Monday, June 22, 2015

MERS – Zombie Apocalypse?

 To answer the title, no MERS does not have the potential to start a zombie apocalypse. If you haven’t heard MERS is kind of a big deal in Korea. What is MERS, it stands for:


Much like saying the word bomb in an airport, you need to be careful when uttering the name MERS in Korea.

Being a fairly small country with a large population, the spread of disease is a real concern. The media however plays an important role to informing people about how to respond to any new threat. Since, I don’t understand Korean, I’m not sure what people are being told through Korean news, but it is clear that everyone is very concerned and afraid of this virus.

In some ways, it has helped reinforce important things like washing your hands with soap and water. I can’t count how many times I’ve used a public bathroom or even the bathrooms at school to find that there is no soap to wash my hands with. Once the MERS outbreak made headlines in Korea, there have been soap dispensers placed near every sink in my school. When visiting the large movie theater at the Gwangju bus terminal, I saw signs in Korean posted next to the soap dispensers that I’ve never seen before. I think we can assume it has something to do with the MERS virus.
A MERS Public health poster at Neungju Elementary

In other ways, the fear of MERS has become a little ridiculous. Although not much is known about MERS since it’s debut in 2012 in Saudi Arabia, it has been found to be transmitted though close personal contact. Here’s what the World Health Organization has to say about transmission among humans.

The virus does not appear to pass easily from person to person unless there is close contact such as providing clinical care to an infected patient while not applying strict hygiene measures. This has been seen among family members, patients, and health‐care workers. The majority of cases have resulted from human-to-human transmission in health care settings.”

So far all the confirmed cases (126) in Korea have been linked spread within hospitals. Sadly, the majority of deaths from the virus (24 as of June, 19th) have been elderly people who were being treated at the hospital for other serious conditions. Val and I visited our hospital in Hwasun last week to get a vaccination for our upcoming trip to Thailand. Being my second trip to a hospital since our original visit during orientation, I noticed many different things from my limited time in American hospitals. In Korea, people go to the hospital for almost everything that we’d normally see our regular doctor for. When going to the doctor in America, I’m used to arriving 10 minutes early to my appointment, and then waiting about 20 minutes before going to the second waiting room where the doctor and nurses will come visit you. At this hospital, there are different areas for different things, so to get our Hepatitis A vaccination; we had to travel to 4 different places around the hospital. The idea of having potentially sick people run around a hospital doesn’t seem like the best way to prevent a virus that lives within hospitals. Oh yeah, and Val’s school insisted that we take a pair of face masks to wear at the hospital, which did not have any MERS patients at the time (and still doesn’t). Korea does have smaller private clinics that may be different, but thankfully, we have yet to visit one

Hospital Face Mask Selfie! 

Since MERS is not a very contagious virus and not usually seen in younger people, there have been no travel restrictions advised by the CDC. Despite what the CDC says, many schools in Seoul decided to temporarily close. Schools in Hwasun County, where we live, are not planning to close, but many school field trips were postponed until further notice. Every couple days, some teachers ask me how my condition is, just to make sure I don’t have MERS. We have witnessed thermal screening for bus arrivals at the Gwangju Bus Terminal, and we’ve heard from other native English teachers that some schools are taking everyone’s temperature once to twice a day.

Thermal screening at the bus terminal

The one thing that blows my mind is that even with some of these somewhat extreme precautionary measures, we really need to teach people to cover their cough and/or sneeze. When riding the bus, which is a very popular mode of transportation for the elderly (the main group at risk), I cringe when I see people coughing and sneezing with no attempt to cover up. Who knows what disease could be lurking in those spray particles.

Korean media about MERS. 
Are WE worried about MERS?
In short, not really. Each night we pray for the people that have been affected by this outbreak, but we realize the risk to healthy younger people like ourselves (who do not frequent hospitals) the risk is very low. We’ve both been asked a few times at random by various staff members “Aren’t you afraid of MERS?!” and each time we respond with a simple “No.” My co-teachers do not understand why I am not afraid,  I hope this virus will be contained soon and they will not have to fear it either. Thankfully, we’re already starting to see a decrease in the fear of MERS, we’re getting less emails from the US Embassy explaining the situation, so that’s always a good sign! :)

Anyways, we wanted to write this post mostly to keep as a memory for us and of course, to inform! :) 

On a side note, we just realize that as of June 20th, we have exactly 8 weeks left in our contracts, which means in 8 weeks we will be completely moved out of our apartment and on to our next adventure! We can’t believe it! Prayers for this upcoming transition would be so appreciated!

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Day trip to Jeonju!


The first weekend in June, we took the opportunity to visit the city of Jeonju, (aka “the slow city”). Jeonju is a popular destination for foreigners and Koreans alike. The most popular place in Jeonju is Hanok Village. A hanok is a traditional Korean home, and there are over 800 hanoks all in this one area. Some of the hanoks are actual homes for people, but there are many that are different types of shops and restaurants.

