Tag Archives: swim

Jimjilbanging: It’s kind of like eating kimchi, but you’ve got to get naked.

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Korea is lovingly known as The Land of Kimchi, but I argue the slogan could lose kimchi and replace it with jimjilbang and no one would throw a fit. Kimchi and jimjilbangs are both well-known elements of Korean culture. Jimjilbangs are large public bath houses (mostly gender-segregated) and can be found on almost every street in Korea. Some are more fancy than others, but most have a handful of hot baths, showers, saunas, massage tables, lockers, sleeping areas and social meeting spaces. Jimjilbangs are usually open 24 hours a day and many people visit them to bathe, relax and sleep. Most rooms, including the saunas, have special minerals, woods and stones to create a soothing sanctuary and provide elements of traditional Korean medicine. The Korean jimjilbang is a familiar and calming oasis for all Koreans. Each is a mini spa that caters to your every need. They are more prevalent than Starbucks shops and you can spend a day in one for the cost of a latte and a snack. They sound perfect, right?

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Kimchi is also found on every Korean street and it sneaks onto most breakfast, lunch and dinner plates. I bought a jar of kimchi back in NH a week before I left for Korea. I thought if I mastered the spicy fermented vegetable dish I would slide seamlessly into the role of ‘expat in Korea’. The jar’s pungent smell intimidated me and I reluctantly left the snack in my mom’s fridge for her to enjoy as she wept over my departure. After some time in Korea I learned to love kimchi. Some kinds are tastier than others and I prefer grilled kimchi over the cold stuff. It didn’t happen overnight, but I mastered kimchi and I figured the jimjilbang was next up. I could do this. I could adapt. I could be brave. The only thing is, I didn’t have to get naked in public to eat kimchi.

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photo credit (Yes, that’s me on the right feeling super comfortable.)

Last month I agreed to a Thursday night jimjilbang date after a few too many drinks the weekend before. My friends promised I could not leave Korea without a famous jimjilbang ajumma scrub. Although I was terrified of the ‘naked party’ they continuously cheered to that night, I lightly penciled it into my planner and mentally prepared a list of excuses to furnish a polite cancellation. Monday came and went and I forgot to decline the invite. In the midst of teaching on Tuesday and Wednesday I thought of cancelling and told myself I would get to it later that night. Then it was Thursday and it’s just not classy to cancel so late in the game. I was hungry but I couldn’t eat dinner. I nervously plastered a smile on my face and left work that night wondering if I would be a different person when I returned the next morning.

“It’s kind of like skydiving or bungee jumping.” My friend reassured me as we descended in the elevator toward the basement floor jimjilbang. She wasn’t helping. “The scariest moment is the first one and after that it’s just what it is.” Did she know she was giving a pep-talk to a life-long swimmer and lifeguard who, forget extreme jumping, was afraid to do a simple dive off the high dive? I spent a decent portion of each summer as a teenager disappointing the pool patrons who always watched in awe as the lifeguards enjoyed their 5 minute breaks. My male co-workers would bring the laughs with failed attempts at double flips. Others would gracefully dive through the air and slide into the depths of the deep-end headfirst with ease. I climbed the ladder as well, but once at the top I took a big breath and did a boring pencil dive into the icy blueness. I tried more than once to dive from the 1 meter ledge, but my brain just wouldn’t allow it. I liked the excitement of the jump, but I preferred the feeling of being right-side-up on my own two feet. I was in control somewhat, even while falling through the air.

As I stripped down and shoved my belongings into a locker at the jimjilbang I realized something about the scenario playing in my head. I knew one day I would dive from that high dive in NH. It would happen because I knew in my mind I could always return to my hometown pool. I could take my time and practice elsewhere. In other words, I could be lazy about it. A few months ago I jumped from a pretty huge rock in Jeju. Maybe this summer when I’m stateside again I will make that dive. I really hope this is true.

But here’s the amazing thing about living abroad in Korea: You don’t have time to cultivate fears here. If there’s something you want to try, taste or see you have to do it in a timely fashion. I know I won’t be in Korea forever and because I have so many other places to visit I don’t know if I will be back soon. It’s one thing to read those feel-good quotes about ‘Living in the Moment’, but it’s another to have no other choice.

