You know that dream where all your teeth fall out?

I’ve had that dream on a fairly regular basis for as long as I can remember.

The setting is often different, but in the most frequent version I’m at my locker in my old high school, and I feel something gritty on my tongue. I spit it out to see that it’s a chipped piece of tooth. Worrying about how this will affect my appearance, I walk towards the toilets to look in a mirror, but before I can get there I’m stopped the school principal, who wants to talk to me about something. While she’s talking, I start to feel more of that gritty feeling in my mouth, and I realise that my teeth are rapidly crumbling away to nothing. I try not to open my mouth, just nodding dumbly at the principal, and then rush along the corridor as quickly as I can when she dismisses me… but I don’t get very far, because I start to choke and gag on bits of rotten, crumbled teeth and blood. I just start spitting it all out into my hands while everyone stops and looks at me in horror – generally I wake up in a panic around this point, trying to spit out my teeth, and immediately put my finger in my mouth to check that everything’s OK in there.

This has never been a particularly nice dream, but it becomes a million times more unpleasant when you start to suspect that it might come true before very many more years. I have chipped three of my front teeth over the past couple of years, for a start, and had more toothache than in all the rest of my life put together. But even worse than that has been noticing the increasingly yellow appearance of my teeth in photographs. Ugh. A lifetime of poor dental hygiene and a decade of smoking and drinking coffee/wine is making itself known, and last week I realised how bad things were getting when I decided to start cleaning up the mess by brushing my teeth more thoroughly than my usual token 30-second skim… and my gums started to bleed.

I’ve never been terribly cautious when it comes to dental care. I hate going to the dentist, and always have. I think mouths are a bit disgusting. I’m lazy – too lazy to brush my teeth after every meal (I’ve never done that), and usually too lazy to brush them before bed. On average, it’s been one quick brushing a day, in the morning. I’ve never flossed in my life. Actually, until very recently, I genuinely believed that flossing was only done by people with dental problems or those who were freakishly obsessive about hygiene. I didn’t realise that most people actually floss at least once a day, as regularly as brushing.

And now, not only are my yellow teeth getting to me, but Korea has also made me feel extremely guilty for my lack of dental hygiene. Koreans are very serious about it. Absolutely everyone brushes their teeth after every meal. At school, teachers and children alike keep toothbrushes in little sterilising cupboards in their classrooms, and at the end of lunchtime you can see dozens of kids at any given point brushing their teeth in the bathrooms. In restaurants and bars you can walk into the toilets at night and see young Korean women brushing their teeth at the sink because they’ve just had a meal or some bar snacks.

 

After lunch: Tony and Ravi posing with their toothbrushes. :)

 

I thought it was all a bit extreme at first, but now that my teeth are giving me cause for concern, I’m grudgingly coming round to the wisdom of good dental hygiene, and wishing I’d started caring a bit earlier in my life. There’s a toothbrush and toothpaste in my desk, just like all the Korean teachers, and I reluctantly drag myself to the bathroom to brush after lunch. I resent replacing the pleasant flavours of my food with minty toothpaste. Alex (an American, and therefore one of those people I always thought were ridiculously fanatical about tooth care) is impressed with my newfound concern for my molars, and has volunteered to get some floss for me. Before long, I expect I shall be taking care of my teeth for approximately 80% of the day, and will have to give up my teaching job in order to do so.

Honestly, wouldn’t it be far easier to get them all pulled out and replaced with false ones?!

Sannakji

I’ve blogged before about the popularity of fresh seafood in Korea – but I hadn’t, until tonight, experienced the dish that is by far the freshest of them all: 산낙지 (sannakji).

I went for dinner with three women who are mothers of children I teach. It was another one of those surreal experiences in that they don’t speak any English, but that’s not the topic of this post. They had asked me, when arranging dinner, if there were any foods I didn’t particularly enjoy. I said I like pretty much everything except seafood. In an interesting twist, they responded by taking me to a seafood restaurant – turns out that they wanted to convert me to the national favourite cuisine, rather than help me to avoid it!

Actually, I ate quite a lot and was stuffed by the time new dishes stopped appearing on the table. Honestly, it still makes my mind boggle to see how much these slim and slender women eat in one sitting! Plates of sushi and random whole fried fish, followed by a huge platter of raw fish, followed by soups and stews with rice followed by any number of small dishes containing various fish parts and shellfish, followed by deep-fried shrimp (delicious!) and all accompanied by numerous plates of salads and kimchi. The food just kept coming.

