Sunday, November 13, 2005

I've got Seoul (but I'm not a soldier)

Who said life is a journey, not a destination? S/he was right.

Careful readers will note that here in southern Korea I have been craving Mexican food as I have never craved it before. I can't even pinpoint what I dislike about Korean food, besides the utter lack of vegetarian options outside the Buddhist temples. But it just is not my cup of tea (pun both intended and overused at this point).

I am desperate. I beg the gods of cheese fries and enchiladas to rescue me from where I lie prostrate atop a sea of clams and squid in my tofu. I want to rid my life of wet noodles and smoky flavors in my rice. I yearn for an orange that is just an orange and not a tangerine or some citrus hybrid. I decided that once payday came I would go to Seoul and seek out the Mexican restaurant I'd read about. I thought I may even allow myself to go to Seoul once a month this year. Of course, I wanted to tour the city properly, since all I'd done was pass through on the bus from Incheon airport to the train station in a jet-lagged daze. But if I am honest with myself, I will admit that Mi Casa Loca was a huge draw, a motivation to make the trip this month rather than next month, a mouth-watering fantasy, mounds of chips and luscious salsa that beckoned, my Shangri-la.

I considered catching the Seoul train, hitting the restaurant for an early dinner, and returning to Daegu that night. But even I could see that was pathetic. I should see some sights while there. My roommate, who knows full well that I like to adventure but also that I had one thing in mind for this particular trip, gave me a knowing look and said, "Have a good time!" as I left the house Saturday morning.

I capitulated at the Daegu train station and called the (highly recommended by Lonely Planet) Seoul Backpackers Guesthouse to reserve one dorm bed for the night. At least, it was kind of like making a reservation. I didn't have to give a credit card number. Nor did they ask my last name, although that's not unusual here. Even on my newly issued Korean health insurance card, only my first name appears. We foreigners have such long and, presumably, strange names that they don't even bother with the last name. But I digress.

On the way to Seoul I flipped through good ol' Lonely Planet and pieced together my maps. Unlike my previous weekend adventures, I was headed for a massive city, and the subway map looked more like a map of L.A.'s freeways. But when I arrived, Seoul Station felt so familiar. I remembered how awestruck and just plain fried I had felt there a month ago. This time, I was a.)reasonably awake b.)prepared to see what there was to see.

And I'll tell you what, that city reached out and grabbed me and sent a shock of delight through my being.

It's wonderful! It's big. It's thriving. It's full of life. It is almost like Manhattan: energy that just pushes up into you the moment you step from the train station onto the sidewalk. There are people everywhere. There are huge markets with hundreds, thousands, of things for sale. There is a river -- a real, wide river that is glorious in the nighttime city lights. There is an easy-to-navigate subway system with a slew of criss-crossing lines. There are about five million coffee shops. I actually stopped counting Starbucks, The Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf (!), Tom n Tom's Coffee, you name it.

The first thing I stopped to gaze at was Namdaemun, the Great South Gate, the largest of the gates from the city wall that once fortified the place. It still stands, with its sloping roof and walls painted beautiful telltale Korean teal-maroon-blue-red. It's on a kind of median at a gigantic intersection, and I stood next to its base waiting to cross the street. Old meets new.

I knew in an instant that I loved this city. I only felt bad I had waited five weeks to discover that fact. I'm sorry, Seoul. I wasn't myself when we first met. I was - distracted. Edgy. Exhausted. I didn't know what I was doing. Can you forgive me?

I walked for about two hours, wending my way toward the hostel, looking at the buildings, the crowds, the North American businesses. People didn't stare at me on the street. I saw Westerners, often. Sometimes groups of them. I checked my progress on the map and took a quick left to catch the main boulevard I wanted, noting that I was about to pass the U.S. Embassy. That's interesting, I thought.

