One’s destination is never a place, but a new way of seeing things.” –Henry Miller

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Highway Robbery

Prices for food and clothing and really...most goods in Korea are very comparable to prices in the U.S.  HOWEVER, there are a few services that Korea offers at a price that feels like highway robbery compared to prices at home.

One such service is going to the hair salon.  My guy friends are unimpressed when I tell them that I pay a mere $10 for a good hair cut and $15 for a more expensive one.  Men, I’m sorry, but most of you will probably never understand the lengths women go to (or the price we’re willing to pay) for the upkeep of those long/short/curled/spiked/straightened/dyed locks of ours.  I’m sure that all of my fellow women who have paid $30+ on a haircut, hear me when I say, I ONLY paid $15 on a haircut and style! It’s also a lot cheaper to dye, chemically straightening, or curl your hair as well. 

Prescriptions, going to the doctor, and going to the dentist are out of this world, cheap.  Of course, the price depends on what you get done.  From my understanding, a visit to the doctor and a prescription should be no more than $10.  A friend said he paid $20 for a filling that included the anesthetic-everything. Can you imagine?  It’s still really hard for me to fathom. I’ve been so trained to pay $100+ for the equivalent services in the U.S. that I feel a streak of guilt when I hand over my 10,000 won bill (about 10 USD). 

Laser hair removal joins the "incredibly- less expensive-services-that I almost feel guilty paying so little for” list.  I’m having some work done in this area.  Underarm laser hair removal cost me something like $50 for all 5 treatments and the bikini area cost me $270 for the same number of times.  To give you a point of reference, bikini laser hair removal in the States costs anywhere from $350 to $500 **per** treatment.  Foreigners joke that if you’re going to have any work done, get it done in Korea.

Today was my first bikini treatment.  I was a little embarrassed when I saw the male doctor enter the room as I was lying on the table with a small medical skirt around my waist. “Oh, grEAt.”  Thankfully, he came in to explain the procedure for the next 5 months and was out the door again.  Doctors, having more education, tend to speak the most English. 

A female technician came in to apply a cold gel and zap the area I wanted treated.  I was still a little mortified and squeezed my eyes closed during the 5 whole minutes it took. ( A good friend of mine said that when her college roommate was changing in the same room she used to tell her to look away unless she wanted to see all her “goodness.”) Let’s be honest, there was no modesty in that room. My “goodness” was very much exposed.

I have to say that in all of my mortification, the whole thing was really no big deal.  I was in and out and there was little to no pain.  Occasionally, I felt a prick from the laser, but it was very mild. 

Worth it? I think so. 

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

A Run Away Train and the Quest for Taco Bell.

I would like to say that last weekend's trip to Seoul was more than a quest for the most sacred, Taco Bell, but ... it really wasn't.  A group of about 7 of us made the 2 hour train ride to Seoul on Saturday morning.  When we got to Seoul Station there was a procession of decision making. "Where are you going? Where do you want to go? What time will we meet back up?" Some wanted to go to the War Museum, others to the English book store, others to an art museum.  The one consensus was that we would be meeting up for dinner at Taco Bell that night.  Taco Bells around Korea have opened very recently, within the last few months, making it the newest taste of home.  They are scarcely found so it requires some planning.  The real mission: Taco Bell.  Everything before it felt like time killed.

The girls ventured to Insadong, a neighborhood in Seoul that sells traditional Korean goods.  We perused the shops for a bit and found refuge in a small coffee shop for a couple of hours.  Then we did my favorite thing of the day, second to Taco Bell, of course. There is a completely English book store called, "What the Book" in the foreigner abundant neighborhood of Itaewon.  I could have spent hours there.  I love book stores-not because I'm a particularly avid reader.  I like book stores the way I love watching the trailers when I go to the movies; except a bookstore offers an endless row of previews into what could or could not be the best book I've ever read.  The possibility excites me,  the pretty covers lure me, the idea of owning one thrills me.

Then we reached the pinnacle of the day. Yes, that flower tortilla filled with meaty goodness, mildly resemblant to low quality beef, topped with shredded lettuce and artificially flavored cheddar cheese sauce. It's hardly Mexican.  Yet it's like crack to my taste buds! yUUmmmm!  I think I said, "I'm so happy" at least 5 times during that meal.

Sunday I met a friend in Chuncheon and decided to try my hand at skiing.  In all reality, it was very close to my first time skiing.  I got the briefest skiing instruction from a friend a year and a half ago.  That day only amounted to sliding down the slightest grade for a half day and I couldn't have really called it a hill or even skiing for that matter.

