A Korean Mouthful (Part 3)

There was something missing in Seoul that I couldn't quite put a finger on; a feature that marked the difference between western cities and their Asian counterparts perhaps even more than the exotic smells, unpronounceable foods and labyrinthine markets. I didn't notice its absence until I finally saw what it was: begging. We saw him in Busan. He was on a landing in the stairwell leading into the  subway station in Seomyeon. A cigar box lay in front of him containing a few thousand won: loose coins and crumpled notes. Bent forward over his knees on a small piece of cardboard, the man maintained a motionless half-tortoise pose, the world's ultimate submissive.  He draped a ragged blue jacket over his head and perfected an anonymity that was impossible to ignore. He was there in the morning and again in the night. For three straight days we saw him. In the same place, holding the same position. Never did he speak, never did he move. We knew nothing of his appearance other than he clearly had the hands of a man who had seen hard times. The South Korean society had imparted a burden of shame on this man heavy enough to crush. As a westerner, witnessing such a pathetic sight for the first time, I was conflicted. I found myself simultaneously hating this land that would force someone into such a state of surrender, yet also wishing the beggars and panhandlers at home in the United States would consider adopting his passive technique. I threw some coins into the box each time we passed him, South Korea's loneliest man.

The drive to Busan took nearly three hours, due in part to a lengthy pause for breakfast at a highway rest stop that would have been right at home on the Garden State Parkway. Mr. Jang led us to the lone traditional-style eatery on the otherwise vacant second floor of the complex, but the body language of our delegation was as vivid as the most brightly-lit neon signage: We wanted to finally eat real breakfast food. To his credit, Mr. Jang didn't force the issue, especially when a row of short-order cooks were downstairs assembling their own unique takes on ham-and-egg breakfast sandwiches, and pizza-flavored corn dogs (that contained neither cheese, sauce, nor a hot dog). Mr. Jang was a very likable fellow who I'm sure is very good at his day job, guiding Koreans on trips to Europe and China, but in this assignment he was set up to fail. He had never before led a tour in his own country, nor was his command of English up to the rigors of guiding people from the United States. He hopes to never do either again and I can't blame him one bit.

In continuing our gastronomical tour of the country, the itinerary called for just a brief one-hour stop in Busan for lunch. Though driving to a city hours away to do no more than have lunch is precisely the kind of decision that makes me long for independent travel, Mr. Jang couldn't have picked a better spot to eat, especially since the generous Mayor Hwang was still picking up the tab back in Gangjin. We pulled up to the Westin Chosun on Haeundae Beach, Busan's premiere western-style hotel, and were escorted to a window-side table overlooking the surf. It was the most splendid buffet I've ever seen with mouth-watering food from four continents and an endless selection of deserts and espresso drinks. Plate after plate of delicious food was put away into a stomach that was guaranteed to ache. Searching for a restroom, I felt my center of gravity being pulled to the right, as if the building was going to slide into the ocean. I thought it may have been something I ate. Turns out it was just the autographed photos of former President George W. Bush and Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice in a display case; a disruption in the Force if you will. The case also contained photos of the Duke of York, Crown Prince of Norway, President of Azerbaijan, and Prime Minister of Iraq, among others. It wasn't empty guidebook-praise, this was the place to stay in Busan. 

Though the tour bus would be departing immediately after lunch for the UNESCO-cherished historical sites in Gyeongju, some 90 minutes north of Busan, Kristin and I would be staying behind. Though I felt like a deserter, abandoning the group in such a manner, the initial tour was planned to last just three nights and I already had reservations in Busan. It was only by coincidence that Mr. Jang was leading the group to Busan the day we were planning to take a bus there. And when that coincidence happened to include a five-star buffet lunch, all the better. We really enjoyed spending those few days with Mayor Matt, Tina, and Andrea and Bob and are glad for getting to know each of them better. We were also happy to be back on our own, free of a schedule, and able to enjoy one of our favorite hobbies: wandering aimlessly in foreign cities.

Busan, South Korea's second largest city, is home to some 4 million people and sits on the jagged coastline in the southeastern corner of the country. Though the aforementioned Haeundae Beach attracts nearly a half-million visitors each day in the summer, Busan is very much a hard-nosed port city with precious little to offer visitors seeking a cultural or artistic sojourn. It's subway system pales in comparison to Seoul's -- due in part to the irregular coastline -- despite the seaside city occupying a larger footprint than the landlocked capital. As a result, the visitor looking to explore the city has to rely more heavily on taxis and buses than perhaps expected.

