• Jul282016

    POSTED AT 11:34 AM



    Our last day in South Korea and we woke up to rain. I guess we were really very lucky as the weather forecast had called for rain all week, and this is the first we’ve seen. This is monsoon season and we were prepared for the worst, so the day’s drizzles did dampen our spirits.

    Every year on July 27, this year being no exception, the Koreans celebrate the anniversary of the signing of the Armistice that ended the Korean War. It is an extremely meaningful day for the Koreans. Our first event was a televised celebration which included the who’s who of Korean politics. In the audience alongside us were the Korean Prime Minister, under-ministers, and dignitaries, along with both active and veteran service members. Performances were presented by school children, actors, and even members of our own United Nations Peace Camp.

    Next stop was the Museum of Korean Warfare, where we participated in closing ceremonies for the peace camp. We viewed a wonderful video that had been produced highlighting the kids’ experiences throughout the week and awards were bestowed for team achievement. Everyone left the auditorium with a beautiful Korean fan as a gift from the MPVA (Ministry of Patriots and Veterans Affairs.)

    Our final culminating affair of this week’s festivities was a very special banquet held at the extremely swanky Grand Hyatt Hotel in Seoul hosted by the MPVA. What a special event and tremendous honor to be in attendance. We were strategically seated at our tables to best represent all that had occurred in memorium of the Korean War veterans this past week. Seated at my table were three American Korean War veterans (two with their wives and one with his daughter), an American student participant of the United Nations Youth Peace Camp, the Director of the Youth Peace Camp and myself. It was a lovely seven course dinner and everyone who is anyone in Korea appeared to be in attendance. The program, including an appearance by the world famous Little Angels of Korea was charming.

    And with all of that, my experience here in Korea has come to a close. Some observations:

    1) The Korean people are more generous and willing to help than just about any other people I’ve ever encountered. If you asked someone to suggest a good restaurant, they walked you to one, or if you needed an accommodation for something, they put forth 110% effort to please you.

    2) Korea is an interesting country and although I loved my experiences there, I would suggest that you visit in the spring or fall instead of the sweltering July heat.

    3) I am very sad that we, at home in the United States, have no idea how much the Korean people appreciate America. They go above and beyond every year celebrating and thanking the United Nations, especially the United States for “saving their country.” Koreans we encountered daily, even just passerbys on the streets, stopped to tell us how much they appreciated my country. It made me feel much honored.

    When, in the future, I hear people comment about “America having enough to worry about here,” or wondering why the United States has to be the World’s police, I will fondly remember the South Koreans… the amazing people and the beautiful place that would no longer be here if it weren’t for the country I’m proud to call my home.

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    Jul282016

    POSTED AT 10:48 AM


    Today was spent in “The Seoul City” (as the Koreans say it.) Riding the bus into Seoul, we enjoyed the beautiful mountains before experiencing complete urban sprawl. Upon our arrival, we went straight to lunch, which was very enjoyable today as we were seating among our groups of students and got to know each other a little better. I sat with a young Korean girl whose American name was Helen, another whose American name was Joy, and a beautiful Greek girl from Piraeus named Natalia. Helen wants to be a tour guide and I believe that she will be rather good at it because I’ve heard her explaining to other students the sites we have been seeing on our visit. Joy is engaged in Greek Studies at the University in Seoul, so her friendship with Natalia makes perfect sense. All of them were pretty impressed that I could speak to them in Greek (just a simple hello, good morning, good afternoon, and thank you), and that I knew many Greek dishes and was familiar with many Greek locations. In addition, they were impressed that I had caught on to the names of many of the Korean dishes and was able to identify particular ingredients such as ginseng, lotus root, and jellyfish. Later, Helen gave me a small gift of some seaweed and a beautiful note that thanked me for being her mentor because she has “learned so much about how to be a strong woman from me.” That made my heart smile.

    After lunch, we visited the Museum of Contemporary Korean History, which was an interesting little museum and a good way to relax a bit in the cool after lunch. From there, we headed to a pedestrian shopping area called Insadong. Unfortunately, I was a bit disappointed with the shopping experience for a couple of reasons: First, every store had almost exactly the same 5 to 10 souvenirs (chopsticks, coin purses, teacups, etc.); and secondly, they weren’t interested in haggling their prices at all, an activity that I enjoy probably more than I should. I made a few purchases before we headed off to visit a Buddhist palace and temple.

