Ruby Ramblings

July 26, 2009, 2:32 pm
Filed under: economics, Korea, Peace, Politics, Travel, War | Tags:

The Demilitarized Zone tour, or DMZ as it is known, was one of the more interesting things I’ve done since being in Korea on many levels: at once a cultural event, an educational event about a hotspot for violence in the world, and an interesting look into how two countries are shaping their own history and public information.

It was also a chance to be around the type of foreigners that I’ve avoided since coming to Korea – the loud ones that think the whole bus needs to be regaled with their tales of drunkenness, sexual excursions, how various penises from around the world compare, and all the things Koreans do wrong. This in turn led us to make friends with two of the very cool type of foreigners who agreed that the other type were being way too loud and ruining our view.

Peace Bell

Peace Bell

For anyone back home who might not be aware, the DMZ is a swath of land bordered on both sides by a fence and razor wire, that divides North and South Korea. No one has been allowed onto this skinny piece of land that runs the entire width of the Korean peninsula for fifty years, and they claim it has become a haven for wildlife. Unfortunately, the most interesting parts of the tour were the parts we were not allowed to take pictures of.

First we stopped at Unification Park, where the fact that South Korea has turned this into a huge tourist venture is blatantly obvious. People from all over the world, including Koreans, come to the boarder in droves to glimpse a little of the insanity that is North Korea, and also to pay homage to the fact that eventually they may be a unified country again. They’ve gone as far as to build a theme park to keep the kiddies happy, and the start of a “bridge” that may one day join the two countries – an enormous steel structure that at the moment is truly a bridge to nowhere.

The North Korean border is family friendly!

The North Korean border is family friendly!

Our first stop after joining the larger tour was the Third Infiltration Tunnel. This was truly fascinating, and unfortunately we couldn’t take pics in the inside of the tunnel. South Korea has found four tunnels, the latest in 1990, that are assumed to built by NK to be used to tunnel in ground support for an air strike on South Korea. They believe there may be more tunnels that have yet to be found – yet another case were geologists and archaeologists may be of help – Jim and I were talking about how if they did a survey of the border with a resistivity machine, they’d find out pretty quick if there were more tunnels or not. I had a feeling that the threat of more tunnels might actually just be being used to keep people concerned.

One of the more interesting facts about the tunnels is that the North Koreans smudged them with coal and tried to claim that they were coal mines that went too far underground and “accidentally” made it over the border. Anyone who has worked in coal country doing survey knows this is utter BS. First of all, coal exists in layers (as it is formed by compression of layers of organic material over a long period of time), which is why strip mining is so popular. You need to strip off a broad swath to get the most coal; skinny tunnels would not be effective at all. The other reason is that the area is mostly granite, not a place where coal layers are likely to be found.

It is said that the North Korean government told its people that South Korea actually built the tunnels to infiltrate North Korea and ruin their society with their filthy westernized ways. One interesting thing about the video we saw before going into the tunnels is that it makes almost no mention of the American, British, or Soviet involvement with WWII and the Korean war. It shows footage of the two different factions of Koreans, calling it a “fratricidal” war – almost implying that no one else was involved.

The closest thing I could get to a tunnel shot, was an outside shot of where the recently bored new tunnel was constructed to join with the actual Infiltration tunnel so that tourists could go down into it. It is thirty meters underground and we had to wear hardhats – this is all getting very familiar.  Don’t forget your PPE! (If you don’t get it, don’t worry, it’s an inside joke.)

Entrance to the tourist tunnel

Entrance to the tourist tunnel

We moved on to the observation tower – and lucked out with having a gorgeous day with a great shot of the North Korean mountains, and a “city.” Apparently when North Korea became aware that this observation tower had been built, and tourists were coming to view this area, they promptly built a fake city to prove that North Korea is doing well and prospering. Someone comes to switch on and off the lights, but no one really lives there. You could really tell, to me it looked like one of those pre-fab midwestern towns where the Home Depot has been built, the townhouses are up, but no one has actually lived there yet. There is something so distinctive about the traces that humans leave, that I think we can really tell if no one has ever lived there even if it is made to look on the contrary. We were not allowed to take pics of this town either (or the map of the area inside the building).

