Stunning views of North Korea

15 Aug

It’s not every day that you go on an adventure with two of your friends, in search of a Fortress, and end up less than 2km from North Korea! Well, that’s exactly what happened to me today! As Im living in rural Korea, more than an hour from Seoul, most weekends are spent on the train to the ‘big city’, to go out, party, meet friends and enjoy all the other amazing things that the city of lights has to offer.

Today, Thursday, is Independence Day in Korea so everyone had the day off. Not wanting to make the long trek to Seoul just for the day, my friend Shauna suggested we explore our Paju in her car as she heard there was a fortress only 20 minutes drive form where we live. Nobody ever explores Paju, so it seemed like a great opportunity to prove to all the ‘haters’ that there really are great things to do in this region.

After 30 minutes driving, and frantic attempts at translating tourist signs which were only written in Korean we eventually ended up in a large car park which doubled up as a drive in cinema and a go-karting track! This was definitely not what we were looking for, but there were lots of other tourists around so we parked and wandered around. (We even got a 50% reduction on the parking fee because her car is so small – It’s the little things!) We were told to hop on a free shuttle bus which would bring us to Odusan Unification Observatory. As the name of the fortress was Odusan fortress we knew we were going in the right direction.

The bus brought us up a steep and winding hill, with pretty stunning views of the local countryside. On arrival at the top we were all seriously excited as the views were phenomenal. The fact that it was a sunny day made things look even better. As it turned out there was no fortress to be found, as the fortress was actually a centuries old fortress, on which the observatory had been built on top of! Oh well, we didn’t mind too much as this place was pretty spectacular.

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Shauna checking out the view

Flag flying high on Korean Independence Day

Flag flying high outside the Odusan Observatory on Korean Independence Day

We paid the dirt cheap 3,000 won entrance fee, took some photos of the gigantic Korean flag blowing in the wind then entered the obseravtory, unsure of what we were going to see. We then proceeded to measure ourselves next to the ‘average North Korean soldier’, admire a photography exhibit of photographs portraying the horror of the Korean war, and eventually went upstairs where we had a private screening of a short movie outlining what could be seen from the observatory.

The obseravtory had  360 degree views of the surrounding area but it was the view to the North that captured our attention. The Observatory is situated at the meeting point of the Imjin River and the Han river, and as they join together the river continues to flow North, into North Korea. Directly out the windows in front of us was a clear, unobstructed 180 degree view of a country we know so little about. The river which divides the two countries is 2km at its widest point and only 460 meters at the narrowest point. AS it is tidal, you could almost WALK across the river bed at low tide. You could pretty much WALK to North Korea in about 10 minutes. MIND BOGGLING.

Visitors young and old enjoying the views from the observatory

Visitors young and old enjoying the views from the observatory

Map outling where we were and what we were looking at across the river and border.

Map outlining where we were and what we were looking at across the river and border.

Fancy sending a postcard from the Demilitarized Zone??

Fancy sending a postcard from the Demilitarized Zone??

The short movie informed us that everything we could see was built by the North Koreans as propaganda; impressive houses and multi stories apartment blocks, all to show how “amazing” life is over there. This would have been more convincing if the houses weren’t half finished, some with no roofs, other just looking empty and uninhabited.

We had a chance to look through binoculars for a few minutes to get a closer view at life in the North and I was jumping around with surprise when I saw 2 men in black walking through a field chatting, and another man wearing white working in a field. You’d swear I had just spotted aliens on Mars or something. I really don’t know why I was so happy to see people, but I guess everything to do with North Korea is exciting when we know SO little about the country.

View of North Korea from the viewing platform

View of North Korea from the viewing platform

Beautiful day in North Korea...weather wise.

Beautiful day in North Korea…weather wise.

I can ALMOST touch it!

I can ALMOST touch it!

Besides my childish excitement, I was also quite pensive as I watched some local South Korean kids posing with plastic soldiers, eating ice-creams and taking pictures on their 500 dollar smart phones, while imagining the lives that similarly aged kids have only a few kilometers away. Will we ever really know what is going on across the border?

(Details: If you are visiting South Korea and would like to check out the Odusan Observatory you can get the Gyeonggi-Line train from Seoul to Geumchon station then get the 900 bus from Geumchon all the way to the Observatory car park, then get the free shuttle bus to the top. More info HERE. Feel free to ask questions and I will do my best to answer.)

