Saturday, September 29, 2012

The Burning of the Souks

The struggle in Syria has now claimed another victim - the ancient souks of Aleppo. Reports are that between 700 and 1,000 of the small shops that have made its commercial and cultural space within the narrow walls of the souks, named as a UNESCO Heritage site, have been burned. Souks, comprising of shops, mosques, homes, and other places so vital to everyday life, are the heart and soul of ancient Arab cities. In Tunis, I loved wandering the medina, enclosed at one time by fortified walls. Wandering through the maze-like streets (with plenty of dead-ends) gave me a chance to catch a glimpse of what it must have been like for centuries, when the main commerce and life took place within these walls. Some traditional crafts were only produced within special lanes within the souks. When you were tired of shopping, you could always find a café where you could catch a sweet mint tea topped with pine nuts. Not only did Syria lose some architectural treasures within the walls of the souks, it also likely lost some cultural and artistic gems as well. I pray that some sort of stability and normalcy will return soon to the people of Syria, who have been victimized for all too long. Now there will be more to rebuild - if these heritage areas can rise up from the ashes at all. Read more in the BBC article.

These photos are taken from the Tunis souk. On top is a shop making traditional chechia hats so typical of older Tunisian men. Below is a basket shop found near the main mosque in the medina.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Precious Peaches

For the harvest festival of Chusok, boxes of fruit are a common gift. Judging from these prices, these carefully wrapped items are indeed a precious gift. The four cantaloupe are going for 55,000 won - $50. The box of 16 apples is double that. Gosh, for those prices, I'd almost be afraid of eating them! So if you get a box of artfully wrapped fruit in Korea, you know you're special. Happy Chusok! 

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Gwanghyewon, Korea's first modern hospital

On a beautiful fall afternoon, I went for a walk around Yonsei University, located next to Seoul Foreign School where I teach. The gate to some traditional looking buildings was open this time, so I went on in. Nestled in the protection of the tall modern structures belonging to the university and Severance Hospital was Gwanghyeon, Korea's first modern hospital. Founded in 1883 by a Presbyterian missionary, the graceful structure fell into disrepair and was restored in 1987 as part of the university's centennial commemoration project. 

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Ganesh Chaturthi - Seoul-Style

Having read my Facebook post about how different this weekend's cultural experience (seeing the musical Wicked) was from that which took place a year ago (Ganesh Chaturthi in Chennai), a colleague asked if I wanted to go with her to a Ganesh celebration one of her students had told her about. Boarding the back of her scooter, we proceeded down the fairly quiet Sunday morning streets of Seoul until we reached Seoul National University. As we were nearing the building, the number of salwars and saris was a good indicator that we were on the right path. Inside the lecture/performance hall, I was suddenly transported back to India, with women and children (and some men) donning their Indian garb. In one corner of the stage a Brahmin priest from the Mumbai area was chanting some Sanscrit verses, while another priest and a priestess rang the small bell and whisked the multi-wicked lamp around the decorated ivory idol of Ganesh. Around Ganesh were many plates of fruit, sweets, milk, and some roses. Not the elaborate floral decorations of India, but they would have to do. After more chanting and pujas, Hindu devotees came up to pay homage to Ganesh. I stayed for a bit longer, watching some Indian children do some simple dances, recite a poem, some chanting, a very boring speech, and some more chanting. None of the women wore fresh garlands of jasmine in their hair; a couple girls had a white fake set. A meal was to follow (at some point), but knowing that the event was on "Indian Standard Time," I wanted to get home to do some drawing.

From talking to some of those sitting near me, it was apparent that keeping their Hindu culture was important to them, but fairly significant challenge in a place like Korea. Most parents are sending their children in Korea to top international schools, which typically happen to be Christian ones. Interestingly enough, the parents didn't seem to be concerned about having to send their children to a Christian school (as this is a very common practice in India), but that their children were growing up knowing very little about their own culture, traditions, and religion. The small Indian children's group of which the performing children were participants is a helpful part in addressing this, but does not make up for the permeating cultural influence families would have experienced in India. Boring speeches and less-than-smooth performances aside, I hope that the children in the audience had their curiosity at least a bit piqued about some elements that are so much of their tradition.
For those families who are living overseas (especially in cultures so different than their own), how do you seek to ensure that your children experience and understand some vital parts of your traditions, culture, and beliefs?

Friday, September 21, 2012

Rooftop Palace Figures

Perched on the roof of Geunjeongjeon Hall of the Gyeongbokgun Palace are some simplistic, whimsical creatures. As in other palaces, the Japsang are small animal statues that guard palace buildings against evil spirits and ghosts. I wonder if each of these creatures have a name?

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Haetae - Fire Beast

Prominently featured in front of the Gwanghwamun Gate are several large Haetae figures. Resembling a dog with a lion's mane, this mythical creature is the master of fire and a guardian against this element. Its powers include time travel and the ability to bite the moon, hence causing the waning of the moon or even an eclipse. Haetae sculptures are often placed in front of or inside Korean houses as a protection against destructive natural elements.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Gwanghwamun Gate Procession

Although the Gyeongbokgung Palace was not our destination for the day, our timing to arrive in front of it was impeccable. As if to welcome us, the flag-bearing guards and musicians stepped through the main gate to put on a procession right in front of us. After a few short minutes, the demonstration was done and the brightly clad men marched back into the palace grounds.

