The Thursday before last was Halloween, a day not widely celebrated in Korea, but one in which we would be partaking at Jong-chul (and at all English academies I assume) because we want to introduce the kids to some American/English cultures. And, as I said in my last blog, kids sure love candy - so a day that entirely revolves around the stuff is like a dream come true for them.
Throughout the year the kids collect up 'coupon points' which we as teachers award to them at the end of classes for good work, sort of like house points. (They can also be deduced, although I haven't actually done that yet, just threatened, which is pretty effective.) Twice a year we have what is called a 'coupon party' where we lay out in the computer room rows of tables covered in snacks, sweets, stationary, toys and other random knicknacks that might appeal to them. The kids can then spend the coupons they've saved up on these items.
Halloween was the first of these coupon party days that I've experienced, and I had to do my part in helping to prepare for the day. This meant meeting Monica and Ben at the supermarket at 11.30am to buy the snacks and candies. We spent a fair amount of time wandering around the appropriate aisles picking out enough munchables, which came to three trolleys' worth in total, which was all then transferred to four big boxes after check out. Monica took a taxi the two-minute ride to school with most of the boxes, but one there was one too many to fit, which I carried. It only contained packets of crisps so was no trouble, apart from its size. Having caught up with Monica at the school we then had to help her shift all the snack boxes from the pavement, to the lift, up to the sixth floor and out into the computer room.
The rest of the staff met us at the school having brought several other things needed for the day. Since we knew it was going to be a long and unusual day, and we had all arrived early, we were taken for lunch at the Chinese restaurant just around the corner from school. I particularly enjoyed this because I haven't had Chinese food since I arrived in Korea, and I'd tried to go to this restaurant for dinner a couple of times, but it's always closed by the time I get out of work. During lunch there seemed to me to be a little bit of trepidation at the stress that was to come in the hours ahead, but thankfully I may have misread the situation because I had one of the most enjoyable days yet at the school.
Each of the teachers had been bought a set of face paints, with which we were to adorn the children with whatever design they wanted (or our best approximation of such), but I decided to get my face painted too. I knew Ben has a knack for arty things, as I had seen him out and about in his impressively creepy Miley Cyrus Halloween costume the previous weekend, so asked him if he would paint me. I requested a skeleton-type thing and showed him a picture. Then I left him to go to work. While I was being painted some kids that arrived early came into the office to see what I looked like and most comments were along the lines of "panda" or "angry bird", which made me worried that I wouldn't be scary. However, by the time I had finished I was absolutely enamoured with how gruesome and terrifying he'd managed to make me. Early in the day the smallest children arrive, and even when they merely walked past the staff office and looked in and saw my face they would give a little jolt or exclamation of fright. I was instantly aware of the power my face beheld for the day.
Throughout the afternoon and into the evening I continued to scare children (and even teachers). I hid behind corners, peered into classroom windows, walked silently up beside unsuspecting little ones as they perused the goods on offer at the coupon stalls. It was all great fun for me. With each hour that past a new wave of kids would enter the school and a new wave of haunting would begin. At one point I went down a floor to go to the bathroom, and instead of climbing the single story back up to the school I called the lift, knowing that whoever was in there and heading to the top floor would be one of the school's children. I hid around the corner and when the doors open I marched silently but powerfully in. The sole occupant was a poor kid called Ryan, who's not the most vocal person at the best of times, and at my arrival he positively shrunk into the corner of the small lift. It was a great moment for me. Another highlight was hiding just inside the door of the lobby waiting for Christine (the head teacher) to return from the bathroom. All the kids in the lobby watched as I hovered around, looking through the crack in the door to anticipate her return then stepping out right in front of her, perfectly timed to make her jump out of her skin.
As for the lessons themselves, I was supposed to be on face painting duty, but I'm absolutely terrible at it, so I left it to the kids to paint each other or be painted by the other teachers. This left me to wander between classes making sure to visit all of my students and give them a little fright, shower them with some candy, and see the kinds of things they'd had painted on their faces. Some kids had brought their younger siblings along to join the fun, and they seemed too shocked and frightened to make any sound when they saw my face.
By about the half way point in the day the paint around my mouth was thoroughly cracking and my whole face was pretty darn itchy. But I was having too much fun to wash it off, so I put up with the itching and started making regular trips to the bathroom to top on the white around my mouth. Even by the time it got to the end of the day and the older students were in the school it was still effective, and I wasn't ready to give up that power any time soon. I found that it was especially effective when I put on my hoody and had the hood up, making me look even more demonic. It was a shame I hadn't utilised this through the whole day!
