Lights Out in Seoul

Last night, between 8.30 and 9.30pm, people around the world turned out their lights for Earth Hour. For the first time, Seoul was an official participant this year. Today I read that lights were turned off at several landmarks, like COEX shopping centre, 63 Building, Seoul Station, the bridges across the Han River, and government buildings across the city.

Seoul's skyline during Earth Hour 2009

Seoul's skyline during Earth Hour 2009

I was at a friend's house near Itaewan and went up to the roof to checkout the N Seoul Tower. A few of its lights were out, but it looked like the restaurant and observatory were still lit up. The apartments all around me were as bright as they would be any other day of the year.

I tried telling some of my Korean co-workers about the event, but the response was underwhelming. No one had heard of Earth Hour before. I didn't read anything about it in the news, either. The message just wasn't getting out. My friend, when I told her about Earth Hour, said it was a good idea but "at that time it's in the middle of the dramas on TV." It's a little disappointing for a city of over 10 million. With all those voices working together, Seoul can really send a message to the world that Koreans think climate change is an important issue.

So, a little frustrated, I went back inside the darkened apartment and played cards by candlelight with my friends. I can only hope that next year the word will have spread and more people will participate. Maybe next year...

Earth Hour Seoul, 2009
What is Earth Hour?

N Seoul Tower

N Seoul Tower (known as Namsan Tower before its renovation a few years ago) is probably the most well-known landmark in Seoul. How could it not be when it's seen from just about anywhere in the city? It sits on top of Namsan, a small mountain in the middle of the city, just north of the Han River. I visited the tower once, for my 100th day in Korea celebration. The observatory has a view of the whole city. It's an amazing sight, especially at night.

Does Travel Always Have to Be About the Journey?

They say travel is about the journey, not the destination. But sometimes the journey is long, boring, and frustrating.

I spent the evening on a bus from Singapore that would take me to Kuantan, Malaysia. It was an uncomfortable ride; I've never understood why buses need to be as freezing cold as they always are.

In the middle of the night, the bus pulled up in front of a fancy hotel and told me to get off. After handing me my backpack, they drove off, leaving me confused and very angry. This most certainly was not the bus station I imagined. I was informed there was no room for me at the hotel, which was fine because I never would have been able to afford it anyways. The hotel guard gave me a chair and I sat down next to him at the gate, wondering what the heck I was supposed to do now.

Some time later, a van pulled up. "Let me ask my friend," the guard said. The van driver could take me to the bus station in Kuantan, the guard said, so that I could get a bus and meet my friend in Cherating on time (the story I told the guard instead of admitting I was on my own). After thinking about the situation for a minute (like I always do before getting into a vehicle with a stranger), I decided it should be okay and I got in.

The bus station was big. The gravel parking lot I was standing in was filled with big white tents and some red and yellow taxis. The station in front of me was a two-story building with blue- and white-tiled platforms underneath and the waiting area up above. It was still dark and the platforms were all empty. A sign that read "Kounter Tiket" directed me upstairs, where lots of people were waiting for their buses and sleeping on the wooden benches. It was cluttered, and it certainly wasn't clean. One wall was lined with ticket booths, but they were all closed. Besides that, I didn't see "Cherating" on any of the signs.

I found an empty spot on a bench and decided to settle in. A young man beside me said hello and we talked for a bit. When I told him where I was going, he told me to wait until 7 (then still over an hour away) before looking for tickets. I tried to make myself comfortable and prepare myself for the long wait.

I was half-asleep when a station worker called up from the platforms below. I imagined he was talking about the arrival of a bus, but of course I really had no idea. He came up to the waiting area and the young guy beside me exchanged a few words with him. He told me to follow the older man downstairs, so I grabbed my bag and headed off, excited I might be on my way soon.

But when I got downstairs, I was told that I was at the wrong bus station; this was the long-distance station and I needed to go to the local one. Of course, a taxi driver was more than happy to drive me there. Frustrated, I refused, instead wanting to walk myself there with the hopes that the walk would calm me down.

