A Day in the life of an Englisheee Teacher in South Korea!

It’s just after 7, and the alarm rather rudely wakes me. Even with the fan, which has been going all night ( I would much rather risk the infamous Korean ‘fan death’ than drown in my own sweat) and the fact that  it’s still relatively early, I can feel the heat and humidity starting to build. Its summer in Korea, and while it never gets incredibly hot (30 degrees C is pretty standard) the humidity is a killer. You don’t so much as walk down the road as you do swim through the atmosphere that is incredibly thick and muggy.

While I prepare myself for another day, I put on the TV to BBC News. It’s vaguely reassuring to hear the familiar English drone in the background, and to catch up on the previous days news. A simple, western style breakfast of toast and juice, and its out the door for another day as an expat Enrisheee teacher just outside of Seoul, South Korea.

Mercifully, the walk to work takes all of two minutes. After far too many wasted hours spent commuting in Johannesburg, I really appreciate the fact that the door to door commute takes less time than it does to eat my breakfast. Yet, even on such a short work, I am exhausted by the time I reach my office. And it’s nothing to do with the weather.

As a minor celebrity (as are most foreigners in Korea) I lose count of how many ‘Hello teacher” and “Hi’s” I respond to, of how many high fives are handed out and how many children try climb me like a regular jungle gym. Teaching Elementary school is not for the faint hearted.

And it’s straight into it for me. Before school officially starts, I begin my tour round the Grade 1 and 2 classes, spending barely 10 minutes with a couple of classes per day. At that age (7&8 years old) is mostly chants, songs and clapping, a very familiar theme that will run through the rest of the teaching day.

My English Room

Classes start at 9, and first up, a Grade 5 class. Today we’re doing actions and verbs, so we run through a list of vocab (swimming, hiking, skating etc) before we learn our daily song complete with clapping and actions. This working environment could not be further from the previous job at a financial consulting company, and for the change alone I’m grateful. My school is fortunate enough to have two large English rooms, complete with posters of iconic monuments from across the western World, and everywhere you look are posters and pictures with English written on them. The point is total immersion in English as a language and culture, which is why I happen to be standing in the room. Unfortunately, my co teacher for this particular class is always rather quick to switch into Korean when that familiar look of confusion crosses the kids faces, but it’s well worth it to have her in the room with me. You try explaining the difference between swim and swimming to 35 11-year-old Korean children without using just a little Korean… go on, I dare you.

More of the English room

Anyway, the morning flies by in a blur of flash cards, clapping and song time, and before I know it, it Luncheeeee time!! Now, unlike back at home, free time at lunch is not free time here in Korea. At least not public schools. The whole English staff troops off together down to the Vice principal’s office where all the staff who do not have a home room eat every day. The rather unfortunate home room teachers (in my opinion at least) eat lunch with their class in the classroom,meaning no break for them

Thankfully, I love Korean food. And just as well. Every day is an adventure, never not quite knowing what I’m going to find. these meals are heavily subsidised, and cost me almost nothing. They’re a great way for me to try to discover new Korean dishes, and not having to prepare any lunch for work is a great boon for me. The previous foreign English teacher that I replaced apparently was not a big fan of Korean food, so my Korean colleagues are often quite surprised by how much I enjoy their food. Although, my chopstick skills do leave a lot to be desired, especially with the wicked round style metal chopsticks that are much more slippery than the traditional wooden ones. While my skills they have improved over time, disaster does still strike occasionally, sending them into fits of laughter.

Lunch: Rice and Kimchi (as usual) plus noodle soup and diced veggies.

Afternoons are reserved for prep time, with the occasional extra lesson or focus class meaning more time back in the classroom. For the most part, this is mostly free time for me and most foreigners in the Korean public school system. With very limited Korean ability, and no home room class to administer, admin is mercifully almost non-existent.

This time is devoted to reading, writing, planning my next weeknd jaunt, or the upcoming trip to Vietnam. Also, folks back home are just waking up and starting their days, so it’s a good time to contact those back at home. Add in some English lessons with my principal, prepping some of the kids for an upcoming speech competition, and the odd game of soccer with some of the kids before the head off to their hawgwons, and it’s usually a pretty relaxing afternoon.

