appears to be working so far with plenty of seats available throughout the plane.  If this works, the flight home, while being three hours shorter, will be about ten times more pleasant.


Caution: Small Rant Advisory

When I walk the streets of Korea, I sometimes wonder if what I’m looking at is a libertarian or tea partier’s dream nation come to reality.

A burgeoning, high-tech based economy with towering skyscrapers, a growing economy with a highly motivated, closely knit family culture, and workers more than willing to put in 10+ hour days.

Those are a small few of the many bright points to Korean society.

But then I see food stalls built into the sides of junkyards.  Groceries without any semblance of sneeze shielding over most produce. Streets with parking on both sides and two-way traffic where you couldn’t fit a single American style SUV. Solid glass bathroom doors in hotels designed to pivot at one end in a way that leaves 3-4 inches of a gap at the hinged side where the door might close on your hand.  The very SAME door in use in nearly half the commercial or government buildings I’ve set foot in.  Meals here are often served buffet style, frequently on folded legs on the floor, with your food sitting in a giant tin out in the open for everyone to share.

There are no trashcans anywhere in public parks.

The national power socket standard is installed in such a way as to truly boggle the mind in regards to safety.

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GFCwhatyousay?

Look at that.

Look closely.

Now, here’s what’s directly across from it:

THE SHOWER.

There’s nothing protecting those two gaping holes from getting wet.  The design of them seems to beg for it, as the bottom of each socket is the ground connection.  Inset, rather deeply, to each socket are two plugs for 220 volt AC power. There is no “ground fault circuit interrupt”, or “GFCI” breaker as is required by law in the United States since the 1970′s when the socket is even just over your goddamn sink. Look at your bathroom and kitchen sockets.

Go ahead, the page will still be here when you get back.

It’s got a breaker, doesn’t it?

That’s because there are agencies out there helping you avoid killing yourself, and more importantly, helping you avoid being killed because the guy who built your house was a cheap fucking idiot.  (Well, okay, Mom.  Your house… maybe electrical power wasn’t exactly a priority when it was new.)

We also have health inspectors who make sure the food stalls and carts we visit don’t let people spread the next plague because a kid sneezed his Captain Trips virus all over the waffle cones. And we have construction codes that require buildings with doors that open into thin air two stories above a concrete sidewalk get sealed.  Or at least marked!

I’ve had mixed feelings about Korea since we arrived here.  It’s a great country, and I’ve really liked the people I’ve gotten to know.  They’ve been almost uniformly friendly and helpful, and people serving you in restaurants and shops seem to have a level of courtesy that went out of style in the 1980′s back home.  The person who “owns” home base regularly takes his employees out to lunch up the street – at his mother’s house.  Ten people, sitting on folded legs enjoying a huge spread of a meal this older lady puts on every single weekday.

What’s not to like and respect about a culture that gives me the impression that’s a more natural thing than it would be back home?

Unfortunately, a number of things.  They’re small, but they’re out there.  And they’re emblematic of problems inherent in the philosophy of a minority of people back home who seem to be getting a disproportionately loud voice.


Hotel Rooms, Puppies, and Spelling

Koreans don’t seem to have figured out how to hyphenate their own place names when translating them to English. Sure, you run into the occasional problem with spelling in a translation; “gwang” vs. “guang” is a good example, though they might actually be separate words in that example. On the subway train here – Seoul’s Line 5, the longest underground rail line in the world, I hear – the area we’re in is spelled Omokgyo while on other signage, Ohmokgyo.

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Ohm-ok-g Yo?

Hyphenation is a whole other area that, one might think, would be easier to sort out. So far, that doesn’t seem to be any clearer. Our hotel’s website spells the name of this Co-Op Residence location as “Oh-mok Gyo” in the title of the page, while graphics and references on the pages themselves refer to the spelling as “Ohmok-Gyo”.

Spelling aside, our new, third hotel is actually fairly nice.  It’s a 740 room “Co-Op Residence” as the name implies, consisting of small rooms like our own, larger rooms also intended for short to medium stays, as well as extended-stay suites.  Each room comes with furnishings and kitchenware, including our own basic one.  The furnishings, to be honest, are crap, but hey, we’re paying the equivalent of $40 a night and can actually sleep. Can’t bitch that much.

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Not Pictured: Zoning Laws

The above picture was taken from the nearby balcony, looking toward the subway station we use to travel throughout Seoul. The long building in the lower left is some kind of machine shop, and right at the corner where our subway station lies, is a junkyard.  Not only that, but a junkyard with one wall knocked partially out to make room for a food stall.  It looks about as appetizing as it sounds.

