Sunday, November 9, 2014

Conversations with Strangers. Part V.

In preparation for future travels and just to enjoy life more, I have been working on having more human interactions in public places. Overall, I am failing this course. Moscow trained me well to wear a “city face” and stare off into space. For the most part, I do not talk to strangers.

So, when I got onto the train for Daejeon, searched for my seat, and saw that an older Korean woman was sitting in the seat next to mine, I geared up. I could tell from the look on her face that she was ready to chat.

My seat was the aisle, but she insisted that I sit near the window. Because I understood this interaction and the word “sit” in Korean, she continued to speak in Korean. She said something, and I caught the word “pretty.” A nice thing considering I had no make-up on and was wearing my glasses. I said, “Thank you” in Korean.

In Korean, she said, “Ah, you speak Korean!”

Now, I knew I was in for it. I tried to slow her down by saying, “a little,” but she continued speaking to me like I understood everything. Maybe if I had studied Korean formally, the phrases she had used would have been familiar. Maybe if I were always surrounded by women this unapologetic, I would learn more.

She forged ahead and asked me how long I had been in Korea. To simplify things, I told her “eight,” meaning eight months. I did not know the word for years or months, but I could tell by her surprise and expression, she had understood eight years. I fumbled a bit, then took out my notebook and wrote down the date that I arrived in Busan. February 2014. Then she understood. In retrospect, I suppose it is technically nine months now. I communicated that I taught English. After the end of our short interaction about me, there was a lull. I did not know how to ask her about where she lived or what she did, and like I said, I’m failing the course of conversations with strangers.

Then, at about the time the heat in the train was getting unbearable, she piped up. She made a twisting motion with her hand in the air and said something in Korean that I could not quite make out. Based on how I was feeling, I assumed she was talking about the air being turned on, on the train. The motion could easily be interpreted as such. So, I said, “It’s hot,” and fanned myself a bit. She kind of shook her head, not in disgust, but there was a tinge of frustration. She was a talker and needed to be understood. She repeated herself and made the twisting motion again.

Finally, she simplified the thought to one word.

“Gam,” she said. “Gam.”

I shook my head.

She said, “gam” again, and then wrote with her finger in the air the Korean letters in “gam” . Luckily I know the Korean alphabet. I guess she could safely assume that because of the bits and parts of Korean that I understood. Still, for some reason, I thought this effort to show me the spelling was odd. Perhaps it was based on her knowledge of English. Maybe she only understood written words. When I shook my head again and told her, “I don’t know,” she said, “gam. Gam,” more loudly. Then she wrote quite emphatically with her finger on the back of the seat in front of us, the three letters that make up “gam” in their syllable block, in Korean.

I could tell she was not going to let it go, and why should she? I live in Korea. I should try to understand what she was getting at. Also, we had a couple hours in front of us. So, I took out my phone and used google translate.

In my google translate app, only one translation came up. “Feeling.”

I looked at her confused.  She glanced over. Then she shook her head and said, “gam,” as if searching. So I tried the other letter in Korean that sometimes sounds like a type of “a” . That just caused more confusion for me because it means “sword.” Then she did something ingenuous for translating a word that has multiple meanings. She told me a longer phrase. When I typed it in, “persimmon tree” came up. I probably made the most ridiculous, “Ahaa” sound. I knew the word for persimmon in Korean. Why couldn’t I put two and two together?

At that point she must have known exactly how limited my Korean was. She smiled and pointed to herself and communicated that she picks or grows persimmon. Then she rambled on a bit more. I caught “America” “gam”, and I could tell by the intonation it was a question. At this point I started mixing the tiny bit of Korean I had with English to communicate a bigger thought. I tried to tell her, “Yes, we have persimmons in America, but I never tried one until I came to Korea. They are delicious.” I’m certain she understood delicious, but when it came to America, she repeated a similar sounding phrase. She seemed surprised when I said the equivalent of, “Yes, persimmon America.” So I googled “persimmon America” to show her. That seemed to convince her and placate her interest. I tried to communicate my grandma grows apples, by saying the equivalent of “my grandma … apple.” She nodded. I have no idea if she understood. Then the conversation ended abruptly. Language barriers create labor intensive conversation.

Not long after, she got up, stood next to the seat, and let the rightful ticket holder take their seat.

