Monday, 23 May 2011

Once bitten, twice shy: A cautionary tale...

WARNING: There are some disturbing pictures included in this post. Not for the faint of heart.

I was in two minds about whether or not to write up this account but I realised I needed to document my experience as I seemingly did not learn from the countless other times... Plus it's a long story to have to explain to people from home! Ok, so there were a few national holidays in South Korea and it just so happened to work out that I would be able to join my 2 older sisters in Hong Kong, as they were going there on holiday (they actually booked their tickets before I'd booked mine for South Korea!). It did mean having to take a couple of days off work though (during term time) - no mean feat according to my co-teacher, Wendy. Miracles do happen it seems - the Principal gave the ok (apparently he's changed...) and I flew out on Friday 6th from Incheon.

Spent the first couple of days on my own where I made sure to cram in as much sightseeing (and eating of course) as possible. Met up with a jetlagged Yick, Shue and Ian on Sunday. They were staying with some friends in the New Territories so we all ended up going back there. I will blog properly about Hong Kong itself soon - but long story cut short; I'd received a few mosquito bites on Saturday (no big deal - I was eaten alive periodically in Ghana but still managed to not get malaria!) and then a few more on Sunday. However, come Monday morning my legs were covered with these little bites that, whilst itchy, did not look like mosquito bites. Odd. Yet as the day went on my legs started to really itch and swell, in particular the right. By the evening a collection of bites on the area around my right ankle had started to blister and the whole foot and ankle was swollen. We were slightly concerned but figured that it would go down by the next day - joking that the blisters would probably pop during the night! Upon waking on Tuesday, I was initially relieved they hadn't popped but then realised that instead, they'd doubled in size. Now I was worried, and annoyed. I was due to fly back the following day and this was the last thing I wanted to deal with. Being Buddha's birthday we couldn't just go to see a GP, we had to go to the hospital.

Monday evening...
I figured I'd be given a few drugs and be sent on my way. However, the doctor had no idea what was wrong with me, speculating it could be some sort of allergy. I'd been bitten by sand fleas in Malaysia a few years ago and had reacted quite badly to it; however, it was nothing like this! These bites were confined to my legs but it was mainly the right that had swollen and blistered up (there was only one blister on the left). If it was a food allergy then surely it'd be all over but why was it mainly affecting the right? It was then revealed the only thing they could do was to inject me with some drugs to lessen the swelling and itching. However, this would mean staying overnight in hospital. They could attempt to find out the cause but my flight was early on Wednesday morning and there was no way I wanted to deal with the hassle of changing flights and I was scheduled to return to school on Thursday. I had no choice but to check in and spend my last day in hospital. Thank god I'd listened to the wise one (Shue) and taken out Backpacker's Insurance.


Up close and personal

It was a teary goodbye. I cried though, not from being scared, but because I was thoroughly pissed off. What was meant to be a simple opportune break to catch up with the old ones and cram in a spot of travelling had turned into a nightmare. The plan for the day was to be huffing and puffing my way up 268 steps to see the Giant Buddha, celebrating his birthday, and eating vegetarian food. Somehow hadn't factored in being stuck in a hospital on my last day in Hong Kong. Unsurprisingly, my thoughts turned to all the things (namely foods) I had planned on buying but was waiting until the end to and the orgasm inducing mango bubble tea I'd wanted to try one last time. Seriously, it was that good! If it were not for the fear of potentially bursting the damn blisters I would most definitely have kicked myself.

Lunch :-(

Dinner :-(


Ironically I did fulfil the vegetarian part of the plan. I was staying at Tseun Wan Adventist Hospital - they only served (bland) vegetarian food. Hooked up to the meds I drifted in and out of sleep whilst watching some classic Hong Kong dramas. Got chatting to the other 2 patients in my 3 bed ward, both of whom thought I was from Singapore. Makes a change from Korean! The nurses were lovely and sorted out a taxi that would come and escort me to the airport at 6am as my flight was at 8.30am. Despite taking a roundabout route from the airport at the start (in an attempt to save money) I couldn't quite face tackling the public transport in my condition. Come Wednesday morning I was bandaged up, ready to face the long day of travelling I had ahead. As I was flying with Air China it was not a direct flight - I had to change at Beijing. This meant I wouldn't get into Incheon until 4.30pm. However, there was still the matter of getting back to Jecheon (3 hrs away). This was the part I dreaded the most as I had no idea what time the scheduled buses were. Out of the comfort of being able to speak and understand the native language in Hong Kong, I was back to being lost in translation.

