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June 26, 2014

Civil Disobedience


Sometimes a lesson comes about in a way you could never imagine and teaches you something about life and people that you could rarely have expected playing things safe. Now I would never recommend to anyone that getting arrested overseas is a good idea, but sometimes you have to stand up for what you believe in.

Going back as early as my arrival in Daejeon in September, 2011, there have been groups protesting one cause or another right on the steps of City Hall, just across from my apartment. When one group left, another was soon to follow and the site right on the busy corner near the subway exit and post office seemed to be a very popular place to raise public awareness for one injustice after another. It was also a very critical location for politicians around election time to set up trucks to blast campaign propaganda at all hours of the day.CivilDis04

Normally I would support this public forum for communicating all things good and bad, except for the location’s proximity to my open windows, their start and finish times, dogged Korean determination, and the maximum volume of music and noise allowed by Korean law.

Fed up with my inability to enjoy some early morning sleep in a country billed as “the land of morning calm” and no longer amused by this bitter irony, I got dressed early one morning and went downstairs to see what all the fuss was about this time. It seemed that nearly 20 taxi drivers were recently laid-off and the local union was protesting, to anyone who would listen, like clockwork every morning from 7-9 am. With CDs and a wireless mic plugged into a pretty powerful PA system, the group mixed traditional Korean anthems with loud and fervent rallying cries. It was this raucous din that roused me from my slumber just like the barnyard rooster, Pedro, in my student’s storybook, “No Eggs Maria”each weekday morning. As far as I was concerned, this was far earlier than any sane expat (or Korean) would normally choose to arise.

My first attempt at getting involved just consisted of yelling at the entire group briefly and telling them spontaneously (and rather clumsily), in English, to “go suck a cock.” This is a phrase that I have never uttered before in my life and I am still not sure why I used it then. I then stormed off, embarrassed, and yet wildly energized. My next visit the following morning lasted about thirty minutes, during which time I simply yelled “Boo” repeatedly in between all their yelling and music. This time, I was approached first by the main protester, who was confused and very polite about the whole thing. I am guessing no one in the history of Korea had ever protested a protest.

CivilDis02Again, perhaps confused regarding my intentions, a rather large and unfriendly looking public official or security guard from City Hall came over and gave me the bum’s rush, physically urging me to be on my way with a pleasant smile. When I stood my ground and yelled “boo” right in his face, he retreated to my amazement, bemused and bewildered as to exactly what was going on and how to best handle it.

After about 30 minutes of persistent heckling, I again returned home with my teaching voice as hoarse and as rough as old sandpaper and my spirits refreshed. I decided at once that the cries of one against the impassioned chorus of many was no match. I began to not only realize the serious nature of the protesters efforts, but that a new strategy would need to be employed if I was to make any headway towards peaceful morning slumber. I thought long and hard about either stealing their car keys or microphone, or killing the power to their speakers, and even about bringing down some loud music of my own. My natural inclination was towards playing Beastie Boys, in fact. While these options may have given me some temporary satisfaction, I chose instead to try a little diplomacy and tact.

Later that day, nursing my sore throat with some warm and delicious Korean quince tea,  I enlisted the help of our grammar teacher, David, to help me translate a letter addressed directly to the protest group leaders.

“I have lived near City Hall for over 2 years. There have been very many protests here in that time. I have been forced to listen to all of them, including loud music and amplified yelling at very early hours. This rudely disrupts my sleep and personal time.

I appreciate that you want to protest your cause. I fully support your right to do so. However, you are being thoughtless to those who live here and inconsiderate to my right to live in peace and quiet.

Please consider your tactics. Is your message reaching your target? Is there a better way to accomplish your goal? Why are you punishing your neighbors?

If you do not choose another method or location, I will continue to protest and disrupt your demonstrations. 

If you agree to reconsider, I will join you in support of your struggle and help you any way that I can.”


Although I was unsure about who to give the note to and when I would do so, I felt more comfortable with this approach.

Meanwhile, the only break I got from this morning unpleasantness was on weekends and Korean holidays. Fortunately, a three-day vacation was approaching, as was my hope for some solid morning sack time. This also provided a perfect cover for an escalation on my part against those I now viewed as the enemy. I decided on the first morning of the holiday to cruise by the protest site and cut down, but not vandalize, the groups many protest signs hanging around the subway exits near City Hall. The government offices were all closed and vacant and the streets were as quiet as a church on Thursday. The scene was set and I was able to cut down three separate banners. I left two on the ground right where they fell and rolled one up and took it with me.

On Monday after the long weekend, panic broke out at the protest site as I viewed the scene happily from my 12th story apartment. The protesters seemed to be completely unprepared for such a turn of events. Who would ever dream of protesting the protesters?

I then printed up the prepared text in both English and Korean, laminated it, and delivered it with my business card to the taxi group after their scheduled two hours of public nuisance.There was a great sense of satisfaction from what I perceived as a brilliant stroke of diplomacy and logic after delivering my message. I marched off confident that I had indeed struck a blow for the common man and for those in my building and neighborhood no doubt suffering the daily annoyance caused by this rude, yet well-intending gathering of ousted drivers.

The next morning, I was blasted out of bed, right on schedule, by an even louder barrage of old-time Korean hymns and even more bitter and fervent shouts for justice. It seems that my letter (in my estimation) had only incensed the protest organizers and further emblazoned their solidarity. Either I had greatly underestimated their commitment, or I had played right into their hands.

