Island Hop

 

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It’s nearing 3 a.m. here in Busan, and my bags, books, and beach mat are almost fully packed.  Five months after landing in Korea, and immediately embarking on a full-time, Monday-Friday gig teaching short-vowel sounds to tykes– the week-long summer vacay has arrived.  About a month ago I splurged on The Rough Guide to Korea (I highly recommend) and have enjoyed every second getting lost in its maps, descriptions, and region-by-region highlights.  In the end, deciding how best to spend eight days cruising around the country wasn’t hard–I’m an island girl at heart.

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This is a pretty ancient map of Jeju-do, Korea’s biggest island, jutting out of the South Sea and apparently created around two million years back through a burst of volcanic eruptions.  From Busan it’s an 11-hour boat ride, or 50 minutes by plane.  After landing there tomorrow afternoon (thank you, cheap flight found on Expedia), I’ll be bussing to a town on the East Coast called Seongsan.  I’ve got a mat in a minbak reserved for the night, close to the edge of a caldera called Ilchulbong, which I plan to climb on a sunrise hike the following morning, kicking off what I’ve decided is a nature-themed trip.

After four days on Jeju, a morning ferry will float me to a smaller West Sea Island connected to the coast called Wando.  I plan to spend a couple days and nights chilling out there as well as on a smaller, nearby island called Bogildo which I’ve read is filled with pine trees.  Then it’s off on a few more busses through the South West province of Jeolla to Daehan-dawon–a green tea plantation sprawling between a town called Boseong and another called Yulpo. 

The rest of the Busan crew are also jetting off a few hours from now: Leah’s flying solo to Japan, while Ashley and Jason, Bryan and Dianna are missioning to China for some Great Wall, Terracotta Warriors, and Shanghai massage.  A major group reconvene will occur upon return; I figure the six of us will have a few stories to tell!

See you in a week, everybody…

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People I Meet: Dianna from Shreveport

 

 

Days in Korea: 108

Hails from: Shreveport, Louisiana

Outlook on life was drastically altered in 2008 by: a semester in Florence

Moved to Busan with: her boyfriend Bryan

Met him: last June during a waitressing stint in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina

Has a weakness for: 3 a.m. kebabs

Recently splurged on: a stand-up fan and a French press

Is gonna get dirty at: Mud Fest

Recently taught her Kindergarten class to sing: Skinna Marinky Dinky Dink

Is squeamish about: stickers

Is stoked to check out: China in July

Especially to see: The Terracotta Warriors

Frequently skypes with: her 1-and-a-half-year-old nephew Caleb

Listens to: Spencer Day

Goes for: 3 mile runs

In a Seoul hotel room, she, Bryan, and I recently stayed up until 2 a.m. discussing: the Vietnam War

While eating: Pringles

Tacked to her living room wall is: a world map

Recently added to her reading list: Barbara Demick’s “Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea”

Wishes she’d packed more: winter shoes

Often says: y’all

Post Busan, she’ll roam through: S.E. Asia

After that, she’ll likely: move to Prague

A couple weeks ago we: chilled out in the sun at Songjeong Beach

And sipped on: Cass Lemon

And watched: Korean teenagers toss each other into the sea

And took: this photo

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Of Shells and Ships

 

About three minutes in to my recent visit to the Jagalchi Fish Market–where Korea’s biggest gathering of seafood vendors hawk the day’s fresh catch–I saw a creature I didn’t know existed. 

It was pink.  It had no eyes and was shaped like a sausage.  After peering at it for a few seconds, I noticed it was alive–moving in a slow, blind wriggle.  My toes curled in their flip flops.  The ajumma–rubber-booted, plastic-aproned women who work at the market scraping, scaling, beheading, chopping, and serving Korean sea-life to the daily crowds–had displayed the creature in a silver metal bowl, alongside its pink peers, next to a few clams and some kind of urchin.  The floor was wet and the air smelled like salt.  Everything around me, I realized, was alive; it was as if I’d stepped into an above-ground reef.

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 “It was probably a sea cucumber,” my mom said, when I called her the next day.  Turns out the pink sea sausages are called gaebul, dubbed “Sea Penises” on more than a few foreigner blogs.  Apparently they’re hollow inside and taste like seawater.  The restaurants above the market serve them live.

I didn’t buy anything at Jagalchi, but wandered through it awestruck, partly at the coloured and squirming gills, arms, tails and tentacles that crowd the tanks along each aisle, and partly at the women running the show.  Ajumma in Korean means a woman of married age, but the term carries with it the connotation of being tough. 

