Tuesday, 28 July 2015

The ViaRhona

On July 13th, I set out on my first bicycle tour.  I started dreaming about bicycle touring about 4 years ago when I met a Korean couple who were traveling the world by bike.  While it doesn’t look like I’ll be setting out on an endless bicycle trip anytime soon, I look forward to completing more mini-tours as my first one provided me with an incredible experience!

Before arriving in France, I had conjured the idea to follow the Rhone River from Geneva to the Mediterranean Sea.  When I actually arrived in France and searched for such a route on Google, I learned that the ViaRhona is exactly that route, however, it has not been completed.  Not really knowing what it meant to be ‘incomplete,’ I decided to follow this unfinished bike route.  How hard could it be to follow a river?

I started my ride at Lake Geneva in Geneva, Switzerland.  I found the ViaRhona signs that I would follow along the way and started peddling.  I was lost in the first 20 minutes and spent the next hour trying to find my way back to the marked path.  This was my first experience with the incredibly unhelpful maps I downloaded from the ViaRhona website.  I eventually found the way with little frustration and quickly made my way into the countryside of Switzerland where it became very easy to follow the ViaRhona signposts.  On my first day, I crossed the border back into France and arrived in Seyssel after cycling for 78 km (48.4 miles).  The day included some really tough climbs but those intense uphills were balanced out by the beautiful 5 km long downhill at the end of the day.  

Swiss countryside
Cycling along in Switzerland
This is the border between France and Switzerland.   That gate closes between 10pm and 6am.
I road through fields of sunflowers all the way from Geneva to the Mediterranean.  I loved them every time!  
Me on a hay bale.
I woke up the following day feeling no soreness, surprisingly, and ready to tackle Day 2.  On this day, I had my first experience with campgrounds that my map from the internet claimed to exist but didn’t.  I had planned to stop in a town called Groslée, roughly 80km from Seyssel.  Upon inquiry from some local farmers, however, I learned that there is not any place to camp in Groslée, so, I jumped back on my bike and continued on to Sault Brénaz, hoping the campground there actually existed.  It did.  And I was incredibly elated because for the last 30km I was battling both wind and hills and going a distance I hadn’t expected.  At the end of the day, I clocked in 112 km (69.5 miles).  It was a tough yet very rewarding second day that had brought me riding along the Rhone, through small towns and beautiful country fields with rolling hills.

My ride on Day 2 was mostly right along the river like this....until Groslée where I entered the countryside and began my battle with wind and hills.
So many interesting bridges on this trip!
I woke up feeling incredibly refreshed and excited for my third day.  The morning was absolutely wonderful.  I rode through fields of hay and sunflowers and relished in the beauty of the countryside.  Frustration quickly began to set in as the signs for the unfinished ViaRhona disappeared and all I had to rely on were the less than useful downloaded maps and even less useful downloaded directions from the website.  I got lost several times throughout the day as the directions never explained which direction to take on a road, it simply stated get on route blah blah.  Nothing about heading North, South, East or West….just got on the road.  Next, there was the frustrating fact that the ViaRhona signs would suddenly appear and point me in a direction only to disappear at the next junction.  Then, there were the campgrounds that were supposed to exist but didn’t.  Finally, there was the infuriating fact that signs for cars on the road were appearing and disappearing, thus, I even found it unbelievably difficult to get to a town using the highway.  I eventually made it to a campground in Meyzieu (a suburb of Lyon) but not without some tears of frustration and some thoughts of quitting.  There were some fellow cyclists at this campground, however, and it was a stress reliever just to have some people to talk to.  I initially thought Day 3 would be an easy 50 km, however, it turned into a day of 98 km (61 miles).  

The morning was wonderful!
After this picture, the designated bike trail ended and my frustration set in.  At least I had this moment to love!
Day 4 began the same way the previous day had ended, full of frustration.  The ViaRhona signs into Lyon were difficult to follow and did not exist in the city limits.  I luckily found myself outside of a McDonald’s, however, and went inside to use the wifi.  My peak frustration was inside this McDonalds were I sat letting my phone charge and had serious thoughts about riding to the train station to quit.  For reasons I don't even know, I decided to persevere (I can always quit tomorrow instead) and make it to the day’s destination.  I set out from McDonald’s with confidence that I could do it with my newly downloaded directions.  My newly downloaded directions proved to be just as infuriating as the previous ones and I seriously struggled to make it out of Lyon and once I did, I cycled and cycled and cycled to get as far away as possible. I didn’t find the actually ViaRhona route until the very end of the day but was extremely delighted that the campground in Condrieu was exactly where the map said it would be.  I cycled 80 km (49.7 miles) this day and concluded that the actual cycling is very simple for me, it’s following directions when there are no decent directions to follow that is the hard part.