This made what happened next all the more hilarious in retrospect, but at the time I think I was just as mad about them as they were about their cause. I don’t mind a good protest and I really support their right to do so peacefully as long as they want. What really annoyed me was the lack of consideration for those living in the area, seemingly punished daily for no reason at all. Was this all a part of their plan?

I decided to return to the scene of the crime and cut down even more signs, this time ripping right through the center of them with a pair of scissors; ruining them permanently. While I got away with a few at first, some of the protesters eventually saw what I was doing and chased me down the block, tackled me, took my phone, and then forcibly restrained me until the police and security arrived. In a flash, all my hard work and growth in Korean seemed to flash before my eyes. At the very least, I was going to be late for school that day, but visions of jail time, canings, deportation, and a potentially embarrassing international incident all flashed though my head.


What happened next was all the more surprising and made the entire incident even more memorable and humorous. First, I was briefly questioned by two uniformed officers called to the scene. I was not frisked and I was not cuffed. In very broken English I was questioned simply “why did you do it?” I was then slowly escorted into a police car and taken to the police sub-station in my neighborhood. Once there, the casual and relaxed way I was treated was really bizarre. I was approached by the desk Sergeant and asked the very same question, “why did you do it?” Once my response was translated, an air of laughter and joking permeated the squad room. My fears, however, were the reaction at my school and especially my director, Sunny Kim. I gave the officers one of my business cards and was terrified to see Sunny enter the station just a few minutes later. I felt like a student who was in big trouble in more ways than one and I was sent to see the principal. Her smile and overly friendly demeanor threw me completely off guard and continued as she laughed and joked in Korean with the entire office. What was going on and what would become of our brave hero?

After being questioned briefly by a very nice and dignified detective (a sort of Korean “Columbo” ) who explained my situation in English and set the tone for the entire experience, I was offered coffee and learned that Sunny had already made financial reparations for the sign damage to the tune of about $150 (U.S). It seemed that this was the custom in this situation and perhaps helped me avoid a more serious charge. The detective went on to explain the situation in more detail and really outlined the use of these tactics by less educated and more blue-collared workers who feel their method is the best (and perhaps only) way to bring attention and action to a cause they believe in.

When the three long and tedious hours of paperwork and fingerprinting at Police headquarters were finally finished, I had Sunny snap a picture so I would never forget my adventure and brief taste of the Korean justice system. Ultimately, the consensus was that the protesters are a public nuisance and to many Koreans, an embarrassment. The spot is famous for all manner of disruption and the group in question was on notice for previous noise violations. The situation would now be monitored closely and that the group was on notice. Amazingly, everyone I encountered at the police station shared my position that the protest was obnoxious and not always the most effective way to address an issue.

What surprised me was the fact that the incident was deliberately written-up in my favor and with the intention of having all charges dropped by the district attorney as a result of my cooperation and promise to cease and desist my own protests. I also learned a lesson that now, in retrospect, should have been abundantly clear from my arrival. Despite their fierce national pride and sad history, not all Koreans are unified on all matters and that there is a class system and cultural hierarchy that closely follows the lines of education. What I would call Korean “hillbillies” are justifiably adamant in their right to protest, while more cultured and civilized citizens believe that it is perhaps an antiquated and undignified means to raise awareness and right a wrongdoing. The end result was a quieter and more closely monitored situation, leading to happier mornings throughout my neighborhood and the gratitude of the other teachers in the building.

With unending apologies to my director and a spotless record for the remainder of my stay, this whole incident was a valuable lesson in many ways and perhaps an accidental high point of my time abroad. While I was slightly embarrassed and humbled by the whole ordeal, I would not change the experience one bit. It is important to stand up for what you believe in no matter the consequences. However, to portray any country or culture as homogeneous and unified is to do it a disservice. Education is the beginning and end for everything no matter where you go and my arrest is a constant reminder of its value to me in my life and as my purpose to teach and serve as a career moving forward. Thanks for the lesson.

February 12, 2014

Concert Flashback: Level 42




Event: Level 42 – Live in Concert

Date: Sunday, July 25th, 2010

Venue: Altar Bar, Pittsburgh, PA

Rock Travelers: Matt Vacca and Chris Wood



Good friend and local concert promoter Chris Wood hooked up a pair of free tickets for us to see Level 42 perform at the Altar Bar in the Strip District of Pittsburgh over the weekend.  The band is celebrating 30 years together with only a few U.S dates and Mark King has hooked up again with Mike Lindup on vocals and keyboards.42Level02

Fresh off our Iron Maiden success at Blossom the week before, we made a quick stop in Logan, Ohio, before taking the scenic route for the show.  My grandpa George would always pick me up for road trips stocked with apples, Mello Yello, and Pringles, so why start this one off any different?

We cranked up some Led Zeppelin and took some windy back roads for the first part of our trip. We agreed that it was some of the prettiest views we have both seen in Ohio through Guernsey County.  Trying to find 77 was “Over the Hills and Far Away”, indeed.

42Level43After some brief off-roading, Woody was suddenly craving a “good fish sandwich” for some reason. A confused gas station attendant actually recommended a place “up over the creek” called Camelot.  Insert your own Holy Grail quote here…

The sandwiches we tried were recommended by our bartender, Miss Gail. They actually were HUGE with crinkle-cut fries and fresh slaw. Our pit stop was terrific and so was the crazy service.

