Monthly Archives: April 2012

The Spruce Moose

This has been a long time coming: today we bought a car.  Specifically, we bought a 2002 Ssangyong Musso.  It’s white, it’s big, it’s got a lot of miles (kilometers, if you’re anywhere outside of the US), and compared to most of the cars on the road here, it looks pretty bulletproof.  What can I say?  I’m American – I need some elbow room.  Plus, I have a husband who’s incredibly worried about safety and who can’t squeeze into small spaces.  (He’s tall – to the point where most Koreans look like dwarves next to him.)

We’ve talked about getting a car for a long time.  Korean public transportation, while being readily available and quite reasonably priced, can be insane and dangerous.  Taking the bus from Changwon to Seoul is not a bad idea.  Taking the KTX to Seoul is also a good idea.  Taking the bus or a taxi from Masan to Changwon?  You’re putting your life into the hands of a crazed lunatic who feels the need for speed, especially going around corners and when taking off from the bus stop.

The minute I found out I was pregnant, I stopped riding the buses.  The drivers generally don’t wait for everyone to sit down – assuming there are open seats – before he floors it, jerks the gearshift into second, and throws half of the standees into the windshield.  I’ve seen more than one elderly person take a tumble on the bus, and I think it’s just rude that the drivers can’t be more considerate of old folks who take the bus because of reduced circumstances.  Seriously, have a heart.

Taxis can be better or worse, depending on the driver.  The problem is that you never know if you have a lunatic until you’re pressed against the backside of the front seat, clinging to overhead handlebar thing for dear life.  This as he careens away from a cement mixer at the last minute.  You think I’m exaggerating, but honestly, I’m not.  This sort of thing happens most every time I get into a taxi here.

When I got pregnant, Graeme put his foot down and said, “We need a car.  It’s not safe for you to take public transport anymore.”  So we decided to buy a car.  Luckily, our friends bought a car about two weeks before we did, and they assured us that it’s nothing scary – and it isn’t. I was quite fortunate in that my boss’s brother knew a guy at the biggest car lot in Changwon, and he was able to get us quite a good deal on our Musso – he knocked off about 25% of the original asking price.

In a nutshell, if you’re looking to buy a car in Korea as a foreigner, you really need to take a Korean with you, unless you speak excellent Korean.  You CAN haggle with them, just like at home.  If you think you’re getting the screw, don’t take the deal.  You can also elect to buy privately from someone you know, but the advantage to using a dealership is that they will take care of the transfer of ownership for you and assist you in getting your car insured.

Unfortunately, insurance is a bit of a bitch, depending on how old you are and what size car you get.  Since I’m getting insurance for the first time, I’m under 30, and I’m driving a tank, it cost me a whopping 1,050,000W.  Ah-yah!  Getting a smaller car and being older will pretty much guarantee a lower premium.  However, I found the same issue in the US when I was an uninsured driver, even though I’d been driving since I was sixteen.  Once you let go of your insurance… Whew!  Next year, it will go down some, but how much remains to be seen.

Of course, the obvious upshot here is that we actually have a car, which most foreigners in Korea don’t.  We can drive places, haul groceries and such, and generally do things that can be something of a pain for other folks.  Also, let’s be honest, it’s hard to travel with kids without a car.  Kids require such a ton of things.  We’re planning on just stowing the stroller in the back of the car – it’s not like we don’t have enough room back there!

My Moose is white, but this is more or less what it will look like.

For Korea, the Musso is kind of a bruiser.  It wouldn’t look like so much back home in the US, land of Hummers, Suburbans, and monster trucks.  (I’ve heard SUVs are less popular now though, because of rising gas prices and a crap economy.)   However, for a country roughly the size of my home state, it’s somewhat large.  Not that the Koreans don’t enjoy a good SUV, because they do.  The main issue here though is parking.  Korean parking spaces are tiny.  Like, you need to be a size 6 or smaller to be able to exit your car after parking.  Backing into the parking garage spaces practically requires GPS.  I have seen Koreans squeeze their cars into truly teeny car spaces.  (Funnily, though, I’ve seen more crap parallel parking jobs here than just about anywhere else.)  The bottom line is that the bigger the car is here, the harder it is to find space to put it when you aren’t using it.

That said, the Musso is a safe car.  Korea has the highest auto accident rate of any industrialized country.  Fender benders are so common at one Changwon intersection that there is a wrecker parked in the big median there at all times during the day.  And I’ve seen no less than a dozen or so accidents at that intersection, meaning that the presence of the wrecker is not without cause.  Koreans drive like maniacs.  I’m sorry if you’re offended by stereotypes, but based solely on Korea, the whole stereotype about Asians being poor drivers is true.  It’s not universally true, but taken as a country, Korea is full of crummy drivers who don’t signal, drive alternately too fast or too slow, jerk the wheel, speed off of lights only to slam on the breaks at the next (visibly) red light, and who will cut you off without even thinking about it.  This is without factoring in the speed-demon bus drivers who are basically piloting Hummers on steroids, the taxi drivers from Hell, and scooter boys, those elusive creatures who appear out of nowhere carrying chicken, pizza, and noodles, zoom past at break-neck speeds, and surprise the hell out of you.  They’re like junior taxi drivers.

All of this combines to make a person mildly wary of driving in Korea.  Or at least, it makes me mildly wary of driving a smaller car in Korea.  Although the gas, insurance, and purchase cost are more expensive, Graeme and I decided early on that we’d rather pay a higher premium and be safe, especially with our new baby.  You can’t really put a price on safety.  Well, okay, you can, but we want to be sure we have something safe, since we can afford it.  It’s really that simple.  Besides, a growing family needs room to cart all their stuff around, right?  Okay, I know that almost nobody really needs an SUV, but peace of mind is worth a lot to me.  I fear being plowed by a wayward taxi.