Hoping that I couldn't have a worse day than the one before, I started Day 5 with confident optimism.  And just as I had hoped, it was a day without a hitch.  It was nearly impossible to get lost following the ViaRhona signs.  I had been told that after Lyon, the route was mostly complete almost to the Mediterranean and so far this was proving to be true.  I arrived in Route-de-Glun at 1 o’clock and had my first experience with the French siesta.  The campground and everything else in this quaint little town was closed until 3:30 so I spent the afternoon relaxing next to the river and relishing in my solitude.  The ride during the day brought me back and forth over the Rhone River, always riding along its bank.  The day totaled 71.5 km (44 miles).
Wind at my back and smooth sailing!!

My plan was to stay the weekend in Route-de-Glun and rest.  This was perfect because the Tour de France was due to arrive in Valence on Sunday, just 15 km down the river from my campground.  So, I spent Sunday in the small city of Valence enjoying people watching and waiting for hours for the cyclists to arrive.  It was actually pretty boring waiting there by myself because not much was going on.  There were some bands and some street performances but people were not very engaged in either so it was rather dull.  And the actual Tour de France was a bit uneventful too.  At around 2 o’clock, people began to line the road on which the cyclists would arrive, so I joined them.  But we waited and waited and waited until around 3:30 when the caravan of sponsors paraded down the street throwing out free crap and blasting music.  There was about another 45 minute wait after the conclusion of the parade before the actual cyclists arrived.  The first cohort flew past me and all the people cheered.  I headed to my campsite right after this first cohort because there seemed to be another long wait before the next cohort of competitors would arrive.  It wasn’t very exciting, but, I am happy to have stuck around to see it, it is a world famous event after all.  

My favorite performers in Valence.  These guys had all sorts of things attached to this contraption that they were using to play music.  Very eclectic!
My 6th day of cycling was a great, simple day.  I had the wind at my back all day and the road was flat the whole way.  I road along the riverbank and intermittently veered into the countryside where I rolled through fields of corn, grapes, apples, apricots and sunflowers.  The route was clearly marked the entire way and when I arrived in Viviers (my intended stop for the day) I wanted to continue because it was only 1:30 in the afternoon.  Fearful that the campsites marked on my map might not actually exist, however, I stayed the night in Viviers.  It was a good choice because when I jumped on my bike later in the evening to check out the town, my legs were feeling pretty fatigued!  I traveled 95 km (59 miles) on Day 6.

Another fabulous bridge.
That's the Rhone!
Day 7 was another day with no complaint.  Once again, I had the wind at my back and a flat road the whole way.  There was great signage almost the whole way, though once it disappeared, it was no problem for me to follow highway signs all the way to my destination.  I arrived in Avignon at around noon, giving me the entire afternoon to explore the old city.  The city has maintained much of its medieval architecture and walking through the impossibly narrow roads was like a walk in the past.  Avignon is chockfull of cafes, restaurants, galateries, sandwich places and more. There are also a million things going on—street performers, theater performances, street buskers.  Although I didn’t talk to anyone, it was a nice break from the solitude I’d had for several days and I thoroughly enjoyed thus little city.  My 7th day I cycled a total of 91km (56.5 miles).
Narrow streets of Avignon.

I arrived in Port St. Louis du Rhone, my final destination, on Day 8 of cycling.  Except for about 12 km where I road on a cycle path along a canal, this day was mostly spent on highways because once again, this final stage of the ViaRhona has yet to be completed.  The frustration I felt from a lack of signs on my 3rd and 4th day did not appear, however, because I had reached a level of acceptance regarding this fact.  It was still a tough day though.  I was now fully in the south of France and it was HOT!  I felt like I was baking under the sun and the closer I got to the sea, the more headwind there seemed to be.  But I pushed my way to Port St. Louis du Rhone, cycled straight to the tourism office and asked the woman to direct me to the beach.  I was incredibly disappointed to learn that the beach was another 7.5 km away!!!!  I had spontaneously bought half a watermelon from the town’s market on the way to the tourism office and was looking forward to enjoying in on the beach.  Not feeling capable of making the 7.5 km right away, however, I settled on enjoying my half watermelon overlooking the last bit of the Rhone.  From there, I headed to a farm to set up my camp before finally heading to the Mediterranean.  Dolphin diving into the sea really felt like an accomplishment!  There were moments when I truly didn't think I would make it but there I was swimming in the salty sea!!!!  My final day to the sea I clocked in 119.5 km (74 miles).

