Sunday, November 20, 2005

Final Score: Intrepid 1, Linda 1

That huge sigh of relief you heard in the wee hours of Friday morning (U.S.) was us reaching the end of our workday here in Korea, arriving at another glorious weekend. Rejoice, rejoice, it has come.

On Saturday morning I at long last found a swimming place (still more rejoicing). There is a YMCA in the memorial hall in Haksan Park, which is a cute hill-crammed-with-trees affair a bus ride away. I actually took the subway there, with about twenty minutes walking time and ten minutes subway time, but then I discovered that the bus that goes right by my street and the Bongdeok Market ends up about a five minute walk from there. Brilliant! It will cost a couple bucks each time, but I can go swimming in the mornings from 6 a.m. to 9 a.m.

I must readjust my sleeping schedule to drag myself out of bed in the mornings a couple times a week. It will be nice to be able to exercise without breathing in a billion particulates. I seriously am afraid to go running here. The wife half of the Canadian marrieds at my school finally capitulated and bought one of those masks (like a surgical mask) that so many people here wear for walking around the city. She thinks she's developing asthma from running and in-line skating in the mornings. Yikes. I like my brisk walk to work, but my throat and nose actually hurt sometimes during it.

Saturday afternoon I met up with the two Dunkin' Donuts ladies for a movie and then dinner. They work at the DD where I stop for coffee on the way to work a few times a week and I am their 10:30 a.m. regular customer. We have been chatting and friendly, and they invited me to hang out. One of them speaks far better English than the other, since she married an American, but I had a good time with both of them. Bonus moment: right when we got to the theater and were buying tickets, two famous Korean actors (whose names I don't remember) were walking in and you should have heard the screams that poured forth from the gaggle of schoolgirls trailing behind them. It was hilarious.

We saw Elizabethtown. It profoundly affected me. Don't worry, no spoilers here. I may not hold out forever, though. I'll give you a month to see it and then I shall post about Elizabethtown all I want. Do yourself a favor. See it. It was glorious and true. What I will say here and now was that I was wholly unprepared for how it would affect me to see sweeping shots of the U.S., road trips, various cities, those telltale freeway signs, the houses, the countryside, to hear multiple people slanging it up in American English, etc. It was really hard to watch in that sense; my heart was in my throat. Look! I wanted to say. I've been there! But it meant nothing to them, of course. The music in the movie was so great, too, to the point that a few lyrics were even subtitled (most background songs were not subtitled of course). I had to go touch the soundtrack in a CD store afterward, even though I don't have a CD player yet and there was no reason to buy it. I just wanted to touch it. That's how awesome it was. Furthermore, the entire movie rang so true to my life that I felt ready to explode. Jolly good.

Then we ate dinner. Now, they had asked me the day before if I have tried "Korean water snake." I said, "You mean eel, don't you?" They weren't sure. I whipped out my dictionary and found the word for eel. "That's it!" they said excitedly. I sighed and explained that I really have been trying to eat vegetarian, apart from those aberrant clams in my tofu, the desperate shrimp burger meal at fast food joint Lotteria the night I moved to my new digs, and the cases of mistaken identity of chicken and pork in my "vegetable dumplings" or on my pizza baguette. They said they would try to think of a Korean place where we could get vegetarian food.

Later that night I wondered if I should just eat the dang eel. Try it once, I mean. After all, am I not on a quest to be intrepid? I asked myself. And isn't it a cardinal sin for aspiring intrepids to shun unfamiliar foods that are part of another culture? I just feel so sad for the eels. I see them everywhere, for sale dried and fried. Worse still, I see them live swimming around their basins at the sidewalk vendors. I have seen a woman in a fancy business suit and purse that costs more than a small car holding her plastic bag of flagellating eels that I presume she goes home and throws into a frying pan? It makes me shudder. Poor things.

I didn't do it. Call me unintrepid if you will (and even though it's probably not a word) but I ordered yet another bowl of bibimbap, which is rice with mixed vegetables, egg, and hot sauce that you stir all up in a bowl. It's all I can ever eat here, but I don't even really like it. One of the vegetables in it makes me sick, I think. I get an awful feeling like my throat is closing about an hour after I eat it, and I feel like a smoky aftertaste is all through my body and coming out of my pores. Only time gets rid of it. There's probably something in bibimpap related to water chestnuts. Those make me so nauseated.

I know, I know, what can I eat here? The girls asked me the same thing. Everyone asks me the same thing. Breakfast, much to the Koreans' dismay, is an apple, some orange or orange-tangerine juice, and coffee. I try to explain that that was my breakfast every day in the States, but they still look horrified. Sometimes I splurge on a blueberry muffin or a "glutinous rice stick" at Dunkin' Donuts. Is it still considered splurging if you're doing it to keep yourself from wasting away? I'll have to check on that. Lunch is either 1)yogurt, crackers, and cookies or potato chips (I know! me, with packages of preservatives! I'm desperate, I tell you!) 2)something from one of the bakeries by work like vegetable roll, baguette, peanut cream bread or 3)the fast food joint Lotteria, to which I treat myself once or twice a week, usually on Tuesdays and Thursdays when I have more time to sit there and enjoy my "salad burger" (egg, pickles, mayo, etc. on a bun) with mozzarella sticks and fries. Dinner is generally a nightmare. I got bibimbap and/or tofu the first week or two in this new place from a cheap place on the corner that's open late, but as I said the bibimbap makes me feel unpleasant and the tofu is not vegetarian. I have yet to find a vegetarian tofu dish in this country, although I have not given up. Now it's all about Subway sandwiches and my Costco goods: hash browns, tortillas and salsa, packaged soup.