I got naked that Thursday night and tip-toed from the lockers out to the bath and sauna room holding nothing but a hand towel. I found my friends and submerged in a steaming hot bath as I awaited my scrub appointment. In one corner of the room a maze of showers and stools held a dozen or so older women who meticulously scrubbed and bathed each other while chatting. Small children clutching goggles splashed around in the biggest bath. Single bathers who wished to relax and avoid the social hour could be found in baths with their hair in a towel, their eyes closed and their heads resting on the stone side. As our skin began to prune our moods softened as well. Our eyes stopped darting around the room at all the nakedness and we relaxed. The water was deliciously warm and we hopped from one bath to the next.

When the ajumma called me over for my scrub there was nowhere to hide. As she threw buckets of water over my body and signaled for me to roll over onto my back for the next round of scrubbing I simply did it. Maybe my friend was right, the scariest moment had already passed and the rest was just whatever would be. I walked home that night with baby soft skin and wet hair that reminded me of my swimming years, 3 friends who would always and forever be my ‘naked party’ girls, a new determination to make that summer dive, an item to cross off my Korea Bucket List and a craving for some grilled kimchi (I skipped dinner, remember?).

jimjilbang


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Koh Samet: I wish you were here, or maybe not.

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I have no intention of making you jealous, but I have to inform you that I am writing this blog post from a beach chair 4 feet from the water on the small island of Koh Samet in Thailand. It is late afternoon and the beach area in front of my resort (My bungalow is $20 a night!) is starting to clear out for the day. I personally think dusk is the best part of a beach day. The sky’s color is spectacular, the sun isn’t as intense as it was a few hours prior and I can finally tell by looking at my skin that yes, I in fact did manage to tan and not burn after hours of frolicking in the surf.

I tell you all this because upon traveling to the island from Bangkok, where I spent 3 days being social and saying goodbye to 2012, I have come to the realization that solo-travel may just be the best thing I have done so far in 2013. I admit I was a bit nervous to embark on my solo winter vacation to Thailand. I had traveled alone before but those trips were always only short jaunts from one place to another to meet friends, family or study abroad groups. Because my other expat friends in Korea did not share my vacation days and I knew I didn’t want to stick around Seoul for another week of winter, I booked flights to Bangkok and a hostel for the first night and hoped for the best.

Bangkok proved to be a bustling yet non-intimidating and easily navigable city. I’m not sure what I expected, but my desire to be beach-side and maybe Hangover 2 clouded my judgements and I hoped to leave the city shortly after my arrival. I was pleasantly surprised by Bangkok. I spent 3 nights at the Refill Now! hostel (Please stay here if you are ever in Bangkok!) and made time to explore the splendidly colorful Grand Palace via water transportation, get lost meandering the hundreds of stalls at the famous Chatuck weekend market, wander the backpacker’s party street of Koh San until the early morning hours, and celebrate NYE with a friend from home who now lives in Thailand.

After a whirlwind tour of Bangkok I was more than ready to find a map of Thailand and choose an island to getaway to for the remainder of my vacation. My friend had to return to work so I was left to travel solo and any solo-travel-nerves I might have had when I booked my trip a few months back vanished as I made my way to the Bangkok bus station. I was ready for some quality relaxation and I didn’t mind that a few couples and groups of friends eyed me curiously (I think this was just in my self-centered imagination.) on the ferry from the mainland of Rayong to Koh Samet. I think the lone traveler is mysterious. I imagined an outlandish alter identity for myself, although I do think ‘English Teacher in South Korea’ is pretty darn cool and adventurous. My 20 year old self would have been self conscious, I know it. She would have told herself everyone thought it was strange she was traveling alone and that she must be a lonely cat lady. My 25 year old self, having successfully matured (a bit!) and gained some wisdom in a large part due to her year abroad in Korea, brushed these people and their non-existent thoughts aside and realized she would probably never see them again and she was about to embark on an epic island getaway.