I rounded the bend and there were suddenly cops everywhere. I mean, dozens and dozens and then more dozens of Korean police officers fanned out along the road, and the next road, and the long front of the building as well, wielding their riot clubs. It was unnerving. I had no idea what was happening. They weren't doing anything in particular, just standing, guarding. There were so many that they couldn't possibly be there all the time, even in the so-called "post-9/11" era. I didn't know what special event they were there for and was thinking who knew, maybe Bush had dropped in to see if there were any good wars to be started. Only later did I find out the W was indeed headed this way, and that there was a huge demonstration the next day against him -- which I saw people gathering for on my Sunday walk! By the way, I had the good sense not to get in the thick of it. Until I can make my sentiments clear in Korean, I best stay away from hostile crowds, methinks.

So maybe these were protest-anticipating police. I kept thinking I should go back the way I came, but I saw occasional Korean citizens walking this sidewalk, blissfully unconcerned about hundreds of policemen, so I followed their lead. Clutching a backpack strap in one hand and my water bottle in the other, I tried to pass as quickly and nonchalantly as possible, succeeding at the former but definitely not the latter. I kept hearing in my head Colonel Mustard in Clue, "I'm only a guest!" as the FBI run by him, other things on their mind while he worries he'll be arrested or shot.

Oh, and then there would just be a random huge 15th century palace and mountaintops peeking up behind it.

Seoul Backpackers was absolutely the best hostel-type place I've ever stayed in. A shared room, but get this: bathrooms in the rooms, not down a hall or two! Clean, free Internet, and English-speaking staff. It was great and I highly recommend it to anyone travelling to Seoul. It was very close to the subway and to Insadong-gil, a street of art galleries, crafts, more coffee, and all kinds of funky stuff to enjoy. I talked to a few of the Euros staying there, and it was odd talking to travellers after so many weeks of only Koreans and bitter foreigners teaching English. Travellers are so -- I don't know -- zen. Living in the moment. I reveled.

But I had not abandoned my pursuit.

Seoul's subway system is huge but user-friendly and signed in English, too. My directions, copied from the Internet, said when I exited the subway to turn left to go down the hill, take a left, and Mi Casa Loca would be just past Bennigan's on the right. But the subway stairs put you on the sidewalk so that turning left would be stepping into the road. I looked one way, then the other, and frankly both ways sloped down. Hmmm. I made a guess, but a few blocks later knew I had guessed wrong. Should I double back? One cab pulled over and I asked, "Apgujeong Bennigan's?" Nothing. He seemed annoyed. I tried the next one. "Bennigan's? Casa Loca?" I wanted to cry. It was nearing 8 o 'clock. SO help me, if I got there and it was closed....and then what to my wondering ears should appear but English. The cab driver fully spoke and understood English.

Furthermore, he got on his cell phone, called information, found Bennigan's, got directions, and drove me to the little restaurant row. Yikes, was I even still on planet Earth? I thanked him and then had to stop and collect myself and breathe deeply on the sidewalk in front of Mi Casa Loca for a moment before going in.

And it wasn't even all Westerners, OK? There were Korean families, Korean couples. But when that basket of chips and plate with salsa, pico de gallo, and jalapenos were placed in front of me I absolutely melted. I savored them as well as a veggie burrito, full of rice and goodness, veggies and pinto beans on the side, and for the icing on the cake, they had Coke! As in, Coca-Cola! Pepsi is everywhere in this country, but Mi Casa Loca saw fit to have the real thing, that's right! At the end I signed up for their frequent diner V.I.P. card. Why not? I will so be going back there.

Back in the glowing city, I found a bar called Old Man with "live music, rock & folk." Sounds perfect. There weren't a lot of people in there, and it was way expensive, so I just chilled out for one beer in the cozy, wood-paneled darkness. The three staff members were incredibly nice to me in spite of our language barrier. The main thing happening was a big birthday party consisting of a bunch of twentysomething ladies, and I guess they liked me because they even gave me a piece of the birthday cake. Around midnight I returned to the hostel and chatted with some travelers downstairs before crawling into my (surprisingly comfortable) bunk.

I had such a lovely Sunday morning in my new favorite Korean city. A hot shower (I think I might prefer living in that hostel to my Daegu apartment! we had hot water issues again this week, of course...) was followed by free breakfast with other travelers. Now that I'd been-there-done-that with the Casa Loca pilgrimage, I had a new quest: randomly on Saturday night I had heard that a relic purported to be a bone from the hand of the Buddha, normally kept in a museum in China, had just this weekend arrived in Seoul.