LOVING this watermelon.  It wasn't even that tastey (a bit mealy) but it was the best watermelon I have ever eaten!!!
Want awesome tan lines?  Go cycling in the sun for 8 days.
The following day, I cycled back up the river to the city of Arles from where I caught a train back to Annemasse and was picked up to rest for a while in Vuiz-en-Sallaz. In 9 days of cycling, I totaled 798.22 km (496 miles) in 38 hours and 16 minutes, averaging 20.86 kmph (12.96 mph).  Though I had plenty of struggle throughout the trip (including the unmentioned boredom at campsites) I am already making plans for my next solo cycling trip to take place sometime in August, in someplace cooler than southern France, with a route that is actually completed, and I'll equip myself with much better maps!!!!
Roman stadium in Arles.  Built around 90 AD.

Waiting for the train

Tuesday, 3 December 2013

Korean High School Life as Seen by Elaine

As I am coming to the end of my 3rd semester teaching in Korea, I have decided it is time to reflect and report on what it’s like to teach here.  I teach at the all-girls high school in Jecheon, a small city of about 120,000 people that is located 2 hours south of Seoul.  My school is the only all-girls high school in the city and it is where girls from Jecheon, and its surrounding towns and villages, hope to attend if they want to go to university.

Like most of the school systems back home, the Korean school system is divided into three levels: elementary, middle and high school.  Elementary lasts for six years while middle and high school last for three years each.  Grade levels here are different, however, in that they start back at grade 1 in each school level.  So, students are 1st graders three times.  As you are reading, when I mention 1st, 2nd, or 3rd grade, you can equate these to 10th, 11th and 12th grade in the USA. 

About 1,000 girls attend Jecheon Girls High School.  Each grade is divided into 10 classes with about 35 students in each class.  The official school day is 9:00 am-6:00 pm, however, all students arrive for the 8:00 am ‘zero’ period and most students stay after dinner to attend classes and study until 10:00 pm, when the school building closes.  Breakfast, lunch and dinner are served in the school cafeteria and most students stay for lunch and dinner.

Jecheon Girls High School
(Picture taken last January)
Since my school is the most prestigious for girls in Jecheon, it has a dormitory on campus where about 200 students live during the week.  Most of the students who stay in the dorm live outside of the city (maybe 30-40 minutes away) but others live nearby (maybe 5 minutes).  Dormitory rules mandate that dorm students stay awake studying in study rooms until 11:30 pm.  If they are caught sleeping, they are written up; an accumulation of write-ups gets you kicked out of the dorm.   Students are woken up by a speaker system at 6:30 every morning and go to breakfast at 7:00.

When the school building closes at 10:00 pm, many of the students who do not stay in the dormitory head to a doksoshil to study for a few more hours.  Doksoshils are rented study rooms.  One large room is separated into 8-12 cubicles that are rented out monthly to middle and high school students as well as university students and adults that need a place to work or study.  Students will stay until 1:00 or 2:00 am on weeknights and return on weekends for half or full days of studying (depending on how close exams are).

Some students do not stay at school after 6:00 pm; however, it’s not because they are going home to relax and hang out with their family.  No, they are heading to after school academies called hagwons.  In elementary and middle school, students might attend hagwons for art, music, sport, or traditional school subjects like math, English and Korean.  But, by the time students reach high school, they only seem to attend math, English or Korean hagwons.  These students are popping around to different hagwons until 10:00 pm (on days they don’t have hagwon, they remain at school with everyone else until 10:00 pm).  Most students also attend hagwons on Saturday and Sunday, usually from 9:00 am-12:00 or 1:00 pm. 
Studying during the week before finals.
When I tell them good luck, they just groan.
All of my students report an average of 4-5 hours of sleep a night.  Some get a chance to play catch-up (but can they really catch up on all that lack of sleep?) on Saturday and Sunday afternoons.

At the end of each semester, students take final exams.  During the 3-4 weeks preceding finals, students start studying even more intensely.  How do you get more intense than the usual 16 hours a day of lessons and studying during the week?  You go to school on Saturdays and Sundays from 9:00 am-5:00 pm to study more.  Followed by doksoshil, of course.  Final exams take place next week and I am sure there are students who have come to school every single day for the last 3+ weeks.   It gets even more intense one week before finals.  Again, you should wonder how that’s possible.  Well, during the week leading up to finals (which is right now), teachers allow the students time to study; all I do as a teacher is go to the classroom and hangout at the podium while the students do what they do best: study.  Lucky me.