Our first order of business after waving goodbye to the tour bus was to buy a suitcase. Kristin and I packed light for the trip and though we had room in our bags for one or two mementos, our three days in Gangjin left us inundated with expensive Celadon pottery and other gifts. We didn't dare lug several hundred dollars worth of tea sets, bowls, and statues into the metro system in loose shopping bags so Kristin staked out a corner of the Westin Chosun's lobby and watched over our embarrassingly large pile of bags while I made my way to a nearby department store to buy a cheap suitcase. Suffice to say, when we finally did show up at the Zen Backpacker's Hostel later that afternoon, we didn't exactly fit the mold of the typical hosteler. Then again, Zen barely fit the definition of a hostel either. 

Occupying a four-bedroom condo on the fifteenth floor of the Neospot high-rise in Seomyeon, Zen was the opposite of what you'd expect from a hostel. Run by a thirty-something Korean named June, Zen is an excellent place to call home in Busan. June found a way to live the easy life in purchasing the condo and living off the fees of his visitors (he appears to spend his days hanging out, watching pirated movies, and, I suspect, getting stoned). Immaculately kept and decorated with trendy furniture and posters of Bob Marley and Jimi Hendrix, Zen boasts hardwood floors, a spacious kitchen, a high-definition television, and a Playstation 3 and computer terminal. It also has a lengthy balcony with views of the northern reaches of the city. Kristin and I reserved the private twin room for 60,000 won per night ($48 US). Two couples from San Francisco were in the quad across the hall and the six-person dormitory on the other side of the condo was currently occupied by a young Canadian fresh out of college and a soft-spoken guy named Misha who, at 38 years old, had returned to his birth-country from Switzerland in search of his true parents.

Unlike our first Saturday in Seoul a week earlier, we were both wide awake and looking to go out and party that first night in Busan. We hopped onto the subway and rode it 16 stops back to Haeundae Beach late in the afternoon. We walked two kilometers along the boardwalk then bar-hopped our way back in the other direction. It's a nice wide, sandy beach and was not unlike your typical beach town in the United States. Lots of bars, dozens of cheap eateries, and plenty of shops selling everything from giant plastic sunglasses to beach balls to umbrellas. The one thing it had that we certainly could have done without was the horde of Australian spring breakers. In a startling realization and admittance that I am actually older than I feel, I must confess to having reached the age where spring breaking college students is a demographic I hope to never encounter again.

We spent several hours in an unnamed and otherwise empty nightclub two blocks off the beach, shooting pool and drinking bottle after bottle of Cass, a Korean beer. It was a nice place with a massive oval bar, numerous couples booths, and a roped-off VIP area yet it was barely nine o'clock and we were assured that the place was busiest from midnight till dawn. The bartender, Haeyo, was a twenty-something Korean with an androgynous appearance and way about him that reminded me of the Japanese talk show host in the movie Lost in Translation. He was friendly, let us play whatever music we wanted, and even poured me a complimentary glass of Scotch after hearing me comment to Kristin about the Glenmorangie poster on the wall. We were initially going to only stay for a sympathy beer (I hate to enter a place then turn 180 and leave), but wound up spending most of the night there, the only customers in the club, shooting pool and enjoying our run of the place. When we finally did leave, it wasn't without a stutter in our step.

Walking back in the direction of the beach, we suddenly found ourselves hidden behind a wall of concealing hedges placed conspicuously between the street and sidewalk. Before we could wonder why this towering hedgerow was where it was, we had our answer: to our right was a half-dozen dimly-lit abandoned storefronts showcasing a number of scantily-clad Korean beauties. Though prostitution was outlawed in South Korea in 2004, we stumbled onto one of Busan's remaining red-light districts, albeit without any of the attention-grabbing red lights.  Dressed in lingerie and high heels, these women of the night stood not unlike mannequins in the windows of dilapidated buildings presenting their goods to anyone and everyone who walked by. Whether it was because I had my lovely bride by my side or because we were westerners, few of these women so much as acknowledged our presence. Though one or two smiled, nearly all of them looked past us with thousand-mile stares as if we were invisible. The very last one we passed said hello.

