Tuesday, June 30, 2015

For those of you keeping tack....

I have 54 days left in my contract.

In that time I will:
--have two friends from home visit Korea.
--teach three (maybe four) English camps.
--visit the DMZ
--travel to Vietnam
--pack up the remainder of my apartment

There's a lot that's going to happen in these two months. Too many emotions to count.

MERS in Korea

Over the past month or so, there's been one thing on every Korean's mind. If you haven't heard yet, MERS (Middle East Respiratory Syndrome) has infected 182 people in Korea since the end of May, and has killed 33 people.  This has induced widespread fear throughout the country, and has caused many people to avoid leaving their houses as much as possible.

When I first heard about MERS from my students and co-workers I was naturally worried. However, once I learned more about the virus, I realized there wasn't quite such a need to panic. The spread of MERS has been contained to hospitals, medical workers, and friends and families who have had contact with the infected people.  MERS isn't airborne, and unless you're in close contact with an infected person, you're probably not going to become infected yourself. Out of the people who have died, nearly all of them were elderly or had pre-existing illnesses. Thousands of people have been quarantined in the aftermath of the outbreak, and legitimate questions about the hospital practices in Korea have surfaced.  The handling of the outbreak in the beginning was far from sufficient, which is why it spread as much as it did. People are angry, and rightfully so. 

However, although the World Health Organization has repeatedly said that life should continue as normal, people aren't really listening to this advice at all. Tourism has plummeted, which has done tremendous damage to the economy. Although, where the overall economy has taken a hit with the outbreak of MERS, the sales of face masks have gone through the roof.  Are the face masks really effective? I'm not really sure, but I think when people wear them they at least feel like they're doing something to prevent this virus.

Immediately following the initial outbreak, thousands of schools were closed, another measure which experts said wasn't necessary. Although school was still in session for us, every morning every person at school has to have their temperatures taken and recorded before doing anything else. There have also been other noticeable changes in school, such as the fact that there is now always soap in the bathrooms. Yes, believe it or not, before this outbreak there was often no soap in the bathrooms at school, which is quite gross when you think about it in any context, but especially so when you think about it in an elementary school, where kids are all over the place. Of course, the soap in the bathroom is almost always bar soap, which makes me crazy...because seriously, what good does that do? Let's all touch the same bar of soap after using the bathroom...that makes sense.  Regardless, it's progress I suppose, and there has also been an increase in hand sanitizer throughout the schools. I pretty much never saw hand sanitizer in Korea before MERS, but suddenly there is a bottle in every classroom. One of my schools even has a new machine which has a motion detector to dispense the hand sanitizer. 

While I welcome the handwashing and increased supply of hand sanitizer, MERS has also caused most school activities to be canceled. School field trips and sporting competitions have been cancelled because of MERS, and my teacher trip, which was scheduled for a few weekends ago, was also cancelled.  Most upsetting to me though was the fact that my scheduled tour to the DMZ was cancelled two weekends ago as well.  I really can't figure out why they cancelled this trip, given the fact that every health professional was saying life should go on as normal, but c'est la vie. 

The outbreak of MERS is clearly something we should be attentive to and proactive about preventing, but I can't tell you how many coworkers have asked me "Aren't your afraid because of MERS?"  My answer is no.  I'm not afraid of MERS.  The media has run with this story, and I feel people are going overboard just to for a false sense of being proactive.  Over 10 million people live in Seoul.  It's an incredibly dense city, yet even though it was the center of the outbreak, only 182 people in the ENTIRE country have been diagnosed since the end of May.  Call me crazy, but I think I'll be ok.

**I actually originally wrote this post well over a week ago, but have just gotten around to finishing it now. Over the past week things seem to have calmed down a bit, as there haven't been many new cases emerging. However, the daily temperature checks are still in place, and I'm pretty sure my coworkers would still freak out if I told them I went to Seoul (which I did this last weekend, but they don't need to know I went into "dangerous" MERS territory). This whole MERS outbreak has certainly made my last few months in Korea  a bit more unpredictable. 

Sunday, June 21, 2015

A Trip to Boseong and Suncheon: Part II

We started our second day with some breakfast, then we made our first stop at Suncheon Bay Garden. This was the site of a world expo in 2013, which was meant to display different types of gardens from all around the world. This ended up being a much larger park than we had expected, and we spent a few hours walking around and seeing different kinds of gardens that were on display.

I love these flowers!

Our next stop was Suncheon Bay Ecological Park. These wetlands are covered with reeds, which at this time of year are green, but apparently turn red in the fall.  I wasn't necessarily expecting to be that impressed with the wetlands, but I was happily surprised at how amazingly beautiful it was.  The reeds were green as could be and went on and one as far as we could see. As the wind blew, the reeds swayed and created a sound as relaxing as the ocean coming up to shore.

There's just no way to capture the experience of standing in the midst of all this green for as far as the eye can see. 

/Beautiful mountains.

As we looked down at the ground, we also could see lots of little crabs and other critters in the mud below us.

This was an amazing place to walk around, but eventually we finished and by this point we were starving, so we knew we had to find food quickly.  We ended up driving back more towards the center of town, where we stopped and ate some more delicious food. I'm not sure why I didn't take any pictures of my lunch (maybe I was really just that hungry), but I had hands down the best naengmyeon (cold noodles) I've had yet.  

