Thinking about Thinking – more info about Korean Buddhism

Before you read this blog – be sure you’ve read my blogs about the temple stay at Haein-sa – this blog will make a lot more sense then.

One of our guides at Haein-sa summarized Buddhism into 3 rules.
1. Do not do all evil things
2. Do do all good things
3. Clear your mind

Our Monk suggested the following mantras:
1. Think about thinking
2. Share your thinking with others – not what you know or have read – but what you think
3. Walk slowly and be silent. It is in being silent that you can hear yourself thinking.
4. Focus on this moment. On Now. Only what you do now affects your future. The past is gone, the future yet to be written. Only Now counts.

At one of the temples I visited it was suggested that to be a Buddha you must eliminate 3 things:
1. Greed
2. Anger
3. Foolishness

Heady stuff, eh? How often do we just stop and think about thinking unless forced to by some outside force. Even today – Buddha’s Birthday here in Korea, people are consumed with material things – selling their apples or onions or cakes, playing their computer games , or in my case – writing my blog. Are any of us thinking about thinking? Is even thinking about this wasting time?

It’s hard to say from my perspective – I love wandering around markets, if every one was doing mediation, what fun would that be? Maybe it’s enough to know that there are people out there – Priests, Monks, Rabbis, Imams – who ‘job’ it is to think about thinking so we don’t have to.

Signing off so she can do some thinking – the Soup Lady.

Are you a Tourist, a Visitor, or a Traveller?

At Kim’s House in Busan, South Korea, the Intrepid Traveller and I met up with Alfonso – a young (36) Doctor from Spain who asked us if we were Tourists, Visitors or Travellers? When pressed further, the discussion got very interesting.

Tourists have plans, they know where they will be every evening, they know what they will see every day. They join tour groups, eat in ‘safe’ restaurants with English Menus and familiar foods, and they stay in ‘comfortable’ surroundings. You see them at all the major attractions, but rarely at the minor ones – not enough time in their schedules. They arrive in a city in the morning, and leave the next evening, enabling them to check that one-off their list. If there’s an important festival – they plan to attend. They prefer to talk to other foreigners, or among themselves. They often either ignore, or never learn any words in the language of the country they are visiting, again – not enough time.

I think we have all been tourists – sometimes in our own home towns We structure our day to be sure to capture the important ‘stuff’, leaving no time and no room for chance.

Visitors spend more time in each place they go. Because they have more time, they can afford to take a chance on different kinds of food – street food or meals in local restaurants. They may hit all the ‘top’ attractions, but they will also visit lesser known temples, museums, shopping areas, sections of town. Having more time means seeing fewer destinations, but makes it easier to see more of the ones you do land in.

The Intrepid Traveler and I are visitors. We chat up locals – even if only a few words, we exchange favorite foods on the metros with our seat mates. we spend time in religious meeting places, letting our feet relax, and our minds wander. We accept gifts from strangers – a taste of ginseng from a lady on the subway, cookies from a vendor on the street, a cake from our seat-mate at the bus station. We smile and wave at everyone – and get rewarded by becoming the ‘mission’ for a group of Korean School kids – asked by their teacher to talk to a foreigner. We are Visitors.

Tourists take Cruises – visitors take boats.
Tourists fly – Visitors take trains or Buses.
Tourists make plans – Visitors rely on the kindness of strangers.
Tourists and Visitors stay in all kinds of lodging – it’s not the lodging that makes the difference – it’s the time, the need for planning, the openness to adventure that makes the difference.

But what is a traveller. Alfonso was basically referring to himself. He is extremely fortunate to have the ability to work, and earn a very good income, any time he feels the need. So instead of taking a long-term position, he takes short-term contracts when he runs out of money, and otherwise – he travels. Many times his destination is unknown, even to him. The wind of chance blows him as it will, allowing him the opportunity to wander the streets of a district without a plan, without a goal, just the desire to experience the life there before he moves on.

To me – being a traveller sounds wonderful on the surface, but consider the downside. Like a rolling stone, a traveller by Alfonso’s definition will never get married, have kids, have grand kids. They will never have a place to call ‘home’, a garden to worry about missing the azalea blooms, friends to see month after month.

Nope – I don’t want to be a traveller – being a visitor is good enough for me.

Signing off – Korean Visitors – the Intrepid Traveller and the Soup Lady.