    The main palace in Seoul was closed on Tuesday, so we weren’t able to view it. However, I was told that it is very similar to the Forbidden Palace in Beijing. That being said, I’m not sure that I mind missing it. The weather was extraordinarily hot and the thought of navigating a ‘forbidden palace’ again wasn’t very appealing. Someone said to me when I went to real one, “if you go to Beijing and don’t go to the Forbidden City you’ll never forgive yourself AND if you go to Beijing and go to the Forbidden City you’ll never forgive yourself.”

    The Buddhist palace and temple was very nice though, kind of low key and comfortable. Inside the temple were three very large gold Buddhas. But time was short and we needed to quickly move along as we were expected at the cinema for movie night.

    We ended our activity filled day with a sneak preview of a Korean new release, “Operation Chromite” starring Liam Neeson as General Douglas MacArthur. Operation Chromite was the code name given to the infamous Incheon Landing offensive. Four Korean actors whom I’ve never heard of were at the premiere, but their popularity was obvious from the screams of the Korean girls in the audience.

    Tomorrow is our last full day in Korea as we all depart for home on Thursday. There are many ceremonial activities for the anniversary of the Korean War armistice signing and it appears will be extremely busy.

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    Jul272016

    POSTED AT 10:22 AM

     


     

    I apologize for not keeping up, but I’m wiped out! No, seriously, I’m sooo tired. This program has kept us going from 6 am until after midnight each day, not that I’m complaining… I’m just tired.

    So on Monday, I experienced one of the coolest and scariest things I’ve ever done…I went to North Korea. Sure, it was only for a minute or so, and I was only a few feet over the border, but I crossed the 38th parallel. Take that, Kim Jong Un!

    Ok, so it wasn’t as risky as it sounds. We were taken on a military tour of the DMZ (De-Militarized Zone) at the 38th parallel, between north and South Korea. We were met by United States soldiers and I guess that somewhat surprised me. Both Americans and Koreans guard the MDL (Military Demarcation Line) which is the exact border between the two countries. The rules were very strict and before the tour we were given instructions on how to comport ourselves… “do not engage with the North Korean soldiers in any manner. Do not point! Do not gesture!” We were then escorted into a small blue building which we were told was a United Nations Conference Room. Dividing the room in its direct center was a table. The center of this table in the middle of the room was the MDL. In other words, those who sat on one side of the table were in South Korea and those who sat on the other side were in North Korea. Surrounding the outside of the building were both North and South Korean soldiers. They just stand there looking into each other’s eyes all day. However, in the inside of the building, under armed American guard, we were allowed to cross above the MDL. We were in North Korea.

    Afterward, during a brief bus tour around the DMZ, we stopped to view a bridge that the soldiers call the “Bridge of No Return.” POWs (Prisoners of War) released after the armistice was signed were left at the foot of the bridge to choose where they would live out the rest of their lives. Those who didn’t cross were allowed to stay in South Korea. Those who crossed to the communist north could never return.

    So what better way to end a day that starts out as exhilarating as crossing the 38th parallel? How about… “I’m going to Disney?” Well, there’s no Disney in Korea but there is Everland, a very “Disneyesque” amusement park where anime characters replace the mouse and duck. It was actually quite impressive as was its signature roller coaster the T-Express, a tremendous wooden roller coaster with ‘straight down’ drops and frightening speed. I swear, that thing lifted my butt at least 6 inches out of the seat on numerous occasions during the ride. I kinda doubt this ride would even be legal in the United States!

    Tomorrow I will try to get caught up on days 5 and 6 while flying home on my 18 hour flight!

    Good night everyone!

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    Jul242016

    POSTED AT 01:06 PM

     


     

    We left for Busan very early this morning and therefore were given a bento box style breakfast which was probably one of the most interesting breakfasts I’ve ever encountered. Included were a half of hot dog adorned with mustard, ketchup and onion relish, 2 yummy fried chicken nuggets, two (yes, two) french fries, a blueberry bagel with jam, kimchi, and fruit.

    We began our day at the United Nations Memorial Cemetery in Korea with a ceremony honoring the contribution of the countries which supported S. Korea in the Korean War. The students, all descendants of veterans who had fought to keep that country from falling to communism in the 1950s, stood together in silence watching flags from 36 nations wave in honor of the deceased. Following the ceremony, I watched and photographed as the students placed flowers on the graves of veterans from their countries. The deceased of some countries KIAs were repatriated (the bodies returned to their home countries) so some, like the American descendants, placed their flowers on U. S. memorial instead. One of my colleagues witnessed a young man from South Korea, head towards the American memorial. He observed him place his only flower at the foot of the American memorial, step back, and deeply and slowly bow. Such an amazing testament to the respect and gratitude this young man, and many others, feel towards S. Korea’s greatest ally during that horrible Cold War era.