A Hanok. 
When we first arrived, we stopped in the visitor’s center for an English map. Then we walked around looking for a place to have lunch. Jeonju is known for many things, one being their bibimbap, a Korean vegetable dish with rice, egg, bits of meat, and sauces all mixed together in a bowl. We have had bibimbap on many occasions, and although this is some of the best bibimbap we’ve ate in Korea, neither of us are huge fans.

The restaurant we had lunch at!

Many side dishes

 4 choices of bibimbap


It was good, just not amazing. :)

After lunch we decided it was time to treat ourselves. There are so many fun looking treats in Jeonju that we have not seen anywhere else in Korea. We had an ice cream cone, with cotton candy around it, and topped with some cereal. It tasted really good, although I’m not sure our dentists back home would approve.

Genius idea! 

While walking around we got to see some really cool shops. One of our favorites was the paper store. Jeonju is known for their handmade paper, which they use to make lots of cool things and nice fans. Some stores even had little fan displays like a mini museum. In some stores people can pay to create their own hand fan. We also came across a catholic cathedral. You could tour the inside, but we just admired it from the outside.

Beautiful fans! 

Not something you see everyday! 

Of course after walking around for so long, we were bound to find another treat we wanted. This time it was ice cream with shaved ice around it! I think we’ve pointed this out many times before, but Koreans seem to have an obsession with President Obama. At the little shop there were posters with several pictures of Obama eating shaved ice. We think it’s because he’s from Hawaii and this was a “Hawaiian” shaved ice place. It was funny to see. It tasted like you’d expect, which was great on a nice hot day.

How many Obama's can you count?! ;)

The last thing we did was go on a little hike. There is a trail up a hill on the edge of the hanok village for some nice view. You can see all the traditional Korean rooftops along with the industrialized skyline in the background. It a great little hike we’d recommend if you ever visit Hanok Village, it’s pretty quick.

Then we caught a taxi back to the bus station. Our taxi driver was very nice, even though we couldn’t communicate, he was very happy and gave us some candy. I’m pretty sure he needed to replace his break lights though because every time we slowed down he turned on his emergency lights. Once we got back to the bus station we purchased bus tickets back to Gwangju and relaxed after another successful trip!

Our Video from our daytrip! 

We were happy we could check off Jeonju on our list of places to go before we leave Korea! Other places on our list include the beaches of Wando, the green tea fields of Boseong, and possibly Yeosu, a coastal city. Unfortunately, the weather is starting to not cooperate as much anymore as we have transitioned into summer…aka the hot, humid, and very rainy season! But we want to make the best of our last few months here, rain or shine! So hopefully there will be a few more trips to come! :)

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

May Adventures!

Is it REALLY June already?! Wow! The month of May flew by! But time can do that when you have many things on the calendar! We had a few cultural experiences in May as well as an amazing visit from one of our friends, Matt, and we wanted to share all about it!

On May 16th we ran a 5.18K race in Gwangju! We are specific to say 5.18K rather than the normal 5K because this was a special race in memorial of the May 18th Democratization Movement in Gwangju. So this race was actually 5.18K, not a huge difference at all, but we’ll take every extra step we can get! ;)

Memorial statue

Many runners warming up on the field. 

Natasha and Nick! 

The race was a lot of fun! It was a very early morning for us as we had to get from Hwasun to the middle of Gwangju by 8am. When we arrived we mingled about and watched the many Koreans of all ages warming up. There was the 5.18K, the 10K, and the Half Marathon so there were many levels of runners there! We even found our friends Natasha and Nick as we walked around. Natasha was running the 10K that day and it was fun getting to see them again.

When it was finally our turn to start the run we were surrounded by a few hundred other people. It took a while for us to actually get moving and set a pace. It was interesting to see lots of mostly* boys sprint pass us every few minutes just to end up passing them again a few minutes later. Apparently they don’t set a pace. ;)

Took a while to get out of the stadium area...look at all the people! 

We ran threw the streets of Gwangju and they even blocked off the intersections with Police to allow for a smoother run. Not many non-runners were very happy with this situation though. ;) Once we finally finished we were greeted with cold mini water bottles and as we walked towards the entrance we were given goodie bags! Inside were some Korean snacks (shrimp chips, soybean milk, a bakery bun, and our medal! We had no idea we were being given medals for participating in this race, but it was a fun surprise and a little memento to remember the race by! Overall it was a fun experience running with hundreds of other Koreans (and a few foreigners!) through the streets of Korea!