Frankly, there aren’t just gobs of choices when you’re looking for a reasonably cheap (under $4,000), used SUV that is both reliable and safe.  I was shown some Korandos first, which are quite similar to a rough-and-tumble Jeep Wrangler: two seats, stiff ride, probably has a manual transmission and, while being higher off the ground than your average car, really isn’t all that much bigger, size-wise.  I dismissed the Korandos, since we need space for a baby.  I was then shown a black Musso, which had a lot of miles on it and didn’t look to be in great shape.  I was willing to settle, but then we found another one in white.

This one was newer, had lower miles, and actually cost less because it was a diesel model.  My boss expressed some distaste at the idea of a diesel, but I can’t figure why.  Diesel is cheaper here than regular gas, and diesel engines tend to run longer.  They also tend to be slightly slower on the pickup, but I can deal with that.  It’s not like I’m here to drag-race.

Also, a great fact that I just discovered about the Musso was that it’s engine and automatic transmission were designed by Mercedes-Benz.  Daimler-Benz had a technology deal with Ssangyong to produce an SUV, and the Musso was it.  In a nutshell, it’s a poor man’s Mercedes.  The important things, the engine and the drive train, were made by the Germans.  I had a poor man’s Mercedes once, a 1985 190E.  I loved that car with all my heart.  Boris.  He was a good man.  Boris will never be replaced in my heart, but I do enjoy the prospect of having a new “fake” Benz to drive around.

And he shall be called the Spruce Moose.

Why the Spruce Moose?  Well, it’s partly to do with the Spruce Goose, a somewhat absurdly large wooden float plane designed by the eccentric Howard Hughes.  It was spoofed in a Simpsons episode called “$pringfield,” wherein Mr. Burns takes on many of the characteristics of Howard Hughes.  Hughes was known to go through periods where he didn’t cut his hair or nails and his hygiene was terrible.  Anyway, Mr. Burns builds a model airplane that looks strikingly similar to the Spruce Goose.  Burns names it the Spruce Moose and, at one point, tells Mr. Smithers to “hop in” at gunpoint.  So that’s part of it: it’s a boat of a car that’s slower than cold molasses.  The second reason?  Musso.  It sounds like “Moose-oh.”  It’s the Spruce Moose.  It simply has to be.

"Quick, Smithers! Hop in the Spruce Moose!"

You might think this is strange, but I’ve named all but one of my vehicles.  This is only the fourth one I’ve owned.  The Benz was Boris.  I had a Jeep Liberty in the woody wagon style that was appropriately monikered “Woody.”  I never named the Pontiac because, although it was a good car, I never “clicked” with it.  This car?  The Spruce Moose.  I knew almost instantly.  What can I say?  I’m strange.  I name things like cars.  Of course, in high school my uncle had a big old Chrysler that was alternately nicknamed “The Queen Mary” and “The Purple Penis.”  I guess when you compare it to that last one, the Spruce Moose starts sounding pretty good.

In any event, we have a car.  Or we will have on Monday.  Farewell, public transportation.  Farewell money-saving rides.  Hello, transportation independence and increased cost of living!  Yay!


Marge and Graeme’s Day Out

My husband and I don’t get out all that much.  In the past, that was mostly because I always worked on Saturday, and that consumed the better part of my weekend – Friday night and all day Saturday.  If I wasn’t too beat on Saturday night, sometimes I would go out, but not very often.  Now I’m not working on Saturday, and I have fully embraced laziness.  My excuse is that I’m pregnant and don’t have my usual energy, but that excuse only holds so much water.  The fact of the matter is that I’ve never been the most energetic person anyway.  I have to light a fire under myself.  I finally got the fire lit this Sunday so we could go to Jinhae and see the annual Cherry Blossom Festival.

The Jinhae festival was one of the very first things I did as a foreigner in Korea.  Some friends dragged me out there after I’d been in the country for less than a week.  It was dark out, so you couldn’t really see anything, and it started raining about halfway through the evening, causing us to be soaked and the cherry blossom petals to rain down in droves.  Some old Korean man pinched my arm and grinned at me, which infuriated me.  Although the trees were pretty, it wasn’t my best memory of Korea.  Also, the food in the food tents terrified me.

Why would food scare me?  Well, bear in mind, I’d been in Korea for one week.  During that time, I’d been called fat or a pig about 1,248 times.  I was scared to go grocery shopping for fear of being picked on.  I was subsisting on peanut butter and ramen.  I still had really bad jet lag, so Korean food was foul-smelling and totally alien to me.  I was never that fond of Asian food before I came here, so the odors and visuals of East Asian food took some getting used to.  All in all, I wasn’t thrilled with the idea of eating spicy squid legs or kimchi soup.  The smell turned my stomach.  I managed to make it through dinner, and then we drank soju on the cab rides back to town before hitting the bars.  On a Sunday night.  Classy.

Delish! Fried baby chickens! Now you see why the food tent terrified me my first week.

