Example of Health Care in a Privatized Single Payer System

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We were visiting our son in South Korea when we noticed an eye infection in their newborn son. We took him to Cheju General Hospital in Jeju–without an appointment–where we found a room full of people waiting to see a doctor. At 10:57 AM, we took a number. We had #475, and looked at the board to see that #424 was currently being served. With 51 people ahead of us, we assumed this was going to be an all-day affair–after all, we were not in America.

At 11:23, our number was called. We checked-in and discovered that the newborn was not yet registered on my son’s insurance policy, so we would have to pay full price for the doctor visit. The baby’s vitals were taken and we were escorted to a hallway with about a dozen doors. A door opened, our name was called, and we immediately met with the doctor. An assistant was in the room. We assume she was there to take notes on a desktop computer. The doctor inspected the condition, prescribed medication, and wished us well.

We picked up the prescription at the hospital, paid our bill, and left the hospital at 12:46 PM. It took us 49 minutes and cost us $15 to get quality walk-in health care at a busy hospital in Korea. My son informed me that South Korea has a privatized single payer system. In this system, insurance is funded from a single insurance pool run by the state. Single payer health insurance collects all medical fees, and then pays for all services, through a “single” source.

If South Korea can provide quality health care quickly, effectively, and inexpensively, we need to learn something from their system to make ours quicker, better, and cheaper.


Vacation to Seoul South Korea – Day 10 – The End

Our final day was February 3. It was also New Years Day in South Korea and almost everything was closed. The streets were empty as we strolled our city observing the quietness and remembering the bustle of our previous week here. Restaurants, bars, grocery stores, and coffee shops had all taken the day off.  Our hotel accepted our payment, we grabbed a bite to eat at the local convenience store, and took the shuttle to the airport because we knew that everything there would be open.

We had about 6 hours to spare, so we had our final meal at a Korean restaurant at the airport. We both chose to have bibim bap. The little black cauldron filled with meat, rice, and veggies came steaming to our table. Its contents were deftly pinched by our dextrous fingers wielding chopsticks for the final time. We had a delicious side order of seaweed soup and a tall thin 8 ounce can of Coca Cola. It was all very satisfying–especially the ability to use the chopsticks.

Our experience here was wonderful. We found the people to be polite and the food to be excellent. Mass transit was very modern and easy to use. There was a lot to see and do despite it being the middle of winter. Communication was the biggest obstacle, but we made it through every situation without a hitch.

Our son loves it here. He has a good job with good pay and good benefits. The internet keeps him connected with family and friends in the States. He knows many other teachers who are sharing his experience in different schools throughout this foreign land. He would like to continue to teach here or he could move on to teach in another country if the opportunity arises. Only time will tell.

We had a bit of trepidation over our travel plans because it was snowing back in Michigan. The entire Midwest was in a state of emergency as we read reports of O’Hare Airport in Chicago recording the most single day snowfall in history. My biggest fear was having our flight cancelled because the Detroit Airport was closed. My second biggest fear was having to dig my truck out of a 10 foot snow drift with my bare hands. Neither of these things happened as our flight was smooth and actually arrived early, and our truck pulled right out of its outdoor parking slot without an issue.

The 90 minute drive home from the airport was uneventful. It was good to be away on vacation, but it was better to be home. Our house and our guests were well cared for during our absence and many future reservations were taken to keep us busy over the next 6 weeks. We will visit Chris again, wherever he may be, and we will take on the adventure with the spirit we so enjoy.

Published in: on February 6, 2011 at 3:19 pm  Leave a Comment  

Vacation to Seoul South Korea – Day 9 – The DMZ

It was the most beautiful winter day to end the Korean calendar year. Today, February 2, was Korean New Year’s Eve and the temperature was above freezing all day. It was a great day to take a tour of the DMZ (De-Militarized Zone).

But first, a brief recent history of Korea: The Joseon Dynasty ended Korean Monarchy in the early 20th century. The last king of Korea died without an heir while the Japanese overtook and occupied the country. Korea was under Japanese control until the end of World War II. Basically, Korea was 2 uneducated states not knowing how to rule themselves when they gained their independence. North Korea was influenced by the Communist Russians and Chinese, South Korea was influenced by the Capitalist Axis Powers. Both states co-existed for about 5 years when the North invaded the South trying to force them into Communism. This started the Korean War that lasted for three years with Super Powers supporting both sides. The war never really ended: an armistice was declared and the 2 states were separated into North and South by a line that roughly follows the 38th parallel. A fenced-in de-militarized zone running 2 kilometers in each direction from the line was declared a “no man’s land” separating the countries whose borders are heavily guarded on each side. The people of both countries hope for reunification, but the Monarchy of the North refuses to relinquish their power.

The DMZ has become a tourist attraction for people traveling in South Korea. It is an educational tour that teaches about this country’s history, the horrors of war, and the dream of reunification.  There are many areas where cameras are not allowed so photos of the more interesting stops are unavailable.

Our group of about 20 English speaking people from around the world were picked up at various locations around Seoul and hosted by a Korean woman named Angel. Our first stop was at the Freedom Bridge where thousands of POWs (Prisoners of War) from the Korean War were exchanged and brought home. A rusted steam locomotive riddled with bullet holes was salvaged from the waters of the DMZ and put on display as a relic and reminder of the war. There are countless ribbons attached to the fence surrounding the area containing messages of peace for the near future.  We moved on to a gallery where a film of the war was shown.