You can almost see the "village", and the mountains were gorgeous.

You can almost see the "village", and the mountains were gorgeous.

At the observation tower overlooking the "villiage."

At the observation tower overlooking the "village."

The last stop was a blatant piece of overly optimistic propaganda. With the money raised from tourism, there has been an entire subway station built right at the border, complete with destination Pyeongyang, North Korea. It claims with absolute certainty that when North Korea collapses and is once again unified with South Korea, that the train line will eventually join with the Trans-Siberian, and Trans-China lines.  We were even able to use a “commemerative stamp” to stamp our tour books and prove we had been there.  Scrap-booking is apparenlty alive and well everywhere.  There were also large photos of when Bush came to the opening of this station, declaring his support for the unification of the peninsula.

Although these are nice sentiments, is South Korea really willing to take on the financial, social, and political burden of bringing a populace of brain-washed people, who have a standard of living one hundred years behind the rest of the world, who truly believe that if you touch something western your hand could fall off, up to South Korean consumerist standards? (There was even some discussion that maybe they are looking at North Korea as a possibility for really cheap labor – a job now farmed out to Burmese, Pakastani, and Nepali folks. Using North Koreans would have the advantage of the people speaking at least some form of Korean.)  There was a windowless building next to the station, that the tour guide noted that she was required to tell us was a storage unit for goods from the area.  She was implying that that is not at all what it is, and more likely, I’m assuming it is probably a weapons cache or some such.

Of course there are also North Korean refugees who just really want to see their home again before they die. All along the border there were old ladies wearing pink and praying along the fences.  To me they were a much bigger sign of hope than subway stations that go nowhere.  At the end of the day, what people are willing to do for each other is really what  matters the most.

Pyongyang Train Station

Train Station to Pyeongyang

All in all, it was a fascinating, thumbs-up day.


For anyone that cares, we used Grace Travel 02-332-8946.  48,000 won, but it does not take you to Pannumjeon – where the US and North Korean soldiers stand and stare at each other.  We’ll save that for another time.

Teaser – Khaled Hosseini
July 21, 2009, 2:26 pm
Filed under: Books


Open your current read, pick two lines that aren’t spoilers, share….

” The tree tops swayed in the breeze, and she imagined they were nodding their welcome to her. Mariam steadied herself against the waves of dismay passing through her.”

A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini

I have been avoiding reading this book since it came out. Because it was picked for the Seoul Women’s Bookclub this month, I had to suck up and read it to join the discussion. (Actually I’m sure they would have welcomed me anyway, but I am somewhat interested in reading it.) I may be the only person who read The Kite Runner, and wasn’t at all crazy about it. Although I enjoyed the imagery, and was happy to see a major, popular work from an Afghani writer, I found the book to be completely improbable. Although this book starts out great, I have a feeling I will think the same . Too many events line up to make what would have been a tragic life, a bearable one. Not that I want the characters to suffer, but they way they are saved in Hosseini’s books just seems so unlikely.

I was sitting in a shop of a Pakastani friend, and we were having fun picking through all the Pashtu words mixed into the text. Although his first language is Urdu, his mother spoke Pashtu, and he found most words quite recognizable. A side note is that the word harami in this book refers to an illegitimate child, where as in his region he said it was used for men who are backstabbers.

Hosted by Should be Reading.

July 19, 2009, 11:13 am
Filed under: Buddhism, Korea, Travel | Tags: ,

The monsoon rains have made my grand weekend plans difficult to maneuver lately.  Unfortunately I no longer have three day weekends since I’ve taken on teaching a summer intensive. I now teach three, three-hour classes a day.  I missed a “company party” – read the boss gets really drunk and tries to control and humiliate his employees – something I am trying very hard to avoid ever having to go to, but I’m sure there will be ramifications for my not making it.