And then, all of a sudden, there it was. The infamous Korean dish I’d read about but so far avoided seeing in the flesh. If you’re squeamish and prefer your food to be dead, now would be the appropriate time to stop reading.

Mmmm... wriggly.

Sannakji consists of the tentacles of a freshly killed octopus. It is fished out of the tank, killed by one swift blow to the head, and then its tentacles are cut off, chopped into small pieces, and immediately whisked off to your table. Why is it so infamous?

Because the tentacles are still wriggling around when you eat them.

They look absolutely revolting. Slimy grey gloopy things squirming around on a lettuce leaf in the manner of slugs. When you try to pick up a piece, they all sort of cling to each other, and often refuse to let go of the chopsticks when you put them in your mouth. Newbies are advised to chew them thoroughly to prevent choking, as the suckers on the tentacles will attempt to stick to your throat otherwise. But experienced sannakji fans apparently like the feel of the wriggling as they swallow the pieces, so they don’t chew much. May I just sum up: ewwwwww!!!!

Unfortunately, I had vowed to myself that if I should ever happen to be offered some sannakji, I would make myself try it. With a sinking heart and a churning stomach, I realised that the time had come. One of the mothers dug in most enthusiastically, telling me that it was her favourite food and absolutely delicious. Chin-cha?! I asked incredulously, watching with undisguised horror as she put one mouthful after another of this wriggling grey gloop into her mouth and chewed with great gusto. You must try some, she urged, looking genuinely surprised at my pale face and wide eyes.

I will not go into the embarrassing details of how many times my chopsticks tentatively approached and hovered over the plate only to be drawn swiftly back as soon as a tentacle wiggled at me. Everyone was most amused. But you know what? I did it. Go, me!

Arrrrgh!!

Believe it or not, that picture was not posed at all. I was actually squealing, a panicky, what-am-I-doing, high-pitched, girly squeal, as I brought the wiggly morsel to my mouth. How embarrassing. But the weird thing is, I actually kinda liked it. Not the wriggling, that was just plain weird. The taste and texture, however – mildly enjoyable!

Seriously, though, sometimes you’d just kill for a sausage roll, y’know?!

Perm-uh!

I recently celebrated the return of cool weather by getting a new hairstyle, since I can now wear my hair down once more without it becoming soaked with sweat and/or a ball of humidity-induced frizz.

I’d heard good things about the digital perm (or “perm-uh” as they say it here!) – a Korean invention now hugely popular throughout Asia due to its success with transforming typically straight, fine Asian hair into thick, glossy waves. My hair is quite similar to the hair of most Korean girls I know, and hangs straight and limp with lots of flyaway hairs and a few shapeless kinks unless I spend a considerable amount of time each morning with hair straighteners until I found Startifacts, now I spend much less time. Of course, those who know me know that I’d rather see Daniel O’Donnell in concert than get up early to spend ages doing my hair, so as I result I usually keep it (a) short and spiky, or (b) tied back in a schoolgirlish ponytail.

Tired of still looking like a geeky teenager in my late 20s, especially when surrounded by fashionable and feminine Korean women, I decided to bite the bullet and go for the digital perm. One of my colleagues also needed to have her hair done, so she went to the salon with me, which brought huge peace of mind, as she was able to explain exactly what I wanted, as opposed to the ridiculous mime show that would no doubt have ensued had I gone alone, most likely ending with me emerging from the salon looking like a prize poodle.

Unfortunately, my hair caused a great deal of hassle and debate amongst the hairdressers. I have “baby hair” apparently. But I didn’t really mind all the fuss and discussion, as I was sipping one expensive-tasting coffee after another, and eating fancy little cakes, and basically feeling very special.

Korean hair salons are something else. Image and beauty are extremely important here, so there are multiple salons on every street – this one was like a palace. I gasped when we walked in, and clutched Kay’s arm. Isn’t this place a bit… expensive? I hissed nervously, glancing around at the chandeliers and the gilt-edged mirrors and the sleek surfaces and the coffee bar staffed by beautiful people in tuxedos. She shook her head and dragged me forward, where a bowing woman was waiting to take our jackets. This is Korea. People spend a lot of time in these places, so they have to be pretty!

We were waited on hand and foot the whole time – which turned out to be about 5 hours, incidentally, because of my dreadfully problematic hair. People kept bringing me coffee and fruit cocktails and posh snacks. They gently placed a little piece of gauze over my eyes when they washed my hair, gave me a manicure while they were applying the perm solution, and brought me a silk cushion to raise my magazine with when I was hooked up to the machine and couldn’t lower my head to look down to read.