Busan to Sokcho – Traveling the ‘interesting’ way…

We spent the last 5 days in Busan, the 2nd largest city in South Korea, located at the very bottom of the Peninsula – closer to Japan than to Seoul. But we arranged to meet Jill’s kids in Sokcho – 50 km (30 miles) from the DMZ. So we need to get from the far south-east to the far north-east. Our travel options including flying via Seoul, Train to Seoul and then bus to Sokcho – or intercity bus the whole way. At $43 per person – the bus was the clear winner.

So we made our way from Kim’s House to Nopo subway station – helped by strangers who found it fascinating that 2 grand-mothers would be traveling alone in Korea. They had little English, we had no Korean – but we shared number of grand kids – he has 4, Jill has 4, I have 2. We even disc used food – Kimchi good, Bulgogi better!

After a bit of confusion over tickets – we had reserved seats and a separate boarding lane – and didn’t know it- we ensconced ourselves in our seats – and the bus pulled out – 1 minute late and the driver was pretty upset about it. At least we think that’s why he was yelling at the dispatcher.

Like our trip here – it seemed like it would be highway all the way – 6 lanes narrowing to 4 lanes after about 2 hours of driving. And then just north of Phang, things got interesting. The bus swerved left and right and left – and on to a 2 lane road that wound up and over hills eventually dropping down to the sea. Instead of highway – we were now winding our way past adorable fishing villages and sandy beaches. The road continued to narrow – eventual to just one lane wide.

The views along the ocean are stunningly beautiful – beige sand beaches and pounding surf, interspersed with high views of the rocky shoreline.

There are numerous campground with tents like I’ve never seen – including a roof top model that required a ladder to get in!

As expected, there are Rice paddies and tiny farm plots on any arable piece of land (including the edges of the roadside), but unexpected were the hobbit hole houses – dozens of them – some extremely fancy with brick exteriors and stone domed roofs, others more simplistic but still functional.

The stunningly beautiful scenery reminds one of the most beautiful parts of the Maine coast – weirdly carved rocks and rolling surf splashing over the rocks as the tide comes in.

We’ve been traveling now for almost 3 hours – no bathroom stop in sight. But we’re not lacking for Crabs! Fishing village after fishing village clearly features the Crab – based on the huge flower crab at the entrance to one village, the crab pincers that formed the uprights of the bus shelters of several others, and the giant (say 40′ high) crabs outside one of the restaurants. There are bulletin boards sporting 3D crabs – one restaurant where the doorway was a pair of huge crab legs and several road side ‘eating’ places with huge boiling pots of crabs. But we are just passing thru, No time to stop and sniff the crab legs.

Somewhat sadly, the Koreans are in the process of building a highway along the coast – we can see evidence of their effort in poured elevated supports in the area we’re driving through, and north of Yeogdeok, the road turns into the newer 4 lane limited access model. This is a shame. While it will make the drive much faster – it will reduce the exploration nature of the trip, and I suspect will hurt the tiny villages that live to serve travellers on the main road north from Busan.

Yeah – 2:33 – and we finally get a rest stop. It’s been 3 and a half hours… You have got to be kidding me. There is a porto-potty rest room with 6 stalls on the lady’s side – and while it is clean – there is no toilet paper. Thank goodness for spare napkins. I grab a delicious Korean ice-cream cone, and it’s back on the bus. The driver reminds everyone to buckle up, and gives us a special hands-on example to be sure we understand and we’re off.

We’re back to 4 lane express highway – which occasionally dips down the ocean Unfortunately, the only interesting things are several fisherman drying their nets on the pavement, and the occasional swerve down to the sea for a glimpse of ocean. The beach we just passed was deserted. At first Jill and I assume it’s because it’s a tad cool even though the sun is shining, but on 2nd look I’m guessing that the barbwire fence along the length of the entire beach explains the lack of sun bathers.

I’m reminded that this is the part of Korea that the Japanese freely invaded for over 2000 years – This last time in 1905. I guess the Korean’s have a right to be a bit hesitant to leave it undefended.

I’m hoping that the beaches nearer towns are open to the public at least.

A geography observation, the mountain range that makes up the spine of Korea on the east runs roughly North South, but there are many East West running out cropping. To build the road, Korea had to build long tunnels – 2000 meter are more – going through these mountains. Kinda neat actually. The coastal plain can run from about 3000 meters wide to zero – so you can imagine the challenges the Engineers must have faced.

In 2018 this part of Korea will be hosting the Winter Olympics – but right now the cherry blossoms lining the road and the greenery cut into a 2018 Olympic logo are the only reminders of that upcoming event. Wonder if they will get to eat some Crabs?