The following year, I went with some friends.  We actually went during the day, so the visuals were drastically improved.  Unfortunately, we made the mistake of taking the bus at 12:00 noon.  Bad idea.  By the time we reached the Anmin Tunnel, which leads from Changwon to Jinhae, the bus was packed tighter than a sardine can.  The bus driver had fights with people wanting to get on, but there was literally no more standing room.  We were completely and totally squished.  On top of that, the traffic was insane, so it took about 2.5 hours to get from downtown Changwon to the edge of Jinhae, a drive that normally takes about 30 minutes, maximum.  The worst part?  We couldn’t open the bus windows in the tunnel because the air quality inside is so bad, and the driver didn’t turn on the A/C.  We spent about 25 minutes sitting in the tunnel, sweating and wishing we were all dead.

From there, we had to get a taxi to take us to the downtown area of Jinhae, which proved an almost impossible task.  It took 45 minutes to hail a taxi, and then we spent the rest of the day walking around and eating.  Our friend Kevin resorted to putting soju in his soda just to make it through the whole thing.  He ended up going home early, he hated it so much.

As far as the traffic and crowds go, this year was no exception to our previous years’ experiences.  We hailed a cab in Masan, and once we got on the road through Sinchon and up to the Changbok – Jinhae Tunnel, traffic stopped.  Our cab driver wanted to dump us into another cab, he hated the traffic so much.  It took an hour and 15 minutes to make what is normally a 20 minute trip.  Once in Jinhae, the crowds were extreme – like every person in Gyeongsangnam-do province was in Jinhae.

This probably wouldn’t have been so bad, but I’m pregnant and have an overprotective husband.  If the taxi goes over a bump or stops suddenly, he automatically assumes that I’ve miscarried.  I mean, instantly.  I can understand fearing Korean taxi drivers, but you can go a little bit far with it.  We actually had a really great driver today, and he didn’t jerk us around at all, really.  Of course, then we had to fight the crowds and look around.  Fighting the crowds was approximately as obnoxious as I remembered it being, with the Koreans rushing around and pushing you out of the way to look at trinkets and things.  I was careful to avoid being pushed and shoved, but it’s hard to do.

When we’d finally had our fill of fun, the Koreans all simultaneously decided the exact same thing.  Three hours is apparently the magic time limit for the Cherry Blossom Festival.  At approximately 6:30pm, the Koreans all bolted for their cars and started for home.  The roads looked like a Manhattan traffic jam after a 10-car pile up.  There were no taxis in sight – literally – and the buses were crammed with no place to sit.  That is, assuming you could even find a bus that was coming.  Traffic was moving so slowly that people were waiting 30-40 minutes for a bus or more.

After becoming frustrated with the lack of taxi cabs, we decided that the best course of action would be to just wait it out and get some dinner.  Luckily, there are lots of restaurants near the main drag, so we picked a galbi restaurant that looked good and sat down to some Korean BBQ.  You can’t really go wrong with Korean BBQ.  The place was small and family-owned.  The meat was yummy, and the sides were extremely plentiful.  After refueling, we both felt more rested and decidedly less tired and cranky.  Plus, sitting down for a longish dinner gave the traffic some time to thin out.  By the time we finished, we had no trouble getting a taxi back to Masan, and we were home in 20 minutes or possibly less.

I have to say that, although Jinhae is a really cute town with great cherry blossoms and excellent Korean-style homes (we like checking out real estate), I was disappointed by this year’s festival.  In the past, Jinhae had a beautiful bridge and walking area around a small little river.  The trees leaned over the little river, and you could take pictures.  It was very serene and lovely.  Well, those days are gone.  Good thing I got some pictures years ago, because the bridge has been bricked over.  The river runs underground now, and the whole area is covered with stones.  The trees are still there, but the “romantic bridge,” as it was once called, is nowhere to be seen.  That was a serious bummer, since 90% of the reason to go includes taking pretty pictures on those little bridge walks.  This was the 50th year of the festival, and they celebrated by bricking up the best part of the show.  Boo hiss, Jinhae.  Boo hiss.

The best picture I took: cherry blossoms and pine needles.

So I guess my feeling on the Jinhae Cherry Blossom Festival is something like this: if you live in Jinhae, go.  Jinhae is hardly a big town, so it won’t be much effort to get out and walk down there.  If you live in Changwon or Masan and have never seen a Korean festival, go.  Just to say that you’ve been. Take some pictures, eat some roast pig from the spit, buy some trinket bracelets… If you’re from further away than the tri-city area, give it a miss.  There are cherry blossoms all over Korea, and frankly, Changwon has some areas with these trees that easily rival the beauty of Jinhae.  I have no doubt that other cities have similar promenades.  If you really need to take pictures of these great little flowers, do it close to home.  Don’t mess with the traffic and crowds that Jinhae presents.  You’ll be better off closer to home, and most areas have little food and trinket stands near the cherry blossom promenades for a week or two anyway.

Don’t misunderstand and think I don’t like cherry blossoms, because I adore them.  They make Korea look like it’s a tangerine anime dreamworld.  Like there are white snow puffs adorning the trees, with bees floating lazily from flower to flower and every breeze creating a gentle rain of white and pink petals.  It’s very surreal and dream-like.  However, you don’t have to go far in any part of Korea to experience this feeling.  For those who aren’t close by, Jinhae is simply not worth the trouble.  And I’m still really angry about the bridge.  Grr.  I really wanted another picture there.  Oh well.  C’est la guerre, as my grandfather is so fond of telling me.