Come 4:30 and that’s a wrap folks. A quick stop at home to pick up my dobok, and it’s off to Taekwondo practice. Just down the road, I practice with mainly elementary students since I’m a virtual novice. Not only is it a great and new way to keep fit, it’s also quite an eye opener for me. Considering how much I struggle to learn Taekwondo when its taught to me in Korean, I am able to get a feel for what most of the kids must feel like in my classroom. Despite the language barriers,  I’ve just recent passed my first Taekwondo test, moving on from the novice’s white belt to the yellow belt. And no, I’m sure I got no special treatment at all because I’m a waeguk….

Taekwondo gear. Note the yellow belt!!

Home for a shower and then I’m off. Sometimes it’ll be a quiet night in my neighborhood, visiting the gimbap lady for dinner and trying to improve my Korean with the locals over a beer outside the convenience street. Other times I’ll be catching a bus for the 15 min trip to the nearby CBD area to meet up with a few other expats to grab some dinner. Due to the excessive humidity during the day, night-time is when things happen in the summer, and the restaurant and bars are all open late.

Just another day in the life of an Englisheeee teacher in South Korea.

Published in: on 22/07/2010 at 12:10 am  Comments (3)  
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Wide reaching effects.

We all know just what a wonderful and special man Nelson Mandela is. Specifically, we all know just how important, and indeed, absolutely vital he was to ending apartheid in SA, and ending it in a relatively bloodless way. Yet I’m not sure South Africans are always aware of just how much the rest of the world looks to him as well as a truly great man.

My example is this. At my relatively small Taekwondo school all the way over in South Korea, they give the students a monthly newsletter, usually dealing with tournament news, trips etc. This month, there was special twist. they had an article dedicated to Mandela and the 67 minute volunteer programme that gets promoted during July, the month of his birth. So, splashed across the newsletter of Hangul characters is a picture of Mandela and the South African flag, and a plea to follow his example of humility, and devoting your life to the betterment of others. I had never been prouder to be South African than when I first saw that newsletter. I wish my country was always associated with things as wonderful as him.

Mandela inspiring people around the world

Published in: on 14/07/2010 at 10:38 pm  Comments (2)  
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A peaceful Saturday

For once during my time here in SK, I woke this morning with nothing to do. No where to be, no bus or train to catch, no admin to be done, or people to meet.

Just me and my book. There is a small, but thriving book swap amongst some of the English teachers in my city, so while you may not have much choice over what you read, there is content available. Additionally, the local library has a small, yet very well stocked English section. Unfortunately, it is reasonably far from where I live, and not on any convenient bus routes, so I have yet to do it justice. I suspect that I will do so come the quieter, colder winter months.

Anyway, this is how I came to be sitting outside my local convenience store this afternoon, complete with few of my favourite things in life. A good book, a cold beer, some chocolate, a freshly washed nectarine and a decent view. And for a few hours I’m transported from South Korea to the Channel Islands just post WWII.

I love the way good books can do that, transport one so quickly and easily across time and country. A very civilised way of travelling.

Published in: on 10/07/2010 at 3:25 pm  Comments (2)  
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The fact that Korea has largely retained its local customs, tradition and language, despite the outside pressures it faces on a daily basis is an obvious boon and attraction for travellers and expats alike. Yet, the very obvious and vast differences between Korea and most western countries, one of the main attraction of Korea, can become trying at times for expats who have an extended stay in South Korea. This is where the attraction of Hongdae kicks in.

The area around Hongik University in Seoul, commonly known as Hongdae, is one of mine, and many people’s, both foreigners and locals, favourite spots in the city. Due in part to the large amount of students in the area,it is extremely arty and for Korea, rather eccentric. It also has a distinctly European flavour about it, without losing its very Korean essence. Equally, it has not become a Western ghetto area, rather like Itaewon has.

With small boutiques, flea markets, weekly artist markets and a free market on the weekend, Hongdae is at the epicentre of the ever evolving fashion and trend scene in Korea. Shoppers will find plenty to browse through, and the number of Western visitors means that you have a better chance of finding your size than you would elsewhere in the country.

When your credit card has taken enough punishment, there are more than enough coffee shops, bars and restaurants for you to take a load off, and start preparing for Hongdae’s main attraction, the nightlife.

