While the missiles were flying from North Korea and the weather forecast for Seoul predicted temperatures somewhere between 25 and a thermonuclear 250 million degrees Celsius, my attentions were more focused on soaking up the K-drama culture in Gangnam and Jeju Island. I knew Kamala Harris had my back with her visit to the DMZ.
My real intent was to spend time with my son Max. He has been living in Korea on and off for a couple of years to pursue his e-gaming career. Max was effectively more jet-lagged than I during my visit since I interrupted his stay-up until 5 in the morning and sleep until mid-afternoon gaming schedule. By the way, he told me Gangnam is pronounced pretty much as you would expect. To me, that was gang-nam, as in street gang and Viet-nam. Of course, it is pronounced nothing like that. Gahn-yum is the closest I can get.
According to the K-drama “Glitch,” food always comes first in Korea, even before alien abductions and end-of-the-world scenarios. Why get abducted or vaporized on an empty stomach? So in the most pleasing “My Mister” style, Max and I visited restaurants with wooden picnic benches, stoves, kimchi bars, and Soju in the restaurant row of the trendy Gangnam District in Seoul. Max did all the ordering, so not entirely sure the names of all the dishes we consumed. It was fantastic watching Max converse in Korean. On the first night, we had Korean beef with lettuce wraps, which I think are called Ssambap. There was a spicy crab side dish that we didn’t know how to eat, so I had our waitress coach us on the finer points of dining. Despite her above and beyond the call of duty effort, we didn’t leave a tip. Tipping is considered rude and frowned upon. Service is always expected to be exceptional. The custom seems so much more civilized to me.
On the next day, after wandering about the streets of Gangnam and pedaling along the Han riverfront, we stumbled across a Kyobo bookstore in the underground Sinnyeon subway shopping mall. I picked up “Crying in HMart,” a memoir by Japanese Breakfast. She takes her name from the orderly perfection of a Japanese breakfast, something that her young life was not. The book is a tribute to her mom, who died young of cancer, and recounts the author’s troubled formative years, often at odds with her mom and frequently through the memory of the Korean dishes her mom prepared. I couldn’t keep up with all the different recipes, but I’m getting smarter. Gimbap is seaweed (gim) rice (bap), the preferred dish of the Extraordinary Attorney Woo. It’s not much different from a California roll. Bibimbap is mixed (bibim) rice (bap). Ssambap is a rice (bap) ssam (wrap).
Later at night, we had Korean pork and potato soup with enoki mushrooms while watching K-drama customers enjoying each other’s company, sucking down their Soju from green bottles on a Tuesday evening.
After a few days in Gangnam, we headed to Gimpo airport to fly to Jeju Island on Korean Airlines. In my K-drama series and movie experiences, Jeju Island is an out-of-the-way Korean escape from the demands of big city life. In the “Extraordinary Attorney Woo” (EAW), Jeju is a Korean retreat for an office team-building exercise based on the pretext of taking on a case involving 3000 won (about two dollars). The team quests for the best Haengbok noodles in Jeju. In the extremely dark and twisted love story “A Night in Paradise,” Jeju serves as a rural hideaway for a double-crossing young hoodlum. If the movie is any indication, there is quite a gangster population on the island.
For Max and I, the side trip was a two-night gangster-free stay in Jeju City. I wanted to rent scooters since it seemed like an excellent way to tour the island, but it’s surprisingly hard to rent a scooter there. The scooter rental websites aren’t foreigner friendly. Google translated the pages from Korean into English, but that doesn’t work so well on the date picker widget. My forty-eight-hour rental somehow translated into something like four hundred thousand hours, and at 40000 won per day per scooter, that worked out to something thirty-two billion won, just a bit outside my budget. Max wasn’t too keen on learning how to ride anyway. He tapped into his Korean knowledge base, and his friend assured us that we would be able to rent a car without a reservation.
We did manage a car but had a little trouble catching the correct bus. The rental companies provide their private buses to their not colocated remote lots. The lady at the rental counter sent us to area 3, station 8, but everything was labeled as a zone. We stood at zone 8, station 3, for a few minutes until we realized we should be at zone 3, station 8.