Sunday, again, I got the briefest instruction.  This friend had me practice turns and stopping on a hill. So far so good.  After a few tries on the beginner slopes, he convinced me that I was "ready" for the intermediate route.  This might have been a tad premature.  Lets just say that I found as I was rocketing down the slope that I hadn't quite perfected slowing or coming to a stop.  I was, as this friend described, "a run away train."  "Get out of the way children! Move children!" I could have prayed and probably should have, but instead, a stream of profanities ran through my head as I tried to find the clearest route, unobstructed by other skiers and snowboarders.

The irony is that earlier that day I had chuckled as I put on the most vibrant yellow ski pants and jacket.  The guys at the ski shop probably sized me up immediately.  "That's a novice, if I've ever seen one. Give her the neon caution suit, Park Min Choi."   Now I thank those guys for giving me their most visible ski suit!

"Pie, make a slice of pie! Big 'A,'  Big 'A'!  This isn't working!!" 

Somehow I made it to the bottom unscathed and managed not harm anyone else in the process    either.  I decided it was best to practice my stopping technique a few more times on the beginner route.  With a bit more practice under my belt, I braved the intermediate route 3 more times.  I was no Olympic skier, and I certainly didn't look graceful doing it, but I got to the bottom, lived to tell about it, and had a blast.
I had actually pictured my end looking something like this

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Thailand Trip: Finding Nemo

The third leg of my trip (I think I can call it a leg) landed me in Phuket.  Phuket is an island southwest of Bangkok.  I took a one hour plane ride Sunday night and spent 3 days getting scuba certified and laying on the beach.

Monday morning was a wild goose chase. First, I over slept. I had planned to be picked up at 7:30 by my diving instructor and it was... 7:30.  I threw on my bathing suit, brushed my teeth, put in my contacts and was out the door. It was just as well because 7:40 rolls around, 7:50, 8:00, no sign of anyone. I started to wonder if I had missed my pick-up. I asked the man at the reception desk if he had seen anyone that morning, but I'm not sure he understood me. "Internet?" He handed me an internet code on a piece of paper and I quickly hopped on the internet. My ipod kept sending me distressed messages, "low battery."  "Nooo!" Thankfully, and very fortunately, it had enough oomph for me to read an email from my diving instructor saying that 1) we would be meeting at the shopping center in Patong and 2) instead of 7:30, we would meet at 8:00.. and it was.. as you can guess.. 8:00.  So I ran out to the main road.  Tuk Tuks (the oversized motorized bikes with cabs in the back ) and taxis lined the road, but they both overcharge a tremendous amount because they know they can find some tourist who will pay their rates.  Everyone I asked quoted me at 200 Baht for a distance that was 2 miles away, if that!  (200 Baht would be like paying 6 USD.  I wouldn't pay that in Korea! I wouldn't pay that in New York City! There was no way I was paying that in Thailand.) But I didn't have time to dicker with these guys.  I did have time, however, to hop on the back of a motorbike taxi (you won't find many tourists doing this, which is why I could get him to accept 50 Baht to take me to the shopping center. 50 Baht would be like $1.50. Much better!) I got there a little late, but my dive instructor, Josh, was still there.

The first day was split into too parts.  I spent the morning in the swimming pool for the "closed water dive" part of my certification.  The swimming pool is to get you acquainted and comfortable using the equipment.  They put you in "what if" scenarios and show you how to get out of them and then ask you to repeat the scenario.  "What if a shark were to come and rip your mask clear off your face?"  (I took a little creative liberty with this scenario) "Okay, now take your mask off your face underwater, with your eyes closed put it back on, and clear the water out."  It felt a little unnerving.  Your mask plugs your nose for you so it eliminates the option of breathing through it, which is what we all do naturally.  What is strange is that you have to consciously breathe through your mouth not your nose when you take it off. It feels unnatural.

The second part of the day, we spent in a reef 20 meters off this pretty, little, secluded beach.  We didn't go very deep or out very far, but the water was so clear and the visibility was great.  I've been snorkeling a time or two, but snorkeling doesn't give you the range in color nor the perspective that scuba can.  It was my first time in the ocean with scuba gear.  What a surreal experience! How beautiful the corals and the tropical fish were! I was ecstatic, and I had just gotten my feet wet (so to speak).
The small beach from where I had my first sea dive.

It was just my diving instructor and myself diving together the second day, but we were on boat chartered for 3 dive sites that was full of other divers.  I could describe a lot of the divers as big, middle aged, European men, chain smokers, with tattoos, super nice, with deep bellowing laughs.  Not what I would have pictured-- most dive videos tell you that being overweight and smoking put you at a higher risk for decompression sickness (also known as the bends), but .. whatever. 

They served us breakfast that morning and set off for the Phi Phi Islands.  Josh told me I had to take another quick written test, do some paper work, and go over the dive sights before we got to our location.  We found a room towards the bow and knocked it out.  He pointed to the dive book, "See the shark icon?  That's what we hope to see, black tipped reef sharks."  I laughed, "That's what we hope to see?" "Yeah, but they aren't so big."  Hmmm, some how that wasn't comforting, "Smaller mouths for biting, right?"