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1233 - Bland Incarnate

Though our room on the 12th floor might be fairly unassuming from the hallway, allow me to assure you that there are still intriguing bits in the picture above. At least, if you’re a construction and architecture nerd to any degree.  The door handle?  RFID based, so you simply slap a card against it to unlock.  Fairly standard.  The little steel door on the lower left?  Access to the plumbing systems for the small bathroom.  Efficient.  The white box to the right of the door?  Intercom. Yawn.  The white box to the left?  Power meter. Ya… wait, what?

Yes, each room in this building has its own electrical power meter, telling you how many kilowatt hours have been run through the apartment since it was last reset.  I haven’t seen anything in the paperwork telling me what this information is used for, or why they didn’t just centrally monitor it from the office.  Maybe it’s a shame thing?

Sadly, we don’t have enough electronic gear with us to send the digits flying nearly as impressively as we’d like.

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Hooray Hall Noise!

That door beyond the elevators?  Yep, that’s our room. We hear a lot of crying children fading into the distance as the elevator sinks to the lower floors.

While I wait for more pictures to finish uploading so I can work on more posts, here’s a puppy for sale at E-Mart, Korea’s answer to Sam Walton’s brainchild.

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Just Like a Puppy. Only Korean.


Days Found

Once again, I’ve found myself taking a bit too long to get my thoughts together and get things posted online. The process of uploading pictures and video to the net, and then including them in a blog post is a little more convoluted than I would like. Were I to have spent a little more planning time and setup work on my website than I did, maybe it would have been a smoother process with a few more updates than it’s turned out to be.

Today’s image upload was a whopping 58 items, primarily composed of still images but with the inclusion of a couple clips of video, it took nearly an hour to transfer to Google’s web servers.

I’ll be posting a few articles in series here, assuming all goes as planned with the time I’m spending at my computer right now. Each one will try and cover some of the gaps left in my “days off” from posting.


Many Updates Coming

It’s been pretty non-stop the last couple of days, I haven’t had a time to sort out most of my thoughts on the new hotel and the last few days of things we’ve gone out and done.  But, expect a number of posts as soon as I get a chance to settle in.  Plenty of pictures and even some video are coming soon!


The Lost Day (2)

Forgive me, readers.

It has been over a day since my last self-expression.

In the past 24 hours I have vacillated from titling this post “I Hate it Here” as a reference to fictional journalist and Hunter S. Thompson analogue “Spider Jerusalem“, and the simpler title I use above.

As I expected much overreaction were I to “borrow” the fictional Jerusalem’s title for his weekly column, I decided upon the less incendiary titling.

The last two days, to be honest and direct, have had moments of enjoyment surrounded by a moat of utter shittiness.

Though due to illness, sleep deprivation and significant quantities of alcohol, my recollection of the events of the past two days is a little hazy, my current state of awareness and cognizance leaves me in the mood to document as much as possible.

Last night was “drinking with the guys” night.

James, myself and three friends – two of which we’ve known for a while, and one we’d just met – decided to spend some time checking out the bars in downtown Seoul. Long story short, a fun night running overly long with the eruption of finger pointing and unpleasantries not involving James or myself in a direct fashion. A few beautiful sights, a great walk through one of downtown Seoul’s college-party districts, and a few rounds of darts later James and I found ourselves in a taxicab enroute to “Hotel Sheety” for what would be the final night.

When this morning made the second in three days where my waking up was accompanied by much vomiting, and even more soreness in every joint, the decision was made to get out of Dodge, AKA “Hotel Amigos”. For a $40 a night sex-romp dive, the hotel wasn’t necessarily a bad place, but for someone who needed at least one night’s worth of sleep in the last 6, it was turning into a personal hellhole.

Plans today had originally involved us being taken on a tour of an ancient fortress outside of the city, but my rather gimpy condition as well as our need to find new lodgings took precedence.  With a number of phonecalls and a great deal of research, we wound up at a third hotel.  The “Co-Op Residence” near Yongpjeong station.  There’s a far longer walk to a far more annoying subway station, and the subway trip itself is at least four times longer, but – with a little luck – this room on the 13th floor, which has certainly seen better days, will serve adequately.

The bed is a worry though.  When we checked one of the beds previously to checking in, the mattress was different. Better. This one? Very… springy.  I hope it manages to leave me intact at the end of the night, or at least allows me to REACH the end of the night.

I have more pictures, will upload them tomorrow.


The Lost Day

As I mentioned before, it’s not good to be a fat guy in Korea. From floor seating in traditional restaurants, to small chairs when you find them at all, to the beds made of cardboard… it’s difficult to be big and in Korea.

Yesterday, it was difficult to be big and sick in Korea.

