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Republican National Convention adventures

Howdy blogosphere! Long time, no read!

It’s been a year since I left Korea and ended regular posts from my last project, Alex and Chickpea Do Korea.

But I assure you, I’ve been busy: A trip around the world and an almost equally exhausting readjustment to life in the United States — in an election year no less!

I’ve recently been reporting for Courthouse News covering civil cases in the Tampa Bay area. But I also some interesting moments last month when the media and Republicans descended on the Tampa Bay area.

I wrote about it for Tampa Bay’s award-winning alternative weekly, Creative Loafing.

From passionate protests and dancing vaginas to a candid interview with presidential candidate Vermin Supreme — he wants to give every American a free pony — I braved $50 million worth of security and a phalanx of law enforcement to cover this convention like no other news outlet.

And, in a homage to the 40th anniversary of Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail (which, incidentally, was the last time the Republicans held a convention in Florida), I ended my reporting with an unbelievable journey inside the belly of the beast. Bad tipping politicians? Republican pool parties? A hug with former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich?

Yup, it’s all here.

Enjoy!

Alex and Chickpea Do Korea

5 tips to save you money/ time when arriving in South Korea

1. Get your Alien Card early. You should ask your co-teacher to bring you to immigration on your first or second day in your city. The earlier you get this card, the easier life will be. You can’t open a bank account or get a cell phone without this card.

2. Ask if any of your teachers has a spare cell phone. These days, people change cell phones like they do socks. Chances are someone in your school has an extra phone lying around. If they let you borrow it, you can then take it to a cell phone store to get a pre-paid plan, which is the most economical (unless you want a smart phone or use your phone incessantly). I got my plan through a place called NRC in Daegu. They have an office near Banwaldong. Super cheap.

3. Set up a KEB (NOT KB!) bank account. This is the best bank account for a waygookin: cheap fees for sending money back home; online banking that also allows you to transfer money overseas, which no other bank has; mostly English-speaking staff; and a check card that you can use overseas when you have your vacation in Thailand or China.

4. Check your ondol. When your teacher first shows your apartment, make sure you ask about the ondol (heater). Find out what buttons control the water heater and what buttons control the floor heater. Find out how to turn it off correctly and set the temperature correctly. Too many friends of mine didn’t figure these things out early and had very large gas bills.

5. Treat your teachers to pizza or chicken on your first payday. Not only is this polite, but trust me, if you do this one kindness, it will be repaid 10-fold throughout the year and you will always have food on your desk.

Alex and Chickpea Do Korea

2011 Hi Seoul Festival highlights

When I lived in New Haven, Connecticut, my favorite time of year was early summer (and this is not only because winter was long gone). Every June, New Haven hosts the International Festival of Arts and Ideas.

The Festival of Arts and Ideas is a two-week event bringing world class performances to the small city: dance, theater, concerts, art installations, circus acts and lectures on current events.

Best of all, most of the events were free.

To top it all off, New Haven’s hipster and counter-culture scene put on their own festival, Ideat Village, featuring local music, burlesque shows and the weirder aspects of the Elm City.

On those June days, I would stop by my favorite coffeeshop, grab an ice coffee and bagel, and walk the transformed streets.

I haven’t seen anything like it since … until last month when I visited the annual Hi Seoul Festival in South Korea’s capital city.

The Hi Seoul Festival is held in the spring and fall of every year. It’s a cultural event bringing together hundreds of artists in many different stripes for (mostly free) performances throughout the city. For the 2011 May Hi Seoul Festival, there was modern dance, puppetry, miming, theater, music from around the world, art installations and some very strange performance art.

There’s no better way to share the event with you than through videos and pictures so here we go:

Mimes in Korea? Who would’ve thought?! But there was Ko Jae Kyung, perhaps the best known mimist in Korea, performing a free show.

Pretty women, bouncy balls, a midget: I’m no fan of modern dance, but this performance by USD Modern Dance company held my interest.

A headless old man, killer fish, skeletons — you have to check out this performance by Theatre Nomad.

Alex and Chickpea Do Korea

The Gwangalli Eobang Festival in Busan, South Korea

It was the best damn fish I ever had.

I don’t know what kind of fish. Or what all the spices were that the lady cook rubbed in. Frankly, the whole operation looked rather rustic. But for the next several years, the taste of that whole, sizzling fish will follow me. The juicy, flaky white meat falling from my chopsticks in one hand. The cold beer in my left. The heat, tang and salt mixing together in perfect harmony.

Now this was the fresh fish experience I was looking for in Busan, South Korea’s famous port city. Forget Jalgalchi Market. The best fish in Busan was in a small stand on one of Busan’s sandy beaches.

