Monday, July 27, 2009

There aren't too many things that would drag me out of bed at 3:30 in the morning. The Baseball Hall of Fame induction ceremony for Jim Rice is one of them.

Rice and I go way back. My first vivid memory of seeing a professional baseball game is watching Jim Ed hit a home run for the Pawsox at McCoy Stadium in 1974, when I was 10 years old. Rice won the Triple Crown in the International League that year, got a late season call up to Boston and played with the Sox until 1989.

My friend The Hey and I ended up taking a bus to Cooperstown. Our original plan was to drive out the night before and get a hotel room in Utica, but I discovered this bus trip at the Worcester Tornadoes game I was at a week or so ago. For $50, they would pick us up at the Park & Ride lot off the Mass Pike in Worcester, drive us to Cooperstown and drive us home after the ceremony. Sounded like a good deal to us, so we signed up for the trip.

The one drawback was that we had to be in Worcester at 5:00 AM sharp, which necessitated the 3:30 wakeup. However, we got there, boarded the bus, and got to Cooperstown a bit before 10 AM.

The bus dropped us at the Clark Sports Center, the site of the induction ceremony. The ceremony takes place on a huge field, with a tent and a video board at one end. We had a few hours until the ceremony was to take place, so we went down to Main St. to see if we could get into the Hall of Fame.

It's been 19 years since I was in Cooperstown for induction day, and I didn't know exactly what to expect. Surprisingly, the crowds were very manageable. I had images of people shoulder to shoulder on Main St. and a mob scene in the Hall, but it was nothing like that. It was crowded, certainly, but not crazy. According to Bob Ryan's blog post today, the crowd estimate at the induction was 21,000, which feels about right. The Hall of Fame has managing this weekend down to a science. They've been doing it for 70 years, so they should know what they're doing, right?

I can't even imagine what it was like in 2007, when 75,000 people, mostly Orioles fans, showed up for Cal Ripken and Tony Gwynn. I think the message there is not to go in years when iconic franchise players for teams within a days drive are being inducted. I don't even want to think about what it will be like when Jeter gets inducted.

Many of the Main St. businesses bring in various baseball players to sign autographs during the weekend. We saw some Negro League players, Willie Mays ($200!) and Pete Rose, among others. The oddest person selling autographs, however, was John Schneider, best known as Bo Duke from The Dukes of Hazzard and more recently as Jonathan Kent on Smallville. He was just set up on the sidewalk with a table and some pictures. Not exactly sure why.

We wandered around the Hall for a bit, taking some time to check out the new Hank Aaron exhibit. After a visit to the plaque gallery, we headed out to get some lunch before the ceremony started. Surprisingly, we walked right into my favorite Cooperstown restaurant, The Shortstop.

After lunch we took the bus back to the Clark Center for the ceremony. We set up our chairs quite a way from the stage, but we could hear perfectly well. The first order of business was introducing the 50 (!) Hall of Famers on hand for the induction. The loudest cheers went up for Yaz, from the highly Red Sox partisan crowd, and Hank Aaron, who was introduced as "everybody's home run king". Damn straight.

The Hall of Famers were up next. Joe Gordon's daughter gave a very moving speech about her father. I think everyone choked up a bit when she said that since her father had never wanted a funeral, her family would consider the Hall of Fame his final resting place.

Rice was up next. Jim gave a very nice speech, thanking all the appropriate people and getting in a few laughs. My favorite was when he talked about the irony of his now being a member of the media. so that "we could all now see his smiling face."

I think everyone was waiting to see what Rickey Henderson had to say, but he was fairly restrained. He didn't refer to himself in the third person and was appropriately humble. There was a bit of fractured syntax ("Mom do knows best"), and a funny story about how he would go to the Oakland Coliseum to get Reggie Jackson's autograph, and Reggie would give him a pen with his name on it.

The ceremony ended with the broadcaster (Tony Kubek) and writer (Nick Peters) awards. It was cool to see Tony Kubek, who was one of the voices of the Saturday afternoon Game of the Week of my youth. I don't know much about Mr. Peters, but he covered baseball in the San Francisco Bay area for 40 years.

All in all, it was a very fun day and a much more pleasant, less stressful day than I was expecting. I think there's a fair chance we'll do it again next year!

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Busy day today. Here are the big items:
  • My house is astonishingly quiet, since the kids left for over three weeks of overnight camp today. The reality of having no kids around for a long period of time is not nearly as good as what I thought it would be, since I miss them quite a bit. I know they'll have fun and have some great experiences at camp, though, and that's what really counts.
  • Theo Epstein had a very busy day, as well. The Red Sox completed two trades, at least one of which will have a significant effect on the pennant race.
  • The first trade sent two minor leaguers to Pittsburgh for first baseman Adam LaRoche. Laroche is a good (although streaky) lefthanded hitter and a very good defensive first baseman. This helps the Sox in a couple of ways: another lefthanded bat in the lineup to make them better against righthanded pitching and insurance in case Mike Lowell has more issues with his hip (with Youk moving over the 3rd). Neither of the minor leaguers they gave up were the top-level prospects, so this seems like a very good deal for the Sox. Heck, if it works out half as well as the last Red Sox trade with Pittsburgh (the Manny-Bay deal), I'll be pretty happy with it.
  • The second trade has the Red Sox actually foisting Julio Lugo off on someone, getting Chris Duncan and a player to be named (or cash considerations) from the Cardinals. No doubt the Sox have to pick up a huge percentage of the $13 million or so left on Lugo's contract, but the fact that the Sox were able to get anything more than a box of doughnuts for him ought to qualify Theo for executive of the year.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

We went to see the Worcester Tornadoes take on the New Jersey Jackals last night. They were having fireworks after the game, and since the 4th of July is just another day in Korea, we thought it would be fun to see some before the kids go off to camp on Wednesday.