Transported to the correct lot, and having acquired a car, I wanted to drive. We headed east along the island’s north side to Hamdeok Beach, a destination chosen because it looked like the first decent thing to see in that direction. Max figured out how to program the Korean Language GPS navigation. The navigation persona insisted on warning us of “Danger Ahead” and advised us to drive at a “Safe Speed.” We saw no accidents and no construction, but after an hour or so of driving, we realized that our Korean Map female voice was warning us of speed monitors. The island is booby-trapped with what Max called “Speed Bumps,” but I call them tourist snares because I’m sure only inexperienced visitors like myself who can’t read the signs or operate the GPS unit get tickets from these traps. The lady should have said is drive at “Legal Speed,” so we would have realized much quicker that the danger was financial rather than physical. As far as I know, I did not get caught, probably because the savvy traffic ahead of me forced me to slow down at the right spots. Jeju turned out to be surprisingly built up and congested. The driving scene to the Buddhist temple in “Extraordinary Attorney Woo” is only shot in the scenic Hallasan Mountain area, probably the only road on the island without a stop light every half mile. The scene and others led me to believe the island was more isolated and remote than it actually is. It took a long time in Jeju City traffic to reach Hamdeok Beach.
Jeju Island is volcanic. Hamdeok Beach has nice contrasts and a spectrum of colors, ranging from the white sand beach to shallow turquoise waters, deeper blue waters, and black frozen lava flows. We also encountered our first grandfather statutes (Dol Hareubang) working as end posts on a small bridge out to a viewpoint of the ocean.
We stopped for a drink and snack before pushing on.
Running out of daylight, we missed the lava tubes, so we headed back to Jeju City to check in to the hotel by an inland route. The eighteen-story hotel thoughtfully (sarcasm) changed its name from the Avia to the Asia hotel to make things confusing.
Later, we ate barbecued beef, mushroom, and cabbage at 숙성도 F&B 별관.
The server grilled our beef and mushroom dish in front of us over a pot of hot coals.
At the same time, Max and I observed my favorite K-drama tradition, drinking the bottle of Soju, following the excellent practice of keeping the other person’s Soju glass from going empty.
We picked up the trip the next day at the Manjanggul lava tube cave. The lava tube is an impressive underground cave paved and lit for a kilometer in one direction but continues several kilometers in both directions. The public trail terminates at a lava chimney of twenty-five feet, billed as the largest in the world.
From there, we drove to the island’s east end to see Seongsan Ilchulbong,” a volcanic caldera with a five-hundred-stair climb. I contemplated the entrance sign warning hikers not to attempt the ascent if they have a heart condition or if they have drunk to excess the night before. On the previous night, we managed to drink a bottle of Soju, but I fell asleep before making much of a dent in the second. The climb rewarded us with views over the “Sea of Japan” and the town of Seowipo.
On the way down the trail, we were treated to the ritual dance and drumming of the mermaid women. The women divers of Jeju Island are famous for their cold water surface dives for sea critters.
From there, we drove south for a hike and a view of Seongsan Ilchulbong from the other side.
We drove some sixty stoplight-riddled kilometers along the island’s south side to Cheonjiyeon Falls. The falls are nestled inside the city of Seopwipo. Empirical observation on the short hike to the falls suggests it is a popular tourist destination. In other words, it was crowded.
We drove through the volcano national park to return to Jeju city, I believe on the same road as Attorney Woo on her field trip. I recognized the tree-canopied, traffic-light-free and danger-free highway from the episode. For the EAW crew, they came up with a solution of the case to resolve the problem of the 3000 won charge for passage over a road that incidentally routed over monastery land. The team finds a revered chef working in obscurity in a local monastery, having been outmaneuvered and run out of business by a competitor that stole his business but serves a substandard recipe of Haengbok noodles endured by the team. The EAW team always gets their noodle and wins their case.
In the end of “A Night in Paradise,” the vengeful gangsters catch up to the double-crossing hoodlum in Jeju with dire consequences for everyone involved. Spoiler alert, things didn’t work out well for the guy, the gangsters, or the love affair. The ending was perfect for such a dark movie, but that is all I will reveal.