Chickpea and I were at the Gwangalli Eobang Festival — a three-day event celebrating Korea’s fishing heritage. Eobang means spirit of the fishermen in the coastal areas, so along with the normal trappings of a Korean festival — mascots, food tents, arts and crafts — there is also several ritual-like performances about fishing in the old days.

If you’re around Busan in the spring, I highly recommend it: if only for the food.

Here’s a look at the Gwangalli Eobang Festival:

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bq6vg6CUvSA]

Alex and Chickpea Do Korea

Walking dogs in Daegu with the Korean Animal Protection Society

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=57jYrpmTc2g]

It would’ve been a bizarre sight anywhere, but watching 50 waygookins walking as many dogs through a park in the middle of a Korean city was downright freakish.

This was a dog walk organized by the Korean Animal Protection Society, or KAPS, one of the few animal advocates in Korea. The 20-year-old organization operates shelters in Daegu, taking in small dogs, big dogs and cats.

When Chickpea and I arrived at the shelter, just off the red line subway stop at Daemyeong station, there was already a crowd of foreigners looking to give these small dogs a much needed walk on a sunny spring day. The shelter itself is not impressive by any means — it’s dirty and reeks of urine — but it shows the nature of animal rights in Korea. The volunteers at KAPS are battling more than a shortage of funding and volunteers; they are up against old attitudes in Korea regarding animals and dogs in particular.

It’s no secret some Koreans still eat dog and the way some merchants butcher dogs is pretty distasteful by Western standards. But there is a general apathy toward animal welfare, too, mostly held by the older generation. One of the KAPS volunteers warned the group to stay away from older Koreans, who in past dog walks, showed verbal and physical aggression toward the dogs.

Happily, there were no issues during our walk around Duryu Park. Children and the elderly alike came up and patted the matted-haired mutts. Women squealed in delight at the site of pint-sized pooches. Men stopped their bicycles and asked questions about the dogs in broken English.

It was a good day to be a dog in Daegu.

For more info on the walks, check out the KAPS Facebook page.

Alex and Chickpea Do Korea

Trip to Andong: Hahoe Village, the longest bridge in Korea and some tasty jjimdak

[slideshow]

Our mission: To not leave South Korea before giving Andong one more chance.

Regular readers of the blog will remember our last trip to Andong in October for the International Mask Festival. The festival was great, but the whole experience was overshadowed by the first (and only) time we felt ripped off in Korea.

This time, however, we wanted to go to the Hahoe Village outside of town. So we left Daegu on a bus bound for Andong, arrived at the city’s new bus terminal and hopped on another bus to take us the several miles to Hahoe Village, a 600-year-old traditional neighborhood on the banks of the Nakdong River.

Traditional villages are big attractions in places like Andong, which is a fairly bland Korean city. The Hahoe Village is on the UNESCO World Heritage List and one of the most famous historic villages in the country. It was even visited by Queen Elizabeth in 1999 — something the community is very proud of. They even built a little museum with pictures from that special day.

The village is a nice collection of tile- and thatched-roofed homes called “hanok.” The Nakdong River offers a nice view. A nearby cliff is also photogenic, especially when viewed from the small pine tree forest nearby. But this is definitely no Cracker Country tourist trap with docents and wooden cut-outs to take pictures with. It’s a real community — people actually live in these houses — and offers all the trappings of a normal Korean neighborhood: There is trash along some of the walkways and when we visited, it must have been garbage burning day.

The real attraction for us was the collection of phallic sculptures that greet your entry into the village. Not necessarily weird, unless you consider the normally conservative nature of this country.

Generally speaking, the village offers a nice window into Korea’s past. (I’m still curious whether people actually choose to live in these drafty homes 30 minutes from any conveniences or if the government gives them a subsidy to keep the village alive.)

After some nice photo opps and a little shopping in the traditional tourist trap area outside of the village, we left to find Andong’s other main attraction: the longest footbridge in Korea.

I was excited. I like bridges. I like water. I like things that break records. And if this bridge has a few boards missing to make it rustic and thrilling — all the better to write home about.

So we took another bus to Andong’s more populated center (1,200 won) and began walking toward the city’s other river. The wind whipped through our jackets and I once again cursed my decision to not bring my scarf. A 45-minute walk later, we arrived at the bridge.

Now, I don’t know Korea’s history with bridges or if something was lost in translation, but if Andong’s bridge is the longest in Korea, I think there’s a good chance it is also the only footbridge in Korea. It took about three or four minutes to cross — and that’s including posing for pictures.

