Tuesday, October 30, 2007

On my way to San Diego

Getting to the airport was a challenge - I made it so. I waited for the bus for what seemed like a lifetime (maybe a few minutes) in front of my apartment. I was 20 minutes earlier than my friend said the airport bus would arrive. It would provide perfect timing given the hour long ride and 2 hours to check into my flight. I was getting nervous as different colored city buses came and left. I asked a local about the airport bus and she pointed me to a map indicating that it would go the other direction to Seoul Station and would require a line change. I'd later find out that bus does run that way first, then go back to the airport. I don't know why I freaked out, but I found myself running with my luggage to the subway station. A half hour of running, scrambling, and riding the subway put me at Seoul Station, even more confused about the airport bus, and slightly behind. At this point even if I knew where to go, waiting for the bus could be a problem. I flagged down the first taxi I saw at Seoul Station and was on my way.

Korean taxi drivers are a funny bunch. "Adashi", we call them. You'd never guess that it was the polite term for "Uncle". I most often hear Americans yelling that as a cab driver cuts them off or stops in the middle of the road. The thing is, they'll break every law in the book to pick you up, then slam on the breaks for every yellow with a running meter. Adashi was playing that game with me at first. A few glances down at my watch and the occasional one at him (hopefully not too dirty a look) and he got the idea. He put 2 and 2 together and drove like the taxi drivers I've come to know and love here. This included driving fast between ticket radar cameras, making "questionable" lights, and doing a little weaving. I arrived at the airport with time to spare. Naturally, I was obligated to break Korean custom and give him a good tip.

Hopefully I find the 601 bus on the way home.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Bad dudes at work and getting settled at home

On my way to work LT A passed me. I was walking down the sidewalk and he was on his bicycle. He cautiously rode around another pedestrian ahead of me, then rode out of my sight. He's practically a fixture in my 10 minute commute (bed to desk). He always has his helmet and construction style orange reflective jacket over his uniform. He's a mellow guy in his late 30s - he was the one that gave me an in safety brief.

I caught up with him and greeted him as he locked our gate. He says, "good morning" back and casually asks if I saw him fall? "Oh no, I was pretty far behind you", I explained. He mentioned that he was crossing the green pedestrian crosswalk and I thought he said that a car almost hit him. He said that his heart was still beating really fast, but he appeared almost bored. It wasn't until he pulled out his dinged up steel coffee cup that I really started paying attention. He was explaining what happened to the Sargent Major who had recently joined us. A car was making a right hand turn on a red, didn't look at the pedestrians crossing and knocked over LT A on his bike. He curled up out of the way. The car ended up running over his front tire. He said he was OK and shook it off - I guess it pays to be a Navy SEAL. I didn't think to ask whether the driver stopped.

The driving around here still amazes me. My coworker and I took a break from our normal workouts, thank God, to pick up his car and run errands. It's common to see full size buses squeeze through merging cars with less than 3" on each side - only to advance 40 feet and stop behind another car at a light. Before that someone decided to do business with a guy in a van in the middle of the street. I wish I had my camera with me. I saw a motorcycle that had boxes strapped on that went a few feet higher than the riders head! My buddy says that's not unusual. The amount of swerving, merging, honking, and otherwise illegal driving astounds me.

Getting back to the home front...

1. This is the gym that my co-worker and I have been using after work. I didn't realize that volunteering to work out with him meant joining him at least four days a week for heavy lifting of specific muscle sets for over an hour. Everything's sore now except shoulders and triceps since I weaseled my way out of that today - we'll make it up tomorrow, I'm sure.

I've been playing racquetball a few days a week over lunch with other coworkers. I really need to make running a priority to prepare for airborne school. They just came back from a jump today out of airplanes and it sounded awesome! Other jumps are scheduled out of blimps and Chinook helicopters. So getting in shape should pay off big!