For my ending, I managed to read the entire book, “Crying in H-mart,” while Max slept off his jet lag. I enjoyed volcanic wonders in Jeju and biking along the Han river, people-watching in Gangnam, eating Korean, drinking Soju, and watching Max work magic with his adopted country. I managed to fly from Jeju to Gimpo and take a train from Gimpo to Incheon for the next leg of my trip without incident. It was easier getting out than getting in, but that is another story.
Did I take the red pill or the blue pill? I can’t remember. Am I capable of dodging the bullets, or is my exhausted body about to be flushed into the sewer system of the Matrix with all the other discards? I check in at the Asiana counter at 8 p.m for international check-in, three hours before a flight as recommended. I hand over my passport to the airline passenger service assistant. The job title has too many words, and assistant is a misleading label as if they work for me instead of the airlines. The yellow fluorescent safety vest guy behind the counter pulls my 43-pound luggage over to the baggage belt. He must be called the airline passenger service assistant assistant, but I will leave his label as “the guy in the yellow fluorescent safety vest” for this story. The airline passenger service assistant says, “Sir, you need a Visa.” “I show her my Visa to Vietnam.” “Are you entering Korea when you arrive?” “Yes, I have four days there.” “Sir, you need a Visa.” The agent has fired the first shot—the bullet whistles toward the head of my would-be trip in that matrixy vortex way. She writes down the address of the K-ETA website to apply for a visa and tells me the counter closes at ten. The guy in the yellow fluorescent safety vest retrieves my 43-pound luggage and returns it to me. I have two hours to figure it out. I find the website and fill out the form. I get stuck because it won’t upload my selfie picture. I violated the 80kb file size restriction. I find an app to resize it, but when I get it to the correct size, the App wants to charge me to download a pdf. I don’t think K-ETA will take a pdf, and I don’t want to pay. I use the photo editor to shrink my picture to the correct size and upload it. Now it doesn’t like the dimensions. The dimensions have to be 700 x 700. Back to the photo editor to f**k around the dimensions. By the time I get that all squared away, it is 8:20, an hour and forty minutes left. Next, K-ETA wants the zip code of the place I’m staying when I arrive in Korea. I find the address of the hotel on the reservation. A number at the end of the string looks like a zip code in a 3-3 format. K-ETA responds with “Enter 5 Digit Zipcode.” I try googling for a zip code for the place. Nothing found. No clue. I try random five-digit numbers. “Enter 5 Digit Zipcode.” Apparently, the App is smart enough to identify legitimate Korean zip codes but not kind enough to give it to me. It’s 8:30 p.m, ninety minutes left. It’s no time to encounter an enigma shrouded in mystery. A young Korean woman is standing nearby, waiting. I ask for her help. She takes my phone and figures out how to activate the search field. I paste in the address of the hotel. K-ETA says, “Search Results 0.” I screw around with the formatting removing punctuation that might not be necessary. “Search Results 0.” The young lady’s boyfriend returns. I don’t know why I think boyfriend and girlfriend rather than husband and wife, maybe because they are young, not because of anything I’ve observed. The two work side-by-side, he on his Korean language phone and her on mine, while I peer over their shoulders. They finally get the search results field to populate with about 50 choices. The guy finds the hotel address on his Seoul map with the correct zip code, and K-ETA is satisfied. I thank them profusely. The airline passenger service assistant walks over to assist the couple with their problem. She recognizes me and asks if I have applied for the VISA. I ask her how long it takes to process. She says about two hours. By the time I pay for the VISA, it is 8:50. Only seventy minutes left. Now all I have to do is fume at K-ETA for being so problematic, plot out all the scenarios of finding a nearby hotel or going home, and pray for South Korean efficiency. At 9:10, I receive an email notification that the application is under review. Only fifty minutes left. In the Matrix, my knees buckle, and my shoulder twists in agonizingly slow motion to avoid the bullet. Am I quick enough to evade the agent’s shot? It’s a Sunday night in Korea. Is that to my advantage because of a light workload or not because there isn’t any imagined bureaucrat processing my form some six-thousand miles away? Later, Max would tell me that the first time (of two) he moved his trip back was because he hadn’t applied for a Visa. On my last visit before the pandemic, I remember getting a Visa as I entered the country, not before. Experience has worked against me. At 9:40, with just twenty minutes left, the application status changes to approved. The first bullet whizzes by my ear just out of range. I thank Korean efficiency and head to the now passenger-free check-in counter.
