Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Temple Stay

Hello everyone, it has been a while since I have written last. I am trying to fit in quite a bit before I have to leave this amazing country. Well, I have crossed off pretty much everything that I wanted to do while I was here. This post is the last on the list- temple stay.

   My friends and I spent two days living at a temple, meditating, seeing/participating in various Buddhist rituals, and eating what monks eat. Most Koreans are Buddhist, Christian or Agnostic. I really did not know much about Buddhism except for my experiences I have had in Cambodia and Thailand, which were quite different from Korea’s take on Buddhism. We rode out into a suburb of Seoul and hiked up a mountain to the temple that we would be staying at. When we arrived we were shown our quarters and given some spiffy pajamas to wear as our uniform (one must be comfortable in order to achieve enlightenment). Our interpreter showed us around the temple grounds, as the monk who was guiding us only spoke Korean. The temple was beautiful and was nestled on a foothill of a larger mountain. A small stream ran through the grounds that overlooked the glowing city. It was strange to look out at the lit, noisy city in a place that was so quiet and peaceful.

Once our tour of the various buildings was over it was time for dinner. The meal was like most other 

ones I have had in Korea except for the absence of meat. They stressed to eat everything 

that you took. After the meal we had time to explore a cave near the cafeteria. The stream ran through it and once you reached the bottom of the cave there was a small chapel set up.  As the sunset we had the chance to watch a bell ringing ceremony. The giant bell, a large drum and a hollowed out wooden fish hung on a pavilion, which we all walked under when we entered the temple grounds. It was quite amazing to watch the monks perform and every time they struck the large bell the sound dissipated throughout the hills. It was a good way to put us in the mindset for what was to come next.
Percussion Deck

Once the ceremony was over we went onto the second floor of the main building where one of the temples was. The monks began a chanting ceremony shortly after our group was settled in. We were not allowed to take pictures inside the temple, but I will try to explain what it looked like the best I can. The temple had three Buddhas at one end; to the left of the figures was a picture of someone that had died recently. To the right was a large mural called the guardian wall which depicted various gods from the religions before Buddhism was spread throughout Asia. We all sat on pillows behind the monks while they chanted. They chanted in Korean and we were left in the dark, but it sounded quite nice. Once the ceremony was finished we meditated for about an hour. I really liked the meditation, however I still do not understand how Koreans can sit cross-legged for hours on end. Maybe if you start when you are young it is easier, but I have been at many a dinner sitting on the floor with my legs asleep. So needless to say it was difficult to keep a clear mind with aching legs. We eventually switched to meditation while lying down (I think that it was to appease us foreigners). After the meditation we did 108 postulations, or in layman’s terms we bowed 108 times for all the bad things we have done. Some of these were the basic “I am sorry for doing wrong to others,” to more bizarre statements that I don’t think that I have ever been guilty of e.g.- “ I postulate in repentance for having thought that what I smelled was correct.”
We made some lotus flower lanterns and went to bed early.


On the walk to our sleeping quarters 
The next morning we woke up in the dark, it was about 4:30am when the drums started off. After a night on the floor, getting up was difficult. I managed to get up, put on my monk pajamas, and make it just in time for the morning chanting ceremony. After the chanting was over we meditated for a bit longer than last time. Being exhausted and having to sit cross-legged was a bit difficult. After meditation, we did a bit of cleaning up around the temple. People on their way to monkdom have to work for a few years at a temple before they start studying to become a monk.
 Once we were done with our chores, we had a monastic meal. Once someone becomes a monk they get their robes and a set of bowls that they will keep for the rest of their time as a monk in life. We were given 4 different sized bowls and sat in a rectangle around the room. 
The food was located in the center of the room and we each took turns giving everyone: rice, rice water, soup, kim chi, and vegetable condiments. The monk told our translator what we were to do at each step of the way. We had to refrain from talking during the meal and no food was to be wasted. Once we were finished eating we cleaned our bowls with a yellow radish and some rice water. Once we had cleaned each bowl two people came around and collected the rice water in a big pot. They told us that they collected the rice water to feed “the hungry ghost” which is one of the forms that people are reincarnated into. It can only get nourishment from the rice water because it has a long skinny throat. Apparently this is a very painful stage and we needed to be careful that there was not any left over bits of food floating in the rice water, as it could get stuck in the poor ghost’s throat. Now this may seem a bit odd, but ask yourself does it seem as crazy as a guy building a boat in his back yard for all the animals in the world?