2. They recycle everything here! Downstairs in the garbage (recycling) area there's a place for paper, plastic, vinyl, card board, I donno - about 5 other bins. I didn't see any metals, but there are several in front that are only labeled in Korean. Like old blankets, shoes, etc. There's only one small area for what we would consider to be garbage - and they have specific bags that you have to use. Somehow the "food scraps", which looks terrible and smells worse, doesn't stink up the area - they must empty it frequently. They "recycle" that by heating and compacting it then feeding it to their animals. Maybe that's why the super cheap Bulgogi burgers are so nasty! Very cool how efficient they are here. It's a totally different mindset. For example, there are 2 garbage men that ride on the back of each garbage truck to do sorting - shredding documents is probably much more important here. Another example, on the busy tollway there were Koreans standing at the automated machines to grab a ticket and hand it to the driver. You couldn't argue that it didn't speed up the flow at all, but the concept is foreign to me. We would NEVER pay a person to operate the automated system that's there to replace him!

3. House quirks. I still have a few things to figure out - like how to open my dishwasher. Yeah, that's embarrassing. I'll have to put it on my list of "Sally" questions. YOU probably would have a hard time turning on the faucet! Another one is that I kept noticing a mild but fishy smell in my laundry room that would sometimes drift to the kitchen. I tracked it down to a pipe that seems to be venting into my laundry room from within the building outside my apartment. Humm.

3a. The weirdest thing to get used to will be my washing machine. It's brand new and high tech, with lots of buttons and such. It's actually a combo washer/dryer, which is how they come around here. The dryer doesn't really "dry" your clothes. Instead of using lots of energy to heat the air it mists hot water. The result, somewhat damp but mostly dry clothes. What surprises me the most is that it actually takes 4 hours to do this - that's what the fancy LCDs on front predict. It seems to do lots of relatively quick cycles and beep a lot in between. My laundry room includes this drop down clothes hanger rack thing. I'll have to invest in some clothes pins. I'll probably end up taking towels/blankets/sheets to the laundromat on base.

3b. Another building quirk. I've alluded to this a number of times already. The security here is insane! They have their own little mini secret service with earpieces and all! I rarely see the same guard twice - there must be hundreds, and they don't play around! A few co-workers live in another nearby highrise that's pretty nice. They only have a few security guards. Rumor has it that there's something that the ministry of defense maintains as you go upward. I guess that makes sense. Ask me in person if it doesn't.
(RFID Sliding glass door)

Update for the curious - her name was So-Hyun, pronounced "So Young" - not "Too Young", must have been my imagination. I went back and said, "Hi" last night. Hopefully there will be more to follow on this one. Oh yeah, and Austin wants to take me to the "real" clubs here. He's from LA. I'm trying to imagine how packed it must be to meet his approval.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Moving in!

Getting my stuff moved in was surprisingly easy. It took about 2 hours start to finish. I had enough time afterward to walk into work to return my boss's cell phone and bump into my coworker. It's 7:30 - I just got back from an hour long workout with him in my downstairs gym. He kicked my butt and wants to work out a different muscle set tomorrow!

Once again I got rid of too much, this time to long term storage - some of which I will need. I only shipped 850 lbs of the at least 4000 that I was allotted, 425 of which was my motorcycle. I'm glad that I decided to ship as much as I did, particularly of the kitchen items.

Moving into my building proved to be a challenge, but I've come to learn that professional movers are machines - even the Korean variety! My building security guards were all over the movers from the get go. They wouldn't let them park the trucks at the nearest curb - that's saying a lot in Korea. Here your emergency signals either: a) make you invisible or b) say, "I'm so sorry, prease excuse a me".

So they piled all the boxes on the curb and we took a few trips up the elevator. The picture to the right is part of one trip! The security guards posted a perimeter around the activity and stayed there. I left my motorcycle idling for the first 15 minute trip up and didn't think a thing of it.

I bumped into Doe's wife and grandmother walking their twins. I wish I would have caught a picture - maybe next time. Sally was also wandering about. She offered to help, but I don't think there was anything that the movers couldn't handle.

We inventoried all the boxes and they unpacked everything. They were really fast! Then they cleared out all the boxes and packing material - that's a load of empty boxes/filler to the left.

The manager gave me his card and expects me to invite him over sometime - I probably will.

