Sunday, July 31, 2011

How to Do London on a Budget


I have finished my 3 day tour of London and I spent around £100 ($163USD or 173,000 won) in total. I could have spent even less if I had wanted to, but that was including a £30 train ticket to Brighton for the day and a few nicer meals and drinks. London is one of the most expencive cities in the world, but if you follow a few simple steps, you can save a lot of money if you're on a budget. 

1) Watch how you get around:
This may sound obvious, but for someone who didn't do any research about London, it would be easy to spend vast amounts of money on transportation. First of all, in the center of London, most stuff is within walking distance. When looking on the map, you may think, 'wow, that's 6 stations away! I don't think I can walk it!' But, be careful to look at the actual distance. You may be surprised how close it is. On my first day, I only took the metro once and on the second day I took it twice. On the third day though, in order to save some time, we took the metro and bus a little more often. As far as getting metro and bus tickets to get around, be sure to get an Oyster card. This little card will make your trips around London much cheaper, and you don't need to go up to the machine every time you want to get a ticket. Don't forget to cash out your Oyster card when you leave. You'll also get back the £5 deposit you made on the card when you leave the country.

Another problem I encountered when I wanted to go to Brighton (1 hour south of London by train) was that tickets were really expencive. £29 for a round trip ticket seemed a little steep, but I figured, I would have spent the same on a hostel if I stayed in the city so I just paid it. Then when I went to Brighton, it turns out my friend there knew a website where he could buy a round trip ticket to from Brighton to London that included a subway pass for the entire day for about £12. Of course, tickets like these can't be purchased by just any tourist, you need a British credit card to buy them. But, if you know some locals, you could theoretically get them too. Their use is not restricted to British citizens only, just the purchase. Make sure you ask your friends to look for discounts that you can use too! 

This may seem like an obvious one, but you should avoid taking taxis. Traffic in downtown London is quite terrible. Our Big Bus tour guide joked that the speed of traffic in London hasn't changed for the last three centuries, the speed of traffic is no faster now than when people got around by horse and buggy. The minimum cab fare is £2.20 ($3.60) but goes up quickly and for going one mile, you should expect to pay £5.20 ($8.50) as a minimum, but could be much higher if you are stuck in traffic. 

2) Watch where you eat:
If you go to many restaurants in central London, you may think that eating out in London costs a fortune. That's probably because you've found yourself at one of the thousands of restaurants that cater to tourists. It's not unreasonable to say that 2/3 of the people you'll pass in central London on a summer day will be folks on holiday, so there are plenty of places set up to rip these people off. It's best to look around and see where the locals are eating their lunches. I'll certainly bet it's not one of those traditional looking English Pubs. Here are some suggestions for where to get a cheap bite to eat:

Supermarket lunch
Supermarkets: The first thing I did when I got to London at 8 am on Friday morning was stop at the supermarket built into the subway station and find some breakfast. All London supermarkets seem to have a decent bakery selection. Even at the smallest supermarket, you can find some bread or muffins for a snack, breakfast or a meal if you like. On our second day, we put some bread and cheese together at home and picked up some cold cut meat from the supermarket and had our lunch along the Themes. Who needs a nice restaurant when you can eat for practically nothing, surrounded by some of the most beautiful sights imaginable? On the last day, we picked up some of their pre-made food and got the "meal deal" which was for us a hearty salad, drink and bag of chips. Never underestimate the power of the supermarket!

Matt's homemade bread with cheese and meat which we ate next to the Themes
Pret A Manger: This little sandwich shop deserves it's own category because once you get to London, you'll realize that this chain is more prevalent than Starbucks in America or all the cafes in Seoul combined. You can't walk one block without seeing one of these and it seems to be a local favorite among the English. Who can blame them, though? They have a huge selection of freshly made, pre-packaged sandwiches for between £2.50-£5.00. They taste good and you can get one and eat it in less than 5 minutes if you're in a rush. 

Curry at a take-away place 

Curry: I was told that the national dish of England is not fish and chips, but curry. Take away curry shops are as prevalent in London as take out Chinese food or pizza is in the states. They even look pretty similar to those kind of places on the inside. At the one I went to, dishes seemed to range from £3-6 depending on what you got, plus, of course extra for rice and naan. We spent about £15 on two curries, a naan, a plate of rice, and two sodas.