Finally we arrive in Sokcho – get off the bus and following the advice of the RCI resort – try to get a taxi. Problem – the resort didn’t send us anything written in Korean – and of course none of the Taxi drivers understand English. We try at least 7 different cabs with no luck. But thank goodness – again – for the kindness of strangers. An expat and his Korean girl friend spot us trying to get a cab, and come over to offer help. They immediately realize that our problem is that the cabbie can’t read the address – and explain to them where to go. Now they are willing to take us! We thank them, and head off.

The Kennsington RCI resort is stunningly beautiful – and our one bedroom room is a palace compare to the places we’ve been staying. And our view of the ocean is spectacular. But there’s a few problems – even in paradise. The food here is seriously expensive – 4 times what we’ve been paying in Seoul or Busan. There’s no laundry – so its back to hand washing. Instead of free internet everywhere – I have to go down to the lobby to get access – and instead of unlimited towels – we have just 4 hand towels to last the week. Plus the kitchen has no basic supplies – not only no coffee or tea, but no salt, no oil, no pepper, no hot sauce. We’ve been spoiled by the guesthouse and hostels – so sorry Kennsington – nice lobby – but you lose big time on the service!

But we are determined to solve these issues – so while dinner tonight was instant noodles – just add hot water – by tomorrow we hope to have found a decently priced restaurant – or 2 or 3.

Signing off and going to bed – The intrepid traveler and the Soup Lady.

It seems so simple – Church Services in Seoul

As people who follow my blogging regularly know, my friend Jill is Catholic – so we go to services everywhere we travel. I’ve even met the former Pope (not quite a private audience of course – but still).

So we pretty much think we know how it goes – there’s a pattern to services, whether they are in Vietnam, Italy, or Spain that is very similar. We expected the same here in Korea – but we were wrong, wrong, wrong!

We ‘googled’ catholic services in Seoul – and found out that there’s actually a Cathedral – the Myeongdong Cathedral to be exact – and it’s the largest brick gothic building in Korea. You’d think finding it would be easy – but no. We walked right past it – Twice! It is surrounded on all 4 sides by other buildings – including a former hospital. To find the Cathedral, you must turn off the major street onto a side road – and keep your eyes peeled to the left. There’s a relatively narrow main entrance way – a set of stairs and a long long ramp that go from street level to the building itself.

Anyway – to find it – we had to stop people and ask directions. Good thing they were actually heading to mass. We followed them through a garage and up a twisting flight of stairs to the cathedral entrance – this was a short cut!

We entered in – and were not surprised to find ourselves in a cathedral that could have been anywhere in Europe – complete with stain glass windows and the relics of martyrs.

So where did we get confused? Well – part of the normal pattern of service is the collection of alms. Generally a lay person (or 2) takes a long handled basket, and passes it up and down the aisles, and you can put money in as you wish. But not here. We were sitting in the front row of one section, and suddenly this lovely young lady wearing a white drap over her head is gesturing at us to get up. We can’t figure out why. Jill thinks it might be time for communion, so she gets up and exits the row. The gal gestures at Jill to put her hand in a basket – which Jill does thinking it’s communion – and it is at that moment that Jill realizes they are collecting alms – you don’t take out – you put in!

Meanwhile – our entire row is on hold – waiting for Jill and I to move. It turns out that unlike every other church we’ve ever been in – here in Korea, the congregation raises – row by row, files up to the front, deposits their ‘alms’, and then returns to their seats. Highly organized – how Korean! Once you know what to do – you can follow – and had we been anywhere but in the front row – we’d have been ok. Live and learn.

When it finally time for Communion, we aren’t nearly as surprised that it too is highly organized. A priest goes row by row, gesturing people to raise and file out to join the queue. The only problem – I’m not taking communion. So everyone in my row – and both of the rows in the side sections must stumble past me to get in line. How embarrassing.

But the singing is lovely – there is a full choir, over 10 priests, layman and altar boys, a magniciant organ, plus a string section. The music is lovely, the surrounding very peaceful, and altogether a neat experience.

On the way out – one of ladies of the parish comes over to wish us well – and to let us know that there is an English service at 9;00 am on Sunday. We thank her kindly and go on our way. If we’re here next week we’ll do the Korean mass again – only this time – we’ll be better prepared.

Korean Socks – Over the Top Adorable!

Oh man – do I love Korean socks. They are beyond cute – right up there with adorable! And yes – these are for adults. We’ve seen at least a zillion different designs. Free bonus – not only are they cute – they are comfy.

I think Korean’s are so ‘socky’ because they take off their shoes constantly – to enter a house, to enter a temple, sometimes just to enter a restaurant. So socks are on display – why not make them worth looking at?