We continued on to tour the “third tunnel”. During the 1970’s, 80’s, and 90’s, four tunnels were discovered. They apparently were infiltration tunnels that could allow tens of thousands of North Koreans to invade the South in just an hour. The tunnels were discovered by accident, and only the third tunnel is open for public tours. The tour begins with a surrender of recording devices, the wearing of hard hats, and a half mile walk down an 11 degree sloped tunnel. This leads to the actual tunnel that the North Koreans had dug for the invasion. I had to stoop throughout the additional half mile walk to near the 38th parallel. The air here is in short supply and the constant stooping makes it a bit of an uncomfortable journey. After a quick look around, the trek through the low ceiling cave began and finished with a half mile hike back up the 11 degree incline.

The next stop was the Dora Observatory. This is an area where some civilization in North Korea can be seen with the naked eye. Photography from here is limited to be taken from behind a line that is just far enough behind the lookout wall to make photos poor at best. We were surprised to learn that electricity is in such short supply in the North, that a factory needs to be powered from the South.

We moved on to a train station at Dorasan that is hardly ever used. The South Koreans have constructed a modern facility that they hope will one day be the gateway into North Korea. One day, when the countries are reunited, some of the infrastructure that will allow for a smooth reunification will already be in place in the South. After 60 years of Communism versus Capitalism, the two countries are as different in technology as Silicon Valley and the Amish.  It is said that about 2,000 Northerners defect to the South via water routes every year. Because of their inferior education, qualified jobs are unavailable and many resort to a life of thievery or prostitution.

The ride home was made very interesting by an in-depth conversation with Angel, our host. She gave us great insight and understanding of the Korean culture. She was very candid with her responses to personal, political, and economic questions. It is time spent with people like Angel that makes foreign travel such a delight.

We finished the night with a shrimp burger and cheese fries from the local Lotteria. Getting wasted on soju during the Korean New Year on the night before our flight home did not seem like a very good idea, so we watched some NCIS at the hotel and prayed that the snow would stop to allow us to travel safely on our way home during one of the biggest snow storms ever to hit the USA. I also don’t want to miss the Super Bowl. Go Pack GO!

Paju G&G = Good and Great

Published in: on February 2, 2011 at 9:23 am  Leave a Comment  
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Vacation to Seoul South Korea – Day 8 – The River Walk

Finally, an entire day with temperatures above freezing, and what a beautiful day it was. We took the train to downtown Seoul and decided to go for a nice long walk. Chongyecheon is a re-created river that runs through downtown Seoul. It had been covered over by roads several decades ago, and was recently redeveloped and reopened to add nature and display environmental consciousness in the city. It also claims to reduce the hot Summer temperatures by up to 10% near the waterway.

The area is about 30 feet below street level, averages about 100 feet wide, and runs about 3 miles. There are walking paths and vegetation on both sides of the stream, many crossing areas, and man-made rapids to create the sound of rushing water. These features combine to create an escape from the big city. The traffic above must still flow, so there are 22 unique bridges crossing Chongyecheon.  It is difficult to hear the city traffic above the river walk.

We encountered hundreds of people walking along the brick walkways along the banks. The majority of walkers appeared to be businessmen taking a break from work to enjoy nature and get some excercise. We noticed that there were no food venders or picnic areas along the trail. This probably was part of the design to keep the area clean and free from litter.

One area of the embanked walls was covered by a re-creation of what is believed to be the oldest depiction of a royal Korean procession. It includes drawings of over 2,000 figures of people and horses. The long walk in the fresh air created quite an appetite in both of us.

We made our way to another series of outdoor and underground markets with only one thing in mind–street food. We walked past many booths that were selling food we could not recognize, those that we did recognize were unappealing–octopus is freaky. 

Finally we happened upon a lady who was grilling up some sort of egg dish and frying bread. on a small grill. It was big enough to create just 3 sandwiches at a time, and she had a constant line of people waiting to taste her goodies. The pre-prepared egg batter contained onions, garlic, and other vegetables that were fried in a thin layer of oil on her grill top. Our freshly prepared sandwich took about 5 minutes to cook and was served folded and inserted into a paper cup. It was delicious and cost about $1.50.

We continued on to find a whole section of open air restaurants that were creating what appeared to be circles of  fresh corn polenta. It was combined with many vegetables and fried in a thin layer of oil over a large grill top. It was about the size of a small pizza. Heated foil-covered benches surrounded the cooking area so patrons could sit and eat in relative comfort during the winter. Our corn disc was ready as soon as we sat down and served with kimchi plus soy sauce and onions. We ate it with the first wooden chopsticks we have seen since arriving in South Korea. They are much easier to use than the metal ones we find everywhere else. Lunch was great and cost just $4.

Lori began to feel the symptoms of illness that I had earlier in the week, so we decided to call it a day. We made our way back home to Incheon and she napped while I watched movies on television. They show a lot of American movies with original dialogue and Korean subtitles. There are always three movies playing plus what seems like an endless loop of America’s Funniest Home Videos–and they never show the host or the audience, just video after video with commentary by Tom Bergeron.

Lori awoke from her nap and we went out for Korean Barbeque. I am much better at metal chopsticks than I was a week ago, and the hostess did not have to give me any assistance this time. We enjoyed the meal and topped it off with muffins and cookies. Everything was tasty–as usual.

Tomorrow is our final full day in South Korea and features our tour of the DMZ. We will be getting up early to join the masses during rush hour to get to our 8:00 a.m. appointment.