I dreamed out the window about the landscape, the fall leaves, the biking paths, the river, and the mountains. Then the landscape changed rather abruptly. Orangish-red objects covered dark brown trees that had already dropped all their leaves. Rather than fall leaves of all colors, the hillsides were inundated by persimmon tree upon persimmon tree. Quite appropriately at the train station surrounded by persimmon trees, the older woman got off. She smiled, waved goodbye, and stepped into the landscape of persimmon trees.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Bonding with coworkers somewhere outside Fukuoka, Japan

At the end of my first two months back in Korea, work organized a trip to Fukuoka, Japan, using PTO days, and arranging for us to travel in a tour group with a tour guide who feigned no English and talked incessantly.

The first stop on our tour was the Kirin Brewery. Our visit was short, and much like our bus tour, it did not include much English. We all looked forward to a beer after what had already been a long first morning of vacation. When it came time for beer tasting, our tour guide stopped us, gave us the run down, and gave us a time limit.

The gist? Three beers and fifteen minutes.

Suddenly, our relaxing vacation had turned into a drinking contest. We had fifteen minutes before we had to be back on the bus, but we were welcome to try as much beer as we would like. Needless to say, we all downed the first glass of beer and went for a second, some of us a third. Then we all hopped on the bus and headed for a resort in the mountains that was supposed to take all our work stress away.

The resort in the mountains that would take away all our worries.
No one had any idea when our next stop would be, and after about an hour of riding through forested mountains, I began to wonder how far away this fabled resort was. My bladder was starting to feel the pressure of the two beers I had ingested. I held my breath a bit and tried to ignore it.

Then I started squeezing my pinky finger.

Finally, a coworker mentioned her bladder. It was time to build up the courage to demand a pit stop.

Just as I was about to speak up because we kept passing rest stop after rest stop, our bus pulled off into a turnout in the middle of the mountains. I stopped. I looked around. I was confused. This did not look like a rest stop. It looked like the side of the road. It consisted of an information sign, a parking lot, and an old, rundown and closed restaurant. The bus turned around and finally came to a stop. A man from our group jumped up and ran off the bus. Clearly, I was not the only one suffering. 

I said, “Are we stopping? Is this a restroom?”

I knew it was not, but it did not matter. I had to go, and it was either going to happen in the bus and on myself or in the grassy area beside the bus. As I stood up and began the journey from the back of the bus to the door, the tour guide (who “did not speak English” mind you) said to me quite emphatically and in perfect English, “There is no toilet. There is no restroom,” as if men are the only ones who could possibly piss in the woods.

I placed all shame aside and said just as emphatically, “Yes, but I have to GO.”

I felt as if I was going to cry, and I’m sure the tone came across. One of my American cohorts followed suit and was right behind me off the bus. I had no time to be baffled that we were the only ones with full bladders. At this moment, necessity trumped shame, but had it not been for my coworker, my embarrassment at the situation might have been too much. I needed someone to empathize with me. She too could not hold it.

As we looked around for a spot out of view of the road, the bus, and the man already pissing, we realized we would have to wait for the first man to clear from his spot. It was literally the only place hidden from the road. By the time he finished, we had been joined by two more of our coworkers.
After what seemed like hours, the first man left our new found haven.

Without a second thought, three of us, all women, ran to the grassy, overgrown area. We pulled down our pants and shamelessly relieved our bladders. Side-by-side we pissed. None of us cared that we squatted nearly too close for comfort. Instead we laughed at the absurdity of the entire situation.
 If this is what my boss had meant by team building, that is what she got. Get us drunk on too much beer, too quickly, and then do not provide a toilet. There was no time for shame or modesty. When you have to pee, you have to pee.

 Of course, after relieving myself, the shame set in.  As I stepped back on the bus, I averted my eyes and avoided eye contact with everyone. I was humiliated. When I had a moment to think, I realized that no one else on the bus had gone, and they held their bladders for the next two hours.

Later, my coworkers and I theorized that they were either all wearing diapers or had some high-tech catheters. I would not put it past Korea. There are things here that you never even knew you needed.

Sunday, March 9, 2014

The traditional market at Seomyeon

When I left my apartment Saturday morning, despite my doubts about the directions the Internet gave me, I aimed to find American Apparel and replace my favorite dress. As expected, the map took me the wrong direction, and rather than taking me straight to American Apparel, it created a diversion which lead to a huge traditional market. Without any hesitation, I saw this as an opportunity and put my search for American Apparel on the back burner.

As I approached the covered market, I had no idea of its size. When I first entered, my eyes immediately went to the product, and I caught the familiar stares of older Koreans who are not used to seeing a foreigner in their midst. Ignoring the looks, I continued into the market. The smell of dried seaweed, salt, and fresh ocean fish greeted me. I could almost taste each item. As I walked I saw piles of whole fish, squid, and octopus. I saw buckets of clams. I smelled kimchi, herbal tea, and garlic. I saw green onions, peppers, artfully stacked apples, and Korean traditional rice desserts.

