Goan fisherman steal the show on ‘dolphin trip’

Early Friday morning, a longboat arrived at the beach in front of our bungalow. Similar to a large canoe, it featured an outboard motor and a wooden outrigger cobbled together with yellow rope. Marianna and I waded through the water to climb into the boat, and sat while the older fisherman and his young assistant remained in the water waiting for a break in the waves before pushing the boat back out to sea for our “dolphin trip.”

We motored to the edge of the bay, occasionally pausing to scan the sea for dolphins. A few fins surfaced. An arched back, a flip of a tail. Maybe five dolphins in all, including a baby. After the excitement of our dolphin encounter in the Maldives last year, this was rather anticlimactic.

Our captain maneuvered his little craft toward a larger boat, where men were hauling in a huge red net jumping with sardines. About ten skinny workers clad in underpants and tank tops clustered at the stern, pulling the net hand-over-hand, their upper bodies bowing jerkily up and down, brown legs tensing with the effort. They sang as they worked, a repetitive chorus in response to a leader’s verse. Our boatmen chuckled, and the younger man noted how singing makes work easier. I almost asked what the song meant, but I worried the lyrics might be embarrassing to translate. Instead, I asked how long it would take to finish the job. About one and a half hours, he replied.

As the song continued, empty net piled at the fishermen’s feet and captive fish were forced into the remaining space at the sea’s surface. Trapped, the sardines leapt and splashed, some catapulting out of the net and back to freedom, some flipping into the claws of swooping brahminy kites. The brown-and-white birds circled the boat, stealing frantic fish – both at sea level and in the air. Near collisions and threatening shrieks resulted in surrender, fish falling from loosened claws, snatched from the sky by the aggressor.

I hadn’t brought my camera on our brief excursion, but the image would have made a brilliant photo. The paint-peeling fishing boat, bobbing in a jade sea, dark bodies bent over crimson nets, small orange buoys evenly spaced along the net’s edge floating amorphously around the boat, a blazing neon sun rising over the forested hills that jut up from the beach, and birds of prey suspended like a mobile overhead.

Here’s a photo of a brahminy kite taken by Johan Stenlund and posted on his website, Birds in India/Goa. Now imagine scores of them circling the fishing boat!
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Here’s a photo of a fishing boat at our beach, similar to the one that took us on our “dolphin trip.”
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Goa-geous spring break!

After countless vacations at the various baby-powder beaches of Thailand, I have developed a serious case of Beach Snobitis. I have high expectations for cleanliness of sand and sea, pleasant water temperatures, spectacular panoramas, and local flavor. I also have little tolerance for drunken backpackers, cigarette butts, and loud late-night music. Stranded in India until certain visa issues get resolved, I grudgingly agreed to Spring Break on the beach in Goa with my friend Marianna. Generally an optimist, I was, nevertheless, prepared for disappointment.

We arrived Tuesday afternoon at H2O Agonda for five nights in a beachfront bungalow. Realizing our hut abutted the thatch-roofed restaurant, I immediately protested. Most beach hotels cater to the party crowd, and I am too old for that. Insomnia is my constant companion; I don’t need help from the hotel bar. Unfortunately, no other bungalows were available, so we moved in to the space, which is equally split between a bedroom and an open-air bathroom.

I’ll spare you the suspense: This place is wonderful! The loudest sound is the crashing surf. Aside from an occasional cow patty, the sandy beach is clean and mostly litter-free. At one end, boulders rise up in clusters, begging to be climbed. I splashed into the warm sea this morning to find turbulent water and powerful breakers, perfect for body surfing. Eventually worn out, I sat at the edge of the tide, drizzling wet sand onto my legs and letting the waves wash over me.

I guess I can handle this for a few more days.
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Sari School wraps up my birthday

In my closet here in New Delhi, I have a stunning lehenga with a long full skirt of gold and a low-back fitted top heavy with beads. The sheer saffron dupatta adds an extra touch of glamour. When elegant occasions (or fabulous photo opps with friends) arise, it’s my go-to garment. Other ladies opt for the sari, but my one experience draped in six yards of slippery chiffon filled me with anxiety. Sure, several large safety pins held it securely in place, but I spent the evening worried I or someone else would step on the hem and bring the whole mess down around my ankles.