I haven’t slept all that well since we arrived, with the beds being designed in such a way that a thin, firm mattress simply rests on the floor or a bed frame.  Here, the bed frame is simply a wooden slab on top of a base.  If you’re a bigger person, your joints are going to take a serious level of strain in this arrangement, which doesn’t feel all that much better than simply lying on the floor. With all the exercise I’ve been doing, adding those aches and pains into the mix has been making the situation far worse.

To top it off, the ill-advised late night consumption of some orange juice the night before last led me to having a stomach acid issue, to the point where James went out at 6AM and got me a bottle of unsolicited milk to try and settle my stomach.

Huge mistake.

Korean milk tastes totally different than what you’d expect back in the US, and this particular batch of it seemed to border on “dangerously different” even as I drank it. Though I finished my glass, I determined quickly that it was not necessarily a good idea.

Two hours later, both myself and the hotel bathroom discovered just how bad an idea it really was when I vomited all over the place.

I spent the rest of the following day sitting in the hotel room, aching and wishing I were home.  I still feel pretty badly that way, and we seriously need to find a way to make the accomodations more survivable. If I had it, I’d pay a hell of a lot for a ticket home or a good hotel for the rest of this trip.


The Hyundai Mall

Yes, the major mall I’ve gone to a few times in the last couple of days is actually the Hyundai mall. At least, that appears to be the name of it.  I think another might be “The Young Mall” but I don’t really know, as translation and signage seems to be… well, typically in Korean.

To get to this mall, you take the 5 train all the way to Omokgyo station where you meet up with a moving walkway that takes you to the mall itself – and one of the world’s shortest escalators, which I think I forgot to get a picture of.

But, let’s resume our tour with these pictures of the area near Hotel Amigos.

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Songjeong 1

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Hotel Amigos Alley

We then move on to the subway, which uses pre-loaded cards rather than any kind of token system. Tokens might be rather quaint, but they’re not as useful as being able to flop one fold of your wallet flat against the turnstile and pay your fare.  Though, this also lets them charge you different rates for different trips as you need to flash your card at both ends of travel.

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Fare Rechargers

Below is a map of the Seoul subway system.  It’s pretty daunting if you’re not used to subways at all, or if you don’t know Korean, but fortunately there’s a nice little iPhone/iPad app available for free downloading that provides you with English translations of the various stops.  It’s helpful if you know where you want to go, or if the station is named in such a way that it’s easy to guess what it is.  Gimpo International Airport and Incheon International Airport are two easy examples of this, while another useful one is “Digital Media City”.  If I knew what a city of Digital Media would be like.

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Seoul Subway Map

I’m not sure if this is something most modern subways have or not, but I would assume so.  Useful maps of the station, with numbered identifiers for each exit which makes it easy to find your entrance or exit if you’re in an unfamiliar spot.  Our hotel is a quick right down the alley after Songjeong station exit 5, for example.

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Songjeong Station Map

Moving walkways are a Big Deal in a lot of the subway environments here in Seoul, as far as I can tell. The trip to Gimpo International’s various sections; “Sky City” which appears to be one shopping complex attached directly to the airport, and “E-Mart” which is something I may cover in more detail later, has a number of very long moving walkways.  These easily rival the largest I’d seen before, at Hartsfield-Jackson International in Atlanta.  Also known as “That goddamn hellpit of a hub.”

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Gimpo Moving Walkway

On the wall near the end of this long walkway you find…

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The King in Korea

Burger King is a pretty significant force here.  I think I’ve seen three Burger Kings and only a couple of McDonalds locations.  The beef is mostly from Australia, which explains why a double cheeseburger with bacon is the equivalent of five bucks by itself.

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Movie Theater

You might be wondering “What does this mall look like from outside?”  The answer to that question is that I’m not completely sure yet.  I’ve gotten a bit of a view as Minh, James and I went to sushi one evening, but it was in a bit of a hurry. I plan on going there again one of these days soon and I’ll get pictures this time.  To start though, let me just explain that the “Mall” portion appears to be at least halfway under ground.  Several stories of mall are on subterranean levels of a large skyscraper, which seems to be a mix of shopping, office space, and residential apartments.  Even the building Home Base is located in has a number of small loft-style apartments on its upper floors.  Friends were going to try and put us up there for ease of travel, but we couldn’t get anything on such a short term.  The picture above is the main waiting area and ticket booths for a large movie theater complex in the middle of the mall’s lower floor.

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A Shop

Apple Computer does not have official stores in Korea yet, which really surprises me.  With the Korean interest in technology, and the ways that Koreans have tended to innovate in several areas over the last couple of decades, I expected Apple to have at least one store in Seoul to sell iPhones, iPods and now iPads.  Though Apple itself isn’t selling products here, most current Apple items that are sold internationally do appear to be available at “a Shop” locations throughout the country. These shops are styled similarly to the clean, spartan layout of an Apple location, and stock a limited amount of merchandise in opposition to the rather packed manner that a lot of shops here tend to use.