I sauntered on further, at a pace much slower than usual. Finally, I looked up and saw the market's great expanse. The aisle seemed to continue on indefinitely, and myriad directional options surrounded me. Should I turn left toward the upper part of the market with sunlight, napa cabbage and daikon radishes the size of small babies, turn right toward bean sprouts and a large variety of dried beans and peas, or keep going straight toward even more fish, carts of sweet potatoes, and orderly piles of red and green hot peppers? In the end, I decided straight, straight, straight for my first route through the market. I could always return via another route to the aisles I missed.

The displays were precisely arranged and aesthetically appealing. The stall keepers took great pride in their work, constantly arranging and rearranging as product disappeared from their tables and bins. No one except those with mobile carts bothered to yell out what they were selling and for how much, so the market remained calm and welcoming, even with the occasional scooter and a large number of people working, buying, and gawking.

I continued to wander through the market and was astounded at the amount of product these sellers had and were able to prepare. Weeks of work lie ahead for the couple with countless heads of garlic. As I gazed in amazement at this stall, a man, surrounded by bags of garlic sat peeling and separating individual garlic cloves. Korea is a country where many people prefer to purchase their garlic peeled.

Evidence of work already done showed with fresh peppers next to dried peppers and dried peppers next to crushed peppers. My mind jumped to my experience of Pike’s Place market in Seattle. The scale of this market was much larger and the products sold much more practical. While Pike’s Place does serve a practical function for select Seattleites looking for fresh fish, the main appeal seems to be touristic and the majority of stalls I remember sold flowers. On the other hand, while Korea is working to promote traditional markets as a tourist attraction, the markets serve a very real and necessary function for local farmers and family dinner tables. Dried peppers and garlic cloves brought that point home.

Overwhelmed by the market, and realizing that I could not carry fresh vegetables, fish, and other pleasantries around all day to American Apparel, the Busan Museum of Art, and wherever else I wandered, I vowed to shop at the traditional market near my apartment.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Back in South Korea: Zigzag travel in Busan

Trinkets, small figurines, shelves of memorabilia from travel abroad, travel books, pillows, Christmas lights, and small plants adorn a café the size of a two room apartment. These carefully chosen details help to create an inspiringly homey atmosphere.

From the moment I saw the sign with three stacked drawers, I knew this was a café I wanted to visit. Even though the weather hardly permitted patio coffee, two chairs and a small table where artfully arranged on the front porch. On the table were locally created, artsy information booklets about Busan in both English and Korean. Small bits of green, starts of plants, grew in tiny pots on the patio. After two minutes of taking it all in, I consulted my new friend, and we entered the cutest café I have ever seen.

On a small street, a couple blocks from Gwangalli Beach, tucked into a small building sits a café with not many foreign visitors. Off the beaten beach path and lacking an ocean view, the appeal of this café lies not in its view, but in the creativity and passion which has been poured into every detail, every drink, and every chair cushion.

Espresso ice cube coffee

The drinks come out arranged on small wooden platters with animals specific to the beverage. Comment books sit on the table and provide insight about others who have stumbled upon the tiny little oasis.

This café reconfirmed my chosen method of exploration, something Tahir Shah called 'zigzag travel.' “Real adventure can only come about through zigzag travel. One of life’s great sensations is walking along a road without any idea where it leads or what will happen next.” – p.379 In Arabian Nights Tahir Shah

In my time outside my comfort zone, and even in it, I have found that the best way to explore a place is to wander. I usually do this alone and sometimes it means I go without food, without water, without any purpose or aim. I enter places that capture my imagination and shun places which scream at me. I seek out side roads and back doors. I look for the places which most tourists do not ever see. I search for places locals find refuge in and pride myself in scouting out well-kept secrets and keeping them. I share only with fellow wanderers or with those who may never see the places. I have found that an unwalkable city is a place I do not want to be and that wandering is a good exercise in indecisive decision making.

As a solo wanderer, I usually give places space and time. I do not always immediately enter a cute café or intriguing restaurant because I feel, like a good purchase, the idea needs to percolate. The café needs to enter my dreams and tap on my shoulder each time I walk by it.

Every once in a while, I find someone willing to explore with me. It is those times, accompanied by a fellow creative type, that I am more willing to jump in, take even lesser beaten paths, and enter establishments without first vetting them in my dreams.

After my first weekend back in Korea, my decision of Busan has been confirmed as one of the best and most informed decisions I have made in my 28+ years on this Earth thanks to the Gwangan District and this tiny café, which will remain undisclosed.