A blessing in disguise, korean earpicks and shopping

Last night K told me it was going to rain today and that I had to take precautions if I was going to venture out alone. I had planned to visit Myeong-dong (playing Cyndi Lauper’s “Oh Girls just want to have fu-uhn… Whoaaa Girls they wanna have fun.” over and over in my mind). Myeong-dong is an area in Seoul that sells clothes,accessories and all sorts of swanky Korean beauty products. Oh and their cute $1 socks.

I was worried in the back of my mind on traveling alone to Myeong-dong. If it was an English speaking country, these worries would never cross my mind. But to travel alone in a place where boards/signs are in another language, the people speak only their mother tongue and the public transportation system has a smartphone app that is all in Korean can be quite the challenge. All of this makes it essential to carefully plan and execute. And when K told me it was going to rain, I started to have second thoughts and decided to stay in half-heartedly.

We crossed the road to Starbucks this morning after finding out last night that they open everyday at 6:30 AM. I could not have been more thrilled about going to Starbucks for our morning breakfast. I had a bagel with cream cheese and K had a blueberry bagel with cream cheese. Both of us had tall lattes along with our bagels. As I was sipping into my coffee, the thought of not going was bothering me. And the game of “Should I should I not?” began. I think it was the coffee that gave me that push that I needed to say “rain or shine I’m going shopping!”.

Oh maps, what would I ever do without you?
Oh maps, what would I ever do without you?

We got back to our room. I packed essentials like my charger, passport, took some currency to buy bus tickets. I waved to K who was leaving as well and started my walk to the bus stop. I was waiting in line (Koreans wait in a single line at bus stops) for the M4108 bus to take me to Seoul (if you’re going to be staying in Dongtan, this would be the fastest option to get to Seoul besides a taxi). After a 10 min wait, a bus came along and before all of us could board the bus, the driver shut the door and took off. I saw the number 0 sign off in the front window and realized it was a count as to how many seats were vacant on that bus. After another 20 mins, another m4108 came along and so my day to Seoul began.

I boarded the bus and took my seat next to a young Korean guy about K’s age. The guy at the front desk had given me some really confusing directions on where to get off and since I wasn’t in the frame of mind to wait for some angel to come save me after I get off the bus, I decided to strike up a conversation with the decent young man next to me. And the conversation went as follows:

Me: “Hi there. So…um…” (I look at his puzzled face and pointed at my map to show that I’m going to Myeong-dong) “Kookmin Bank ye?”

Man (in a distinguishable American Asian accent): So where exactly do you want to go?

Me: Oh (dumbstruck and happy as hell) you speak English? (yay in my mind)

Man: smiles and responds “yes. I used to live in Phoenix Arizona. What about you? Where are you from?”

Me: I’m originally from India (like my face doesn’t say it all!) and I live in California… more specifically San Francisco.

Man: So is this your first time in Korea?

Me: Yes. You know… it’s hard to move around without knowing Korean here. I try to get as many directions as I can and still the unfamiliarity with the location gets me everytime.

Man: Ah.. yes. I remember the first time I went to NYC. Back then, I could barely speak English and I was lost in NY of all the places in the world!

Me: Oh that is so strange. Think of all the bulgogi places they have (bulgogi is a korean bbq dish) and it can still be difficult huh… So… I’m trying to go to Myeong-dong for some shopping. But I need to get to the tourist information office first before I proceed.

Man: May I have a look at your map, please?

Me: Sure (and waits for a helpful gesture)

Man: You need to get down a few stops before that one. I am getting down 2 stops before you need to get down. And when I get down, I can give you directions to go.

Me: Oh thank you so much (a little relieved and yet worried if I can follow the directions perfectly without getting lost)

I start to panic for no apparent reason and shot all sorts of questions at this man. “When would be the right time to press the stop button?” “So is this a fork I see here on the map?” “Which way should I go from here?” “Are you sure there are no other stops in between?” By this time, man lets out a sigh.

Man: You know what… I will walk you to the tourist information office.

I was stunned at this man’s offer to not just give me directions but to walk as far as my tourist office which was a few stops after his just to make sure I reached there without getting lost. I was obviously not going to inconvenience someone headed to work to go out of the way to help me.

M: Oh that’s alright. I am sure I can manage if you just told me how to go.

Man: Oh it’s no problem. My classes aren’t starting until after lunch. So I can take you to the tourist office.

Me: Umm. Thanks. Are you sure? I hope it’s not getting in the way of your schedule.

Man: Positive.

