31.3.07

Old age isn't so bad when you consider the alternatives.

On the occasion of OOFALWO's fiftieth post, one of our favourite photographs - an old Tibetan couple in Dharamsala, India, ageing with grace.

30.3.07

None shall pass.

Here is Grumpy Gus, the Live Action Version. Though, on closer inspection, his wispy beard lacked the verisimilitude one would hope for in a Joseon sentry's whiskers. The spear looked legit enough to us to not make fun of the Witness Protection Plan disguise.

29.3.07

Bad day?

Let me introduce you to a Joseon sculpture, aka Grumpy Gus, chiselled to keep evil spirits away from the palace with his sour face. Imagine being immortalized in stone with this cranky visage.

28.3.07

The age-old debate


Which is better? Free weights or machines? Fortunately, in Seoul neighbourhood parks you are never forced to make these tough decisions. With enough options to satisfy the most hard-core of muscleheads (providing those muscleheads never need to heave more than 20 kg), one wonders how the health clubs even stay in business.

27.3.07

Give Peace a Chance


On Saturday, we took the subway to visit a palace in the northern part of the city. Walking out of the exit we encountered this, one of many tanks and SWAT buses lining the street and a massive police presence with boys in blue carrying riot shields. Lee, knowing my penchant for seeking out a good political rally, gritted his teeth and tried to steer me firmly in the opposite direction. I was not deterred, though, and went to seek out the action. (What can I say? I love to see freedom of assembly in vivo.) It turned out there was a small sit-in at a park on the corner. The protesters were guarded by police who wouldn't let me take pictures. The protesters, however, weren't the reason for the police guard. The American embassy is located on the same block as the park, and this is just a normal day protecting US soil on the chance that Kim Jong-Il ever storms into Seoul. What we call the Korean War is known in China and North Korea as the War to Resist America. In spite of a few armistice meetings 54 years ago, this conflict technically, and tangibly, rages on.

26.3.07

Rumination on an aging pig

On the eve of the anniversary of the birth of the first to fall, best wishes to all beginning another loop through the oriental constellations and consternations of aging. Happy 36th in '07, Messrs. Howard, McBride, Stovin, Norman, Harding, and Isaac, from this fading scribe, one of the gang.

For a dozen beasts these sad tales be told,
Of time that flies in a blurred haze of fog.
A waning story three full cycles old
For the fleeting serpent and bygone dog.
There are cocks that shrivel, and tigers too.
The monkeys do slow, and the rats turn gray.
A fate none worse than the rabbits who stew,
Save the mare, to glue for wild tots at play.
Yea, Chronos frowns upon the porcine one,
With the sagging jowls and great fleshy hocks.
Freshly sprouted tufts where there once were none,
With the joints that creak and the hip that knocks.
But make no room yet on the morning plate.
Time still to wallow in the muck of Fate.

25.3.07

Earth laughs in flowers.

If Emerson was right, then this part of the planet is already thinking some funny thoughts. After a dreary and drizzly morning, we found this moment of spring.

24.3.07

This royal throne of kings...

With many Asian public bathrooms more closely resembling the Trainspotting WC, imagine our excitement in stumbling upon Seoul's best toilet, with the plaque to prove it.
Sure, the heated seat, the three speed bidet with various angles of spray, and the radio are nice options, but can a toilet really claim to be the best without an overhead reading lamp and an attached magazine rack?

23.3.07

Pick a latte, any latte.

With overpriced caramel macchiatos found on almost every corner, this discerning customer has developed a new criterion in making the choice of where to imbibe. One must not only be caffeinated, but entertained too. The full text on the Magos cup reads [and for once, I can confidently claim that none of these mistakes are mine]: Our success is totally rely on the achievement of customer satisfaction through high value-added service and trust. The meaning of "MAGOS" "Special Magician who create and furnish mysterious taste" "MAGOS" will always furnish delight service, special taste, and fresh menu for all our customers. These are our goals and spirit.