Sari stress.
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The thing is, my lehenga is almost too fabulous. It’s actually a tad over the top. I feel a tiny competitive urge to understand the sari and its appeal to Indian ladies. Women from all walks of life wear it effortlessly – riding sidesaddle on the back of a motorcycle, swishing through a crowded cocktail party, balancing a basket of bricks atop their heads at a construction site, strolling arm-in-arm with friends, shopping, dancing, driving. I’ve seen young girls playing volleyball in their saris. What’s to fear?

A group of us from AES spent my birthday afternoon learning more about India’s sari tradition and experimenting with several styles. Textile scholar Rta Kapur Chishti has published several books about saris, including Saris of India: Tradition and Beyond, and her label TAANBAAN promotes the revival of hand spinning and hand weaving in India. She launched The Sari School in 2009 to promote and celebrate “the unstitched garment.”

“We have great backsides in India,” Chishti said. “We have great backsides and great busts. But we don’t reveal them. We drape them.”

With that, she kicked off her fascinating – and cheeky – presentation. Her slides took us on a tour with photos and facts about saris in most of the Indian states. The white saris of Kerala were traditionally splashed with turmeric or vermillion for a wedding, but the new bride would wash it clean again for daily use. Many Chinese artisans settled in Gujarat, explaining the heavily embroidered saris there. Madya Pradesh is known for its 9-yard sari and double-color borders. Ladies in Andara pleat their saris in the back. And so on. She explained the science behind the sari; for example, the fabric is woven more loosely in the middle and with tighter density along the borders and free ends to better stand up to wear and tear.

The choli, a short, tight blouse, is believed to be a relatively recent addition to the sari ensemble, especially in the south. Chishti told an anecdote about a government official trying to impose western-style modesty before the arrival of a British leader. He passed out cholis to the ladies in town, who turned out for the procession with their bosoms exposed and blouses worn on their heads like colorful caps.

After the slideshow, we practiced wrapping ourselves in the provided saris. (Unfortunately, I wore jeans and a long-sleeved shirt, which looked ridiculous under the saris. Bad choice.) During a break, I was treated to a little birthday celebration with cupcakes baked by my friend Skye.

First, we learned the Mohiniattam style from Kerala, which gathers up nine yards of fabric to create a dainty look with a little apron of pleats in the front. Mine wasn’t so dainty.

Next, we learned two Bengali styles: Nadia, which seemed more stereotypical with the free end of the sari (pallu) draped over the head, and the Dhokna Jalpaiguri style, a one-shouldered drape with the pallu wrapped around back and tied in the front. Very funky!

Finally, we looped the sari through our legs for the Odissi Dance style from Orissa, which was basically a pantsuit.

Nancy and I browsed through the TAANBAAN items for sale, and I bought an eye-popping orange cotton sari. I need to get the blouse made, but then I’ll give the complicated “unstitched garmet” another shot.

Chishti’s one admonition: no pins! Yikes, I’m not sure if I’m ready for that.

You can see more photos at my flickr.com set Sari School.

Birthday Girl Book Club

“You’re only as old as you feel.”

Well, to be honest, I’ve been feeling pretty stinkin’ old lately. Consumed by work, I feel too tired to kick back and have some fun. You know what they say about all work and no play. It makes Sharon feel like an old lady.

When my friend Mary Catherine suggested taking our book club out to a restaurant to celebrate my birthday, I retorted that it would have to be close to my house. However, she already had a place in mind. She knew a chef with a pasta restaurant in Gurgaon. If you don’t live in Delhi, then you won’t appreciate the impact of hearing that you have to leave work on a Friday afternoon and drive to Gurgaon, technically a Delhi suburb but far enough out that it considers itself a separate city. I had only been there once before and my strongest memory was of sitting in bumper-to-bumper traffic for hours. I swore I would never again go to Gurgaon. And yet, that’s where I found myself on my birthday eve.

Mary Catherine had booked a van for most of the group, but some of them were delayed at school by parent-teacher conferences, so my friend Nancy and I headed out a bit early in my car. Despite the gloomy prognostications, my driver Gilbert found the restaurant in about 45 minutes. It was a BYOB joint, so Nancy and I popped across the street to the pompously named Galleria outdoor market to buy some wine. We asked the shopkeeper to chill a few bottles while we killed time poking around the shops.