The flight is mostly an exercise in discomfort, even with the empty middle seat. I try to watch The Matrix Resurrections, the latest incarnation of the Matrix. The hum of engine noises so muffle the sound in the headset, I imagine them filming the movie on the wing of the flying jet. The only subtitles are in Korean and Chinese. So I half-watch a Korean film with English subtitles set in the Joseon period about an educated Korean man that gets exiled to an island where he has to deal with an uneducated fisherman.
The second bullet leaves the gun near the end of the flight, but I don’t know it yet. I have to fill out a yellow health form asking if I have Covid or have had it. I perjure myself under the penalty of the law by declaring no, but having just overcome Covid two weeks ago, the last thing I want is them singling me out for possible Covid. I have five days in Korea and didn’t give myself two extra days for a seven-day quarantine. When we finally arrive and after face-shielded greeters in full-length medical gowns take my form, I discover that all visitors have to take a PCR test before leaving the airport. I had just read that PCR tests detect Covid for weeks and even months after you’ve had it. The second bullet ripples toward the center of my trip’s forehead. I f**ked up again, and I’m going to jail. I interpreted the “you don’t have to have a negative PCR test before departure to enter the country” to mean you don’t have to take the PCR test. I never read the fine print, maybe because it was in Korean. I am standing at the testing station at 5 in the Inchon morning with, at best, two hours of disturbed in-flight sleep, contemplating the seven-day quarantine. I am mentally rearranging the trip, wondering if I can catch up to the rest on the second leg of my journey in Vietnam, and canceling my flight to Jeju. As a medical assistant jabs a white swap deep into my nose from behind an acrylic shield with rubber gloves like she is handling plutonium, I contemplate my impending prison sentence. The test results won’t be available until eleven in the morning. So I take the train, get lost in the subway (as did Google maps), and argue with the hotel clerk, asking why she wants to charge me three hundred dollars a night when my booking says less than a hundred. On the upside, I must thank a few people who helped me at the subway station. Lugging around a 43-pound suitcase, referred to as the beast, and probably looking every bit like a deranged homeless person with bloodshot eyes and wild hair, they still took the time to answer a question or look something up on their cell phones. In particular, I thank the guy that walked me to the number nine train at the Dongjak station. At the Seoul station, google tells me to get on the 421, which I think is a bus but might refer to a stop on line four. A woman tells me to get on the number nine train, but the map shows the number four with a transfer to the number nine. I think she means that, but her two-word “number nine” explanation was missing a lot of information. A train pulls up with the number nine printed on the door, so I get in. As we approach the Dongjak station, an electronic sign inside flashes its message that a transfer to the number nine is possible at the next station, so that is when I asked for help in the form of confirmation. The man, as mentioned above, confirms that this is the number four, and I have to transfer to the nine. I have no idea what the number 9 painted outside the car of the train was for. At Dongjak station, he walks me to the platform to catch the actual number 9 train. He tells me the express train would be too full to get on with the beast, but I try anyway. (I wish I had a picture of that, me standing at the open door with the beast contemplating how to squeeze in while the closing train doors nearly clip the noses of the people stuffed into the completely packed car.) The local stop train comes by shortly after. At the hotel, the clerk asks for my PCR test and makes me sign a form saying if I have Covid, I could not quarantine at this hotel. I tell her they would send me the results at eleven, which she accepts. Korea hasn’t learned that President Biden ended the pandemic. Korea still requires PCR tests for travel and hotel stays. Everyone wears a mask, and I mean they wear a quality mask pulled over their noses, not a pulled-up shirt or a face mask only covering their chins. At eleven, the email informs me that I tested negative—the bullet whizzes by, tickling my neck hairs. While this bullet was entirely in my head, in the Matrix, everything is entirely in your head. The fear is just as real. That is what the Matrix is.
I stop at Socheong peak. There’s another hiker not too far behind me who stopped to write something in his notebook. I didn’t see a single person for the first two hours of this hike, not counting the German youngster I met on the bus ride over, who opted for an easier hike to the waterfalls. I’ve only passed a dozen people since, and most of them at the Yangbok shelter. I contemplate with irony, the signs I had seen at the trailhead of hiking etiquette and rules for sharing the trail, decipherable to me as pictographs but not as language. I contemplate with concern, the neon sign at the upper trail entrance whose only English words in red are “No! No!”