Ah, the perm machine. I wish I had a photo of me under it, I’m sure I looked like Medusa. Here’s someone else’s picture shamelessly stolen from a Google search:

A digital perm is basically a perm with heat – so they wire you up to all these hot rods and then leave you sitting there praying that they don’t forget to come and unplug you. They had to do a couple of sections of my hair more than once, because it didn’t work, but when I was getting tired and bored and ready to give up on curly locks, they refused to let me go. No! Please! Wait! We will get it this time!

I’m glad I let them persevere, because I glided out of the salon with a head of glossy curls that have honestly changed how I feel about myself – I feel more feminine, more confident, more vibrant. All because of a new hairdo! And it’s even more low maintenance than drying my straight hair, scraping it back into a ponytail and sticking in a couple of hair grips. All I have to do is towel dry, then mess it up with a handful of product. Hey presto! Curls galore and no effort whatsoever.

Digital perm: win!

Should I stay or should I go?

I had decided, while in Mongolia with lots of nature and sand dunes and space to think, that I was going to return to Norn Iron for a few months at the end of my contract in February. A combination of factors, really – wanting to see my family and friends… uncertain if another year at a hagwon would be too much, but not sure if I wanted to leave the job of teaching little children for the huge, overcrowded classes and vacant teenage stares of public schools… wondering if perhaps the ‘adventure’ had worn off in terms of my Korean experience, and it was time to try somewhere fresh and new…

Less than a week after I reached my decision, my director asked me to renew my contract. While I’d been prepared for this, it was the first moment that I’d considered the reality of leaving, perhaps never to return given the rising difficulties with getting a teaching job (never mind a visa) from outside of the country. No, I’m leaving, I said as firmly as I could, and she threw down her first card, flattery. Are you sure? Because we want to keep you – you are good teacher. Parents ask if you will stay. I want to keep working with you. She looked dolefully at me – emotional blackmail being a perfectly acceptable business negotiation tactic in Korea – and added faintly, And if you leave, I have so much stress to find new teacher!

Sorry… no, I really am leaving! I replied hurriedly, trying not to obey the voice of Old Me (who would have done whatever anyone asked just to make them like her). I began to back away, but she clutched my arm and played her second card. We will cut your classes down to how they were when you first got here…

Before you practically doubled them with no compensation? I asked sarcastically. No, I didn’t really. Actually, I paused for a moment and then shook my head decisively. Sorry, Jennifer! Honestly, I only went in to use the photocopier.

Pay rise! she almost shouted, thrusting a contract into my hands and pointing at the part with lots of numbers. I shrugged slightly, unimpressed. But pay rise starting next week! she added – ‘next week’ being 6 months before the end of my original year-and-a-half contract.

Honestly, I really do need to visit my family, I practically groaned, trying to make her take the contract back. I won’t have seen them for a year and a half!

Flights! Extra holidays! she threw in desperately as I made it to the door, and I paused. Sensing that she’d played a trump card, she began babbling. We will give you 9 days at the end of February… we will pay for flights to Ireland and back… we will pay for flights to anywhere else if you want to travel…

9 days?! I asked incredulously. But as stingy as it may sound, you should know that that’s pretty generous holiday leave, by Korean standards. Which made me think that perhaps they wanted me enough to negotiate.

Which, in turn, is how it came to be that I have a month off at the end of the year, and am getting a paid-for trip back home to spend Christmas with my family, relax and recharge, and come back to work in the job I can’t bring myself to leave, for at least another year. And I have to say, I feel great about it! I think I’ve finally, at the age of Almost Thirty, found a career that I want to pursue (is singing songs with 5-year-olds and gluing lollipop sticks a career?!). My difficulties and struggles for control in the classroom are now mostly a thing of the past – and even on a bad day, something happens to make it worthwhile.

As I write this, for example, I have a big smile on my face because of a little girl who refused to do her work in one of my last classes of the day. I was tired, she was whiny. We fought for a bit, my tone getting progressively firmer and less tolerant as she glared and huffed and covered her book with her hand, pushing my hands away repeatedly. Seeing I was on the verge of sending her out of the classroom, she started to wail – tearless howls designed to evoke pity rather than express fear or sadness, because she knows perfectly well I can’t send a crying child to sit on her own on the corridor floor. I gave up in frustration and left her to it.