It was nice to get back to a ballgame. I hadn't been to a game since the first weekend in June, when R. and I sat in the Coca-Cola seats at Fenway in a Sox loss to the Rangers. We were supposed to have gone to Worcester on Father's Day, but the weather was cold and rainy so we decided to skip it.

The game was pretty entertaining. The Tornadoes scored all their runs in the 3rd inning on home runs by Vinny Pennell and Carlos Sosa. Pennell, the left fielder, also threw out a runner at the plate, as the Tornadoes won the game 4-3.

We had a bit of rain during the game, but the fireworks went off as scheduled. All in all, it was a fun family night out.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Back to baseball! A few things now that I'm caught up and I watch the A.L. try to secure home field advantage for the Red Sox in the World Series.
  • Good for President Obama for wearing his White Sox jacket when he threw out the first pitch in St. Louis tonight. I have heard presidents say that they can't have a favorite because they're "the president of the whole country" or some crap like that. I like a president who stands by his team.
  • Semi-interesting facts from The Yankees are 2,251 games over .500 in their history. The only other team more than 1,000 games over are the Giants (1,452). The only team more than 1,000 games under .500 is the Phillies (1,143). I was a bit surprised that the Cubs have a winning record.
  • The Yankees are 5-15 against division leaders (Boston, Detroit, Angels and Phillies), 46-22 against everyone else. This tells me that they can beat up on the mediocre teams with their talent, but might have a tough time in the playoffs.
  • Isn't it great that a Big Papi home run is no longer something you're praying for, but once again something you expect to see on a fairly regular basis?

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Korea trip – Day 13 and going home

As I write this we are over the East Sea, about 6,700 miles from Chicago. Happily we took off right on time today and we should land in Chicago in a bit under 11 hours, around 10 AM Chicago time on Friday the 10th. Considering that we left at Noon on Friday the 10th Seoul time, we our internal clocks should be well and truly screwed up by the time we get there.

Yesterday we had our last full day in Seoul. We had a free day, with no Korean Ties events until the farewell dinner at 5:30. Unfortunately, the weather was totally uncooperative. Another monsoon hit Seoul and it poured most of the day. We did go back to Itaewon to do some shopping and have a little lunch. Lunch was at a Subway. I never had a Subway Club that tasted so good in my life!

A. and the kids went off to do a little additional shopping while I went back to the hotel and something happened that seemed to be a regular occurrence on the trip with many of the other families. They were in a store and the shopkeeper, seeing that A. doesn’t speak Korean, started talking to the kids! It’s a natural assumption to make, and it seemed to happen to a lot of folks.

The weather kept us in the hotel a good portion of the day, something I was a bit thankful for, actually. We have really been kept on the go on this trip, and a few hours of hanging around the room, reading, relaxing and watching TV were a bit rejuvenating, especially in advance of the long plane ride home today.

I did get to do something I hadn’t gotten to do in two weeks: watch a couple of innings of a live Major League Baseball game! A Japanese station on the hotel’s cable was running Seattle and Baltimore (of course, because of Ichiro). The announcers spoke in Japanese, but I didn’t really care. I was able to watch the 8th and 9th innings. Baltimore came back from a 3-0 deficit in the top of the 9th, as old friend David Aardsma and the Mariners defense imploded. The O’s scored 5 in the top of the 9th and George Sherrill closed out the Mariners, getting Junior Griffey to ground to second for the last out.

Maybe the #1 thing I’m looking forward to when we get home tonight is plopping down on the couch and watching Don and Eck (or Roberts or, heck, Remy may be back for all I know). Some Red Sox baseball is going to be really good to see.

At 5:30 we headed for the farewell dinner in the hotel’s restaurant. This was yet another Korean buffet. The food was quite good, although the kim-chi was no match for the homemade we had at the host family dinner the night before. It was great to have the group all together for one last meal before going home. The kids collected email addresses from their friends and a fun time was had by all.

After dinner we all went to a show at a Korean theater. The show was called Nanta. Think Blue Man Group in the kitchen. The very basic plot revolves around the kitchen staff at a restaurant and their efforts to get ready for a wedding dinner. There was lots of dancing, percussion with kitchen utensils and comedy. There was almost no dialog, which was good since it seemed like a pretty diverse audience.

The show was excellent and we all really enjoyed it. The cast signed autographs after the show, so the kids were able to get a really nice souvenir of an autographed program. They have toured it around the world, so if it ever comes to your town I highly recommend you go see it. We’ll be going again if it makes it’s way to Boston.

We returned to the hotel, packed and got a few hours sleep before getting ready to be on the bus at 7:15 this morning. On our way to the airport, we stopped off at Holt, where some of the families in our group are escorting babies back to their new families in the U.S.! Two of the babies are flying all the way back to Boston with us, although we’re not actually taking care of either of them. It seems like a great way to end this journey, starting some other families on the road we have been traveling down for over 11 years now. I hope these kids bring their new families as much joy as ours have to us!