Unfortunately it couldn't last forever. I still wore the face paint all the way home to some strange stares, but in the darkness of the outside nobody really saw it that clearly. I got into the shower and washed it all off as soon as I got home. I was a little sad when I arrived at school the next day, just plain old 'Robert Teacher' again.
Some more pictures from Halloween:
The following weekend Craig, Hansol and myself went on a trip with a group of other teachers into the south west of the country to go to Jirisan Mountain, with the intention of climbing it on the Sunday. However, prior to that we would be getting to know the other members of our party a little better with a few friendly games of paintball.
The group met in downtown Daegu just before 10 am (horribly early by my standards), and once all of the twenty or so of us had arrived, we boarded the coach to take us to our destination. After an hour or two of driving (I was in and out of snoozing through most of it) we arrived in a small off-the-beaten-track town where we picked up any drinks or supplies we might want before heading just a little further to the paintball arena. Several people opted for bottles of soju, wanting the dutch courage to help them through the encroaching warfare, but I opted to stay sober and drink grape juice.
I'm not sure how the driver found the paintball arena in the end, we veered from side to side down some windy, seemingly directionless roads, with no obvious signage as far as I could see, and eventually pulled up at a small orchard. The paintball area itself was part of the orchard, cordoned off into one long oblong. The two teams would start at opposing ends and converge in the center for a stand off, ducking down behind various barrels, crates and other obstacles that offered protection.
After we had all donned our camouflage and protective gear, we had the safety instructions and the rules explained to us. Following that we split into two teams. We decided to go for people from Daegu versus people from outside (since a number had travelled from Pohang and Ulsan to join the expedition). This meant that Craig, Hansol and myself were all on the same team.
The usual rules in paintball are that if you get hit on any of the protective gear - chest, neck, helmet - you're dead and out of the game. A hit anywhere else is painful, but not fatal. We decided to be a little more lenient on this and say that three hits on the specified area meant that you were dead. The other way to die was to run out of ammunition, which is much easier to do than most of us had anticipated.
Before taking up our positions in the arena the two teams' captains had a shootout to see who would choose their preferred starting point. Our captain, Chase, promptly stepped up and won the shootout for us, unsurprisingly since he used to regularly play serious paintball in his home of Oregon. (In fact he was so confident in his abilities that he opted against the camo, putting the protective gear on top of his shorts and t-shirt, which left his bare arms and legs exposed, and his brightly coloured garments extremely visible.) We opted for the higher end of the field, forcing the other team to walk to the farther, lower base.
Chase's paintball experience came in handy once more as before the opening whistle of the first battle he advised us to move up the field as quickly as possible and gain a vantage point in the most advanced position that we could. Once the whistle blew the majority of us fearlessly stayed low and moved our way forward to the half way point or beyond, while the non-Daegu-ers seemed to stay mostly static down their end.
It's a funny thing that when you fire the paintballs, they don't seem to move that fast from a first person vantage point behind the gun. But, when they're flying at you in the opposite direction they seem to come as quick as real bullets. Sticking my head above the barrels that I'd managed attain protection behind, I often had to duck back down in a flash as the deadly round projectiles were coming thick and fast, and as I managed to regain cover I'd hear them pinging off the matallic shields. A couple of times I didn't quite manage to get down quickly enough, taking one shot in the dome of the helmet and getting temporarily blinded when the splatter of another ball pinged off the barrels and straight onto my goggles. I didn't go down without a fight though - I think I managed to hit a couple of people (it's hard to be sure when you have to rapidly duck back behind the barriers before you can be sure of your projectile's terminal). I took part in one of the moves of the game when I provided covering fire for one of my team mates as he went on a daring run to get up and close to one of the opposition behind a nearby barrier.
This wasn't enough to eliminate me from the game - that came when I ran out of ammo. I hadn't been quite as trigger happy as many others who I'd seen leaving the arena with their hands held high in surrender much earlier in the game. I'd managed to save mine, but considering they only gave us a meager 40 bullets in the first game it wasn't surprising that I and a lot of other ran out. (They upped it to 60 or 80 for the next couple of games and I also scavenged several unburst balls from the ground when I seemed to be running low.) Fortunately I ran out just as the last of the other team was facing their elimination to bring the Daegu team victory.