A Jagalchi ajumma has likely spent the bulk of her life squatting at a stall, gloved hands coated in fish parts.  She can grab an octopus from a tank and bag it up with her eyes closed.  In the aisle she’ll push past you, dragging a net of jumping mackeral toward rows of metal bins and cutting boards.  Outside, you’ll find her crouched over a plastic bucket, de-shelling clams on the concrete while the sun drifts over the Korea Strait.

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I was a little squeamish checking out some of the creatures…

 and felt bad watching their attempts at escape…

 

especially the octopus, who, my mom informed me, is the most intelligent of invertebrates.

 

But the colours and patterns were beautiful…

and reminded me that nature blows away the competition in design.

Outside, the fish dried in the sun…

and a knife or two was displayed…

across from the shells and the shoes.

But my favourite part was the edge of the port, where men whose lives I’d never know worked on rusty ships…

 

and the mountains were green, and the gulls were free.

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Where the Owl Flies

Spring Issue, Busan Haps

 

I’ve always been a bit of a night owl.  In the bedtimes of my elementary school years I could be found tucked beneath a blue-and-white checkered bedspread, head hidden from sight, one hand gripping a mini-flashlight while the other turned the pages of the latest Sweet Valley High.  Some nights my mom would spot the faint glimmer slipping beneath my bedroom door, and call out from the top of the staircase, “Get to sleep!”  I’d click the light off and listen to her footsteps fade. 

Then I’d click it back on and keep reading until my eyes gave in.

I like the night.  I like the moon and the silhouettes of trees.  I like the glow of street lamps shining on the sidewalks.  I like the spurt of energy I get around 10 p.m., when the day has trailed off and a few untouched hours lie ahead, coaxing me to linger in them before morning appears.  I like the feeling night brings of expanding time a little, loosening it’s clutch over our lives.

Or maybe that’s just the libations…

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Yes, a night owl also likes a good night out.  Luckily, I picked the finest Korean city south of Seoul to satiate my love of after-dark offerings.  Ten weeks into Busan, I’ve discovered its basement lounges and upstairs bars– rooms with brick walls and hardwood floors and names like Soultrane and Fabric and ‘Ol 55. 

 They’re tucked into narrow roads in sprawling neigbourhoods called Kyung Sung and PNU, where the streets are still throbbing with people after dark, where the dark and the people come together for a drink.  Above Soultrane, in a small second-floor space called Crossroads, the owner pulls records out of old sleeves from a collection that lines the back wall.  Here you can order a Jameson’s with two cubes of ice and sip it while you listen–to the records, early on, and later to a band that will perform on a tiny stage next to a window that you’re not supposed to open.

 Sometimes the bars host special events.  In March, in Haeundae–a beach neighbourhood three stops from the end of Subway Line 2–Sunset Lounge threw a costume party called WTF. 

Dress up in the craziest gear you can find, said the invite, and try to get someone to look at you and say, WTF?

I suggested wigs.  Ashley suggested colours that didn’t quite fit the rainbow, and, after a seven-strong shopping mission to Nampodong, The Rainbow Rejects were born. 

The name has since been shortened to The Rainbow Crew…

While we were definetely a hit, I had to admit this guy deserved the biggest “WTF?”

 Along with special events, the bars feature special drinks, namely tequila.  For $10,000 won the bartender will fill four shot glasses with the dirty golden dew and you and your friends will drink it.  It gives a kick start to the night, which, in a city where the bars don’t close until 4 or 6 a.m., can sometimes be a late one.  Especially when you don’t wear a watch.  And you’ve had a shot of tequila.

 The late-night spots feel a little grimy.  Kino Eye’s dance floor gets pretty packed…

 And The Basement’s bathroom gets neglected.

But it’s easy to get on the pool tables…

And the DJ’s get excited when you dance…

Especially when there’s a lot of you.

We meet people when we’re out.  Some of them are cool, like the Irish guy I met at U2 called Robert who loves Beirut and Bon Iver as much I do.  Some of them are not cool, like the Kiwi rugby player who spent half an hour hitting on Leah at Club Makjim, then mentioned he was married.

Luckily, I’ve got the sweetest crew around, no matter who else I meet…

And a couple of legends at Ol’ 55.

On Wednesdays, this place holds an open mic.  The vibe is chill, the room is cozy, and the musicians, so far, are really talented. 

Give me a seat close to the stage, a cold glass of Cass, and the sound of an acoustic guitar being strummed.  At the end of the day, that’s my kind of night.