Korea trip – Day 12: Middle school days

After the tiring events of yesterday, we could have used a later start to today. It wasn’t to be, as we had an 8:30 meeting with all the other families on the trip. We all had a chance to talk about what our best day on the trip has been. For us, I think it was the visits to the sites in Busan and Miryang City on Day 10. For me, seeing those places and people who were important to the kids early lives was incredibly meaningful.

After the meeting, we headed to the Seoul National University Middle School for Girls. After an introduction by the school principal and members of the student council, we were shown a Powerpoint presentation on the school. I was personally hoping I could get through my vacation without seeing a Powerpoint presentation, but this one was actually pretty informative and gave us a nice overview on the school.

Next we were treated to a couple of performances by the school’s students. First was a performance by several students on the Gayageum, a traditional Korean instrument with 12 strings. Think a really long guitar that rests on the floor when you play. Next the student chorus sang “Dancing Chunhyang”, a song based on a traditional Korean legend. Both performances were very nice, and the girls were very talented.

We then went to the art room, where each of the kids was paired with a student and made a saucer using Korean Hanji paper. The kids had a lot of fun making them and interacting with the students. I’ll post a picture on the Flickr site.

One thing that was amazing was the amount of news coverage. There was a TV crew there and photographers from several newspapers. Between parents and reporters, I don’t think I have ever seen so many people snapping pictures.

When we walked out onto the courtyard, there was lots of waving and giggling from the students, proving that middle school girls in Korea aren’t much different from those in the United States. A group of them gathered around J. for pictures. I keep telling him that’s he’s “popular with the ladies,” which he finds very funny.

We had lunch in the school cafeteria. The food (rice, kim-chi, kim-chi soup, and roasted chicken) was a lot better than what I remember getting in the school cafeteria. After that, we had a tour of the school and then it was time to head back to the hotel.

We had a few hours off until the next event, so we rested a bit and took a cab over to a local bookstore. J. has become very interested in learning Korean, and has actually taught himself much of the Hangul alphabet on the Internet. We bought him a couple of Korean Manga books, and were able to find R. a copy of a book she had lost on the train yesterday.

Once we got back to the hotel, we got ready for our host family visit. This was arranged by Holt with a volunteer family who would take us to their home and feed us dinner, then take us back to the hotel. We had been a bit nervous about doing this, and had actually considered not doing it at all at one point. However, we decided that it would be fun and educational to go into a real Korean family’s home.

We ended up in the apartment of a very lovely family in Seoul. The father is an engineer with Hyundai, the mother stays home and they have a nine-year-old son. Both parents spoke good English, although the boy didn’t speak more than a few words. It didn’t really matter though, as the kids got along really well, playing games that didn’t really require verbal communication.

They had a nice apartment, and I got an opportunity to see a real kim-chi refrigerator. This is a refrigerator tuned to keep kim-chi fresh longer. It was a lot bigger than I expected – it was roughly the size of a stand-alone freezer.

Dinner was delicious. They kept it simple in deference to our American palates, which was greatly appreciated by us. We chatted while the kids played and had a really wonderful time with these folks. The evening was one of the high points of the trip and I’m very glad we decided to go ahead with it. I hope we’ll see them again if they ever travel to the U.S. or when we return to Korea.

Tomorrow is our last full day in Korea before flying home on Friday. More later!

Korea Trip Day 11 – I’ve been workin’ on the railroad

I’m writing this from car 15 of the KTX 5:45 train from Busan to Seoul. Excluding the Acela, this is my first ever ride on a “bullet train”. The Acela doesn’t really count as far as I’m concerned, since the track between Boston and New York has so many turns the Acela can only hit it’s top speed of 150 MPH for about 15 minutes of the trip. The KTX train hits a top speed of 300KPH (around 190 MPH) for a significant percentage of the trip, especially once we get north of Daegu. The entire trip of 204 miles from Busan to Seoul is only going to take about 2 hours and 45 minutes.

The train itself is clean and comfortable, with plenty of legroom and a tray table, which is currently holding my iBook. It’s as nice as a typical Amtrak train, and don’t even get me started on how it compares to the MBTA commuter rail.

Of course, if the US had invested what Korea has in it’s rail system, we’d have trains like this, too.

Today started with a light breakfast, since we had eaten quite a bit yesterday. After that, we headed out into the pouring rain. A monsoon had hit Korea, and we experienced a downpour most of the day. Not a fun way to tour the city!

Our first stop today was the Sung Ae Won Orphanage. This is a place for very young children (6 and under) to live because their families are unable to take care of them for one reason or another. We entered and sat down in one of the rooms that is typically a playroom for the kids and were welcomed by the man who runs the place. There are currently 72 children staying with them. The patience it must take to deal with that many kids every day is truly inspiring.

After the talk, we were able to go play with the kids! These kids were hungry for affection: one little girl just ran into my arms and wanted to be picked up. J. and his friends were giving a couple of them piggyback rides. R. had one little boy run into her so fast that he knocked her down (nobody was hurt, and R. seemed pretty happy about it). A. was holding and playing with a little toddler. Everybody had a great time.

All too soon, we had to leave. To be honest, I would have rather spent another hour playing with the kids versus the shopping trip we took later in the day. I think the kids (both ours and those at the orphanage) and the adults all enjoyed themselves.

