This year, Buddha’s birthday and Children’s Day, two national Korean holidays, fell on either side of a weekend, and thus most schools threw everyone a bone and gave them one of the sandwich days in between off to stretch into a long weekend. Buffeted by the prospect of a 4-day weekend, I whined to everyone I knew that we should go to Busan, and at the first bite I received, my train and hostel were booked. Soon I was bound for the other side of the country.
It was easy to trick my brain into believing I was in a different nation. The language was the same, but Busan has a different climate and a completely different people. Compared to my humble Incheon, Busan was already on its way to summer, as people filled the beaches in flip-flops while Incheonites still donned their finest North Face giganto bubble jackets. People hiked through the woods in shorts and open shoes, and men sat on piers teaching their children how to fish. People smiled and said hello, in Korean or English, as we passed, and happily struck up conversations (Incheonites will generally only talk to you if compelled by violent force).
I arrived with my friend Leona and departed immediately to meet Tony at an actual, real-life Korean beach. Despite being surrounded by water, my brain finds it hard to accept Korea as anything but land-locked, mostly because I tend to go nowhere near the Incheon ports, which I assume are filled with naught but sailors, prostitutes, and barnacles. In Busan, you can stand with actual sand between your toes, and look out at actual horizon over actual sea. The city stretches out on either side of you, but the water goes on before you forever.
We quickly acquired lunch and set-about sight-seeing. Via taxi, we headed to Haedong Yonggungsa, a temple basically wedged into a crevice by the sea. The weather, as it did the whole trip, suddenly turned, and great plumes of fog rolled over the rocks. We were suddenly in the depths of a seaside Korean murder mystery, or possibly a weirdly-staged bodice ripper. For a while we scampered around the cliffs, climbed the various crags, and stared mawkishly at the rooftop of coloured lanterns erected for Buddha’s birthday.
Later, we zipped to the Lotte/Shinsegae department store complex. I generally try to avoid these buildings, as they remind me of the West Edmonton Mall (Canada’s Mall of America), except built upwards instead of over larger acreage. There’s always cool stuff, but the sheer magnitude of the crowd and the speed and craze of the capitalism occurring around me makes it difficult to concentrate or respire adequately. We scaled its labyrinthine heights and found unseemly amounts of foreign brands and stores, and witnessed with casual horror the burgeoning long lines in front of the Louis Vuitton’s and the Gucci’s. It was a palace of well-kept consumerism, and it was easy to while away hours in front of the skating rink, or the art gallery, or to consider going to the dinner and a movie theatre (awesomely, the options for your fine Italian dining experience: Thor or Gnomeo and Juliet).
At night, we wandered Seomyeon for our first dinner. We stopped at carts for jeon, and were soon confronted by a food problem. Tony desperately wanted to cram his gullet full of seafood, as was customary when one was in a city that was basically a giant fish market. Leona hungered for dakgalbi, a sort of slurry of chicken, greens, and molten spices. When we found a restaurant that actually smashed these two together (basically unheard of in Incheon), we gorged.
Not long after, we sought out still more food, and found the tent city. Here, women established tiny booths inside great husks of red tarpaulin and served up seafood, bulgogi, and various other dishes with vegetables and liquor. Some of the tents were, essentially, ghetto fabulous, blasted with black-light and polished wooden bars, but most were simple metal contraptions. Most were bustling, crammed full of customers, some spilling on the outside. Others, empty, forced their proprietesses out to the street, and thus many plaintively mewled at us as we wafted by, telling us, in Korean and English, that their food was delicious. Eventually we chose a tent, crammed in, and pointed at the closest thing with the most tentacles.
I’m not actually big on seafood. I don’t hate it as I once did, but I can never fully understand the fevered hunger people get for bottom-feeders, betendrilled deep-water Eldritch abominations, and stank slabs of gangrenous ocean goop. I’ll eat most of it (though if I have to extend any effort into extracting a bivalve from its chitinous home, I’m out of the game) because people I’m with want to, but usually I can take it or leave it.
That said. Wandering into Busan’s Jagalchi Fish Market the next day, I was willing to eat a lot of things, simply for the experience of it. We were suddenly in exotified Asia edited together for television as people screamed at one another over great, vast arrays of dead and live sea creatures. Rusting boasts buoyed nearby while walls of dead fish dried in the sun. Buckets of squid gurgled as their contents scrambled for freedom. Enormous crabs tapped at the glass of their tanks like Amsterdam’s red-light district. Critters flung themselves from their tanks onto the ground, and the nearest booth-owner would wander over, grab it, and fling it back amongst its brethren.
Here, people were shellacked in slickers and rubber as fish-water poured out onto the hot asphalt. People were more than happy to talk with us, as one woman stripped off her gloves and delineated the proper Korean vocabulary for the various squids available (muneo were the bigguns, nakji the little fellows with long tentacles, and jjuggumi the cartoonishly tiny octopi that are currently in season). Ajummas grasped great, squirming globs of sea animal and held them willingly up for photography. More than a few booth clerks asked us if we knew what sea penises were for (boners, basically), and were happy to demonstrate that they will spray sea water if you squeeze them (one of them also accidentally squirted Leona with one of the sea penises).
For the most part, I’ve come to terms with Korea, both the stuff I get, and that which I don’t. It was here that I had another moment where I was suddenly aware that I was in a place very far, and very different, from home. We began to discuss with one fishmonger about what we wanted to eat. We selected one big muneo, which he bagged for us, live. We then lingered over a large black fish for some hoe, but the price he told us was too high. We declined in favour of some nakji, and he tossed the big fish back into his tank. This fellow, obviously a little miffed at being left to flop about in a basket for so long, flung himself back out onto the floor with a sickening squelch. The man turned to us, with shrugged shoulders, remarked, “Trauma!” and proceeded to offer us a discounted price.