While you are reading this, you are probably wondering, “what are they studying?” I still wonder what exactly they are studying beyond knowing it’s a school subject.  While I know they sometimes write papers for history, science or Korean, homework is not regularly assigned; so, all those hours really are spent studying.  Though, I think a better word than studying might be practicing, because, I think they simply do loads and loads of exercises. 

There are standing desks at the back of all classrooms for
students to use when they are feeling sleepy.
You might also be wondering why so much studying.  There are a couple of reasons.  One, Korean school is an extremely competitive environment.  One cannot simply choose to forgo all of those hours studying because they will fall behind everyone else, or so it’s assumed.  Secondly, all three years of high school are seen as a giant period of studying for Sooneung.  Sooneung is the Korean national exam taken every November by all 3rd grade high school students across the nation.  It is the test that determines which universities students will be able to attend; or as they see it, it’s the test that determines the rest of their lives.  The test is taken so seriously that 3rd graders do not participate in any extracurricular activities, they do not have gym, music or art classes, and they are not taught by me.  Not a moment of their 3rd school year is ‘wasted’ on subjects not included in Sooneung.  (While English is included in Sooneung, as there is no speaking test, I am of no help.  3rd graders only have time to learn and practice grammar and vocabulary with their Korean English teachers)

Happy 3rd graders.  They finished sooneung in November and only
come until noon everyday.  I think that all they do is hang out.
As I alluded above, I only teach 1st and 2nd grades, seeing each class once a week.  That comes to 20 classes and 700 students every week.  My biggest obstacle is to actually get my students to speak in class.  Korean high school students are used to being passive learners in the classroom because Korean teachers generally stand at the front of the classroom lecturing from the book, never leaving the podium to walk amongst the students.  Students are often allowed to sleep or work on other subjects while the teacher lectures.  As this is what students are used to, it has been and continues to be a struggle to get my students focused on actually speaking English.  When I ask questions, students just stare.  I know they understand every word I say but they refuse to answer.  I have actually never had a student raise their hand to answer a question.  Never.  This doesn’t stop me from pointing to a student to illicit a response, however.  (Side note: many classes have one or two students that answer my questions quietly but willingly, however, I can’t and don’t let them answer every question every day).  Students’ unwillingness to engage in conversation has led to lots of role-play, much to their dismay (they hate having to move).

Teaching is also made more difficult by the fact that students stay in the same classroom all day, with teachers moving to them.  I feel that this gives me less authority because I am like a visitor in their classroom rather than the other way around.  While I don’t generally have behavior problems, I do have students who constantly try to sleep (can you blame them?).  Moreover, classrooms are a wreck!  Seeing as students spend the better part of their daily lives inside that same room, classrooms are like a home.  Being a home to 35 teenage girls means they are jam-packed with crap!  Classrooms are chock-full of haphazardly stacked books, pillows, bags, blankets, toothbrushes, cups, empty milk cartons, mirrors, candy wrappers, and anything else you can imagine would be in a teen’s bedroom.  Most students keep a blanket and small pillow at school to catch some Zs during breaks (or as I have already mentioned, during class) and every student keeps a toothbrush to use after every meal (teachers also have toothbrushes at school—it’s a Korean thing).  The state of the classrooms makes it difficult to walk around the desks or move the desks for group work (not to mention the distraction the mess creates).  I do the best I can but often trip over stacks of books on the floor as I roam around the students.

The students just moved classrooms so they are actually clean.
I am disappointed I couldn't show what they usually look like.
Two evenings a week, I teach conversation classes from 7:00-9:00 pm.  These are my favorite classes to teach because the small class size (less than 10) makes students more comfortable with speaking and students choose to sign up for them which means they are actually eager to learn English.  Much of the information I have learned and written about above is in large part thanks to these conversation classes.  My conversation students act like cultural informants because I make them practice speaking by answering my curiosities.  They also get to ask me what it’s like in American high school, so it’s a win-win situation.

One of my conversation classes.
Finally, there are two school holidays, one in winter and one in summer, each lasting about a month.  Calling it a holiday is misleading, however, as the students continue to go to school for most of each break.  There is only one week during each holiday that students actually stay at home (My guess is that they aren’t actually at home, but studying at doksoshils or attending hagwons).  The only differences that I have surmised, between regular school and holiday school, is that there is a change of schedule during the 3 weeks of holiday and students don’t have class before 9:00 am.

I sure have painted a pretty banal image of Korean high school life.  However, I want to point out that while many of my students wish they could sleep more, have more free time or have the ability to participate in sports and other extracurricular activities, they still appear to be pretty happy.  Everyday during lunch and dinner, each of which last an hour, I watch my students fool around and laugh with each other just like any other teenager.  I think it helps that they are all in it together and can look forward to finishing Sooneung and going to university.  It’s not entirely dismal for them.

Students playing during lunch.

If you are interested to see more about what life is like during the final year of high school, you should check out this 20 minute documentary.  It follows a 3rd grader during the months leading up to Sooneung.

Monday, 17 June 2013

Warming Up Korea

As the weather has warmed up in Korea, I have found myself warming up to Korea.  For the past 3 months, I have been able to get out on my bicycle, with increasing frequency since May.  Blessing and I have also gotten out on more day excursions and have had more cultural experiences.  I’m also exploring the art of rooftop gardening!

Being out on my bicycle has allowed me to see a part of Korea that has been hidden since my arrival last August.  My rides take me through windy backcountry roads and along lush rice fields.  I pedal to the top of hills and enjoy long sloping rides down the other side.  I cannot express enough how much I enjoy my almost daily bicycle rides through the country.  There is one road that I particularly enjoy.  It lies in a mini valley, with rice paddies and green hills on either side.  I first have to climb a long gently sloping hill and as I approach the top, the early evening sun pokes up from behind the hill.  I fly down the backside enjoying the air whipping past my face, the glowing soon-to-set sun, and the winding road.  I love it!  About three weeks ago, we bought a bicycle for Blessing so now I can enjoy rides in the country with him!

June 6th was a public holiday and Blessing and I took the day to go traditional Korean river fishing.  Our two Korean friends from Seoul invited us; we met them while we were in Georgia when they stayed at our house on their cycling tour (they are some of my inspiration to go on my own cycling tour).  We met them at a train stop just 20 minutes from our city and headed to a very popular park that is (apparently) good for fishing.  The main difference between fishing as you know it and Korean fishing is the pole.  There is no reel, rather, there is a basket looking thing on the end of the pole around which you wind the fishing line.  To fish, you stand in the river, bait the hook and toss the line downstream.  You slowly swing your arm back and forth with the flow of the water and when you feel a bite, you wind the line until you get your catch.  I caught one fish after only fishing for 10 minutes.  Blessing spent many hours fishing and caught himself a few.  Apparently the fish we caught are not very delicious so we let them go at the end of the day.  It was refreshing to spend the day with Koreans.  Experiences where I get to be a part of Korean culture are few and far between (so far) and I really enjoy them when they come.


View of the river

Blessing's first fish!  You can see what the pole looks like from this photo.

Me and my fish

Lunch time!

Our whole group
Blessing and I had another really great cultural experience when we returned to the same park to camp on the following Saturday night.  As I have expressed in pervious posts, camping in Korea is not like any camping I have done before.  It’s crowded and completely lacks wilderness…never have I ever camped someplace where I can hear freight and commuter trains running all day and night.  On this trip, however, I realized that this is the Korean experience: camping with 300 other people who pack up their entire kitchen for a weekend outdoors (rice cookers, people had rice cookers).  Despite the lack of true wilderness, it was nice to spend the night outdoors and swim in the river.  What we had for dinner, however, is what made the experience truly cultural.

Since coming to Korea, I have known that when the opportunity arose, I would eat dog; I was presented with the opportunity that night we were camping.  There was a group of men playing soccer and Blessing joined them, this led to the two of us being invited to join them for dinner.  Dog was on the menu.  It had been cooked in a stew but was served on its own.  We dipped it in a spicy sauce and had typical Korean side dishes alongside it.  To me, it tasted like goat.  While it wasn’t disgusting to me, it wasn’t delicious either, so I will not be seeking it out again; however, I am happy to have had the opportunity to broaden my food horizons.  Now I just have to find a situation that brings live octopus to my plate.
Yes, that is a dog's tail

The stew

The meal

I planted my first garden ever at the end of April.  Blessing and I bought large plastic tubs and asked the handy shop on our block to drill holes in the bottoms.  We found a shop that sold large quantities of dirt and seeds then started our garden.  The dirt we bought smelled funny, seemed to have a lot of wood chunks, and when I watered it, a strange residue came out.  I suspected we bought the wrong thing and asked a Korean-American friend to translate the label for me.  Manure.  Animal manure.  Our first garden attempt: fail.  We had to dispose of the manure on the street and then go back to the store and buy actual soil and replant.  Over the past month, the garden has grown tremendously.  It is overcrowded and I have learned that next year I will need more tubs.  No vegetables yet but I look forward to my first bite of my first home grown veggies!

Tomatos, cabbage, lettuce, herbs, broccoli, cucumber,  carrots

Squash and zucchini
All in all, it has been a pleasurable few months and I am looking forward to continuing my bike rides and traveling in this warm weather.  Life is good.  Life is happy.