Lunch was at another Korean buffet (I think I’m going to be buffet’ed out for quite a while after this trip). After that we went to the Pusan fish market, the largest in Korea and saw a wide variety of fish. According to our guide, a delicacy in Korea is live octopus. There were plenty of them in the fish market. We then did some more shopping in an underground mall near the fish market. The kids both bought Korea style fans, since none of us will be using the ones we were given at the midwife clinic yesterday. J. also bought this great hat – kind of a scali cap. One of the older kids wears one and I think J. is emulating him a bit. He looks pretty good in it. I’ll have a picture up on the Flickr site.

Dinner was at Burger King at the train station. It was nice to eat American food that actually tasted like American food.

Tomorrow we visit a girl’s middle school in Seoul and then we have dinner with a local host family. Only two more full days in Korea until we go home.

Monday, July 06, 2009

Korea trip – Day 10: Miryang City Road Trip

Today was a big day. After yet another Dunkin Donuts breakfast, we met a driver and translator to do some site visits to places significant to the kids early lives. The driver works for our Korean adoption agency, Holt Childrens Services and the translator is a volunteer there.

Our first stop was Chunhae Hospital. R. spent a week here after she was born with a couple of (thankfully minor) medical problems. We met one of the hospital administrators, who was extremely gracious and took us on a tour of some of the areas where R. might have spent time when she was there. She also gave us R.’s original medical chart, which should give us a bit of interesting information about her time there once we get it translated.

One thing that has struck me about the Korean people we have met who had some involvement in the kids early lives is how much they care for the kids and how happy they are to see that they have grown into such fine young people. It’s really touching to me how they react to the kids and the genuine concern and love these people have for them.

The next place we went was the area of Busan where R. was born. We stopped in at a city administrative center where we were able to get a map of the area. We also stopped by to look around at Pusan National University, a major state-run school in Korea and also in the neighborhood R. grew up in.

Our last stop in Busan was lunch. The bus driver suggested a place for lunch, so we stopped there. I have never seen so many varieties of food at one meal in my life. Just when we thought that they must be done bringing out new dishes, out would come the cart with a few more things! Along with some of our favorite Korean standards, like bibim bop and bulgogi, we had many things we had never tried before. My favorites were a kind of chicken salad and something that resembled potato salad but was made with pumpkin. There were also some items that we weren’t interested in, but our Korean companions were more than happy to eat what we didn’t like.

We then drove to Miryang City, J.’s birthplace. The first place we stopped there was the midwife clinic where he was born. The director of the clinic showed us around and told us about the work they do there. She also gave all of us some beautiful Korean fans, hand decorated by her husband. It was an incredibly thoughtful gift and something I’m sure we’ll all treasure.

After grabbing some ice cream treats in a local market, we drove around the city a bit, including stopping by the Miryang River to take a few pictures. After that, we returned to our hotel in Busan.

This whole process was incredibly moving to me. Seeing these places connected with the kids lives before we were able to pick them up just reinforces how well cared for they were. I feel truly blessed that we decided to adopt from this country.

We got back to the hotel around 4, which meant we still had time to go to the beach! We rented a couple of beach chairs and a couple of inner tubes for the kids and they had a blast bobbing around in the East Sea (or the Sea of Japan – the name depends on who you ask). We enjoyed sitting on the beach and relaxing for a couple of hours. There hasn’t been much opportunity for that on this trip.

After our Korean feast for lunch, we tried to go to a TGI Friday’s nearby for lunch. What we found out was that Friday’s apparently has the same crappy service across the entire planet. J. wanted to get buffalo wings for dinner, but they were out of those. So he (reluctantly) ordered a burger, but they were out of buns! There really wasn’t anything else he wanted to eat, so we told the waitress that we were going to pay for our drinks and leave. She looked incredibly upset that we were leaving and talked to her manager, who said we didn’t need to pay for the drinks. We ended up at Bennigan’s instead, where they actually had the food we ordered!

We have a few things to do in Busan tomorrow, and then we take the bullet train back to Seoul! After 15 years of taking the MBTA commuter rail, I’m looking forward to riding a train that goes 170 MPH!

Korea trip – Day 9: Busan or bust

This morning we got an early start with breakfast at the hotel buffet and an 8:00 departure for Busan. Busan is on the southern coast of South Korea and is a major port. Most importantly, both of our kids come from this area. R. was born in Busan itself, while J. was born a bit north of here in a place called Miryang City.

You may have seen Busan called “Pusan” in the past. According to our tour guide, the Korean government changed a lot of the English spellings of Korean words about 5 years ago in order to soften the sound. I’m not sure it makes a big difference to my ear, but it is their city so I guess they can spell it however they want.

The drive from the Sorak Park to Busan took about 8 hours, with a rest stop and a 45 minute stop for lunch. Since it’s Sunday we made pretty good time and didn’t hit much traffic. We also got to see a lot of the countryside. We saw everything from large cities to rice paddies and farms on our journey.

A. and R. also ran into one of the legendary “squatty potties” at one of the rest areas. A squatty potty is pretty much what it sounds like: a hole in the floor where you squat to do your business. Fortunately, they had some Western style toilets as well. One thing I will say about the facilities at the Korean rest areas we visited: they are spotlessly clean.