McDonald's Delivers in Downtown Seoul

Korean BBQ

Published in: on February 1, 2011 at 11:55 am  Leave a Comment  
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Vacation to Seoul South Korea – Day 7 – Looking for Louis

Chris has plans for the rest of the week, so this was our last morning to spend time with him. We had brought along some supplies from the USA that he was unable to obtain at a reasonable price in South Korea–Size 13 sandals, AXE deodorant and body wash, XXL hoodie, Red Wings stocking cap. A nice couple from Malaysia junked a travel suitcase because they were unable to raise the handle. Chris used the power of Dup to overcome the kink in the sleeve that prevented the handle from rising. Voila! A nice container to haul his stuff back home to Paju!

We rode the train to Chris’ transfer station, said our goodbyes, and continued on to downtown Seoul. Chris had treated us to breakfast earlier and we were hungry for some lunch. We had our choice between McDonald’s and Lotteria. We know the former so chose the latter–it is a foreign version of Mickey D’s with similar items at reduced cost–and they sit side by side and share the same building. Both were packed to capacity with 5 lines 6 deep. There was no English translation of any of their sandwich items on the billboard menu, so I took a picture of what I wanted, showed my camera screen to the cashier, and got exactly what I wanted–it was a combo meal with what looked like a Whopper for me and a “Lady Burger” for Lori, plus cheese sticks, French fries, 2 Cokes, and corn salad. It was all quite good. Both sandwiches had a brown onion sauce in addition to typical US deluxe burgers. Our combo meal also got us a Van Gogh cosmetic case for about $13. There were even 2 attendants near the exit to take our trays and dispose of the garbage for us.

Lori wanted coffee, but the combo meal offered no substitutions. We had to continue on to a coffee shop where Lori was able to obtain a caffeine fix. The place was so busy that she paid and was given a beeper that would signal her when her drink was prepared. A few minutes went by and we had her special coffee. The Koreans have some sort of obsession with coffee as it is available just about everywhere. Starbucks and Dunkin Donuts are typical along with local chains, individual coffee shops, and vending machines on virtually every block. 

This day was about 20 degrees warmer than yesterday, so we decided to go back to Namdaemun Market in search of a Louis Vuitton (LV) handbag for Lori. The market claims to have over 10,000 stores. This is quite accurate because most of the “stores” are about 8 feet wide, are set up outside, and are packed with stuff. The vast majority of goods outside are clothing while inside venders sell and make jewelry, carpeting, knick knacks,etc. At night, many of the “stores” are covered with a tarp, cinched with a strap, and left outside, while some are packed up and hauled away to a remote location.

The market was designed before automobiles were prevalent, so the streets are narrow and inaccessible by cars and trucks. Deliveries are made by motorcycle or hand truck. Motorcycle delivery is common everywhere in Seoul. We have seen drivers hauling everything from a few small crates, to a stack of crates, to a pile of carpet rolls. Delivery trucks would just add to the congestion of his busy city, so motor bikes are very efficient–even in the winter time. Many of the handlebars are equipped with heated gloves, gps units, and scanning equipment. The drivers inch their way through the crowds without sounding their horns. There is nowhere to park at the market. Shoppers get here via subway, bus, or on foot. They claim to greet half a million shoppers a day. This would not surprise me as there were people everywhere with over 10,000 of them being salesmen.

Lori did not have good luck finding an LV bag yesterday, so she approached the owner of the first handbag store she found to find out where the LV bags were. He brought her inside, gave her a seat and showed her a catalog of handbags. She picked the one she liked and the guy had her wait while he disappeared to get the bag. He was gone about 15 minutes when he returned with exactly what Lori wanted. They agreed on a price and Lori left, a very happy woman.

As we strolled the market, we found more stores selling LV bags, but none were quite as nice as the one she bought. We saw LV scarves, socks, and belts–but no hats. A red LV hat would have completed her ensemble, but that will have to wait for another day.

For the first time since we’ve been here, snow began to fall. All of the venders extended their awnings to protect their goods from moisture. Flurries fell for about an hour with no real accumulation, just enough to make the stone streets slippery. We made our way indoors and were amazed at the jewelry stores. Men and women occupied their own 8′ space that was jam-packed with earrings, bracelets, necklaces, and other sparkly things. As they waited for customers to sell stuff to, they made more jewelry utilizing glue guns, needle nose pliers, and magnifying glasses. I watched one girl fill individual clear plastic bags with necklaces, count 12 lots, then place them in a larger plastic bag–apparently to sell at a remote location or overseas. The atmosphere was bright and crowded, yet friendly–it was not a sweat shop. I was amazed by the quality and quantity of hand-made costume jewelry in one location. 

Upon leaving Namdaemun Market, we headed back to the train station and were attracted to an area of activity in the underground walkway. We made our way to a place called Shinsegae Market–WOW! What a market! This was a high-end indoor market just blocks away from the open market. It has the footprint of a city block but is 14 levels high! I thought I had seen a lot of employees at the E-Mart yesterday. This place seemed to have 1 employee for every 2 shoppers–and that’s a close estimation. For all of the knock-off brands and factory seconds that were sold on the street, the good stuff was at Shinsegae.

We continued on to another place called Lotte Mart–it is another mid to high level grocery store. We had to laugh when we saw how they were bagging their groceries. Apparently, all of the cases that are emptied to refill the shelves are saved and brought to the front of the store. Customers then select an appropriate size box, fill it with groceries, seal it with strapping tape, then finish it off with a bow-tied ribbon. People are leaving the store with stacks of boxes.