Between games we reflected on the combat, compared battle scars (paint stains) and drank shots of soju to our victory. Now that the adrenaline was pumping and I was fully awake I was much more in the mood to drink. There was talk of changing around the teams, but taking off the armour to switch colours seemed like hassle, and after one grueling battle the teams had become fairly tight knit.
In the second game we once again won the shootout and opted for the upper end of the field. We continued with the same tactics of moving up as quickly as possible, and while our opposition were not so tame this time around we still dominated. The increase in ammunition and the added knowledge of how easy it was to waste meant that the game lasted longer. This was the most painful game for me as I took hits in the hand, leg and back, but since none of these count in terms of penalties, I stayed in the game until the end, which concluded in another victory for our team.
In the final game our team took the lower end and found it much more difficult to gain ground. Blame it on the tactical disadvantage, blame it on too much victory soju or blame it on mine and several of my team members' guns jamming (conspiracy?), but we slumped to a defeat this time around. I stayed in for most of the game but eventually went out to three deadly shots, including one disconcerting one to the neck.
Following the final game we stood around on the edges of the battle field eating a barbecue, discussing the war before moving on to getting to know each other. Soon it was time to pile back onto the bus and head on to our hotel.
Our accommodation for the evening was a rather nice hotel, although the rooms were bedless. Hansol, Craig and I were teamed up with a South African chap named Raymond for the night. We were all perplexed by the lack of beds, but we had been afforded a decent sized pillow/mattress thing to sleep on, which was comfortable enough.
Before we were to hit the hay though, we spent time at the hotel's main attraction: its series of outdoor hot tubs. The whole group decamped to one of the beautifully warm shallow pools and spent the evening resting our muscles, drinking beers, eating pizza and getting to know each other further. Whenever we felt like it we took a dash to the freezing cold waterfall in another nearby pool, before racing back to the toasty embrace of the hot tubs.
By the time the pools were closing at 10pm we were all rather tired but still a bit peckish. Our room crew went to find some dinner at a local chicken place, before heading back to the room to get some sleep. We didn't immediately go to sleep though as we ended up talking about random crap for a while, unfortunately forgetting that we had a hike up a mountain ahead of us the next day. We drifted off after 1am... but I set my alarm for 2.30 so that I could wake up and silently watch the Arsenal vs Liverpool game, which was being shown in HD on the widescreen tv right in our room - a comparatively princely setup compared to my usual dodgy streams on my laptop screen, which I just could not pass up, regardless of the following day's exertions. It was worth the lack of sleep too, as Arsenal turned in a fine performance and earned a 2-0 victory. I ended up going to sleep around 4.30am.
(Hopefully there will be some pictures from paintballing added soon.)
We met in the hotel lobby at 9.30am, I grabbed a coffee and a smoothie for breakfast and we soon set off for the nearby Jirisan Mountain, which we would have the opportunity to climb, if we wanted to. Turns out, most of the party weren't quite up for going all the way to the top. Our room crew (Craig, Hansol, Raymond and myself) were determined though, and two other girls on the trip also set off for the summit, though they moved more quickly than we did.
In the description for the trip the hike up the mountain was described as "moderately difficult". The use of the word 'moderate' left me feeling complacent about my ability to make it to the top with ease, even though I had done a little research and discovered that at its peak it is the highest point on the Korean mainland, reaching almost 2km in height.
The venture started easily enough with a fairly standard walk up a hill to the town where the true trail began, and it wasn't long before I discovered that the trek that we would be on was for serious hikers, not an unfit overweight pussy-ass man-child in skate shoes like myself.
The first half of the trip was only a slight incline, as we scampered along rocks alongside the side of the river. We had been promised beautiful autumnal scenery and we were not disappointed, as the trees all around were as vivid and varied in colours as the most stereotypical image of auntimn you can think of; complete with rich greens and fading through the spectrum of reds into oranges and yellows. This, combined with the rockery around us kept my spirits high in the early stages of the expedition. The concentration that was having to be taken in ensuring sure footing from rock to rock was enough to keep my mind off the slowly building fatigue in my calf muscles.
After a couple of hours of trekking the lack of sleep and a proper breakfast were starting to make themselves known more ebulliently, and I was thankful that we made it to the refuge of the rest point just as they were becoming a serious problem. Here we got to sit down with many other hikers who were around with full-on picnics that were making me extremely jealous. There was a cabin at the rest point that offered a few snacks and drinks including ramyun pots, in which the three of us guys all greedily partook. I picked up two soft drinks, one of which I downed in a single gulp.