Check out the options – and these are just the one’s we’ve brought – there are zillions of other options. If you’d like a pair for $5 (I promise to send you a pair (or 2) – and I’ll do my best to get you the style you want – but no promises) – send me a comment with your email – it will be private. I’ll contact you with the style you’d like and your shipping address!










A Buddha-ism – Learning to walk and think more slowly – Not easy I warn you!

3:00 am comes really quickly, even if you are sleeping on the floor. And by 3:18 both the Intrepid traveller and I were up and listening to the 4 gongs being rung to wake all sentient beings. Not sure about everyone else – but I was awake – trust me.

We then walked – two columns, extremely slowly – into the prayer hall and following our leader, respected Buddha (that’s 3 full bows), respected the past, the present and the future (waist bows to the East, the North, and the West), and prayed with the Monks. None of them looked very sleepy – but I can’t say the same for our team.

We then walked – again in 2 columns, again very slowly – back to the 2nd prayer room – to do our 108 bows to Buddha. Why 108? It’s an important number to Buddhists – as our Monk explained, because there are 6 senses (the normal 5 plus time), there are 6 feelings (like, enjoy, etc.) and 6 * 6 is 36. And there is the Past, the Current, and the future – and 3 * 36 = 108.

So 108 bows. These are not at the waist bows – these are done starting from a standing position, dropping to a kneeling position, putting your head against the mat, raising palms to the level of your ears, pushing forward on to your knees, and finally standing again. Try it. Not easy. Now do 108 of those while the Monk claps a stick to keep time. One of our group was in charge of a rope of prayer beads – she moved one with each bow to keep track. I had decided the night before that if I could do 54 (1/2 the required number) – I’d be impressed.


But surprisingly – I did all 108. Later on one of the group commented that its very hard to do 108 bows alone – but in a group, it’s easier. You gain mental and physical energy from the group. I think he might be on to something there – surely a 65-year-old – not in the best shape – old lady doing 108 bows is pretty incredible. I was impressed with me I’ll tell you.

And now it’s time to do the really hard thing – the sitting mediation. Our Monk had told us that the Monks actually do 7 days of mediation – no sleeping. They eat, they pray and they meditate – And if they come 20 minutes late to any of the mediation sessions – they are banished from Haein-sa for 3 years. 3 Years!

But I’m still worried. First off – no talking. Ok – I can survive an hour of no talking. 2nd – no fidgeting – no scratching your nose, no moving your knees, no moving your hands. That doesn’t sound much like me. And third – you have to keep your legs bent in the lotus position the entire time. This is going to be tough. He did give us some hints. One – concentrate on your breathing – one breathe at a time. Think about who knows you are breathing. And when something begins to bother you – think about it not hurting you. And when stray thoughts come into your mind – think about them, and then go back to thinking about your breathing. My favorite hint – keep both knees touching the mat. And fold the mat double.

I asked during our ‘Tea’ what was wrong with thinking – and was told – it’s not thinking that the problem – it’s flighty thinking – this and that and that and this – no pattern, no control. Try to control how you think. Ouch – that’s a huge challenge. I can’t even control my thinking when I’m typing… Even when I’m writing my blog I’m also listening to the people talking in Korean on the floor below me, and hearing the sounds of the birds and the traffic.

But I’m willing to give this a chance. So we go into the meditation hall, I struggle into the lotus position and shut my eyes. All is going ok when I hear the first ‘Crack’. The Monk has struck one of our group for falling asleep. Well nothing wakes you up faster than that I’ll tell you. The struck individual, as instructed, thanks the Monk for reminding him to mediate, not sleep, and we all go back to meditating. Twice more there are ‘Crack’s’ – but not once was it me. And then just as quickly as it began – it is over.

An hour passed so fast – I couldn’t believe it.

Next on the schedule is lying down mediation – and they tell us we can sleep. I think I slept – Jill says so anyway. Next is breakfast (lots worse than dinner – and dinner was pretty bad) – then its time to do our share of work. In our case its pretty easy – clean up our living quarters. I was hoping we’d help with farming – but no such luck. Guess they didn’t need inexpert farmers today.

We then get an escorted tour of the grounds of Haein-sa – which includes a walk around the comtemplation maze – again slowly – and in Hapjong position.


Eventually we re-group with our Monk to discuss our Temple Stay.