It’s only another 1.2 kilometers to the Daecheongbong peak, the intended destination and turnaround point, but it’s already noon and I’ve been hiking non-stop for the last four hours. The last stretch of terrain, I’m not sure I can refer to it as a trail, was ridiculously steep requiring thoughtfully-provided knotted ropes at points. My calves are burning, my heart is pounding, and my cotton t-shirt is soaked with rain and sweat. I’m not sure when it gets dark here as the sun sets behind the mountains to the west. I’d like to make it back to the parking lot by 5:20 to catch the last bus back to Sokcho, and the only thing I can see, from my current vantage point, is the dull grey of the inside of a cold wet cloud. That last 1.2 kilometers could probably take over an hour in one direction.
I decide I’ve had enough, time to turn around. My decision has an
element of concession to fear as much as to practicality. The thought of
my pounding heart bursting or slipping on wet rocks or of having to
spend the night in a shelter with hordes of ravenous chipmunks crawling
over me looking for crumbs is not appealing.
Heading back down the mountain, the pressure is off. I have plenty of time to stop and appreciate the views and capture the scenery on camera. At the Huiunga shelter, I change into a dry t-shirt, hydrate, and share my power bar with an aggressive chipmunk who had the nerve to start crawling up my leg. The rain is picking up from a light mist to a heavy drizzle.
The trip back is much easier on the heart, of course, I don’t even break a sweat in the 15 C temperatures but I’m quickly soaked through by the drizzle and dripping, rain-soaked canopy. The scenery is amazing when spires peek out through the clouds serving as the backdrop to canyons and waterfalls and streams working their way through the boulders. Pines grow horizontally out of the sheer face of the rock turning upward to the sky. It seems like there is a picture around every corner. If I wasn’t worried about protecting the equipment from the rain, I probably would have taken a thousand pictures instead of a mere hundred.
I can only imagine how beautiful it must look in the fall with the brilliant reds and oranges or even how the rugged peaks look in the clear sky. I take consolation in the fact that I saw it as few others do, from the inside of a cloud, wet and shrouded and lush, an amazing, even mystical hike.
Locating the Intangible Center
I’m just about at the location indicated by the tag on Google Maps
for the “Seoul Intangible Cultural Heritage Center”. But as soon as I
get there, the blue dot of my position leaps forward or the tag leaps
backward. I backtrack. The opposite happens. The blue dot leaps back or
the Intangible tag leaps forward. I can’t tell for sure.
I walk slowly, carefully inspecting each building for a sign.
Sometimes the entrances are hidden down little alley walkways or up on
the second or third floor. I walk around checking all the corners and
I think to myself, because I am the only person I can really think to
even in this high tech city, that perhaps it is underground like the
GoTo shopping mall. I enter the closest subway access. I find nothing
but women’s clothing and shoe stores and underground restaurants. There
is nothing intangible about that.
I climb the stairs back up to the street. I check the map again. The
tag shows the Intangible Center a couple of blocks away. “How did that
happen?” I walk down the two blocks. The Intangible tag is now off to
the east by a block. I curse and walk.
As I walk, I check all the signs on the buildings. I stop a few passerby-ers to ask for help. They shrug as if the Intangible Center doesn’t exist. Nothing.
I admit defeat. I throw my hands up in surrender. On my map, I notice the blue dot hovers directly over the tag. Only then do I realize I have found the Intangible Center.
Time to move on to the next destinations: “The Abstract Museum of Art” and the “Ethereal Church of the Divine”
Random Acts of Kindness I
After a long day, I want to sit up on the roof with Max to have a Soju. Max and I walk into our hotel restaurant at the Grid Inn to buy one. The manager, not understanding much English but realizing that we aren’t going have dinner at the restaurant, sends us around the corner to a 7-11 for a much cheaper bottle.
Max tells me about a drink called Samaek, which is Soju mixed with beer, but he doesn’t quite know the recipe. So Max and I buy the necessary ingredients at the 7-11. Upon returning to the hotel and under mild protest from Max that bringing in our purchase to the restaurant is somehow inappropriate, I stop in the restaurant again to ask the manager how to make this drink. He doesn’t understand. He directs me to the front desk to get assistance from a very pretty receptionist named Jin.