Cheap pints of beer at Wetherspoon

Neighborhood and Chain Pubs: Saturday night we found ourselves at a local pizza place/bar kinda place near where we were staying at my friend's sister's flat outside the center. The pizza was a little expencive, £12 from their gourmet selection, but of course, we split that 2 ways (could have done three and been healthier if we'd had another friend with us) and they had a nice selection of beers around. We got their special, called Speights for £1.50 per bottle. £15 total for a pizza and two beers didn't seem too bad at all, especially after eating homemade sandwiches on the Themes earlier that day for lunch. Another place to check out is a popular chain of pubs called Wetherspoon. They have pretty cheap, typical English food and super cheap drafts. We got ciders for about £2.50 per pint and draft beers for less than £2 per pint. They are also interesting because they have a huge variety of local brews that you would never be able to find abroad. 

Gourmet pizza and cheap beer

Fish and chips in Brighton, bigger and cheaper than in London
3) Go local!
As I alluded to before when talking about train tickets, getting a local to help you get around is definitely a plus. While I tried to couchsurf while I was here, I was unsuccessful finding someone to host me from the website. But, as it turns out, we were hosted on Saturday and Sunday night by my friend's sister's roomates, and it turns out they are couchsurfer hosts too! Staying with locals, either friends or couchsurfers has two great benefits. One is that... well, it's free. But two is that they can show you the good, local places to go or give you insider tips on how to do things cheaper, like, for instance, the cheap train tickets. While we were in Brighton, my friend was also able to get half priced admission for himself to get into Brighton Pavilion and so we just split the total cost so it was cheaper overall. 

Brighton Pavilion

The cloisters of Westminster Abbey (admission free)

4) Take advantage of free attractions
London has lots and lots of things to do for free. For lists, you can just google 'London for free' and you'll get millions. Many churches, museums, markets, and sights don't cost a thing. We went to four museums for free; the British Museum, the Natural History Museum, the Science Museum and the Victoria and Albert Museum. Another little thing we realized was that to go into Westminster Abbey and St. Paul's Cathedral was £16 and £14.50 respectively. But, to go in as a worshiper during their services for free. Granted, you don't have the same experiences or photo opportunities, but it's quite impressive to tell your friends at home that you went to Sunday services at Westminster Abbey and sat how many feet away from where William and Kate were married? Or attending Evensong in the evenings at St. Paul's and say you listened to their choir in those enormous halls. Don't forget too, that the cloisters and St. Margaret's Church on either side of Westminster Abbey are always free and open to the public.

Giant sloth in the Natural History Museum

 Real moving steam engine at the Science Museum

 Hanbok made from bojagi  at the Victoria and Albert Museum

Egyptian statue in the British Museum, (aka the museum of cool, stolen things)

Changing of the guard starting from St. James' Palace (we had a great view here, those who went to Buckingham Palace couldn't see a thing)

Evensong at St. Paul's Cathedral

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Big Bus Tour of London

Friday morning I arrived at about 5 am in Heathrow airport in London. I was on my own for the day because my friend was at work of course. After long lines at immigration I finally was released upon Britain and I made my way downtown. Fortunately, my friend who works in the travel industry here in Korea gave me a gift of a bus tour for the day on Friday and so I made my way down to Green Park to find my bus.

I have to mention  here that generally I am not a big fan of  these tour services... I like to wonder around on my own... but generally I travel with someone and so in this case where I was all alone, and really had done almost no research (since I've spent most of my time investigating my next stop: Spain) it was perfect for me. The Big Bus tour had 3 different routes, but the red route was the best as it had live commentary. But, what made this tour better for me was their extra walking tour features and their free boat tour which was all included in the price.

I attended two of the four walking tours, first was the Royal London walking tour which took you to see the changing of the guards at Buckingham Palace, and then I got on the Harry Potter walking tour which takes you to some of the filming locations of Harry Potter (and tells you where to find others that they don't have time to bring you to)

I think I'll save Harry Potter for a different post, but here are some of the photos from the Royal London walk. Our guide Phil was awesome and had a game plan in order to see the most amount of action. See, most people go straight to Buckingham Palace to see the changing of the guards, but because of the crowds and the gates around the palace, in reality, you can't see much. Our guide took us to the starting point where the guards come out of St. James' Palace and do their check before marching to Buckingham Palace.

From there, we rushed ahead of them to  catch them marching down the street towards Buckingham palace. We walked along side with them, then cut through St. James' Park to the other side in order to catch the other guard coming down the street to meet them. Then we tried to get across the street to Buckingham Palace, but we got stuck at the light and the police wouldn't let us cross for a while. We were told not to bother even try to watch the actual changing of the guards as there were just way too many people with a terrible view anyway.