When we spotted the Disney princess party hats, we knew we had stumbled upon Birthday Mecca. Inside, we found everything a birthday girl could ever want: tiaras, boas, sashes, chunky plastic jewelry, you name it. We settled on sparkly hats with marabou feathers. Mine featured a big taffeta rose and a ruffled button proclaiming “Birthday Girl.” The man, who was much too serious to work in this kind of store, pulled out a selection of white, pale pink and magenta hats, telling us, “Also have red for boys,” which made Nancy and me collapse in giggles because what boy wouldn’t feel much more masculine if his bedazzled party hat were RED instead of PINK? After buying hats for all the book club ladies, we were about to leave when Nancy spotted a fart machine. “Batteries not included,” said the deadpan shopkeeper, inducing another round of hysterics.

Strolling through the Galleria, we decided to spread some birthday joy.

First, we convinced the momowallahs to don party hats for a photo.

Then I wedged in between these two guys for another shot.

We picked up our chilled wine (and posed for a few more photos), and then walked back to the Pasta Bowl Company to meet up with the rest of our gang.

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Mary Catherine with Chef Om and his lovely wife, Aditiy.

Chef Om and Aditiy treated us like royalty, even though we were quite loud and silly. From the various bruschetta appetizers to the perfectly tossed salads to the beautiful main courses, everything was deliciously fresh. While many Italian restaurants feature the same boring fare with the same gluey sauces, Chef Om’s creations clearly reflected his creativity and commitment to quality. Mary Catherine had ordered a chocolate cake with the inscription, “Happy birthday to our beautiful Sharon!” (awwwwww…), which we followed with mouth-watering tiramisu and a little banafee pie.

The evening was filled with so much laughter. We talked about our book for about five minutes (The Flamethrowers by Rachel Kushner … snore) and then moved on to more interesting topics.

Mary Catherine brought wine and paper cups from school in case the restaurant didn’t have wine glasses (which they did).

Chef Om mixed up some scrumptious salads.

Of course I had to help … and ended up spilling olive oil all over the place.

Cheese and wine – my two favorite food groups.

This was my dinner. A pumpkin-y ravioli with chorizo on top. I nearly licked my plate.

I blew out the candles AND blew cocoa powder all over myself and the surrounding area.

Swag! (Olive oil and a bag of pasta – so nice!)

One of the bench dwellers from our earlier market photo shoot had said good-bye with that classic line: “You’re only as old as you feel!” and his words stuck with me all night. It’s such a cliché and yet so true! A few hours of hilarity snapped me out of my funk and made me feel years younger than this newly acquired and meaningless 47. Happy birthday to me!

Postscript: Guess who loved my party hat even more than I did?

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Wrapping up winter break at Koh Chang

For the last week of our semester break, Tony and I flew from Korea to Thailand. We decided to splurge on a luxury resort on the island of Koh Chang, which is located southeast of the mainland. On this map, our hotel’s pin is letter A.

View Larger Map

If you check out our hotel’s website, you’ll think “Nirvana” was an appropriate name. Well, let’s just say it should have been called “Not Nirvana.” It may have been luxurious at one time, but alas, those days are over. No worries. Thailand is always amazing, and our week was filled with sunshine, great food, fresh air and stunning scenery. Other than one crappy day of killer seasickness – or a mild flu? – we had a great time.

Our home away from home. I know, it LOOKS like Nirvana. Just trust me.
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This is the railing from which a monkey tried to steal my bikini top. It’s also the railing where a monkey picked bugs off another monkey while straddling Tony’s shirt that was drying there. Ewww! We didn’t want to sit out here because of all the nasty monkeys.
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Tony rented a scooter to shuttle us around the island. We’ve done that before in other parts of Thailand, but Koh Chang presented bigger challenges. It was way hillier with hairpin curves, poorly maintained roads and lots of seemingly drunken backpackers trying out scooters for the first time. After two years with only a motorbike for transportation when we lived in Laos, Tony became an expert scooter driver, and I felt safe the whole time.
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Twice, we scootered north to Kai Bae Beach. The first time, we just played in the water, watched tourists frolicking with baby elephants and hung out in the shade of a big palm tree.
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The second time, we rented a kayak and rowed to a smaller island, where we swam, played cards and enjoyed the serenity.
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We kept returning to Buddha View Restaurant in Bang Bao, a short walk or ride from our hotel. Delicious Thai food and lovely views! One time, we sat at a table with the floor cut out, so our legs dangled over the water.
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Poor Tony. While putting his shoes on at the restaurant entrance, he bent over and dropped his reading glasses in the sea. For the rest of our trip, he had to jack up his kindle font to read his book.
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The restaurant was part of the “fisherman’s village,” which was one of the attractions for me when I was booking our hotel. However, it’s really a collection of touristy shops and restaurants and the launching point for all the dive boats. Ah well, it was still interesting and offered some nice photo opps.
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One evening, we watched the sunset from our hotel’s Rock Walk makeshift bar. Very romantic.
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Well, that’s it. Back to reality tomorrow! It’s always hard to leave Thailand, even when Nirvana is Not Nirvana.
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Check out my Koh Chang flickr set for more photos.