Tyler: 32:08 Val: 32:30   Not amazing, but good enough! :)
The next day after church we walked across the street to the Gwangju World Cup Stadium and bought tickets to watch a soccer game! We were able to watch the Gwangju Football Club play against some other team (no idea who they were). We went to the stadium with only half filled water bottles, expecting it to be like American stadiums with many food stands and snacks available. We were very wrong! Unlike American stadiums, there was 1 food “set up” at the entrance that sold water bottles, soda, chips, and ramen. We love ramen, but we have never ate ramen at a sports game before….however, we were starving and ramen was our only choice! So we bought our $2 ramen bowls, filled them up with hot water (provided by the man running the table) and went back to our seats. As we watched the soccer game we enjoyed  our spicy ramen (eaten with chopsticks of course!) and laughed at how silly, and yet how normal, this situation was. There were 2 groups of very loud fans, doing all the chants and cheers, but the rest of the small crowd was pretty quiet. The game was fun to watch but ended in a 0-0 tie.

Our favorite picture of the day! Ramen and a soccer game! :)

The next week we met our friend Matt up in Seoul on a Friday evening! Our schools were kind enough to let us take the afternoon off to bus up to Incheon Airport! We had a jam packed 2 days in Seoul! On Saturday we took Matt to the DMZ just as we had done in January with my parents! It was another interesting experience with a few new things that happened (explained in the photos below). It was cool seeing the difference between winter and spring in that area and we all came away learning more and appreciating our freedoms in the US!

Standing in N.Korea...again! 

One of the 2 civilians actually cleaning the stairs of the N.Korean side. We never expected to see civilians on that side, especially during our tour. We heard that is rare. 

Actual music was being played from the loud speakers of this fake city. I've heard about this through documentaries, but it was really interesting being there and hearing it in person! 

Painted on windows and doors....

That evening we went to Jogyesa Temple, the temple in the middle of Seoul, to see the beautiful lanterns celebrating Buddha's birthday! We knew there were going to be some lanterns, but we didn’t realize how many lanterns there would be! It was amazing! We couldn’t stop taking photos we just wanted to document it all! We even got to watch some of the performances going on in front of the temple. On our way back to the hotel, we walked by the Cheonggyecheon stream and noticed beautiful lanterns there as well. It was a great experience to see all of those and see how Buddha’s birthday is celebrated in Korea!

The colors were so vibrant! 

We were surrounded by beautiful lanterns! 

On Sunday we went to the Seoul Tower early to get in line for a cable car to get up to the top! It was a good thing, because by the time we left that afternoon the lines were incredibly long! Matt put a lock on one of the lock trees and we enjoyed our time at the top of the tower taking lots of pictures of the view! We realized that there was an “Alive Museum” (a trick art museum) located in the lower half of the Tower and after failing at finding one the day before we decided it would be a perfect opportunity to try it there! We had a lot of fun exploring the different exhibits and taking tons of photos, that’s the most fun part of course! We were glad we got to experience that together!

Matt secured his lock on one of the lock "trees"! 

The Alive Museum is very fun! 

We also took Matt to Gyeongbok Palace and explored the many buildings. We even caught the end of the Changing of the Guards ceremony. After that we walked down to Insadong shopping area. With a mission to find a specific store that personalizes Korean stamps called “Dojangs” we started walking up and down the main street with our eyes open! After a long time of that, and with no luck, we finally found the Insadong Visitors Center and they very kindly (and quickly!) showed us exactly where the store was located. A dojang is a traditional korean stamp that was used in lieu of a signature. First, we chose the marble block that would be carved. Then, you write what you want to be engraved. Tyler and I went with “Mr. & Mrs. Mansour”! Matt wrote “M.C. Haylock”. The engraver sands down the end of the dojang and carefully maps out where each letter will be placed by drawing on the marble with a pencil, making a grid. After approving of the design, he carves out the letters (or carves out the background). When he is completely finished carving, he tests the stamp using the traditional red wax ink and makes sure it looks nice! We were given a beautiful box to take it home in, as well as a certificate and a sample of what our stamp looks like with the traditional ink. For all of that, we paid only $50 for our dojangs and got to take home a amazing souvenir from Korea!

Many pieces to choose from!  

Matt's stamp! See the difference in how it was carved? Half and half! So cool!
Our stamp! 
After 2 days in Seoul we brought Matt down to our home in Hwasun. We spent Monday (Buddahs birthday-no school!) walking around Hwasun, exploring the Cat Cafe in Gwangju, and eating Korean BBQ! On Tuesday and Wednesday it was back to school for us, but Matt kept himself entertained by hiking in Hwasun and even going to see a 4D movie in Gwangju! For someone who’s never been out of the Northwestern part of the US, we were proud that he was able to venture out on his own. 

Hwasun reservoir! 

A cafe filled with many cats! A dream come true! ;)

Tyler was so kind and suffered through his allergies so Matt and I could play with cats! 

Korean BBQ! 
We were so grateful that Matt was so willing to come visit us in Korea and we had such an amazing time creating memories together! :) Thank you Matt!