The place to be in Seoul for a great night out, Hongdae is at the forefront of the Korean and expat musical scene. With loads of clubs, you’ll find all music tastes are catered for, usually with  myriad of choices. FF is popular with the rock set, and plays host to many live bands, a fair number of which are foreign. Fans of electronica will find their fix at Club Tool, although make sure you’re dressed to the nines, as they pride themselves on being upmarket and stylish. Tinpan is the ubiquitous ‘meat market’ but entry is free and drinks are cheap, so it’s tough not to have a good time. Try time your visit for club night, when one entry ticket will get you entry into most clubs, as well as cheap drink specials. These are held on the last Friday of every month, and allow club hopping without having to fork out around W10 000 entrance fee for each new club.

New restaurants seem to pop up and close down at an astonishing pace in Hongdae,even by Korean standards. Many of these are open 24 hours, so you’ll never need to go hungry in the area. A special mention must go to Burger B, a few hundred metres down the road from Sangsu subway stop, in the direction of the university gates. For those craving a good old-fashioned beef burger and chips, you can’t go wrong here, and the prices are reasonable as well.

All in all, a great place to indulge in some hedonistic activities. It should go without saying that noraebang’s abound in the district, so if you can’t go for an evening without belting out some of your favourite tunes, never fear. While Hongdae may have absorbed some western tendencies and establishments, the presence of noraebangs, hofs, soju and pot noodles will ensure you’re never far from the ‘real’ Korea should you start to miss it.

Published in: on 08/07/2010 at 8:41 pm  Comments (2)  
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A Peak Behind the Iron Curtain – Korea’s DMZ

The collapse of the Soviet Union and the Berlin Wall at the end of the last century saw the fall of the Iron Curtain and the end of communism as we know it across most of the world. Yet, a few lonely outposts still hold steady to this day.

One of these outposts is North Korea.  One of the most secretive countries in the world, we think (for we can’t really be sure) that the country is much like it was n the 50’s, following the violent civil war which let the South become one of the most economically progressive countries in the world, while the North went back to the feudal system. Communist style.

Anyway, the DMZ (or demilitarized zone), a 4 km wide strip of land that quite literally divides the two Korea’s has become something of a tourist attraction in Korea. Well, at least for foreigners. Koreans are not allowed near the place, unless they’re one of the thousands of soldiers who guard the thing that is. I do find it strange that they are not allowed to visit such an important historical and political site in their own country.

Anyway, a group of English teachers went on a day trip to the DMZ over the past weekend. A group tour is the only way to visit this part of the country,which is fair enough,since it is a heavily armed border between two countries still technically at war with each other. We choose the USO tour, as it is the only tour which takes visitors into the Joint Security Area inside the DMZ itself. This offers travellers the chance for some serious traveller kudos’ – the opportunity to step into communist North Korea.

Our tour started at Camp Bonifas, the  United Nations Command military post located just 400 metres south of the DMZ’s southern border. Here we had a brief slide show on the Korean war, and the history of the DMZ and how it came about. We also heard about the various incidents that have occurred along the border since 1953, the signing of the truce between North and South. Once we had signed a waiver, which stated that our trip to the JSA will “entail entry into a hostile area and possibility of injury or death as a direct result of enemy action” and been briefed on how to behave when there (no contact of any sort with the North Korean guards, obey all instructions at all times, only taking pictures at certain times etc.) we set off to the JSA. Nervously. I think for most people it has just sunk in where we were, and what we were actually about to do and witness.

On the way, we passed what Sport Illustrated has dubbed the ‘most dangerous golf course in the world’ a par three  which is surrounded on three sides by mine fields.  A little trickier than your average sand trap.

Anyway, upon reaching the JSA, you can look upon the North Korean’s buildings just metres on the other side of the concrete slab that indicates the border, and watch the North Korean sentries while they watch  you intently with binoculars, notebooks and camera’s ready to document any behaviour that they might think noteworthy. Then we all trooped into the pale blue prefab building that straddles the border, which is where officials for the two Korea’s occasionally meet. The table marks the border line, and walking around the table meant that we were, officially, in North Korea. If only by a few paces. At all times during our visit we were accompanied by ROK soldiers, who stand at their modified taekwondo position, known as ‘rock ready’. Add in their aviator sun glasses, military uniforms and the weapons strapped to their hips, and you’re reminded that this is definitely not Disney World. Indeed, our time inside the building was cut short when our American soldier/tour guide suddenly barked out the order,

 “Back to the bus. Move it.”