She starts to draw on a piece of paper. She draws a shot glass, indicates the shot glass should be filled to a third with Soju. She then draws a beer glass, says to pour the Soju into the beer, and then make a fizz using the chopstick, all in perfectly understandable English. The manager catches on, he fetches two beer glasses, two shot glasses, a bottle opener for the beer and a set of chopsticks. While we wait, Jin informs me that she could handle two Sojus, which given their rather high alcohol content and her petite frame, would be quite an accomplishment. At the reception desk, I proceed to follow the recipe creating my first Samaek of Soju and beer. Jin slams the chopstick into the drink to transform temporarily the drink into a glass of fizz. I told the manager to fetch a couple of more glasses for himself and Jin, he laughs but declines and does not allow Jin to join since she still had to work for a while. There was no mistaking the disappointment in her voice when the manager told she couldn’t have an on the job Samaek .
When I returned to the hotel on my next stay, Jin was working again at the front desk. I fetched her two bottles of Soju from the 7-11 as a gift for her help. I was worried she might get in trouble. She was so happy when she opened the gift, I was surprised. She said she would share it with her mom tonight. I like the thought of her sitting around with her mom drinking Soju from the nice American man.
In the morning, as I checked out, the morning receptionist handed me a
nice thank you note from Jin. I’m not thrilled about being referred to
as Mr. Angel but the thank you note made it the best 3000 won (less than
three dollars) I spent in Korea.
Cruel and Unusual
Take 1: If there is one thing I like about Korea, it is their righteous treatment of sex offenders. The punishment of dismemberment fits the horrendous crime, though I don’t care too much for the public display of the severed parts, congregating together, almost as if still alive, in an aquarium of formaldehyde solution. I know it sends a message, but it seems so primitive.
Take 2: Highly evolved predators with few natural enemies, sharks nonetheless face a threat today they’ve never seen before: man. The fishing industry kills up to 73 million sharks annually, primarily because their penises are necessary for a traditional Asian delicacy, shark penis soup. Shark fishing is a gruesome effort. Typically, fishermen slice off the penis before tossing the amputated fish overboard. The male shark, unable to mate, falls to the seabed dying slowly of humiliation.
Take 3: (This time I quote from Wikipedia, so maybe this version is actually true.) “Urechis unicinctus ( Korean: 개불) is a species of the marine spoon worm. It is widely referred to as the fat innkeeper worm or the penis fish. The body is about 10–30 cm long, cylindrical in shape and yellowish-brown in color. “
Random Acts of Kindness II
I’m staring down at four brown speckled eggs about a quarter the size
of a chicken egg, maybe from a quail? maybe candy? The outside is hard,
definitely a shell. What am I supposed to do with it? My server doesn’t
speak a lick of English, so I take out the phone, bring up the google
translate page, and type “How do I eat?” translating it into Korean.
I almost didn’t stop at this particular restaurant because of Max’s rule to eat at a place where there are a lot of people, but then I walked down to a few other places and nothing is busy. I backtrack. I like this place because the seating has an outdoor patio facing the harbor. It’s not very busy. I’m the only one dining at what I think are her tables.
I hand her the phone. She reads the message. She sits down at my table and proceeds to give me a tutorial on how to eat the food, peeling the hard-boiled eggs for me, telling me what sauces go where, and delicately extracting the spine with all the rib bones intact from the fish, leaving all the edible meat bone-free. She brings out her phone and asks me where I am from, her phone translating Korean into English. She has three sons and seems to be concerned that my son is so far from where I live. We have a little Google conversation, in between her work to serve a family that has opted to sit at a floor table inside the restaurant.
Another group of four Korean men sits at a table next to me. So I go about the business of eating my dinner and drinking my beer as she attends to her customers. English is a rare commodity outside of Seoul, even in touristy areas. I enjoyed the conversation facilitated by technology. Instead of a person just doing her job, I found a person eager to help me appreciate the meal, with a little help from the translation software.