Ready for the long day ahead...

Thankfully the entire journey was without incident and I managed to quite easily get the bus back to Jecheon at 5.30pm. But it was extremely difficult and uncomfortable to walk at anything other than snail pace. On route I rung Wendy to tell her what happened and to warn her I would most likely need her assistance when I got back. When I finally reached Jecheon it was close to 9pm. Wendy and her boyfriend promptly picked me up and we drove to the local hospital. Upon revealing my legs to both the doctor and Wendy, both gasped and withdrew in horror. During transit the blisters had tripled in size - joining in the process. I cried then from fear for the first time in the 2 day ordeal. Tired from having travelled all day walking painstakingly slow I just wanted the whole thing to be over. It was becoming evident I wasn't going to get an answer but I would happily settle with a solution. Unfortunately, I was going to have to wait a bit longer. Due to the time there was not an onsite skin specialist and the nearest unit was in Wonju, roughly 45 minutes away. A pit stop to get coffee and radiator fluid meant that when we finally arrived at Yonsei Hospital A&E it was after 11pm - 17 hrs after checking out from Tseun Wan Hospital. A bustle of activity led to me being swiftly stuck on an IV followed by a whirlwind of tests. The inevitable endless questioning, poking and prodding drew blanks once again. Blood, Urine, ECG, X-Ray, Blood Pressure, Temperature tests all revealed nothing other than the fact that, statistically, I was perfectly healthy. I wasn't having an anaphylactic reaction (obviously - I could have told them that without the tests) but I was without question, having a severe allergic reaction to something. The assigned doctor informed me that he was, to put it simply, baffled (my translation) and would have to call his senior for advice. More waiting ensued.


Still can't believe this was my leg...

I took in what was going on around me - a lady who was wailing when I first arrived had settled into subdued sobbing, most of the patients were unconscious; some were being tended to by their loved ones. It was nearing midnight and Wendy was still waiting outside with her boyfriend, despite my insistence for her to go home. Lying down felt odd but I needed to manually adjust the bed (no automatic controls here) and the IV poked painfully into my left hand (managed to bag a nurse with no bedside manner) so I had to settle into a half raised position on my side. My discomfort paled considerably in comparison to my neighbours though. Remembering I was no longer in a secluded ward but in the A&E department gave me much needed perspective. Apart from having a deformed leg I was otherwise fine. Still, it seemed highly unlikely I would be able to go into school the next day. Ah, I bet the principal will regret allowing me the time off now!

Finally my doctor comes back - an answer at last? Alas, it's wishful thinking. Mr Senior is equally baffled but gives his best regards. His advice - pop the monsters (sorry, blisters), pump me with steroids and send me on my way. With that stated, I am attended to by 3 nurses in unison- before I can blink my IV is yanked out, my backside is jabbed with steroids and my legs are stabbed with needles. The latter takes the longest. Wendy holds my hand whilst I cried like a baby, unable to look. It was not so much the popping that hurt but the raw skin underneath being pressed upon as the copious fluid was drained. After an agonising amount of time the nurse packs up her tools and stalks away without saying a word. Regardless of the language, I notice a stark contrast in the nurses in Hong Kong and South Korea. In Hong Kong they were all sweet, attentive and gentle whereas in South Korea they seemed to take the no nonsense approach. I know which one I preferred.

After popping...