My roommate understands my frustration better than anyone, as she loathes Korean food as well and cooks vegetables and noodles and Chinese dishes every night. She is very happy for me but also inquisitive about what I have. "Tortilla" was a new addition to her vocabulary. I've tried to explain to her that Mexican food is divine, but she's not convinced. As for the hash browns, I said potatoes are one of my favorite things in the world and I will eat them in any and all forms. She said yes, they are good, but if you eat them every day you will get fat. I just laughed. Would that there were enough food that I actually wanted to eat in all of Korea to make me gain some weight! I'd gladly take the trade-off! Whoever is (un)lucky enough to herald my arrival back to the U.S., I hope you're hungry that day. It's going to be like Mary Jo and Julia on the classic "They Shoot Fat Women, Don't They?" episode of Designing Women, plotting to fill the back of Julia's car with ribs from the buffet after their 24-hour fast: "That'll get us to the next stop."

On the bright side, after I left the girls last night I wandered around downtown a bit and found a cool bar with great music and they actually had a slew of American beers, including my beloved Sam Adams! Hurrah! I sat perched on a high booth and next to me on the wall was an American flag that had been covered -- as had the entire walls, ceiling, and some of the furniture of the whole place -- with graffiti. It was about 90% Korean and 10% English. I amused myself trying to decipher it. You could spend days reading that place. In front of and above me on the ceiling was something about "Mayra N Linda forever" so I had my name hanging over my head the entire time amid a sea of hangeul characters, which was kind of weird.

Today was Sunday. Since I had plans in Daegu yesterday, I ventured out of the city today, reversing my usual weekend routine. I met a photographer on the bus back from Seoul last weekend who showed me some really cool pictures from an exhibit that opened in Ulsan this weekend. I was intrigued and talked to him about going to Ulsan for it, but was shocked to discover not a word about Ulsan in my trusty Lonely Planet guidebook. His English was less-than-perfect, but he drew me a map of central Ulsan and how to get from the station to the Culture Arts Center. Still, I was wary. A city that off the beaten path that it's not even in Lonely Planet? Would I be at the ends of the earth? Additionally, when I tried to e-mail him this week, it bounced back.

However, I decided that if I really were intrepid I would get myself on that bus to Ulsan, guidebook or no. I also had determined that it was on the coast, and I was quite intrigued by the idea of looking at the water. I've missed it. And so I went. Well, when I got there, I found a big, bustling city with huge department stores, hotels, a Dunkin' Donuts, and a tourist information desk in the spacious bus terminal. ... I think maybe Lonely P forgot to print that page in this edition or something. I checked out the map and decided to spend the afternoon at Ilsan Beach. It was a 1/2 hour city bus ride across the river, past the Hyundai Motors plant, Hyundai Test Driving Course, Hyundai Cultural Center, Hyundai Dockyard. All things Hyundai. (The photographer I failed to connect with, in fact, works for Hyundai.)

When I got off the bus I was immediately cheered by how a beach town is a beach town is a beach town. This, Dong-gu, the eastern swath of the Ulsan area, had the restaurants and the smells and the beachfront bars and cafes and the throw-a-dart-to-pop-the-balloon-and-win-a-stuffed-animal that you would see anywhere. I walked along the cove of Ilsan Beach and touched the water of the East Sea. I gazed out at boats and barges and rocky outcroppings. Also, there's this great pine forest(!), Daewangam Songnim, on one side of the cove. You walk up and over this huge slab of rocky land and there are more restaurants, vendors, basketball court, benches, all nestled in the trees.

Legend has it that the spirit of the great Silla king who unified the three kingdoms on the peninsula back in the 7th century turned into a dragon when he died to guard and protect his people. He's buried somewhere else, but the legend also has it that his wife turned into a dragon when she died too, it apparently seeming like a good idea that worked out pretty well for her husband, and her dragon spirit apparently came to rest under this rock, which is why no seaweed grows on it. (A good rock for me.)

After I wandered out to the end of the earth, I went back along the other rockier side. The sun was setting and I crept along the boulders in an orange-gray glow. It was a much more arduous path than the dirt trail I'd come up on, but it was amazing. I watched the city light up in neon before hopping my bus back to downtown. I can't believe I was afraid to come to Ulsan!

I'm still struck by the fact that it now feels like "coming home" when I return to Daegu after these weekend jaunts. Now, usually when I head out on my weekend adventures I like to spend the first part of the ride translating my bus ticket. There's very little English going on in these bus stations and I try to practice a little script-reading and maybe some vocabulary, although it's nearly impossible for me to decipher sentence structure and conjugation with just my dictionary (I can't wait until I can take a Korean class!) But today, for the first time, some English appeared on the back side of my bus ticket! Only on the return ticket from Ulsan to Daegu, but it was great, so I shall reproduce it here for you in its entirety as my parting thought...

The transport stipulation

1. Forgery items are not valid.
2. We will refund after 10% subtraction of price until date of departure (no price until 2 days before). and after 20% subtraction of price for departure to 2 days after (50% subtraction-weekend, holiday seasons.)
3. It is invalid for two days passed after departure.
4. We can reject the following passenger's riding.
a. Passenger who have firing things or unpleasant things to the others.
b. Drunker or unclean passenger.
c. Deadly patient who is travelling independently or a contagious desease patient.
d. Passenger who does not accept officer's instructions.
5. It is passenger's responsibility that damage, loss and custody of carrying things.

1 comment:

raine said...

can you buy eggs?
I think I would have scrambled eggs all day long.