There are whirling barber poles everywhere, but you don’t get your hair cut there–Chris found out the hard way. He went in to get his hair cut and the attendant started to undress him. He said “No, I want a haircut”. They said “we don’t do that here”. Apparently, the barber poles signify massage, but many go further than just a back rub. It depends on whether there is also a heart, or a star, or oriental characters among the twirling ribbons that are so familiar at barbershops in America.

We made it back to our hotel as the temperature almost reached 32 degrees for the first time since we got here. We were too tired to go out for dinner, so we decided to have pizza again. This time it was a Korean favorite–bulgogi pizza. Bulgogi pizza has marinated beef plus cheese and normal vegetables. Any American would enjoy this blend of familiar tastes.

Lori and I travel very well together. We like to do the same kinds of things and humor each other when we don’t. We are patient and adventurous and have pretty good instincts for navigation and things to see and do. Today, we found Louis in many shapes, colors, and textures at very good prices–so it was a very good shopping day.

We have made reservations to tour the DMZ on Wednesday. Check back for the day 9 story of what I hope will be the highlight of our trip.

The cosmetics area at Shisegae Market in Seoul


A display of shoes stacked outside near Numdaemun Market


Browsing the knick-knacks indoors at Numdaemun Market

View from above at Shinsegae Market

Published in: on January 31, 2011 at 5:18 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Vacation to Seoul South Korea – Day 6 – The Open Market

We contacted Chris via facebook and arranged to meet him in Seoul. We made the 50 minute trip to our meeting place and arrived early. We followed our noses to a waffle vendor. The product’s aroma was wafting through the tunnel and enticed us to stop and purchase some. The prepared waffles were recooked to produce a crunchy texture then wiped with a slathering of sweetness from something that looked like whipped butter and folded into a sandwich. It was delicious. 

We found Chris without a problem and headed for Itaewan. Itaewan is the multi-cultural section of Seoul. Chris spends a lot of his free time here. This is the place it is easiest to find English speaking people. He has befriended a Turkish guy who owns Sultan Kebabs. We went there to enjoy one of his  culinary delights. We had a choice of chicken or lamb kebab. Both meats were cooked, seasoned, and pressed tightly together on a huge upright skewer. He then used a big machete-like knife to slice thin layers of our chosen meat.  The meat plus vegetables were combined in what can best be described as a flour tortilla and eaten like a burrito. A sauce was then applied as we munched on this fabulous item. The flavor beats tacos with a stick! 

Chris wanted to shop for some headphones at the electronic market. We went to Yongsan Station and found the 7 story shopping center with electronics on all 7 floors!  The first floor was about the size of an American grocery store with scores of dealers mostly selling camera equipment. The other floors were the same size with different specialties–another floor sold I-pods and other personal devices, another floor sold computers, etc.

We got the headphones and went to look for a protective case for Chris’ I-Touch. We found it and decided to also get screen protectors for his I-Touch and mine. The guy who sold us the thin clear covers was meticulous about applying it correctly. He scrubbed the screen, then made sure to remove every piece of lint before applying the protective film. He did this with amazing precision and care. The results were a bubble free layer of protection over our valuable personal electronic devices.

Yongsan Station is a ginormous place. It is a combination train station and shopping malls that included the electronic market, plus food courts, specialty shops, and E-Mart. It easily covered 12 city blocks and had multiple levels above and below the street. E-Mart was crazy alive with people. E-Mart is a grocery store. I have never seen so many people in a grocery store at one time in my life–and I worked in grocery for over 20 years! Sunday is family day in Korea, so the store was filled with families shopping for food for the week. It was an amazing experience.

We left the station and had another bite to eat. A street vendor was selling corn dogs, so we went for them. The prepared dogs were refried to create a crispy crunchy outer shell with a hot dog in the middle on a stick. It was served with ketchup, just like in the States. It was very good.

Lori was on a hunt for a Louis Vuitton hand bag. Her initials are LV, and the designer’s initials are the same and are used as the identifiable logo design, so we had to find a place that sold them. Louis Vuitton must be the designer of choice in Korea, because these bags seemed to be the bag of choice for a majority of women on the train. We went to Namdaemun Market in search of designer accessories.

Namdaemun is an open air market that greets about a half a million people a day! The market covers a very large area–100 acres or more–and mostly sells clothing. It was bustling with activity on another cold Korean day. The single degree temperatures with a constant wind made for a frigid day of shopping in this outdoor market. We managed to find an LV scarf that matched Lori’s coat and some LV socks at a good price, but no handbags. I promised Lori that we would return.

The freezing temperature was starting to affect me. At one point, the wind was blowing so hard in our faces that I got a brain freeze from the breeze and began to feel sick. We dead-headed for the train terminal that would bring us home. I went to bed at 5:00 p.m. while Lori and Chris arranged to meet a friend who is in the military and stationed in South Korea.

Erik Nevens is Lori’s friend from the horse barn. They arranged a meeting place and connected for dinner and had a good time at a Thai restaurant. They commented on the antics of a foursome of Koreans suffering from soju madness–they were hammered–and trying to get off the train. These guys in their mid 20’s kept getting stuck in the automatic doors on the train. They were on the ground and pulling each other to and fro while stumbling around and keeping the train from leaving. Other passengers looked on with shock and disgust while Lori and Chris laughed their butts off.  The whole episode lasted near 5 minutes and was so animated, it almost seemed staged. The Three Stooges had nothing on these guys.