SCUBA: Seasickness Can’t Undermine Beauty and Amazement

“I feel kind of blech-y,” I said to Tony Tuesday morning. “I can’t really put my finger on it, but I just don’t feel right.”

I didn’t have a stuffy head or that ubiquitous Delhi cough. I didn’t feel nauseous or suffer any other symptoms of food poisoning. I just felt blech-y. Oh well. It was our scuba day, so suck it up, buttercup.

Dive Adventure sent a pick-up truck taxi to collect us at our hotel. After picking out shorty wetsuits and fins, we walked down the pier to the boat and settled in for our cruise to the dive site. Our divemaster, Özay, was Turkish, so we chatted about living in Istanbul, diving in the Mediterranean and the chaos of Turkish politics. We were very impressed with Özay and the rest of the Dive Adventure crew. They seemed to care about safety and ocean conservation, values that are sometimes missing with other dive shops.

The first stop was a wreck, but only divers with their Advanced Open Water certification were qualified to explore the deep. A risk taker on land, I play it safe in the ocean, so we chose to snorkel around the wreck site while more experienced divers explored the sunken boat. Tony swam down to touch the mast, but that was the highlight of our snorkeling experience.

Climbing back aboard the dive boat, I felt extremely queasy. I stumbled to the bow, poured myself a cup of cold water and sat down to get my bearings. Prone to motion sickness, I know the drill. Stare out at the horizon, stay hydrated, don’t let the rolling boat mess with your head. But the weird thing was the boat wasn’t rolling. The clear turquoise sea was still and smooth as glass. I leaned over the railing and projectile puked up all my breakfast. Nice.

Soon, the boat was back on the move. We reached our destination in just a few minutes, but I was barely able to stand. Tony hooked up my gear, and I just had to trust that he knew what he was doing. “Please don’t let me die down there,” I said weakly.

At the last minute, we spotted a tube of toothpaste and recalled advice from our last dive experience when I had struggled to keep my mask from fogging up. Tony handed me the toothpaste, and I squeezed a blob into my mask, smushed it around and rinsed it in the seawater. A terrible dive buddy, I only half-heartedly toothpasted Tony’s mask, and then checked his weights, BCD and air before letting him jump in. I quickly goose-stepped in after him. Once in the water, I felt a bit better.

Özay, Tony and I, and three other divers let the air out of our BCDs and slowly sank down to explore the Hin Rap Koh Chang reef. A fairly shallow dive, the visibility was fantastic (and my mask stayed perfectly clear the whole time!). We didn’t see any big or unusual sea life, but I often found myself completely surrounded, morphing into the cloud of tiny rainbow fish. Swimming around the coral reef felt magical, but I couldn’t shake my blechy-ness.

Unfortunately, we had to get back on the boat. I wriggled out of my gear and crumpled on a bench. Tony dismantled everything, rinsed our masks and re-connected our BCDs to new tanks in preparation for the next dive. The boat crew set up a Thai buffet, but I could barely choke down a few bites of plain rice. Fortunately, we soon reached our next dive site: Hin Riha Thek, which translates to “broken boat reef”. The rock barely jutted out from the water. We could see how easily a boat might crash into it.