My swollen right foot

Despite the medical coverage provided by my school, the bill comes to 117,000. Wendy gasps but explains that it's because it's A&E and all the tests that were involved. At that point, I couldn't have cared less. I just wanted to go home. By the time I dump the heavy bag I'd prepared for the assumed hospital stay on my apartment floor it's 2.30am. Due to the drugs I'm pumped with I fall instantly into a dead slumber. I awake only when Wendy rings in the morning to check I'm alive. The guilt comes back. I'm still dog tired (and I don't exactly go to bed early in general) but Wendy is someone who's disciplined enough to hit the sack at 10pm. Thank god I had enough sense to get the expensive chocolate at the airport! I wake up only to dress and get my prescription and spend the rest of the time sleeping and consuming my emergency stash of Reese's Peanut Butter Cups. My fridge was in dire need of replenishment but I couldn't quite work up the energy to go to the Lotte. Luckily my wonderful fellow teachers at school arrived to save the day. Erica (Korean) and Jan (American) spend some time checking I'm ok before informing me they were taking me to dinner. They saw through my failed attempt to convince them I didn't need anything (damn, I had been looking forward to that rameyon). They'd also brought along a gift from my principal (bottles of juice in a gift box - it's a 'thing' here) and reassured me that he wasn't angry at all but instead concerned (I did still have a nightmare in the following days that he had fired me and I needed to look for another job or get deported!).

On Friday I managed to resemble something more human and visited the local Dermatologists with Wendy in tow. This time I had my long overdue answer - it was likely a combination of being bitten, then having the area irritated by foliage or something else. It was very unfortunate that my reaction was somewhat unique and severe. Not exactly rocket science. Nevertheless I was just happy that it was NOT something I had eaten. Nothing would depress me more than having food allergies; in particular seafood (Asians tend to blame seafood a lot)! Over the next few days I do little but sleep, eat, read and watch movies. My right foot was still swollen and the leg very sore making anything active a chore. The drugs I'd been prescribed also made me really drowsy so I was not the most sociable. However, I was not an invalid and scheduled to return to school on Monday. Stupidly I hadn't anticipated the Dermatologists being so busy after the weekend, thus was horribly late for school - not a good way to start after over a week off! Needless to say I was not on best form that day.

Slowly healing...

The extent of the damage...

After a week I am finally back into the swing of things. Definitely going to avoid having anymore time off during term time, not unless I can't help it. It's incredibly annoying keeping my legs covered up but I don't want to scare anyone. Almost 2 weeks since the blisters were popped now and it's not a pretty sight. The swelling has gone and whilst no longer painful, the area is tight from the tender new skin forming so it's back to being bright red. Going to start some much needed exercise this week (due to holiday + complications I've now had almost 3 weeks off Taekwondo!). Praying it doesn't scar and that the bites fade enough for me to bare and get a tan. Weather here is just about perfect but it's only going to get hotter and more humid, so I've been told. This experience had definitely taught me a much needed lesson. Research my travel destinations and stay off sugar before I go!

Saturday, 23 April 2011

Cheongpungho Cherry Blossoms Festival

Ah, what an interesting day and event this turned out to be! Originally I had thought about going to the Yeouido Spring Flowers Festival 2011 but being Seoul, knew there would be a massive influx of visitors to contend with - battling it out with sweaty tourists does not make for an enjoyable way to admire cherry blossoms. A friend informed me about the local festival here in Cheongpungho (technically part of Jecheon - about 30 mins outside of the main city) and I figured it'd be perfect to go to this on Sunday after hiking on the Saturday ('Summit Time').

A little backstory: The custom originates from Japan (don't care - I happily admit I love Wikipedia). Every Spring South Korea breaks out in a stunning storm of cherry blossoms - etherally beautiful but sadly short lived. Hence they are regarded with reverence and EVERYONE is obessed with taking photographs of them. Their debut is tentative as they can be affected by changes in weather and they only have a life span of around 2 weeks so I can understand the rush to capture them in all their glory.

So there we were all to set to venture out on one of the most gorgeous day I've experienced in South Korea by far. Then my friend (who was already at the festival) rings and inforrms me that what should be a 30 minute bus ride will in fact take about an hour due to the heavy festival traffic. Understandable, yes. We take it into our stride. What I didn't quite anticipate though was the number of people that were already crammed onto the bus. Now you have to understand, I'm used to buses in the UK - large, spacious with a low suspension. Due to the location of my school I have to take the bus to and from so I knew what to expect. Buses in Korea are like large versions of mini-buses - thus the suspension is relatively high. Sometimes I end up having to stand if I get out of school at the wrong time (i.e. same time as the middle school kids!); I dread this as inevitably you'll end up hanging on for dear life as the driver stops, starts and swerves in and out of heavy traffic as he (yet to meet a female one) pleases. So it was with a heavy heart that I set foot on the bus and I certainly wasn't disappointed. We joked that at least it was a good workout - yet to surf but I would liken it to that. Couldn't help but think of Donkey in Shrek - "Are we there yet?" The entire journey ended up taking almost 2 hours by which point we were glowing with perspiration and struggling to breathe as a sly person was letting rip.  Therefore, when some of our friends got off to walk we quickly followed suit. No idea why we didn't think of doing it sooner! Needless to say the view was incredible and thankfully, worth the painful journey.

