Archive | May, 2013
May 18, 2013

Jeju Island

Jeju01As outlined in my previous essay, a three week visit from longtime friend Patrick provided a perfect opportunity to show off my favorite sights, sounds, and tastes of Korea to someone who could truly appreciate the magnitude of living a life overseas.

Additionally, it set the stage for what would become one of my all-time favorite holidays -right here in Korea. Using 3 vacation days saved up for just this occasion, I took the good advice of new friend and we planned an active trip cycling around Jeju Island.

Jeju is a self-governing province off the Southwest tip of the Korean peninsula and is essentially a volcanic outcropping of black basalt beachfront dominated by the now dormant Halla-san in the center of the island. Mt. Halla is the highest peak in South Korea and is viewable from most points on the island under clear conditions. The island itself is about 200 km around and is filled with some simply gorgeous beaches.

(Click on any photo below to view full size or as a gallery)

Our journey began Tuesday night, leaving directly from work to catch the southwest-bound KTX from Seodaejeon Station to the port city of Mokpo – a smooth and quiet two hour trip through the rain and darkness. I used my new-found travel companion, Agoda.com, to book a room for the night, which our crazy cabbie eventually found in a sea of other similarly-fashioned Korean “love motels.” These so-called love motels tend to cater to young Korean couples still living at home under the watchful eyes of both parents, and oftentimes, grandparents. They also seem strangely geared towards secretive extramarital activities, yet come with all the amenities that make solo travelers like Pat and I highly comfortable. Due to a mix-up with the online booking, we each received our own full-sized room and slept like kings at bargain rates.

After obtaining breakfast provisions and coffee at Patrick’s favorite Korean bakery chain, Paris Baguette, another friendly cabbie got us to the Mokpo Ferry Terminal in plenty of time to board our huge ferry for the nearly 5 hour cruise to Jeju City. Fortunately, we had purchased 2 tickets earlier in the week because it was a full house. Along with hundreds of Korean schoolchildren on a field trip to the island, we enjoyed a slow journey through some beautiful waters spotted with lots of small islands. The voyage seemed to dissect the Yellow Sea to the West and the Korea Strait, separating the country from Japan to the Southeast. Our Junior-sized stateroom proved perfect for reading and napping en route, as well as a welcome reprieve from all the kids who were just as excited as we were to arrive on the island.

When we could hardly stand anymore of our semi-celebrity status on board at the only foreigners (waygooks) on board, we arrived smooth and safe in Jeju harbor. After meeting a couple of smashing lads from Manchester, who intended to circle the island by bike just like us, we all split a cab to Lee’s Bike Shop on a tip from their travel book. Lee’s, it turns out, only rents motorcycles and scooters, another great way to see Jeju-dong, but we were all looking for mountain bike rentals. Mr. Lee referred us to his friend nearby at I Love Bike, who after some tricky haggling and confusing math, outfitted us with 4 bikes, plus complimentary helmets, gloves, maps and  waters. The Official Site for Korean Tourism also has lots of helpful tips and links to make choosing and planning your route easy.

After some quick (and confusing) directions, we were all eager to head out and find the path, counter clock-wise around the island. As out new English friends were much younger (and had already eaten) we wished them luck and parted ways at the Olive Cafe. While Jeju Island is famous for, among other things, fresh seafood, the sign at this beachside cafe tempted us with the prospect of mounds of hot, fresh fried chicken. The food was terrific and was proved to be great fuel for our ride that day, shortened by the later start. A gorgeous Golden Retriever named Jenny was the mascot of the Cafe and she dined patiently under our table.

We set off into the overcast afternoon riding along the shore road eager to put some distance between us and Jeju’s capital city, looking for guesthouse accommodations, called “Pensions” on the island. As we arrived prior to the true peak travel season, many of the hotels and pensions we passed were not yet open for business, but we managed to find a great one with dorm-style bunk beds right on the ocean for only 20,000 KRW each. Aside from one other guest, we had the whole place to ourselves. With some minor snoring from yours truly, we awoke rested and ready to bike and set off after a Skype call back home and free toast and coffee.