Friday, September 14, 2012

The Tunisia I know

These are the memories of Tunisia that I have - the white-washed buildings with blue doors and bougainvillea. Wandering the ancient medinas of Tunis, Sousse, and elsewhere. The clear blue skies and Mediterranean Sea. Its amazing history, as evidenced in spectacular Roman and Byzantine mosaics, coliseums, and aqueducts. Freshly harvested olives and dates. The pit dwellings of Matmata and the vast desert south. Its people, welcoming and warm, graciously serving sweet tea topped with pine nuts. While the majority of Tunisians call themselves Muslim, a much more moderate version was practiced - sometimes more tradition than anything. It was a country that had banned the burqa, with many of its women choosing Western wear and showing off their thick black hair. A favorite vacation destination for French and other Europeans, freely able to relax on the beaches of resorts in their bikinis. A country that was site to many prominent films, often serving as a safe alternative for Middle Eastern country scenes. I remember when the school added extra security measures and even had us practice safety drills, but a bigger concern for members of the ACST community that year was flooding, which affected the school several times. During the two years I was at ACST, the school doubled in size, much of it due to the African Development Bank moving its headquarters from Abidjan (Cote d'Ivoire) to Tunis to have a stable place for operating.

Ten years later, I am sitting in my apartment thousands of miles away in Seoul, Korea. The Tunisia I know looks very different from what just happened at the embassy and nearby school. From my experience, this sounds like the actions of a few radicals, representing a minority or perhaps even led on by outsiders. I pray for the safety of all my friends that still are in Tunisia and that peace, stability, and normalcy will soon return. 

These are two of my artworks, the top being an oil pastel of a scene in Sidi Bou Saïd and the lower one a color pencil drawing of a man in the medina in Sousse.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Stroll Through the Side Streets

Instead of leaving Korea during the Chusok holiday, I will be staying in Seoul. I'm looking forward to visiting some of Seoul's palaces, museums, as well as strolling through the small streets such as this one in Insa-dong. Seoul may be quite modern now, but you can find some traditional places if you look.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Monday, September 10, 2012

Bukak Pavillion

On top of the Bukak Mountain in Seoul stands a pavillion with a traditional Korean design. From here, one has great views of the city. Much like the Hindu temples of Tamil Nadu (south India), I am in awe of the decorative detail work and colorful, aesthetic design of these buildings. Even in the dark, I just had to shoot some photos. 

Saturday, September 08, 2012

Birthday Celebrations Above Seoul

It's amazing where international teaching can take you. One year ago, I certainly didn't expect to be in Seoul, but here I am! Since it was my birthday yesterday, I decided a photo of me was in order. This photo was taken on the Bukak Skyway, which offers beautiful views of Seoul.

Friday, September 07, 2012

Shopping in the Sports Stadium

This is one sports stadium that the women frequent more then men. Although it was built as a stadium for the 2002 Soccer World Cup with a seating capacity of over 66,000, it now houses a 10-screen cineplex, a large discount shopping store, and numerous smaller shops. 

Thursday, September 06, 2012

Locks of Love

Want to publicly profess your undying love for someone while in Seoul? Come to the Seoul Tower, which has evergreen trees and a special wall just for you. As you attach your lock with its message written on it, take a peek at some of the notes already present. Some of the locks were getting rather rusty. I wonder what a rust-eaten attachment signifies. 

Kimonos and Fans

Shops like this are a good indicator that this area of Seoul - Insa-Dong - is frequented by tourists. At least these souvenirs are flat and lightweight. Although I'm sure I'll find some nice momentos for family members here in Korea, I am pretty confident that the variety and quantity won't be equalled by what I found in India. Finding the right gift can be a challenge. It's a good thing I have plenty of time yet before I head back to Wisconsin for the summer. 

Tuesday, September 04, 2012

Wonder Woman Meets Seoul

Somehow this circular sign of Wonder Woman, hanging above a shop in traditional Insa-Dong doesn't quite fit, particularly next to the sign with cute kids. I wonder what she is saying in Korean.

Sunday, September 02, 2012

Minis on a Line

I couldn't resist taking a photo of these miniature crocheted clothes, so lovingly hung from a jute "clothesline" and attached with equally miniature clothespins. The shop in Insa-Dong was closed at the time, so I couldn't go in and take a closer look. I wonder what the story is behind these items....

Saturday, September 01, 2012

Kimchi Traditional Storage

While in the Insa-Dong neighborhood of Seoul, our long-time Seoul resident (a teacher who lived in Seoul with her missionary parents since childhood) pointed out this ceramic pottery set, located next to a restaurant. This, she explained, is a traditional jar in which Korea's national dish, Kimchi, is stored. Such preserving storage was especially advantageous during the winter months. For those of you uninitiated to Korean cuisine, Kimchi is a fermented vegetable dish, mainly comprised of cabbage. It comes in (according to the Kimchi museum in Seoul) 187 different varieties. Not a big fan of the pickled taste, the I've tasted so far haven't sparked an enthusiastic awakening of taste buds, but I'll try some more. Couldn't say to a Korean that I'm not a fan of their favorite dish!