 

All Kinds of Business Goin’ On

 

A lot of business goes down on the street here.  Men with little blue trucks set up shop on the sidewalks, unpacking potted cactus plants or bags of puffed rice or piles of plastic slip-on shoes.  Outside my apartment building most evenings, you can find a woman crouching on a stool in her truck, deep-frying squid balls in the light of two paper lanterns than dangle from the roof like beacons.  I’m not sure what anyone pays to rent the sidewalks, or if permits are even required, but the sellers make street-strolling an adventure for the eyes.

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I spotted this guy in Jinhae, a town Southwest of Busan.  Or did he spot me?  Not sure what he was selling…I just liked his hat and the pink and black ensemble.

Cotton Candy man on Cherry Blossom row in Gwangan-li.  Could there be a more perfect place to sell cotton candy than underneath this tree?  (Location, location, location.)

Waffles, fresh off the grill.

 Sweet treats.

 This old-school machine spits out rice puffs.  Batter in, rice puff out.

Just in case you feel like a silk worm snack.  The toothpicks help you munch while you stroll.  Funny, I never seem to get a craving.

Nothing like a giant block of ice to keep the drinks cool!

This artist uses what I think is some kind of ink tool to make portaits of people while they sit and pose for him.  Dianna and Bryan bought a picture of a tiger from him to decorate their apartment.  He said it was one of his favourites.

This singer and dancer was selling pure entertainment in Jinhae.  He liked to pull his skirt down and have people in the crowd slap his butt.

Leah went for the late-night squid balls on Saturday.  I opted for peanut butter toast at home.  Yep, you can get the PB here!

People I Meet: Leah from Miami

 

The spring I was 18 I chopped off all my hair, dyed it bright red, and stuffed a green backpack full with clothes, a pair of Birkenstocks, my faded baby blanket, a swiss army knife, and a fat paperback called “Europe ’97: On the Loose, On the Cheap, Off the Beaten Path.”  Then I flew to London with my cousin Heather.

For three months we roamed Western Europe together, a journey that started at Heathrow and ended on a wooden dock in Venice, where I boarded an overnight boat to Corfu.  Parting ways was a teary affair, but Heather had decided to return to Canada and I had decided I loved travelling more than anything else in the world.

In the weeks leading up to that trip, a distinct sense emerged within me that I already had friends in the places I would go, that they were on the horizon of my life, and I just had to find them.  Perhaps this was only a mental device that made leaving the ones at home a little easier.  But I believed a lot in destiny back then, and the intuition that I was moving toward inevitable new connections gave me the confidence to tread alone. 

As it turned out, the people I met in Greece, Israel, and ultimately England would alter the course of not only that trip but the rest of my life, inspiring a lasting love affair with the guitar, and a 3-week jaunt to Egypt, where I realized that travel to developing countries would be an essential and life-long endeavour.

I felt the same sense of impending friendships while packing for Korea, though my belief in destiny, 13 years later, has sadly waned.  The truth is it’s easy to meet people when you travel: an instant comraderie exists between those who choose to venture from the familiar to the unknown.  And, if you’re friendly and open, the locals usually are too.

Today I’m introducing People I Meet: a new blog feature which will appear here regularily.  Years ago I walked into a club in London to celebrate my best friend Melissa’s 20th birthday.  The room was very dark and kind of eerie, but we had a good crew with us and Melissa turned to me and said, “It’s the people that make the place.”  Busan is full of wild and wonderful characters.  Along with the mountains, the stream, the beaches, the neighbourhoods, the rows and rows of shops, and the sky-high city lights, they are making the place.

Leah at the Sunset Bar costume party. I convinced her the white spandex were a must. What are friends for?

Leah’s 24, from Miami, and lives on the 3rd floor of my apartment building. She’s got a degree in finance and marketing, wears pearl earrings, and drives a scooter to school.  On Thursday evenings around 9pm you can find her in PNU, standing on her head in yoga class.  On Saturdays she volunteers at a local orphanage, and after her Korea stint is up, she’s thinking about joining the Peace Core. 

Leah and I share a  love of wine, an interest in reiki and meditation, and a penchance for staying out far too late.  A self-proclaimed “adventurous eater”, she’ll taste anything once, including silk worms, which, she reports, are disgusting. 

Leah has abandoned early attempts at learning Korean.  She works out to an exercise video called Insanity, and gets antsy if she’s doing the same thing for too long.  Just last Friday at the Starface Bar she turned to me suddenly during an Australian dude’s hip-hop solo and said, “We need to either order a hookah or leave right now.” 

We ordered the hookah. And stayed out far too late. 

A friendship has been born!

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