Can ONE week REALLY change your life?

18 Apr

At the end of March I had the amazing opportunity to travel to Kolkata for one week to see  The Hope Foundation’s projects with street and slum children. Most of my friends and family know how hard I fundraised to make this opportunity a reality, but many of you don’t know the enormous effect it had on me. I know it’s a long post, but a LOT happened, and my ONE WEEK in Calcutta has heavily influenced a life-changing decision in my life.

Initial Impressions

DSC01399My initial impressions of Kolkata (previously Calcutta) were not what I imagined them to be. In the past whenever people mentioned Kolkata, images from the movie Slumdog Millionaire would come to mind; I imagined the streets to be full of beggars, young children walking around aimlessly, people knocking on car windows looking for money. This may have been a very naive and ignorant view, but that was what I imagined the city of Kolkata to be like. On arrival I was shocked, but in a different way to what I had imagined. I guess for people not well-travelled or the younger students on the trip, arriving into one of the poorest cities in the world could have been jaw dropping. However, and perhaps to my detriment, my extensive travels in Africa have toughened me up to the extent that very few things truly shock me these days.

The city of Kolkata was a lot quieter (although FAR from quiet…beep beep, beep BEEP!), a lot cleaner (although again, far from clean), and a lot less congested than I thought it would be. When you think of India, you think of people EVERYWHERE. Absolutely everywhere. So my first thought on arrival was, “Ehhh…where are all the people?!”
Being with a young school group, staying in a hotel, and travelling everywhere by private bus – I sometimes felt I wasn’t seeing the real Kolkata. I knew there was more out there, but I felt I just wasn’t able to see it.

Settling in – Something will ALWAYS shock you.

pigsThe two things that did shock me to the core happened after a few days in Kolkata. The first was the slums. I have never been in a slum before and everything about it was just awful. The lack of space, rubbish everywhere, pigs running around and sniffing through dirty water and rubbish, the overcrowding, the smell, the lack of access to adequate sanitation – you could see small children squatting to go to the toilet on the side of the road, or grown men just leaning against a wall or railing in broad daylight. It seemed few of the kids were in school as most were running around the slum, half-dressed, playing in the dirt or minding younger siblings. Everything about the slums made me feel uncomfortable, claustrophobic and just sad that people still have to live in such HORRIFIC conditions. You literally have no idea how awful it would be to live like that, with so little possessions, and little hope for a brighter future.

At first, even the HOPE projects within the slums couldn’t help take away this feeling of hopelessness. On arrival at the crèche/coaching centre, we found up to 30 kids in what seemed like a very small room. As it was nearly 40’c outside the room was very hot and stuffy, and I couldn’t believe how many kids were taught in that tiny space each day.
However after sitting down and interacting with the kids and seeing the incredible way the HOPE staff managed the student’s time in such confined space, it was truly inspiring. The students in this room were the LUCKY ones. They were learning, singing, smiling and laughing. They were getting an education which will lead to a brighter future, which is something kids NOT in the room will find extremely difficult to accomplish.

crecheThe coaching centres may be small but compared to the rest of the make shift building in the slum, they are actually quite spacious. Plus they also serve the community in more ways than one, as they double as health clinics in the evenings and at weekends. These rooms are little pockets of gold for the children and their families that live close by.

The second thing that shocked me was going on Night Watch. The HOPE Night Watch team is a team of 3 people (a driver and 2 ‘watchers’) that patrols the streets of Kolkata in a make shift ‘ambulance’ each night looking for abandoned or sick children or adults that may need urgent medical help. Driving through the streets of Kolkata at night was eye-opening. Suddenly, as if they had come out of nowhere, I could see that there were people sitting and lying on thin sheets of plastic everywhere. I literally couldn’t believe my eyes. I don’t think I imagined there would be so many people living and sleeping on the streets. Or maybe I thought it was just individuals rather than WHOLE FAMILIES. It was really sad to see small children and babies curled up next to their mother with nothing to protect them.

woman cooking in slumWe stopped off at Howrah station and it was a real kick in the teeth to see all the people outside the train station, essentially homeless, with nothing to protect them from the elements. It was terrible to see how late these young kids were staying up, way past midnight, running around without supervision, without protection and most likely with very little to eat. We even saw a new-born baby, probably only a few weeks old, lying on the cold ground next to the mother, who was fast asleep. Anyone could have taken this baby. It was frightening to see, to witness, to know that people must live like this just to survive. We have SO much, and still complain, while these people have SO little, and yet still do not beg or ask for hand outs. While the night watch team did hand out donated clothes sent over from Ireland, each person who received something was SO unbelievably grateful and happy to receive something as worthless (to us anyway) as a baggy secondhand t-shirt.