I'm off to wander downstairs for dinner. I now have a lot of condiments and spices, but I held off on the perishables. I'll be traveling to San Diego for a conference next week for five days. My cookware, utensils, place settings, etc are all here but need to be washed. Very few things are in boxes, but I still have a lot of organizing ahead of me!

Saturday, October 13, 2007

My first home cooked meal

This is the treat that I'm enjoying as I type. In fact, it's my second one! I bought a 45c plastic bowel and a one piece table setting. Not your ideal equipment for PBJ, but it doesn't get much more American than that! My household goods shipment is scheduled to arrive tomorrow. It'll be nice to be one with my motorcycle again.

My real first home cooked meal was last night at Do's party. We started eating at about 9:30 and didn't stop for 2 hours. He had about 12 guests but cooked for 30. All I have to say is that Pho better start worrying if Do comes to town! Soon as we finished a plate they brought out another heaping one - I think the king crab legs was the only single item that we finished. We had those clear plastic looking rice paper rolls that Jan makes. In the center was all the usual Vietnamese veggies including cilantro and those peppers that look hot but taste like green peppers. Do gave me a little red one that burned my poor foreign mouth. The mussels were seasoned similarly to the ones that Chris and I had at the Italian restaurant in Chicago. The rib eye was marinated like the sweet Korean BBQ that we're used to. His pork had a very tasty flavor. Everything was spectacular, although I went light on the pork since I was reminded of a different recent pork episode. I was the only one who didn't speak Vietnamese, and Do was really the only other one that spoke fluent English. It didn't matter, though. We all had a great time!

After dinner they brought out mango slices and cake. It was recently Dos birthday and one of the girls. After forcing that down, they brought bananas and grapes. Ughh...too much.

We then sat down to play cards. They had a blackjack variant that was pretty entertaining. At about 2:30 I could hardly keep my eyes open. I was down about $15, which is pretty sad on $1 games, but whatever. Do said that they would probably go until about 5. It would be his friends responsibility to whip up another meal of similar magnitude from his refrigerators. I was too tired to try to call his bluff. He explained that they stay up late because the guys had just got off work and that they "only" get together once a week. They rotate between about 5 households and eat on a similar magnitude every time, although the "style of food" differs.

Too Young

It's Friday night. I'm sitting inside a posh bar at the base of my building. My new Korean friend John J, who lived in Australia since he was 5, just excused himself and his coworker to get a private booth. The fact that he moved literally ten feet over from the bar to a table meant nothing to me. To his boss who would arrive shortly this signified respect. "I'm sorry, it's the Korean culture", explained JJ. The PricewaterhouseCoopers accounting manager was doing what was expected of him by purchasing a $100 bottle of wine and entertaining his boss.

In front of me might have been the best chicken fingers and fries I'd ever had. Minutes ago my new friend James, who plays for the Army band, escorted me two doors down and placed the order to be delivered to the bar. James has been in Korea a year and a half, but can sling the 'Gul with the best of 'em. He's very white but once you hear the Korean come out of his mouth you'd swear he was a local. Even John couldn't believe it. But James is a special case - like the Japanese language geek, Wayne (Nathan) from my freshman dorm. James began with 2 semesters of Korean here, had several tutors, and consistently studies vocabulary 3-4 times every week for at least an hour. He explained to me that tipping isn't part of their culture and it's often considered to be rude. The thing to do is thank them a lot for thanking you for thanking them and give/accept everything with both hands, one supporting the other - it's a sort of submissive/humble gesture.

I was sitting in front of the real reason I wandered into the bar. The bartender was cute and eager to converse. She spoke a little English but Korean was more fun. I ran upstairs to my apartment to bring my Survival Korean phrasebook and she helped me pronounce things. I'm not positive about this, but I swear she said her name was, "Tu Yung". The next natural question revealed that she was in fact 20. Good times - I'll have to check up on Tu sometime ;-)

I forgot to mention that James married a Korean girl. He and his friends hyped up various (non-Itaewon) areas. John agreed - in fact, he said that he's been around: New York, LA, UK, and Australia and he claims Korea's where it's at!

