Friday, May 11, 2012

Dancing Queens: Serendipity in Daegu

Last weekend, what started as a quest to visit Shannon in Daegu and for the both of us to hike Palgongsan, turned into singing ABBA's "Dancing Queen" on stage in front of hundreds. Part of being a foreigner in Korea means a whole lot of attention wherever you go. Often times you'll be the only foreigner (s) at an event, and therefore, given special opportunities to participate- or make a fool of yourself. The attention can be difficult if you enjoy a low-key existence, but if embraced, there are often positive outcomes.

Last year, I attended a basketball game and, out of the entire crowd, was chosen to participate in a dancing contest on the court. Of course I accepted and there were perks: free movie tickets. The last time I was at the "Save my Friend" campaign urging China to allow North Korean refugees into South Korea, I was called up to give an impromptu speech. The cause means a lot to me so I was glad to do it. And soon I'll have a surgery to fix the membrane of my ear. I want to have it done in Korea, but the waiting list for this sort of surgery can sometimes take up to half a year. I explained that I may not have that much time left in Korea and the doctor kindly made an exception, moving me up on the list and scheduling me within just two months. More than anything else gained from the extra attention are the hilarious stories to be told.

Shannon and I really wanted to hike Palgongsan, but Korea had something much different in store. We couldn't find the mountain nor the trail to the infamous Buddha we had hoped to see. Instead, we stumbled upon a cherry blossom festival where, ironically, there weren't any cherry blossoms. However, there was a stage, people singing karaoke/dancing and hundreds of people in the audience. We bought some makoli (rice alcohol) and plopped down in the sun. Some drunk, creepy men from across the way spotted us immediately and mistook our smiles for flirts. They continued to stare until eventually, too enthralled with the awesomeness of the performances, we forgot about them.

Suddenly, the MC looked our way and motioned for us to take the stage. Everyone in the audience was staring. Shannon and I looked at each other and, without really saying much, both knew for certain that we had no other choice but to go up.  Together and anywhere else, Shannon and I would generally choose a song from the 80's; by Will Smith, Hanson, or Prince; or really anything but ABBA's "Dancing Queen." But here in Korea, English songs that Koreans know are limited, so we knew what we had to do. We BS'ed the lyrics and danced our butts off. Shannon knew more of the words than me and I've got to give her credit for that. The crowd loved it. We have no video and no pictures of this experience, so you'll just have to believe me, but it was definitely hilarious and definitely something worth being proud of- not in terms of talent, but bravery.

The rest of our day was then planned out for us and almost completely free! We recieved free passes for the cable car up the mountain and passes for an almost free dinner. The funniest part: from that moment on, wherever we went, people recognized us, pointing and saying "Dancing Queen!?" We proudly rocked the title.

The stage pre-show

Kids were even participating!  

So it's not a hike, but hey, we still made it to the top of a mountain. 

Shannon goes weeeeeeee

Love locks are a common trend in Korea- apparently on mountains too. 

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Learning to Rock Climb at Bukhan Mountain, Seoul

The air was fresh, as it always is when waterfalls nourish the surrounding trails. The scent of mossy rocks mixed with decomposing leaves from the forest floor filled my lungs as I breathed  in, each breath taking me further from the tiring work week and closer to the natural world. We were a group of 8, some from my usual hiking group led by Mr. Kim and others, friends of Mr. Kim and members of a different hiking group. Half of us would hike to a ridge where we would then rock climb to the top and half would take the valley trail and meet the climbers at a shelter on the other side of the mountain. I had been invited on this trip to learn to rock climb and teaching me would be Mr. Kim, his friend aka Spiderman, and Jorge, a fearless climber from Spain. I guess you could say I was in pretty good hands. 

The group minus myself and one other. 