Özay led the pack with Tony and me right behind him. The water was so murky we could barely see him. I thought my mask was fogging up, but when I pulled it off to clean it, I realized the toothpaste was still working. So it wasn’t the most scenic dive ever. My favorite sight was a shallow barrel coral, pale purple with a scalloped top. Inside several bright orange fish darted about. White coral snaked from the sand into the barrel like tubing. For a moment, it tricked my woozy mind into thinking it was a typical fishpond like people keep in their backyards. I had a little underwater laugh when I snapped out of it.

Back on the boat, I barfed up the rice.

I slumped at the back of the boat, too humiliated to socialize, for the trip back to shore. After disembarking, getting Özay to stamp my dive log, and bidding farewell to our fellow divers, we popped into 7-11 to get Gatorade and some M&Ms and then walked the short distance back to our hotel. Although I felt sure the motion sickness would abate quickly, I assured Tony I was done for the day. I showered and rolled into bed; he took the scooter and zipped off to get some dinner. While he was gone, the Gatorade and M&Ms made an encore appearance. Let’s just say the motion sickness did NOT abate quickly. I slept – fitfully – for almost 20 hours, completely losing one whole day of my holiday.

I’m still not sure whether I was sick when I got on the boat, or if the boat made me sick. Regardless, I’m not ready to give up scuba diving, but maybe I’ll search for a resort with a house reef – and skip the boat ride – for our next vacation.

The Korean Folk Village brings Joseon Dynasty to life

Before heading to Seoul, the Dents and the Warrens visited one final cultural attraction: The Korean Folk Village. It’s called THE Korean Folk Village, but I’ve heard there are many. The brochure says, “Happy coexistence with pleasant tradition!”

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Kind of the like the Korean version of Colonial Williamsburg, this village featured historical interpreters demonstrating what life was like in a bygone era. Here, Korea’s last imperial dynasty – the Joseon period – has been recreated “on a 243-acre site regarded as a propitious location according to the principles of feng shui, with a river flowing in front of it and a mountain behind it,” the brochure explains.

Here’s a rundown of the Joseon era, from Wikipedia:

Joseon (Korean: 조선; Hanja: 朝鮮; also Chosŏn, Choson, Chosun, Cho-sen), was a Korean state founded by Taejo Yi Seong-gye that lasted for approximately five centuries, from July 1392 to October 1897. It was founded following the aftermath of the overthrow of the Goryeo Dynasty in what is today the city of Kaesong. Early on, Korea was retitled and the capital was relocated to modern-day Seoul. The kingdom’s northernmost borders were expanded to the natural boundaries at the Amnok and Duman rivers through the subjugation of the Jurchens. Joseon was the last dynasty of Korean history and the longest-ruling Confucian dynasty.
During its reign, Joseon consolidated its effective rule over the territory of current Korea, encouraged the entrenchment of Korean Confucian ideals and doctrines in Korean society, imported and adapted Chinese culture, and saw the height of classical Korean culture, trade, science, literature, and technology. However, the dynasty was severely weakened during the late 16th and early 17th centuries, when invasions by the neighboring states of Japan and Qing nearly overran the peninsula, leading to an increasingly harsh isolationist policy for which the country became known as the Hermit Kingdom. After the end of invasions from Manchuria, Joseon experienced a nearly 200-year period of peace.
However, whatever power the kingdom recovered during its isolation further waned as the 18th century came to a close, and faced with internal strife, power struggles, international pressure and rebellions at home, the Joseon Dynasty declined rapidly in the late 19th century.
The Joseon period has left a substantial legacy to modern Korea; much of modern Korean etiquette, cultural norms, societal attitudes towards current issues, and the modern Korean language and its dialects derive from the culture and traditions of Joseon.

Strolling through the village on New Year’s Eve, I joined the crowd offering up wishes for 2014. The sign said: “Tie your wishes onto the elaborately piled up stone tower. The wishes hung from the straw rope are burnt along with sheaves of rice (Dalh-jib) for the first full moon of the new year and go up to the sky.”
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The village comprises 260 traditional houses relocated from various regions of Korea. There were opportunities to weave shoes out of straw, operate a millstone, create a silkscreened print, make a kite or fan, and participate in many other workshops, including the “experience of government office implementation of punishment,” which we missed, unfortunately.