 Once the bowls were clean and the rice water was collected we went on a nice hike up the mountain that the temple was settled under. The view of Seoul from the top was amazing. We wrapped up our time at the temple by drinking tea and asking the monk any questions we had for her. Korea’s take, as well as every other country’s take, on Buddhism is unique. For example female monks are able to do everything that a male monk can. The robes and their bowls are not the only possessions that a monk can have, many of them have smart phones and I have seen one driving a car in my town. Our monk explained that they are allowed to have things as long as they are used to help other people.
I left the temple tired and hungry, all that meditating and bowing is hard work. I was happy with the experience that I had at the temple, spending the day with a monk gave me a better insight into Korean Buddhism. I don’t think I will be converting any time soon, but I was very pleased to have the opportunity to see what temple life was like first hand.

            If you are in Korea and are looking for a good temple stay I would recommend the one that I went on. Here is the link -> http://www.geumsunsa.org/

Also shouts out to Josh Davidson for the pics!

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

A day in the life

                        Hello everyone, I haven’t written in a while and I feel obligated to considering that I only have a few posts. I haven’t gone on any huge ventures lately and in fact I don’t want to write about them in this post. I would like to invite you to see what a busy day is like for me. I am writing this on Tuesday March 25th. Today I have grades 3rd-6th from 1:35- 4:30 each grade back to back for 40 minutes a pop.

Where it all begins 
                       I start a bit earlier than that though. Get up at 7:00 exercise, breakfast, coffee. After getting ready for the day I spend the rest of the time lesson planning. Today took a bit longer than most days because I had to make some more Power Points than I typically do. I leave my apartment around 10:15 for the bus.   
The one on the right

    I live on the outskirts of the town near a bunch of construction (it makes sleeping in nearly impossible). I left my apartment early because today is a market day. Any day that ends in a 1 or a 6 is market day in Boeun. The street that I walk down to get to my bus is filled with more buses, bikes, cars, and the occasional 4-weeler.  As I made my way down towards the busy street I saw this flying overhead.  

                       When I first came to my town and saw things like this it was to say the least a little unsettling. Now after the time that I have spent here I react to it in the same way as the Koreans, and hardly notice it. I live near an airbase and in a given week I will see a handful of fighter jets.

                       Anyway, the street is crazy and a bit difficult to navigate at times, since many of venders have decided to post up on the sidewalk. Old women, or ajummas as they are called here, hurry past the venders selling everything from fish, pastries, clothes, and vegetables, their backs hunched from years out in the fields.

       I hop on the bus at 10:30 to a small village called Wonnam. The bus is filled with old people going out to their old homes in the countryside. The bus goes from flying to a near stop depending on the amount of speed bumps on the narrow roads winding through the rice paddies.  I get into Wonnam around 10:50 and get off the bus and walk to school.
Bustling Wonnam

     I pass rice paddy after rice paddy, once I get near the cattle ranch (if you can call this small place that) I am nearly there.

Right off the drive way to my school
           Today is a bit of a crazy day at Pan Dong elementary. It is open class day, where parents come in to see their children in class while the teacher is teaching. Over the past 2 weeks the teachers here have been frantically trying to get ready for the big day. I walk in, put on my sandals, and greet my superiors with the bow and hello, then make my way to my classroom. I’m not really even sure if I will have classes today. I asked my mentor teacher if I will and he responded maybe. Now this may be a bit of a tangent, but in Korea the word maybe has somehow become more ambiguous. I have been told before, “maybe we will have lunch now” when in reality we are going to have lunch now. The words “are” and “not” have never made it to Korea and as a result we only have maybe. Well in this case I did have classes, but my wonderful classroom connected to the library is being taken from me to be used as a meeting room with parents and teachers. I am banished to the science lab or as I like to call it distraction land.  I clean up my comfy, familiar classroom and walk up to the science lab.

Distraction land
     I am dreading this this place not only because it is filled with everything from dissected chickens in formaldehyde to electric tinker toys, but also because the computer up there is by far the most janky pieces of technology I have ever encountered. It also happens that this day I have made most of my lesson plans revolve around Power Point games (it is the end of the month and review is standard practice for me).  I pray to the technology gods and some how my prayers are answered, everything works. I am extremely pleased that I will not be winging it for the entirety of the day and head down for lunch. At 11:40 the principal, vice principal and some of the other important people at my school have lunch, and I am included. Needless to say perfecting the use of chopsticks in front of these people was a harrowing experience. Today was white rice, (as is everyday) fried fish, radish Kim chi, some sort of delicious steamed leaf, and seafood soup. Delish. I head back upstairs to my impromptu classroom and get things ready as well as write this segment of the blog.