I got directions and started off. Right, then left, straight through the lights, then right again---simple enough, right? But before I even made my first turn I realized I shouldn't be doing this. 1) I suck at directions in general, 2) I couldn't see where the first turn was, 3) I'm alone, 4) I'm in Malaysia, and 5) it's still dark. I turned around and, with a sheepish look on my face, went back to the taxi driver.

He seemed irritated I didn't go with him the first time he offered. In fact, he told me so. While we drove, I noticed we weren't going the way he had told me to talk, so I asked him where we were going. He got angry and started yelling at me. "Why don't you trust me?" he said. "Why do you keep asking me? It's a one-way street so I have to go around!" I could see that this taxi ride would do nothing to cheer me up.

The local bus station turned out to be nothing more than a gravel square with two very old looking buses parked at one side. There was an open-air restaurant at the back of the station, the kind of restaurant with plastic chairs and tables and food in plastic bowls covered in saran-wrap. Two women were wiping down the tables and washing the dishes, getting ready for their day to begin. I wasn't hungry, so I spent my time watching mice scurry across the gravel as the sun started rising.

Finally my bus pulled up. I paid a couple ringgits to the driver and sat down. The bus, like the ones in the parking lot, was old; it's dark blue paint was weathered and the seats were grey and tattered. I had no idea when I was supposed to get off, but that didn't stop me from nodding off to sleep. The ride was long; we stopped at the side of the road to pick up more passengers dozens of times. When I got on the bus was almost empty, but soon most of the seats were taken. I tried to look at the landscapes we passed and watch the local scene outside my window, but I kept falling asleep.

Some time later, I realized I missed my stop, but, without knowing where I was or what I was doing, I just kept going. Eventually we passed under an archway across the road that read "Terengganu" so I thought we had driven all the way to the city of Kuala Terengganu. Really, we just crossed into the province, but I didn't learn this until we stopped at another big bus station and I started walking towards what I thought was the city centre. I was tired, sweaty, hungry, and completely lost.

I spotted a small hotel at the side of the highway and decided to ask for directions to a Terengganu hotel I read about in my guide book. As it turns out, I was in Kemaman, a much smaller city still a far distance from KT. They called me a taxi to take me to Cherating.

At 9.30am, I checked into a hotel in Cherating. After nearly twelve hours of buses, bus stations, taxis, and adventures on foot, I had finally arrived.

A Walk in the Woods of Taman Negara
Wandering Around Kuala Lumpur
Me, Myself & Malaysia

Me, Myself & Malaysia

I was looking out the plane window when I saw them for the first time. Even thousands of feet below, they still looked tall. They stood there, two silver towers, illuminated in the dark of night with a white glow in a sea of orange street lights. It was my first trip all by myself---something I wouldn't have even considered doing just six months ago.

For years, I've been hearing how travelling alone is one of the greatest experiences. It's the ultimate freedom, they say, of going where you want to go and doing what you want to do, whenever you want to do it. I, however, disagreed. It's just lonely. A few years ago, when I was living in Ghana, I couldn't even last a whole weekend by myself. I remember bolting back to Accra in the middle of the night because I couldn't bear spending another night alone.

Part of me, though, realized at some point I would have to learn how to be comfortable travelling solo. I mean, could I really be considered an adventurer if I've never ventured off alone? I'm not sure what changed in me, but, for whatever reason, when I discovered I was sans travel buddy for my summer vacation, I just shrugged and told myself, well I guess it's time.

And so I found myself looking down at the Petronas Towers from the plane, about to land in Kuala Lumpur for the start of my first solo adventure. Just me, myself, and Malaysia.

Seoul + Planet Earth

I love this planet. I LOVE this planet. Which is why I want to spend my life exploring every part of it I can. So when something easy and fun comes along and encourages me to help it out a little, I can't---and won't---say no.