The rest of the trip was a comfortable routine of biking in short bursts coupled with stops at all the scenic and remote vistas. The shore road was relatively flat the entire way around the island and we managed to log 30-40 km each day with relative ease and safety.  Using a handy GPS program called Maverick, we were able to navigate easily and keep track of our progress. Aside from an unfortunate flat tire on Patrick’s bike on Day 2, our trip was remarkably easy, relaxing, and unbelievably beautiful and peaceful. Everyone we encountered was incredibly friendly and laid-back, which was the general vibe throughout the island. This was a welcome change from the bustle and rush of Seoul, making it easy to see why so many people (especially honeymooners) vacation on the island every year.

Our guesthouse for night 2 came early as we sought a temporary repair for the blown rear tube, which ultimately proved futile. Band-aids are no match for a proper patch kit or even some black electrical tape-duly noted as essentials for our next trip. Nevertheless, our pension staff at the Windmill Guesthouse” called I Love Bike in Jeju City and arranged for a local mechanic to come in the morning via scooter to fix the flat and tune up both bikes in general- all for about 30 bucks. After a wonderful (and complimentary) traditional Korean breakfast, we hit the road once more – both amazed at our good fortune considering our remote location and the hospitality of our hosts.

The rest of the trip was simply much more of the same in large doses. Relaxed and smooth riding throughout the late morning and afternoon with the beautiful ocean off to our starboard side. Peppered with fish hatcheries, seaweed harvesting locals, and Jeju’s famous diving women, the island was also home to richly fertile volcanic soil and consequently amazing and diverse farmland. Each farm we passed seemed to be cultivating a different crop and the farmers meticulously used every square meter of land to its fullest potential. The spirit and work ethic of the islanders was both fiercely proud and pleasantly relaxed, making for a thoroughly enjoyable visit to Korea’s “Hawaii”. I think we were both a little sad to return home, via separate planes, as it marked the end of Patrick’s visit.

All together, however, it made for a memorable and welcome visit that could not have been more fun. As Pat prepares for a much longer trip, taking part in the “Ride The Divide” bike race later this year, I am contemplating my next active vacation, thrilled with the idea of another challenge. All signs are pointing to 3 places; Thailand, Japan, and the Philippines.

Where will the Rock Traveler end up next?  Stay tuned…

May 18, 2013

Seoul Searching

PatVisit019Last month I was thrilled to get a “human care package” from home in the form of childhood friend, Patrick Donley, visiting Korea for the first time. Pat was also a mule for a real care package of goodies from back home; including a wonderful Flannery O’Connor book and much-needed chocolate chip cookies from Aunt Margo!

Pat’s 20 days here perhaps went by too quickly for both of us, but we managed to squeeze in a lot of the best of what “The Land of Morning Calm” has to offer. As Patrick was in many ways the inspiration for my decision to move here, I wanted to not only show him why I have enjoyed my time here so much, but I also wanted to thank him for providing the impetus for the decision that has forever altered the course of my life.

The idea to move abroad was always simmering on the back burner since Pat himself returned from his two-year stay in Vietnam. The idea, however, never really got any serious consideration until the U.S. economy completely collapsed and some fortuitous events occurred to show me the path. First, Pat introduced me to a terrific book at the Donley cabin one night by Rolf Potts called Vagabonding. The book, subtitled “An Uncommon Guide to the Art of Long-Term World Travel,” was a huge inspiration into the reality (and necessity) of a very different life than the one I was leading at the time. The toll of having three jobs and still not making ends meet was no longer a viable option and, in fact, had never really been a good one to begin with.