And move it we did. Tensions are always rather high at the DMZ, and the recent sinking of the South Korean warship, the Cheonan and the 60th anniversary of the Korean War just served to amplify this tension. We later learnt that several armed North Korean guards had started walking towards the building we were in, hence the move back to the bus.

Inside the JSA, the large grey building is in the North. The blue buildings straddle the border.

Rock Ready

Next up, Look Out Point 3. Surrounded on three side sby North Korea, it offers excellent views of the Korean landscape, as well as of Propoganda Village, a jamming tower, the Bridge of No Return and various Korean lookouts. Propoganda Village, the only village inside the DMZ on the northern side is a bizarre little place. Well maintained by the North, this village is actually uninhabited, and is meant to look enticing to anyone who views it. It is also home to the world’s largest flagpole ( at 160 m) and the worlds largest flag (at 31m and 250 kg, it takes 50 men to raise and lower it each day!!).

Propoganda Village, with it's ENORMOUS flagpole. Compensation for something perhaps?

Next up, we were shuttled off to one of the Tunnels of Aggression, just south of the DMZ. Fours tunnels have been discovered by the South, and are believed to have been dug to allow the North to move troops and equipment unhindered across the border  at pace. At 73 metres below the ground, the 3rd tunnel (which we visited) was only discovered with the help of a North Korean defector, and it is thought that there are more tunnels as yet undiscovered by the South….

Last up, a visit to Dorasan Station, the most northerly train station in Korea, and what would be the border crossing into the North. Would be if any train’s actually were allowed to cross the border. Built in 2004, the station was some concrete tangible evidence of the thawing in attitudes between the two Korea’s. However, recently, it’s been decidedly frigid on the Korean peninsula, with reunification looking as unlikely as it has at any previous time in the last 60 years. The station is quite eerie actually. Practically brand new and still sparkly, it’s quite dead apart from the tourists, and it looks and feels a little like a big white elephant. Apart from a few ‘feel good’ signs, “This is not the last train station in the South, it’s the first station towards the North” and a much photographed sign pointing towards Pyongyang, it has nothing going for it as an attraction. It is just a train station after all.

North Korea's capital, just a train ride away.

All in all, it was any interesting trip. For a few brief minutes we were able to walk into North Korea, and it was a startling and harsh reminder of the daily realties of what living in Korea entails for some of its inhabitants. More info on the USO tour can be found here, with some more details here.

Published in: on 30/06/2010 at 2:59 pm  Comments (2)  
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Soccer fever

Soccer is a big deal in South Korea. Being incredibly patriotic already, soccer is a natural outlet for all patriotic Koreans (which is basically all Koreans).

Ever since Korea co hosted the 2002 WC with Japan and they made the semi finals, soccer and soccer players have cult celebrity status in the country. The country virtually shuts down during matches, and everywhere you look, all you can see are thousands of supporters clad in red, complete with stick on tattoos, horns and bang sticks. Typically, this being Korea, the supporters are organised, and the games are frequently interspersed with organised war cries, with the most popular being “Daehan Minguk! clapclap clapclap clap”

South Korean soccer fans cheer for the South Korean World Cup soccer team as they watch a live TV broadcast of the 2010 World Cup Group B soccer match against Greece in Port Elizabeth, at Seoul City Hall Plaza June 12, 2010- REUTERS/Lee Chung-Woo

Saturday last week, fresh off the exhilarating opening night of the WC,where SA drew with Mexico and came just a few cm away from what would have been a famous victory, saw SK’s opening match against Greece. We choose to watch with thousands of other supporters at Seoul’s City Hall Plaza fan park. With literally thousands of people, absolute pandemonium broke out for each of Korea’s two goals, and the persistent rain did nothing to dampen the enthusiasm of all involved.