We finally arrived in Busan just as we were all starting to get a little stir crazy. Busan is a beautiful city. Seoul, which has over 10 million inhabitants, has that New York-type feeling of putting too many people into too small a space. Busan has around four million people and doesn’t have that overcrowded feel to it. Our hotel, the Novotel Ambassador, is very modern and well located. In fact, the beach is right outside our back door. We took a walk on the beach after we arrived and it was occupied by Koreans and others from all over the world. We’re hoping to spend more time there tomorrow once we are done with the day’s activities.

There was one thing I saw on the beach that completely surprised me: a girl wearing a T-shirt that said “Moses Brown Hockey”. Moses Brown is a private school located in Providence, probably 2 miles from where I grew up. I knew plenty of kids at the synagogue my family attended who went there. Certainly the last thing I expected to see on a beach 7,000 miles away was a T-shirt from a Rhode Island school.

Dinner tonight was with the group at the hotel’s buffet. The food was excellent, probably the best meal we have had in Korea. Best of all, it came with free, unlimited wine! Personally, I would have preferred free, unlimited beer, but I’ll take what I can get.

The last event of the evening was another parent’s talk, which was enlightening as we discussed why we took this trip. For me, the answer is pretty easy: we wanted to give the kids a chance to be immersed in their Korean culture and heritage and we wanted to share that experience with them. J. told me tonight as he was going to sleep that he wanted to stay a couple of more days so that we could see more things. I told him that we had to go home on Friday, but maybe we would come back some day. The fact that I’m even considering it after swearing never to take another 13 hour plane ride tells you how important this trip has been to all of us.

Tomorrow is another huge day: a driver and translator pick us up and take us on a tour of various places in the region important to the kids early lives. More later!

Korea trip - Day 8: Kim-chi. It’s not just for breakfast anymore.

I’m having a serious case of baseball withdrawal. Internet access is too expensive to pay for every day at the hotels we’re staying in, and following MLB here is nearly impossible without it. I have no idea what the Red Sox have done the last couple of days. The last game I know the results of was the Sox 11 inning win over Baltimore. I’ll have a lot of catching up to do when I get back home.

It was also really weird being away from home on the 4th of July. It’s just another day here. I missed the usual Independence Day festivities, especially the fireworks.

Today we had breakfast at a buffet in the hotel restaurant. It was mostly Western-style food (eggs, home fries, pastries, cereal, fruit and such) with a few Korean items thrown in, including kim-chi.

For those of you who aren’t familiar with kim-chi, it’s essentially pickled cabbage (or other vegetables) and is considered a Korean staple. I first heard of it on the classic M*A*S*H episode where Frank Burns thinks a group of Koreans are burying mines, only to find out that they are burying kim-chi pots. I never got around to actually trying kim-chi until the first time we came here to pick up J. Turns out that I love it and I have been eating it at home ever since. I have eaten quite a bit of it since we came here and numerous different varieties, including versions made with cucumbers and radishes. However, I don’t think of it as a breakfast dish, so I passed when I saw it on the buffet.

We spent most of the day at a water park near our hotel called Waterpia. It’s similar to the Cocoa Keys indoor waterparks in the U.S. They had water slides, a wave pool, a lazy river and other things. The kids had a great time. They do have some adult stuff like hot tubs, a spa and such, but we tried to be available for the kids as much as we could, so we didn’t get a chance to spend much time at them.

One thing about this place was fairly ingenious. When you pay your admission, you are assigned a locker number. At the first locker, you leave your shoes and take a plastic key on a wristband. Then you pass through the turnstiles and go to a locker room, where another locker with the same number opens with the same key. You can leave the rest of your stuff here. Then they key functions as a charge card. You can pay to rent things like inner tubes or life jackets or buy food. It appears to work similar to the Mobil Speedpass, where you place the key near a target pad that scans it. This is very convenient, since you don’t have to carry cash or a credit card in your bathing suit. The kicker is that you have to scan your key to get out of the place. If you don’t settle your bill, the turnstile won’t let you out. We actually saw this in action. One of the kids with us thought his mother had paid and she hadn’t, and the turnstile stayed in place. It’s very clever, but dangerous, since it essentially lets your kids run up a tab while they’re in the park!

After finishing at Waterpia we headed back to the cable car up one of the mountains in the national park I mentioned yesterday. Unfortunately, since it was still cloudy up at the top of the mountain we couldn’t see much more than 10 yards in front of you. Still, the cable car ride was fun and very smooth.

The next stop was the Il-Dong fish market. This is a major port in the northern part of South Korea (we were also about a half-hour drive from the demilitarized zone). The specialty there is stuffed squid – I took a picture of some, which I’ll post on the Flickr site. According to our guide, this is the only place in Korea you can get stuffed squid. We weren’t all that adventurous, passing on the stuffed squid and the vast variety of other fish in the market.

In fact, we were pretty much the opposite of adventurous tonight as most of the group ended up eating at Popeye’s Fried Chicken in an E-Mart store near the fish market. E-Mart is owned by Samsung and is similar to a Wal-Mart or Target. The visit to E-Mart did enable us to stock up on snacks for tomorrow’s 6+ hour drive to Busan tomorrow.

Korea Trip – Day 7: Headin’ up to Sorak

Today was probably the least eventful day of the trip so far. We got an early start out of Seoul, checking out of our hotel for a few days. Our first stop is the Sorak Park Hotel, near a Korean national park, which we’re told is very popular.

