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My first full day in Korea

Nicole and I woke up around 5:30 am, not bad for my first day on a 13-hour time difference. Nicole had correctly assumed I didn’t buy groceries my first night in Korea, so she brought over bananas and a granola bar. We ate that and decided to explore my new neighborhood.

Gwangju is nice, this photo is not, better ones coming soon

Gwangju is nice, this photo is not, better ones coming soon

Korea is an interesting place in that nothing is open before 10 am, and I mean that quite literally. With the exception of an occasional coffee shop, 1 in 10 maybe, everything is closed until at least 10. Nicole and I happened to stumble across a little French bakery around 10 and had our first Korean breakfast: bagel pizza. So my first Korean breakfast was an Italian dish from a French bakery. It was interesting, to say the least. First off, I view bagel pizza as a bizarre take on regular pizza and the Korean version was a bizarre take on the traditional pizza. It had cheese, tomato sauce, I think mayo and corn. All the pizza in Korea has corn on it…all of it.

Banana Milk

Banana Milk

Post bagel pizza, Nicole and I went shopping for basic necessities: water, shampoo, etc.

[box type=”notice” ]UPDATE: the shampoo I bought is amazing, possibly the best shampoo I have ever used and fortunately for me it comes with a giant refill bag of more shampoo that I can siphon into the original bottle. All the Korean shampoo I’ve seen comes with this additional refill bag. It’s odd, but incredibly thrifty.[/box]

Around 11 Nicole had to leave to go to her school so I wandered over to the Samsung store and bought myself a router. In Korea, Samsung makes everything: Forklifts, A/C units, routers, and the usual electronics they make in the states. When I got back to my apartment the router didn’t work, hence the delay in posting these blog entries.

As far as I could tell, this store only sold eggs.

As far as I could tell, this store only sold eggs.

At this point it was around 12:40 so I met up with Kayla, the other new teacher that lives in the apartment next to me and we walked downstairs to meet Judy, another one of the teachers who’s been here awhile. The three of us picked up more Kimbap at the little restaurant we’d stopped at on my first night in town.

When I got to the school I spent most of the day just observing other teachers. Around 8 pm the director of the school let me leave to get some rest and try to adjust to the time change. I took a cab to Nicole’s apartment and we drank Hoegaarden and hung out before passing out around 10. Adjusting to this time change will be harder than I thought.

Landing in Korea and my trip to Gwangju

Landing in Korea

Landing in Korea

When we finally landed, it was time for customs. On previous international trips, I’d flown through Europe and the EU passport line was always much shorter than the “everyone else” line. In Korea, the lines were reversed. It was mostly Koreans flying to Korea so they had a fairly long line, while the line for foreign passports was only 3 people long by the time I reached it. The customs process was fairly interesting. I had to get electronic fingerprints made of my index fingers and my photo was taken. European customs generally ask me questions like “where are you going?” “what brings you to Korea?”, Korean customs didn’t seem particularly interested in any of that. After the fingerprints and photos, they just waved me through.

Grabbing My Bag

I grabbed my bags off the carousel and made my way to the main terminal. Where I bought a bus ticket to Gwangju, the city I would be working in, and set out find a pay phone that would let me make a call. The task was easier said than done. None of the phones wanted to take my credit card and the phone card I bought from the airport’s convenience store seemed to be the wrong one. After looking like an idiot for a few minutes trying several different phones, an older Korean man came up and let me use his phone card so I could call my Korean contact and let them know I would be on the 6 pm bus to Gwangju.

A Bus to Gwangju

After calling I walked over to the bus station and boarded. I didn’t realize the seats were marked and so I accidentally sat in someone else’s seat. They politely let me know in broken English and asked me to check my ticket. It was at this point I realized that I didn’t have my ticket. At some point, I must have lost it. Luckily a Korean guy about my age offered to help out. He asked the bus driver to wait for us and helped me buy a second ticket to the same bus. It seemed like a big waste of money, but at least I was on my way and aboard the bus.

I found out the guy who had helped me was named Song. He was returning to Korea to attend grad school in Seoul in the fall. Song had spent the last several years in the states living in North Dakota for high school and then college. He’d spent his last few days in the states visiting New York and apparently, he’d been on the same flight as me.

Korean Rest Stop

Korean Rest Stop

After the first two hours of our bus trip, we arrived at a rest stop to use the bathrooms and buy snacks. I wasn’t too hungry and incredibly dehydrated so I bought a Gatorade and got back on the bus. The old man sitting next to us offered Song and I some sort of chips that tasted like Fruit Loops. I had a few because he was really pushy with his offer and then declined his next 3 offers before he finally gave up on asking me.

Arriving in Gwangju

When we finally reached Gwangju it was about 10 pm and I was exhausted. Two of the employees from Avalon, my school, picked me up and helped me load my bags into the car. Betty, I found out, is one of the foreign teachers and spoke some English. Our driver, Eric, spoke no English and I believe he is the bookkeeper at Avalon.

The two of them took me to my apartment and helped carry my bags up. They told me after I set my bags down that we would now go to the academy and meet the director. I was still in the clothes I’d traveled in. I asked my Korean companions if I could change, they told me not to worry about it, so I met my new co-workers in my dirty clothes. They didn’t seem to notice though so I think I’m good.

The school was a short drive from my apartment. It’s on the fourth floor and really brightly lit, like CVS pharmacy bright. I’ll write another entry about my school later.

