Korea Part II
Korean customs was easy. I was initially frightened by giant lines of people, until I realized that these were only those coming back with goods to declare. In fact, it seemed that we were the only ones on the boat who did not have something to declare, for that counter had no line. As a headed there, I was stopped twice by people in the giant line adjacent to me. A man called out to me over a large box with Giant Bicycle on the side. “Where are you from?” “The United States, I said” “Ah, you are very beautiful.” This was only this first of many such complements that I was to get in Korea. They came just as often from men as from women, and were essentially devoid of sexuality. In Korea, it seems, people just stop you to tell you you’re beautiful. Wow.
Armed with a fresh Korean Visa, elevated self esteem, and plenty of energy from our 27 hours on the boat, we stuck out for the train station. We asked for directions at a tourism counter, and found that they barely spoke English, suggesting few English speakers tour Seoul (at the very least from the Tian Ren ferry). But Scott’s ever developing Chinese was easily understood. We set off to find an ATM. This was no problem. We found, however, that the ATMs in Korea do not, in general, accept foreign cards. So we turned the last of our RMB and the remainder of our American dollars into Wan at a terrible rate, with the help of a tiny currency exchange shop on a side street.
We strolled the outskirts of Seoul. I was struck with how much the place looked like Welseley Massachusetts. The streets were lined with trees. It was mildly hilly and reasonably affluent. The restaurants, however, smelled much more interesting. Most had giant aquariums in front, displaying the many types of mollusk and bivalves to be had, freshly killed for you.
We found our way to the subway, picking up some fresh fruit smoothies from a delightful pair of old Korean women selling them in the station. The subway was clean and fast. The view from the window was great. And Korean women are astoundingly beautiful. We were in a great mood.
We got off at Jongno station and stepped out into a delightful futuristic city. We walked through the streets, enjoying the many new smells, now readily accessible in the clean air. The city seemed freshly scrubbed and affluent. Without too much difficulty we were able to find Yim’s guesthouse. The place was very nice and quite affordable. Our room had two beds, a private bath, and a hot water bubbler with tea and coffee, all bundled economically and minimalistically into a small building in a back alley. The alley was something like a Korean version of the hutongs we had experienced in Beijing but very clean, and much quieter.
We dropped our stuff down on the beds. We did not have enough cash to pay Yim, but he graciously gave us the room on credit, pending our discovery of an ATM which would cater to our foreign cards. Yim even had some (admittedly tiny) bicycles. We felt great about the place. We took off on a stroll. The sun was beginning to set and Scott was struggling to get in touch with a Mrs. Ann Kidder, fellow Brown alum living in Seoul. With this finally achieved, we set out to find sustenance before meeting up with Ann and some friends she had just met that night. It is a testament to how cool Seoul is that one can just meet people and spend the rest of the night with them, without that seeming sketchy, uncomfortable or dangerous. Good one Seoul.
We stumbled upon a fine looking very small and local restaurant where a group of men were eating a giant plate of raw red meat and garlic in the window. Great. We walked in. One of the men at the table came up to us and began to yell. “This Poke!” he said. Poke? We looked at each other. He began to gesticulate incoherently. “Poke! Poke!”
“So you’re closed? I’m so sorry to dest…” We were walking away when he turned us around with one giant arm. “Ah, pork!” This is a pork restaurant. Great. So we sat down. There was no menu to speak of. But each small round table held a charcoal grill in the center. And soon the same fellow who had gotten up from the table poured some red hot coals into ours. He then pulled this great steel elephant trunk device from the ceiling, which hung down and began to inhale the smoke from the coals.
We then proceeded to have a great meal. He brought out pork, all kinds of little side dishes, and bug chunks of lettuce. We used the lettuce to make little pork and side dish roll-ups. We ordered a bottle of Soju, the local booze, made from rice. It is about as alcoholic as schnapps, and is imbibed from little shot glasses. The table of men next to us were well into their 4th or 5th bottle of the stuff and they were quick to strike up a conversation. They quite forcefully began to engage us in broken bits of conversation in English Chinese and Japanese, and the volume level continued to rise. We drank some toasts with them. They let us try the plate of raw meat (it was amazing). And we yelled a lot. At one point, Scott and I were hunkered down, close to the table, with a Korean fellow opposite us. We glared at each other through the half full plate of raw meat. The Korean gentleman would grunt percussive bits of Korean at us, and we would grunt them back as loudly as we could. This call and response continued for some time. I was reminded, oddly enough, of our time in Varanasi, in which the Hindi holy-people had helped us to pray in call and response.
Then we looked at Scott’s watch. Mine, I am sorry to report, was stolen from me on the Tian Ren ferry. So let’s pause the story here to mourn the loss. Ah! I can barely contain myself… Ok. Pause now.
Back in Korea, we had to go meet Ann. So off we went, bidding our new friends farewell, and chalking that up as one of the greatest meals of our lives.
Ann took us across the city to the night club district. There we paid our 20 dollars and went down into a raging hip hop club, by the name of “Noise Basement.” It was indeed noisy and a basement. It was also raging. Hard. It was packed and people were freaking out on the dance-floor. Perhaps the freakiest of which, was our dear Mr. Norton. He transformed from a mild mannered adventure capitalist, into a savage beast, with a heart that pumps a digitally enhanced bass to every extremity, and which glands all over his body which emit an intoxicating vapor, spreading the transformation among those nearby. The switch had been switched. It could not be unswitched. The hip-hop had taken hold. We could only wait it out now.
So at 2:30 am we exited the club. Our ears rang, and we were famished. We took turns burning our mouths on spicy rice gluten balls soaked in boiling sauce. We were collecting ourselves in a 24 hour restaurant, when we began to realize a dilemma. With the subways and buses long stopped, and a group of some 8 or 10 people, we needed to get home. It was decided that those who lived very far away would be given some place to sleep at those who were closer. Ann lived very far away, and we offered one of the beds at Yim’s guesthouse. A rather expensive taxi ride later, we were fast asleep.