When we first met – we introduced our selves – our names, and countries of origin. This time the Monk challenges us to introduce ourselves – but without using our names, our jobs, our countries. To in fact – introduce ourselves by saying something important and unique about us. Not surprisingly – we learn a lot more about our fellows this time – information I’ll remember long after I’ve forgotten their names. Examples: “I lack judgement”, “My best friends are my sister and brother”, “I don’t like myself very much”, “I talk more than I listen”, etc., etc. Some in our group use this opportunity to explain what was most surprising to them – and beside the Noble Silence – many comment on how hard it was to walk slowly.

The general feeling is that we live life to fast to enjoy it – that taking time to slow down and just think – meditate – isn’t as wasteful as it first seems. Most of us agree to try to think a bit more slowly in the future.

At the end, our Monk encourages us to consider the current as most important – the past shaped us – brought us to where we are today – but can not change and has no power over us. The future is driven by the current – so knowing where you are today is key to your future. He gives us some gifts, a booklet about Buddhism, and a wooden bead bracelet with Chinese lettering. He explains to me that the bracelet says – “Your dreams and wishes can come true”. I wear it with pride.

The intrepid traveller and I leave Haein-sa – glad we came.

Getting Upclose and Personal with Buddha

I have a great idea – let’s go stay in a Temple – Vegan meals, you sleep on the floor, you get woken up at 3:00 am by drums to pray with the Monks, there’s 108 bows (from standing to full prostration) to Buddha to perform, followed by an hour of no fidgeting, no moving, meditation. Doesn’t that sound like fun?

You really have to wonder what I’m thinking some days!


Fortunately, the Intrepid Traveler is a good sport – and willing to take a chance on these insane ideas of mine. So among our other plans for South Korea – we included a 2 day and 1 night stay at one of South Korea’s most famous monasteries – Haein-sa.

A couple of things you should know – the difference between a ‘Temple’ and a ‘Monastery’ is not what you might think. A ‘Temple’ is just a place of worship, a ‘Monastery’ contains not only a ‘Temple’, but also a school for Monks and a meditation center. Haein-sa has all that and more – it is also home to the Tripitaka Koreana – the oldest set of wooden printing blocks of the entire writings of Buddha in the world. This makes Haein-sa a double UNESCO world heritage site. It was saved from bombing during the Korean War because the US asked Korean fighter pilots to bomb it – and they recognized the value of the site – and dropped their bombs on the other side of the mountain.

Bottom line – it’s famous.

It’s also hard to get to. I guess that figures. So Jill and I get on an express bus out of Gyeongju for Daegu, switch to a local bus in Daegu for Haein-sa – and find ourselves packed in tight with fellow worshipers heading up the winding mountain road. The drive alone is a religious experience – of the ‘Oh Man – missed that one – Yikes – missed that one’ variety. Narrow roads, steep inclines, and buses passing buses for most of the 2 hour trip. Eventually we arrive at the ‘Lion’s Gate’ – the official entrance to the site. The bus continues up past 2 different parking areas, eventually dropping us at the ‘end of the line’ – and the beginning of a 1 km hike up to the main temple.

Haein-sa looks like I think a Buddhist temple should look. It’s isolated, it’s green, there are winding mediation paths everywhere, and there’s a wonderful mountain stream running over giant rocks to our left. It’s stunning. And crowded. And steep. And while we could stuff Jill’s suitcase into a locker at Daegu, mine didn’t fit – so she’s got her overnight stuff in a backpack – I’ve got mine in my backpack – and I’m dragging my suitcase. Not going to be fun.

Thank goodness for the kindness of strangers. On the bus a lovely young lady on her way to the Temple to pray had been telling us where we should get off – and when she realized that we had this suitcase to drag up hill – for a very long km – she pushed me aside and grabbed the handle. Jill made it about 1/3 of the way before I took her backpack off and added it to the suitcase – harder on our young friend but a lot easier on Jill. We walk slowly up to the main entrance to the Monastery – and then up 108 steps to the temple grounds. Our friend finds the Temple Stay office for us – and wishes us health on the rest of our trip. We wish her success with her prayers.


At the Temple Stay office, our charming hostess checked us in, gave us our temple uniform, and escorted to our cozy room for 15. We collapse. It’s cool, and we’re wiped – and there’s a long night ahead.


During our stay – we must follow the temple time-table – and we must wear our temple uniform of baggy grey pants and an over wrap. The good news – everyone looks a bit funny, and no one sticks out. Plus we are clearly identified as Temple Stay participants – which gives us access to Temple dining, and a front row seat (well – kneel really) at services at 3:00 am.

Our fellow participants are a mixed group – about 40% are Korean – the other 60% have English as the common language, Australian, Brits, Americans and surprisingly at least 6 Canadians. The biggest single group is a cluster of English Teachers in private schools here in Korea – mostly pre-k, kindergarten, and up to 2nd grade. They share a website so they can meet up with each other to avoid feelings of isolation. And they decided that a Temple Stay would be a good cultural experience..