As my AAA directions proved useless, we winged it in an attempt to find the club. A detour of downtown Pittsburgh viewed from Mt. Washington was just as impressive as Western Ohio.

(Please click on any photo below to view full size or in a slideshow)

I remembered that the original Primanti Brothers was also in the Pittsburgh Strip District so we crossed the river and headed in for a quick sandwich before the show. Woody had never been to this Pittsburgh institution, so I recommended we split a Pastrami…Wow!

When we finally made it to the Altar Bar we found it to be a great venue for a band like Level 42. It was actually a converted church with lots of stained glass, an intimate stage and a big warm sound. When the band hit the stage there were about 300 in attendance.

The band sounded great and was definitely having a good time.  Level 42 has a lot of passionate fans that, like Woody, seemed to appreciate their almost jazz-fusion tracks even more than hearing the 80′s hits. Front man Mark King is an amazing bass player and an underrated singer.

I found myself enjoying the parts of the set list from the early days and the flat out jamming even more than the great versions of radio staples”Something About You”, “Lessons in Love” and “Running in the Family.” We both agreed that the only sad omission was the track “Children Say.”

42Level18After the rather short but energetic set, we headed back to Primanti Brothers to split a Corned Beef and an order of Chili Cheese Fries. Level 42 was a great show, the perfect road trip and one ticket stub I never thought I would add to my collection. It was definitely worth the drive and the food alone in the Strip District will have us heading back again as soon as possible.

The question is what great 80′s band would we most want to see live next in this type of setting?

The Fixx? Talk Talk? Duran Duran?

January 31, 2014

DMZ Tour

DMZ01According to William, our guide with When in Korea (WinK) Tours, the safest place in all of Korea is actually the Demilitarized Zone. This may in fact be true because there are so many international tourists on DMZ tours at any given time that North Korea would not dare cause trouble with so many countries all at once.

The DMZ is a buffer zone between North and South Korea, running along (or near) the 38th Parallel and, despite the name, is the most heavily fortified piece of real estate in the world. Approximately 4 km (2.5 mi) wide and splitting the width of the peninsula, the DMZ was created in 1953 as part of the Korean Armistice Agreement between North Korea, United Nations Command forces, and the People’s Republic of China.

As far as DMZ tours go with WinK, there are two main areas to explore. First, there is the Im Jin Gak area to the northwest where we viewed  the Freedom Bridge and across it, Infiltration Tunnel #3. Also, we spent time on the the observation deck where you can vaguely see the Gaesung Industrial Complex and a few North Korean towns. If you are lucky like we were and use the provided binoculars, you can even see some actual North Koreans milling about. Outfitted with hard hats, we made the brief decent into the tunnels and the reality of the tensions that still remain in the region as no official truce has ever been signed.

Then there is the Cheol Won area which is about 1 hour to the East from Im Jin Gak and due north of Seoul, where we went up on  a very nice observation deck via monorail, before descending into Tunnel #2. A total of four infiltration tunnels under the DMZ were discovered in the mid-70s. According to Jim Sides’ book, Almost Home, North Korea claimed upon their discovery that the tunnels were actually being used for coal mining. However, no coal has been found in the tunnels, which are instead dug through solid granite. Some of the tunnel walls have been painted black to give the appearance of anthracite, and it is quite something to think of the countless hours spent by North Korean soldiers digging these tunnels in secret.

(Please click on each image below to view full size or as a slideshow)

The tunnels are instead widely believed to be for a military invasion from the north. Although a bit claustrophobic, each shaft is large enough to permit the passage of an entire infantry division in one hour. Though the tunnels are not wide enough for tanks or vehicles, it is scary to think of them ever being used to stage a secret invasion of an unsuspecting south. After reemerging, we enjoyed a brief lunch of Dolsot Bibimbap (my favorite), and then hiked down into a beautiful ravine nearby. The real tragedy was the desolate feeling of the area which is primarily gorgeous farmland and marshy wetland filled with wildlife oblivious to the tension and significance of the area.We also saw a statue of Im Kuk Jeong, the Korean Robin Hood before being treated to a battlefield lecture where a highly animated and enthusiastic English-speaking soldier gave us a great history and visual tour of the landmarks of the area. The only upside to the area may be that because of its military designation, the area has been allowed to return to a more natural and undeveloped state, with birds and wildlife returning to what was once a ravaged war zone.

The main difference between the two tour locations is that Im Jin Gak area is more famous and heavily traveled. With the main bridge that would connect north and south as a gateway to the Gae Sung business complex, as well as to Panmunjum and the more crowded and developed areas. With a theme park for kids, souvenirs, food stalls (including Popeye’s), and coffee shops, this site has much more more (surreal) tourist-trap fanfare. The Cheol Won area was much more conservative and has preserved more of the way this beautiful region has been for decades. Also, in this area they were more lenient regarding picture taking and direct observation across the border. Most people say this part of the DMZ is much better, but its really difficult to skip the more famous Imjingak side for comparison and both can be easily accomplished in a well-planned afternoon.

Overall, our tour guide was friendly and knowledgeable, but the tour (though exhausting) was not as complete or informative as I would have hoped. The benefit of going with a travel and culture group like WinK was the casual and friendly nature of the guests on the tour, as well as the reasonable cost of about 50,000 KRW. Our tour guide was also able to relate the history from a more personal viewpoint, which was refreshing and free of  the editorialized propaganda that surrounds the real story of Korea. Most tour books recommend taking U.S.O.-organized trips instead, and if you are only in Korea for a short time, I recommend exploring some of the tours they offer, particularly to the Joint Security Area. Be sure to make reservations at least a month in advance, however, as these popular and well-run tours book fast and require time to complete a check of all proper credentials.