Dunkin Donuts: That's a BLUEBERRY bagel there..

The Wonders of Public Transport

Took a (long) detour to Cheongpung Land where the tallest Bungee Jump in South Korea is located! There were also 2 additional rides called 'The Big Swing' and 'The Ejection Chair' - self explanatory (see pictures). In the past I'd always scorned it (I'm an absolute wimp) but after witnessing some friends doing the Bungee Jump I couldn't help but want to as well. Luckily had a good excuse - was wearing a dress and and thus unable to participate. However, I now can't get the idea out of my head and am planning to do one in the near future....!

Cheongpung Land

The Ejection Chair

The Big Swing

Eventually made it up to the actual festival - to be honest, it wasn't as lively as I thought it was going to be. Perhaps this was due to the fact it was gone 5pm by that point! Almost all of the stands/tents sold food, a few sold clothing/accessories or knick knacks. We walked around and took some more pictures of the blossoms and surroundings. Looking at all of the food was making me hungry but I thought it would be nice to wait for some of our friends who were still making their way to the festival. Unfortunately for them, it ended up taking over 3 hours to get to Cheongpung (they got off much earlier to walk the rest of the way)! The food we eventually got was ok but expensive for what it was (I'd be warned). By crazy luck managed to get a lift back home - only took the suggested 30 minutes this time round! Felt bad as the others were still waiting for the bus but couldn't wait to wash the day's grime off.



Practical stuff: We took a No.953 bus from the inter-city bus terminal opposite Dunkin Donuts (strangest breakfast bagel ever, not recommended) but a No.982 or 961 also goes to Cheongpungho. Due to the festival (I assume) there was a slightly different schedule but there should be a bus every 20 minutes or so and it should in theory only take 30 minutes, but obviously that wasn't the case here. Be prepared take snap everything in sight, drink a ton of liquids (alcoholic or non) and, if you're anything like me, eat lots of ice cream! All in all it was a pretty amazing day - even with the tortuous bus journey!

Thursday, 21 April 2011

Summit Time

1 day shy of my 2 month anniversary in South Korea I finally hiked up my first mountain! It almost didn't happen. Firstly, a couple from England (the guy is from my hometown!) were meant to come and visit, hence reason for said hike, but as usual plans didn't work out (this was the second time we had tried to arrange to meet). Secondly, despite my vow to not go out on Friday, (thus ending up too inebriated and consequently hungover the following day to do anything strenuous) I still somehow ended up in Western Village. However, I managed to escape unscathed and was tucked away by a decent time. Waking up to glorious blue skies on Saturday I was glad I'd chosen to stay in Jecheon and set out to do what many Koreans do during the weekends; go for a leisurely stroll up some mountains....

Attempting this for the first time by myself probably wasn't the best idea but armed with a hand drawn map (from a fellow native English teacher at my school), enough basic Hangul (e.g. how to ask where things are!) to survive, a fully loaded/charged iPod, and my trusty hiking boots I felt confident the day would be a success. Catching the bus and getting off just after passing Uirimji was a doddle. Supposedly the target, Mt Yongdusan, was about a 10 minute walk away, and seriously - how can you miss a mountain? Well obviously you can't but when you're surrounded by a horizon of looming mountains it does get sort of confusing! Luckily, after double checking with a few natives that I was heading in the right direction I ended up at the trailhead. Can't say accurately how long it took from getting off the bus as I took various detours to take pictures (I get distracted easily) but I would say it's about a 15 minute direct walk from the bus stop to Mt Yongdusan and the route is pretty much straight, as it turned out.

Second Uirimji
You can't really get lost!
Trailhead - which direction to go?
There are various ways to spell this mountain apparently!