We all felt better after eating lunch, so we were on to our next and final stop, Seonamsa Temple. This temple was really quiet and peaceful, and we were lucky that there was almost no one else around.  Although I've seen a ton of temples in Korea by now, this one was a little different because the paint was really worn off.  I'm not sure if there's a reason why this temple isn't as restored as the others I've seen, but it was an interesting difference. 

By this point it was already around 6:00--another day that had seemed to fly by. We got on the road since we had a four hour drive back home. We got back around 10:00, at which point I scrambled to get myself ready for school the next day. I was completely exhausted on Monday, but it was worth it to see this beautiful part of Korea. I'm so thankful that Paul was able to drive, because there's no way we would have been able to see so many things in this short amount of time if we had had to rely on public transportation. Overall, another successful weekend in Korea with yet another thing checked off of the bucket list. 

Thursday, June 18, 2015

A Trip to Boseong and Suncheon: Part I

One of the places I had had on my Korea bucket list for some time was Boseong, a southern county in Korea that is famous for its green tea fields. The only problem with crossing this one thing off of my bucket list is that Boseong is really far from Mungyeong, and would require multiple long bus rides to get to from here. Luckily, one of my friends in town who has a car was also interested in going, so we were able to arrange a group road trip to this gem of a town.

We left town bright and early, around 6:30 AM, and began our drive down south  to Jeollanam-do, Korea's southernmost province (apart from Jeju).  In all, the drive took around 4 hours, although it certainly didn't feel that long (maybe I've just driven to upstate NY too many times...but 4 hours doesn't actually feel all that long).  When we first arrived in Boseong, the GPS took us to one tea field, which ended up not being the main one we were looking for.  After a quick ice cream break (green tea ice cream break, I should say), we walked around for a bit and noticed what would ultimately end up becoming a theme for the weekend--there was a whole lot of green.

These fields were nice and all, but I knew we weren't in the right place because they didn't look like the ones I had seen pictures of online, and I wasn't blown away like everyone said I supposedly would be. They were perfectly lovely, but not worth a four hour drive.

We got back in the car and a after two minutes we found what we were looking for, Daehan Dawon Green Tea Plantation.  We knew we were in the right place because everything suddenly became touristy--there were lots of cars, tour buses, signs, and people.  

We decided to eat before we went in to see the plantations, and we were all happy to see a menu full of green tea-themed items. I ended up ordering the bibimbap, which was made with green tea vegetables (whatever that means?) and green tea rice.  The rice actually did have a tint to it, and had a slight green tea taste to it as well.  

Following lunch, we bought our tickets and made out entrance to Korea's most famous green tea plantation.  It didn't take long for us to be in awe of the huge hills filled with green tea bushes, and we just couldn't help but remarking at how green everything was. 

Row upon row was perfectly maintained.

We climbed up to the top of the fields, which ended up being quite the workout consisting of practically all stairs.  The view at the top was definitely worth it though, as we could overlook all of the fields and even get a glimpse of the sea in the distance.

I <3 녹차  (I <3 green tea)

We came back down and ended up on the other side of the plantation. Here we again saw row upon perfect row of bushes.  The view was really one of those that can't be captured on camera, although we did of course try.

In a sea of green

After we walked around for a while, it was time for a snack break. Naturally, these snacks had to be green tea themed. I only got an iced tea, but among other things there were also green tea ice cream and green tea churros for sale.

After our break, it was time to head to the bamboo forest, which was just a short walk away from the tea fields. I've seen other bamboo forests, but I have to say, this was the most impressive I think I've seen because the bamboo was so tall.  We didn't spend a whole lot of time here, but it was still cool to see.

After we finished in the bamboo forest, we purchased a few souvenirs, then we were off to our next scenic destination. We had read that there was a stop where you could get a great view of all of the tea fields, so we decided to pull over and take a look, and boy was it worth it.  The view was breathtaking, and no pictures could really capture the whole thing.

Green tea ice cream while looking at this view. Does it get any better?

After we finished taking in these views, we made a short ride over to Suncheon, a nearby city, where had heard that there was some sort of castle/traditional village.

This turned out to be Naganeupseong Folk Village, which contains lots of traditional houses where about 100 families still live today. This village really did feel a bit like stepping back in time.  We were surrounded by beautiful mountains, and the neon lights of Korean cities felt a world away.

Just some cows roaming around. 

Traditional houses.

We spent a good amount of time walking around and taking in the village before leaving. By this point the sun was starting to set, so we made our way into the city to check into our hostel.

After dropping our things off, we met up again for dinner. One of our friends happened to know a local who lives in Suncheon, so we met him for dinner at a duck restaurant.  Now, I've had duck plenty of times while I've been in Korea, but this was far superior to anything I've had before. Jeollanamdo is actually famous for having some of the best food in Korea, and time after time on this trip we definitely weren't disappointed. This "Suncheon-style" duck was no exception, and since we were apparently in a college-area, the price was right--only about $10/person for LOTS of food and some drinks.

After dinner we grabbed a drink, by which point I think my eyes were starting to close mid-conversation. It had been a very long and busy day, and we still had a full second day ahead!