If you go, be sure to bring your Alien Registration Card (ARC) and passport. Also, be sure to pay close attention to signs permitting photography and sightseeing areas if you want to avoid a potential international incident. There is no dress code except that you should not be wearing something obscene, inflammatory, or anything that could be a problem walking about in Seoul. The floors of both tunnels were damp and were highly uneven surfaces, so certain types of shoes (like high heels) would not be advised and hikers or boots are actually preferable.

After all my time living here, this was the one destination that I was glad to scratch off my “Bucket List”. It was a long and tiring day by the time our bus dropped us off back in Seoul, but for the price and the experience, I can’t imagine coming all the way to this part of the world and not taking the opportunity to glance over the border safely into a mysterious, tragic, and altogether foreign land.

DMZ from Matthew M. Vacca on Vimeo.

January 22, 2014

Favorite Foods: Korea

TopFoods47Deciding on just ten of my favorite foods here in this part of the world is almost impossible. What started out at a real challenge  to try new things thirty months ago has turned into a culinary love affair. All I really knew about Korean food was kimchi, of course, and a friend’s recommendation that I try Bibimbap once I arrived. If Korean food choices existed at all back home in Columbus, they were never on my stomach’s low-frequency radar.

Part of what made my first few months so difficult food-wise was my embarrassment at not knowing the language and a picky, yet unrefined palate. My favorite meals growing up were either SpaghettiO’s or grilled cheese and tomato soup. I will still never turn down either comfort food meals, but my tastes have fortunately grown up a bit. As a result, I started out slow and I alternated between my favorite new dishes and regular meals at the Burger King near my school. When you are far from home, a #4 Bacon Whopper Combo is a remarkable, if unhealthy, comfort. Grilled cheese, cereal, and lots of fried egg sandwiches cooked at home filled in the rest of my diet.

Fortunately, something clicked-over once I decided to join a gym, get in shape, and leave all the Western-style junk food behind. I began to branch-out and try new restaurants regularly and I found that Korean food, while very spicy at times, is remarkably diverse, easy to digest, and just as crave-inducing as all the meals I had been missing from back home. Most travelers will rave about eating Korean barbecue, and it is indeed terrific. However, it never seemed very filling or satisfying given all the fuss and work involved, and is best eaten with friends or in a large group instead. As I was a solo diner most of the time, I tended to avoid the fancy BBQ shops in favor of the most plain and boring local dives. These family-owned joints that buck the latest trends and remodels always had the best food. I am now in the final term of my contract and I realized that I will certainly miss the following items the most, as well as the affordable (read: cheap!) prices and lack of a custom for tipping, too.

TopFoods371. Haejangguk (해장국)

The funny thing now looking back is that my current favorite dish, Haejangguk, was also the very first Korean meal I had here way back when I first arrived. My recruiter took me to a restaurant right across from my new apartment and I was not at all impressed. I guess my first Korean culinary experience was a bit of a shock, but it also prepared me right off that things were now going to be different. The dish, translated as “soup to chase a hangover,” consists of usually consists of dried Napa cabbage, congealed ox blood, and vegetables in a hearty beef broth that is served with a side of bap (rice). Although I have never been hungover in Korea, this hearty and spicy dish is perfect anytime of year, especially to warm you up on a cold, rainy, or snowy day.

TopFoods442. Bibimbap (비빔밥)

As identifiable with Korea as kimchi, the name Bibimbap means “mixed rice” and is a available everywhere and in many delicious varieties. My favorite, Dolsot Bibimbap, includes sautéed and seasoned vegetables, plus a raw egg over warm rice served in a hot earthenware (dolsot) pot. After adding gochujang (red chili pepper paste) and mixing thoroughly, this dish is delicious when washed down with a side of hot guk (clear broth). Regional versions also include barley mixed with the rice base, which adds flavor and nutrients as well as a rather undesirable side effect; wicked flatulence. Consequently, I do NOT recommend this dish before a long day of teaching or train ride in close quarters. Otherwise, Bibimbap is terrific anytime, especially when the rice cooks a little and gets crispy on the bottom of the dolsot.

TopFoods103. Mandu (만두)

Hot dumplings of many sizes and with endless terrific fillings are available on just about every street corner and can be either steamed, grilled, or deep fried. Cheap, delicious, and fully portable, Mandu dumplings were a staple in my diet from the very beginning and remain a great treat anytime. A little shop near my school in Neoun serves the best Wong Mandu (king-sized dumplings) I have found on the peninsula. Also served with a side of broth, these beautiful babies can be either a great snack or a meal unto themselves. Soup made with smaller dumplings, Manduguk, is also great way to enjoy this Korean comfort food, especially as the temperature drops (by degrees Celsius).

TopFoods134. Hotteok (호떡)

I have already raved on this blog about my fondness for these little Korean desert pancakes. The quintessential wintertime street food is typically grilled in oil, butter, or margarine and is usually filled with a sweet combination of  brown sugar, honey, and cinnamon. The southern, or Busan variety, adds chopped peanuts for a crunchy twist and both types are served in a paper cup or holder. Cheap, hot, and hopelessly addicting, the hardest part (other than waiting in the long queues) is waiting for the filling to cool off enough so it doesn’t burn a hole right through your tongue. These little treats are so good, though, that waiting is almost impossible. I am considering giving up my teaching gig for good and returning to the states to start my own Hotteok cart. As long as I don’t eat all the profits, I could make a killing.