Earth Hour was started last year in Australia, supported by the World Wildlife Fund, as a way to raise awareness for energy conservation. Participants, individuals or even whole cities, turned out lights and any other non-essentials for just one hour tonight. I sat in my dark apartment and watched YouTube videos on my batteried-up computer. I was in the midst of getting ready for a night out, but next year I'll be dressed and outside, maybe looking for stars on my apartment rooftop, enjoying the unusually darkened sky.

Seoul wasn't an "official" participant in tonight's worldwide event, and since I was hanging out in my apartment for the hour, I don't know for sure what the city looked like. I read that N Seoul Tower, the most prominent landmark of the city, turned its lights out. As well, an official press release stated that twenty-two bridges along the Han, Olympic Stadium, World Cup Stadium, and City Hall all went dark to mark the occasion.

Crossing the river at night in Seoul is always an amazing sight. Millions of lights from the tall apartment buildings along the Han reflect in the still, black waters. I love watching the subway trains and cars moving along, carrying busy Seoulites wherever they need to go in this huge city. It would have been incredible to see it all disappear into darkness.

Besides Earth Hour's focus on energy conservation, there's other conservation issues to work on, too. I'm proud of Seoul's citizens for keeping the city's many small mountains scattered in between highrises as natural playgrounds instead of covering them with more apartments. But, a city of over ten million residents can always use a little more oxygen. And now, like every spring, Korea is being attacked by yellow dust arriving from China, so we need some fresh air more than ever. Sikmogil, Arbor Day, in Korea is coming up on 5 April and, incredibly, it used to be a public holiday until 2005.

Certainly, protecting our earth is something Koreans think is important and show it by actively doing something about it.

My First Korean Christmas

It’s a Christmas tradition in my family to go for a drive around town on Christmas Eve to admire the colourful lights. Here in Seoul, I went on many walks around the city for several weeks leading up to the Big Day, hunting for festive displays of glowing lights. I found them.

There’s certainly no shortage of electric, exciting lights in Seoul, especially at top spots like City Hall and Cheonggye Stream. Sidewalks, malls, banks, subway stations—cheerful decorations, the festive spirit, and melodious choruses of “Last Christmas” are everywhere. Even without the glistening white snow and sub-zero winter temperatures, it sure feels like Christmas time.

Because there is a huge proportion of Christians in South Korea, Christmas is celebrated as a religious holiday. It’s different from the gift-giving, family-oriented holiday elsewhere.

As we were all craving family, friends, and turkey on Christmas Day, my expat friends and I headed to the Hilton for a buffet feast. We devoured lamb, beef, seafood, turkey (of course), fruit, salads, and desserts; drank Cass and wine; and enjoyed each other’s company. Here, we’re each other’s family.

My 100th Day in Korea

1 December 2007

Back in September, my friend at work, Ms Heo, told me that it was her boyfriend called to wish her happy 1600 days of being together."Two things," I said. "One, wow, that's a long time. Two, how do you count 1600 days like that?!"

Koreans celebrate anniversaries in increments of hundred days and years, instead of months and years like I'm used to. I immediately decided that I must celebrate my 100th day in Korea, which, according to my cell phone’s handy anniversary reminder function, would be December first.

delicious  pajon

delicious pajon

To celebrate, I invited a couple of my best friends out for a Korean dinner at my favourite Korean restaurant. Ms Heo, a moral studies teacher at my school, has become one of my best new friends I’ve made here, and my other friend is a friend from America I met studying in Ghana a few years ago. We dined on one of my favourite Korean dishes: pajon, a potato and seafood pancake.

with my 100th day party hat at N Seoul Tower

with my 100th day party hat at N Seoul Tower

Afterwards, we went to the N Seoul Tower on Namsan Mountain and took in the panoramic views from the top of the tower. The N Seoul Tower, very similar to the CN Tower in Toronto, is one of Seoul's paramount landmarks. Ms Heo was worried that the views wouldn’t be great because of the cloudy weather, but the clouds didn’t mask the radiance of the lights. The view was amazing. Seeing the glowing city lights is one of my favourite things about city life. The tower's windows are marked with the directions and distances to cities all over the world. We read them all and thought of our friends and family in various locations around the globe. It was the perfect Korean celebration of 100 days in Korea, my new home.