My original plan had been to go to Gongju for the long weekend, but a series of events made the trip impractical for the amount of time I was going to spend, and at the very last second, another teacher and I hopped a bus to Icheon just as it was leaving.  The day displayed perfectly how if you are are willing to be flexible and not hold onto expectations, the greatest travel experiences arise.

Icheon is known as the ceramic city (not to be confused with Incheon, the part of Korea that I live in – Bupyeong to be exact), but except for the kimchi pots along the unbeaten path, we didn’t spend much time looking at the local wares.  It was pouring rain, and determined not to let that ruin our day, we got off the bus and headed to a Vietnamese restaurant called Pho Tai.  It was excellent – we had some noodles similar to pad see ew, and a pork pho soup that was fantastic.  The rain let up and we decided to taxi it up to a temple that I was interested in seeing.  Of course it started pouring again once we got in the cab, all the way to the temple.  The cab driver gave us his number, and even offered to wait a few minutes while we took pictures, but we were determined to make this more than a ten minute trip.  Our luck was with us, and it stopped raining soon after he dropped us off in a field full of louts blossoms and white cranes.



DSCN0787After hanging out under the awnings waiting for the rain to stop, we started walking up the hill.  The regular road ended in a worn path through the woods and up the mountain.  “I’m game if you are game,” we said to each other, and were off into the first place in Korea I have seen where we didn’t encounter a car, another person, or a house constructed from concrete for hours.  The hillside had cemeteries, some older, and some quite new, every few hundred meters.  Unlike most places in the US, where we write off slope as an improbable place for archaeological finds, all the cemeteries here on sometimes quite steep hillsides, with berms of earth built up around them.



We walked up the mountain for a while and started to see the tell tale signs that there was a temple ahead.  Primarily the plastic, painted lanterns strung through the trees.



We came up around the temple, and came into the temple garden from the top.  I noticed that one statue seemed out of place and not in keeping with the style or texture of most statues I have seen at temples.  When I came around to the front, I could see that it was, indeed, a peeing fountain.

Peeing boy and Buddha.

Peeing boy and Buddha.

We had a decision to make, keep heading up the mountain, or go back the way we came and call the taxi.  We went for up.  The weather was holding out, somehow we weren’t suffering from the exhaustion that overtakes me on even short subway rides to Seoul, and the excitement of travelling with someone who is agreeable to taking the unconventional path was too much fun.  We took several paths around the mountain that ended in dead ends, waterfalls (unfortunately covered in trash, it seemed society’s mark had found its way onto the mountain), and one precarious river crossing where the road had washed out.

Making our way back down the other side we came to a peculiar coffee shop in the middle of nowhere.  Called the Station Cafe, it came complete with the sounds of the proprietor playing jazz saxophone.


After a lovely cup of pine nut tea, we called the taxi to come take us back to the bus stop.  When we pulled away from the coffee shop we could see that it was actually right next to the field we had been dropped off at.  We had made a perfect circle around the mountain.

My Apartment
July 17, 2009, 10:33 am
Filed under: Korea, Travel | Tags:

Since my weekend plans got delayed due to the monsoon rains, I’m hanging out for yet another weekend of reading, sleeping, and dreaming of the days when travelling is once again pleasant.

Some folks have asked about my apartment, and I’m sure my descriptions have left varying opinions in people’s minds.  There shall be no more wondering; here is the real deal.  I’m pretty lucky, I really like my apartment.  It’s small, but has beautiful etched windows that make all the difference.

The main room/livingroom/bedroom/closet

The main room/livingroom/bedroom/closet

Pay no attention to the kitchen behind those doors.

Pay no attention to the kitchen behind those doors.

The bathroom is the most interesting setup.  Similar to most Asian bathrooms that I have been in, there is no separate shower stall.  The whole bathroom is tile, and the shower just juts out of the wall, sprays all over the bathroom, and the water goes down a central drain.  The only downside being the occasional wet toilet seat.