We stopped about 45 minutes in and one of Mr. Kim’s friends asked if I wanted to try their food. One of the things I like best about hiking in Korea is the communal aspect of snack and lunch time; members of the same group and even different groups almost always share their food and makoli (a Korean rice beverage) and you do the same in return. I didn’t think twice about grabbing a pair of chop sticks and taking a bite. It was spicy and chewy and certainly unlike anything I had ever eaten before. Mr. Kim then asked, “What is it?” in his familiar playful tone. The fact that he was asking said it all- it was something out of the ordinary. My mind immediately focused on the chewy texture. “It has to be skin,” I replied. He smiled and said, “What kind?” “Pig,” I guessed. And he smiled again. It wasn’t bad and I’ll give anything a try. I’m eating less meat these days, but sometimes it’s a cultural experience you can’t avoid. On this day, the cultural experience was eating pig skin…

Pig Skin- Don't hate it, but most definitely don't love it 

More hiking was followed by lunch, which was then followed by the splitting of the two groups. We headed onward toward the ridge while the others enjoyed a longer lunch. I hadn’t been nervous about the rock climb until we reached the base and the setting up of the equipment dragged on and on.  Being the inexperienced one of the group, I couldn’t really assist with much of the preparation, so I was left with the rapidly blowing wind, ever so tall looking rocks, and my overly active imagination. A knot formed in my stomach.

 Spiderman, Mr. Kim, Jorge and me- The climbing group

I pushed through and found myself awkwardly climbing (if you could even call it that) up slab number one. Rock climbing is sort of like skiing, roller blading or ice skating. No matter what verbal instruction you receive, you just have to get the feel for it yourself. I hadn’t done so quite yet, but somehow still managed to complete the first portion. It helped that Mr. Kim was following behind, but at one point during the second portion, I suddenly heard him shout, “oh no!” “AHHH, what?!” I exclaimed. “I just lost some money.” 20,000W had just fallen from his pocked and downward. As much as I felt for his loss, I couldn’t help but think of a million different things he could have said while I was dangling from a rock.

Mr. Kim and myself- Really scared, but I'm still happy smile

While I generally seek out thrilling experiences and absolutely love adrenaline rushes, I’m almost always able to control my mind throughout. But at one point, I lost control of my thoughts and mid-rock, froze, doubting both my shoes and my body’s ability to make it to the next rest point. Not knowing what else to do, I almost cried, but before a single tear could fall from my eyes, Mr. Kim came right up behind me and planted his hand below my foot and said, “You can do this, Lana.” Jorge from below then shouted, “Just trust it. If you fall, you will only fall a meter. We have you.” I quickly regained composure and made it to the next point where Spiderman congratulated me. I call him Spiderman because he was the one initially attaching the ropes that the rest of us used to climb. Unattached, he literally ran up the rocks without a single hesitation.  

Jorge coming up slab number three

It was only the third of the six slabs I would climb, but I was back on track. That is until I spotted something that once again threatened my confidence- a sign next to a very dangerous drop off with three dates. “Holy freaking shit, that's a death list,” I thought to myself and then out loud while peering down the giant slope lying directly under our next rock. If that wasn’t enough to scare me, I soon found out the next portion was to be done without ropes. It had rained the day before and even thought the sun had made an appearance, the rocks were still slippery, especially with the shoes I had on.

"The Point of Death" R.I.P. 

As Spiderman made the climb up first, I watched him very carefully, studying each of his foot and hand placements. I’ve realized by now that the safest and easiest way up these rocks is to just go for it without hesitation and at the quickest speed possible. But at the same time, each move you make means everything in terms of safety. There are no mess ups. Especially not at this point because there isn’t a single stopping point that would catch me if I were to fall. Finally, I just go! I lose all sense of conscious thought, but in a matter of seconds find myself on flat ground.  

I get to the break point and the rush of adrenaline hits me. I feel more alive than I have since who knows when. All I can do is laugh, smile and breath in as much air as my rapidly pacing heart desires.  Feeling confident, I successfully complete the remaining two portions. It’s hardly a beginner climb, but I wouldn’t have wanted it any other way. At the top of the mountain, I felt I had conquered the world. I’m proud of myself and thankful to my climbing partners that I wholeheartedly trusted by the end. Cheers to learning to rock climb!