Monday, April 9, 2007

The Seoul Saga You've Been Waiting For

I will just come out with it, lift the hefty load off my chest and admit that I am not exactly having an all-out blast in Korea. It is cold and dry with an extra garnish of thick yellow dust blown over from the Gobi desert in China. The Koreans, knowing very well that dust from China carries a rich mix of heavy metals and noxious chemical pollutants, have whipped out the super fashionable surgical mask made famous by recent SARS and bird flu scares. And when your face mask features Hello Kitty, why not? It occurs to me I have been a face-exposed visitor in not one, but two masked countries in recent months...

Seoul, I have quickly learned, is expensive. My Korean won disappears so quickly, and I often wonder why somebody doesn't chop off some zeros from their currency (1,000 won is about $1 US). I cannot afford to hook up internet in my hotel room more than once every 10 days or so, resorting to furtive roaming with an open laptop, searching for wireless signals in the mall. Teeny coffees run me 4,500 won apiece, and a mango can be 7,000 in the supermarket!

To pretend I'm in California, I keep the thermostat up in my hotel room and have found the warm spots in the tent, but have given up any attempts at fashion in favor of practicality: jeans and a jacket and sneakers day in and day out, especially for the trek to work. Yes! A bright spot in my Seoul doldrums - I am once again a pedestrian, loving the freedom to stride wide and walk away restlessness. After Dubai's taxi-reliant lifestyle, I was ready to zip out onto the sidewalks like an unleashed hound, but quickly learned to watch out. Absurdly, you are not all that much safer on a raised curb than in the middle of an intersection here, where cars seem to rule with robust authority and the city's overcrowding prompts the ridiculous practice of parking, and therefore driving, on sidewalks. Motorbikes and scooters, it seems, are above any laws whatsoever. Now, as a girl who tends to believe (perhaps stupidly) in her physical prowess and exceptional agility, I am often quite brave at sprinting across streets and dodging traffic. Not here. One must budget a minimum of 10 extra minutes to account for crossing streets, the gigantic 16-lane boulevards whose green lights are as common as unicorns. Cars line up at intersections like officers in a firing squad, occasionally darting through red signals, feigning innocence as though they had only accidentally pulled their gun's triggers.

But what am I, a civil surveyor? Enough about urban peril. In truth, I am much more in danger of being sideswiped by a roving Jehovah's Witness. In general, English is a rarity in Seoul, and though the Koreans' kindness invariably shines through our miscommunications, I abandon nearly every attempted conversation in exasperation. Most likely banking on this frustration, the Christian missionaries here are beautifully fluent in my native tongue, presenting themselves as "volunteers for English speakers." Because of these omnipresent "volunteers," I now have an ample supply of religious leaflets and church invitations, and I have learned to avoid the corner coffee shop with the huge yellow sign that says, "CAUTION: I'm crazy about Jesus!" I can't seem to get up the malicious nerve it takes to slam doors in people's faces or refuse their advances completely, and have wondered at the effect of dying my hair black and adopting a more Goth-like style. Or not.

One last topic, as it's getting late and I'm determined to rise early and enjoy one of my hour-long yoga sessions with my virtual teacher on the free Yoga Today podcast ( As it was Monday, my precious day off, my friend Veronica and I braved the crowded subway all the way to Insadong, the hub of traditional Korean culture in northern Seoul. We wandered the streets of the Buddhist-influenced neighborhood, passing monks and nuns, both with shaved heads. Everything was aesthetically pleasing, peaceful, minimalist. Paper shops produced fine, fibrous folds of paper sprinkled with leaves, flowers, splashes of color and accents of calligraphy. Pale green Korean ceramics, in all their simple beauty, were stacked in precarious teacup towers. Rice was ground into a fine powder, mixed into a gelatinous goo and pounded with loud grunts and shouts by a man wielding a wooden mallet. Mmmm... the rice cakes produced were subtly sweet, gooey, and covered in red bean powder or flavored with green tea.

Veronica and I, hungry for lunch, sought out Sanchon, which means Mountain Village, a world-famous vegetarian restaurant specializing in Buddhist temple cuisine. The lunch was a fixed-price set of multiple dishes served in 30 tiny bowls (we counted), and included tastes and textures we had never experienced in our lives. Reading from the menu, it seems we experienced "mountain porridge," "fried kelp," "millet jelly," "steamed beancurd and burdock," "seasoned wild mountain roots" and "watery kimchi." It was outrageously fun to experiment without the fear of ingesting some unexpected and unappetizing meat or animal part. After rising from our floor-level dining table and replacing our shoes to return outside, our tastebuds were still in a frenzy.

And so, I am surviving Seoul one day at a time, navigating the inconveniences, sometimes with grace and other times as a grump.

Kamsa hamnida (thank you) for listening : )