Sure beats the Starbucks mermaid.

22.3.07

Look on my works, ye mighty

Korean temples share similar colour schemes and architecture. It turns out that there are reasons for this that have nothing to do with the influence of a billionaire, corporate, Martha Stewart-esque, Korean magnate, as I had first imagined when I saw the pretty colours. This temple is typical of the Joseon dynasty (c. 1300), a kind of Neo-Confucianist style that favours practicality, frugality, and harmony with nature. Often, the buildings are memorial halls erected by extended families in memory of a distant ancestor or to commemorate some exceptional act of filial piety. The shape of the roof is said to emulate a dragon's spine and is found on all buildings except those which housed emperors, who are said to embody the spirit of a dragon. There is room for only one dragon per household. The little gargoyle-like creatures are mythological guardian spirits. The emperor's buildings have nine (nine being the maximum amount of protection one could hope for in the Joseon age) and lesser buildings have fewer spirits to watch out for them. Basically, there was a lot of the Ozymandian attitude floating around in 14th century Korea.

21.3.07

Here a truck, there a truck...

You're a young entrepeneur with big dreams but limited means. You could rent some retail space, but the overhead costs will definitely eat into the kids' college funds. Wait, you already have the truck...
These little micrososmic vehicles of commerce are everywhere. So far we have seen crab trucks, fruit trucks, roast chicken trucks (with the spits mounted on the flatbed), sock trucks, tie trucks, notebook trucks, baby clothes trucks, baseball cap trucks (including what must be a top-seller, the hot pink NYPD chapeau, just like all the real men and women of law enforcement wear), kimchi trucks, and whole sides of beef trucks. The only downside for consumers is that the truck may not be there when you're really needing a roast chicken or a pair of SpongeBob anklets, which we have discovered the hard way.

20.3.07

So, do I have time for the manicure?

Conversely, life is too short to hire a proofreader with a working knowledge of the idiom.

For any of our loyal readership with professional photography needs, check out www.chrishendricksonphoto.com. After years of honing his craft, our friend Chris has started his own business and website. Plus he's one of the nicest guys around.

19.3.07

Parking Problems/Parking Solutions

In a land where space is at a premium and rental for a parking spot in the business district is three times the cost of a spot in downtown Calgary, people come up wih ingenious ways to address the situation.

18.3.07

Out of the mouths of babes...

Here's a transcript of a conversation between me and Alice, a very cute and somewhat precocious seven year old in her first week of English school.
Alice: Teacher, why eyes no black?
Deanna: In Canada, some people have blue eyes. My father has blue eyes. My grandmother has blue eyes. [We are learning about family members this week.]
Alice: Teacher, you like monster.

17.3.07

The Reich Stuff

We were out for a nice Sunday walk, discussing the serious dearth of murals depicting genocidally deranged madmen in our adopted homeland, when we stumbled upon this. One wonders what was in an upstanding Korean businessperson's head when he or she conceived of this bit of marketing brilliance?

16.3.07

Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of earth...

So we were flying over the city in our helicopter the other day...well, alright, we have poached a picture from the Internet because the 'upload photo' function is still acting goofy. There is a post on the Blogger Help page apologizing for the inconvenience, so we hope to be able to return to regularly scheduled programming soon.

This photo gives you a good sense of the scope of the mountains encircling the city. Nothing too majestic, but enough to induce altitude sickness in flatlanders like us. You also get to see a pocket of big buildings densely packed together. This is only one of probably a hundred or so areas like this in Seoul. Even if we lived here for years, I can't imagine getting used to that.

15.3.07

Iacta alea est!

Even after the salad and the section, Julius knew that wearing a toga on Casual Friday was a bit risky.

[Editor's note: We here at OOFALWO are very aware that the Ides fall on the 15th, and it is bright and early Thursday morning for us, blog timecode notwithstanding, Do you think the First Triumverate had to deal with such abstractions as Greenwich Mean Time?]