My favourite part of my room is my bookshelf.  Complete with a well travelled Buddha, and a plant I’ve already almost managed to kill.


The rainy view from my window.

The rainy view from my window.

The brown building across the way has a ping-pong room on the top floor.  Like going to play pool, except not.

Facebook Police Continued
July 14, 2009, 2:23 pm
Filed under: Travel | Tags: ,

And we were worried here.

This is another, I heard from, who heard from story, but it takes place in Iran.  An Iranian-American travelling through a major airport claims they were stopped by police who asked her if she had a Facebook account. She said no, at which point the police are said to have taken her laptop, done a search for her name, and then jotted down the names of all her friends.

Full story at NPR:
Foreign Policy: Iran’s Terrifying Facebook Police

24 hour Bibimbop
July 13, 2009, 3:18 pm
Filed under: Good Food, Korea, Travel, War | Tags: , , ,

We get out of work around 11pm, which leaves the dinner selection quite limited.  By the time I finished grading papers tonight, all the other teachers were gone without even saying goodbye.  I guess it was a rough one for everyone.  I think the humidity before the rain broke kept the energy level for students and teachers alike pretty low.

There is a great 24 hour restaurant right next to the school that we frequent.  The night staff is two Ajammas who are always chatting away with each other when we walk in.  The waitress Ajamma and the cook Ajamma.  Sipping tea, gossiping I assume, and ready to whip up typical, really cheap Korean food at anytime of the night.  I’ve learned more Korean from these two ladies than from anyone else in Korea.  Endlessly patient, and used to all the foriegn staff at our school, they’ve taught each of us individually how to order, what to order, and how to figure out how much it costs at the end.  They are amazing teachers.  I stopped in by myself tonight and had a hot tuna and kimchi soup with rice on the side (Chomchi Jigea).  Pretty tasty, and really spicy.
chomchi jigea

Aeri’s Kitchen
– Blog with pics and how to make chomchi jigea.

When I left the restaurant it had started pouring rain.  I keep forgetting that this is the monsoon season, and one should keep a compact umbrella stuffed in their purse at all times.  The Ajammas were so worried about me going out in the rain, they insisted I take an umbrella from their stash with me.  I fell so loved.  Fed and kept dry, what more could you ask for.

On a completely different note….

It appears that Kim Jong Il has been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.

I saw it first on Air America Radio, which I enjoy but don’t always believe. A quick search around the internet, and it appears to be true. It seems he was diagnosed with cancer after a stroke last summer, but managed to keep it quiet.

The Guardian

The Korea Herald
NY Times

The biggest fear I have heard, is that people are worried about his son being a much worse despot than “the dear leader.”

Another weekend at the Market
July 11, 2009, 12:51 pm
Filed under: Korea, Travel | Tags: ,
I Squids


I exhausted myself spending another day rambling around the markets.  This time I headed to Bucheon, a much, much nicer neighborhood than Bupyeong I might add.  A gorgeous view of the hills, really nice apartment buildings, and a great little downtown with tons of shops, thrift clothes stores, restaurants, and the usual flashing lights.  I wandered up the main drag from the subway station, and was directed by signs saying “The Pearl S. Buck Memorial Museum.” It was the only thing for miles in English, so I might as well follow it.  I have to admit to The Good Earth being one of those books I’ve just never read, even though it has crossed my paths several times.  This small, but very well done museum, painted Ms. Buck in a very glorifying light: the woman who brought positive thoughts of Korean folks to the west.  She was writing in the 1960s, the Korean war fresh in people’s minds, and the country was not viewed positively. I was not aware of The Living Reed a book that follows the Korean Kim family for a few generations of strife, change, and war.  I wouldn’t recommend coming to Bucheon just for the museum, but if you find yourself in the area, it was a nice walk and a well done display.