                       As I am preparing for the storm of 3rd graders, when the cleaning lady comes into the science lab. She talks to me in Korean as she normally does (I don’t understand how she hasn’t figured out yet that I don’t speak Korean) and judging from her gestures she wants me to leave the science room so that she can sleep in it. I say ok and wait for my class downstairs in the teachers lounge. I head back upstairs with 10 minutes to my first class and wake her up. She is not pleased.

                       The 3rd graders rush in and are just as crazy as ever. I holler out role call and start talking about the “candy day” that will happen this week. Now I should let you know that this is my worst class by far, so I figured that I would try something new. I explain to them in the simplest way possible that everyone would get $1 if they were good for the day (in my “fake money” system $1=1 piece of candy). However, if they were bad I would not give them a dollar. I was hoping that they would respond better to me giving the good ones something and having the bad ones left out.  I began the lesson, as I do with most of my lessons, with a game. This one was a classic, the corner game and it worked out well. The kids actually listened to me talk with the Power Point up and participated when I asked them questions. Things went wrong when we got to game #2 and I had to split them up into 3 teams. These kids are never satisfied with the teams that you pick out for them and I ended up playing the game with 6 out of my 10 kids. They got a dollar and went off on their merry way while some of the bad kids pleaded in vain.

3rd graders 
                       I had the 4th graders next and I don’t have much to say about them, except that they were great. They are one of my smaller classes (8 total) and they get along well for the most part. We played preposition ball and everyone had a good time.

                       I wish that my 5th graders had been as good as my 4th graders were. As things got later into the day my students became more and more restless. Normally my 5th graders are awesome, but today the class ended with Lee Chae Eun throwing an eraser at Song Ju Eun, who caught it with her face. One of my students who speaks very good English was able to explain to me what had happened, and I was able to take care of the situation. That is one of the hard things about being a teacher and not being able to easily communicate with your students. You really don’t want disciplining to be an exercise in language comprehension. I feel that most of my classes would run incredibly smoother if I was able to speak more Korean. But, this is a reality that I have been dealing with for about 7 months now, and it isn’t as bad as it seems.
5th graders, a few of them were a bit tired

                       My 6th graders who are typically my favorite class were exhausted and extremely apathetic to my existence. We watched a few videos relating to the space unit that I am doing with them that they enjoyed. However, I could see that they were tired from the stress of the open class day.

                       I finished up my last class and rode off with the 5th grade teacher around 5. I asked her how her open class went and she said, “ Very good, I feel like I can fly now.” We drove back into Boeun, past an ancient fortress and to my apartment complex. I said goodbye and thank you in Korean and see you tomorrow in English. Before I left I asked her if there was going to be a volleyball game tomorrow? On most Wednesdays the teachers get together for a volleyball game. She said, “ Yes maybe.” As I got out of the car and walked past the construction another fighter jet flew over my small town. I walked through a crowd of middle school students who test their English out on me on occasion. I say hi and nice to meet you to the ones who talk to me. On Tuesdays I have Kim bop for dinner. It is cheap and slightly healthy. 

The Kim Bop place. It has a T-Rex on it. 
Cheap nourishment  

    That was my day. Not the most amazing of days, but not the worst by any means. I do enjoy what I do. Teaching is quite a thing, and I have grown attached to my students. To see them working and being able to use the bits of language that I have taught them over the year is something that I take a great amount of pride in.  Thanks for reading.

Sunday, March 3, 2013


Hello everyone! It has been a bit since I had last posted due to getting back into the swing of teaching. I had a nice month long break, so my 3 friends and I decided to get out of Korea and head somewhere warm. Our main goal was to go to see Angkor Wat in Cambodia and try to see as much as we could without feeling rushed. We succeeded and couldn't have planned things better if we had tried.
Our route

Our trip was from Bangkok to Aranyaprathet, Aranyaprathet to Poipet, Poipet to Siem Reap, Siem Reap to       Ko-Chang and finally back to Bangkok. 

I had done a bit of research before we embarked and was a tad nervous aout this route.  One worry was the Thai and Cambodian boarder, but we will get to that later. The other was getting around, the trains and buses were not as reliable as they are here in Korea. We had a lot to see in 11 days.

We got into Bangkok around 3 am. As soon as you get past security there are plenty of people who will take you anywhere you want to go. There are also plenty of people that would love to rip you off. In Thailand as well as Korea cabs are cheap but, touts will lead you to believe that this is not true. But, that is part of the game you play when traveling in SE Asia. We decided to not even bother with the bus and got a taxi from the airport to Aranyaprathet for around $40 ( the Thai border town). We drove through the night, only stopping for gas, and made it to the border at around 5am. Being there an hour early was a blessing. The border turns into a mad house as soon as it opens. Huge lines piled up behind us and even though we were in the front to get completely through took a while. 