I'm not one to get sea sick, but rough waves in combination with a closed, warm room and reading and writing was enough to just about do it. The dive director, noticing that had a death grip on the railing and my sights set on the horizon, nudges my instructor and says, "I think she doubts the ship." (har har)  I was in no mood.  I can ardently say that my doubts were not with the boat, but with my constitution and whether my breakfast was going to make it with us to the dive site.  I remember at one point thinking, "Should I run to the trash can or run to the side of the ship??  The side of the ship is clearly closer and I have to dodge some tables and people to get to the trash can, but if I have to vom all over the place would it make it to the water or cover the lower deck? Though, if it were to hit the dive director, I wouldn't be entirely upset by that either."

Thankfully, I didn't have much longer to think about it. Next thing I knew we were all on the (proud to say, still pristine) lower deck getting geared up and ready for the drop off.  It's chaotic on a diving boat 20 minutes before the arrival to a dive sight.  People are swaying back and forth, trying to get in wet suits, putting on weights and goggles and flippers, trying to strap into cumbersome BCDs and air tanks. 

Then, moment of truth, the "giant stride" off the boat.  It is exactly that, a giant step off the boat, into the water.  I was anxious.  Josh told me about this girl he once saw do a belly flop, tank and all, into the water.  See, I am exactly the kind of person to make that kind of mistake.  ( A few summers ago, my dad tried to teach me how to do a high dive off the cliffs at Fontana Lake.  He instructed me on the technique and showed me it's application several times.  I spent 30 minutes working up the nerve and practicing on small cliffs. I finally mustered up the courage... and did a huge belly flop.)  So, see, my anxiety was well founded, though I'm happy to say, that I did not join that poor girl in the scuba "giant belly flop" club. 

We went to 3 dive locations that day. They were all 50 minutes long with a maximum depth of 18 meters (That's roughly 60 feet, my American friends.  My sister complains that I'm switching to the metric system, though I swear, I have no choice).  The first two dives were still instructional dives. I had to practice skills for about 15 minutes and then we could explore for the remaining time.

The first dive was at a place called Palong Wall.  I was in the presence of 2 black tip reef sharks, though I didn't see them. Josh said they were coming right towards us, then split in opposite directions.  I did see many variations of colorful fish, clown fish in an anemone, blow fish, and star fish.

The second dive was the best, Bida Nok.  Here I did see a black tipped reef shark.  I remember holding on to my regulator and screaming, "SHARK!!" while pointing frantically (and in vain.. no one can hear you talking through a regulator) at this bad boy. We saw a seahorse (my favorite thing, by far), a blue spotted sting ray, several colorful sea slugs, a lion fish, and a scorpion fish.

This is the main Phi Phi Island, the location where they filmed the movie, The Beach. It was unseasonably over cast this day. Normally it's clear blue skies.

This is the location of the first dive on day two. It's a smaller Phi Phi Island.

The third dive was at a place called Koh Doc Mai.  The visibility was poor here, but apart from the general fish I had been seeing, we saw 3 moray eels and a couple of sea slugs. The pictures are from the 3rd dive:

It's me!

I'm checking out a sea fan here

Moray Eel


Sea Fan

Sea Slug

It was sunset when we finished the last dive

The last day I spent mostly in relaxation on the beach. I'll admit, I did have a little bit of a scare when the owner of the guest house saw me walking in from the beach and said, "So, are you going to pay now?"(I need to note now that this man looked like a member of the Russian mafia. He was this huge man with tattoos from Hungry, though he sounded like he had a Russian accent)

Long story short, when I had booked the room, I thought that I was paying for it then.  Turns out, what I thought was a payment confirmation, was only a booking confirmation.  This would have been no problem, if I hadn't planned to bring just enough cash for food and whatever gifts I wanted to purchase in Thailand.  I was a single, female traveler, I didn't want to carry a lot of cash on me.  It was made worse by the fact that he did not have a card swiping machine and my card was not a credit card and wouldn't work in the ATMs.  So then he suggests using paypal. Perfect! Except paypal takes 2-3 business days to link your checking account.

So here I am, crying (I'm picturing one of two outcomes a) missing my flight or b) worse, my death).  I explained to the Russian mob man my situation. As I was explaining he looked at me and threw glances left and right with this look of horror on his face, "Listen," he says, putting he's hand on my shoulder, "You just need to take it easy."  My chest is still heaving, "But, my plane leaves today! And I can't pay you now!"

So Kalle (That's his name. We had a nice conversation on the way to the airport. Would you know it, he has a 10 year old daughter) reassured me that I would not miss my flight and that he trusted I would pay in a few days when I got my bank account linked. So as it turns out, the Russian/Hungarian mafia is pretty understanding.