Daily Archives: 2009-10-02

Surprise South Korea

Truth be told, I wasn’t really looking forward to South Korea. I didn’t know why but my expectations were really low. I planned to get off the boat just to check out the market and thought I would be back on the ship an hour later. But I was in for quite a surprise.

The port was modern and well kept even more so than Japan had been. There was a digital message board welcoming us, displaying the time and weather forecast. It called for rain but I had my doubts as I squinted up at the hot sun smiling down on us. We boarded a shuttle bus which drove us 20 minutes to the center of Pusan.

First thing I noticed was how crammed the streets were with signage. The Korean characters are much blockier and heavy than the Japanese. Also there were so many stores that were Western including Pizza Hut, Starbucks, and the Body Shop. There was also Krispy Kreme, Outback Steakhouse, and every brand of sportswear you could imagine. Then there was the market.

This has to be my favorite part of the trip thus far. The market consisted of stalls, tables, makeshift vendor wagons, and stores for as far as the eye could see. I am talking miles of shopping. There was everything for sale from delicate bookmarks adorned with the Korean flag to cutesy socks to ladies stirring large vats of bean soup which could be had on the spot. There were pails of live fish and knock offs of every designer brand you could think of. Entire stores filled with ginsing, shops dedicated to dog costumes, and others with apples the size of my head…no joke! If you could dream it up, I am sure you could find it here.

What really impressed me was the lack of chaos that usually goes hand in these types of marketplaces. In fact, it was eerily quiet and orderly in Kookje Market. The Koreans seem to be a very gentle and delicate people who value beauty above all else. I caught lots of woman checking their faces in a mirrors which just so happened to be everywhere. Many of them didn’t know very much English but were quite impressed when I stumbled with my attempts at their language.

My senses were on serious overload bombarded with spicy aromas like kimchi in the making, older ladies chatting to each other gingerly as they tended to their stalls, and the brilliant colors displayed in their wares. I ended up doing a bit of shopping here. I got some cool souvenirs that I could mail home. They even came with an envelope.

I found some wrinkle serum made with real gold and caviar extract. I supposed that if I were going to get on board with the skin care regime, here would be the place to start. The sophisticated Korean women are well known for their fair complexions and flawless skin.

Perhaps my favorite purchase were the socks for 1000 won (equivalent to about a dollar) in every style and color of the rainbow. I skipped the Hello Kitty, Obama, and Spiderman in favor of Winnie the Pooh, Mushroom, and Bear ankle socks. They are adorable and just wearing them make me smile. And most importantly, they are made in Korea, not China.

We encountered an underground mall which gave us a bit of reprieve from the sweltering sun. One strange fad I noticed here was the matching mens and womens underwear. I debated with my crew whether this was cute or creepy and at what point in your relationship it would be appropriate. The prices were pretty decent but the sizes were small. I guess it makes sense considering that the general population of Korea is short and thin.

We visited the serene Yongdusan Park where there was a gigantic iron bell I really wanted to bong. There was also a little exercise park that had a bunch of elderly locals hanging around pulling on the equipment. It was quite comical to see Darren jumping on the bars and swinging around like a monkey. The park regulars just stared at him with their mouths hanging open. They were not even half his size and certainly not as agile.

Next we paid the four thousand won to go up the famous Pusan Tower. The views were gorgeous and you could see all the way out to the ships on the sea. Luckily we had a clear day and even the mountains were visible. It was also a great sampling of the various kinds of architecture of this country. I admit I was pleasantly surprised by how modern and geared towards the arts they are here. We will just miss the PIFF (Film Festival) which begins in a weeks time. It appears to be quite an event as there is an entire district dedicated to it.

We got sucked back into the market once more before we were to catch the last shuttle bus back to the ship. We climbed up the steps and through security after cleaning our hands with the wet face cloths. After a snack, I decided it was high time for a workout. After my exercise, I met the others for dinner before turning in for an early night.

Grateful for markets.

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Navigating the Sea of Japan

As usual, I hit the gym first thing. Then after breakfast, I was rather tired. I rested up a bit before taking a late lunch. I sat alone and worked at my writing. I noticed that my servers were from Thailand and thought it may be nice to get a head start at learning the language. They taught me the proper way that thank you was pronounced but now I have forgotten. I will have to search them out and practice harder.