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We were encouraging Will to say “moo” to the cow, while a Korean family was coaching their baby to say “oo-may.” No wonder the cow wasn’t looking at Will! It didn’t speak English.
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The Korean Folk Village has also served as a shooting location for popular TV dramas, so many visitors come as part of their “Han Ryu” (Korean Wave) cultural tour. I had never heard of this Korean Wave phenomenon, but apparently it’s a reference to the popularity of South Korean culture (such as K-Pop music videos) and the tourism that follows it. Here’s Tony, joining the Korean Wave and posing with Jang Geum from the K-Drama “Jewel in the Palace.”
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According to the DramaFever website:

Jewel In the Palace is arguably the first successful historical feminist drama, retelling Jang Geum’s rice-to-riches story during the Chosun Dynasty 500 years ago. Jewel is the real story of Jang Geum, a young girl who is the first woman to become the King’s supreme royal physician in a male-dominated society. Behind her child-like eyes lies an ambitious working girl with a 21st century mindset. See how Jang Geum goes from being a virtually abandoned child to becoming the King’s doctor. This unforgettable drama of epic proportions tells the touching and tear-jerking story of a true underdog.

Random shots of the folk village.
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Check out my flickr set if you want to see more photos!

Well, it’s no secret that I love this kind of stuff. If I could quit my real job, dress up in period costume and play act all day, I would do it! Not sure what role I would play at The Korean Folk Village. Any ideas?

From the serious to the nonsensical: War Memorial of Korea

A short walk from the Dragon Hill Lodge in Seoul stands the imposing War Memorial of Korea. The attraction provided us with an afternoon that was both solemn and ridiculous. First, the solemn part.

Outside the building, we roamed through an exhibit of planes, tanks and other war vehicles from Korea and abroad.

The building itself was immense with powerful imagery and excellent exhibits on Korea’s warfare history, including models, artifacts, photos and film clips. I could have spent the whole day there. Here’s a nice wrap-up from CNN:

With a 5,000-year history, Korea has certainly seen its share of wars and that’s precisely why the War Memorial of Korea has an extensive array of stories and artifacts.
The museum, which is located on the old site of army headquarters, has two main exhibitions.
The indoor exhibition includes six halls. The first is a Memorial Hall, which pays tribute to all those who have fought in Korean wars and lost their lives.
The next room is the War Room, featuring Korean weapons from as early as the Paleolithic age, armor and helmets used throughout different periods, as well as swords and other Korean weaponry used over the centuries.
Also indoors is a whole exhibit dedicated to just the Korean War of the 1950′s. Beginning with North Korea’s surprise invasion on the South on June 25, 1950, this hall depicts all aspects of the war, such as the role of the United Nations played and what wartime life was like for Koreans.
Here you get to experience eerily life-like Combat Experience Room, a re-creation of a Korean night battle full of special effects, video, sound, canon smoke and the smell of gunpowder. Just the re-enaction of these battles induces a sense of horror, leaving you with a sense of what actual combat experience must have been like.
Other rooms include the Expeditionary Forces room, a testimony to Korea’s overseas dispatches throughout the world, and the ROK Armed Forces room, which shows the history and changes of South Korea’s army through weapons uniforms and tactics throughout the years.
In the Defense Industry room you can get an in-depth view of the equipment that currently protects South Korea, from gas masks to aircraft. But if you really want to see some amazing machinery up close and personal, then head to the Outdoor Exhibition.
The Outdoor Exhibition features restored tanks, vehicles, submarines, aircraft and artillery that were used in World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War. But more than just standing right next to these mega machines, you can actually get inside them.

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I didn’t take a lot of pictures of the war exhibits because it was quite dark. However, Megan had spotted an exhibit for kids that was clearly designed for photo opps. Here’s where things took a turn for the ridiculous. Tony opted out.

We had to buy separate tickets, and nothing was labeled in English, so we weren’t sure what we would see. But there were animals on the poster, and Will likes animals!
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It was like Hello Kitty, Willy Wonka and Doctor Doolittle got together and planned an exhibition. There may have been some attempt at educating kids about the animals through Korean signage, but nobody seemed to stop long enough to read anything. Everyone rushed to place their child in the tableaux for a nonstop photo shoot. There’s going to be a whole generation of Koreans who think ostriches teach school, African animals participate in organized sports, bears hold dinner parties, kangaroos really wear boxing gloves, tigers play the bongos and polar bears do a poor job of keeping house.