On the hike up to this point I had had my hoody draped over my shoulder, and I was regretting having brought it since it was an annoyance that was getting in the way. However, once we stopped moving and sat down, my sweat-soaked t-shirt turned into a cold sheen upon my skin as the wintry gusts of the elevated locale brushed past, and I was glad that I had my hoody on hand to diffuse the chill and protect me from the oncoming gusts.
We gobbled up our ramyun hungrily and I was just about ready to sit back and relax for the rest of the day, but we had set off with the goal of making it to the top and the rest of the team were not even entertaining the idea of stopping yet. Upon rejoining the path up the mountain I was downright scared to see a sign informing us that we'd only traversed 4km so far and still had a 4.8km trek to go - and a much, much steeper one.
Almost immediately I was sweating profusely once more and had to remove my hoody. Concentrating on my steps was no longer enough of a distraction to keep my mind off the building lactic acid in my muscles. Instead I concerned myself with the Koreans on the way back down the mountain - and I mean concerned. We must have easily been among the youngest people on the trail. All the way up the hike we were confronted by long lines of Koreans in their middle age or later, some with visibly greying hair, who seemed to be having a great time on this path that I was finding utterly hellish. I've noticed in Korea a large frequency of hiking stores everywhere I go and I wondered how they all stayed in business, and if hiking was really that big of a deal, because I could barely imagine any of my pupils doing it, even in five or ten years - they're too glued to their phones. I now had my answer as the older generation filed past us with ease, decked out in full-on gear from the jackets to the trousers to the boots, complete with all the accessories like the metal cups hanging off their backpacks and the walking poles to help them over those more tricky rocks.
As they passed many seemed to be amused by my completely insufficient attire and my painfully obvious lethargy. Many laughed and smiled at the sight of me, while others were more encouraging, shouting "fighting!" as they past - as in 'keep on fighting', or at least that's what I understood.
The four of us took breaks fairly often, mainly for my own benefit as the others, while tired, seemed to be coping with the climb much better. Each time we came to a stop we'd look to the peak and think that it couldn't be much further away, that it would only be a few more sets of the rocky stairs and we'd make it on to more even ground. Then we'd haul ourselves up another hundred or two hundred steps and the only thing I seemed to be closer to reaching was death. We had Hansol ask the Koreans heading in the other direction how much further it was, and we got varying answers, none of which were particularly encouraging.
I became fairly uncommunicative at this point, just trying to stop myself from wailing at the unrelenting burning in my legs and the seemingly insurmountable incline that still laid ahead. The other three from the group kept getting much further ahead of me and having to wait for me to catch up. I tried to persuade them to let me go to sleep on the side of the path and wake me up on their way back down, but they were having none of it. We were a multi-national team spanning the north (Britain), south (South Africa), east (South Korea) and west (USA) of the globe and we were all going to make it up there if it killed us. Besides, there wasn't really anywhere to sleep except in unhospitable looking bushes that lined the narrow pathway. And, if I had decided to close my eyes and tried to sleep in one of them I'm not sure I could have put up with the shame from what would have surely been a string of elderly concerned Koreans waking me up to make sure I hadn't died of a heart attack on the way.
So we ventured on. At this point I decided to just go at my own pace and not worry too much about attempting to keep up with the rest of the team. This meant taking frequent 30 second breaks at the side of the path before taking the next portion of the incline in a burst. This gave me more time to take in the scenery and I was quite amazed at how autumn visibly turned to winter as we climbed; the air's bite growing sharper and the leaves on the trees becoming more and more scarce until we were amidst completely skeletal foliage.
Slowly, achingly, but surely we made it to where the path flattened out, and we were just a short walk away from the end of the climb. We ran into the two other girls from our party, who were just about to start their descent, and they informed us that we were not in fact at the very peak of Jirisan, we were only about 1600m up, but to reach the absolute peak meant traversing a long path and a longer climb, which we didn't had the time (let alone the energy) to do. We were only slightly disappointed to discover this, after all we had come so far, and when we made it to the clearing where we could survey all that we'd surmounted, we felt like we'd really accomplished something.
Our celebrations were a little bit premature - after all we still had to go all the way back down. We somewhat foolishly thought that the way back would be easy. It was easier, but by no means easy. All the way down the unsuitability of my footwear became even more resoundingly obvious. The soles of my feet seemed to be rubbed raw by the climb, and on the way back down the continual shifting of my weight on to them only heightened this agony. Additionally the grip was not ideal for pushing down on rocks, and several times my foot slipped down an angled rock, jarring my ankle awkwardly.