These were a few of my favourite things….

hope hospitalOne of my favourite things on the whole visit was The HOPE hospital. I think it is an amazing place, and while one should be sad going around a hospital, I found myself smiling and found the experience really uplifting. You realise how lucky these children are, how great they are being cared for, and know there is a lot of hope for them to have bright futures. I actually found it very difficult to leave the hospital…either I wanted to stay there with them, or I wanted to take them home with me!

Meeting little Ganesh, the 4-year-old boy who was found by the night watch team in December severely malnourished and near death, was heart wrenching. But then hearing firsthand the enormous improvement in his health over the last 3 months, and getting the chance to play ball with him and watch him sitting up in his colouring was quite an emotional moment for me.

Visiting some of the homes such as Kasba, Tollygunge and even the drop in centre (Tollygunge Nabadisha) was a really uplifting experience and in a way reminded me of my love of children, my love of teaching and how being in an office can be hard for me as I am so far removed from the actually people we are trying to benefit.

So, can one week trip REALLY change your life??

I have always felt one should ‘Do what you LOVE and LOVE what you do’. It’s now time I started listening to my own advice.

holi festival calcuttaMy 7 days in Kolkata were TRULY LIFE-CHANGING, but strangely not in the way I originally thought. I thought I would return home with a renewed passion for working with a charity and for progressing my career in the Humanitarian field. However what actually happened was that my week in Kolkata made me re-evaluate my career choice, and my priorities in life. It made me realise I belong in a classroom and not in an office. Working with kids and not with computers. My biggest passions are working with children and travel so it’s time I combined the two and ‘lived the dream’ so to speak. 

I hope to return to Kolkata someday, with the Hope Foundation, and dedicate my time to working on the projects, working with the children and sharing my passion for life. HOPE is an amazing charity, and the people who work for HOPE are true angels in disguise. If you ever get the chance to visit Kolkata, make sure to look up The Hope Foundation. Who knows, it could change your life too.

International Day for Street Kids – They need YOU!

9 Apr

This Saturday, April 12th, is International Day for Street Kids. It is, to be honest, a day not a lot of people know about, but one in which the Consortium for Street Children has been promoting and celebrating for a few years now will continue to do so until it is fully recognized by the United Nations. You can help this process by signing their petition HERE.

Living in South Korea, where there is almost no poverty and the idea of kids living on the streets of Seoul is almost, I said *almost*, laughable thanks to the extremely high standard of living experienced by the majority of the population and some of the most advanced technology in the world to help progress the nations needs, it is hard to identify with the plight of street kids around the world.

Kids in Korea have more money than they know what to do with, go to school for more hours than any other children on the planet (and probably more that they actually should), and have phones that are so smart and so expensive that children in other pockets of Asia can only dream of.

This time last year, I was a far cry from this life of excessive spending, smart phones and private tutoring. I was working for The Hope Foundation, a not-for-profit International Development Organization that works with street and slum children in Calcutta, India. After almost a year working as their PR and Media Coordinator, I had the chance to visit their amazing projects in Calcutta and to witness first hand the incredible work they have being doing in the areas of health, education and protection mainly for young kids who have been living on the streets or in the slums.

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Smiles all around: 2 Kids that HOPE had been working with

Upon returning to Ireland after one short week in Calcutta, my goals for the future, my outlook on life and even my career choices had all been altered. I realize it is difficult to believe, but 1 week really can change your life. So much so that I wrote all about it HERE.

Two events that will stick with me forever, and had a profound effect in me, happened a few days after arriving in Kolkata. The first was walking through the slums. I had never been in a slum before and everything about it was just awful. The lack of space, the rubbish, pigs running around and sniffing their way through dirty, black water, the overcrowding, the smell, the lack of access to adequate sanitation ( you could see small children squatting to go to the toilet on the side of the road, or grown men just leaning against a wall or railing in broad daylight) and the general feeling of helplessness.