After that moment of panic settled down and when my stop came, the two of us disembarked the vehicle and started the walk to the tourist office. I came to know that he was a psychology professor at a university in Korea on our way to the tourist office. I thanked the professor for being a blessing in disguise when he walked me to my destination. He wished me a good rest of the trip and headed back to his stop.

From there, I went into the tourist office, chatted quickly with the woman behind the counter, got my maps and headed out the door. I crossed the road and saw a sign at a telecom shop that said that they provided 5G LTE connections. I was shocked beyond words to see the first sign of 5G and paused to click a picture there. Right beside the shop was a small alley. And a colorful board called out to me. A coffee shop. I decided to fuel up before continuing along the day trip.

What?! 5G??? I think I'm going to faint!
What?! 5G??? I think I’m going to faint!
Eye catching board that drew me in
Eye catching board that drew me in

I walked inside the quaint little cafe upstairs with a view of the streets below. I placed my order for a cappucino and headed to the restroom. Lo and behold, what I saw was a high tech toilet in a public restroom. I repeat, PUBLIC. Although I was mildly disappointed that it was all in Korean, I was happy on seeing a high tech toilet in a public restroom.

Don't you love some coffee art?
Don’t you love some coffee art?
Needs no caption
Needs no caption

After my cuppa, I started to walk the streets of Myeong-dong. So what you will see is a lot of American name brands and popular Korean brand stores lining up narrow streets to make up a cluster of shopping streets in the area of Myeong-dong. I found an extremely interesting Korean beauty tool – the Korean earpick. It’s a decorative little metal object that looks a lot like the spoon except the scoop is tiny enough to comfortably scrape out wax from your ears. I also shopped a few other things – socks, souvenirs, artwork after taking a good stroll around the shops.

Isn't that cute?
Ladies & Gentlemen, I present to you – the Korean earpick
These socks are the cutest!
These socks are the cutest!

By this time, I came to a 4-way intersection of narrow roads and decided to take a right turn as there were no more shops and I figured this might be the end of the shopping district. As I walked down the road, I saw many policemen standing in front of a building. And soon enough I was informed that it was a police academy that I was standing in front of after asking one of the policemen. I was unable to find this police academy on the map. I called out to the same policeman to help me find the way. He said “left. straight”. I said “thanks” and started my walk. I did the left turn and then went straight on when I came to a popular intersection where I made a right turn. Once I did, I was able to confirm that this street came up in one of the pictures I had seen online when I was reading up about Myeong-dong.

After spending a few mins strolling the last and final street of Myeong-dong, I pondered on what to do for lunch. So another quick stop back at the tourist office told me that Insadong was close. I started my walk and a few minutes into it, I came to a road that had medians. I looked behind me and found an entrance to the subway. I decided to go down and get out the other way. What I was expecting to find was a dingy subway with drunken men and a few talented unheard of musicians making their living. Instead I saw a whole shopping world underground. The subway was filled with tons of little shops with goodies like cellphone accesories, cosmetics, handbags, coffee shops and what not.

It was more like a subway shopping mall
It was more like a subway shopping mall

And just like that, I got out the other way much like the way wizards apparate and made my way straight down the road like the woman at the counter had instructed me to. The walk was very interesting. I saw farmers markets, a tv reporter reporting something, the Cheonggyecheon stream and Gwanghwamun square (statues of Admiral Yi Sin Sin and King Sejong). The walk seemed to take forever. And I was starting to see buildings that weren’t even on the map. I came across an art museum, the national museum of history and then the police museum. It was at that point that I felt like something was wrong. I then looked closely at the map only to realise that while I was so entranced by the subway, I had ended up at the totally wrong exit and came out at another place past Jeong-dong – a place that was never meant to be in today’s agenda.

Cheonggyecheon Stream
Cheonggyecheon Stream
Farmers Market
Farmers Market
Watch out for these signs to get to the nearest tourist information office
Watch out for these signs to get to the nearest tourist information office
National Museum of History
Streetcar model outside National Museum of History
A closeup of the scene
A closeup of the scene

I began to trudge my way back down the same road and reached my destination after a solid 30 mins. I quickly picked up a tourist map from the information center and went to a restaurant. And like always, I was served some spectacular soupy stew. And this time they threw in some vegetable pancake on the house. I thanked them after the heart-warming lunch they gave me and made my way back to the information center as it had started to rain and plus it was already past 4. I had no umbrella on me and I wasn’t going to make myself miserable by getting drenched in the rain. The information center told me to take the subway to Seoul station and then take the bus from there like always. I thanked them and made my way to the subway. On the way I noticed a street vendor selling umbrellas. I picked one up hurriedly and made a dash for my train. A lovely young lady on the train informed me that she will inform me when my stop has arrived when she saw me buried into the tourist map.