Dorothy

Anyway, an hour later I finished my final class, and found her waiting outside my classroom door. Hello, Dorothy, I greeted her with a smile (I’ve had to train myself not to hold grudges or anger against 5-year-olds – yes, believe it or not, it was natural for me to continue being angry with them every time I saw them when I first started this job!). She looked up at me with a sad, anxious expression, and beckoned me down with her hand. I crouched – for she only comes up to the top of my leg – and put my ear close to her face. I’m sorry, she said in a whisper. I’m angry… she paused, and corrected herself. I was angry because Ryan, not angry because teacher. I’m sorry.

It is an indication of my current values and priorities when an apology is an utter delight to hear because it’s in the past tense. Seriously, I grinned from ear to ear. It’s OK. I love you! We hugged and made up, and she went on her way, a tiny little figure who is learning to speak in English right before my eyes.

And Terri, my colleague (and now good friend) had some wise words for me when I worried about getting stuck in a rut due to the newness and sense of adventure having faded: You travelled around Europe for a year, you lived in various places trying to make a living as a freelance writer, you had some good experiences and one horrible one, you came across the world to Asia, you started a job you knew nothing about… I think it’s OK to spend a year or two just enjoying being in a familiar job and a familiar place with familiar people. It doesn’t all have to be new and daunting in order to be rewarding, or even exciting.

Yes, I think I’ve made the right decision. Looks like Hails is Hayley Teacher for the foreseeable future! :)

Goat stew and wolf dogs

I look nervously at the steaming pot over the fire, and my host grins proudly at me. As an honoured guest at this nomadic camp on the edge of the Gobi desert, I have been invited to help myself from the pot, which seems to contain a whole goat, not entirely unrecognisable as such even after having been boiled in a cauldron for several hours. Its empty eye socket leers ghoulishly up at me as I stand there uncertainly with my bowl in my hand.

My host launches into an enthusiastic volley of instructions of which I understand precisely zero words (oh, for the comfort of Korea, where I understand about 1 in 15!), and seems to be miming some sort of crazy devil sheep getting ready to kill me. A smiling woman bats him away, and kindly takes my bowl, filling it with some of the choicest cuts of meat. Oh, dear lord, is that an ear?

I eat, tentatively at first, but careful to smile as I chew, with the eyes of the nomads (and my dinner) watching my every move. One of the wolf-like dogs snarls and snuffles at my foot as if suggesting that I might like to give him some of my goat. A young boy cuffs him over the head and he backs off. This is the most bizarre dining experience I have ever had.

It’s good! I say in my carefully practised but still terrible Mongolian, giving them a thumbs up. I’m not actually lying, to my surprise. It’s a bit tough, and it’s not exactly pleasant to look at, but it’s hot and tasty – and, let’s face it, as purely authentic Mongolian cuisine as it gets.

I slip the ear-like piece to a wolf-dog when no one’s looking.

The meal is interrupted a couple of times for a round of vodka, which must be knocked back, soju-style, but not before a quiet ritual to honour the sky gods… or the mountains… or dead ancestors, or something (the guide books aren’t particularly clear on the reason). You dip your right ring finger into your cup, and then flick a small drop of vodka towards the sky, then in front of you (“to the wind”), and then to the ground. Only a tiny drop, mind you, as vodka is sacred – my host stops me and gives my hand a rough shake over my cup, apparently getting rid of some of the excess vodka before I begin. I watch what the others do and mimic them carefully, finishing by wiping my finger across my forehead, raising the cup in the air, and knocking it back with a bit of a gasp.

Somewhat different from a “cheers!” in an Irish pub, or a “gombay!” in a Korean hoff, eh?

Cho!

We went horse riding at sunset, on some horses hired from a nomadic family.

Mongolia is famous for its wild horses, which look more like ponies, but my guide book warned specifically against saying so: “If you want to offend a Mongol, call the horses ‘ponies'”. So we got on the horses without a word about their short stature.

To a Mongol, who has grown up taming wild horses and been riding since they were a toddler, the idea of someone never having been on a horse is beyond comprehension. They genuinely have no concept of it. I clumsily mounted my horse and clung to its mane in the greatest of uncertainty. A 12-year-old boy put the reins into my hands, and tugged them demonstratively. Left. Right. Stop. he said, showing me the obvious. I nodded, waiting for the rest of my lesson, but apparently that was the full extent of his English repertoire, for he flicked the end of a rope at my horse’s behind and yelled Cho! (Mongolian for “Gee up!” or whatever it is that actual riders say to make horses go). The animal snorted in what I imagined to be disgust, and quite literally galloped off into the sunset.