    Next, we boarded the S. Korean high speed “bullet” train to transfer to Pusan, a city that played a key role in the Korean War. My colleagues and I navigated our way to the Hae Dong Yong Gung Temple (Buddhist), which I would soon find out, could definitely have been named the “Temple of A Zillion Steps.” We arrived at the temple via taxis which left us off at the top of a hill, and we wandered down through an awe-inspiring street market which had shops of trinkets and ever so interesting street food such, as fried grub worms and grilled octopi. As we continued walking “down” the path into the temple, I realized that walking back “up” the path was going to prove a great challenge for me; however, I pushed the thought from my mind with a Scarlet O’Hara “I’ll deal with that later” attitude and continued to be astonished by the views. With the temperature in the upper 90s and near 100% humidity, I was soaking wet with sweat by the time we arrived at the temple itself.

    As the Buddhists worshipped, the tourists clamored to take photographs and view the customs of those who practice this unique way of life. There were shrines to Buddhas of all endowments: academic success, the care of children, the birth of a boy child, even one for driving safely. It was a seaside temple nestled on the side of the mountain and provided jaw dropping views of magnificence. Although I am not Buddhist, I have to admit that there was an unmistakable spirituality in the air.

    The trek back up the “zillion stairs” was most challenging and I think I only made it back to the top through sheer determination and will (and knowing that the others, who had gone ahead, were waiting for me to make it back to them.) I was never so glad to see an air-conditioned taxi in my entire life.

    We met our benefactor, Dr. Han for a traditional “upscale” Korean meal that I’m sure I won’t be able to describe justly. It was a definite “adventure” in eating.

    I swiped this list from my friend and colleague Barry’s blog, as his memory for Korean delicacies is obviously must greater than mine (or perhaps he was taking notes!)

    Course 1: Abalone Organ Porridge (yup, organs)
    Course 2: Appetizers made of roots
    Course 3: Fruit and lotus root salad (fresh and good)
    Course 4: Pancake of The Six Colors
    Course 5: Sashimi of Flatfish and Octopus
    Course 6: Mushroom and Beef Bulgogi
    Course 7: Giant Prawns
    Course 8: Ginseng and Fungus with Honey
    Course 9: Fish, Zucchini, and Kimchi pancakes
    Course 10: Vegetable Tempura
    Course 11: Spicy Slivered Octopus
    Course 12: Gujeol-Pan (9 Delicacies)
    Course 13: Seaweed and Mushroom Soups
    Course 14: Blueberries and Honeydew

    Honestly, some of the items were tasted and swallowed quickly to keep from gagging, but all were sampled and most were pretty good. I am always amazed at the care taken in presentation of Asian meals, and this was certainly no exception. It is so true that “we eat with our eyes.”

    So tomorrow’s adventure starts out at the DMZ (De-militarized Zone) between N. and S. Korea. I heard a rumor that I may even be able to put one foot into N. Korea, wish me luck!

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    Jul232016

    POSTED AT 04:03 PM


    This morning, after a very restless night's sleep in my 84 degree bedroom, I was greeted by smiling faces, sandwiches, salads and spicy kimchi for breakfast. Kimchi is a popular spicy Korean dish made from fermented cabbage and other veggies.  Some I've liked, some, not so much.

    Within the United Nations Youth Peace Camp, I am the team mentor for Group 5, and we intend to preform all of our missions to the fullest. Group 5 is a very diverse group of college students from all over the world. We represent Korea, USA, Canada, Greece, Britain, New Zealand, Thailand, and I'm sure other places that I've already forgotten.They are so eager to participate in the camp activities and have great spirits.  At our "olympic" competition today, we took 1st prize and each received a moon pie.  That's right moon pie's were created in Korea and are an iconic Korean snack.  I had banana.

    This morning, we traveled from Incheon into Seoul to visit the Korean National Museum.  On the way there, our bus passed the "chic" Gangnam neighborhood, apparently the 90210 of Korea (hence the song!)  Upon arrival at the museum, we were treated like very special guests as we were explained the concept of Hongik Ingan, a Korean way of life which means that Korea believes their duty as a country and as global citizens requires them to help mankind.  They showed us how Koreans, in the 1990s, because of the severe economic depression, lined up at banks... not to make withdrawls but to voluntarily donate their gold and jewelry.  Their effort raised billions of dollars for the rebuilding of the Korean economy.  What an amazing concept.