TopFoods165. Hwedeopbap (회덮밥)

Since sushi and sashimi are technically Japanese, I can’t really include them on this list of Korean delicacies – no matter how much I adore them. In addition to all the wonderful Korean meals I have grown to love, my existing passion for raw fish has only increased here (and on my trip to Tokyo), as it is always fresh, comparatively inexpensive, and readily available in every Dong (neighborhood). The delighful Korean twist that has me hooked, however, is Hwedeopbap. Basically Bibimbap made with raw fish, cabbage, and kim (seaweed) added for saltiness, this beautiful and healthy option is something I hope to find (or make) back home on a regular basis. Topped with a little red pepper paste and served with a side of Miso soup or thick Udon noodles, this is the one dish I have happily introduced to  friends again and again. In the summertime I had this 2 to 3 times a week and still never got tired of it. It could easily be the one thing here I will miss most. When done correctly, it is as delicious as it is photogenic.

(Please click on each image below to view full-sized or as a slideshow)


TopFoods496. Kimchi and Sundubu Jjigae (김치찌개)

Unlike guk, which is comparable to a soup or broth, jjigae is a little thicker and its hearty consistency is more like a stew. One of the very best, of course, is the kimchi variety. Made with sliced kimchi of varying ages and either beef, pork or seafood, it can also contain tofu, sliced spring onions and garlic, and myeolchi (anchovy) stock. The stew is best when served boiling hot and eaten communally with a side of white rice and shredded kim (seaweed) and other side dishes (banchan). The fermented properties of the pickled kimchi provide “good,” healthful bacteria, similar to yogurt. I also recently began to enjoy Sundubu jjigae (순두부찌개), a similar dish (pictured) in which hand-made uncurdled tofu (dubu) is the primary ingredient.

TopFoods217. Ju Mok Bap (주먹밥)

One of the key reasons Korean culture revolves around kimchi, rice, and seaweed is the ease of preparation and low cost. When combined with and endless variety of combinations and convenient portability, it is hard to argue with the logic, price, or taste. Ju Mok means “fist” in Korean and Bap, as I have mentioned, is rice. Some of my very first friends here opened a small shop in my building called Yummi Yummi and their simple menu revolves around these delicious fist-shaped rice balls. Served slightly warm and covered with grandma’s secret blend of spices, the filling is typically kimchi and/or tuna salad. Served with a side of hot Janchi Guksu (잔치국수), or Korean Party Noodles to wash them down, it is a cheap, quick, and filling meal that I will miss dearly. The Japanese version, onigiri, is wrapped in seaweed and is just as addicting and easy to find.

TopFoods408. Samgyetang (삼계탕)

As I began preparing to live in Korea, one dish, Samgyetang, kept popping up in every travel guide I encountered. Samgyetang means “ginseng chicken soup” and is a guk made with a whole young chicken stuffed with glutinous rice and ginseng. Served primarily in the summertime, it is believed that eating it will replace the nutrients you lose while sweating in the hottest days of the year. The broth, similar to chicken soup back home, also contains dried seeded jujube fruits, garlic, and ginger, and depending on the recipe, various other medicinal herbs. Readily available, I found the best Samgyetang served at a very old restaurant in Seoul’s Chebu-dong (in Jongno-gu), called Todokchon. While I understand the logic behind the seasonality of the dish, I preferred to be warmed by its homey comfort in the Fall and Winter, and when I was particularly under the weather.

TopFoods349. Godeungeo gui (고등어구이)

While most Koreans and tourists alike go crazy over the traditional Korean BBQ of either pork, chicken, and beef, my preference leans more toward grilled fish (gui) and the best, Godeungeo Gui, is grilled mackerel. Served sizzling hot with a variety of sides, this simple delicacy is generally a whole filleted fish which is lightly grilled or broiled so that the meat falls right off the bone. The crispy underside is a real treat, too, especially when served with dolsot bap, which (if you have been paying attention) is a hot earthenware pot filled with fresh hot rice.

TopFoods2810. Donkkaseu (돈까스)

This last entry is not really Korean, but is the Korean version of a traditional Japanese meat cutlet, Katsudon. Typically pork loin (or chicken) which is breaded, deep fried, and then served over rice with cooked egg, this hot and filling meal is found everywhere and in so many varieties it became a meal I got hooked on very early. Koreans use a darker soy or Worcestershire-based sauce or thick curry instead and serve it with cabbage. It is a tradition for most Japanese students to eat Katsudon before a big test or exam because “katsu” is a homophone of the verb katsu, meaning “to be victorious“.

All of this fails to mention all the terrific side dishes, or banchan (반찬), served with every meal. Complimentary kimchi and pickled radishes are pretty common everywhere you go, but the rest rotate depending on what the chef has on hand and can sometimes be served in quantities equal to a whole meal. Free refills are also pretty standard. One of my favorites is the small, dried anchovies called myulchi bokkeum (멸치볶음). Stir-fried in either soy sauce or red pepper paste, these tasty little fish are always a welcome surprise before the main meal is served.