John's wife was expecting him home so he helped me get a taxi. He instructed the driver to send me to Shin Chon, which was a couple of miles away. I wandered around for about an before heading back. I think it's next to a college district because there were lots of youngins around - not nearly as many foreigners (Americans) as Itaewon. I'm interested in going back with someone who knows their way around.

Friday, October 12, 2007

Move in day - the new pad

Living room view

Yay! I'm sitting at my new desk on the 26th floor overlooking trains, traffic, and our work hummers. I'd be able to throw a rock at my office if there wasn't another tower directly in the way. That's good, I won't have to think about work when I come home - yeah, right!

This entry was carried over a borrowed wireless connection from one of my neighbors. Bandwidth tests varied strongly. The best was a 3.34mbps download and 434k upload to LA. I will plug into a 100 meg port and be a part of the buildings lightning fast backbone (I hope...).

The house is perfect. It comes minimally furnished. I wish that I had shipped more than the 800 lbs than I did (including my 400 lb bike). I'll have to figure something out for the guest room.

The entry to my tower is an automatic RFID based, super high tech sliding glass door that hides behind a security tower. My door is a heavy metal thing with a keypad for entry. The "doorbell" has a video camera, speaker, and mic to validate entry. It ties in to the Honeywell home automation system and has a 2nd terminal within arms reach of the master bedroom robo-pot. During testing with Sally I accidentally hit the "alarm" button instead of "speak" or "unlock". After disarming it with my card security was up to check it out - oh well. The home automation system also monitors power usage, sets the temperature, provides a weather forecast, calls management or security, and can be tied into your local phone system. I won't be using it much as my sticky note label system doesn't work on a touchscreen.

You'll immediately notice 2 things when you walk in the front door - an absurdly large set of shoe racks and an incredible view that only looks better at night.

Here are a few shots of my living room - soon to include a TV and electronics. The R2D2 lookin' thing is my air conditioner. The other units I saw were upgraded to have the unit in the ceiling.

The kitchen is nice. It includes gas ranges and a lot of cabinet space. It almost looks normal until you find the 2 refrigerators - not counting the smaller Kim Chi refrigerator in the laundry room. Schaal taught me a thing or two about redundancy - I'll be well taken care of.

The guest bedroom on the left will probably be storage space until someone commits to come to visit - hint, hint. Its bathroom is partially Korean style in that it's lowered and all tiled with a drain. Everything in there but the TP can get wet!

The master bedroom isn't huge, but it's nice. There's a tiled spot between sets of windows for plants. The mini-hallway that leads to the bathroom is like a walk-in closet with more storage room than I have clothes.

An interesting thing about the heating here is that it's provided by hot water in pipes under the floor. Each room has a separate thermostat to control that. Electricity prices are highly progressive here, so I'll have to be particularly careful.

Last, but not least, is my office. I'll be spending a lot of time here! On the right is the view outside the window.

After knocking on my neighbors doors I met a nice Vietnamese American, Army guy named 'Do'. He invited me in for tea and showed me his place. I'm not sure if I mentioned that my floorplan is the smallest in the complex. His unit had many upgrades, including the ceiling A/C and even better views than mine! His setup was very homey and tasteful. He's married, but I'm pretty sure that I outrank him - so I'm probably paying my landlord a bit more than he's paying his. Apparently when he moved in two years ago the towers were brand new and there were a lot of choices. Now these units get snatched up quickly. I'm ecstatic about my find here. Tomorrow I get my own Internet access and my household goods arrive on Monday. Do's cooking tomorrow for a group of his Vietnamese friends and I'm invited. Oh yeah!

There are a few more pictures here. Off to find some dinner...

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Victory!!! and a trip to Osan


Lets first revel in my housing victory. My command really stepped up and saved me from living on base. Without getting into too much detail, my ideal place had been held for over a week and was about to go back on the market through another Realtor. After far too much effort, I was still spinning my tires with required: exception forms, briefs, signatures, etc. Everything depended on something else and there was a lot of red tape. I already knew that I was going to live off base and that it would be there! I received an email this afternoon that my request had officially been approved. Time to strike while the iron's hot! One more trip to the housing office, this time to get something done! A little bargaining, a little yelling (...getting yelled at, if you must know...), an hour later, and I was off with a smile. I'll meet Sally in the morning to get the contract and should be moved in tomorrow.