Meanwhile, I was sleeping myself back to health. Chris prepared a big bowl of Ramen noodles for me at midnight. It was very spicy and hit the spot after a long nap. I am feeling better and should be ready for another adventure. 13 hours of sleep, and all is well again.

Mike enjoying a fish shaped waffle filled with sweet potato

Street vender making a fish shaped waffle


Hard Rock Cafe in Itaewon is about the size of a 2 bedroom 2 story American house

Published in: on January 30, 2011 at 8:14 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Vacation to Seoul South Korea – Day 5 – Seoul Tower

The Sky Hotel where we are staying has internet but not Wi-Fi. Lori brought her netbook along and has been plugging in via hard wire to get on the internet. We brought an electrical adapter and a power strip so that our personal electronic devices, cameras, and netbook can remain charged.  My I-Touch receives unsecure Wi-Fi signals everywhere, but I can only connect at coffee shops and the Lotte Mart. Apparently, membership is required to gain access. We will try to get ahold of Olleh–the mass transit internet provider–to get a temporary pass so we can better communicate with Chris and I can begin blogging on the train while the experience is still fresh in my mind. 

Chris had a date with a local girl from Paju on Thursday and went out to a shooting range with some friends on Friday, so today (Saturday) was our day to reunite as he needed some parent time and we needed some only-child time. We connected via facebook chat and agreed to meet at 1:00. As we were leaving, we received a facebook notification chime and answered it. Chris’ co-teacher had just called to tell him that it was winter graduation day and he was required to attend. We understood and decided to venture out on our own.

Our subway station at Unseo is HUGE. It is very modern and about the size of 4 city blocks above ground and could be even bigger underground. At the time of day when we have been traveling, there have only been a few handfuls of people there waiting to ride or arriving. There must have been an astronomical cost to build this station, and similar stations are everywhere. There are at least eleven subway lines with many stations on each. The infrastructure to create this mass transit system is mind-boggling, but extremely well-designed, efficient, and affordable. The ride to downtown Seoul cost about $3. 

The end of the line for our train is downtown in Seoul Station about a 45 minute ride. Our first day trip by bus took over 90 minutes. The train is the way to go. Seoul Station is the mother of all stations. It occupies over 10 city blocks above ground and is even larger than that below ground. It is modern and spacious throughout with tall ceilings, escalators, and moving walkways. It is crowded with people like an airport, but the space makes it O.K. The station is at least 6 levels deep with the immediate overhead ceiling about 20 feet. There are places where the ceiling is over 100 feet tall. It is impressive and quite navigable–even for foreigners.

I decided that we would spend the day at Seoul Tower. Seoul Tower is a communications and observation tower atop a mountain near the city center of Seoul. The city of Seoul and most Korean cities were built with fung shway techniques. The original city has mountains to the North and a river to the South. Now that over 24 million people live here, there are mountains and waterways everywhere. We hailed a cab and rode to the drop-off point near the top of Namsam Mountain for about $10–including park admission.

There were about 20 empty tour busses there. The area was already crowded with people and we weren’t at the top yet.  We had to walk the remaining very steep 1/4 mile to the tower. The view was already spectacular and we still had to go up another 250 meters in the tower. We braved another day of single digit temperatures and a brisk wind to enjoy the view that the mountain provided.

People from around the world had purchase mementos and left their mark on one of two decorated places. The first place was a series of Christmas tree metal frames that were adorned with padlocks of many shapes, sizes, and colors. Although many locks had rusted over the years, it was still a pretty cool work of art created by thousands of individuals. From a short distance, they looked like well-decorated Christmas trees.

The second place was inside. It was a wall of fame where individuals could purchase a 4″ tile, decorate it or write a message on it and adhere it to the walls of the observatory. The many messages in several languages was fun to look at. The hand drawings and photos added color to the myriad of tiles that sent messages of peace and love to all who passed by.

We purchased our tower tickets and decided to have a bite to eat. We entered a snack shop and ordered a hot dog and a chicken plate. Both were very good and would please any American with their familiarity. We then proceeded to the tower where we experienced a breathtakingly beautiful view in every direction. Seoul is not set up in a grid pattern. All of the roads seem to be haphazardly arranged around the various degrees of elevation and the waterways. There are areas of small buildings, all under 5 stories tall, but the majority of buildings are 20 stories or higher–and there are a LOT of them. Waves of civilization carry off to the horizon in all directions. It is absolutely beautiful and has been the highlight of Seoul, so far. It is supposed to be even more spectacular at night. We must go back after dark.

We decided to walk back to the train station and began our decent down the stone and wood plank path. On our way down we encountered many people on their way up by foot–quite a feat as there must be thousands of steps. We stopped at a street vendor who was frying something that looked like a pancake on an oil soaked grill. We ordered one, she folded it and gave it to us in a paper cup and charged us $1. It was a fantastic cinnamon pancake.

We made it to the bottom and kept walking toward the station. We passed many residences and buildings in an old neighborhood. From peering through the windows, we deduced that many of the businesses were small–about the size of an American kitchen–and were selling various products, food, and services. But the cool thing was that the people lived behind the business, as there was a back door leading to a residence. Most of the storefronts were about 15-20 feet wide, so the living quarters must have had similar widths. Few were busy, but all had one person inside doing stuff on a computer.