A few other brilliant dining innovations here in Korea are ideas that I would love to back home. Cold filtered water is always delivered to the table in a plastic jug prior to placing an order so you don’t have to chase down your server every time you need a refill. Even if you did, Koreans have worked this out, too, by adding a doorbell-like button at each table to call for service or more food and drinks. Once you hit it, your table number registers digitally and help is on the way. Also, most restaurants, businesses, and facilities have a water cooler with hot and cold running filtered water at the entrance. Some even offer complimentary coffee, as well. How convenient and time-consuming is that?

Do I still miss my mom’s fried chicken dinner or a greasy breakfast at Jack & Benny’s? You bet! Will I miss the amazing food here in South Korea? Probably more than I can currently even begin to imagine. The local tastes, smells, and dishes are as identifiable as the people, places, and the experiences here I will never forget.

December 22, 2013


Ubase01Although I only worked for Apple Retail for one year in 2010 and 2011, there were two mantras that I preached to everyone I encountered there; go ahead and spend the extra money on Apple Care (Apple’s extended protection plan), and always, I repeat always “back that shit up!”

During my time working at the Easton Town Center location in Columbus, I witnessed, experienced, and took part in some downright amazing acts of customer service. Over-and-above the call of duty was a common daily occurrence. When you get right down to it, this level of care is at the heart of of what makes the Apple experience so special. Don’t get me wrong, the company is not perfect. In fact, I have often remarked that to succeed they really only needed to be better than Microsoft. That rant will need to be saved for another mush longer and anger-fueled diatribe.

Apple has, however, created an in-store environment and a user culture that literally promotes (as its ads suggest) not only thinking differently, but behaving differently, too. It is hard to quantify as a whole, but you know it when you feel it. Clearly legions of Apple users and employees agree and subscribe to this unique and refreshing way of handling the relationship customers have with the company, as well as the products they sell and service. It is this environment that makes it a pleasure to shop at any Apple store worldwide or just to browsing, hanging out, and learning in an atmosphere of sharing, knowledge, diversity, and creative inspiration. To me, that is the brilliance of the retail concept that changed the way all progressive businesses think about their relationship with customers in the retail world. The thinking behind it and the unmatched success this concept produced is outlined brilliantly in this Macworld article from May, 2011.

Fast forward nearly three years to Daejeon, South Korea, where I have been teaching English far away from the comfort of even a single (proper) Apple Retail location. One of the most amazing things I still can’t believe about the “Miracle on the Han,” Korea’s unprecedented postwar economic growth, is that it is was and is still accomplished primarily with stripped-down PCs running outdated versions of MS Windows, and almost exclusively using the otherwise obsolete browser, Internet Explorer. While Koreans fierce loyalty to all things made here and Samsung products in particular, many are finally warming up to the idea that there may be an alternative.

Apple products are available in a variety of stores and authorized resellers like Frisbee and Concierge, most offer little or no help in the way of Genius Bar advice and repairs. Enter UBASE. While my definition of the word “update” varies differently from the prevailing Apple wisdom, I have succumbed reluctantly to regular updates of my machine and its applications.  After updating my MacBook Pro with the recent (and free for the very first time) operating system download, OS X Mavericks, I found my otherwise dependable and lightening-quick Mac struggling with even the simplest of tasks. The spinning pinwheel or “Beach Ball of Death” is the Mac equivalent of the the PC hourglass, and was something that I rarely if ever encountered on my machine. The fact that its sudden and infuriating appearance only occurred after  the OS update, was a coincidence I can only now logically explain.Ubase06

After trying every simple and logical fix I could think of, I turned to a few Apple Geniuses back home for advice. The consensus was that my hard drive was failing and that, hopefully, I had followed my own advice to back up my data. As my computer had become my lifeline and “all things media” center, I had be regularly and religiously using Time Machine with an external hard drive to indeed keep all my valuable digital data preserved. After a bit of research online, I was able to determine that I would not need to send the entire device overseas for service for a fix, and that UBASE, an Apple Authorized Service Provider, was located conveniently just a short subway ride away.

Not only was the experience everything I have come to expect from Apple, it was a valuable lesson in the logic in outstanding customer service worldwide. Not only was my computer quickly identified and accurately diagnosed at the UBASE service bar, it was repaired under my Apple Care Protection Plan in just a matter of days with no charge whatsoever. The staff there, while only minimally fluent in English, plugged in my computer and performed a thorough diagnostic and got me in and out quickly.

If you are in need of certified Apple service abroad, simply track down your nearest UBASE location. Upon entering, take a number for either mobile devices (left button) or computers (on the right), and relax. You will find yourself in the same capable and experienced hands of the professionals you should have come to expect from your favorite Apple store back home. Apple Care and my back-up have saved my bacon in the very way I had preached to my friends and customers and worked exactly as they were intended. The biggest and most unforgivable tears shed at the Genius Bar were by those  who had suffered a fatal crash and hadn;t bothered to take advantage of the myriad of simple and inexpensive options for backing up their precious media. There is no excuse, so don’t say you haven’t been warned.

UBASE Daejeon  is in Yongmun and is open from 10am to 7 p.m. Monday  through Friday. It is also open for diagnosis and repairs on Saturday from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m.

UBASE Daejeon
242-30 Yongmun-dong, Second Floor

Seo-gu, Daejeon, South Korea
Phone # 042-535-9230

Directions: Take the Daejeon line to the Yongmun Subway Station. Use Exit 7 then go straight for a block and a half. The sign is clearly visible on your right on the Second Floor of the Electronics Land Building (JeonJa Landu).