The second experience that shocked me to the bone was going on Night Watch. The HOPE Night Watch team is a team of 3 people (a driver and 2 ‘watchers’) that patrol the streets of Kolkata in a make shift ambulance each night looking for abandoned or sick children or adults that may need urgent medical help.

Driving through the streets of Kolkata at night was nothing short of eye-opening. Suddenly, as if they had come out of nowhere, I could see that there were people sitting and lying on thin sheets of plastic everywhere. And I mean EVERYWHERE. I literally couldn’t believe my eyes. I don’t think I could ever imagined there would be so many people living and sleeping on the streets. Or maybe I thought it was just individuals rather than WHOLE FAMILIES. It was devastating to see young children and even babies curled up next to their mother with nothing to protect them. We even saw a new-born baby, probably only a few weeks old, lying on the cold ground next to his mother, who was fast asleep outside a train station. Anyone could have taken this baby. It was frightening to see, to witness, to know that people must live like this just to survive.

street kid calcutta

Life on the streets in Calcutta is now place for a child.

Even though I am now in Korea, and living a very different life to the one I was living last year (and to tell you the truth, still not the life for me…the search continues….) I still follow the great work that The Hope Foundation does and the stories of the children they help and the lives they save. In fact, that is why I am writing this post!

This Saturday, in order to raise awareness for International Day for Street Kids, HOPE has launched a twitter campaign called #selfies4streetkids. It is a fun and engaging way to get people around the world to snap a fun photo wherever they are and to show their support for street children worldwide. So what are you waiting for?! Grab your phone, and get whoever is around you to jump in for a fun selfie and upload it to twitter with the hashtag #selfies4streetkids.

Also, make sure to follow @HOPE_UK or @hopefoundation on twitter to stay updated with their work.

Spring has Sprung

8 Apr

A small taste of the photographs I took last weekend at the Gyeong-Ju Cherry Blossom Festival. No words can fully describe how beautiful spring is in South Korea…even if it only lasts a few weeks!

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Making An Impossible Challenge Possible

2 Apr

I have been so lazy with my blog so far this year and for that I truly apologize. Usually I write about the big goals I have set for myself then post regular updates on whether those goals have been successful or not.

For Lent this year, I vowed to give up my two biggest vices; Facebook and Alcohol. I decided not to post about this because I was sure, like every other year, that it would most likely be an epic fail and would be a bit embarrassing to admit defeat!

For anyone who knows me in person, you know how much of a party animal I can be. For the sake of my liver, my general health and maybe even my sanity, this needed to stop! As for Facebook, I realised I was totally addicted. I think most people I know are pretty addicted to Facebook, but I discovered that I really do post an obscene amount of times each day and it was wasting so much of my time. I de-activated my profile, un-installed the Facebook App from my phone and vowed to everyone who would listen that I would be staying off Facebook for the grand total of 47 days (None of that cheating on Sunday’s nonsense….I know my Dad would not let me get away with that!!)

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As you may or may not have guessed, this particular challenge was nigh on impossible for me. I could list a million excuses as to why I could not stay away, many of them genuine and a few made up, but I will not go into details and instead will admit total defeat. In fact within 6 short days I had logged back on and posted the “Pharrell Williams – HAPPY – I am from Seoul” video which I filmed and edited. It seemed nothing could keep me from sharing the good stuff in life with friends and family. I was told off by some close friends and soon deactivated for another few days but FOMO (fear of missing out) settled in pretty bad and soon I found myself logging in again and decided this was one battle that, for the moment, I was not up for fighting. Facebook, for the time being, was staying out.

As for the other half of my lenten fast, I am delighted to say that I have, miraculously, stayed off alcohol for over 1 month now and have even decided to EXTEND this no-drinking extravaganza for another month. The hardest day of all was St Patrick’s Day, but once that hurdle was complete, the rest of the month was a breeze.

So what makes an impossible challenge (for me!) suddenly possible? How is this, Lent 2014, the first time in a decade that I have successfully managed to give up drinking? The answer to this question is one small little word. One word which changes everything. And that one word is….Running.