Seoul Station was about a 45 minute walk from the base of the mountain. The wind was whipping and we decided to warm up at a Hilton Hotel. We had passed the hotel on our previous day’s bus trip and remembered that it had a Casino with 50 slot machines. Lori bolted for the slots while I watched the gaming tables. This Casino had about 20 gaming tables–about half of them were Roulette. I found a perch where I could observe this craps-like game that used 3 dice. This game moved very slowly with 4-5 minutes between rolls. Players could bet on the face result of one die, 2, or all 3 dice. The table was electronically underlit so that after the roll, the winning bets were illuminated from underneath. It was obvious who won and who lost but it was never obvious what money belonged to whom. I guess they worked on the honors system. I watched them play for over an hour and got warmed up in this interesting atmosphere.

Meanwhile, Lori was playing dime slots and struck up a conversation with an English-speaking woman who was a flight attendant for Lufthansa. She was on one of many layovers in Seoul and commented that these slots were the tightest in the world. Lori’s $10 did not go very far, but she ended up having a nice conversation with another world traveler.

We hit the bathroom on the way out and were amazed by the electronic bidet that could water wash your bottom from front or back or both. We didn’t realize that one push of the button does not run a complete cycle like at the car wash. One push on, second push off, then a blow dry of cold air. Interesting…

We completed our journey to Seoul Station then found our rail line and did some people watching on the way home. The majority of Korean women of any age are fit, thin, and beautiful, the remaining women are slender and attractive. Every woman has her own unique style and has spent time accessorizing to create her look for the day. Everyone wears really nice scuff-free shoes–2 to 4 inch spike heels are common.

Guys are dressed neat. Professionals wear suits. Students wear skinny jeans. Everyone wears nice scuff-free shoes.  In almost any situation, I am the tallest and heaviest person in the room at 6′ 1″ and 210 pounds. No one is dressed “ratty”.

We arrived home and walked to the Lotte Mart to pick up some snacks. I counted 19 employees in the gift pack area alone! All of them were either dressed in long colorful gowns or in black. There were a couple of guys in black wearing a chef’s hat in the seafood department. His helpers were wearing blue. Pink was the color in the meat department, and red in the deli. Every so often one of them would holler something in Korean to gain people’s attention while they pointed to the item of the day. The grocery store is a fun place to hang out. We bought a quart of pineapple juice and a quart of nectarine juice for about $0.60 each.

We ordered pizza and spaghetti for dinner and had it delivered. It was delicious. I was feverish and had body aches, so I took some NyQuil that Lori had packed and went to bed early. Another day of  exceptional experiences in a strange land.

Published in: on January 30, 2011 at 9:15 am  Comments (4)  
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Vacation to Seoul South Korea – Day 4 – Lost

I woke up this morning and had that sinking feeling as I got dressed–my wallet was missing. Thoughts raced through my head as to where it might be. The last time I saw it was last night as I paid for dinner. Did I leave it at the restaurant? Did I lose it on the way home? Did my pocket get picked? Did someone sneak into my room while we were sleeping? I replayed the evening in my mind as I tore apart the bed, then went through all of our luggage and dirty clothes hoping to find ALL of our money and ALL of our credit cards. Several minutes of absolute terror ended when I found it behind and underneath our stack of luggage–it had slipped out of my pants pocket overnight.

Chris had a date in Paju last night and again tonight, so Lori and I were on our own in a foreign land where the only words we know are “hello” and “thank you” and we can not read a single sign without an English tag. On our way through the lobby, we overheard a conversation between a woman with a British accent and the front desk attendant. She missed the tour bus that leaves the hotel every day at 9:00 and was asking directions and suggestions for things to do. We interrupted and asked her if she would like to join us on a day of adventure. She agreed, we introduced ourselves, and the three of us headed for the subway for a self guided tour of Seoul. 

Amanda was living in New Zealand and heading for London with a one day stopover in Seoul.  All alone, she was ready for an adventure, and was happy to have company. We had a similar desire for things to do and decided to take a bus tour of downtown Seoul.  We made it downtown like a trio of pro subway riders and proceeded to look for the Duty Free shop where we could pick up the tour bus. On our way, we stopped for coffee at a small shop. The ladies had a hot drink while I opted for a sandwich. The male attendant spent 5 minutes or so preparing an incredible sandwich that puts Subway to shame. The bread was similar to Panini and was heated in a toaster oven. Ham, cheese,crunchy vegetables, and 2 layers of dressing were added. One layer was white like mayonnaise, the other was yellow with red and green speckles. It was a fabulous combination. Our chef communicated with us in his broken English, told us where to find the Duty Free Shop, and told us to ‘have a nice day’.

On our walk, we saw a palace that we decided was close enough to walk to. It was surrounded by guards in colorful uniforms. Upon entry, we discovered that there were 2 English speaking walking tours in the afternoon, so we left and decided to come back later for the guided tour.

We looked everywhere and finally found the tour bus, then found the ticket booth, and finally saw the Duty Free Shop tucked away in a not-so-easy-to-find recessed area. There was time for lunch before the bus left, so we found a street vendor and bought his stuff. We each had a fist sized white wad of sweet partially cooked risen dough filled with bean paste and a 6-pack of something that looked like dim-sum. Both selections were hearty and bursting with flavor. This was Amanda’s first bite of Korean food–she was impressed.

The temperature was in the single digits with a steady wind. We were happy to get on the bus and take a 2 hour ride through downtown Seoul. This was done to help us develop a plan on what to see on later dates. We drove through an antique district and several shopping districts. We saw several palaces, museums, and U.S. military posts. We are looking forward to going back to the top of a mountain in the middle of the city that has a lookout tower.