Being Knocked Up in Korea

I have been in a lot of awkward situations while abroad.  I got a yeast infection (I know, gross) the second day I was in Paris.  Yeah, imagine my horror when I discovered the translation for yeast infection: une infection de champignons.  An infection of mushrooms.  Nasty.  Then there was the time that two of my friends who were visiting me in Germany missed their flight back to the US.  Yeah, horrible.  Actually, I think that might have been the worst.  You’d think that being pregnant in Korea would be more intimidating, but shockingly, it’s not.  Maybe age has calmed me down…

I’m very fortunate in that one of my best friends here, Julia, has already done the “motherhood in Korea” schtick, and she lived to tell the tale.  She pointed me in the direction of the maternity hospital that she used, told me what insurance forms I need to fill out, and instructed me on asking for maternity leave.  Actually, our experience with the whole medical process in Korea has been amazing so far.

Korea has ridiculously cheap health care, compared to the US.  Actually, I think every country is cheap compared to the US.  Of course, Korean medicine is socialized, which I don’t philosophically support, but I don’t support what the US government does either, and it’s cheaper here, so I’ll take the lesser of two evils, thank-you-very-much.  Pregnant women get special maternity insurance.  The coverage amount just went up, and I can be reimbursed about $60 per day for my medical expenses!  Basically, that means that I’m getting free healthcare, since my ultrasound and consultation today cost a whopping $30.  Guess how much it’s going to cost for two nights in a private room AND delivery of the baby (assuming no C-section is necessary)?  Go on, guess!  … $250!!!!!

I am using a maternity hospital.  The nurses are all female, and most of the OB-GYNs are female, too.  Dr. Park, my doctor, is young, sweet, speak excellent English, and has been super-cool from the get-go.  Very thorough and knowledgable.  I do not expect that I would have gotten better care at home.  In fact, I know I wouldn’t, because I go in once a month here in Korea, but the way I understand it, in the US and UK, you only get checked about once or twice a trimester.  By the time my first trimester is over, I will have had three check-ups.  By the time the whole thing is over, I will have had nine or ten.  Awesome!  We even got a DVD recording of our baby’s heartbeat today.  How cool is that?

So far, everything looks good.  I’m about 7.5 weeks along, and the baby is about 1.2 centimeters long.  It blows my mind that they can even measure something so small.  Of course, it’s even more mind-blowing that the Doppler can hear the baby’s heartbeat, which sounds like a hummingbird’s!  It made everything much more real, to say the least!  Now that we can actually see it and hear it, it really hits home that the little rice-bean-baby is alive in there.  So weird!  (Yes, I’m fairly shocked by all of this amazingness that is happening right in my own womb!)

Anyway, to all couples that are living in Korea and are worried about giving birth here: don’t.  Seriously.  Get yourself a good OB-GYN who speaks English, get all of your tests done, and get yourself the “baby card” for insurance.  Everything will be fine.  No, you probably won’t find many water birth practioners outside of Seoul, but there is plenty of good medical care here.  You are also legally entitled to three months of maternity leave.  On top of that excellent news, the government subsidizes childcare for families under a certain income level.  According to my boss, who is going to help us navigate the murky government waters, we are most likely entitled to free childcare for our baby when I go back to work.

Long story short, so far, I am not regretting our decision to have our first child in Korea.  We’re getting great, low-cost healthcare at a fine hospital with a doctor whom I respect and like.  My boss has been really great to me, although to be upfront about it, that would not happen at every academy;  there are hagwons out there who would terminate a pregnant woman’s contract, no questions asked.  So be aware of that, would-be waeguk moms!  In any case, the experience has been incredibly positive for us so far, and I’m hoping that trend will continue long after we’ve had the baby.  Frankly, I consider us to be very lucky to even have the option to give birth here.  As angry as I get with Korea(ns) sometimes, this country has blessed us in so many ways.  For that, I will be forever thankful.

Anyway, I’ll post regular updates about doctor’s visits and what-not.  Something tells me that my regulars would much rather read my “normal” posting than hear me whine about morning sickness (except mine happens at night), being cranky and tired 24/7, and navigating the normal waters of becoming a parent.  There are plenty of blogs that have got that stuff covered, so I’ll spare you the gory details.  Until next time!

Big News

I mentioned in my last post that I quit my Saturday job.  Frankly, I was ready to get out of it anyway, but there is a bigger reason why I quit: My husband and I are expecting our first child.  Yup, it’s true.  I’m knocked up.

I know, most people who know me never thought this day would come.  I’ve never been that comfortable around small children, but my husband has been very eager to start a family.  Looks like I’ll have to get over my phobia sometime in the next seven months or so!

We’ve talked about going home, but we quickly decided that finishing out here in Korea was the best option.  The healthcare here is quite good – and extremely cheap, compared to the US!  For a two-night stay in a private room at my maternity hospital, including delivery charges, the grand total should be about – drumroll – $250.  Now that is cheap!

In addition to my usual posts about whatever I feel like, I’ll be blogging a bit about what it’s like being pregnant and giving birth in Korea.  One thing’s for sure – it’ll definitely be an experience!  Fortunately, one of my best friends has already been through the whole thing herself, and she has been really good about providing me information on how to get the job done in Korea.  Stay tuned for interesting times ahead!

Stuff I’d Like to Do in Korea This Year

Well, I quit my Saturday job.  I know – mildly shocking.  Details will follow.  Suffice it to say that, although this first weekend has been boring and yet delightfully lazy, I can tell that hanging out every weekend is not going to be an option for long.  I’m too used to having tons of things to do six days a week.  You know what I love doing way more than I love working myself stupid?  Traveling.

Of course, with slightly reduced circumstances comes reduced ability to travel.  This all comes back to that post I wrote a while ago about the economics of living life.  It comes down to a choice of which you value more, time or money.  And money is, in fact, time.  Specifically, it is time that you put towards work, which is time that, at least theoretically, you spend doing things that you might not necessarily choose to do.  Work is something that most people do because they have to.  I’m sure that 98% of people would prefer to be with family and friends, traveling and having fun.

