Spas and Spy Games

When I last left you I was vowing to be the force that turned things around here in Korea. I stopped writing because despite being a world away in a foreign land my life consists of the mundane routines similar to everyone else’s, anywhere else. And also because sometimes too much reflection is the quickest way to panicking, and that was the opposite of what I was hoping to do.

Recently all this optimism and endurance started paying off with a sudden surge of what I like to call “why I travel” moments. And those folks, will now be addressed here.

  1. Jimjilbang (This one’s for the books).

“MONEY,” she said, annunciating carefully. My cheeks flushed and I quickly turned and walked back to the lockers, clutching the small hand towel to my naked body. She follows me.

There’s something about an older Korean woman in nothing but black lacy underwear, waiting hands-on-hips for your money, to make you question your life choices.

I pull out ten thousand won.

“Two”, she gestures with her hand.

—Let me pause here and explain. I’m naked because I’m at a jimjilbang, a traditional Korean spa. She’s in black lacey underwear because that’s her uniform.

She’s a ttaemiri. And I’ve come to get scrubbed.

I did my research on Korean Spas before I came. It’s a part of the culture here and I knew I wanted to try it. The men and women have separate baths, and then there is a common room with saunas, massage chairs, napping mats and snacks (heaven? Even better: Jimjilbang). Despite being a conservative people, going to the spa on Sundays with your friends and family and hanging out naked is like, totally a thing. So I went.

I paid my 7,000 won and received a tiny towel and a soft pair of shorts and a t-shirt, light pink, to be used later for the common room. Then I mustered up my courage and went to the lockers to get into my birthday suit.

The final piece to this puzzle is that there are some special services you can pay for when you go to the spa and one of them is a scrub. And my thoughts were, “It’s all or nothing, right?”—Okay, back to my weird life:

I look up at the woman waiting for my cash and gesture to the empty wallet.

“I’m so sorry, I don’t have enough, never mind,” I say hastily, realizing this was going to be tricky to get out of. The ttaemiri is non-plussed and asks me something in Korean. “Card?” I reply, because I have no idea what she said. She takes me by the hand and marches me out to reception. Oh dear God.

Some painful negotiations ensue, ones that involved me standing around red-faced while the receptionist (fully clothed) and the scrub-master (still in uniform) argued about payment. It was all in Korean and so I could only stand there, politely wait and mull over the phrase “died of embarrassment” and wonder how they’d get my body back to the U.S.

But alas, I did not die and we finally came to some sort of understanding. She once again grabs my hand and leads me into the wonder that is jimjilbang.

A wonder, indeed. We entered into a wide room of jacuzzis with varying temperatures and scents, steam rooms, exercise pools and showers. But before I could explore, of course, I had to get what I paid for.

She brings me to a room on the side and I won’t get into details, only that it involved a couple of loofa mitts and twenty minutes of elbow grease. I was, head to toe, soft as a baby’s bottom by the end (ew I hate this phrase but really it’s the best description). I’ll be honest I closed my eyes and enjoyed every second. “THIS,” I thought, “is a damn unique experience”.

  1. The Escape Room

I’m locked in an office with the lights off. With my small flashlight I survey the room, black leather chairs rest in the corner around a small table with a chess board, the pieces splayed out in mid-game. A large desk sits in front of the darkened window, with office supplies neatly organized and a couple of coffee mugs with their last remaining dregs still at the bottom.

I scan the shelves, my light flashing over picture frames and encyclopedias until finally, I find the safe. Time to get to work.

Am I  a super stealthy spy breaking in to my boss’s office to steal important manuscripts? No, but that’s what they told us when they locked us in the room. And that’s what it felt like.

I had never heard of an Escape Room before, but damn it was fun.

We had two teams of four and we were playing against each other and the clock. The other team was locked in their own office. My team and I had one hour to break the safe and discover the code to escape the room, the police were on their way, after all.