What a strange confluence of events! But where in Seoul? Some of my fellow travelers at Seoul Backpackers had also heard of the traveling Buddha digit but no one knew quite where it was, so I had to poke around the Internet a bit. Turns out that after the arrival ceremony at Jogyesa Temple it had gone to be exhibited at the fencing stadium in Olympic Park. Well, I had been kicking around the idea of going to see Olympic Park anyway, but this clinched it.

I spent the morning doing a little more Insagong-gil artsy-crafty wandering and visiting Tapgol Park, the site where protesters gathered to declare Korea's independence in the face of Japanese rule in 1919. The Proclamation of Korean Independence is etched in two large stones, in Korean and in English, in the park. I stood there reading every word. The gray sky, Sunday morning strollers, and fluttering golden-brown leaves were the perfect backdrop for my moment of contemplation.

Two young teenage girls stopped me to interview me for a project for their English class. I got to answer questions like, "Why are you in Korea?" and "What is your favorite Korean food?" and, my personal favorite, "What should Koreans do to improve?" I was tape recorded, and she made notes in her notebook and took my picture. It may sound odd, but they were seriously charming little sprites. I'm sure the teacher required proof they had spoken to real people. And everyone from about age five and up here has a digital camera, either on their cell phone or otherwise.

Then I sat in a Starbucks sipping cappuccino and reading the International Herald Tribune and thinking, "I could get used to this." Things were just so much more pleasant in Seoul. It was kind of nice not being stared at every five seconds, or frowned at. I thought how different an experience it must be for English teachers who land a gig in Seoul. Since returning to work I have discussed this notion with my co-workers and they have affirmed it.

"That's pretty much when we decided to go back instead of doing a second year here at Ding Ding Dang," the husband of the Canadian marrieds told me, "about three or four days after we went to Seoul." Another teacher said the previous married couple who were here went to Seoul every weekend. I'm telling you, it's addictive.

So, after gazing at more temples, the pavilion of the city bell forged in 1468, and gathering protesters, I took another long walk back through the central city to the Seoul Station area. I was in my contented reverie when I rounded the last bend. There was a man, likely homeless, lying on the street barefoot, his shoes kicked off near him. His head was toward the doorway he lay in, and I saw that his forehead was bleeding a little, like when someone in a movie gets hit over the head (perhaps with a candlestick). He was shaking and saying something which may or may not have been coherent, but the blood was not dried. I looked around for a person but was of course on the only empty street in Seoul, a little shortcut side road that comes down the hill behind a big luxury hotel toward the train station.

I approached the employee in the doorway of a mini-mart a storefront or two down. "I'm sorry, no hanguk," I said. I pointed to the homeless/wounded man, then motioned to my head and said, "Bleeding," having no idea if this worker understood me or not. He looked toward the man on the sidewalk. "I don't know," I tried again, "but blood - bleeding." I finally succeeded in getting him to come look, and he returned to his store and went toward a telephone. I was like, OK - um, thanks, bye. I felt pretty useless. Another woman walked by and looked at the man on the sidewalk in something like dismay or possibly disappointment. I like to think it wasn't disgust.

It was sobering and I had a subdued subway ride out to Olympic Park. Now, the park itself is a huge, gorgeous, sprawling affair, and under the gray blanket of sky I couldn't figure out which direction was east to orient myself on the map. So I wandered, initially following one crowd of people, but that turned out to be a gigantic youth rally of some sort being held in a different stadium. I kept walking, and then some parking lot employees took pity on me and offered assistance. "Ahh, fencing stadium," one said, followed by a string of Korean. I just asked him to show me where on the map I was, but he walked me across two parking lots and a small road until the stadium was in sight. So kind! I went around the weightlifting gym and approached the doors of the fencing stadium, not quite believing I would in a few minutes be able to gaze on this (alleged) Buddha bone!