My first full day on Koh Samet is nearly over and I look forward to 2 mores days of sun and fun. The nice thing about vacationing alone is that you are free to do exactly what you want to do exactly when you want to do it. If I want to sleep in I can. If I sporadically decide to stay in the ocean for an entire hour flopping around pretending to be a mermaid no one is impatiently waiting for me on the beach. If I want to go to bed at 10pm there is no judgement. I have also found that the lone traveler is sometimes the most sociable. While a large group of friends may seem intimidating, when you are on your own you are more likely to be approached by others. On the ferry to Koh Samet I met 2 guys who teach in Japan and were vacationing like me. Many young people at my resort beach have also been extremely friendly.

Although I love to socialize, I am using these last few days in Thailand to relax, work on my tan (using SPF!), catch up on all the books I bought for my iPad in 2012 and recharge for the next few months of teaching in Korea. I would tell you all about the delicious pad Thai I plan to consume tonight, but a beach massage advertisement just caught my eye. A one-hour-full-body-massage for about $9…oh, don’t you wish you were here?

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No Naps Allowed – Hamilton Hotel Pool in Itaewon

Just last week I was swimming under a waterfall on the island of Jeju and last night I contemplated turning the heat on in my apartment. The weather in Korea at the moment reminds me of the transition from summer to fall back home in New England. The change is quick and if you don’t take the time to look around and enjoy the last bit of summer it will be time for scarves and boots before you know it. Toward the end of August I found my ultimate summer escape in Seoul. I was always intrigued by the loud techno beats booming from the rooftop swimming pool at the Hamilton Hotel in Itaewon, but I had yet to bring my bathing suit, towel and sunscreen with me to Seoul. Each time I exited the subway across from the hotel entrance this past summer I told myself I must plan a day to enjoy this infamous pool. Summer flew by and after some internet research I learned that the pool was closing after the first weekend in September, so I went to bed early and set my alarm on the last Saturday in August and ventured into Seoul the next morning to spend the day poolside.

My friends and I arrived in Itaewon a little after 11am and the pool party was already going strong. The pool was packed with swimmers and sunbathers positioned around the pool making it difficult to walk from one side of the deck to the other. I had imagined a day of lounging on a chair reading my book and listening to music from my headphones but these plans were immediately squashed. This was a pool party and one of the last of the summer so people were making the most of the day. We stored out bags in a locker, grabbed drinks and made our way to the pool. There was no room to lounge on the deck so we spent most of the day floating around the pool.

A DJ in the corner pumped out dance music and the pool guests danced, drank and swam away the day. I was impressed by the Korean women who easily maneuvered their way around the pool in skimpy swim suits and super high heels while many of the men continuously applied tanning oil to their buff bodies and strutted by each other making sure to flex and convey how much time they spent each week at the gym. The pool atmosphere was one I had yet to experience in Korea and I thoroughly enjoyed watching the entertaining show that was the pool party until the sun began to set and we were ushered out of the pool facility by the hotel cleaning staff.

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I only made it to the Hamilton Hotel Pool once this summer and I regret this statistic. The pool provided a great escape from the summer heat and humidity and it was easy to get to in Itaewon. If you are in Seoul next summer I recommend checking it out, but don’t bring a book or expect to take a nap poolside. There will be dancing and loud music and you will love it. Just consider yourself warned.

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Directions: At Itaewon Station (line 6) walk out Exit 3 and you will find the Hamilton Hotel directly to your right. The pool is on the 5th floor.

The pool is open from 10am-6pm most days during the summer. Arrive early if you want to rent a chair and secure a spot on the pool deck. You can also rent towels and lockers. The pool is closed on rainy days.