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Netbooks

Netbooks, or compact laptops seem to be quite popular here.  With pricing that appears – at least at this upscale mall location – to be close to or maybe even a little higher than American prices for similar models.  The variety however, is far greater with brands like the universally recognized – and nationally ubiquitous Samsung offering models we rarely or never see in the United States.  Samsung even sells cars here, and I hope to get enough pictures for a Cars of Korea post soon.

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Toilet Seats

Toilets here have the potential to be fucking awesome.  Seriously. There is a reason why this big display of toilet seats is in the middle of an upscale Galleria-style mall and not sitting in the middle of a Home Depot between air vents and shower tile.  Also, pay special attention to the name lit up behind this display.

People of America, THIS is what we are known for in the far east.

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Oh, the Toilet

This toilet seat will do everything including wipe your ass; with water.  And it costs around $350.  If I could get this and put it in my baggage, I would seriously consider it. Call your local Home Depot and demand the AMERICAN STANDARD of places to poop.

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Bed Frame

I don’t know how much it costs, and I don’t know how comfortable the mattress on it is, but I like the style of this bed.  The cats would destroy it in five minutes.

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Crass?

I don’t know who looks like it got raped more, the “bear” at the end of the last post, or the woman here in this one. I think I’d heard about this ad online as “controversial” someplace.  I think I can see why. But unfortunately, I did find something a little more terrifying on a recent quick trip to Gimpo.

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Doesn't look like Tijuana

Yes, that is a giant advertisement for “The Donkey Show”.  And I don’t know what scares me most, that they call something the “Donkey Show” at all, or that there don’t appear to be any donkeys. The mind reels.

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Sweat and Despair in Pictures (Part I)

Today, I decided to take a solo trip to one of the local malls here in Seoul.  This way, I had a chance to take some pictures and see some of the sights without slowing anyone else down every time I whipped out the camera.

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The Hotel Amigos

The above picture is our current hotel, and shows the fairly cramped quarters of our actual room. Considering how rarely we spend any time there, it’s not _that_ bad. In fact, I’m even dropping its Stankometer score down to an 8.  They actually came in and cleaned the room while we were gone yesterday, though that might be because they thought we were checking out.  We’ll see if the rating stays that low tomorrow when we return.

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Not exactly high-tech

The TV, water dispenser, air filter and mini-fridge are functional as far as we can tell. The air conditioner however, is not.

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Three-Mode Shower

Body sprayers, hand sprayer, and overhead fixed sprayer.  Yep, that’s a shower.  Note the shelving…

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Toothbrushes... And Toothpaste

Nope. Still not touching them.

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Hotel Amigos

This is the outside of our hotel this morning when I left for my trip to the mall.  Not pictured: The curtains hanging over the entrances for cars. Also not pictured: Desperation and sweat.

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Victim?

I really have no idea what happened to this stuffed… bear-thing which was lying directly across the alley from the entrance to Hotel Amigos.  Considering where the tear is, I really don’t think I want to know. What I do know?  I feel cold inside.

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Your BMI and You in Korea

Korea, as my previous posts may have implied, has a fairly broad but still unofficial “no fatties” policy.  People don’t seem to take all that much particular notice of my size – though on the first night, there was one child of around 5 years old who looked at me as if I were Godzilla (Does Korea have its own Godzilla, or is that Kim Jong Il by default?), mouth agape and eyes wide open as I passed by. The issue is that nothing in Korean society seems able to accomodate people that fall outside what one might consider “normal” sizes in this country.  Store shelves are far lower than they are in the United States, due to the shorter average population. Larger food portions are about half again what we in the U.S. would call “single serving”, though many of the traditional meals I’ve had so far during my stay have been served pot-style with many people using their own utensils to take food from multiple serving bowls so portion control is nearly non-existent.

Seats are smaller, if there are seats to be had aside from kneeling on the floor, and beds are harder which leads to joint pains and aches if your body is distributed at all “lumpy”.

People, so densely packed in this highly industrial county, have little compunction about being in close proximity when walking down hallways or in packed subways.  There’s no intentional contact or brushing, but it’s not uncommon to get your shoulder bumped.  It sounds a lot like New York City, for example, but there definitely seems to be something a little more frantic here. People seem far more inclined to sit next to you on a subway bench, even if there are other spaces available, rather than seek out the furthest point possible from anyone else.

Of course, my observations are those of someone who hasn’t even been in this country for more than 48 hours so your mileage may vary.


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