Transitions commence new adventures. Make 'em last…

2010 Winter Staff Retreat

Panoramic View from my apartment window in Gimpo. It's definitely winter!

2 pairs of pants, check. 2 long-sleeve shirts, check. 2 pairs of socks, check. 2 jackets, check. Toiletries, check. Money, check. Bag is packed, good to go! Winter Staff Retreat here I come!

Due to the recent North Korean attack and our school’s close proximity to the DMZ, it was avidly advised by the Korean government that no staff retreats be organized far from the school. The men brushed this off as mere hogwash and organized it anyway. However, the principal ordered that the women do not accommodate us in order to somehow adhere to the Korean government’s demand. Nevertheless, immediately following Friday’s classes, I chucked my bag in the trunk and joined all the men for the surprisingly long, west-to-east coast five-hour haul to Chŏngsŏn (Jeongseon). The agenda: snowboarding!

Unfortunately, not many pictures were taken as the Korean idea of a staff retreat is super fast-paced, but very fun nonetheless. Although, in spite of my enjoyment, I also experienced a few “hiccups” that almost made it the staff retreat from hell.

After stopping for dinner and enduring the 5-hour drive to Chŏngsŏn, it was nearly midnight by the time we reached our room at Mayhills Resort. However, that didn’t appear to phase anyone as we all quickly tossed our bags inside and headed back to the car. Our late-night plan: Kangwon Land Casino.

South Korea banned gambling in 1969 and restricted betting to only horse racing until about 10 years ago. The word from many of my Korean colleagues is that when gambling was legalized again, gamble fever struck across the country as extensive queues were formed around casinos for weeks. After observing for a few moments, I recognized that perhaps the fever had not yet subsided because the casino was insanely packed!

I’m not much of a gambling man, but once in awhile I enjoy making small bets on big horse races or football games between friends. I also always had a good time playing Texas Hold ’em with friends during my my college years, and most of the time I walked away with their money. Therefore, I peeked around the casino to see if there was a friendly game of Texas Hold ’em, but none was found. The casino was solely filled with dozens and dozens of six-deck Blackjack tables, variations of Roulette, these random-looking computerized Craps tables, and of course, slot machines. These are the primary moneymakers for any successful casino and I was able to consistently observe people emptying their once-filled wallets without the slightest scruple. With the casino’s solid, favorable odds, there’s no question as to how they reap the benefit off every hand, spin, or roll of the dice; it’s only a matter of time. Although, it’s not solely the casino that benefits, the Korean government owns 51 per cent of the shares in Kangwon Land Casino.

After my search to find Texas Hold’em ended in mild disappointment, I immediately located my Korean colleagues taking their chances at roulette. Unfortunately, their winning was desultory, and it was just a matter of time before they all lost the 20,000 won ($20) they each started with. “No matter, ” one of my colleagues said. “It’s entertainment.” Once everyone lost their “entertainment,” we headed back to the hotel and had fried chicken & beer delivered at 3am.

Fried Chicken & Beer at 3am. Good times!

Wow! The fried chicken was tasty! It was ten times better than anything I’ve ever tried at KFC or Popeyes, hands down! I scarfed down 5 pieces within 10 minutes, drank a few cups of Cass beer, and then immediately felt very fatigued. It was at this time that I quickly discovered that all eight of us were going to be staying in the same hotel room and there was only one bed and a petite sofa. “Uh, hey y’all, there’s only one bed and my back is already aching…” I said giving a hand gesture to the bedroom.

“Go ahead, no problem. We are all going to sleep on the floor,” Mr. Chong said. And just like that, I headed to the bedroom and the last thing I remember was that the clock read 3:33am.

Next thing I knew, I was being awakened at 7:15am to prepare my things in order to go snowboarding. In a rather comatic fashion and demeanor, I slowly slipped on my snowboarding gear, drank a glass water, and was ready to go. However, I soon realized that everyone was packing all their bags and putting them by the front door. I paused for a moment and then questioned, “Are we only staying one night?”

With a unified response of “Yes” I immediately realized that I was out-of-the-loop. I then shook my head, chuckled, and went to organize my things for a quick departure.