But I digress.  The point behind this rant is that I need something else to take up my time.  My husband and I can’t just sit around the house every weekend and wait for the second coming.  With warm weather on the way, I’ve been thinking about things that we could be doing with our (my) newfound free time.

No, Korea is not America.  There isn’t as much geographic, cultural, or biodiversity.  That said, Korea is still a foreign country, and there are plenty of things to do that you could not do back home.  Isn’t it time I started enjoying my time overseas and seeing more of the country that is my current home away from home?

The Andong Mask Dance Festival (September 28th, 2012 – October 10th, 2012)

The Andong Mask Dance Festival has intrigued me for some time.  Basically, people dress up in traditional Korean clothing and costumes, don some seriously strange masks, and dance traditional Korean dances.  There is also a traditional folk village located in the area where many of the dances are held.  Many of dances are designated as Korean cultural treasures and have been performed since the dynasties of old.

Example of a traditional Korean mask dance.

The festival lasts for about a bit more than a week, and there are ten major mask dance performances, although there are other minor performances, as well.  There are also lots of different exhibitions, including one of masks from countries all over the world, though the exhibition chiefly compares Chinese masks to the Korean masks.  There are also crafts exhibitions and other fun things to do and see.

Andong is located in the middle of Gyeongsangbuk-do, which is just north of where I am.  In fact, distance-wise, Andong would be about halfway up to Seoul.  (Gyeongsangbuk-do is a big province, and Gyeongsangnam-do isn’t small!)

Is it really bad that I’m confident that part of the reason I want to go to this is directly linked to the Legend of Zelda: The Ocarina of Time?  Did anyone else love that game?  Remember the mask salesman?  I want a mask like the ones that guy was selling!

For more information, check out the Mask Dance homepage in English. 

Haeundae Sand Festival (June 3rd, 2012 – June 6th, 2012)

Haeundae is the only place in Korea that is home to a sand festival.  That’s not especially shocking, since Haeundae is indisputably the most popular beach in Korea.  Literally millions will visit this beach during the summer, as evidenced by my pictures of  wall-to-wall umbrellas in the months of July and August.

June is an ideal time to visit Haeundae, as it is warm enough to comfortably catch some rays, but it is also before the dreaded rainy season.  (Last year was terrible – rain all the time.)  The Koreans are really funny about when you can swim.  Bathing season is limited to July and August.  This might because the sea temperature is never that high.  This might just be because of tradition.  Koreans don’t deviate much from the norm.  For those reasons, I say that if you’re looking to do something fun at Haeundae before the mid-to-late summer craziness takes over, head there in June.  I think we will be checking out the Sand Festival this year!

Jinju Namdang Yudeung (Lantern) Festival (October 1st, 2012 – October 14th, 2012)

Lots of my friends have been to the Jinju Lantern Festival.  Red lanterns are lit, wishes are often attached, and the lanterns are floated down the Namdang River.  The scene is said to be quite beautiful.

The Jinju floating lanterns - really gorgeous.

This festival is held to commemorate a tactic used against the war with Japan in 1592 (Imjinwaeran War).  Citizens make their own lanterns both to commemorate the event and also to honor the veterans of the war.  Visitors may make their own lanterns to float in the river.

I want to go because, honestly, it looks super-pretty.  The water and the lanterns at night combine to make a really gorgeous scene.  Also, the weather at this time of year is brilliant in Korea, so the nights should be really pleasant for walking around and taking pictures.

For more information, check out the Lantern Festival site.

Bijindo Island, Gyeongsangnam-do

Bijindo Island is located near Tongyeong, which is not too far from where I am in Masan.  It’s a little bit further south.  From there, you can take a ferry out to the lovely little Bijindo Island.  Bijindo is hardly as famous as Geoje, Namhae, or the infamous Jeju-do, destination for most Korean honeymooners.

Why do I want to go to this out-of-the-way, mostly unknown island?  Easy.  It has a double-sided beach – a beach that has water on both sides.  It’s like a little causeway that connects with with another island.  No, it’s not the most beautiful beach, but honestly, what’s better than having the option of ocean on either side?  I’ll tell you what: nothing.  Nothing is better than sun and ocean.  Nothing.

Come summer, we are there!

Unfortunately, the island is not exactly over-inhabited.  Now, that doesn’t bother me.  I’d be happy to get somewhere where there are no Koreans bumping into me.  However, my husband isn’t exactly a fan of camping out or too much wilderness adventure.  It seems like there might be a pension on the beach, but other bloggers didn’t seem to indicate that it was open for business.  Of course, it might only be open in the summer months.  Also to be noted is that others have indicated there are only three ferries a day: 9am, 11am, and 2pm.  It pays to plan ahead, since these islands are popular during the summer months, and tickets can sell out quickly for things like this.

Whatever.  Bijindo ho!


Oh, Jeju.  I’ve resisted you.  All of my students have been to Jeju.  Jeju has always struck me as “Korea’s Hawaii.”  In my world, that means the water is colder, the scenery isn’t as good, and it’s full of campy Korean crap that doesn’t interest me.  (Ahem – the teddy bear museum.)  Still, I find myself wanting to give in this summer.

Everyone in Korea goes to Jeju at least once (honeymoon), and probably multiple times.  Jeju has some nice beaches, swanky hotels with casinos inside, museums, hiking trails, boat and submarine tours, and diving women.  No, its beaches are not like Southeast Asian beaches, but they are nice.  No, the water isn’t warm like in the Andaman Sea, but you can swim in it.