We took a bus up here, about a four hour journey with a couple of stops. Let me tell you, Korean buses are not designed for big American bodies like mine. The seats are narrow and the back of the next seat is too close for my legs. For short jaunts around Seoul it’s OK, but for longer trips it’s a bit more difficult to take. I can hardly wait for the 6 hour ride to Busan in a couple of days.

We’re also as close to North Korea as we’re going to get, not really far from the border at all. It’s the closest I have ever been to a country that is actively hostile to the United States. I’m not worried that anything is going to happen, but it’s a slightly uncomfortable feeling.

Along the way we stopped for lunch at a Korean rest area. This time we had bibim bap, basically rice with vegetables. It’s cooked in a very hot stone pot, which stays hot and continues cooking the rice even after it’s removed from the flame. Good stuff, especially for the Korean equivalent of the Vince Lombardi rest area on the New Jersey Turnpike.

We stopped at Seoraksan National Park. We were supposed to ride up to the top of one of the peaks in a cable car, but it was rainy and foggy and we wouldn’t have been able to see anything from the top, so that has been postponed until tomorrow. We did walk through the rain to a Buddhist temple that had an enormous statue of Buddha on it. The statue was maybe 60 feet tall. Underneath the statue, in an underground chamber, was a much smaller golden statue of Buddha. Photographs of this were not allowed because of it’s religious significance, but it was pretty interesting to have a chance to see such an object.

Because the rain was so bad we headed back to the hotel after that. We kind of hung around for a while and relaxed while the kids played with their friends. We did make a trip to a convenience store at the bottom of the hill where we stocked up on some snacks and bottled water. One thing that has surprised us about Korea is how inexpensive food is. A 2 liter bottled water plus some snacks cost us 7,700 won, or about $6.40 US ($1 is worth about 1,200 won). Last night’s dinner with R.’s mentor was only about $30. Where in the US can you feed five people dinner for $30 that doesn’t involve a burger and fries?

Dinner tonight was a buffet in the hotel – pretty good assortment of Korean and Western dishes. We ended the night with a parents chat where we talked about some of the things that we and our kids were experiencing on the trip. The people I have met on this trip are really terrific and I think we have gotten a lot more from the trip traveling with other families than we would have coming by ourselves.

Tomorrow, a trip to a Korean water park! I’ll let you know what it’s like.

Thursday, July 02, 2009

Korea trip – Day 6: Singin’ in the Rain

We woke up today to some rain. We caught some clear weather early and headed down to Dunkin’ Donuts again for breakfast. It’s becoming a popular spot as we ran into two other families in our group down there. We had a bit of rain on the way back, but nothing terrible.

Once we boarded the buses, we headed to the Korean National Museum. It’s essentially a Korean equivalent of the Smithsonian, housed in one gigantic, very impressive building in Seoul. We spent a couple of hours wandering around with some of the kids new friends and their families. We spent most of our time in the art displays. We saw lots of Buddha statues, paintings, pottery, jewelry and such.

One thing you get a sense of in the museum is the age of Korea. The United States has been around for about 230 years. Korea has been a nation, in one form or another, for around 5,000 years. The museum does a pretty good job of reflecting that long history.

We had lunch in the museum restaurant. It was beef bulgogi, a Korean dish we had eaten before at home. It wasn’t bad, but we would learn later in the day what real bulgogi tastes like. For now, let’s just say that Korean museum food has a lot in common with American museum food.

Our next stop was the Korean National Palace Museum. This was an actual palace occupied by the Korean kings before the monarchy disappeared in the early part of the 20th century while Korea was colonized by Japan. There was an original palace on this site that was burned in the 16th century during a previous Japanese invasion. The current one was rebuilt in the 1800s.

Unfortunately, by this point it was really pouring out and most of the palace consists of walking around the grounds. It was fun to see, but it would have been better to do on a day when the weather was nicer.

Our final stop was at one of the local marketplaces. This is where Koreans go to buy stuff. It’s nothing like the shopping district that we went to in Itaewon, where you have big name stores. This consists of stall after stall of small businesses selling whatever you are in need of: electronics, jewelry, food, textiles, etc. We were dropped off in the textile section largely, as far as I can tell, because our local tour guide likely gets a commission for each hanbok (a traditional Korean outfit) she manages to get tourists like us to buy. That’s OK; I don’t hold it against anyone to try to make an honest buck (or honest won, in this case), but if you weren’t in the market for a hanbok it was a bit of a waste of time. As it was, we were ready to go after 40 minutes and hung out with a bunch of other families until the bus came for us.

We returned to the hotel and met R.’s mentor from the Wellesley College Korean Student Association program. She’s in Seoul for the summer taking some courses. I’ll point out that she’s not a native; she was actually born and raised in Arkansas. She’s not adopted either. Her parents are Korean and have been living here for something related to her father’s business for the last year-and-a-half. She’s a very sweet girl and R. really likes her. It was great to be able to see her while we are here.

She took us to a little Korean restaurant nearby. She ordered for us, enabling us to avoid the hand gestures that usually go along with our adventures in Korean dining. The waitress brought out what must have been 30 little bowls filled with various things. Some we could identify; the majority were mysteries to us. We also had rice and another serving of beef bulgogi. This one was vastly superior to the museum’s version. It was the difference between eating at TGI Friday’s and your favorite local diner. Good stuff.