After over 250 DJ gigs in seven years (some 200 of those weddings), I decided to look at the possibility of a radically different path that did not include “The Electric Slide.” Potts’ book outlines the simplicity and rewards of life abroad and specific practical advice in harnessing my independent spirit and desire to travel to create a completely new lifestyle for myself. After opening up to the idea, I began to float a variety of options to selected co-workers at the Apple store. I was soon informed that back-of-house guru, Mike, had completed a similar adventure in South Korea, and the scene was set for some vagabonding of my own. With Patrick’s encouragement and the support of my wonderful family and friends, the transformation and exodus took a mere 7 months.

I quickly contacted Mike’s recruiter in Daejeon and began an online job search that became a daily obsession. The rest of my time was spent selling, scrapping, or donating some 75% of my worldly belongings in a cathartic, minimalistic process of more through less. Once I stopped to really evaluate why I had so much “stuff” and why I was seemingly so attached to having and creating a space for all of it, the spring cleaning of 42 years was on and just snowballed from there. Each release also brought me a little closer to realizing my goal of a life fit into 2 suitcases.

After nearly 2 years in Korea, the experiment has turned into a way of life. Not only have I found a true passion for teaching, I feel I have been truly liberated from a lifestyle that was slowly killing me and an American ethos that was a pleasure to leave behind. The only real things that I miss are mom’s cooking, El Vaquero, and sharing a laugh and a smile with my family and friends. That, coupled with my desire to show Pat the brilliance of his suggestions in person, led to an exciting and unforgettable 3 weeks in Korea.

(Click on any photo below to view full size or as a gallery)

After getting acclimated to the time change and Korea’s hurry up “bali bali” culture, Pat was truly in his element. Determined to give him the full experience of my favorite things about living here, we spent the first weekend at Asan Shelter. Pat gladly chipped in to walk, feed, and water the dogs there and was exhausted after a full day with the wonderful animals there. The following week was spent exploring my hometown and trying some of the local delights, including a lot of spicy food, bad Korean beer, a potent bottle of Soju and a daily visit to Paris Baguette for breakfast treats.

We then booked a night at Jin’s Paradise guesthouse in Seoul’s Itaewon-dong district and hopped on the high-speed KTX to make the 50 minute trip at speeds over 300 km per hour. Seoul can be overwhelming for any experienced world traveler, but we managed to see and enjoy some of the subtle brilliance of the city over the weekend, including shopping and haggling (successfully!) with vendors in Namdaemun and Insadong, and sipping Makkoli (Korean rice wine) with some classic characters in a street side tent cafe.

Overall, the weekend was exciting and the sensory overload was tiring for us both. We gladly returned home the next day with our fill of the capital city and for plans of the adventure to come- our cycling tour of Jeju Island…

 

May 12, 2013

Wish You Were Here

Design01

The sad death last month of Hipgnosis co-founder and graphic design legend Storm Thorgerson was a a sad passing indeed. My love of vinyl (and music in general) can be greatly attributed to his unforgettable work with artists like Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, and Peter Gabriel.

In fact, it is hard to imagine the albums or music without thinking of his now iconic design style on such albums as Dark Side of the Moon and Houses of the Holy. Listening to these classics on vinyl becomes even more a process of discovery and mystery when you pour over every detail of the full-sized packaging, liner notes, and photography, which he and partner Aubrey Powell made so unforgettable.

(Click on any image below to view full size or as a gallery)

My secret desire has always been to have a similar career in the graphic design and album packaging, as I am also a big fan of 23 Envelope, another design firm partnership responsible for the equally impressive collection of artwork and record sleeve design for the 4AD label. Once I learned how to use the layering possibilities in Photoshop, my amateur attempts at design and layout began in earnest.

I am in no way implying that I have the skill or creative sensibilities of these highly influential design teams, but I really enjoy putting all the elements together to come up with an image or design for resumes, business cards, invites or to promote an event or concert. Sorting back though some of my favorites, especially those done for Columbus concert promoter Chris Wood of Starwood Presents, I have found that some of my favorites are from bands that I have rarely, if ever, heard of.

Take a look back with me and then pull out your favorite album cover artwork. Try to imagine the music listening experience without the images and design you are so familiar with. Enjoy ….and look to see Storm somewhere on the dark side of the moon.