Part of me still thinks that Jeju will be a waste just because it’s so dang popular.  My boss explained Jeju to me like this: “I went to Thailand for my honeymoon.  I hate foreign food.  I lost weight because I think Thai food is disgusting.  If I go to Jeju, it’s close, it’s cheap, and they have food I like.  Why would I want to leave Korea?”  And he has a point.  The thing is, he’s Korean, and I’m not.  I have lots of reasons to want to leave Korea.  And I like Thai food.

One of Jeju's lovely waterfalls.

Still, I’m going home to visit this summer, so I don’t think that taking another big trip to Thailand is in the cards this year.  It would be nice, but I don’t think it’s going to happen.  Perhaps Jeju would be a nice compromise?  Honestly, all I really want is to swim and lie around on the beach, getting sand in my unmentionables.  That is heaven for me.  Hot weather, sandals, and sand.  Brilliant.

Travel Haunts UK & Ireland

I must have itchy feet without being perfectly aware of it, because I’ve spent about half of the weekend so far looking up interesting travel destinations that I’d like to visit at some undetermined point in the future.  I swing wildly back and forth between wanting to lie on a beach somewhere in Southeast Asia to wanting to pull on a woolly sweater and a raincoat and hop on a train around the UK to see famous old castles and such.  Although I’m more than ready for summer to arrive, as anyone who is a regular reader would be able to tell you, I’m also a huge fan of the macabre and ghost stories.  You know what old Europe is full of?  Ghost stories and the macabre.  Besides, I love old, drafty castles with lots of history.

America has its fair share of interesting travel “haunts,” to be certain: Gettysburg battlefield and town, the Lemp Mansion in St. Louis, Oak Alley and the Myrtles Plantations in Louisiana, and weird Sedona, Arizona, home to at least seven vortices, centers where energy emanates from the Earth.  It is also home to various UFO sightings and such.  Suffice it to say that the US is not wanting for weird places with strange histories and encounters.

That said, Europe holds a certain intrigue for us “colonials.”  Europe is old.  Europe has a long history.  Europe has castles and large old manor homes and chateaus, many of which have frightening histories or stories to tell.  For me, at least, that idea of something quite old and possibly quite sinister is a draw.  My husband doesn’t understand my love for all things dark and scary, but I find it rather exhilarating and, at the very least, entertaining and interesting.  To each his own, eh?

In any case, I’ve compiled a list of places – mostly manor houses and castles – that I’d really like to see in the UK and Ireland.  I’m not going to list every place I’d like to go and its history, because I’d be here all night, but these are a few of the choicest selections from the pile of places on my “To See” list.

Castle Glamis, Scotland 

Castle Glamis is a castle near the village of (shock) Glamis, Scotland.  There has been a building there at least since before 1034, when King Malcolm II was murdered there at his hunting lodge.  The original castle was built in 1376, but the L-plan tower house was build in the 15th century.  The castle has been in the Lyon – now Bowes-Lyon – family since 1376.  In case you’re curious, that would be the Queen Mum’s family.  She was born there, in fact, as was Princess Margaret, the Queen’s sister.

At various points, the castle was seized by James V and used as a garrison for troops.  In the 17th century, the Earl of Strathmore and Kinghorne reclaimed the property, but it was uninhabitable at the time.  The building was renovated, and has undergone more renovations since then, one of which was due to a fire.

The building is still owned by the Bowes-Lyon family, and it is open to the public, though visitors only view 10 rooms.  The castle is still used as a residence on occasion for the family, much like many of the “working” castles in the UK.  There are annual events held there, and there are daily tours given.

The real interest, however, comes from the ghosts which are said to inhabit the castle.  The most infamous story is about the so-called “Monster of Glamis.”  According to the legend, one of the Earls of Strathmore, in the 19th century, was born horribly deformed and mentally retarded.  The family, ashamed, told everyone that the child had died shortly after birth and hid him away in a secret room in the castle.  Another son was born, and he assumed the title of the Earl of Strathmore.  Variations of the story say that the monster is still alive, or that there is a similar monster born to every generation of Strathmore.

The next story involves an old laird of the castle, “Earl Beardie,” as he was called.  He was a drinker and a gambler and didn’t care much about the social protocol of the time.  According to legend, one Sabbath night he had a hankering to play cards, but his servants refused on account of it being the Lord’s Day.  Earl Beardie swore that he would either play cards until doomsday or play with the Devil himself, according to which version of the story you’re told.

Isn't this how every old, spooky, historical place should look - a bit dark and shrouded in fog? I love it!

As luck would have it, a man in black, the Devil, showed up shortly thereafter, and he and Lord Beardie set to a card game.  Shortly thereafter, screams were heard from inside the room, and it is said that the Devil made off with the Earl’s soul, dooming him to play cards for all Eternity.  Quite a tale!

Another story has it that, in this same room where Earl Beardie met his fate with the Devil, another laird of the castle allowed some Scottish clansmen refuge in the castle as they were returning from some skirmish or another.  He locked the windows and doors and had them bricked up inside, leaving them to starve to death.

I have read different accounts of one or possibly two White and Gray Lady ghosts who haunt the castle.  More likely, it seems to be one ghost, that of Janet Douglas, Lady Glamis, who was burned alive at the stake for witchcraft in Edinburgh.  She has been frequently seen around the castle for hundreds of years.  There is even a seat in the private family chapel which is supposedly reserved for her and in which nobody else is allowed to sit.