Waiting for James' wife at a jewelery store across the street

Tuesday was a command holiday. My sponsor James invited me to run errands with him to Osan. His wife and their neighbor were going to check out custom curtains. Despite the high cost of living, skilled labor is still really cheap here. For this trip I'll bullet point interesting things I saw/learned:

1. I went to where the US forces will be by about 2012. Sucks for them as it's not nearly as cool a place as Seoul.

2. They have combo cameras/radar guns that will automatically issue tickets on the highways; similar to our red light running cameras. Their locations and speeds are well known (and posted). Koreans drive like maniacs between the cameras, then traffic slows down to the speed limit. You don't have to be a PHD physicist specializing in wave propagation or have a magical crystal ball to predict the effects this will have on heavy traffic! They even sell GPS devices that have the cameras programmed in. It'll tell you how fast you're going, how fast you should be, and how far away you are from the camera. Only Korea...

3. The rest stop was an interesting experience. This one was on a toll road - the only stop for another 20 clicks. The Koreans haven't figured out that they can rip you off at a place like this (or airports for that matter). It had a food court, free bottled water, and batting cages. I kept hearing a mechanical voice saying, "Stuu-wike", "Stuu-wike". The funny part was that the nearest batter, a goofy businessman in a suit, was swinging his bat at the air. It took several double takes to catch that. I'm guessing that he was watching the next pitching machine over. Again, only in Korea...

4. "Ho-doc" - I remember the name because after fumbling over the pronunciation several times, James constructed a sentence with words that sounded like the syllables. They look like pancakes but taste like funnel cakes. The paper is to protect your fingers from the burning hot treat. They're not overly sweet, but are very tasty. I think I'm hooked!

5. I saw lots more rice fields. This one's for you dad - you should be proud that I sometimes recognize them! I don't think anyone else particularly cares...one of those father-son moments...

Monday, October 8, 2007

USO ATV and Rafting Trip

My awesome sponsor James introduced me to Julie. She's a cool Korean American Army nurse. She's the one I have to thank for coordinating the USO trip. They had a $50 package deal to bus you out to the countryside, ride ATVs or play paintball, then go white water rafting. We have the day off for Columbus Day and somehow there were only 9 people - 5 in Julie's party.

The bus ride took over two hours despite the light traffic in our direction. We drove past countryside rice paddies. I forget the name of the town we went to; it must have been somewhere to the north since I'm told we went by the DMZ.

We arrived at some sort of business that did paintball, ATVs, and rafting. They also had a small traditional style Korean restaurant where we were to eat lunch.

After circling the parking lot to get used to our 150cc quads, we were off! It wasn't too all terrain-y but was lots of fun nonetheless. We rode on the less busy public roads and rice field levies. There was a bridge and the scenery was gorgeous! We stayed in a group, but they weren't picky about the faster guys taking off. Since the course was weak we amused ourselves by driving like idiots - passing on the levees, cutting each other off on the corners, bumping into each other a bit, you get the idea. There was a short stretch of gravel that made it easy to slide the back out. One girl, an elementary school Spanish teacher, accidentally drove off the levee in front of me. I don't think she was purposely driving like an idiot. She was ok.

Lunch was fun but not worth mentioning. It was my first time eating on the floor in the traditional Korean style.

The rafting trip was pretty short. They have 3 different sections of river of which we did one. We were the only ones dumb, ugh...brave, enough to be on the river this time of year. The water was cold but the air had warmed up since the cold morning. The water was also low, which meant both that the rating was low (about a 2), and that the river was dangerous because of all the shallow rocks. Apparently during monsoon season the river reaches a solid 3+. I forget the name of our funny Korean guide. There was one rapid that me and my little Army crew couldn't handle. We hit a rock that threw most of us in (hum...) and managed to turn around backwards. Aside from that we stopped twice to enjoy the scenery and jump off a rock.

There was abundant scenery to enjoy from the bus. I took a few pictures then fell asleep all the way home. More shots here.