First up – Temple manners. We remove our shoes to enter the practice hall – and the Monk chosen to lead our group takes us to task for being sloppy and disorganized. Do it again – and get it right this time. Who knew that taking off shoes had rules?

Shoes removed to his satisfaction, we now must learn to bow. Silly me – thought I knew that. Nope. Turns out you must do this a special way as well. It’s feet close together (that makes it harder according to our teacher), knees to the prayer mat, hands to the mat, head touching right above your eyes, hands up and cupped – held level with your ears like you are lifting Buddha to heaven, hands down, then push forward, then push back and up to standing. Repeat. and Repeat. The third of the set includes a hapjang (palms together, fingers pointed towards your eyes).

Then we learn the proper position for mediation. There is standing mediation, walking meditation, and sitting mediation. Our teacher focuses on walking and sitting. Learning to sit isn’t that easy either. You have to have both knees touching the ground while one foot supports you and the other is folded on top. And your back must be straight. We will be doing an hour of this – and if we fall asleep – we will be struck with a stick – which the assistant demonstrates on the Monk. Ouch.

By the way – our Monk doesn’t speak English – so he speaks Korean and our hostess translates. But watching him move is intriguing, he is so graceful and elegant and efficient. No wasted gestures. Quite beautiful in fact.


It is now time for temple dinner. We’ve been warned to be silent during dinner – in fact our Monk has challenged us not to make idle chatter while we are at the Temple, and also been told not to make any comments about the food. We must be grateful to be fed. Well – I was grateful, but also glad that Jill and I had smuggled in some pastries from Paris Baguette. Monks don’t eat well. Even for Vegans.

After dinner, it’s time to put our temple manners to the test. We line up in 2 columns (Koreans do everything in 2 columns – just saying) and walk slowly with our hands clasped in front of us to the drum pagoda. There are 5 different kinds of instruments, a large (twice the size of a man) drum, a wooden fish drum (see pictures), a cloud shaped gong, and a huge bell. All will be played by the Monks before prayers are started.

After listening to them, we proceed up 4 flights of stairs – no banisters, very steep – to the main temple, and take our prayer mats and places to the right front. There are already a fair number of participants – all further to the back than us.

The Monks (about 8) silently join us – and the lead Monk starts the service by striking a wooden gourd. We bow in time with the others – hum along with the sung prayer, bow a few more times in unison, and then are excused.

It is now time for what I think is the highlight of the day – something called ‘Tea with a Monk’. There are about 32 of us in total – and we gather in a circle – and are invited to ask our Monk any questions we want. Some are pretty banal – the number of Monks in the temple (it varies – from a dozen to 200 when there is a full retreat), why our Monk became a Monk (He prayed for guidance for 2 years before making the choice), but some are really important.


One gal asks what we should be thinking about when we meditate – and that leads to a long discussion about meditation in general. Our Monk suggests that we focus on our breathing – and ask ourselves – who knows that we are breathing?

Another gal confesses that she doesn’t think she is worth much – and the Monk takes her to task – You must rid yourself of these thoughts, you must accept who you are – your past made you this way – it is the current and the future that you can change.

In general, the Korean participants ask the more meaningful questions, but the Monk rephrase them to be applicable to all. I keep thinking of the Jewish Mantra – “This too Shall Pass”.

At the end of what becomes a very emotional and for some ‘weepy’ session, we are excused to go to bed. End of a long, but oh so interesting day.

Signing off in silence – The soup lady and the intrepid Traveler.

English in Korea – It happens!

Koreans love English words. They use them everywhere – not always correctly of course – but with delight and enthusiasm. I love it – but it does throw one off occasionally (ok – often actually).

Example 1: English on a brochure cover means nothing! – Here in Kim’s Guest House there is one labeled ‘Spring Tourist Guide’ on the outside – without a word in English on the inside! It’s completely in Korean. So why put English on the cover? Your guess is as good as mine.

Example 2: The signs – There is so much English on signs here in Korea – I sometimes forget that people may not actually speak the language. It’s quite a funny feeling. You pass a store – the slogan is in English – like Paris Baguette with its ‘Fresh and Ready’ – and no one inside speaks English at all! It happens a lot – and it is always a bit of a shock. Street signs are often translated, stores advertise ‘Sale’, you see ‘Bank’, ‘Steak and Pasta’, and ‘Korean traditional Restaurant’. But while it makes it clear what service they are offering, don’t expect more than a ‘hello’ in English – you might be pleasantly surprised – and then again – you might be reverting to sign language pretty quickly!