After a stroll through a fake folk village, we decided to head back to Daegu to attend a Japan earthquake benefit concert. But we had one more activity on our list.

If there’s one thing our Korean friends have told us about Andong, it’s : “Try the Andong jjimdak!” This kind-of stew with chunks of steamed chicken and vegetables in a spicy, soy-based sauce is the city’s culinary speciality. I’ve had Andong jjimdak in Daegu and I was doubtful my inexperienced Korean palate could taste the difference in the dish’s city of origin.

After some searching, we found a jjimdak restaurant direclty across from the footbridge entrance. We walked in, took off our shoes and sat down at a table. We ordered our jjimdak (22,000 won) and some sides of rice. In about 15 minutes, our server brought us a huge, tire-sized dish of Andong jjimdak.

And, truth be told, Andong jjimdak really is better in Andong.

If you go: From Daegu, catch the Andong bus (7,700 won) from a bus station near Dongdaegu Station. The bus station will be across the street and behind the first bus station you see. The ride to Andong takes 90 minutes. Once there, walk out of the bus terminal to the main road and catch city bus No. 46 for the 30-minute ride to Hahoe Village. The village costs 2,000 won to enter.

Alex and Chickpea Do Korea

Shilla Memorial Park: Korean version of a Renaissance Fair [video]

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AtzYHw5TLB8]

In late March, Chickpea and I visited the capital of Korea’s ancient Silla empire, Gyeongju.

Tucked between the Taebaek mountain range and the East Sea, Gyeongju is a small city that has married its ancient past with modern Korea surprisingly well. Unlike Andong, which delegates its historical sites to certain areas of town, Gyeongju has put office buildings next to antiquated tombs, temples near hotels. The whole city is ringed by three national parks and dozens of other historical sites.

It has been called a “museum without walls.” That makes it one of the best tourist spots in Korea. Unlike many other small cities in Korea, you can spend a weekend here and not see everything.

This time, we only had a day so we focused on Shilla Memorial Park. This attraction is basically a theme park based around the history of the Silla empire (57 BC – 935 AD). The park offers recreations of royal Silla villages, crafts, a hot spring spa area (which was closed when we visited) and a grand finale performance of an ancient battle. There’s also puppet shows and an interesting martial arts and horse-riding show.

It all seems interesting, but in reality, the park fell a little flat. Shilla Memorial Park isn’t the worse way to spend a day, but it seems like it would be more entertaining for children and their parents than some young waygooks. When you factor in the entrance fee of 18,000 won, it’s probably best to skip it and explore the actual historic sites in Gyeongju.

If you go: From Dongdaegu station in Daegu, hop on a bus leaving from a terminal directly across the street from the Dongdaegu subway entrance (4,200 won). From the Gyeongju bus terminal, catch a city bus to Shilla Memorial Park. The park fee is 18,000 won.

Alex and Chickpea Do Korea

Teaching English is fun, or How I got my students to sing They Might Be Giants

I’m not always happy about living in Korea.

I’ll admit that on some days I roll out of bed and begin my day like a very grumpy zombie. On my walk to school, I curse the sun and the garbage piles and the construction crews destroying the stream near my apartment. Every time a Korean driver speeds up toward the intersection while I’m walking across, I inch closer to having an all-out conniption fit in the middle of the street. As the days get colder and my patience with winter thins, I wonder why I left my sunny city on the beach.

But as soon as I step foot on the schoolhouse grounds, my melancholy lifts. Little children in bright blues, pinks, greens and reds run around, giggling, hugging their friends and sending some very exuberant “Hello teacher!” words my way.

Of all the things that could make an English teacher in Korea hate their job, it shouldn’t be the students. (At least not elementary school students.)

Just the other day, one of my 5th grade classes did something that gave me that same “I’m-s0-glad-I-decided-to-leave-my-life-behind-and-come-teach-English-to-a-bunch-of-kids-in-a-strange-country” feeling. The previous week, they learned the days of the week and so I downloaded a song that would let them use their new English skills. I was a little worried, because they didn’t know all the vocabulary in the song’s lyrics, but I decided to give it a try anyway.

This is what happened:

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A1RMKMWTcdA]

Alex and Chickpea Do Korea

Japan Benefit Concert in Daegu [video]

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fSnH7vhbu1w]

This weekend, Chickpea and I headed to downtown Daegu for some live music and drinks to help out the folks in Japan. DIY Daegu Live, Guerilla League, and URBAN organized eight bands, a DJ and some craft vendors for an awesome benefit show. Here’s some video of the bands from that night, including the first Korean death metal band I have ever seen (check it out, it’s at the 4 minute mark). I apologize in advance for the bad sound quality of the louder acts.