When I was taking pics in the market, the vendor from the fish stand pointed to the big boy in the back and insisted I take a picture.  I’m not sure what kind of fish it is, but I was meant to be very impressed.  Unfortunately, I made some mistakes trying to figure out the new camera, and the only pics that really came out are ones of the fish.  So that’s what you get.

I accidentally have a new camera.  My old one is quite bulky and only has a resolution of 3.2 megapixels. Although it is quite durable and has travelled to many countries with me, I have to admit to looking at other, newer camera models.  I mentioned this to a coworker, and he jumped in with,”Oh, I have a camera you can have.”  It was left in a pile of discarded things from a teacher who left right before I came.  Although it is newer and slightly nicer than my old one, it doesn’t seem all that great.  It’s a Nikon coolpix L5. I’m going to try it out for a couple of weeks and see….

Octopus and Pretty Shells

Octopus and Pretty Shells

Computer Hacks
July 8, 2009, 3:13 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

Story on NPR regarding a computer hack that happened simultaneously to the US and South Korea.  Effected major government agencies and began on the 4th of July. Believed to be done by either the North Korean government, or supporters of them.

Cheesy Korean
July 7, 2009, 4:02 am
Filed under: Good Food, Korea, Travel

Unlike Nepal, and similar to Thailand, one of the joys of living in Korea is that there is a seemingly endless variety of food. There are lots of mom and pop restaurants that have a speciality dish that the menu revolves around: pick your meat, pick how spicy, noodles or rice… and there you have it, an often veggie loaded, fairly healthy, tasty meal – usually for well under $10.

But even with all the variety, sometimes I get a craving for something that can only be found elsewhere. Say last week when we stumbled across a “western” bar in our neighborhood. Complete with topless statuettes of German beermaids, old Texas and Tennessee license plates, and plenty of plaques displaying humorous slogans regarding beer in English. There was something on the menu that to me looked like cheese covered bowtie pasta with red sauce. Cheese! Pasta! I’m not a huge fan of red sauce, but, cheese and pasta! We also got some fried shrimp and a beer. All set.

The shrimp came out first, and they were amazing. Large, tasty, great breading: the works. Feeling satisfied and triumphant, I was excited about my first glimpse of pasta since being here. Out came the next dish, a giant plate, covered with cheese. We dive in, not looking too closely, and everyone realizes at the same time that what we are mashing between our teeth is really way to chewy to be pasta. Chew, chew, chew, chew. It’s not really going anywhere. Taking a closer look, it was yellowish/white with little nobbies all over it. My first thought was Octopus? I can live with that. I’ve eaten octopus at Japanese restaurants before. But this doesn’t taste like octopus, and why would you put cheese on such a thing?

Next theory – well, they do eat a lot of intestine and such over here, maybe that’s it. Poking around the dish some more, I find our culprit. A very distinct, nobbly, skin textured piece that very clearly shows that it is indeed part of a foot. A chicken foot to be exact. We are eating sauce and cheese smothered chicken feet. Which explains the smell when it was brought to the table.

If it had been delicious, I’m sure we would have eaten it, declawed or otherwise, but, alas, it was not. It was tasteless rubber with an odd odor. When the waitress noticed we weren’t eating it, she took it away and brought us a plate of french fries. Something the whities always like.

The funniest thing about the whole experience was how convinced my brain was that it was pasta, that I was able to convince everyone else that’s what was in the picture. Looks can be deceiving.

Video from Gourmet magazine on Korean food. I highly recommend this for people who are interested in what we are really eating over here. Really entertaining and informative video. The North Korean grandma making mung bean pancakes was so adorable.  Thanks to ZenKimchi for pointing the video out.

Adventures of a D cup.
July 4, 2009, 11:55 am
Filed under: Books, Korea, Travel

When I left the house this morning, I did not intend to come home wearing different clothes then the ones I had put on before going out.  But that is how it goes during a day of shopping in subway tunnels and open markets.