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We all deserve a ‘Spring Break’, yes even you. *Mud Festival*

The closest I came to a proper Spring Break in college was a week spent at my friend’s grandmother’s condo in Naples, Florida. We lounged on the beach reading books and soaking in the sun and we couldn’t help but overhear the older women surrounding us discussing the newest Dancing with the Stars scandal and which new sandwich recipe they were attempting for their golfing husband’s lunch packs. It was a fantastic week: we somehow scored a few Coronas, watched Lost on an old comical TV that distorted the characters heads, slept 9+ hours each night and bonded over the silly experience of living among the retirees of America. It wasn’t the Spring Break you see in the movies, but it was an escape from the reality of college exams and the bitter cold of northern NY. The Boryeong Mud Festival has been called the ‘Spring Break for foreigners in Korea’, and although I consider myself well beyond (gulp!) my college years, or at least maybe a tad bit more mature and less likely to party more nights of the week than not, I did itch to experience this alternative Spring Break – with a Korean twist of course.

The annual festival takes place each summer in Boryeong, a few hours south of Seoul. The first Mud Festival took place in 1998 and now more than 2 million people travel to the 2 week long celebration of mud. The mud is trucked into the Daecheon beach area from surrounding mud flats and is dumped into pools and wrestling pits, painted onto bodies, poured down slides and sold in popular mud cosmetics. My friends and I traveled with an organized group from Seoul and we arrived late Friday night, the night before the first official day of the festival. We slept for a few hours and were woken by our group leader at 8:30am with a breakfast bowl of watermelon soaked in soju (If you ask me, it was more like soju soaked in some watermelon…). We tried to shake our morning grogginess as he taught us silly Korean phrases and encouraged us to finish our nutritional breakfast. A half hour later we were dressed in our swim suits, no longer sleepy, maybe a bit buzzed, but ready to get dirty.

Saturday was a blur. I had a blast: I got muddy racing through obstacle courses, wrestling and slipping down steep muddy slides, swam in the ocean, drank a few too many beers + soju, ran into many foreigner friends from all over Korea and danced to a live DJ in a muddy mosh pit on the beach. As much fun as Saturday was, I woke up on Sunday ready to return to Seoul and take a real shower. Mud Festival was fantastic but I couldn’t imagine surviving an entire week of the Boryeong craziness. We dressed in our dry clothes and went to find our bus to head home. Walking back through the festival grounds I came across an older couple caked in mud, beers in hand and smiling all over. I asked to snap a photo of them and they gladly posed for my camera. Later on the bus as I scrolled back through my pictures the couple’s shot stood out to me and I realized they were enjoying their own Spring Break in Boryeong. We all need a Spring Break every once in awhile: a day or two to let loose and forget your age and your smart phone in the hotel room (It will get muddy if you bring it, I promise).

Breakfast of Mud Festival

Reunited with a friend from college!

Time to swim –>Daecheon Beach

I hope this is me in 40 years.

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back to the beach – BUSAN!

I had no problem hopping a plane from Boston to Korea in the middle of February to teach English in Korea. I love New England, but I have never been a fan of winter. I was born to swim and I live for summers at the beach, as short as they may be. As summer made it’s way to Korea I admit I was a bit homesick for NH beaches and my favorite summer spot, Martha’s Vineyard. I quickly reached out to my friends in Busan from Chungdahm Training and planned a beach weekend. Little did I know, the weekend happened to also be the Busan Sand Festival. Traveling to Busan was simple – I left my apartment early on Saturday morning and made my way into Seoul on the subway and then caught a KTX train to Busan. I was dipping my toes in the water by early afternoon and spent the rest of the day and evening at the beach catching up with friends and swimming as much as possible.

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On Sunday, I spent time exploring the sand castles that were on display all along the beach and listened to live music booming from a gigantic stage set right on the sand. I think most of Korea joined me in Busan for the weekend, but I really didn’t mind the crowds. I loved watching the cute Korean kids squeal with delight as they chased waves and intently constructed sandcastles at the surf’s edge. In the sea of Korean families I felt very much at home – I knew that just across the world there was a very similar beach scene taking place. It was all too familiar – a mother lounging on her towel trying to skim her novel while keeping an eye on her kids, a father chasing the little ones into the waves and children making seaweed delicacies for all to try – oh summer I love you – wherever you are!

If you know MV you will appreciate this beach restaurant/bar we went to – SHARKYS’! What!? Where am I?

Cheers for now…posting this back in my room as my fan blows warm air in my face…missing the beach!

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