Here’s what I read later on the Korea Be Inspired website:
The International Animal Exploration Exhibition, a collection of taxidermy animals, is set to run from December 1, 2012 through March 3, 2013 at the War Memorial of Korea in Seoul.
The collection, which comes from the Masai Gallery in Belgium, showcases stuffed figures of endangered animals around the world including lions and giraffes of Africa, kangaroos of Oceania, tigers and leopards of Asia, and coyotes and water buffalos of America. All figures were made using already dead animals after the taxidermy had been approved by the Belgian government. The collection is held to raise awareness of the dangers and threats faced by wild animals.

Whew! What a relief that the figures were made with “already dead animals”! Well, I’m not sure if this exhibit will actually raise awareness of anything, but it was definitely a highlight of our trip to Korea!

These pictures don’t do justice to the spectacle of this experience. Here’s a link to my flickr album if you want more.

Everyone knows black bears enjoy sharing bananas, pineapples and pancakes when they host parties.
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Will and Megan race with the animals!
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All the animals listen carefully to their teacher at school, while Will and Mommy read a book.
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Making music.
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Poking around with the beavers.
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Sure, why not pitch your tent right there?
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Don’t you hate it when warthogs and polar bears trash your kitchen?
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Just like Gee’s basement.
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Arts and crafts and other chaos.
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Finally, a dose of reality.
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Hop on! Hop off! Seoul City Bus Tour

For our last few days in Korea, we took a bus to Seoul and checked in to adjoining rooms at Dragon Hill Lodge, an Armed Forces Recreation Center at the Yongsan U.S. Army Garrison.

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Britt accompanied us only to babysit while Meg, Tony and I jumped on the Seoul City Bus Tour. He had to work the next morning, so he caught an afternoon bus home after we got back to the hotel. (Thanks, Britt!)

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The hop-on hop-off bus offered a glimpse of downtown Seoul with a recorded narration detailing 27 highlights.

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We only hopped off twice, but there were plenty of intriguing destinations I would have loved to visit, given more time.

The 777-foot N Seoul Tower perches atop Namsan Mountain (hence the N) and overlooks the city sprawled in all directions. I had no idea Seoul was this vast! The city spreads over 605 square kilometers (234 square miles), creeping into the surrounding mountains. The website Hi Seoul has lots of interesting facts about the city, if you want to know more.

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Waiting for the elevator, we watched a cheesy light show. On the ride up to the observation deck, another quick cartoon suggested we were flying right off the earth and into space. When we reached the top, the attendant said excitedly, “Arrive only 30 seconds!”

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The observation deck included displays where people could leave New Year’s wishes.

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Tony found a candy store, of course, and loaded up on malt balls.

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I sent a postcard from the tower.

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Megan warned me that Korean temples and palaces look just like the many temples and palaces we toured in China, but I wanted to see at least one anyway. So we hopped off to visit Changgyeonggung.

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Originally built in 1418 as a summer palace for the king, it was expanded over the years, burnt down in the Japanese invasion of 1592, re-built in 1616, partially destroyed in an 1830 fire and re-re-built in 1836. Beautiful architectural details.

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The main hall of Myeongjeongjeon is the oldest preserved throne hall of a Joseon era palace. This is where official meetings and state banquets would have been held.

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Meg and I both loved the quiet tree-lined paths around the palace grounds. We felt far removed from the hustle and bustle of the big city.

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(Yes, it did, in fact, look like all those Chinese palaces, but that’s because Buddhism was brought to Korea from China in the late 300s. Duh, Megan.)

Here’s the link to my photos from this bus tour on flickr.

Naked in Korea (Jjimjilbang!)

My sisters both went to boarding school in Switzerland when my parents lived in Saudi Arabia, and Megan has maintained a friendship with her high school roommate, Sun. Now an actress in Seoul, Sun has met up with Meg a few times in Korea. Knowing how much I wanted to experience a Korean bathhouse (jjimjilbang), Sun offered to take us Friday, Jan. 3, but she warned, “You’ll have to get naked and everyone will stare at you!” Well, that’s nothing new, right?