 Last week Thursday saw Korea suffer a hammering at the hands of the Argentinians. We watched closer to home, in the local Wa stadium on a big screen. Filled close to capacity, the supporters did not let the mere fact that they were losing get them down, and they supported the “Red Devils” to the final whistle and beyond.

South Korea vs Argentina - Wa stadium

Today is the crunch match against the Nigerians, and it promises to be another festive evening, regardless of the result. Before that, I will be hoping that SA can save some face against the troubled French, and regardless of the result, will be shouting for them this evening.

Celebrating Korea's lone goal against the Argentinians

Published in: on 22/06/2010 at 2:44 pm  Comments (2)  
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Odd or not

Things that have stood out so far in South Korea

  • Public transport. Cheap, quick, easy and safe.
  • Staying off the busses at 10 to avoid the post school rush. Yes, 10pm!! These kids work far too hard.
  • Mirrors, mirrors everywhere. Trains, lifts, petrol stations, even cell phones all come with mirrors. It’s no longer odd to see half a dozen people crowed in front of the mirror on the platform for 10 min while they adjust their hair or makeup.
  • Matching his and hers underwear on shop mannequins. On that note, couple wear. The best I’ve seen were two T-shirts, his said Jack, and hers said…..Jill!
  • Men in flashy suits passed out on the bench at 4:30pm. Business is conducted over drinks, and it appears more the merrier. Being drunk in public is very definitely par for the course here. Even being absolutely legless.
  • Men and their enormous handbags.
  • Pavements. This is where Koreans park their cars and where take out delivery drivers on motorbikes prefer to ride their bikes. This is not where pedestrians walk. You have been warned.
Published in: on 18/06/2010 at 9:59 pm  Comments (3)  
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Does travelling require actual travelling?

Random question perhaps?

I ask because of my thoughts while watching the opening ceremony and match of the 2010 World Cup, proudly held in SA!! We watched at a little hole in the wall restaurant, beer and soju in hand, with the TV balancing precariously on empty soju crates, and neon as far as the eye could see. Yet, thanks to the wonder of tech, I felt like I did a RTW trip in a few hours.

First off, the obvious example. There, in front of me, live and in colour, pictures of my home town, my president, millions of my flags, my anthem and general SA vibe. Local bands who I’ve watched repeatedly now gracing the international stage!. Which is always excellent!! Nothing like a little patriotism.

Watchin African soccer, in Asia.

Then, thanks to the equivalent of $7 on a few pieces of plastic and some impressive engineering, I travelled around the world. Friends and family from back home checking if we were being patriotic and watching the soccer. A few friends bragging about being at Soccer City. An old friend from varsity stuck in the office in Canary Wharf, lamenting the fact he could not get out of the office to watch. An old colleague in the UK who had bunked work and was in my old local, sipping on the first pint of the day with the footie on the telly. An old flame at PWC in NY who was watching in the office. A friend in Ecuador who had risen early so to not miss the festivities. Expat Saffa’s in Perth who still get teary when they hear the national anthem.

So, the question is, have cellphone (or modem), will travel. Or am I simplifying a little too much.

P.S. Have a look at these pics to get a feel of what I mean.

Published in: on 15/06/2010 at 10:26 pm  Comments (4)  
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World Cup Fever

I will admit it, I’m jealous. Very jealous not to be in SA right now. The vibe, the feeling, the crowds, the excitement is palpable.It feels like we’ve already won something, they way our country has come together and uniting behind our team. In fact, it’s had the very effect we were hoping for, uniting the people behind the country as a whole. 

I was (and still) am sceptical about spending so much money on a sports event when we have so many other important things to  be done in out country. And let’s face it, South Africa will not recoup the investment it has laid out for the soccer. Yet, apart from the stadiums, much of the investment on public transport and general infrastructure will almost certainly impact positively on SA and it’s people for years to come. 

Yet, there is the intangible factor. Archbishop Desmond Tutu put it best, when asked about if the cost of the WC can be justified. 

“Man can not live on bread alone. He needs something to dream for, to inspire as well.” 

Mandela with the Cup

The general feeling inside the country is plain to see. Yet, the positive exposure and airtime SA as a country is getting outside of its borders is fantastic, and would be virtually unobtainable otherwise. I watched two CNN anchors blowing vuvuzela’s and explaining South Africa’s climate and geography (and they did a fair job as well) for five minutes this morning. It’s on every channel, outside every store, where ever you look.