It’s 90+ degrees in Seoul, not quite so bad under the Bukhansan canopy. I read that the hike has more people per square foot than any other hike in the world. But for some reason, oh yeah, the 90+ degree heat, we don’t seem to be running into much of a crowd. The few people we do pass on the trail are clad in full toe to head, high tech setups of poles, backpacks, jackets, visors, and pants. It might be state of the art fabric, but wearing all that gear still looks damn hot.
What the national park lacks in people, it makes up for in moths. I assumed they were butterflies because butterflies are diurnal while moths are nocturnal. But later examination of my pictures shows the telltale feathered antenna and the open wings upon alighting. Alighting is a lot like astopping, only much more graceful.
The moths flit with endless energy, perhaps self-fanning to cool off from the heat. I don’t know the species. It’s not particularly colorful or beautiful. The moths hover over the ground, in the tops of bushes, and in the canopies of the trees. I think of mosquito swarms as a moth flies under my cap. Later, one flies into my mouth as I suck up some of the hot air on our 500-meter ascent. I wonder if the Koreans have the Mexican equivalent of “Moscas no entrada, un boca cerrado”. (Flies don’t enter a closed mouth). Moths don’t enter a closed mouth? I spit the little bugger out. I had to come all the to Korea to discover that I don’t much care for the dish of raw moth. Maybe I would like a cooked moth, I’m trying to keep an open mind.
Real butterflies dash by, Parisian models by comparison to their drab cousins. A hummingbird-sized moth hovers over a bush, before moving into the shadows.
Max and I trudge on. Yes, trudge is the right word for a 500-meter
elevation-gain hike in ninety-degree heat. About 500 meters in altitude,
we reach the gate, a squared-off doorway, that has some historical
The plan is to head six-tenths of a kilometer west, then come back
down another route. I would like to summit, but we are already
dehydrated. I get the feeling that Max is only tolerating the hike for
my benefit. He is definitely more about connecting with people than with
It turns out that I am not even at the right peak. The higher peak is
off in the distance. Going down is a relief. We find a dog guarding a
temple, an odd-shaped caterpillar, and a lot more moths.
Once we make it back to the park entrance, we find lunch and a beer and a restaurant just outside the park entrance. For me, the best meal and drink is a reward after a good hike.
The Best of Korea
A phonetic language that actually makes sense and is learnable. Max is already reading and speaking. I didn’t think to give it much of a try but Max taught me the odd phrase or two. Annayuoenghaseyo.
When they hand you money, they do it with two hands.
DIT instead of DIY. Do it together instead of do it yourself.
The ticket collector bowing to each car on the train as she moved from one car to the next.
A middle-aged woman in her black polka dot middle-aged dress helping us get on the right bus taking the time to walk us to our bus giving directions to the driver.
The best public transportation system that I’ve ever ridden on in any city anywhere.
A bullet train that speeds along at nearly 300 km/hour.
A PC for Max to practice his craft and meet people on just about every corner.
Cell phone coverage everywhere I went.
Credit card acceptance in every store.
The intimacy of stores and shop fronts in the streets without the harassment of vendors in your face. Stores and sidewalks and side streets merged into one. Old women blending into the back of their stalls sitting on uncomfortable-looking benches out of the heat of the midday sun.
Traffic that obeys the rules and drivers that don’t drive with their horns.
A scarcity of homeless people.
Women walking by themselves or sometimes hand-in-hand at night in not-so-crowded walkways looking unconcerned for their safety.
Eating ten different dishes in one meal instead of my usual one meal spread out over ten.
Drinking etiquette. You should never pour your own drink. You should watch the other glasses should they need a refill.
Finding amazing places to eat in a market or some obscure walkway.
One meal in Jeonju at Songjeong-Won, a Korean traditional full course meal restaurant.
pepper with red sauce
kimchi with tofu squares
apple’n’crab as potato salad
beef meatloaf dish
raw pork fortified with brain amoebas
kettle of rice wine
bottle of soju
Sorry, that’s the best I can do with the descriptions. I’m pretty sure the raw thing wasn’t pork, but as I started chewing on it, Max says, maybe we are supposed to cook those. I spit out the raw thing as fast as I stuffed it in. I tried ordering a rice wine before the meal, not realizing that it came as part of the meal. The server didn’t understand me and brought me a bottle of soju instead. When I realized we had a whole kettle of rice wine to drink, I recapped the soju bottle with most of it still intact, saving it for the train ride home the next day. I was accused of being an alcoholic.