Wow! What a spread!
Now that’s a spread!
Vegetable Pancake
Vegetable Pancake
Just like every other subway
Just like every other subway

Once back at the hotel, I relaxed for a while before heading out to dubu house for dinner. I asked for the same cheese soondubu. It was mucho delicious. And now for some seoulful sleep to get me ready for another adventurous day in Korea!

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Beauty masks, Rabboki and Jimjilbang???

For those of you who already know what Jimjilbang is, I am still undecided and wondering if it is not as creepy as it sounds. If you do not, well then, read on to find out.

I have a new favourite coffee place here in S.Korea. What already?! Yes, that’s right. Bad coffee provided by my hotel has pushed me desperately to find the perfect cup of caffeine to ingest into my body. Thank you very much!

I don’t know if it’s just me or do all tourists feel like they can’t get good coffee here in South Korea?

Right across the street from our hotel is a coffee place called “Coffeesmith”. They are indeed smiths who know their craft to the very end. So it was super surprising when the coffee I got yesterday was very good. And it’s even more surprising that they serve their coffees (I’m talking about the smallest size here) in gigantic cups like in the TV show “Friends”.

After some good coffee this morning at Coffeesmith, K and I walked back to our hotel’s cafe to have some expensive breakfast. Why? Apparently, breakfast is not really the “ingest all the grease and carbs you can find” kind of deal here in Korea. It’s usually a humble bowl of soup and there are not too many restaurants especially where I am at to get some cold cereal or eggs! K left for work after scrambling in how much ever he could eat and I finished a plate loaded with half a veggie omelet, some potatoes, a humble cup of vegetable congee (a rice gruel common to many Asian countries including India), some fine German style muesli and a regular sized cup of cappucino. Ok do not judge me. It was an expensive buffet!

Coffee in big cups
Coffee in big cups

After that athletic breakfast, I decided to get some laundry done as we had only packed enough clothing to last 4-5 days. I worked for a bit and made use of Korea’s uberfast internet to watch a bunch of Youtube videos on what to do and not to do in Korea while the washer and dryer did their heavenly work that God sent them to do here on Earth.

*Interesting fact: It is considered highly rude to talk loudly or hush all the way in buses or the subway in Korea.

A few days before we left for Korea, K was telling me how beauty regimes are very popular in Korea and how many Koreans to this day flock to get one particular treatment in a place called “Jimjilbang”. Jimjilbang is nothing but a public bathhouse where you get your body scrubbed off dead skin cells using an abrasive cloth. You can either do this yourself with all the materials they provide you or get yourself an ajumma, a woman who performs the service of scrubbing you down. It seems quite normal… except everyone is soaking in a variety of pools inside the Jimjilbang butt naked. Obviously, being an Asian country, it wasn’t surprising for me to hear that they have separate bathing areas for both men and women. While to an outsider who isn’t particularly accustomed to this cultural regime can find it utterly disturbing and strange, it is a weekly ritual for most Korean men, women and children to this day.

As I read up more about it, I understand that it is more of a “fear of the unknown” that crowds me when going to the Jimjilbang is maybe like going to the salon to get your legs waxed to many Korean women.  As I’m so confused on my what my thoughts are about this weird Korean cultural thing, I asked myself why not do this myself in my hotel room and make today a spa sort of day to take care of all that jet lag. So after doing my laundry, I had a quick chat with the guy at the front desk who helps me with restaurants. He asked me to try a restaurant right opposite the hotel after I told him I wanted to try Rabboki, another Korean comfort food. I took a short walk to Homeplus (soon becoming my favoritest* store) to get in on some of the Korean beauty trends.

*favoritest – not a word in the English dictionary 🙂

Firstly, if you ever speak to any Korean or anyone who has visited/lived in Korea a while, they will tell you how obsessed Korea is with beauty regimes. Secondly, they will also tell you just how popular mask sheets are in Korea. I have seen face masks come in tubes or in packets where you squeeze the goo out and apply them on your face and wait until the end of one tv episode before you wipe it off. But this was the first time I saw mask sheets which are wipes cut out to fit your face with holes to see, breathe and chomp down a bag of chips.

IMG_1015
Sheets of beauty…one before interview day, one before dates, one before sleep…and the list goes on

I got myself the tea tree mask sheet and a pack of the scrub towels they use in the bathhouses (also known as the “italy towel”). The best part is tons of free stuff. I thought India was obsessed with free goodies and the “buy one get one frees”.  Korea takes the cake. They gave me so many cool mask sheets, body wash and body lotion samples. I was feeling pampered already.