Enjoying the view from our hotel room for just a brief moment before our departure

The city of Chŏngsŏn resides close to the east coast in the provincial area of Gangwon-do and sits amid the Taebaek mountain range that runs along the Sea of Japan and stretches over 500 kilometers from North Korea all the way to the southeastern tip of South Korea. On the way to the ski lift, I was immediately awestruck by how analogous the Taebaek mountain range was in comparison to the Sierra Nevada mountains of California; it truly felt like home. In addition, the skinny is that Chŏngsŏn used to be a prominent coal-mining town, but upon it’s slow demise the town converted itself into a skiing mecca attracting  enthusiasts from all over Korea and beyond. Many exquisite hotels and snowboarding boutiques now apparently reside where mining facilities once operated.

Upon reaching the ski lift with snowboard in hand, my feet already began aching. I quickly recalled that I was wearing snowboard boots two sizes too small that I was utterly forced to endure because not a larger size could be found throughout a half-dozen ski shops in Chŏngsŏn. I was duly warned before even coming to Korea that it would be hard to find things in my size, but I shrugged it off as mere nonsense. Well, that “nonsense” paid it’s price as my feet were hurting to the core. Although, I was soon distracted from this aching for a few moments watching attractive women pass by carrying their snowboards and gear wearing luminous stilettos. Stilettos, I questioned. How strange, but I suppose many Korean women were trying to hold on to their image to the very last moment until they had to ditch their stilettos for snowboarding boots.

When we reached the top of the ski lift, I held my composure regarding my aching feet and focused on my first long ride down the mountain.

David & I moments before our first attempt down the mountain (camera-phone photo)

Within 30 seconds of my first run I had the worst spill of my life. OUCH! It was brutal, and I have the bruises to prove it. I was also a little shaken up, but nevertheless okay. The last time I was on a snowboard was close to ten years ago and this initial spill shattered my apparent gung-ho approach. It was definitely a wake-up call as subsequent spills were much less aerobatic and dangerous, which I can again suppose was a good thing since I came back in one piece with no broken bones or hospital visits. However, a somewhat serious incident occurred that rattled my snowboarding spirit and instilled a steady uncertainty that is honestly hindering the idea of ever snowboarding again.

On the 3rd run down the mountain I had a mild spill, but I felt my entire leg twist in an obtuse direction. My initial thought was that my leg should not be moving in this way because I’m anchored to the board, but then I felt some abnormal warmth around my knee and thigh. There was a little pain and that’s when I looked down to see that one of the foot anchors where the boot locks into was twisted and severely loosened. I sat there for a moment evaluating the situation and waiting to see if the knee pain would worsen, but it soon subsided. I took a deep breath, unstrapped my feet from the board, examined where the foot anchor had malfunctioned, and then shook my head in utter relief and anger. Anger? Well, I could have seriously hurt myself and I was lucky that I wasn’t put on a stretcher at that very moment. Thanks to my overall flexibility and leg strength I think I was able to avert a horrible life-altering injury, and I can guarantee that if I was not duly athletic, that I’d be in a cast and carrying crutches right now.

This incidence scared me enough to where I decided not to snowboard the rest of the afternoon, which was a bummer, but I was soon happy to be in good health. In addition, my colleagues avidly insisted that I ride on the emergency ski-stretcher that comes by and picks you up if you are injured. The man operating the ski-stretcher had me board it and then we immediately headed down the mountain. At first I thought it was kind of fun, but then as soon as we picked up speed I realized that I had not been strapped in and my legs were bouncing off and dragging in the snow on every jerk and turn. During several turns I literally almost rolled out of the stretcher and was lucky enough to barely catch myself on a few occasions. Geez, what if I was “really” injured?!? This “emergency ride” down the mountain became dangerously tantamount to my snowboarding runs and my heart was nervously racing by the time we reached the bottom.

Once I reached the nearest place where I could sit down, I took off my boots and immediately felt relieved. Then, I caught the sugary aroma of churros nearby. Churros at a South Korean ski lift, I questioned. Quite random indeed! It wasn’t before long that I found the small Mexican churro stand in the middle of the ski lift and I splurged purchasing four super thick churros. With a strong grasp on them all, I propped up my feet up on a table, chowed down, and then dozed off in happiness. Two hours later we set out on our 5-hour trip back to Gimpo and had plenty to talk about regarding our snowboarding escapades. Pondering the fun experience now, perhaps I will give snowboarding another try in due time…

Until then, let it snow!

One comment on “2010 Winter Staff Retreat

  1. carmen
    December 21, 2010

    “I’ve got a churro!” angels stadium in LA. fun times! that snow board incident reminds me of my knee injury. it can happen so easily, huh? that’s why i take it easy on the slopes now a days.

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“Experience, travel – these are as education in themselves.”

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