I yelled my head off for a good 30 seconds before I remembered how to work the brakes.

It’s amazing how quickly you become an accomplished rider when you’re helmetless and clutching onto the tangled mane of a semi-wild horse in the vast emptiness of the Mongolian wilderness. After only an hour, the 7 of us were trotting along together in a most relaxed and easy fashion, talking and exclaiming at the incredible beauty of it all.

Riding into the sunset...

...galloping out of the sunset! Cho, cho!

The setting sun cast a warm red glow over everything, and we fell silent as it began to sink slowly behind the magnificent mountain ahead of us, at the foot of which was our camp. Then someone yelled Cho!, and with little urging from us, our horses ran with apparent enjoyment, kicking up clouds of sand and dust as they took us home.

I have had some amazing experiences over the past few years, but that evening is now firmly in the Top Five list. (Ohhh, now that sounds like a list worth making, some day soon!) It was an incredible evening. Right up until  the point where I tried to get off the horse, my legs aching from clenching them so tightly against the horse’s sides… and my knees buckled, I got caught in the stirrups, and slithered most impressively off the animal and under the feet of another one.

Still, everyone’s got an “I once almost got trampled by a wild horse in Outer Mongolia” story, right? ;)

Me on my horse!

The Good Life

About 30% of the population of Mongolia is nomadic. The nomads live in round, tent-like structures called “gers” or “yurts“, which they pitch wherever takes their fancy. Practically the entire country is one big campsite! The nomadic people settle in small family groups or slightly larger communities, for as long as the area serves their needs. Then, when their livestock have grazed the land clear, they up sticks and move on in search of greener pastures.

What a fantastic way of life. I mean, seriously! There’s none of this 9-5 nonsense, no stresses about taxes and mortgages and unemployment. You don’t even bother much with the concept of time. You get up when it’s daylight, work on whatever needs to be done (tending to the animals, making cheese, preparing food, digging toilets, piping water), eat when you’re hungry, and go to bed when it gets dark. Our little group of adventurers (on a “Nomadic Experience” trip run by the hostel) started adapting to this after just one day and night in the countryside – it’s strangely liberating to realise that with no mod cons and no electricity in your ger, you have to simply exist, and no more.

Where we stayed

We were taken to the middle of nowhere in a couple of rattly old jeeps that bounced and tossed us around for a few hours before depositing us at the foot of a mountain and driving off, leaving us staring at the obligatory cloud of dust and looking uncertainly at each other. It wasn’t long, however, before a young boy appeared and showed us to our gers. The day was very cold, but to our surprise, when we stooped to clamber through the door of our ger, we were hit by a blast of heat. There was a little stove in the middle, in which roared a blazing fire, the smoke exiting through a tall, rusty chimney pipe that poked through a circular opening at the top. There were five little cot beds in a circle around the edge of the ger, and a few decorative blankets and throws pinned to the “walls”, and that was it. It was surprisingly cosy!

We went hiking over the steppes, returning when we were hungry to find that the tourist camp owners had prepared a hot lunch for us, which we ate sitting at a tiny rickety table looking at the view.

The Dining Room

More hiking, some reading, and then an incredible evening spent horse riding by sunset (needs a post all of its own!), and we were served dinner, which we hungrily wolfed down on the floor of the “kitchen” ger, wrapped up in warm clothes and looking out through the open doorway at the full moon and stars brighter than any of us had ever seen before.

No one had thought about what would happen when darkness fell, so we had to beg a candle from the lady who’d made our dinner. Then all 14 of us piled into one ger, where we had to relight the stove fire by the light of our solitary candle, and then figure out how to make some kind of candle holder so that someone didn’t have to stand there holding our only source of light until it went out. All of this took about an hour – and would have taken no more than the flick of two switches at home.

And then, squashed together in a circle on the five cots, we simply talked. No music, no TV, no books, no computers, no games – just 14 travellers and a candle. We went to bed when it was about to burn out, and woke up at daylight to the clanging of pans and the gruff yells of our Mongol hosts, telling us our breakfast was ready.

Not your average holiday. But what a great experience! And above all, who knew what great conversations a diverse bunch of people from all over the world could have when you take away their phones and laptops and TVs and routines?!