    Before touring the museum, we were all dressed in Korean formal wear, the Hanbok, and learned some lessons in respect, especially of our elders... of which, in this group, I am one.

    The tour of the museum was unfortunately brief, but I did get to the the Korean "Mona Lisa" of sorts, the Pensive Bodhisattva. A Bodhisattva is a Buddhist on the path to enlightenment. This is Siddhartha Gautama, THE Buddha, before he reached Nirvana.  The mysterious small explains the reason for the comparison to the Mona Lisa. I could have spent many more hours in the massive museum, but alas, we were whisked back to the University for a lecture on the Korean War by a South Korean military professor.  He was obviously nervous about lecturing to "teachers," but we tried to make him feel as comfortable as possible. 


    Tonight, the kids had K-Pop dance lessons and a dance, on which the teachers decided to skip out. We walked, instead a mile or so to a nearby "mall" where we had some great adult bonding and sought to taste Soju, the national "drink" of Korea.  The bar we stopped at was adorned with American antiques and Tarentino movie posters.  The place was brilliant! However, when we ordered Soju for the ten of us, we were told they had none.  We opted for a beer instead.  Surprisingly, several minutes later, the young Korean waiter showed up at our table with a small pitcher of Soju and glasses for us all.  He had gone to the store down the street to purchase this "gift" for us and refused to except payment.  Needless to say, we tipped him well for his awesome customer service. 

    Tomorrow morning is a high speed "bullet" train ride to Busan (Pusan).  Busan is the original name of the city; however, Americans in the Korea War mispronounced the name because of the way Koreans said it, and in our history books (and in Korea) it became known as Pusan.  (The same thing happened with Beijing and Peking in China.)  Both Korea and China have now reverted back to the original names of their cities. 
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    Jul222016

    POSTED AT 12:12 PM



    A few months ago, I had the great honor of being selected as one of ten educators in the United States to receive a fellowship to go to South Korea as mentor/facilitator for a United Nations Youth Peace Camp commemorating Korean War veterans and the anniversary of the truce in the Korean War. In addition to serving as a mentor at the camp, we also have been awarded the privilege of escorting a group of American War Veterans for a revisit tour to see the amazing changes that have taken place in Korea since they and the United Nations helped South Korea fend off communism in the 1950s. Veterans and their ancestors from 21 countries will be here this week as we celebrate and explore. 

    My journey began on Thursday when I boarded a plane for Inchon, S. Korea with a connection in Detroit.  Because we flew west over Canada, Alaska, the Bering Strait, and Russia before finally landing late Friday evening, I went 24 hours without seeing nighttime, as we were always one step ahead of the dark.  The 17 hour plane flight was rough, but I expect will be well worth it, as has been every international flight I have ever taken.  We were greeted by an awesome United Nations staff, whisked off to an orientation and assigned a room.  To say it's hot here is a gross understatement and the rooms had no air on when we arrived.  My thermostat read a cool 94 degrees when I went to settle in at 9 pm.  I've been here three hours, with the air running continuously, and it is still over 80 degrees in my sleeping quarters.

    I haven't seen any of Korea yet, except for the interstate highway in the dark and lots and lots of brightly lite skyscrapers. With every new adventure come new experiences and I cannot wait to take in the sights, sounds, tastes, and feelings in which I'm about to be immersed.  Come with me, won't you please!

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    Jun272015

    POSTED AT 09:47 AM


    We said goodbye to Shanghai after two days and said hello to Xi’an, the oldest of the four great capitals of China, having held the position under several of the most important dynasties in Chinese history, including Zhou, Qin, Han, Sui, and Tang. Xi'an was the starting point of the Silk Road and home to the Terracotta Army of Emperor Qin Shi Huangdi.

    Our first night in Xi’an, we had a dumpling dinner which featured almost 20 different types of dumplings and was absolutely delicious. When we awoke the next morning, we were off to what was the highlight of my trip and the part I’d so anxiously awaited. We went to see Qin Shi Huangdi’s terracotta warriors. I expected spectacular, but it was even better than I’d hoped. It was almost surreal standing so close to the 2,300 year old statues which were uncovered by peasants digging a well in 1974. We were even lucky enough to actually see archeologists uncovering and putting together the antiquities. I could have stayed there all day….