After that we had some desert at a local Mr. Donut. Donuts are apparently an all-day thing in Korea – Mr. Donut doesn’t even open until 10:00 AM, and there were plenty of people in there having snacks at around 7:30 PM. The donuts are also much lighter and less sweet than at home. A Dunkin Donut can sit like a lead weight in your stomach for a while. These were nothing like that. I would probably eat more donuts if I could get these in the U.S.

The last event of the day was for the kids: a “chat-and-connect” session facilitated by the Ties staff so the kids could talk about some of their experiences here. While the kids were up there, some of the grown-ups (including us) adjourned to the bar for some beverages. I had a Korean beer – not exactly Sam Adams, but not bad. The company was enjoyable and we chatted about this and that for about an hour.

Tomorrow we leave Seoul for a few days. We have a four hour bus ride tomorrow to Mt. Sorak (sadly, it’s not on Vulcan), and then on to Busan after that. More reports to come!

Day 5 – Foster Mother Visit

Today was a big day. We went to Holt Children’s Services, the Korean social services agency through which we adopted J. and R.. We grabbed some Dunkin Donuts breakfast sandwiches this morning (much pantomime was involved in the ordering process) and took off for the agency about a half-hour away.

One of the many things that is different about Seoul than at home is the way people park. It almost seems like people stick their cars anywhere they might happen to fit, even on the sidewalk. It would seem that there would have to be some logic to how they decide where it’s OK to park and where it isn’t, but I haven’t figured it out yet. The fact that I can’t read the signs doesn’t help much in puzzling it out.

We arrived at Holt and were ushered into a conference room/auditorium where we were greeted by one of the Holt staff. After that, the president of the agency came in and made some greeting remarks (in Korean, translated for us). He then presented all the adopted families with gifts. R. was called up, no doubt owing to her status as the youngest adoptee present, to represent everyone on the trip in accepting the gifts. These included a Korean flag, a map of Korea, a book about the agency and kind of lanyard with a traditional Korean mask on it. I think she enjoyed being the center of attention for a few minutes. We also presented gifts to Holt, including cash gifts and some baby items for use in their work.

After this we were shown a short film on Holt and the kind of work they do with children, special needs individuals and senior citizens. It’s a very impressive list of things they do. Next, we were introduced to a group of Holt social workers, including Mrs. Shin. She had worked with us in Korea on both kids adoptions and it was wonderful to see her again. She even recognized us 10 years later. These social workers did file reviews with the kids over 13. From talking to some of the other parents, it seemed that some learned new information from the file review while others learned very little. We had gotten quite a bit of information when the kids were adopted, so it wasn’t a huge deal that we weren’t able to participate. I spent a good chunk of my time trying to keep the 11 and 12 year old boys present from tearing down the place.

As the file reviews began to wind down, the foster mothers started to arrive. R.’s came in first, followed by J.’s a few minutes later. Both women were very moved to see the kids again, and were constantly touching and holding them both. R. loved this attention, and J. was very good about taking it in the loving spirit with which it was given. We had interpreters translating for us and we exchanged gifts. A good ice breaker were two photo albums A. had put together for them with pictures of some of our travels, family members and other activities the kids are involved in.

After we talked for a while we were all taken to lunch at a local Korean restaurant. This was a real local place. So much so that we sat on the floor at low tables and ate Korean barbecue, cooked on pots of hot coal right at our table. The food was quite good and the kids, with their foster mothers putting things together for them, branched out into trying some new items.

All too soon, it was time to say goodbye. R. got very emotional as her foster mother left us. J. told me he was happy and sad at the same time. I thought it was a good attitude to take toward these women who meant so much to them in their early lives.

Our last stop on the Holt tour was another Holt building nearby, where they had babies who were not likely to be adopted. The kids had an opportunity to play with the babies. It was very cute to watch.

After that we walked back to the main Holt building, where our bus took us back to the hotel. We had a couple of hours to rest before getting back on the bus and heading out to that Pizza Hut for dinner with the group. Pizza Hut pizza in Korea tastes pretty much like it does back home.

Our final stop of the day was a visit to the Itaewon shopping district. This is located near the U.S. Army base in Seoul and contains a mixture of American chain stores and restaurants and local entrepreneurs. A guy offered to make me a custom suit (special price!) I think it may have been the same guy who offered to make me a custom suit 10 years ago. We picked up a few interesting items, stopped at a Baskin-Robbins for some ice cream, and caught the 9:00 bus back to the hotel.

That’s it for today. More touristy stuff on the agenda for tomorrow!

Day 4 – Korean Road Trip

J. and I slept a pretty solid 9 hours and were pretty much over any jet lag. A. and R. woke up around 4 AM and couldn’t get back to sleep, but we were all feeling a lot more human than we were last night.

Our hotel, the Sejong, is right in the middle of a big shopping district in Seoul. You go out the back door and see a mix of American brands (New Balance, The Gap, Starbucks, Cold Stone Creamery and Dunkin Donuts, among others, are right nearby) and Korean stores. The area is hopping with young people in the evenings. It reminded me a bit of Times Square, as all the lights lit things up like it was almost daytime.

Today started early, with a 7:30 buffet breakfast in the hotel. The food was pretty good. It was mostly American style breakfast (eggs, bacon, sausage, toast, etc). One of the nice things about this trip is that many of the meals are included. It seems we average about one a day on our own, which means that we aren’t out of pocket money for meals as much as we are on a regular vacation.