Check out this picture – it’s advertising a water park – English on the sign includes ‘California Water Park’ and ‘Open’ – but I’m willing to bet that no one who works there speaks English – why should they? Clearly this is for Koreans to enjoy – despite the clearly California look of the bathing beauties.


Example 3: Marketing Slogans – or What exactly did you mean by that? Consider this one for the city of Gyenogju – “Meeting place – The Scent of Culture – Time to Surpass”. What do you think they were trying to say? I get meeting place – but Scent of Culture? What ever does that mean? Do you think they were hinting that the place smelled? Can’t be, right?

Or here’s another one that amuses me – In Gyenogju, they make a special Barley cake (they sometimes refer to it as ‘bread’, but it is really 2 pancakes with red bean paste spread to hold the pancakes together). What is remarkable about it in my opinion is not the cake (it’s pretty bland) – it’s the number of ‘bakeries’ – often 2 or 3 on the same block. They all have the special ovens, and use the special boxes to make these cakes. How can there possibly be enough sales to keep them all in business? We got to try (for free) cakes from 2 different bakeries – and I must admit they tasted different. Can’t say I cared for either – but they definitely didn’t taste the same. But its the marketing in English that cracks me up. On one store – the Sign cheerfully proclaimed “The Barley Way to Health”, on another it announced that here you’d find the “Rich Chewy Texture of Sticky Barley”. Yummy sounding, eh? On a third I saw “100% domestic glutinous barley” – well, that’s definitely reassuring. Do some people import the Barley? Or perhaps not all Barley is Glutinous.

But my favorite language mis-adventure happened yesterday in the Gyenogju National Museum. This is a wonderful museum that attempts to explain – in a variety of languages, just a bit of the very complex history of this remarkable city. The artifacts on display are well presented – and the audio tour quite complete, if a bit robotic sounding. But it was the free English tour in one section that was over the top. There was an older gentleman responsible for giving the tour – and he proudly explained that he was a retired English teacher. Problem? His English was literally incomprehensible. At one point we thought he was talking about growing rice, and he really meant that they had a lice problem in 800 AD – which he explained by scratching himself.

But I really shouldn’t complain. The ability of Koreans to at least attempt to communicate in ‘my’ language puts us in North America to shame. We ran into trouble at the Metro – and despite our lack of Korean – and our helper’s lack of English – we muddled through. He didn’t give up – even when it was clear that we couldn’t communicate at all. Even if it meant carrying our bags up a staircase – forcing us to sit and wait while he got help – throwing in the towel just wasn’t option – Thank goodness.

And this willingness is official – Museums here have signs in 4 languages – and not just the name of the object – the entire description is translated. Even the subway maps and signs on the metro cars use both Korean and English names. I’ve been on Metros and Buses that announced the next station in Korean and English, can’t be to help the locals. I’ve even heard cross-walk signs speak English. Bank machines and Metro card vending machines always offer an ‘English’ language button, and Audio tours in even more languages are the norm – and not just in Seoul. It’s all pretty impressive – and very tourist friendly.

So as a prospective tourist to this intriguing country – you can rest easy. You might not quite understand everything – but I can guarantee you that the Koreans will make sure you have a wonderful time. It just comes naturally to them. What a country!


Fried Chicken, Fried Fish, and Ramen Noodles – Yum!

We’re in Gyeongju, along with Seoul and Jeju Island, the most visited places in South Korea. And it’s easy to see why. For a thousand years – from 71 BC to 935 AD this was the hot spot of culture, wealth, and power in Korea. The Silla Kings ruled this land – built amazing places, participated in riotous drinking parties – and converted all of South Korea to Buddhism. The resulting flowering of art, music, culture, and design was considered to be outstanding. Unfortunately – only bits and pieces survive to this day.

We cheated and joined a ‘City Bus’ tour of the highlights – primarily the Tumuli Mound Tombs, the Bulguk-sa Buddhist Temple, and to me the absolute highlight – the Seokguram temple in a grotto. Along with at least a thousand school children – all of whom want to say hello to us – we climbed steps, admired the exquisite landscapes, and felt the power of the Buddha in the grotto.

We lucked out at the Paris Baguette – and snagged a bag of 1/2 price day old goodies for lunch, but the highlight of our stay here has been the dinners.