I shouldn’t even say this morning, the schedule of starting work at 4:30 in the afternoon to get done teaching at 11:30, and begin winding down by 1 or 2am has gotten me in the habit of sleeping until almost noon.  I wake up, have a coffee while catching up on facebook and e-mails, and then finally making my first ventures out of the house somewhere in the early afternoon.  Since I have not bought any groceries yet, or even figured out how to turn the gas stove on, getting lunch is usually the first order of business.

I decided to meander down to my favorite place, in part because I love the food, and in part because the proprietor has become my only real friend outside of work in my neighborhood – a Pakistani man selling roti and kebab oddly enough.  Through the open market, I spotted a skirt I adored.  It is not easy for a well-rounded American girl to find clothes that fit in Korea. As I was holding up the skirt trying to judge if it would fit or not, the clerk, a short old lady, ripped it out of my hands, brushed it off like I had contaminated it with dirt far dirtier than what is all around on the street, and then spit at my feet.  I guess she doesn’t like foreigners.  I was pretty shocked, but didn’t think much about it until I started to walk away and realized it actually stung inside pretty good.  So I slunk up to the Pakastani restaurant, told my story to Khan, who with a big smile said, “Don’t be sad, she probably drinkie.  I make you curry, you feel happy.”  And it was so.

Several cups of tea and conversations with a couple of Khan’s cousins later, I decided to head down to Kyobo to get a new discount card since my last one was stolen with my wallet.  I needed to pick up the new choice for the book club with Susan and Veronica: The Lightning Thief .  On the way there a much more obliging street vendor waved me over to look at some shirts.  I’ve shied away from buying anything, not really knowing what are reasonable prices and such.  He had some pretty things so I looked around a bit, picked one up.  He came over and said, ” I like, but I think problem for you.  Small shirt and you have…”  at which point he held up his hands and made the universal sign for huge jugs on himself.  I thought it was pretty funny, and he helped me pick out one that had a more “expanding”, as he called it, fabric and a pretty Asian print.  At 9,000 won I thought it couldn’t be beat, and finally walked away with a new piece of clothing, and the size of my chest validated – as it is just about everyday here.

I believe that American men pride themselves on their ability to examine your breasts without you noticing.  It’s almost like sport.  And although Koreans tend to be fairly subtle speakers by nature, that quality seems to be lost when it comes to the subway and my chest.  I’ve been wearing more conservative shirts, but that doesn’t seem to stop the open gawking.  To top it off, my boss was drunk the other night and declared that he picks his female candidates based on their chest size more than anything else.  I don’t know if he was serious or not, but my friend Jon declared that he probably didn’t even listen to my answers during the phone interview, he was probably just penning “big American boobies” in the margin of my application over and over again while intoning, “uh-ha” and “yep” at the proper times.

Which brings me to the final excursion of the day.  Again, a dress caught my eye, I stopped, and an extremely friendly clerk came out and helped me look.  I said “maybe small”, and she said “no, no this big size”.  She grabbed the dress, grabbed me by the hand, pulled me to the inner area of the market booth, held up a sheet, and made it clear that I was to try on the dress right there, in the middle of the market.  Behind a sheet.  In the open air.  Well, okay.

So I tried on the dress, loved it, and although it was a little more than I would have liked to pay, I already had the damn thing on, which I suppose is the ploy.  At that point she wouldn’t let me put my other clothes back on, joking that the dress was too beautiful.  That’s some damn good salesmanship.  So I bought it and was trying to chat with some of the other women buying clothes, and started to notice they were all pregnant.  That’s why the dress was big enough for me – it was a maternity clothes shop.  The only clothes I can wear in Korea are for pregnant ladies.  Great, just great.

So in the course of a day I got spit on, had a great lunch, bought a beautiful (pregnant lady) dress, and got a great haircut for 10,000 won (less than $10).  Now off to see if I can’t convince Jim to have a fourth of July beer with me. Yes, 4th of July is almost over here already, I’m way ahead of you.