After my two tours, I hopped back on the bus to continue the tour. We passed parliament and  went over the Tower Bridge (which is in fact, not London bridge... London Bridge is a rather unimpressive sight in comparison)

Then it was time for my boat tour. Of course, it wasn't long, but it was fun to see the river from a different perspective. It also gave good views of Tower Bridge and the Eye of London (Ferris Wheel). 

So do I recommend the tour? Yes, but make sure you do all the extra tours in order to get the full experience. The bus ride is nice, but not extraordinary. Walking tours are much more fun!

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Don't eat bread!

A translation of a conversation between me, a classmate and my Korean teacher at a final, end of the semester get together:

Irani Classmate: Be careful while you're in America that you don't gain too much weight with all that American food!
Me: Yea, it's hard because I don't get out much and exercise much when I'm at home either...
Korean teacher: They eat bread in America, right?
Me:... Yea, I guess we do....
Korean teacher: Oh, don't eat bread! It's so bad for you!
Me: Actually, I gained over 5 kilos since I came to Korea, and I'm pretty sure it was the rice....
Korean teacher: *blink* *blink* *stare*...

Monday, July 18, 2011

Immediate and Future Plans

Well, readers, another chapter of my life in Korea is drawing to a close. I leave this Thursday for a well needed escape from the Hermit Kingdom. I head to London for 3 days to visit a friend there, then am meeting a friend from the States for a 2 week romp around Spain, then it's back to America for me. But, as you may have guessed, I don't plan on staying long... I'm far to restless for that. I am hoping to be back to Korea by mid-September, but after going to a few job interviews this past week or two and realized that me not having my FBI background check ready (got confirmation that it arrived exactly one week ago in the FBI's office) is going to cause big problems for coming back quickly. I formulated out a plan on how I could have it by mid-September (the plan involves driving down to DC to get the apostille in person, but I kind of wanted to go to DC anyway...), that could still prevent me from getting a job until end of Oct/Nov because even after you get the apostille, it still takes 7-10 days to process in Korea before they can issue a visa clearance number. Anyway, it could happen with some luck, but, let's say I'm not counting on any luck since I've been rather out of that substance for the past 4 months on every endeavor I've tried.

There is a possibility that I may spend a few months working in Georgia (the country, not the state). I've been looking at the Teach and Learn program in the Republic of Georgia. The country looks amazing and totally different from Korea. It's also really nice because they allow teachers to come in for only one semester if they want, plus round trip airfare. It would give me more time to get the FBI background check handled and I could more leisurely find a job for January back here. I've been deliberating on this point for a while and there's still no decision in sight but after a great job interview today... I mean great except that it would be impossible for me to start before November.... I'm starting to think about this Georgia thing more seriously. Going to Georgia would also mean that I could be home for Christmas because their semester ends right before the holiday.

But, in any case, whether I come back to Korea some how or another, or go to the Republic of Georgia for a semester and come back, I hope my beloved readers keep following. And, just because I'm leaving Korea, doesn't mean that there will be no more posts about Korea. I've got enough photos in my computer to keep writing for a year... and I'm sure in August I'll be pretty bored, sitting around my house in America with nothing to do, so keep tuned for more Korea posts and lots and lots of Europe posts in the next month or so!!

And for those of you who are curious what will happen with me and the boyfriend when I leave, he's already planning a trip to the states in September to visit me and meet my parents so I'm not too worried! I'm really looking forward to showing him around my country. We've already got plans to go to Vermont for a day or two and maybe DC if the trip needs to be taken so I can get back here.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Air Force Summer Camp

 The last week of June I spent a week in the city of Cheongju,  teaching a summer camp at the Korean Air Force Academy. My students were a class of 13 senior cadets at the academy. This week gave me a fascinating inside look a the lives of military cadets in Korea.

Classroom Life:

Finally learned how the stupid ladder game works... and it makes more sense than I thought...

This week was a bit of an easy one for the students... except for the whole English only element. These students go to class every day from 8 am - 5 pm straight with only an hour break for lunch. It seems that more than half the students want to become pilots, but they all have a special major in addition to that. They don't start training to become a pilot until after they graduate. Evidently only 50% of the cadets who wish to become pilots actually succeed.

Their rigorous schedule takes a toll on them. Every break time, as soon as I said the words "Ok, guys, break time..." their heads simultaneously hit the desk (they seem to do everything in sync, seems to be part of the training.. ) and they pass out immediately.