First up was a Ramen Noodle restaurant. Now don’t go all – instant noodle on me – these were fresh noodles in a wonderful broth served with rice, Kimchi (of course), pickles (of course), and a slice of pork belly. In the soup in addition to the noodles was a soft-boiled egg, vegetables, and soy beans. It was awesome. To go with it – we had an order of potato fritters – man do these guys know fritters. These were made with mashed potatoes inside, then dredged in egg and a batter mixture and deep-fried. Oh were they good.

2nd night – we ate at student hangout – cheap prices (Just $6), and absolutely no English. Our meal consisted of two ‘Schnitzel’ Korean Style. Flattened pieces of chicken that were combined with mashed potatoes, then dredged in a yummy batter before again being deep-fried. Unlimited – help yourself – quantities of Kimchi, pickles, rice, and sauce were provided. We watched Korean Baseball – I think the good guys lost, cheered with the crowd – and headed home full.

Tonight we tried a Japanese restaurant – and ordered the best Fish and Chips (but no chips) I’ve ever ever had. We also had a pork Schnitzel – also good – but not quite as amazing as the fish. Again – more kimchi, more pickles, more rice – and lots of sauce.

I have to admit – I’m going to have trouble finding restaurants this consistently excellent at this price range in Montreal.

Signing off (and too full to move)

The Soup Lady and the Intrepid Traveller

On the Road to Gyeongju – South Korea

My favorite seat on a bus is in front – I love the 180 degree view you get – and I must admit to watching the bus driver. So imagine my surprise when our bus driver here in South Korea – while driving – washed his hands, the steering wheel, the gear shift, the side window – then put on white gloves in order to eat lunch. That’s new and different.

He also removed the fancy leather shoes he was wearing when he put our luggage on the bus, and is now wearing comfy clean white sneakers. And he has his own set of ear phones. Wonder what channel he listens to while he drives?

I’d been told that buses here are the way to travel – and I have to admit – it’s nice. There’s satelite TV (in Korean – but that is the language here), very comfy seats that recline, clean windows (Montreal – smarten up – it is possible to have clean windows on buses), and curtains.

Leaving Seoul and heading south – we started on an 8 lane highway, driving past a surprisingly beautiful city scape of skyscraper and towering sound barriers interspersed with old-fashioned residential neighborhoods followed by huge apartment complexes. I’m guessing zoning in non-existent.

Eventually the 8 lanes became 4 lanes about an hour out of Seoul – as we steadily head south toward Gyeongjue – our next destination. The highways cuts through hills, and the signs of civilization are everywhere – this is not Vermont, people.

We are passing traditional looking (but new construction) buildings, and modern factories mixed between rice paddies and farms. If you can farm it – you farm it. I even saw vegetables planted between the highway and the fences that mark private property. Everywhere peach trees are in bloom – their flowers a brilliant offset to the freshly churned but not yet planted rice paddies. There are also Ginseng farms – recognizable by the sun shades. I’m definitely going to have to try some Ginseng.

Another observation – the use of sound barriers when the highway goes past residential areas is astonishing. And they are huge – I’d guess 40 to 50 feet above the highway. Some have glass tops, many have become supports for green vines. And there is no graffiti anywhere. This was true in Seoul as well. A surprising change for us North Americans.

Arriving in Gyeongju – we check into our next guest house – a traditional style house off an alley between two motorcycles repair shops. Like most traditional homes – the front gate is plain and unassuming – but when you round the corner into the yard – you discover that there is wooden building with 4 traditional rooms – which means you sleep on the floor.

To enter the room, your shoes come off – you climb up onto a wide wooden porch, unlock your double wide doors, and then slide back rice paper screens to reveal a 10′ by 14′ room. Korean’s heat their floors – so the floor is raised off the ground. But to get to the attached bathroom or kitchen – you must step back down to ground level – about 18″. And there are ‘kitchen’ shoes and ‘bathroom’ shoes to wear in those areas. Traditionally – the floor would be wood – but this is a modern constructions – so the floor is linoleum that looks like wood. Regardless – it’s still shoes off to enter!

Our bedding is simple comforters that we unfold to sleep on – and re-fold in the morning. There is a 27″ flat screen TV – and electric lighting – two welcome modern touches.

The biggest surprise – the pillows are barley stuffed. The intrepid traveller takes both – I’m sticking with my travelling temperpedic’s thank you!

The only other piece of furniture is a small low table with folding legs. Handy for putting stuff on.

And that’s it.

We grab dinner (read about that in another post) and make ourselves comfy. It’s very quiet – and while the floor is hardly soft – I’m so tired that I think I could sleep on anything.

Signing off –

The Soup Lady and her side kick – the Intrepid Traveller.