Early the next morning, on 2 December, I received a phone call from a friend that changed my feelings about that day. Our friend, John, died in a motorcycle accident in Seoul the previous evening, on my 100th day. My 101st day in Korea was spent mourning a great new friend.

Jinju Lantern Festival

13-14 October 2007

For my first weekend out of the big city of Seoul, some friends and I decided to check out a lantern festival. After all, what do you think of when you think ‘Asia’? Paper lanterns. Well, paper lanterns, Chinese food, pandas, Buddha, crazy cool fashion, and anime. Or is that just me?

Jinju, which is as far south as Busan, was a 4 hour bus ride away. We splurged on the “deluxe" bus and were rewarded with reclining seats, so I was able to sleep for most of the ride. When we arrived in the early afternoon, we realized we didn’t have much of a plan. What’s there to see in Jinju?

If we had actually done some research, we would have known about the Jinju Fortress, where less than 4000 Korean soldiers stopped 20 000 invading Japanese during the Imjin War in 1592. But instead we spent our time wandering the streets looking for a cheap place to spend the night.

According to the lantern festival brochure I was handed outside the bus terminal, this festival originated from that same battle. Lanterns, floating along the river and flying high in the sky, were used during the invasion here to send signals to troops.

After the beondegi experience livened up our afternoon, we finally headed to the festival. We passed by a few roasting pigs lining the fairway before the crew decided to indulge on a classy pork dinner under a yellow and red striped tent. My stomach refused to accept anything else from me for the rest of the night, so I instead admired the distant lanterns I could faintly see floating on the river. There were the traditional North American fairway games, too, like balloon darts, basketball, shooting practice, and knocking down bottles with a ball. We even spotted a traditional carny with a long ponytail!

thousands of prayer lanterns along the river

thousands of prayer lanterns along the river

A glowing long wall of red lanterns reading “Jinju Namgang Yudeung Festival” officially welcomed us to the festival. There was wall after wall, tunnel after tunnel of these red, rectangular lanterns, which I assume are the “prayer lanterns” the festival brochure describes. These prayer lanterns are supported by the citizens of Jinju, and are silent, glowing prayers for things such as “parents’ long lives” and “students’ exams”.

On the river were huge floating lanterns, colourful and bright. Some depicted scenes from what I can only assume are Korean fairytales or folk stories.There were lotus flowers, men with devil faces, dragons, Dalmatian dogs, men with giant earlobes, soldiers, wagons, children, turtles, women with fans, snails, drums, elves, houses, families sitting down to eat, the Statue of Liberty, and seemingly everything else under the sun. We wanted to take a boat cruise down the river to get a closer look, but they were already booked hours in advance. I wished the buildings along the river would turn out their lights so that just the glow of the lanterns would radiate into the night sky.

In addition to the shining lanterns, fireworks suddenly shot up into the sky while we were admiring the view. The show was amazing. Five locations in the middle of the river simultaneously exploded with fireworks in an incredible display that seemed like the finale the entire time.

After the fireworks ended, we finished our walk along the shore and crossed a bridge. I stopped dozens of times in an attempt to capture a photo that would properly showcase the amazing display of lanterns, but finally I realized I just needed to enjoy it with my own eyes. We happened upon a stage with taekwondo performers, who, to our enjoyment, added nunchaku (nunchucks) to their performance. The grand finale of the festival was a water fountain light show, Vegas style.

The cold air turned us in the direction of our hotel for the night. The festival was over for us, this year.

Van Gogh once said, “I often think that the night is more alive and more richly colored than the day.” After visiting the Jinju Lantern Festival, I now know he’s right.

How I Accepted a Dare and Won the Title 'Princess Beondegi'