November 30, 2013

Taco Amigo

TacoAmigo7As I have mentioned in multiple essays and reviews here at The Rock Traveler, I am a huge fan of Vatos Urban Tacos, which now has three locations in Seoul. While Vatos specializes in a unique fusion of Tex-Mex and Korean-Asian fare, it has gotten so big and so popular, it is sadly beginning to feel a bit like a chain restaurant. The signature appetizer, Kimchi Carnitas Fries, are well worth the trip (and long wait) and should not be missed at some point during a stay in the capital city.

However, there are also a lots of terrific smaller (and more intimate) Mexican restaurants worth investigating in Korea as well. My current favorite is Taco Amigo in Itaewon. While Vatos offers an impressive variety and an unbeatable atmosphere and style, there is something to be said for the small, unassuming, hole-in-the-wall type owner-operated joints like Amigo. If you close your eyes and try real hard, you can almost imagine that you are in a small Mexican cantina South of the border and not just a block off the main drag in one of Seoul’s busiest neighborhoods.

Taco Amigo offers most of what you would expect from your favorite Mexican eatery back home in the states and in large portions. On both visits I have opted for the Mole Chicken and Enchilada Special over the ala carte or mix-and-match option. Because I miss refried beans more than any other “Western” food option from North America, I pigged-out and got them on the side with Chips and Salsa, too. With just water to drink, my bill came to about 19,000 KRW.

With seating for around 20, the kitchen here is small and everything seems to be homemade; including  a nice variety of hot sauces which are available upon request. Like most Korean attempts to duplicate Western dishes, the food here is hot, fresh, and delicious, but something is just off a little bit. It is hard to really say what exactly, I guess it is ultimately just not and can never be the same. That is in no way a dig on Taco Amigo or other restaurants like it. After two visits, I still find myself preferring (and recommending) it over the big-name competition for its overall quality and value, as well as the cozy family-style setting. I was completely ignored at the bar on my last visit to Vatos because the place was just a loud and overcrowded madhouse. I walked out in a huff and stumbled upon Taco Amigo instead, so I consider it a blessing.

If you crave a big hot plate of tacos, burritos, and enchiladas with the feel of a small town Mexican dive, Taco Amigo offers more of what you are looking for at a fair price and without the long lines, loud crowds, and corporate feel.

(Please click on each image below to view full-sized or in a slideshow)

Taco Amigo is close to Itaewon Station, Exit #4. At street level, simply turn back toward the main intersection (and Taco Bell) and turn right at the Baskin Robbins, keep walking just a minute or two up the slight hill until you see Taco Amigo on the right. It’s easy to miss but it is just before you get to the bus station.

They are open Weekdays from 11:30 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. and Weekends from 11:30 a.m. to 10:30 p.m.


October 23, 2013

The Adventures of Augie March



The Adventures of Augie March by Saul Bellow

My rating: 3 of 5 stars


Nobody asks you to love the whole world, only to be honest…

Is this the great American novel? I hate tags like that or attempts to declare any work of art “the best.” I would certainly not proclaim it to be so about this novel, but there is a great deal about it worth discussing and admiring. There is not doubt that Bellow is an immensely gifted writer as quotes like that one prove. His command of the language is impressive (even imposing and intimidating) and his writing, dense. However, I am not convinced that this book is as significant as it seems to think it is.

I am not sure that Augie should be classified as a hero, either. In the end, there is not an overwhelming argument for him being a person that I find admirable, or even memorable. His good and bad qualities seem to balance out and there does seem to be an everyman struggle to find meaning and purpose in life, but there is also very little growth in his morality and a very small amount of improvement in his decision making. Perhaps that is the key lesson in the book and Augie’s nature (“…everyone sees to it his fate is shared. Or tries to see to it.”) is to do just that and somehow implicate the reader in his struggles.

As for the promising start of the book, I found some of the later chapters lazy and unfocused. New characters (like Robey, Mintouchian, and the sailor Bateshaw) seemed to pop up exclusively for Bellow to spout further diatribes that could not be otherwise folded into the overall narrative. I was reminded of a similar tactic used by Ayn Rand, except she tends to do it over entire 1000-page novels. The characters had no real relevance in the plot or story other than to serve as a way for the author to squeeze in more pompous, rambling philosophy. I also expected Bateshaw had actually blow up the ship with one of his experiments and that this accounted for his bizarre behavior and demeanor towards Augie, but this proved to be fruitless.

Don’t get me wrong. Parts of this novel were quite entertaining and illuminating to be sure. Particularly his description of each character, no matter how insignificatn and lines like:

“Everyone has bitterness in his chosen thing,” he says. “That’s what Christ was for, that even God had to have bitterness in his chosen thing if he was really going to be man’s God, a god who was human.

Yet, somehow I still feel cheated as a reader. It seems to me as if an author of Bellows’ talents and experience should be able to intertwine themes and story in a way that does not come off as clumsy, inserted, and as ham-handed as they do in the second half of the story.

Ultimately, rather than complain about what this book isn’t, I will focus on what is attempting to communicate. I think Augie philosophy on the axial lines of life are what will resonate with me the most:

I have a feeling about the axial lines of life, with respect to which you must be straight or else your existence is merely clownery, hiding tragedy…. When striving stops, there they are as a gift… Truth, love, peace, bounty, usefulness, harmony!