Whatever the case, Glamis has a long, colorful history and lots of spooky stories.  Besides that, it’s a beautiful structure of traditional Scottish style, with beautiful grounds to boot.  I’d love to go on a tour of it sometime and, with any luck, catch a glimpse of a ghost or two!

The Ancient Ram Inn, Gloucestershire

The Ancient Ram Inn is one of the oldest original structures still standing in the UK.  Built in 1145, it was formerly a pub and inn, and was home to many overnight guests and travelers.  It is also said to have built atop a pagan burial ground.  Legend has it (legend always has it) that child sacrifices took place there, as well as witchcraft, and lots of other sundry things.  The Inn is said to be home to numerous spirits, including a witch spirit and her spectral cat, an incubus and a succubus, and various other ghosts.

Stories about the Ram are frankly too numerous to recount here.  The two most active rooms are the Witch’s Room, where the spectral cat is said to urinate on the bed.  The Bishop’s Room has been claimed by the current owner, John Humphries, to be “the most haunted room in the world.”  A medium is reported to have been lifted off of her feet and tossed down the corridor upon opening the bedroom door.  Most visitors report, minimally, a feeling of oppression and dread upon entering the building.  Reports of touching, voices, babies crying, and full-bodied apparitions abound.  Basically, this place is supposed to be a goldmine if you are really intent on catching paranormal activity.  Infamous ghost hunting shows such as Most Haunted and Ghost Adventures have both done episodes here, and the GA one was at least entertaining.

The Ancient Ram Inn, taken from across the road. You can see how old the building is just looking at it.

Unfortunately, the property is in a state of disrepair, which isn’t surprising, given the age of the structure and the age of the owner.  Mr. Humphries has been fighting for years to ward off the elements and keep the place in decent condition, but he is an old man in his eighties now.  For years, he welcomed ghost hunters and mediums into the building, but after one, ahem, portly lady damaged the stairs going to the attic, he stopped admitting heavy guests.  (That says something about its structural integrity.)  Recently, he has stopped admitting anyone at all, as he doesn’t want any more activity stirred up than already has been.  Honestly, my opinion is that he has simply gotten too old to be going through the hassle of entertaining ghost hunters  all night anymore.

That said, I guess I won’t get to see England’s most haunted hotel anytime in the near future.  My hope is that it will be bought by someone with the means to renovate the structure and keep it standing.  I also hope that person is willing to admit the occasional thrill-seeker, but I won’t hold my breath.  As often as we ghost enthusiasts are welcomed by establishments looking to drum up business, we’re just as often turned away for giving the place a bad rep.  Oh well.  Guess we’ll just have to wait and see on this one.

Chillingham Castle, Northumberland

Part of me thinks that Chillingham is way overrated.  Maybe that’s because it has appeared on so many paranormal TV shows and is marketed as being the most haunted castle in Britain.  That always makes me think that the place might not quite live up to its supposedly haunted reputation.  Still, the name itself is enough to at least give one some pause.  Chillingham.  It’s like someone named it with the intention of making it creepy.

The place was originally a monastery, built sometime during the 12th century.  King Edward I stayed there on his way up to Scotland to have a tussle with William Wallace.  In fact, the castle was often a stronghold for armies either going to or returning from Scotland, because of its border location in Northumberland.  The castle often served as a garrison, which was true right up to WWII, when the castle suffered from abuse.  The current owners, the Sir Humphrey Wakefield and his wife, Catherine, have undertaken painstaking renovations on the castle.

During the renovation, two skeletons were found inside of one of the walls.  One of them belonged to a small boy, and it is thought that the two people were probably buried alive inside the wall.  It is thought that the boy was responsible for the Blue Boy ghost, who used to haunt the pink room.  His bones have been buried, and there have been no more reports of the Blue Boy since that time.

Chillingham and its gardens. Quite a lovely place, on a sunny day.

Perhaps the most frightening place in the castle is the old torture chamber in the dungeon below the castle.  The most infamous figure associated with this place is a man named John Sage, who was the castle torturer for three years.  It is estimated that he tortured around 50 people per week, and you can still see the marks in the walls as they counted the days they had been there.  Suffice it to say that he was not a nice guy, and he ended up being hung for accidentally killing his wife.  Go figure.  His ghost is also said to haunt the dungeon and the grounds.

If nothing else, the place certainly has a history, and it is quite beautiful.  Going solely on reputation, I included it here on the list though, as I mentioned, part of me is inclined to believe that the owners recognized a goldmine when they saw one and have played up the hauntings to drum up business to cover some of the costs of keeping a place like Chillingham going.  Believe me, being a castle owner is not a cheap business!

Greyfriars Kirkyard, Edinburgh

Greyfriars Kirkyard is the most famous cemetery in Edinburgh – and the most haunted!  It is home to the infamous Convenanters’ Prison, as well as a host of revenants.  Probably the best-known story from Greyfriars is about “Greyfriars Bobby,” a little Skye terrier who was so devoted to his owner that he followed him into death.  The legend goes that when his master, Auld Jock, died, Bobby kept a vigil over his owner’s grave for the next 14 years, leaving only to eat.

Unfortunately, this story has been debunked by an academic in Edinburgh.  In fact, Greyfriars Bobby belonged to the cemetery caretaker.  He was a stray that showed up at a local school and was taken to the cemetery.  He hung around the cemetery and that became his home.  The story that developed about him and his master is just an urban legend.