    But our guide had other plans. We ate lunch at an awesome restaurant where the locals actually made the noodles while we watched. Then, in the rain, we were off to climb the city wall, visit a Chinese Islamic Mosque (that was interesting and certainly unique) and view a shadow puppet performance.

    Because we had a few hours on our own before dinner, some of us walked back to the Muslim Quarter which was vibrant with lights, sounds, street food, and shopping. We haggled and argued and had a blast talking down the price of already inexpensive souvenirs. Some of us had to buy new suitcases because we’ve already purchased too much to pack into the luggage we brought with us. We shopped so long we had to almost run back to the hotel to meet the rest of the group for dinner.

    Dinner our final night in Xi’an was at a Chinese Muslim restaurant. Not my favorite meal of the trip, but I found enough to fill me up.

    Not to miss a single thing, the following morning, our guides took us to the Wild Goose Pagoda, a Buddhist temple before catching the train to Beijing, our final stop of this amazing adventure. This was a very interesting temple with an even more interesting guide. The tour ended with a lesson in Chinese calligraphy. My luggage is getting awful heavy!!!

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    Jun252015

    POSTED AT 10:37 AM


    We arrived in Shanghai in the late afternoon and after a visit to the Pearl Tower were allowed dinner on our own. My cousin Steven, his wife Apple, and their 2 year old son Eric (who are currently living in Shanghai) met me at my hotel and took me out for a walk on Nanjing Road and to a wonderful restaurant for delicious Shanghainese food. We had a nice visit.

    Shanghai is a younger Chinese city with a skyline full of skyscrapers and economic activity all around. Our hotel was located near the Bund area (banking and professional area) of the city.  It is said that everything can be purchased in Shanghai...for a price.

    Some of the highlights of Shanghai were the astoundingly beautiful Yu Garden (where one can get lost and be completely content) and the shopping district surrounding it. In the shopping district we used our negotiating skills to purchase many things we probably didn't need.  We also visited the French Concession House were the CCP (Chinese Communist Party) was founded. The visit to the silk factory was particularly interesting until it turned into an infomercial for silk bedding, which I'd love to own, but unfortunately can't afford.

    The evening of our second night we were fed an amazing multi-dish dinner and unlike in Japan, everything we were served was cooked! Following dinner, we were taken to a performance of the Chinese acrobats...breathtaking!

    This morning, we fly from Shanghai to Xian. As I write this we are sitting on the plane "awaiting clearance." I'm not exactly sure what's going on but the pilot made an announcement and everyone around me took off their seatbelts and moaned...then they began serving food... This doesn't seem like such a good sign!

    Jun212015

    POSTED AT 08:55 AM


    Our last day in Tokyo was spent on a city tour that began with the Tokyo fish market, where the famous daily tuna auctions are held. Tsukiji Market is best known as one of the world's largest fish markets, handling over 2,000 tons of marine products per day. Unfortunately, this century old market is about to lose its home when its lease from the Tokyo government expires in November and will be relocated. The locals aren’t too happy about that and I could see why. It is a culture within itself and the excitement there is overwhelming.

    We then proceeded to visit two Shinto shrines, Yasukuni and Asakusa. Both were absolutely beautiful.  Shinto shrines are places of worship and the dwellings of the kami, the Shinto "gods". The Shinto religion deals with purity and happiness in the present. It does not deal with the afterlife and because of this, often goes hand in hand with the Buddhist religion. 

    The culminating evening event was “Makumi” at the Kabuki Theater. Kabuki is the most popular form of Japanese drama and most of the stars are also stars of television and movies. Because of this, the actors have a large following and it isn’t uncommon for male audience members to shout things out to the actors onstage. The production, costumes, etc. were spectacular; however, because the performance is completely in Japanese, it seemed very long and I’m not gonna lie, more than a few of our group fell asleep.

    The following morning we left the hustle and bustle of Tokyo by train to the more traditional area of Nara where we visited the Byodoin, a very large and beautiful Buddhist temple. We then were brought to our lodging for the night… a traditional Ryokan hotel. A Ryokan is a type of traditional Japanese inn that originated in the Edo Period. The Ryokan we visited had tatami-matted rooms, communal baths, and other public areas where guests were welcomed. We wore traditional Japanese Yukatas (summer kimono) and  had a beautiful traditional Japanese dinner. 

    After visiting more temples and shrines today, we headed back by bus to Kyoto where we will spend the rest of our time in Japan before moving on to China.

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    Jun182015