For the first time in about a decade I have seriously committed to getting in shape and am doing this by running. Every morning and every evening. Sometimes in the gym, sometimes around town. Up hills, along tracks, over bridges. Up stairs, down stairs, in stadiums, down motorways. For the past month I have committed 100% to running and it has been an incredible experience and one which I hope I will keep up for the foreseeable future. As part of this new found love, some friends and I signed up to a variety of 10km races all over Korea which have been great fun and these shorter races even led me to signing up to and completing my very first Half Marathon, an experience which I will write all about in my next post.

Here’s to another month of alcohol-free weekends full of fitness and fun!

 

 

St Patrick’s Day Festival Seoul in Photos

18 Mar

Sadly I was too busy on the day to take lots of photos like I usually do, but I thought I would share the few I did take anyway. For a full review of the day, check out THIS POST.

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A fusion of cultures – St Patrick’s Day in South Korea

18 Mar

Listening to an American Military Brass band open an Irish Festival in South Korea by singing Ireland’s call on a day that many will remember for Ireland’s Six Nations victory, was not something I will easily forget.

Speaking on stage at the 14th Annual Seoul St. Patrick’s Day Festival, The United States Army 2nd Infantry Division band said they were delighted to be there and saw the festival as an excellent opportunity to strengthen the partnership between America, Korea and Ireland.

The US Army 2nd Infantry Division Brass Band. Photo by Stephanie Anglemyer

The US Army 2nd Infantry Division Brass Band. Photo by Stephanie Anglemyer

A sea of green and smiles and laughter. Photo by Stephanie Anglemyer

A sea of green and smiles and laughter. Photo by Stephanie Anglemyer

The event, which took place at D Cube City in Sindorim last Saturday, was an incredible fusion of Irish and Korean music and culture and while there are over 1,000 Irish living in Korea, many of whom were no doubt present on the day, it was the presence and participation of so many non-Irish residents that made the festival so unique.

To watch an Irishman on stage speak fluent English, Irish and Korean to an equally stunned and impressed audience, was a true example of what the festival is all about. It is not simply about showcasing and promoting Irish culture abroad, but it’s about being excellent representatives of how welcoming, friendly and adaptable the Irish people are and how open we are to other cultures.

It was great to see so many Korean kids enjoying the festival. Photo by Michelle Marie Jenkins

It was great to see so many Korean kids enjoying the festival. Photo by Michelle Marie Jenkins

Some of the finalists in the Costume Competition. Photo by Stephanie Anglemyer

Some of the finalists in the Costume Competition. Photo by Stephanie Anglemyer

While Ireland and Irish musicians were well represented on the day, there were also musicians and dancers from Korea, the United States and even China. Listening to Bard, a group of Koreans who play traditional Irish music, play some classic Irish tunes while young kids danced in circles in front of the stage and 1,000’s more soaked up the atmosphere and basked in the first of the spring sunshine really encapsulated the theme of the day.

Other highlights included; watching the crowd look on in awe as Tap Pung, a Korean Irish Dancing troupe, took to the stage and gave Riverdance a run for their money; watching hundreds of waygooks (foreigners) form a human train in front of the main stage while Sweet Murphys Fancy belted out some drinking songs; watching professional photographers click furiously with the knowledge they were getting incredible shots as the finalists of the costume competition lined up near the stage and danced around in a last-minute bid to impress judges and lastly seeing big groups of Korean school children sitting in the audience, delighted with the green balloons and the hilarious Jameson branded “leprechaun” hats which had been given to them for free, smiling and laughing despite not having a clue what was going on!

A beautiful Korean-Irish Fusion dance directed by Nannah McGlennon. Photo by Stephanie Anglmyer

A beautiful Korean-Irish Fusion dance directed by Nannah McGlennon. Photo by Stephanie Anglmyer

Tap Pung, Korean Irish Dancers on the main stage. Photo by Stephanie Anglemyer

Tap Pung, Korean Irish Dancers on the main stage. Photo by Stephanie Anglemyer

St Patrick’s Day has always been my favourite holiday of the year, even surpassing Christmas and Halloween in my personal popularity chart, and this year was no different. I have always been a very proud Irish citizen, and this pride seems to multiply whenever I’m actually outside of Ireland.