After breakfast, we had an orientation session with the Korean Ties staff. They come very well staffed, with local guides, Ties staff and even a social worker. The social worker was actually someone we had met before, as she used to work in post-placement services at our home adoption agency, Wide Horizons for Children.

Much of the orientation revolved around our visit to the Korean adoption agency, Holt Childrens Services. Tomorrow, we’ll be returning to the place where we first met the kids a decade or so ago and get to meet their foster mothers and have lunch with them. I’m expecting it will be a very emotional experience.

After the orientation we boarded two buses for today’s outing. The busses are divided into two groups – the yellow bus for the families of the younger kids and the orange bus for the families of the older ones. The oldest adoptee member of the group is 28, and there are a number in their 20s.

J. and R. hit it right off with some of the kids on the trip. R. has found two girls a bit older than she is that are hanging out together, while J. is running around with three other boys around his age. It’s really been great to see the kids bond so quickly. A. and I are making some friends among the other parents, as well, which has been really nice.

Our first stop was an early lunch, around 11:30. This time we hit a Korean buffet place in Suwon, a suburb of Seoul. It took us about an hour to get there from the hotel. Seoul is huge. There are over 10 million people in the city itself and over 13 million in the metropolitan area. One thing we discovered from our guide is that most of Seoul south of the Han River was nothing but rice paddies as recently as the 1970’s. You would never know that from the built-up, modern city there today.

The restaurant was quite good. There was a lot of stuff there that we couldn’t identify, a few things that we weren’t exactly sure what they were but were brave enough to try (and most of it was quite good), and some things that we were familiar with. A few of the things we knew we didn’t try (fried octopus, anyone?)

We wrapped up lunch and headed over the the Hwaseong Fortress. The fortress was built over 200 years ago and has been incredibly well preserved. We only spent a short amount of time there, but we were lucky enough to see a reenactment of Korean warrior training, which was fun to watch. The young men were all in period costume and using spears, swords and martial arts to attack one another.

While we could have easily spent all day at Hwaseong Fortress, we left for our next stop at the Korean Folk Village. The village is essentially a Korean version of Old Sturbridge Village, with old buildings from Korea’s past and costumed interpreters. Our guide led us around, showing us how Koreans lived a couple of hundred years ago. We saw some farm houses, tools, animals and such. After the tour, we saw a wonderful drumming demonstration and a rope walker. This guy was able to do some amazing stunts on the rope, making them look easy when they no doubt took enormous strength.

We also grabbed a few souvenirs at the gift shop in the village. One thing I noticed was that the hard sell was on from pretty much the moment we walked in. I’m not sure if it was because we are foreign tourists or if they just do that to everyone, but it quickly got a bit overwhelming for us. I was probably a bit rude to some of the women there and I feel a bit badly about that, but if a store clerk in the US got that aggressive I probably would have told him to back off or just left the store.

We got back to the hotel around 6 and decided on American style food for dinner. We found a place called Kraze Burger, which was pretty decent. It was no Five Guys, but it was a significant step up over the McDonalds/Wendy’s/Burger King type of food.

Good day today overall. We got a good, healthy dose of Korean culture. More tomorrow!

Day 2/3 – The Neverending Plane Ride

Morning in Chicago dawned with a big breakfast at the hotel buffet, since we didn’t know when and how much we would eat on the plane. After that, we packed up the rest of the stuff and took the airport train over to the international terminal.

Getting through check-in and security was uneventful and we headed to our gate. We had the chance to meet some of the people we would be traveling with for the next two weeks, and the travel agency had set it up so that we would all be sitting together on the plane.

Think a 13 hour plane ride sounds long? Let me assure you, it’s longer than you think.

Ah, yes, the plane. We were on a Korean Air Boeing 747. Just after we boarded, the captain started making announcements about “technical difficulties”. So we sat on the runway for about an hour, because 13 hours on the plane isn’t enough. Of course, if an airplane is going to take you over 7,000 miles, you have to be pretty sure that everything is working.

There were TVs in the seatbacks with a selection of movies, so that helped to pass the time (I watched Yes Man and The Wrestler). Still, it seemed to take forever to get to Seoul. My butt would start to hurt after sitting for an hour-and-a-half or so, so I would get up for a few minutes. Unfortunately, as big as it is, there isn’t really anyplace to go on a 747.

One positive, though – the Korean Air flight crew was incredibly attentive and gave us great service. They food was decent enough for airplane food, and they kept coming by with drinks, snacks and such. The 13 hours in the air would have been even more difficult to take without them.

Finally, we made it to Seoul’s Incheon airport, which is almost brand new and looks it. It was opened in 2001 and supplements the older Gimpo airport you may remember from M*A*S*H. We met the Korean Ties program folks and then took a bus ride to the hotel.

It was after 7:00 PM local time (which equates to 6:00 AM in Boston) by the time we got here, so we checked into our rooms, had a quick dinner (pizza – we weren’t feeling too adventurous tonight) and now we’re heading to bed. One of the young guys working in the restaurant chuckled a bit at my accent when I attempted to say “thank you” in Korean. I wasn’t offended. No doubt I sound pretty funny. The real tour of Korea starts tomorrow with a visit to a Korean folk village (sort of a Korean version of Old Sturbridge Village). I’ll have a report and some pictures on the Flickr page in the next report.

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