January is a tough month at my hagwon. It is what we call the "intensive" period, during which the students are on vacation from their normal schools and then take additional classes at their academies, or hagwons. So my days have expanded a bit and I am now working a 55-hour work week. I basically sleep and teach, teach and sleep. Needless to say, the foreign teachers have been a little disheartened for the last few weeks where I am at. For the first time since I got to Korea, I have been wishing the days away, just hoping that January will pass. We are all very tired, the children are restless, and it is bitter cold outside, causing attitudes to flare, motivation to cease, and a general expression of annoyance to remain plastered on everyone's face.
It has also been a difficult month because, with seven months under my belt here in Gwangju, I'm nearly to the point on my contract when I really have to make some tough calls. To stay, or not to stay? That is the question. But with the atmosphere at my job being what it currently is, I'm finding it challenging to make objective decisions. If you ask me today after working for eleven straight hours, its a definite no. Even a hell-to-the-no. And then I have to remind myself that the last six months have been great, so why cut out now? Ladidadida Somebody just decide for me, okay?
But, for a little break from the insanity at work, I skipped town last weekend. There is a local Korean man in Gwangju who organizes weekend trips for foreigners throughout Korea. It is all run on facebook, which is where I found this particular trip. I saw that two girls I had briefly met before were going, so I signed up. I figured even if I didn't know anyone on the trip, I would make some new friends and at least get a break from Kumho-dong for a couple of days. And I am SO glad I decided to go!!
The trip was north, to a city called Hwacheon, where there is an annual ice fishing festival every winter on the city's main river. It is about 20 miles south of the North Korean border, making it a whole lot colder than down in the southern part of the country where I usually am. It was bloody freezing--and I am being both literal and hyperbolic.
Day one of the trip included the five hour bus ride and an afternoon at Nami Island. Nami Island is this amazing tiny island that is shaped like a cresent moon. It has evolved into quite the tourist attraction, with ice fountains, soju bottle statues, idyllic pathways and historical monuments. It was gorgeous. Surrounded by mountains and covered in snow, it was the perfect weekend spot away from the trash and noise that comes with city life. After our visit to the island, we did exactly what foreigners do best in Korea: we drank. With a little buzz on and some very comfortable booze sweaters keeping us warm, we then ventured out to see what our Korean guide, Pedro, explained to us was a "botanical garden." Now, in my experience, a botanical garden is not something one visits in the dead of winter, since you know.... plants die. But I underestimated the heck out of this botanical garden. It was more like a light show. They had covered every tree, every vine, every bush with lights. It was amazing--check out the photos in my last album for proof.
That night we stayed in a lovely/horrifying place entitled "Petit France." For reasons I cannot fathom, someone in Korea thought it would be a genius idea to create a small French village in the middle of God's land Korea. Before departing to Petit France, Pedro told us to stock up on supplies because there was no place close to the village to buy anything. This place was literally in the middle of nowhere. But for a nights stay it worked out well enough. I shared a room with eight other people, we stayed up late talking about our different experiences teaching at different places throughout Gwangju, drank a bit more, and taught each other card games. Altogether a successful evening when you were able to stop thinking about how this tiny French village full of foreigners was the perfect plot for a murder mystery movie.
Day two involved us getting back on the bus and as far away from France as possible. We arrived at the Hwacheon Sancheoneo Ice Festival, which CNN has declared as one of the "Seven Wonders of Winter" and it was definitely that. We started the day ice fishing, a new experience for me. And while I am glad that I did it, I don't know if you will find me out of the ice again anytime soon. It was traumatizing. My fish simply wouldn't die!! I didn't know what to do. I caught him, I put him in the bag they gave me, and then I had to watch him die slowly. As I freaked out, the Korean men who were helping us out just laughed and pointed at me like I was some silly fool, panicking over a fish. But afterwards they cook your fish right there for you to eat. Now, I'm usually not a huge fan of seafood, but that fish was the best thing I've ever eaten that knew how to swim. It doesn't get much more fresh that water to grill in twenty minutes. Yum:)
After the fishing, we wandered around the festival grounds, trying out some Korean street vendor food and sipping on soju, when we came across something spectacular: ATVs. For 10,000 won you could rent an ATV and race around a track made on the frozen river. I could only picture the horror stories from back home, of people trying to drive across the Mississippi with their snow mobiles, but this is Korea--so I went for it. After seven months without a vehicle, it was a rush to be able to drive and control something!
And then it was back on the bus for another five hours back down south. There are a couple memories from that bus ride that I will try to forget but will never, ever be able to ;) A lucky few will get to hear that story someday... But otherwise it was a wonderful wintery weekend away. Monday morning came much too fast and I found myself wishing January would disappear again. But without January, there would have been no Hwacheon trip, so I'm counting this month as a success, even in light of the horrible, no good, very bad work life. That's another reason I'm in love with travelling: even the times when you're tired, maybe a little homesick, or just plain-old over it, all it takes is a day to set you right as rain. Complacency is the enemy when you're on the road. Find a new place, a new scene, or a new friend and it will remind you of where you are in that moment, and why you came in the first place. Hate being bored? Do something about it. If you are bored, you are doing it wrong. I learned that lesson last weekend, for sure.