The real trick was to wake them up afterwards. Throughout class they'd be nodding off. Some of them had mastered the "I look wide awake, but I'm actually sleeping" mode, while others didn't even try to hide their desire to sleep and just would pass out for entire two hour class periods. They all apologized profusely, though, and explained that they did this to all their professors, not just me. Their schedule just made them all ridiculously exhausted all the time.

The saddest game of Scrabble I've ever seen played. They did better in pairs than on their own like here...

We tried to make class fun for them, though and we had activities every evening. Movie night, Sports night, Free talk night and Game night.

Andy arm wrestling with the highest ranked cadet in the school. Can you guess who won?

Three legged race in the Mini-Olympics

Learning how to throw an American football ... they caught on quicker than we expected!

Friday was dedicated to presentations. While the students had a lot of trouble writing up their speeches, they had some really fun ideas. Their presentation teacher decided that they should each design a product and present the invention. The students created things like 4D TVs which would allow you to smell and feel air, a cadet hat which had an automatic cooling system and a scalp cleansing system and an amazing cadet uniform with cooling and heating system and armor built in. It was really fun watching them make their power point presentations as some of them are quite skilled at it (and had much better presentations skills than I expected... not sure if it's because they actually listened to me or if it's because they just learned correctly in Korean.

Cadet Life:

As I alluded to earlier, the cadet's life is quite rigorous. They wake up every day at 6 am and run 1 km. Shower and eat breakfast and go to class by 8 am, tardiness is not an option. Class is from 8 - 5 with only a 1 hour break for lunch. Students walk in formation back and forth to the cafeteria at 12 and 5 for mealtimes. After dinner, students either have some kind of training, organized run around campus with all their gear on or a club activity (one sport and one cultural activity) every week. At 6 am and 6 pm the students drop everything and face and salute the center of campus where the flag is raised and lowered while they play the national anthem. 11 pm is a final check for students, but they are up past midnight every night studying. The life of these students is much stricter than the military conscripts. They are not permitted to drink or smoke (or get married) and if they are caught doing these forbidden activities, they can be kicked out of school. The cadets take this seriously because they had to work very hard to get in here.

Every student has a rank and some kind of responsibility. I was lucky enough to have the top student in my school (rank-wise) in my homeroom class. You can see in the photo above that he has 5 silver rectangles, showing he is the highest rank in the school. Some students have 2 or 3, others have none. The colored bands represent various merits that they have received. On their shoulders they have stripes which show their school year. I felt really sorry for the freshmen here. They really seem to take it out on these guys, training them for military life. While the upperclassmen sit anyway they like at mealtimes, the freshmen sit at attention at all times and don't seem to be allowed to open their mouths until they are spoken to.

You can see the Freshmen here by looking at the way they sit. The ones with their arms relaxed on the table are not freshmen. The ones with their arms stiff under the table are the freshmen. Upon asking my friend who is an officer in the Navy, he says that this system is modeled exactly after the American system. For him it was the same. Every day he had to memorize one front page article one sports article of a newspaper and talk about it for 5 minutes to his upperclassmen. He was ordered to "square his meal" meaning lift your fork to your mouth in a square shape. Seems harsh to me, but apparently this is just the way to train a good officer.

The most amazing thing to watch

Then on Thursday, the students got a terrible announcement. The school president had decided that the whole school was going to run around the whole campus dressed in their fatigues and carrying all their gear. The students complained the whole day and I heard them asking each other if there had been any change in plans. They kept checking out the window, hoping for rain, so that the run would be canceled, but the run couldn't be prevented. After dinner, they suited up and all us teachers lined up to take photos and cheer them along.

Enthusiastic waves from our students before they started running
Check out their feet! They all move perfectly in sync!

A few of our teachers decided it would be fun to tag along for the run....

It seems that a cadet's life is just one formation after another. Here they are lined up to say goodbye to some army and navy cadets who had been visiting the campus for the week. I don't think I could ever adjust to living like this!! I guess that's why I'm not in the military!

The Air Force Campus:

There were a number of interesting statues around campus. This was the most striking and every one's favorite.

One part of campus we really enjoyed was the outdoor museum. All sorts of aircraft from Korea's history were on display here to check out.

Next to our dormitory was a small sports center which we were allowed to use. It wasn't big, but it didn't seem like many people used it. A few treadmills, weights, a bike or two... and a ping pong table. The teachers on our last night got together for some games of ping pong and chatting.

I loved that every student had a place for their hat outside the cafeteria. No hats at the table and no one gets their hat mixed up with someone else's. Genius.

I couldn't help it... I had to ask them to try on the hat. They thought it was really funny and graciously took a photo. I think it fits well, don't you?

Lieutenant Wing Commander Tom