Even in South Korea, a country renowned for being quite insulated and inward looking, people have been coming up to me and pointing at the flag on my backpack and shouting “Nam agog?” (South African), aaah, World Cup, and then chattering excitedly in Korean. That did not happen three months ago. 

Go Bafana Bafana, I hope you have a good one tonight. Go South Africa,I hope and pray that this will a truly awesome World Cup,and we can build on this passion and fever in the future of our wonderful country. 

Viva Mzanzi 

It's time

Published in: on 11/06/2010 at 3:17 pm  Comments (2)  
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Temple Stay Hysterics

One of the things on most visitors “To Do List’ when the come to South Korea is a temple stay at a Buddhist temple. Regardless of your religious views, it can be a very interesting, informative and authentic immersion in the culture.

Unless of course you happened to come on a particular temple stay with us to Magoksa. It would have been a very interesting trip, but perhaps not quite as authentic and relaxing as some of the other visitors to Magoksa would have excepted.

It all started at 3:30 on the Sunday morning. I’m sure many a regretful story starts at around that time in the morning, except, unusually, this is when we were waking up, instead of just going to bed as on many weekends.

Magoksa Temple

One of the highlights of a temple stay is following the monks around on their usual everyday routines and duties. So if morning prayers start at 4:00am, you’re up praying with them. Hence the 3:30 wake up call…..

Anyway, off the whole lot of us trooped off to the temple in the pitch black of night. We were quite a diverse group of almost exclusively foreigners, with Americans and Canadians as usual forming the bulk of the group. However, we had met a couple of South African girls in the mix, and so we had a little Saffa group going on. Once we got to the temple, we found that the beautiful wooden temple was too small to hold all 80 of us for the morning bows. All 108 bows. So we weren’t to upset to stand at the back and watch the others do there bows, and get a good workout at the same time. At that’s when the trouble started.

Pitch black outside, the temple is dead quiet apart from the low chanting of the monks in front, and the smell of incense hangs heavy in the air. It’s quite a sight watching the monks, and 40 tourists, crammed in like sardines, bowing in front of the large golden Buddha. Until one of the South African girls we’d met lost her balance and fell over. Since everyone was standing so close to each other, this set off a game of human dominoes, which completely ruined the mood inside the temple. We could not contain our laughter at the back, and had to go stand outside for a little. So much for a peaceful and spiritual start to the day.

Dominoes anyone?

Next up, meditation time. We moved on to hall, and were met by a monk who was going to show us the ropes for the mediation. Showing us the lotus position and explaining the concept behind mediation, the last thing he said before we were expected to sit silently in the lotus position for 30 minute is that this would hurt. What?! Thankfully though, he gave us a lifeline. If we were feeling too sore and stiff from sitting in such an unfamiliar position for so long, we were to stand up QUIETLY for a few minutes to shake your legs out. Easy really.

Except if you’re my mate sitting to my left. Ten minutes in, and I can sense him fidgeting and struggling. Taking the easy way out, he stands up. Rather, he tries. Since his legs have gone dead from the awkward sitting position, he promptly falls over, HARD. On wooden floors, which echoed beautifully though the silent hall. Just to make sure he disturbed everyone, he also knocked over a few empty water bottles, scattering them to all corners of the hall. Meditation shattered.

Unfortunately, it does not stop their. Banished to one corner of the hall for breakfast, we were by now famished. A Buddhist breakfast is quite a process, with some very specific rules. Firstly, it’s eaten in complete silence, and what ever you dish up must be finished, including the water used to wash your dishes with afterwards. Well, that would have been good to know before we asked for extra helping of the soup (Yup, soup for breakfast). Except it appears someone switched the soup for what tasted what cold, used dishwater would taste like. This realisation very quickly led to an outbreak of giggles (I know, we sound like teenage girls here, really what was up with us) that just could not be stopped. Once again, the strict rule of silence and quiet went out the window.


So, a word of warning to anyone who is planning on going on a temple stay. Choose who you bow, meditate and eat next to very closely. It could make all the difference.

Published in: on 09/06/2010 at 5:48 pm  Leave a Comment  
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