14.3.07

Technical Difficulties

Curse you, blogosphere! We are having no luck uploading the visual addendum to this morning's riveting installment of OOFALWO. Hopefully this newfangled computer thingy will sort itself out before tomorrow's long-planned 'Ides of March' extravaganza. For now, beware the eve of the Ides of March.

13.3.07

Base Camp One

Korea is often referred to as the Land of Morning Calm, which reflects the essential and poetic sentiments of this primarily Buddhist nation. It should also be known as the Land of the Gore-Texed Hiker, as Koreans of all ages are vigorous and nimble mountaineers. This is the parking lot outside the gates of the national park at Bukhansan. It was just a regular Sunday morning, with a few thousand energetic souls regaled in full alpine kit. The North Face must do the lion's share of its business here.

12.3.07

Ansel Adams played traffic Frogger too.

Risking life and limb for the sake of a good traffic photo is what we're all about here at OOFALWO. In the background you can just make out the mountains obscured by a curious brown fog. Like the Koreans, we have taken to blaming the haze on the Chinese (for their coal-burning factories), the Russians (for their icy Siberian winds which blow the particulates southward), and the Japanese (for everything else, historically or contemporarily, which may have gone awry).

11.3.07

Which floor, ma'am?

Taking literalism in humour to its logical extreme, as Lee is wont to do, he insisted that I must ride the museum's elevator until I could offer tangible evidence of a sixty pound benchpress. As the other teachers at our school have taken to calling him 'Old Man Lee', I insisted that he come along for the ride. We spent the whole day riding the elevator.

10.3.07

St. George is my co-pilot.

There are fire-breathing dragons, dragons that shoot lightning bolts from their eyes, and dragons that wear Kimodos. But nothing says menacing fury like a giant wicker dragon. Any creature of myth made from this most vile of earthly commodities is worth being extremely wary of. We had a rattan couch in Taiwan, most uncomfortable thing I ever spent countless hours laying on.

9.3.07

Crabs, anyone?

To our delight, this crab truck is often parked outside our school at night when we leave work. We've never actually purchased any of these crustaceans, but nonetheless, still react with uncontrollable glee at seeing the crab truck after a hard day in the hagwon.

8.3.07

We all live in a yellow bunmachine.


It is not widely known in rock and roll lore that young Liverpudlians Paul McCartney and John Lennon were in the ad-writing game before they ever picked up instruments. They were contracted to write a series of jingles for an upstart Korean lingerie boutique, even spending a few months on the ground in Seoul to get a feel for the Korean zeitgeist. Though they were specifically instructed to keep their noses to the grindstone by Head Office, Paul and John landed lucrative part-time gigs in the country's fledgling ESL teaching business. They considered pursuing this full time, realizing the career longevity of phonics for five year olds. The only problem was John's horrendous handwriting. One young tyke famously quipped "John Teacher, no write nice, you writing like whiskey grasshopper."

The fabulous young moptops burned the candle at both ends, logging endless hours in both the hagwon and their hotel room. Creative juices spillethed over. And then, as surely as it started, their Korean adventure ended. A 4 a.m. (GMT) phone call from pal Richard Starkey (though the lads called him Ringo on account of his uncanny accuracy in the carnival game of the same name) and the boys were off to the hastily-organized Yorkshire Entomology Symposium (YES), big fans of insects all. In a final flourish, John dashed off a copy of the lingerie jingle, handing it to the hotel maid as they raced to get to the airport. In one of those sublime moments of cosmic coincidence, that maid happened to be the next door neighbour of the cousin of the hairdresser of the owner of the lingerie store. The rest, as they say, is history. True story.

7.3.07

DMZ, we hardly knew ye.

Thus endeth the sermon.

6.3.07

Though no high-hung bells or din of braggart bugles cry it in...

To mark our 25th consecutive daily posting, we had hoped to find a nice picture of a Silver Jubilee parade, maybe some ticker tape, definitely a float and some balloons. Alas, I think I may have inadvertently forgotten an apostrophe in my image search for Queen's jubilee. We hope that you continue to enjoy our small contribution to the cyber-flotsam.