She was alone in a doorway, behind a partially-cracked screen door. She wore a yellow chiffon and lace teddy over a light blue thong with matching blue heels and was no more than 25 years old and no heavier than 100 pounds. She was cute, with petite curves, but certainly not gorgeous. To Kristin's amusement, I returned her annyong haseyo, smiled, then pointed to the girl, then Kristin, then back to myself and said, "Kugo olma eemneekka?" The girl laughed and smiled at Kristin who wanted to know what I said. "I asked her how much for a threesome." Kristin knew my query wasn't genuine, that this was simply another case in which my blend of curiosity and lack of taboos was getting the better of me. She shot me a look that told me she'd play along, but to not push my luck. The girl rattled off a fee in Korean that I couldn't understand so I grabbed a business card and pen from my bag and had her right it down. She was laughing, shaking her head in disbelief that she was having this discussion with a western couple, and wrote down 250,000 won, roughly $200 US. Not a bad price, I suppose. She then grabbed my left hand and pointed to the minute-hand on my watch and traced a full circle. One hour. Kristin nudged me in the ribs, as if to remind me that I was approaching the end of my rope, so I quickly thumbed the phrase book and told her the price was too high, to which she simply shrugged her shoulders and smiled. Enjoying the give-and-take, I countered by writing 200,000 won on the notecard and, in unison, both the girl and Kristin emphatically shook their heads no while seeming to fight back giggles. So I smiled and shrugged my shoulders in return and ended the negotiations with a friendly "Hengoonul peemneeda." I wished her good luck and continued our walk towards the beach, allowing the fantasy to play out in my mind while Kristin gave lighthearted jabs to my ribs and playfully reprimanded me.

We were out the door early the next morning, thankfully free of any hangovers, and had a quick breakfast at an overpriced French-style bakery before journeying north to Gyeongju. Two hours worth of subways and buses later, we arrived in this city of national treasures. It was a beautiful day out, sunny and near 80-degrees Fahrenheit, so we were happy to find a bike and scooter rental stall right near the bus station in Gyeongju. We settled on a tandem mountain bike that was both too heavy for its size and too small for mine, yet it worked. The attendant took no information down, no credit-card deposit, never asked for our passports, nor asked us when we'd return it. He gave us a lock and key when I asked for one, took our 15,000 won, and handed us the bike. Just as we started to pedal away I noticed that he had thrown a leg over a scooter and was riding off in the opposite direction, ignoring the crowd of would-be renters still milling around the bikes. Was that actually his rental shop? Did we just hand our money to a thief? Honestly, I didn't care. I welcomed the thought of having rented the bike from an impostor; I previously wondered what we'd do if the bike got a flat tire, but this latest development meant we could just lock it up and leave it. Nobody knew we had it and I was convinced we unwillingly rented it illegally.

The bike, awkward though it was, never did get a flat and despite having had no prior experience riding tandem, we managed quite well with me as the pilot and Kristin the stoker. Though many of Gyeongju's finer sites are located on the outskirts of town, nearer the coast and in the mountains, there are a handful of sites situated in the otherwise ugly downtown area that were within biking distance. We gawked at the massive earthen burial mounds in Tumuli Park (some measuring over 150 feet in diameter and nearly 40 feet tall), followed the well-worn path around Anapji Pond, and wandered amongst tens of acres of rapeseed flowers in Wolseong Park. Our days in Jeollanam-do had left us more burned out on cultural attractions than we had thought so we spent much of our time in Gyeongju simply riding the bike around town and window-shopping. Little did we know how sunburned we were getting.

We stayed closer to the hostel that night to make up for the bar tab we rang up in Haeundae Beach. The Seomyeon area of Busan has a number of neon-ensconced alleys lined with shops, restaurants, and bars as well as dozens of pojangmacha. We settled on a place that offered up a massive bowl of pork and kimchi noodle soup, big enough for two, that was as spicy as it was cheap. As was typical of the places we ate, we were again the only non-Koreans in the restaurant, but we felt right at home with all of the other twenty-something and thirty-something couples, sharing our bowl of soup, and wiping the spice-induced sweat from our brows. We bought a couple of bottles of soju at a convenience store after dinner and went back to the hostel to watch a movie with Misha. For the first time in my life, I browsed the illegal file-sharing networks and downloaded a pirated movie. The hoops one needs to jump to accomplish this task hardly make it worth the effort and I doubt I'd ever bother again.