After lunch, I spent some time reading. Over all this was a quiet, restful day. That is until the Captains Circle Party. There was a lot of people who showed up and it was a good chance to meet formally meet the Captain. We shook his hand on the way in and I was aware that my hand was still damp from the hand sanitizer that we are obliged to use at every room entrance.

I ended up turning in early and getting a good solid nights sleep. I must have really needed it because I slept hard.

Grateful for rocking the boat.

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Cold Russia

I was up bright and early to take my breakfast before getting off the ship to experience Vladivostok. It was sunny and much warmer than I thought it would be in Russia. Vladivostock is best known as the Pacific end of the 5778 mile long Trans-Siberian Railway. We could see it from the ship. I grabbed my espresso power smoothie from Fernando and debarked to look around.

The first thing we saw was the Statue of Lenin so we all took our photo opportunities. A group of shady characters hovered around the base and I was suddenly very aware of my purse. There were food stalls set up nearby selling candy, cookies, and even meats of every variety. I said hi to a couple of police walking by and they were not friendly at all. Just then, a bunch of happy children on a field trip crossed our path so it offset that awful energy. Little did I know that those children would really be the only smiling faces I would see in this port.

The streets were in pretty bad shape and I found most of the buildings dirty, old, and drab. We basically just wandered around for several hours and try as I might, I could not get a smile from anyone. In fact, many of the people scowled at me and some even sneered. It wasn’t a good feeling at all. I tried to have compassion for these people who are still probably not used to outsiders. Closed to the outside world for most of the Soviet period, the Primorsky Territory has only been open to tourists since July 1992.

I checked out a supermarket and found that the prices were generally lower here than what I am used to. There were also gigantic beers in the cooler but we didn’t partake. I doubt I could have managed to even lift it up to drink it.

We found a church with the onion shaped tops that are unique to Russia. The super shiny blue and gold domes could be seen all the way across town. Inside there were lots of people saying prayers and lighting candles but there were no chairs. I think maybe that is because they were renovating.

We searched for the market but couldn’t seem to find it. Barely anyone spoke English and no one understood it either. Their language is hard to pronounce so you can imagine our troubles trying to communicate. Finally in the end, we did find the market but it was mostly home stuffs and clothes. Nothing that any of us wanted or needed. I was much more fascinated with the cats.

There were a couple really rough looking tom cats roaming around and one was still bleeding from a fight. I heard some mewing coming from a junk pile and I investigated further to find a tiny little kitten. She was adorable and must have only been a few weeks old. It took everything I had in me not to scoop her up and smuggle her onboard. I miss my cat.

As we trotted back to the ship, we all began noticing the unbelievable heels that most of the women were wearing. How they could walk in those things on these dreadful excuses for sidewalks, I will never know. The women were tall and quite thin, some of them resembling mannequins from a store window. But none of them smiled. The men wore steely expresssionless faces and they didn’t seem to take style as seriously as their women did.

My impression of Russia is not one that would bring me back anytime soon. I suppose the largest country in the world has some warming up to do and I don’t mean temperature wise.

Grateful for understanding.

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Arts and Crafts – Sea of Japan

I worked out like crazy today so I could spend some time doing some writing before lunch. It didn’t happen. I ended up too crushed for time if I wanted to meet my standing lunch date with Marshan and Darren. Afterwards, Darren and I headed to the Grand Art Auction in the Explorers Lounge. It was a little sleepy and I didn’t really learn anything new. I did however get a deal on a spa visit which I plan to make use of later on in the cruise.

I was thinking about it and I realized that I am not even halfway through my 40 day cruise. How crazy is that?! I have more than three weeks left on this vessel which I am slowly becoming quite attached to. I have made some strong connections with a few of the staff and have several favorite places which one can find me at certain times of the day. I am also feeling quite at home in my cabin which I have spent time personalizing. My small but cozy space is now beautified with ornaments I have found and made. It has a distinct Carmella flavor to it and I am loving living there.

After the auction, it was time for Arts and Crafts where we made masquerade masks. There was lots of tracing, snipping, ribbons, gluing, feathers, and drawing going on. I ended up with a piece that I was quite proud of but knowing I would have no where to wear it, I displayed it on my wall.

After another stint at the gym, it was time for dinner again. We didn’t feel like waiting the half hour to get into our favorite dining room so we opted for the buffet. It wasn’t very good which I suppose, in the big picture, is better for my waistline. Afterwards, we decided to go see the hypnotist show. It was the least successful show I have seen and I am really not even sure that any of the three ladies he ended up with actually went under.