5.3.07

Hey, North Dakota! Join us! Come on, we've got syrup!

When we were living in Taiwan, we flew to Jinmen Island for a weekend. A tropical paradise in all respects, save the minefields, barbed wire, and heavily-armed soldiers patrolling the shore. Jinmen is only a few kilometers off the coast of China. We could see giant neon signs in the mainland city of Xiamen urging the Taiwanese to return to the motherland. Massive speakers boomed the same message across the water, and there we were, without iPods.

Within the DMZ are two villages, Taesong-dong and Gijeong-dong. Taesong-dong in the South, a functioning farming community of 219 souls living under the gaze of ever vigilant North Korea. The South Korean government guarantees these farmers a full sale on their crop, regardless of its size and quality. Consequently, these are the best paid rice farmers in the world, with an average annual income of 82000 US dollars. The downsides include a nightly curfew, limited travel allowances, and the dubious distinction of being the first to be trampled should the North begin their march southward.

When translated directly from the hangeul, Gijeong-dong means Peace Village. The UN forces refer to it exclusively as Propaganda Village. With their high-powered binoculars and fancified Google Earth technology, the US soldiers see only a few caretakers turning the lights on and off. Until 2004, this North Korean skeleton crew would press play on giant speakers, which blared propaganda messages between six and twelve hours a day. We're not sure what was in Kim Il-sung's or Chairman Mao's heads when they conceived of the "blast screechy music at them until they come back" plan. Occasionally a Gijeong-dong maintenance crew comes in to add a coat of paint to the buildings' facades. They don't do windows though, which works out, as most of the buildings don't have any. Most impressive about the Gijeong-dong skyline is the world's largest flagpole, seen here flying its 30 m long, 280 kg flag. At 158 m, the North's pole dwarfs its 98 m Taesong-dong counterpoint. Sigmund Freud would like it here.

4.3.07

First Santa Claus, and now this.

The Bridge of No Return is the spot where all prisoners of war were repatriated at the end of the Korean War. This is also the most forward of all JSA checkpoints, about 25 metres across the stream from North Korean Checkpoint Six. Consequently, the rules of engagement are at the highest, most precarious level, and we had to stay on the bus. Should any of us camera-wielding tourists have even taken a step on the bridge, we would have been considered to have engaged the enemy and would have been shot by the North Korean marksmen, making them instant national heroes and us instantly dead.
According to the guide, that prisoner exchange in 1976, which included members of the crew of the USS Pueblo, marks the last time anyone has traversed the length of the bridge. Imagine my confusion and chagrin upon hearing this, as I clearly recall James Bond being handed back to M here in "Die Another Day".

3.3.07

Freedom Dog

We stopped for lunch just outside of the Joint Security Area, in the poetically named Hope for Reunification Village. The village consists of about five buildings, including a very stocked trinket and gift shop and some of the nicest bathrooms in the Orient. While the beef jerky I bought was essentially inedible, I was fortunate to find someone with less discriminating tastes with whom to share it.

2.3.07

Are you the lawman in these parts?

In the wild frontier of the DMZ, law and order is a complicated proposition. The face of authority is a complex balancing act - it must be strong and powerful, but not so much to scare the little 'uns. Meet Korea's version of the long arm of the law, a sort of Astro Boy meets Judge Dredd. Sleep safely tonight.

1.3.07

The light joyousness of spring...

Spring has sprung in earnest here, with daytime highs in the mid-teens and bright blue skies. We are enjoying a Thursday off work, as Koreans celebrate the anniversary of the reading of their Declaration of Independence from Japanese colonialism. This morning we marked this special day in our own way, with a sleep-in, a long run, some coffee and a newspaper. This afternoon we will honour the occasion as the ancients would have done, with a trip to Costco to buy Raisin Bran, feta cheese, and a few slices of pizza.