The most interesting and frightening story about Greyfriars involves the Mackenzie Poltergeist which haunts the Covenanters’ Prison generally and the Black Mausoleum specifically.  “Bluidy” George Mackenzie was a judge who sentenced all the Convenanters to hang from the local gallows.  Although he is not actually buried in the Black Mausoleum (it is unmarked), that seems to be where the poltergeist likes to hang out.

Truth be told, nobody knows if the “Mackenzie” poltergeist even really “belongs” to Mackenzie.  It’s just that he was buried somewhat nearby and was a rather infamous figure.  This poltergeist is very active and has victimized several hundred visitors to the Prison and Black Mausoleum.  People have fainted, been pushed, reported hearing laughter, and even have scratches, bruises, and weird marks on them after the tour.

How much truth there is to this story I can’t say, but I do know that stories abound about this particular nasty poltergeist.  I would be more than willing to shell out a little money to be taken on the tour, in hopes of seeing – or feeling – a spook.  Besides, the tours are supposed to be interesting, despite the “jumper ooters” who hide during the last legs of the tours to scare the guests.  This one, like the Edinburgh Vaults, is high on my list of things to do.

Charleville Castle, County Offally, Ireland

Charleville Castle is one of the most famously haunted castles in Ireland.  Uninhabitable for years, Charleville is now being renovated by a lady named Bonnie Vance, an American.  The castle was originally built between 1798 and 1812 by Charles William Bury, the First Earl of Charleville.  The castle is surrounded by an oak forest that was said to be home the Irish druids.

Lovely, lovely setting at Charleville Forest Castle.

The castle supposedly plays home to a host of spirits, from that of a little girl who died sliding down the stairs to monks, a little boy, and even an “elemental” – a force composed of many spirits, not totally evil but certainly not good.  This fearsome entity is said to inhabit the balcony that overlooks the library.  The balcony is now off limits to all who enter the castle.

On the whole, it has been reported that Charleville’s spectral residents are good-natured, although there are one or two creepy characters floating around.  Although the castle is spooky, its ghosts are not  the malevolent kind and will not appear menacing or unwelcoming, for the most part.  Definitely a place I’d like to visit!

Leap Castle, County Offally, Ireland

Leap Castle has often been touted as Ireland’s most haunted castle.  The castle was built by the O’Carrolls, a warlike clan who were not known for their niceties.  In fact, one of the O’Carrolls murdered his own brother, a priest, in what is known as the “Bloody Chapel.”  Three cartloads of bodies were removed from the oubliette, a small dungeon where victims were thrown when the castle owners wanted to forget about them.  (Oubliette comes from the French word “oublier,” meaning “to forget.”)  Leap Castle is one more place that has had a turbulent past – and where the spirits are not ready to settle down!

Perhaps the scariest critter living within the walls of Leap Castle is the elemental.  Funny how elementals keep popping up in these Irish castles!  The elemental is a spirit that was supposedly conjured by former owner Mildred Darby, an Englishwoman who was a practitioner of the occult.  By no means an expert, she inadvertently summoned the elemental during a seance, and described it for an occult magazine has having a face like a decaying human, and the smell of sulfur and rotting flesh could be smelt all around it.  Not a nice creature, at any rate.

This little guy supposedly still haunts the castle, but is now mostly confined to a windowless room under the castle.  That said, it has been known to attack visitors and doesn’t take well to being mocked or challenged by visitors or paranormal investigators.  For those who are familiar with SyFy’s Ghost Hunters (okay, I admit, I watch it occasionally online, but I believe that it is a completely staged show), the Leap Castle episode where one of the investigators is attacked by the little beast is one of the most popular episodes.

While current owners Sean and Anne Ryan were renovating the castle and trying to make it inhabitable again, Sean experienced a bad fall from a ladder that resulted in a fractured knee.  He felt that the ladder had been pushed.  He later had a similar fall that ended with a broken ankle.  He and his wife came to the conclusion that they weren’t entirely welcome in the castle.

The infamous Leap Castle, Ireland's most haunted.

As time as passed, however, the resident ghosts have seemingly calmed down, and the Ryans now peacefully co-exist with their roommates.  They apparently think nothing of saying “Good morning” to a ghost sitting in one of their living room chairs.  What a life!

In any case, Leap Castle is reported to be the most haunted in Ireland, and with good reason.  I don’t think the Ryans open up their castle to the public with any particular degree of frequency, but I would certainly like to get a gander around the place sometime!

I wish I had more time and energy to devote to listing the various weird and creepy places that I would like to visit in the UK, but unfortunately, it’s getting late and I’m a tired lass.  Some honorable mentions that didn’t quite make the list are The Tower of London, Culloden Moors, Warwick Castle, and Pendle Hill.  

I think a lot of haunted castle fans would be surprised that I didn’t include the Tower of London, but I have a few good reasons for its exclusion.  The first reason is it is heavily touristed.  Who goes to London, as a foreign visitor, and doesn’t see the Tower?  Seriously.  If I went there, it would be solely for its historic value, not because it’s reportedly very haunted.  I just don’t generally believe that you have as great a chance of seeing a ghost when you’re squashed among throngs of other sweaty, smelly tourists at 1pm on a sunny day (not that England has many of those).

I have no good excuse for not including Warwick Castle.  It is grand and gives onlookers the feeling of being transported back in time.  It also has the biggest trebuchet in the world.  It has a beautiful stream/lake running alongside it, and I would really like to visit sometime.  I just didn’t really feel like including it in this post.

Hope you guys enjoyed my traveling/ghost post!  If, unlike me, you’re not a ghost enthusiast, well, sorries!  I’ll write something a little less spooky next time!

Warwick Castle seen from the lovely little lake (?) alongside it.