We made it back to the palace in time to see the changing of the guard. Two squads of guards dressed in bright colorful costumes marched to the beat of a drum and changed positions. One squad got out of the cold, the other was soon to experience the frigid breeze.

We were chilled to the bone waiting for our tour to begin. Finally, a bright young Korean woman introduced herself to the 6 of us in the tour and began our walk around the palace. I found it fascinating and was keying my ear to her accent filled with mispronunciations–she couldn’t say ‘royal family’ and kept talking about the ‘lawyer family’. She was very smart and extremely nice and seemed to enjoy our company as much as we enjoyed her knowledge.  The palace is on 100 acres with many buildings that we could peer into but not enter–we were going to be outside in the cold for the whole tour.

About 20 minutes into the tour, Lori and Amanda disappeared. I saw them walking away and assumed they were just hurrying to a wind-break. A few minutes later, they were completely out of sight. I finished the tour with a couple of American ESL teachers from China who were spending their winter break in Korea. The tour was most interesting and filled another hour of my time.

As I made my way back to the starting point, I saw that all of the doors at the main gate were closed, except one. I hurried through the door as it was locked behind me. I was expecting to find Lori and Amanda waiting outside the gate, but they were not. The sun was going down and it was getting colder and I was all alone. I walked along the quarter mile long wall hoping to find them along the way–no luck.

I tried to get my bearings straight and tried to figure out where they might be waiting for me in this city of 24 million people. I walked back to the palace gate and retraced my steps from earlier in the day. I remembered passing a big Confucius statue and found the subway entrance. I was getting colder and thought about where I could go to get warm. I made my way back to the coffee shop with the delicious sandwich. I ordered hot chocolate, sat down, and secured an internet connection on my I-Touch personal electronic computer. I went straight to facebook and posted to Lori where she could find me. I was prepared to sit there, warm up, and wait until dark.

Two cups of hot chocolate later and I was still alone. I signed-in to skype, hoping Lori had her phone on–no luck. I skyped Chris and found him at home. He had plans for the evening and suggested I get back on the subway and wait for her at our hotel. During the course of the conversation, Lori and Amanda appeared in the coffee shop–I was never so happy to see anyone in my life! They were frozen and could not handle the outdoor tour, so they spent the afternoon in a coffee shop. When they were locked out of the palace they tried to find me–with no luck. They made their way to an internet cafe and were about to post a message on facebook when mine appeared. They left a note for me to wait where I was and made their way to the coffee shop.

Three hungry people had a hot drink and decided it was suppertime. I remembered seeing a Korean BBQ place in an alley next to the coffee shop and we decided to eat there. Amanda thought her first sit-down Korean meal was incredible. She wielded the chopsticks like a pro and thoroughly enjoyed the flavors of the meats,vegetables, and sauces. We shared a bottle of soju and enjoyed another great meal. Our hostess took it upon herself to cook our meat for us–she did not do this for any of the Korean patrons. She noticed my lack of dexterity with the chopsticks and proceeded to fill each leaf of lettuce for me with her suggested combinations of ingredients without saying a word–it was wonderful, again.

It is always an adventure when we go on vacation and we were happy to find another adventurous soul to join us. It was a long, cold, unescorted day in a strange land–and we had a great experience and a wonderful time with our new found friend from New Zealand.

Published in: on January 28, 2011 at 1:21 pm  Comments (2)  
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Vacation to Seoul South Korea – Day 3 – Paju

The weather has been clear and cold in South Korea. We packed hats and gloves and were given fleece blankets by one of our tour guides. We have been comfortable traveling around Seoul in the winter time.

We each bought a transit pass so we could move around freely via subway and bus. With all of the traffic we have encountered, I am glad we did not choose to rent a car and drive here. I get to enjoy the scenery without having to focus on deciphering signs and avoiding commuters.

Today’s agenda was to visit Chris’ home in Paju.  Paju is an area North and West of Seoul that Chris describes as being the size of an entire county in the USA.  His village in Paju is just a few miles from the DMZ (De-Militarized Zone).  He can see North Korea from his place.

We took a train into an area where he regularly transfers. He is familiar with that section and took us out for breakfast. We went to a little shop where he ordered toast for each of us. The restaurant had just 4 tables with oversized rocking chairs that we would typically see as part of an expensive set of outdoor furniture with large cushions in America. Toast was a sandwich where the outside bread was sliced thin and resembled a sweet French Toast. Inside was ham and eggs. It was delicious and cost about $6 for the three of us.

Chris then took us down an alleyway to a street vendor who sold several fried foods including corn dogs. We ordered a corn dog for each of us and the attendant invited us inside to sit. We entered the shack to find 2 women preparing food for the day.  I noticed several wrappers of cheese sticks and hot dogs and a pack of skewers.  We sat at a tiny table with tiny chairs as the ladies took our precooked selections and returned them to the friar. This “restaurant” was about the size of a small kitchen or large bathroom. The wallpaper was old and faded with lots of Korean scrawls on the wall. The ladies were welcoming and it felt like home. We were given a complimentary cup of soup that contained unrecognizable vegetables. It was hot and it was good. The corn dogs were delivered and upon first taste, we were in heaven.  The extra crunchy outer section surrounded a muffin-like inner section that held the sausage. The snack on a stick was served with ketchup already applied.  Total cost for this snack for 3 was about $3.