Everyone in the group worked individually on some part and then repeatedly came together with information to solve another piece. We deciphered codes and solved puzzles, discovered secret messages in invisible ink, each clue taking us to the next.  Alex discovered some chess pieces were stuck to the board: B7, G2. Zach grabbed the encyclopedia’s with those titles and found messages inside. Amber revealed numbers on the bottom of the coffee cups, when you tilted the coffee away. We used those later to enter the code on a key safe hidden behind the curtains. We worked meticulously, adrenaline pushing us forward, occasionally high-fiving when another part was solved.  We only paused once to say “Guys, how cool is this?” and then we were back at it, racing to beat the other team.

The count down on the clock read 23:00 minutes when we entered the touch code on the door handle and it swung open. The other team hadn’t escaped yet, an uproarious celebration followed.

The staff was watching on the cameras and they were just as excited as we were , “You guys solved everything so fast! I was like, oh wow I’m not giving them any hints. You were close to the record!”

We couldn’t stop talking about how fun it was. And truly it was. Point for you, Korea.

(Actually they are everywhere. Look and see if one is nearby and take your friends or family for a different kind of night out. You won’t regret it.)

  1. Buddha’s Birthday

This post is getting absurdly long so I’ll save this story for another day. Give you something to come back for.

Gamsams for reading.

Sincerely,

Savanna

Beondegi Anyone?

Yesterday I went on a hike with some friends from school and someone they knew from church. Peter, as he’s called, has been living in and out of Korea for quite some time, so he was more than comfortable getting around and best of all, he spoke Korean. There’s nothing like having a tour guide you can blindly follow. We hopped on a couple buses and walked through some Bucheon neighborhoods until we found the mountain(s) we were looking for. It was a beautiful, 75 degree Saturday afternoon and everything was green green green.

City View2 Mountain Selfie

mountain selfie ^^

Korea2

Afterwards we walked back into Bucheon and Peter kept leading the way. I started getting concerned though when he would ask,”Okay, left or right, who wants to choose?” But turns out even without much of a planned route he knew where we were going. And eventually we found ourselves at the Hans river where we enjoyed a little jazz music and the views. And the street food. Sorta.

Hans River bugs2

Beondegi or silk worms.

Bugs

Waterfall

Eight hours of exploring with good company. It was a little slice of adventure exactly when I needed it.

Sincerely,

Savanna

P.S. How cute is my cactus though?

Cactus2

May Resolutions

A couple weeks ago I had my resignation letter printed out and a list of reasons written furiously in my journal of why I was leaving Korea. But Monday came and went and I didn’t do it. Something about it didn’t feel quite right to me. I looked at the faces of my students each day and cringed a little thinking about handing them over to some stranger. I considered what would be next, what it would take to get another good job and all the effort I had put into getting here and felt exhausted just thinking about it. Above all, I kept thinking that if I gave up on this then what did that mean for who I am and who I want to be. I had this sinking feeling that perhaps I would lose the confidence to ever travel again.

I had to do some hard self-reflection and I came to the conclusion that I was waiting for my situation to change and it wasn’t going to. Korea wasn’t going to change. The job wasn’t going to change.  So I would have to. I could do better.

So I said my goodbyes to Don Draper and put down the Netflix. I bought scented candles and a colorful cactus plant for my apartment. I splurged on some sweet new Birkenstock sandals and summer dresses (retail therapy, am I right?). I dragged my ass out to the park every night for a run and I took the time and effort to buy real groceries, veggies and all.

Side note- I asked my kindy if they knew what a cactus was the other day: “Yes,” Roy told me confidently, puffing out his chest in an imitation of the superhero, “Cactus America”.

I stopped hating my apartment and vowed to clean it a million times if I had to, I would get it to a place where I could love it. I started learning the Korean alphabet so I can at least read the signs, even if I don’t know what they mean. I finally mastered “Hello” confidently and can stop mumbling whenever I am greeted. “Annyeonghaseyoooo!”

I’m trying to be more conscious about handing things to people with two hands (one hand place on the inside of the elbow). Anything I can do to improve my daily interactions. It’s true Koreans don’t like outsiders, but I know they appreciate a little effort.

Maybe this isn’t some grand travel adventure like the one I had in mind, but I am still here, living on my own in a foreign city. I can do this. I can work towards being the person I want to be. I can adult.

Especially in these new sandals.

Sincerely,

Savanna