Monday would be our last full day in South Korea and Kristin and I had a number of options on the docket, ranging from a hike to Beomeosa Temple on Geomjeungsan Mountain to a harbor cruise to a stroll around the coastal path on the Yeongdo Peninsula. Unfortunately, heavy rains forced us to abandon these plans and consider something indoors. We had given thought to going to the Hurshimchung public bath and hot spring for a soak and a scrub, but the sunburn we picked up in Gyeongju made that idea sound no more appealing than trudging up a muddy trail to yet another temple we weren't really that interested in. So we grabbed our books and headed to the luxurious downstairs food court at the awe-inspiring Lotte department store and sat and relaxed at a cafe nestled amongst the shops selling thousand-dollar canisters of tea and hundred-year old bottles of wine. There was even a Whole Foods grocery store in this fanciful basement selling, of all things, the putrid-smelling durian. Frozen, thankfully.

Though LG, Samsung, and Kia are the nation's brands most easily identified outside South Korea, Lotte is the giant within. Arguably responsible for fueling what I sensed to be a rapid rise in the ranks of the most shallow and fashion-conscious countries on earth, Lotte has brought the so-called good life (aka, the western fascination for designer brands) to Korea. Unlike the Japanese whose appreciation for western-style clothing seems to be kept in check by their own honored sense of isolationism and culture, Koreans appeared to be diving head-first, wallets-open into the maw of global westernization. The government's emphasis on learning English has given rise to what I saw was a misguided fascination with everything and anything English, to the point of absurdity. Western was it. To wear an American brand was a status symbol. To wear anything with English print was close enough. And so they did. The most attractive people we saw in South Korea were walking billboards advertising nonsensical gibberish; just a string of pronouns, adjectives, and verbs strung together on a t-shirt. To Koreans, they looked western and hip. To westerners like us they looked like fools.

The Lotte department store in Busan contained a collection of boutiques that would not fail to impress even the most upturned of noses from Rodeo Drive to 5th Avenue, New York City. But more startling than seeing such obscene sums of money spent in a place whose sewage system couldn't even handle toilet paper (used paper had to be discarded in a foul-smelling waste basket) was that which was on display in the eateries. You couldn't go a minute without seeing someone primping in a large handheld mirror of at least six inches in diameter. Maybe it was my seven years living in down-to-Earth western Washington, but the vanity on display in Busan  was frightening. To be seen or not to be seen, that is the question.

In truth, Kristin and I wanted to both spend the day on the couch back at Zen with our books and a large mug of coffee. We wanted to spend the day doing nothing except perhaps some laundry. And on future, longer trips we will certainly look forward to rainy days such as this one in Busan to do just that. But on a trip as short as this one was, just 11 days, we felt compelled to at least get out and do something, rain be damned. So we took the subway to Jagalchi Fish Market, Asia's largest seafood market, and promptly walked in the opposite direction to see a movie in PIFF Square. We were burned out on markets too, you see. We bought cheap disposable umbrellas from a stand in the subway station and splashed our way around this attractive pedestrian center before going to see Duplicity starring Julia Roberts, complete with Korean subtitles. Not a bad film.

We whiled away the time that final night in Busan at a German-themed brewhouse in Seomyeon imbibing a two-liter growler of their in-house Hefeweizen. We sat for over two hours waiting for the rain to let up, reminiscing about the trip that was, the places we had seen, the people we met, and all we learned. In volunteering to host Hyeon Ju we thought it would give us a chance to travel without leaving the home. We never imagined it would lead to so much more. Thanks to Mayor Hwang's generosity and the Snoqualmie Sister Cities Association, we were blessed to gain some excellent memories, a deeper understanding of a faraway culture, and best of all, a larger family.

Staring out the window of the KTX bullet-train bound for Seoul, my mind drifted back to the dragons at the Buddhist temple we saw in Gangjin. We entered the country with mouths and minds open and were going home with our teeth clenched on an orb filled with knowledge, food, and friendship. The world is a big place, filled with pleasant surprises in unexpected corners. South Korea is one of them.