Other tasty treats in Hanok village of Jeonju included:
spinach pot sticker
shrimp pot sticker
curry pot sticker
potato pot sticker
one squid kabob
one honey beer
one grapefruit beer
green tea ice cream
I walk out of our guest house, while Max takes a shower, into the courtyard, at most a five meter by five meter gated enclosure with a lawn and flowers, at our back alley guest house in Jeonju to say hi to the four girls on the adjacent porch sitting at a floor table busily working their cell phones. I introduce myself anyway asking them where they are from.
They are all from Taipei, they are all history students in a Taipei University and classmates, visiting one of the girls who is doing a year of study in Seoul. Of course, as a parent, my first response to this information is, are your parents ok with that, studying history? They all giggle, they cover their mouths with a hand about two inches in front. It is so cute. Two have boyfriends, one of which is a baseball catcher in the Taiwanese league.
Max joins us. I quickly lose control of the conversation. Max and the girls dive into modern culture discussing music and things I am generally unfamiliar with, though I know of Harry Potter and I think KPop is a band (I am wrong). I like watching the dynamics of the conversation anyway. The girls all confer in Taiwanese, then come up with an answer delivered through the interpretation of the one who speaks the best English, accompanied by hand over mouth giggles from the other girls as she speaks. It’s a fun conversation that lasts quite a while.
Max, you ask me if there is any upside to getting old. At your age, I never would have approached the girls by myself, even for a casual conversation. I was way too shy. Still am, but I don’t let it stop me anymore. Now I have the means for unachievable ends. How I wish I were twenty and sixty all at the same time.
Competitive Professional Sports
eSports is alien to me. I grew up with baseball, throwing a ball off a
wall or off the stairs, playing whiffle ball in the street, breaking
only for the car driving through the playing field, pissing off the
neighbors by hitting a home run off their house on the other side of the
street, using the sewer covers for bases at an intersection.
Max is a Protoss player in Starcraft II. He shames me when I ask if he is a Protis, mispronouncing his Starcraft race. I was actually proud of myself that I remembered that much. Max has me watching a round in the tournament at the studio. My adopted favorites in support of Max are Scarlet and Stats. They’ve made it to the final 32 in a Seoul tournament and are battling it out on stage.
A major studio, a live audience, cameras, announcers, post-game
interviews, and real money intensify the drama, even though I don’t
understand the fundamentals, let alone the nuances of the game. I know
enough to know which player is which. I follow the ups and downs of the
game through the emotional responses of the announcers and crowd.
Scarlett has a bad day, and frankly, we give a damn. Max informs me,
she’s made it to the final 8 before. Stats has a great day, battling
back twice from first game defeats to advance into the next round.
Money and status and pride are on the line. With my front row seat in the studio, I don’t need to see the images projected by the huge platform-supported cameras sucking up every micro gesture to see the hurt in their faces when they lose. The emotions are real. What makes boxing any more real than this, other than the extreme likelihood of permanent physical injury?
The Dusan Bears baseball game is another experience entirely, one I completely understand, but not at all what I am used to in the way of baseball spectating. Having just spent $85 dollars for a Cubs-Dodgers game back in the states, and more irritatingly, fifteen dollars for a watered down beer, I find it refreshing to watch the game from even better seats for twenty dollars, and good, undiluted, twenty-four ounce beer for a mere three dollars. Not that I want to reduce the event to dollars and cents, but in a way, isn’t that what professional sports has already done?
Sure, the pitchers only throw at a mere 150 km/hr (90 mph), and not every run is a 400-foot homerun. So the competition is a step below the MLB. (NOTE: Dodgers’ Hyun-Jin Ryu is MLB all-star). But Korean baseball spectating is participatory. It is fun: part rock concert, part cheerleader, and part baseball. What fun watching the little kids (and the big kids) bang their air pads together and dance and cheer for nine straight innings. What fun banging air pads together. No bullshit about how dull baseball is when the audience participates in every pitch. Korean Baseball isn’t dull to watch, it is exhausting! God bless the seminude dancing maidens( aka cheerleaders, with a nod to E.O. Wilson ). And go Bears!