Celebrating St Patrick’s Day in Korea this year, however, felt extra special and yet I can’t exactly pinpoint why that is. It could be  that it was my first time being involved in the behind-the-scenes organization of the festival, which took 6 months of hard work and dedication by a team of volunteers who were delighted to see their hard work pay off on the day. It could have been the fact that I was volunteering on the day so had a different perspective from the rest of the crowd.

Finally, and this could be the real answer, it could be because it was my first time in celebrating St Patrick’s Day sober in over a decade. Whatever the reason, pride and joy was simply flowing through me like a fast-flowing river on Saturday and no amount of negativity or difficult situations was going to dampen my spirits on my favourite day of the year!

A snapsot of the colorful crowd. Photo by Stephanie Anglemyer

A snapsot of the colorful crowd.

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Myself and Michelle taking a short break from our volunteering duties!

Myself and Michelle taking a short break from our volunteering duties!

Big shout out to the Irish Association of Korea for organizing such a  memorable festival and to all the incredible volunteers who helped out on the day. It was the perfect way to welcome the spring to South Korea and another excellent showcase of why everyone loves the Irish!

To see more photos from the day, check out Stephanie Anglemyer’s photography website at: http://www.anklebiterphotos.com/

Generation Emigration – St Patrick’s Day in South Korea

11 Mar

st patricks day seoul korea

Each day this week on the Irish Times website, members of Irish communities around the world will be sharing plans for St Patrick’s Day where they live. Today, I had the opportunity to share my experiences in South Korea and to write about Seoul’s 14th St Patrick’s Day festival, taking place this weekend.

To read the article on the Irish Times website, click here.

Back home in Ireland, preparation for St Patrick’s Day does not involve too much planning, aside from stocking up the fridge, planning crazy green outfits with friends and deciding how early is too early to start the festivities. This year, all that changed for me.

On arrival in South Korea last July, I was asked to join the Irish Association of Korea (IAK), a not-for-profit organisation which promotes Irish culture in Korea. As well as hosting events for the Irish community, it also provides the opportunity for Koreans and other expats to experience and learn more about Irish life. The main event of the year is the St Patrick’s Day Festival in Seoul, now in its 14th year, with up to 10,000 spectators showing up on the day.

Being a part of this active and engaging organisation has given me incredible behind-the-scenes experience of what it takes to plan a St Patricks’s Day Festival abroad. It takes months of hard work by an extremely dedicated team of people. Over the last few months, much of the committee members’ free time has been tied up at meetings, fundraising events and sponsorship talks. I could never have imagined how much time and effort goes into organising one day of craic agus ceoil until I was involved myself.

Now that all the ground work has been done – sponsorship secured, a perfect venue located, great musicians, experienced Irish dancers, story-tellers and local volunteers recruited – we are all very excited for the event to begin.

The festival here Seoul is known for the keen participation from members of both the Irish and Korean community, and this year will not disappoint with traditional folk dancers and musicians playing Irish music, both traditional and popular rock, coming from all over Korea to perform.

Musicians from Ireland will also feature heavily on the bill and the festival will offer an opportunity for the public to get involved, with traditional ceili-dancing, which has grown in popularity every year, taking place at the main stage. There will be face painting and story telling for children.

No festival promoting Ireland and Irish culture would be complete without the GAA present and thus a display of Gaelic football will be hosted by the one of the most successful teams in Asia, the Seoul Gaels Gaelic football team. The Seoul Gaels will also be using this opportunity to seek new recruits for their upcoming season, which starts in April.

The Seoul St Patrick’s Day Festival is the perfect opportunity for people living in Korea to experience Irish culture and get a feel for the wonderful array of Irish talent living here. March 17th is a day when we all think of Ireland and its rich history. To be able to celebrate that here in South Korea shows the extraordinary power of the Irish abroad and I am very proud to be a part of such a great expat community.

Pharrell Williams – Seoul is also HAPPY!

9 Mar

PharrellWilliams_Happy

With the help of my amazing friends, and quite a few total strangers, I just finished filming, editing and uploading a Seoul remake of the Pharrell Williams HAPPY music video. Considering all filming was done on smart phones and the entire video was edited in a few hours, I think we did a pretty good job. Let me know what you think! :)

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