View all my reviews

October 13, 2013

When in Korea



When in Korea (WinK) is an adventure group that regularly books trips of all kinds throughout the country. After an amazing weekend in the Southwest corner of the peninsula, I can’t wait to book another trip with this fun and easy-going group.

This particular weekend was a study in contrasts. Saturday was spent in relative peace and calm at two different green tea plantations in the Boseong area of Jeollanam-do. The first stop was a pleasant tour of the multi-tiered green tea mountains followed by a terrific green tea-filled lunch at the on-site cafe. I had a tongkatsu pork cutlet topped with green tea powder and green tea rice on the side. Olivia had the bibimbap (비빔밥) with the same rice and Cheymus had jajangmyeon (짜장면) made with green tea noodles and black beans. Desert was also a refreshing green tea ice cream at the gift shop to wash it all down. The whole thing reminded me of the Looney Tunes cartoon where Yosemite Sam was forced to eat only coconut on a deserted island for 20 years until Bugs arrived. If you don’t like green tea, this place is not for you but a little experimenting will definitely change your mind.

(Click on any image to view full-sized or in a slideshow)

After lunch we packed up and went down the road a bit to another privately owned plantation that was in its fifth generation of family ownership.  As an added treat, our tour group divided up into five teams for a little tea-picking competition. Here we were shown just how to pick the best and most coveted leaves before being turned loose to pick the leaves ourselves. This green tea plantation is world-renowned as the leaves there make some of the best and most expensive tea available. Each cup of tea is sold exclusively  at the most expensive hotels in Korea for upwards of $50-70 a cup.

Once we picked the leaves, we got to enjoy a special tea tasting and the tea master showed us how to drink tea the traditional way. The whole process is all about patience and taking time to slow down and enjoy every aspect of the ritual. It was a great lesson not only in the multiple health benefits of green tea, but the overall advantage of a life lived in slow motion. We then moved to the work area and got to continue the competition as we dried the leaves in pairs on large hot iron pots rolling them dry. The whole experience was truly fascinating and educational as well as being very relaxing. Our team sadly lost in the big competition, but we were all so buzzed from the terrific tea and peaceful afternoon, that we were ready to head out to the pension in and get settled in for the night.

The pension (Korean lodging similar to a guesthouse) was near the mountains of Wolchulsan National Park. After getting our room assignments we enjoyed a picnic-style Korean BBQ (with lots of beer and soju) and got to know the members of our tour group even better. One of the amazing things about living and working overseas is the diversity of the people you meet here. I shared dinner with people from Australia, South Africa, and England, as well as the U.S., and got the lowdown on my desire to get dive certified from a former instructor.

A separate contingency of the WinK tour went to the Grand Prix qualifying heats that day instead of the tea excursion and they arrived late and in good, well-lubed spirits to complete the group. We all had different units of various sizes and most people, like me, slept in surprising comfort on the floor, Korean style. My bunkmates were from Sheffield (home of Def Leppard) as well as Blackpool, England. Both had enjoyed a great day at the track and had me pumped up for my first Formula 1 race the next day. I went to bed well before the partying stopped and slept-in well past the morning call for a sunrise hike on the mountain.

The extra sleep was well worth it. Our busy Sunday began with sprinkling rain as forecasts tracking a typhoon off the southern coast threatened to ruin our race day. As I learned on my trip to Japan, there should always be room in your gear for an emergency raincoat, and today was the perfect excuse to bust mine out. After about a 45 minute trip from the mountains and some dodgy signage and directions we arrived at the Korea International Circuit (a track built on reclaimed marshland) in Yeongam, near the port city of Mokpo. Despite the success of similar F1 events in Singapore, the Korean events have continuously lost money for race promoters, prompting calls to renegotiate the deal with Formula 1. Losing the race would be a shame, because with some time and the proper cross-promotion (like the K-Pop concert the previous night) the high-tech and high-speed sport might be a perfect fit for a country obsessed with cars.

Fortunately for our group, the clouds were somewhat chased away and we were treated to a nice Blue Angels-like air show just prior to the race performed by the the 53rd Air Demonstration Group, coincidently nicknamed “The Black Eagles.” Once the start lights went from red to green, we were treated to an extremely loud and blisteringly fast race. The F1 cars took roughly 90 seconds to finish a lap and completed 55 laps (totaling over 308 km) in just a few hours. While the race saw no big crashes, the second half was mostly completed under caution as the track conditions were brutal on the tires of most cars. The winner proved to be the pole-sitter, Team Red Bull’s  Sebastian Vettel from Germany. Vettel is the current points leader and is closing in on his forth straight Formula 1 title. While he lead from wire-to-wire and was never really challenged, this was the first time in the short 3-yer history of the race that the top qualifier has actually won the race. I was pulling for Brit Lewis Hamilton of Team Mercedes, who finished fourth.

After some creative repositioning from our crack WinK tour guides, we were able to switch busses for a much needed direct drop-off back home in Daejeon. Most travelers in the group were juts as exhausted as I was and slept on the entire 2.5 hour ride back to reality. Overall, I was impressed with the organization of this tour group and thrilled with the new friends I met from all over Korea (and the world). I have already booked my next adventure with them to the DMZ in Novemeber, so stay tuned to my internet journal for updates from the front line as I peek across the border into North Korea for the first time.


When In Korea from Matthew M. Vacca on Vimeo.