On the walk back to my hotel, I stopped at the restaurant right opposite my hotel that sells “gimbap/kimbap” which is a korean sushi roll stuffed with steaming sticky rice, veggies like carrots and pickled radishes, sliced omelet strips and meat. A fellow blogger this morning told me that Rabboki, pronounced labboki, is another spicy korean dish and that most places that sold gimbap would sell Rabboki. This definitely had to go on my list of foods to try in Korea. Rabboki is basically a thick soupy stew made by boiling ramen noodles, veggies, rice cakes, strips of fish cakes (which you can swap with omelet strips or tofu if you are vegan or vegetarian) along with gochujang paste (a korean red pepper paste) and topped with a hard boiled egg to soak in all the spiciness. It was delicious and I can imagine why rabboki is another food popular among college kids. It’s easy and quick to make. Rabboki tastes like ramen noodles cooked with veggies in a spicy marinara sauce mixed in with soy sauce. It sounds gross but makes you wonder why you never thought of this before.

Oodles of spicy noodles
Oodles of spicy noodles

Another astounding find in my exploration of delicious Korean foods is the cheese soondubu jigae last night for dinner. It is processed cheese mixed in with the traditional kimchi soondubu at the very end of the cooking process. I don’t know why Korea hasn’t gotten on the fancy/real cheese wagon yet but processed cheese is all you get in Korea. Plus it doesn’t taste as gross as it sounds. The processed cheese gives the soondubu a very unique flavor. Yet another weird combination that goes completely wrong in my mind but so right in my mouth.

So after all that delicious goodness, I got back to my hotel and relaxed for a while with the mask sheet on. I don’t know if it’s the mask sheet but something about beauty regimes calms me down completely and sweeps me off to another world. It felt so good doing all this after so many years. After that quick ritual and using the scrub towel in the bath, I was thoroughly relaxed and my muscles had loosened up enough to let me drown in the calm

While I was down at the laundry room earlier this morning, one of the things I did was download a book on how to speak korean for beginners. I am so fascinated by the language and the familiarity of the sounds with my own mother tongue. The language is nearly not as intimidating as the script itself. In fact, I am finding it easier by the day to communicate with the shop help, waiters and cashiers at restaurants and supermarkets. I spent the afternoon picking up a few essential korean phrases to help during my trip here.

*Question: Has anyone ever been to Rolling Pin bakery in Korea? These guys have some ginormous looking breads I’ve ever seen.

Now onto some humble dinner (which is a chunk of bread because it is too late to get dinner and I’m so stuffed from all that heavy breakfast and lunch) and a nice cup of hot tea to give a calming finale to my spa day.

New Obsession

If there is one thing I’ve wanted since I was a teen, it is to grow my nails long and paint it with pretty colors. Try as I might, my nail-biting habit always got in the way. I would grow them for a few days and file them naturally using my teeth. It seems nearly impossible and yet the past few weeks has been my longest attempt ever. Lately, I’ve had the opportunity to meet so many people who flaunt their well-manicured nails (one of them being my very own sister). I’ve had to shake hands with people who had everything from straight as a line square nails to slightly curved round nails. Next to them, mine looked like a joke. It was high time and I decided to grow them trying very hard to avoid biting them.

It’s been 3 weeks since I last bit my nail and I can proudly say they are back at their last longest. With my birthday just around the corner, my husband decided to treat me to some manicure supplies as motivation and a birthday gift from a nearby nails supply store. It was even better as the store had brands like Essie and Zoya at nearly 50% off. Knowing they are one of the more expensive brands, I decided to pick up a few colors. I should say I am obsessed with one particular color from Zoya. It’s the color Mira from Zoya. Don’t judge it too fast from the picture on their website. The picture bounces off the glossiness from the glass. This color is a dusty almost regal color with a matte undertone. It’s perfect as is or with a top coat to give it a more glossy look. It’s also weightless which is great as I am not a big fan of lacquers that make you feel like you’re carrying mini weights on all nails.

When I first looked at this shade, I wasn’t too sure if my skin tone could pull off such a nail color. Boy was I wrong! The color is just super pretty and is perfect for all skin tones. And I have to say I’m quite impressed with Zoya’s colors. Each one of them look perfect and they are the kind of colors I would love to wear.  I still haven’t tried the other colors. I have “don’t sweater it” and “armed and ready” from Essie. I also have this pretty shade form China Glaze called “Wagon Trail”. I absolutely love these colors. Will check back in on what I think of the rest.