I read somewhere that the best part of getting to Poipet is leaving. Just as you get out of Cambodian customs more touts approach you. Every backpacker who makes it though this dirty border are headed to Siem Reap. One gave us a good price to get there and we hopped in a car. Cambodian driving consists of a whole lot of honking, but we were so exhausted we managed to sleep most of the way. We were only awoken by our cab driver stopping to relieve himself off the side of the rode and when he almost ran a motorcyclist over. We were all pretty groggy when we reached Siem Reap, but it was great to finally get there. We were transfered over to another driver who would become our guide   

We were all quite exhausted after our day of traveling. Going straight to Angkor Wat was a bit out of the question. We were all far to tired to go explore, but another option that our guide gave us was to check out Tonle Sap lake. Tonle Sap is the largest freshwater lake in SE Asia, it is fed by the Mekong river, changes directions twice a year, and has a floating village on it. So going on a boat ride on it seemed like a perfect way to relax after our travels. 

The high point of the boat ride.
It wasn't as relaxing as we had hoped. I'm not sure how it is during monsoon season, but while we were there the river/lake was a brown liquid that vaguely resembled water. We cruised down to the mouth of the lake where the floating village was situated. 

  This part was interesting at first, but it quickly became apparent that the image of a floating village I had in my head and the reality of the floating village were two very different things. This was when it all hit us. Siem Reap had been built up on the money that Angkor brought in. Outside of our nice, but very cheap hotel, Cambodia was still recovering from its turbulent past. We cruised around the village and were brought to a floating store. The drivers of our boat told us that this is where we could buy some rice for the floating orphanage. After paying an exorbitant amount of money for a bag of rice, a tour of an orphanage, and a ride down a mangrove forest, we were out of scam lake. 

We made it back to the hotel in time for dinner and hopped back into our guides car for sunset at Angkor Wat. It was perfect. We wandered around the 900 some year old ruins and everything was all worth while.                                                 

                      A view from the outside.

The next day we saw it all. We started at Angkor Wat and ended at Ta Prohm. I'll just let the photos do the talking for this bit. 

Angkor Wat is the largest religious complex in the world.

Angkor Thom

Ta Prohm
 These are just a few of the main temples around Angkor. The whole place is amazing, well worth the long trip there. 

 Not only does Cambodia have some beautiful temples to check out, it also has some of the more interesting things that I have eaten since coming to Asia. 


Exhibit A: Pong Tai Koon - A 20 day old duck embryo served in its shell with salt and lime. Our guide told us that we were the first tourists he had encountered who were interested in eating this extremely unappealing sounding morsel.  No matter what I write here you are probably still going to think that this would be absolutely disgusting, but, it was actually amazing. I really had never had anything like it and cannot describe the taste.

Exhibit B: Durian aka the stinky fruit. Durian is a large spiky fruit common in most SE Asian countries. The smell is so powerful we saw signs up in hotels, taxis, and airports forbidding its consumption. I have heard that either you love it or hate it. We all enjoyed it quite a bit. It was like creamy garlicky... fruit. I would not recommend eating it before a date because it will give you some of the worst smelling breath imaginable.

 Exhibit C: Cobra Blood Whisky and Cobra Soup. Our guide had suggested us a few other things to do once we were finished wandering around the temples. This one seemed the most doable ( We could have shot RPGs, but they are much more expensive than cobra). We were brought around the side of a restaurant into the kitchen. The place was covered in flys and there was a chopping block and an orage mesh net which contained our cobra. Our guide had informed us that the chief who normally is in charge of this operation was not there and some hesitant Cambodians surrounded the net. Our guide assured us that it was going to fine and took the first shot of it with us. It tasted like smokey whisky, not much more.                                      

However the soup was especially delicious. Cobra meat is like extra chewy chicken. We sat outside of the restaurant in a little bungalow eating our cobra. Our guide mentioned that this wasn't entirely legal, but we were at a "big power mans" restaurant.

Cambodia was quite a trip. It wasn't relaxing and often times nerve racking. But, for me zipping around dirt roades past bombed out buildings was infatuating. I'm pleased that I had the chance to see this amazing country.

 I am going to have to take a break from blogging for a bit ( I hate to say it considering that I only have 3 posts). I must devote my time to writing a paper for my TESOL class. Hopefully I will get that done soon and I should have some posts up on Thailand and Japan. Thanks for reading!