You have a choice as to which trail to take (there are around 3 routes) but under recommendation I took the left trail up and began the journey I'd anticipated since before I came to South Korea. It started off well and was quite fun as there were various obstacle courses laid out across the trail. Yet about 10 mins in the number of stairs to climb increased as did the incline. I enjoy walking as much as the next person and can happily wander around for ages aimlessly. However, this was a totally different ball game and terrain altogether. My poor legs quickly grew tired of the endless stairs and screamed in agony and my lungs protested loudly. With the blood pumping double time around my body and sweat dripping from a face that matched my red hair, I had to stop to rest several times; each time I looked back I despaired at the lack of distance covered and wondererd just how long it would really take for the torture to be over. I have to admit - there were several occasions I seriously contemplated turning around and calling it a day. Somehow I found the strength and laboured on. I was grateful I went on a Saturday (apparently most Koreans go hiking on Sundays) as the trail was quiet and mostly undisturbed. Nothing is more disheartening than people catching up and passing you!

Almost there....
After about an hour I reached what I prayed to be the summit - but alas it was wishful thinking. There was still about 15 mins of steep mountain to climb. At one point I comtemplated feigning ignorance and taking the nearest downward trail. If it wasn't for a fellow hiker (Korean) pausing and encouraging me I probably wouldn't have been able to reach the summit. It also helped that this hiker was sweating so much he was using a towel to mop it off. This may not sound like much of a revelation but I've noticed in this country that many of the natives do not really sweat. Don't get me wrong, they still get that flushed look and slight glow but not the dripping perspiration I'm used to! Anyway, upon reaching the summit I stopped to take the obligatory photographs of the glorious view and to marvel at the fact I'd finally made it. This took a grand total of 5 minutes by which point I was itching to get off the damn mountain!

View from the summit
Contemplating life?
Korean Hikers

Looking at the sign posts I wondered which trail to take down as I couldn't quite face the thought of going back the way I'd come. I'd previously been warned there was a trail from the summit that led to another mountain so I knew to avoid the 10 km trail (not really rocket science). In the end I chose to sneakily follow a group of Korean hikers - according to the sign post this trail was of a greater distance but I figured this must be down to a gradual incline/decline as opposed to the steep one I'd just overcome. Thankfully, my assumption was right; the trail was much easier to hike and noticebly busier - there were even children (with their parents of course) on this trail. There were times though you had to be extra careful with your footing and I still wonder how some people could do this in just trainers - I would definitely recommend good hiking boots. The descent took much less time (I ran whenever the trail flattened out!) and I'm not ashamed to say it was definitely my favourite part of the hike!

2.1km trail on the way up and the 2.48km trail on the way down


On the way back I made another detour to Solbat Park (you can't miss it) and took some more pictures of various monuments and statues that I still need to get translated as I have no idea of their significance. Another detour around Uirimji took me to the local 7Eleven and I treated myself to a delicious sachet of 'Frozen Milkshake' - tasted like vanilla and coconut ice cream, yum! Sadly, I still miss the FanChocos I was addicated to in Ghana (a life saver on long tro tro journeys - luckily the Ghanaians sell them by the roadside which meant I would end up buying on average at least 3, in a single journey, via the window!).

Solbat Park

Slightly odd looking...
New found love!

Ok, practical stuff: Take the No.31 inter-city bus from the main road and get off the stop after Uirimji (the bus will take a slight left bend just before this). Then head in a general straight direction towards the horizon of mountains. Once you pass Solbat Park it's about 5 mins to the trailhead. Took a 550 ml bottle of juice/water and a small snack. Would recommend taking as much liquid as you can carry but you only really need it for the journey up. iPod and compact camera is not essential but much needed as distractions. Wear light but supportive clothing that ideally wicks away sweat. Hiking boots are a MUST unless you want to risk slipping/falling! Caught the same bus (opposite, just outside of Uirimji) back to the main city. You can of course just take a taxi to and from the mountain - much easier but not as scenic. Plenty of convenience and coffee stores on the way for refreshments. Entire journey took about 3 1/2 hours (incl transport) but I took various detours and made several stops. Not entirely sure I've been bitten by the 'hiking bug' yet but I will definitely try to hike as many different mountains in my time here....once my legs have recovered that is!

Catch the bus back here