Wednesday’s exercise day. All the teachers gather together at 3pm in the sports hall to play a volleyball-tennis-football hybrid: two teams, one on either side of a tennis net; the aim of the game is to hit a volleyball over the net within certain lines so that the other team can’t return it with three touches or fewer; girls can use their hands, boys can use anything else. Then the girls leave, the net is raised, and the boys remain to play some serious volleyball. There are currently several young men at school completing mandatory military service (if you don’t want to join the army, navy or air force here you can opt for civil service instead), and a few take their volleyball very seriously. Two weeks ago I became a ‘hero’ (not my word) by using up all my beginner’s luck on one play to jump up and block one of these guys’ ‘spikes’ (smash shots). The ball bounced off my arms at 100mph into a corner of the court that no one was situated in, and I won the point for my team. There was a collective dropping of jaws from the opposition and a collective ‘ooooh, Yo-seppy’ from the watching female contingent. Yesterday was not so successful. One teacher spent the entire session giggling to himself at me as the ball bounced off me hitting the wall, ceiling, floor of the hall – and he was supposed to be on my team!
This episode was the latest in a fairly active few days. On Saturday Eliz and I went to Ulsan Grand Park, only to find that a trip there would be infinitely more interesting on some wheels. We toyed with the idea of renting a tandem but opted to walk round the park a little instead, where we saw a windmill and some man-made lakes but missed the animal park, butterfly garden and war museum which were too far away to get to on foot. So I bought myself a bike. After lunch we cycled back through the park via a BMX style track with twists and turns and little hills – presumably made for kids, but did that stop me? I think we all know the answer to that.
On Sunday we cycled to the Taehwa river and then west, arriving eventually to Ulsan’s famous bamboo forest, which is exactly how you might picture it. It’s pretty cool, there are paths that weave in and out of tall bamboo stalks, and there were lights there so I bet it looks nice at night. We carried on cycling down the river and exploring the general area, making various rest stops to buy Powerade and melon ice lollies (my favourite thing about Korea so far), to work out at the many outdoor ‘gyms’ that seem to be everywhere here, and to look at the scenery, which included some interesting natural wildlife – we saw a toddler sat in a remote control car eating an ice cream; we saw kids cycling through narrow passageways holding 20-foot long swords of bamboo; and we did actually see one heron. I then went off to play my first football match with the ‘Won Shot Wanderers’ which was pretty fun, we played against a Korean team who were skillful and fleet-footed but short on end product – we ended up thrashing them about 12-1. Thanks to being horribly out of shape, I cycled home very slowly. I also managed to leave my trainers by the side of the pitch.
The next few days at school were thus more exhausting than they should have been. We get 10 minutes’ break between each lesson during which I would immediately sit down to rest my aching thighs. In addition, I’ve been doing more teaching this week than I previously have been: the co-teachers have been starting to ask me to lead lessons alone. All this extra effort I feel deserved a little treat, and so Eliz and I last night went out to a Western restaurant, where I had steak and she had ribs. It was expensive but well, well worth the money.
So now I’ve got my bike it’ll hopefully be easier to get to places I want to see in and around Ulsan. However, cycling here hasn’t been entirely trouble-free. The other day I was going to cycle into town when I discovered my bike lock had somehow changed its code by itself. I decided to spend a few minutes trying to see if I could crack the code (which I did – 1506 had been changed to 9406. And now my bike lock code’s on the internet). I was so pleased with myself that I cycled off down the road laughing to myself – and was almost hit by a truck. It’s too dangerous to cycle on the roads here given everyone’s ridiculous driving, but even on the paths (the pavements have cycle paths) you have to compete for space with pedestrians, motorcycles (moving), cars (parked and moving), huge speakers outside shops and other miscellaneous debris. Mum, I’ll be careful!