We hailed a taxi and rode about 10 minutes to Chris’ village and walked to his apartment. His town can best be described as rural. In this land of 10-20 story apartment building, his village had few buildings over 5 stories tall.  He said that most of his students’ parents were farmers and worked in agriculture.  Chris lives on the third floor in an apartment about the size of my dining room. His furniture consists of a bed, desk, and chair. In this space he also has a kitchen, bathroom, and laundry room. It is not a lot, but it is enough for him and he is happy.  This is the place where he sleeps, games, and keeps his stuff. He has many friends and meets up with them most every day to do fun stuff when he is not teaching ESL (English as a Secondary Language). He has been here since August and is thoroughly enjoying everything about his new home.

He has a date tonight, so he took us to the bus stop, got us on the right line, gave us directions on how to get home and sent us on our way. The first leg of our journey was an hour bus ride that took us along a long section of the DMZ.  I was expecting the DMZ to be a forest or a mountain, or a ridge or something–it’s not.  The area of DMZ that we passed looked like a frozen swamp. This area is about 3 miles across with a double fence topped with razor wire along the entire zone. We could see North Korea on the other side–mountains, military vehicles, and guard shacks, but no other signs of life. Our side has bustling traffic, high rise buildings and civilian activity

We connected to the subway system and made several transfers on the way back to Incheon. The entire trip took about 2 hours and cost us about $2.50 each. The subway station is about 3 blocks from our hotel.

There is a hyper market called Lotte Mart a short walk from the station. We decided to check it out. Lotte Mart is a tall building with parking on the top floors, shopping and services on the bottom floors. Food is sold on the first floor, department store merchandise on the second floor, dentist, pet store and other services on the third floor, photograpy studio and martial arts on the fourth floor. Each story is connected by an escalator without steps. That allows for shopping carts to be gripped by the grooves in the moving ramp so that 1 cart can access all departments.

The grocery store portion had more employees than shoppers–and there were a lot of people shopping. Women dressed in formal traditional Oriental garb were soliciting gifts and samples throughout the store. Other employees were stocking shelves, mopping floors, and running the cash registers.

We were on our own for dinner for the first time and decided to walk around until something looked good. Just a block from our hotel in the first restaurant we passed, there were lots of people enjoying dinner. That was a good sign, so that’s the place we chose to eat. It was a Korean BBQ restaurant. We chose to sit at a table rather than on the floor and had marinated pork. We cooked it ourselves over a wood fire and mixed in a variety of vegetables and spices in leaf of lettuce sandwiches. We had side dishes of what can be described as boiled scrambled eggs and crab soup. Once again the food was outstanding for about $20.

Published in: on January 27, 2011 at 6:49 pm  Comments (1)  
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Vacation to Seoul South Korea – Day 2

Our hotel room has radiant heat from the floor. We cannot find a thermostat. Our room is at a constant temperature near 80 degrees–so we sleep with the window cracked open.  The jet lag is going away. Spent a half a day in Seoul, came home, took a nap, had a pleasant evening, then off to bed. Chris gave us another valuable tip today: Always keep enough toilet paper in your pocket–just in case.

The bus ride to downtown Seoul was supposed to take 60 minutes–it took 90. Even though the bus lane passed standstill automobiles by the hundreds, it was still a long bus ride to the business district. They dropped us off in Myeong Dong. It looks a lot like China Town in any major city. We saw lots of people braving the near zero temperatures and lots of stores not much bigger than an American walk-in closet. There were also large department stores, big name outlets, multi level malls, and scores of places to eat.

We chose to eat at a place specializing in bibam bap–it is Chris’ favorite Korean food. We were immediately served a cup of corn tea, followed by a bowl of spicy soup–the main ingredients were soy bean sprouts and fish broth. It was wonderful on a cold day. Several condiment bowls arrived–one of them was kimchi–then a super hot small cauldron filled with a variety of vegetables and pork. It is customary to stir these ingredients, add the condiments, and eat it with a spoon. No chopsticks required! I am having a hard time with metal chop sticks, so this was a meal that was consumed quickly. Lori took her time and used the chopsticks. The bowl stayed super hot throughout the meal. Just stir the food and it got hotter, but not to the point of searing or burning. Total cost for 3 people, about $20

We attempted to cross a very busy street by using what we thought was an underground walkway–it was an underground shopping center! It seemed to run for blocks. All of the store-fronts were occupied and open for business. We snacked on some incredible ice cream and an awesome waffle from a street vendor.

We bought a metro pass that works on busses and the subway. We chose to take the subway home and made record time despite having to change lines twice.  As we moved away from Seoul, the subway became an elevated railway and we were able to take in the view on a sunny winter day.

As we neared our hotel we encountered some policemen escorting some businessmen suffering from “soju madness” in the middle of the afternoon on a Wednesday. They had too much to drink and were stumbling down the street in their suits and leather shoes. The officers escorted them off of the main road, then left them to fend for themselves on a side street.

We ordered pizza for dinner. Chris ordered one of his favorites–“potato gold pizza”–thin potato wedges with tomato sauce, mushrooms, corn, sweet potatoes, bacon, and cheese. It was freaking awesome! The pizza came with a side of spaghetti. The spaghetti had peppers and corn in it and was a wonderful surprise. Total cost for dinner for 3, about $20.

We played 3-hand pinochle with a three card blind. Chris finished the night by bidding out of his mind. He was 2 cards short of having a double run, double pinochle, and double Jacks around. He didn’t get it all, but still made his bid in a losing effort.

Published in: on January 26, 2011 at 6:19 pm  Comments (1)  
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