For those skeptics among us, of which I am usually one, the backstory is that this bone was found in China in the Famen Temple in 1987. It is believed to have been there for 1000 years, undisturbed, since being enshrined by the Tang Dynasty, but they accidentally discovered an underground palace in the 1980s while doing some renovation.

At any rate, I wanted to see the display! I bought my ticket after the very helpful ticket sellers called over the one who spoke some English to help me. "Buddha bone display?" she asked. I nodded eagerly. I was supposed to fill out a form, but they decided my (first) name and birthdate were enough. I passed through a metal detector on my way into the stadium, and then was ushered into the main arena. On the floor there was a platform decorated in gold on which two monks stood watch over the sarira -- the gold, jeweled case that holds the bone. Other monks stood below the platform in front of rows of chairs, one chanting and one with drum and bells. Many believers were gathered praying and bowing on their mats. There were candles, incense, lanterns, bright and swirling colors and song. Yet the whole thing was quiet, and the atmosphere was heavy with holiness.

I'm rather glad I went at the end of the day; it was not crowded, and I had only a moment to pause, in fact, behind the stanchion and velvet rope before it was my turn. A woman bowed to us and motioned us up the steps to the platform in groups of four. And then I stood there, facing the relic. The spot we were allowed to stand on was a couple feet away, so you had to kind of peer through the side opening of the gold canister-like container at the small rounded cylinder containing the bone. A minute later, I was moved on, and I tried to be very polite and bow as I left. The whole thing reminded me a bit of when I had my moment of face-time with His Holiness the Dalai Lama in Los Angeles: also in a sports arena, also with a whole lot of build-up, and then it was all over so quickly as he said hello and then went about his business of spreading peace.

Those of us opting out of the praying and prostrating continued to the outer hall of the stadium where other artifacts from the Chinese museum were exhibited, including Buddha statues, tools, and gold objects, all quite old. Not a word of anything was in English so I can't tell you exactly how old or what purposes the objects served (there were some strange-shaped tools!) but there were some obvious things like jugs and bowls and everything was so beautiful!

I was very satisfied with my Seoul experience. Even the throngs of screaming twelve-year-olds that packed the Olympic Park subway station like sardines departing their youth rally could not shake me. I can't believe how many buddhist things I get to see all the time by just being in this country!

I took the bus home to Daegu, and my seatmate was a man from Ulsan, a city about an hour from here. (What isn't "about an hour" from Daegu at this point, besides Seoul? I feel so well-positioned for galavanting about south central Korea.) He spoke some English (along with some Vietnamese and some Arabic, I might add) and he is a photographer. He showed me a brochure of some of his photographs, and they were stunning. Well, they are being displayed in a big gallery opening this weekend in Ulsan. It's him and a few other photographers.

How very intriguing and off the beaten path that sounded to me. I whipped out the Lonely Planet and to my surprise there was nothing on Ulsan! It's a reasonably significant industrial city on the east coast, north of Pusan, from what I gather, but the fact that Lonely Planet has nothing at all written about it means it is beyond "off the beaten path." They delight in finding obscure things of interest to travelers. I became worried that if I went to Ulsan I would truly be at the end of the earth with no resources. My new friend drew me a map showing how to get from the Ulsan bus station to the gallery, and he swears there's an information kiosk near City Hall. I'm so blown away by there being no mention in the L Planet. They say something about everything, even if it's just "hikers pass through here on the way to such-and-such." Oh well, this man was really nice, so maybe I'll give it a go. He has a daughter my age who teaches middle school English! I want her to be my new friend!

It always astonishes me how a new place really feels like home the first time you return to it after traveling. I didn't think I would actually feel that "coming home" feeling to Daegu, but I did. When I finally emerged from my subway stop, tired but fulfilled, and headed toward my sketchy little Bongdoekdong street and apartment, I felt I was really walking home. Too bad we're moving -- again -- the weekend of Nov 26-27. (Hey, that's Thanksgiving weekend, isn't it? I'm really out of touch with the "holiday season," here, folks!)

But never fear, Seoul. I won't stay away long.

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