We made our way to the theatre to watch the production show but I left early. It was mediocre and I was tired. Marshan thinks she is getting sick so I need to be extra careful to stay healthy. Tomorrow is Russia so I wanted to be sure I would have a full energy tank for it. It is my first and perhaps only visit to this country. I am not drawn to it at all and doubt that it is somewhere I will get to again anytime soon.

Grateful for creativity.

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Let’s go Fly a Kite – Muroran, Japan

Next we slipped into a supermarket and I was elated as I panned the huge superstore selling every form of goods imaginable. Jackpot! We began snapping photos of everything like the odd shaped mushrooms to the new fangled toothbrushes. Everything was so different especially with the language difference. I felt like a Japanese Tourist. Ahhhhh…now I understand.

We all spent some time picking out snacks and drinks for the day. I got stuck in the drink aisle trying to figure out what was sweet and what wasn’t. The only really way to figure out much of anything was to scan the caloric info which was still in numbers, the only writing I could understand. I ended up with a small can of iced coffee (88 yen) and a bottle of white milky water pop stuff (98 yen). I don’t know how else to explain it but I saw a crew member from the ship buying it who said it was good.

The prices were ok for food but we had been forewarned that Japan was NOT the place to do your shopping. As I scrutinized the general cost of things, I reigned in my impulse to buy. We tasted a yummy fried bean curd sample which was by the sushi roll deli. There was also a lot of makeup and a ton of expensive accessories. It was near 10 dollars for a hair clip and 5 dollars for a notebook. A pair of cheap shoes cost about 30 dollars. Best way for conversion, we just divided the yen by a hundred and called it US dollars. Not perfect but served the purpose for getting a general sense of the currency.

We hopped back on the bus and got off at the next shuttle stop where they had set up a charming little fair for us tourists. They showcased all things Japanese including origami, juggling, sake, yakitori, arts and crafts, music and even photos with a samurai. It was here that I had my first Asian toilet experience. It was not nearly as awkward as I thought it would be. Though it was a squatter, it still flushed.

I learned how to make an origami elephant and crane, that I still don’t like sake, and that Japanese are polite, slightly timid and love to be helpful. There is something distinctly childlike about the Japanese culture. From the smaller size, to the cartoons used to sell practically everything, to the playful colorful nature of their arts and crafts.

Perhaps the highlight of my day was when I made a kite with one of the volunteer ladies. First she had me pick a symbol from a chart (I chose love, of course) which I copied by swishing it the brush dipped in black ink onto the paper kite. She wrote my name in Japanese at the bottom and I was surprised to learn that my name can be written in only 3 characters rather than the 8 letters used in English. Together we secured the sticks and tied on the string before attaching the long yellow ribbon tail. I was brimming with joy as I thanked my teacher profusely. I wondered if it would be wind worthy but didn’t really care as I would hang it proudly in my stateroom as an art piece.

We climbed up a bunch of steps to a shrine. We purified our hands and mouth with the water spouting from the dragons mouth. Then we found our way up to the temple where three delicate young ladies handed us a little bowl of sake. We tasted it then bought our fortune for a dollar. My “Written Oracle” turned out to be excellent and said of travel, that my destination will do me good.

We spent the next hour or so hiking up to the top of the mountain to take in the panoramic view of the portside town. We stopped at a little tea house on the way up and sipped an expensive coffee. The place was decorated in a cluttered way and I wondered if he hadn’t done all his shopping at the junk store we had visited earlier that day. I realized that it had been a while since I had taken in any vitamin D so for that I was grateful that we had hit a sunny day without a cloud in the sky. While we were waiting for the bus to go back to the ship, I decided it was time to try out my kite. There was a slight breeze and it was enough to launch. She flew high and strong with her yellow tail streaming behind. I am sure at that moment, I was stiff competition for the sun I was beaming so brightly.

I was pooped by the end of the day and was quite looking forward to getting back on the ship. We all took a little nap before dinner but I am not sure I ever really woke up. I must have been running on nervous energy because at dinner, I was so giggly, I was crying. I couldn’t contain myself and soon Darren had caught the laughing bug too. We were a couple of snickering fools and after a while, it started hurting. I suppose that is one way to get your abdominal workout.

Grateful for politeness.

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