The Sparex Jjimjilbang was located deep in the bowels of the Good Morning City Mall. We never would have known it was there! We paid the $7 entrance fee and received a locker key and orange pajamas. After stashing our shoes and coats in the lobby locker, we flopped barefoot to the locker room, where we changed into the jammies. The unisex dry sauna was designed to look like a traditional Korean village. A big screen TV sat in the middle of the “courtyard” surrounded by smaller rooms where couples and small groups could hang out in privacy. (These photos were snapped with Sun’s phone.)

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Sun said saunas were a popular date destination for young Korean couples. People, old and young, sprawled out on the floor with their heads resting on brick-shaped foam pillows. Archways cut into the walls provided enough space for individuals to stretch out and nap. Sun also showed us how to fold the towel into a traditional style, as I’m modeling here.

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Two dome-shaped caves sat at one end of the spacious room. These were the hot saunas. Digital thermometers outside announced the searing temperatures. We bent low to get through the tiny door of the cave heated to 107°C (224°F). Inside, we sat on the wall-to-wall woven straw mat and leaned our backs on wooden planks that were propped against the walls. After baking for a few minutes, we crouched through the door again and popped into the cold room chilled to -7°C (19°F). Posters of polar bears and penguins decorated the room’s outer area, but the interior was lined with ice. We sat on wooden stools while our feet cooled off quickly on the stone floor. It didn’t take long for goosebumps to form on our arms, at which point we dashed back to the hot caves. This time, we crawled into the hotter one: 124°C (255°F). As soon as we entered, I felt my eyeballs start to cook. I quickly pulled out my one contact lens and tossed it aside. I’m sure it disintegrated upon contact with the floor. The mat was so sizzling hot, we had to sit on our folded sweaty towels. Each breath felt like fire broiling my lungs. We didn’t last long; back to the cold room.

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The second time in the super hot cave, I began to perspire profusely. Sweat poured down my face, arms and legs. It made me realize how NOT stinky the room was. How was it possible the room didn’t reek of BO? (Sun explained the Korean sauna was an ancient tradition, and the rooms were still built in the ancient fashion – same shape, same stink-fighting materials.)

After chilling once more in the cold room, we realized we had to speed things up. Tony was babysitting William, my 15-month-old nephew, and we had promised to return within three hours. So, we had to bid farewell to the fantastic dry sauna experience, as well as the photo shoot. No cameras allowed in the wet sauna!

In the locker room, we shed our PJs and plodded bare nekkid into the ladies-only wet sauna with only a small towel draped around our necks. “They say single ladies wear their towels like this,” said Sun, letting the ends drape modestly over her boobs. Then she flipped the towel off her chest and laughed, “But married ladies wear it like this.”

The vast space included open showers lining one wall, several steam rooms, a few pools of various temperatures, a small baby pool and a couple rows of sinks and spray faucets, where about 25 ladies busily scrubbed and splashed all their nooks and crannies. We three climbed into a pool with pink-tinted 40+°C (104+°F) water, which smelled faintly of lavender. Next, we stepped into hotter water with a green hue. Sun lamented that none of the Korean signs explained what herbs were infused in to the water. Megan gleefully dove into the cold pool, splashing her head under the running shower. I stepped in tentatively, recoiling at the shock of icy water on my hot skin. Finally, I took a deep breath and let the freezing shower wash over me. Yowza! Megan wanted a hot-cold pool redux, but Sun and I opted for the steam room. The room’s exterior wall was a big window overlooking the ladies at the sinks, and I couldn’t help but notice how it all seemed so … well, I wouldn’t say normal exactly, but it wasn’t totally weird. Despite Sun’s warnings and despite being the only white girls in the room, Meg and I didn’t feel conspicuous. There were no overt stares, and strangely, I didn’t feel compelled to stare at anyone else either. (That said, I can confirm that Korean women have tiny butts. That shouldn’t be news to anyone.)

Given more time, we could have indulged in a massage or scrub, enjoyed a drink at the snack bar, watched a little TV, gotten a manicure and shopped for glittery shoes or lacey underwear at the kiosks. You can even spend the night.

I felt so grateful to have Sun along for my first Korean sauna. She was an informative guide and lots of fun. I only wish I could have stayed another week to attend her wedding, which took place TODAY to Joo (an actor who just finished shooting a movie with Scarlett Johansson). Megan says it was a spectacular event, and William was the ring bearer for about two minutes (until they realized he couldn’t be trusted with the rings, so they found a stand-in)!

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Adventures in Teaching and Travel