The majority of the descent is a blur to me as I was already deliriously tired, focusing on trying to plant my feet safely, and trying to ignore the pain radiating all over. At the rest stop we once again bought some soft drinks, which I gulped down in seconds flat, and we each ate a chocolate bar to give us the energy boost needed for the final stretch. I decided to blast Cut Copy's Free Your Mind from my phone as power music to help me get through the ordeal, completely uncaring about the strange looks I was receiving from passers by.
The final stretch of the return hike seemed to be much, much longer than I expected. Once again the other three had left me behind with their more rapid gaits, and I felt like I was going through purgatory, sure than at any moment I'd reach the nice flat road that would feel like a veritable massage on my soles after the uneven rockery. But each corner only seemed to reveal more rocks, to the point where I nearly decided to sit down and cry my eyes out at one point, but managed to steel myself and finally reach the end point.
I found the others at the end of the path, and together we slowly made our way back to the bus, where we found the majority of the others from the trip relaxing and watching television or napping.
Before long we were on our way back to Daegu, and I was fitfully in and out of sleep all the way, waking up only to see that the driver had taken us through some random country roads in an attempt to avoid traffic. I think he got lost, but I was soon asleep again and the next thing I knew we were almost back to the city.
Once we alighted back where we had all met up just the previous morning, Craig and I bid farewell to Hansol and jumped in a taxi back home, where I clambered into bed and yearned for sleep to entrap me for a century. Unfortunately though I had to get up the next day for work...
More pictures from the Jirisan hike:
Thanks for reading. Not only is this a long one, but it has been long-delayed. My excuse is that I've been waiting for people to post pictures from paintballing (which still haven't surfaced, but hopefully will soon), but the truth is I've just been lazy and also drinking too much on the weekends...
Currently Reading: One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez - Yes, I gave up on Ulysses, and I'm so glad I did because I've been racing through much more enjoyable books since. I'm less than 100 pages into this one but I'm already completely infatuated with it; the mix of the magical and the real, the family drama, the coming-of-age tales. I can't wait to get further in.
In the interrim between blogs I also read:
What Is The What by Dave Eggers - An absolutely brilliantly and poignantly written sort-of autobiography of one of the 'Lost Boys' from Sudan focusing on growing up in refugee camps, his eventual escape to America and his struggles with adapting.
Brilliance by Markus Sakey - I bought this on my kindle a while ago because it popped up in an ad and all I had to do was swipe to purchase. This was a much more action-y, pulp-y type thing than I usually read, telling a tale about the future where 1% of the population have special abilities, kind of like X-Men, but not as powerful. It moved along quickly and I found myself wanting to find return frequently as it was quite enjoyable. I'm sure the twist conclusion is almost exactly the same as some other film or TV show that I've seen, but I can't put my finger on it. This is going to be an ongoing series, and I'll decide when the next one is released if I'm going to bother to keep up.
The Doors of Perception by Aldous Huxley - A short account by Huxley about his first experience with the hallucinogenic drug mescaline. A fairly interesting read that's certainly relatable in points if you've ever tried psychedelics. The way he extrapolates from his experiences to discuss how he thinks psychedelics would be useful in society was quite interesting. This is something he also discussed in my favourite book of his, Island.
Currently listening to:
Cut Copy - Free Your Mind - The hugely enjoyable fourth album from these Aussies may come across as a little hokey to some people, as the constant message throughout is that of the title. But, when you're making 90s pop-influenced vibrant dance music as thoroughly infectious as the tracks on this, you have no trouble selling it.
Los Campesinos! - No Blues - The fifth album from my favourite band of British shouty people, this album finds them honing their sound even further. The instrumentation is richer and the song writing more patient than ever before. Gareth's lyrics are extremely dense this time around - I actually sat and read along with them on one listen to catch all the varied and myriad references (plus, 6 of the 10 tracks have something football related in them). Some people may miss the simplistic LC! of the past, but I'm thoroughly enjoying this growth and I might even say this is their best album yet.
Mutual Benefit - Love's Crushing Diamond - The kind of folk album that is so laden with instrumentation that swells and flutters so beautifully that you just feel wrapped up within it as you listen. Only 7 tracks and just over a half hour, this one is easily replayable.
A song for this blog post: