Korea Part I - Buddha's Birthday celebrations

South Korea: The land of kimchi, karaoke, Samsung, Psy and my destination after graduation. A week after I received my diploma I packed my bags and left for a ten day trip 6,526 miles away to visit my  childhood friend. I landed in Seoul jetlagged and following my friend's very detailed directions I hopped onto a bus hoping I would get off at the right stop. Having gotten faster to my stop than my friend had predicted, I flagged down a cab and asked him to take me to “Sao Gyeong Dae,” a university library by my friend’s apartment. Those of you who know Korean know that even one mispronunciation of a letter can make you sound like you are saying something completely different, especially with an accent. Well, my Korean pronunciation is not great to say the least but after numerous variations, we sped off towards “Soo Kyong day!!!” As we finally came up the hill and I saw my friend, I collapsed into the back seat with relief. I had made it.

Those of you with long distance friendships understand the amount of happiness you feel when you reunite. The last time I had seen this friend was in New York City - seven months earlier and now I was staying in her 200 sqft apartment in Seoul. I never know when or where I will meet with some of my friends, making me cherish those friendships even more.

(Left: Stream by Dongdaemun History & Culture Park; Right: Celebrations underway at Yeongchuisa Temple)
(Pouring water over a statue for good luck at Yeongchuisa Temple)
Education is taken very seriously in S. Korea largely due to the fact that after the Korean War in the 1950's, the southern part of the Korean peninsula was left with nothing. Having little land to grow agriculture and produce exports, the South Koreans invested everything into education, boasting a 97.9% literacy rate. Children can read and write in Korean by the first grade, and those who come from a well off family send their children to private English academies, known as a "hagwon". These private English schools in Korea seek out English speaking natives to come and teach. My friend happened to be one of those English teachers, teaching five to six year old Korean children how to read, and write, and speak in English. At that age many of us were still finger painting and learning our ABC’s.

(Daeseongmun gate, my obsession with Korean wood craft and detail began with this beautiful structure)
Thankfully my friend had an extra day off because it was Buddha’s birthday, so we took the opportunity to hike up to the top of Bukhansan Mountain, and to the highest peak in Seoul "Baegundae". Along the way we stopped at Yeongchuisa temple where celebrations for Buddha’s birthday were underway. If you ever visit a Buddhist temple on a religious day or Sunday you will receive a free meal of soup and rice with vegetables, Bibimbap. Accepting our meal, we sat watching people pay their respect. Seeing two foreigners, a young man who spoke English came up to us and asked us if we had any questions about the celebration and kindly explained to us what everything meant. He showed us how to pray and give respect to the Buddha statue inside of the temple and showed us a ritual of pouring water over a small statue three times for good luck. We even caught the attention of the monk preforming the ceremony that we were lucky to have our picture taken with him per his request. We gave our thanks and continued the 836.5 meter hike up. Reaching the top we rewarded ourselves with a snack and some lounging on the side of a large boulder overlooking the vast city of Seoul. Nothing feels better after a four hour hike up than to just sit back and enjoy the scenery.  

(Lounging at the top of Baegundae peak over looking Seoul)
Buddha's birthday celebrations continued well into the next day around Seoul. The following evening after our adventure up Baegundae peak, we walked along Cheonggyecheon - one of the man-made streams running through the city. Lanterns lite up the walkway around the water and intricate floating lanterns filled the water. Everywhere people were happy and enjoying the warm evening walk by the water. Never did I imagine celebrating Buddha’s birthday in Seoul, and I think I did it quiet perfectly.

(Left: Floating lanterns at Cheonggycheon; Right: Elaborate wood details of Daeseongmun gate)

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