After the 30 minutes, or so of the new school meet and greet. The other foreign teachers and I walked to a little Kimbap place about halfway between our apartments and the school. I had some tuna Kimbap and kimchi, it was about $2, delicious, and filling.

After dinner, the gang of new teachers and I came back to the apartments. Judy, one of the co-teachers I work with lent me some toilet paper and pillows for my bed from her apartment below mine. After that, I walked up to my apartment and met up with Nicole before calling it a night.

Flying to Korea

My flight to Korea

My flight to Korea

When it came time to board I found my way aboard the aircraft and sat down in 22A, a window seat I had the good fortune of finding the day before. To my right sat a young Korean America man from Cornell traveling to Seoul for a 6-week summer abroad program. We chatted about our experiences and he shared some of his mom’s homemade Kimbap. It looks like Sushi, but don’t tell Koreans that or they’ll get offended. In the seatback pocket, in addition to the safety instructions, were about 4 other magazines jammed in there to the point it was cutting into my legroom. One of the magazines had an ad on the back for a Korean Casino featuring Robert Deniro hamming it up.

Robert DeNiro's Korea Casino Ad

Robert DeNiro’s Korea Casino Ad

The selection of inflight movies was really impressive. Each seat had a touchscreen on the back of it with 60 channels and another 50 or so movies in an on demand/DVR system. You could select Korean, Indian, American, and Japanese movies and play any of them starting and stopping whenever you wanted. The American selection also included some neat old movies as well. There was a Gene Kelly movie called an American in Paris and a movie from the 50s about a reporter investigating Anti-Semitism. I watched both along with Oz and The Hobbit.

Steak and Salmon In-Flight Dinner

Steak and Salmon In-Flight Dinner

The food on the plane was fantastic, for plane food. The first meal we got, in addition to a small hot towel was smoked salmon over potato salad, Italian salad, mixed veggies, steak and cheesecake for dessert. After another few hours they brought out little ham and cheese subs for everyone. About an hour before we landed, we had pork and rice with mixed veggies, a roll, and bean salad.

Between the movies, my interesting travel companion and the frequent and delicious food, the 14 hours of flight time didn’t seem all that bad. In general, I really like flying. It’s a nice break from reality. No one bothers you, there’s no expectation of accomplishing anything and none of the responsibilities of daily life really start up again until you land.

My last day in Florida

Waking Up

I woke up around 5:30 to feed Mael, my parents’ golden retriever. I’d been looking after him leading for the past week or so leading up to my trip to Korea. He ate his food then headed outside to relieve himself while I busied myself in my room making all my last minute preparations for my trip.

Mael, the golden retriever pup.

Mael, the golden retriever pup.

My dad arrived at 6:15 to take me to the airport. I’d told him to arrive an hour earlier than I necessary to make sure I got to the airport in time.  We drove in near silence to the airport. He was quiet from being tired and I was quiet from all the thoughts racing through my mind like the stream of consciousness of a schizophrenic.

My three bags: Samsonite Duffel 50 lbs, Jansport 65L 30 lbs, and my camera bag (12 lbs?)

My three bags: Samsonite Duffel 50 lbs, Jansport 65L 30 lbs, and my camera bag (12 lbs?)

I checked my bags in no problem and sped through security since the airport was predictably empty on a Sunday morning at 6am. I arrived with approximately an hour to kill before my flight. I checked off my usual airport to-dos: get a Naked Juice, wander aimlessly, use the bathroom more out of boredom than desperation.  Finally, it was time to board. I sat three-quarters of the way back next to some ballroom dance champions from Eastern Europe. They looked to be in their late teens to early twenties.  They didn’t seem to speak much English and I was tired so I put my neck pillow on and passed out for the majority of the flight.

The ocean seems so calm.

The ocean seems so calm.

JFK Blown Away

I woke on landing at JFK in NYC. Our flight had arrived 10 minutes early giving me a little over two hours to make it from Terminal 5 to terminal 4. I spoke with a representative from JetBlue and she directed me out of the terminal and up to a train to the international terminal. Since I’d crossed from one terminal to another I had to go through security again, a process I usually dread, but found fascinating given the circumstances. JFK’s international terminal must be one of the most culturally diverse locales on the planet. I saw Hasidic Jews flying to Israel, Africans in traditional garb flying to Kenya, and people who looked vaguely like Borat flying to Uzbekistan.

Possibly Psy

Possibly Psy

The line moved surprisingly quick and in under 20 minutes, I found myself deep in the heart of the massive terminal perusing the duty-free shops. I picked up a bag of Hershey’s sampler chocolates as a gift for my director and assorted Korean counterparts. When I arrived at my gate, I saw a man who bore a striking resemblance to Psy, the Korean pop star famous for Gangnam Style. I discretely snapped a photo and posted it on twitter. Immediately two Psy fan accounts retweeted my photo. To this day I have no idea if that actually was him, but I like to believe it was and he was flying first class NYC to Seoul, so there is a chance it was him.

After waiting for about 30 minutes, my name was called over the intercom. I got really excited for a minute thinking they may be upgrading my seat to business class. It was a foolish idea, but that didn’t stop me from pondering the idea. I got the counter only to receive a new boarding pass, for the same seat.  Dreams dashed, I sat at Buffalo wild wings and enjoyed my last Thai Curry hot wings before flying to Korea.