Making Inroads to Paekche

It was another of those exhausting Fridays. I hate it that I dread Fridays like I used to do Mondays. When I’m finished with work, I’m usually too tired to party with everyone else Friday nights. Nonetheless, I went out to eat kalbi with Brant, River, and Canada Joe, her boyfriend. Canada Joe is one of the coolest westerners I’ve met here. He’s a bit older than us, and yes, I agree with what people say, he reminds me of Sean Connery, all the way down to the accent. He’s been around the world quite a bit, so it’s great to talk to a seasoned traveler. He’s gotten me interested in Africa now, even though I doubt you’d see me teaching English out there anytime soon.After a great dinner of charbroiled pork, crab, side dishes, and much beer and soju, we introduced Joe to Habana so he could see what we meant by westerners who can be annoying in Korea. He didn’t last there long. I think they left after thirty minutes. It seemed everyone we usually see at Habana was there. A Korean at the bar motioned me over. It was hard to tell, but it was Dehyoung, the Korean we met a long, long time ago in the bar. He was dressed in a nice suit and had a haircut. Totally unrecognizable. He still had trouble with speaking English, but I was surprised to discover that we were able to hold up a decent conversation with me speaking my bit of Korean. It was a totally Konglish conversation. Brant and I stuck around to finish the pitcher of beer. We looked at our watches. It was 1 AM! I had to meet SJ in Beomgye at 7 AM, and I have no alarm clock. I went home and straightly went to sleep.

I awoke at 6:15, quickly got ready, and got out the door at 6:30. Ansan is still a little alive in the wee hours of a Saturday morning. An election is coming up, so a truck was in front of the subway station playing loud Korean pop music. That’s what politicians do. They drive around in trucks with their pictures plastered on them, playing loud booming pop music. To contrast with the loud political truck was a small group of people in front of the blood bank doing morning tai chi exercises. My subway train got into Beomgye around 7:20. SJ had a big road trip planned for us, and she wanted to leave early to beat the traffic, since it was a holiday weekend. We discovered that there’s no way to beat the traffic unless you leave at four in the morning. We drove into the Paekche region of Korea. During the latter half of the first millennium, Korea was divided into three kingdoms, Koguryo in the north, Silla in the east, and Paekche in the southwest. The three kingdoms are still sometimes referred to when talking about Korean geography. When I learned about the three kingdoms in college, I noted Pakche as being an area known for fiery hot foods and warm-blooded people. They’re the Cajuns of Korea, which may be why I get along so well with Koreans from Paekche, like Julie, Yu Jeong and SJ.

Our first stop was a beautiful beach resort town. The shops reminded me of any beach town in Florida, and ironically made me feel like I was home again. The tides here are pretty steep. I noticed that the tide only hours ago was 200 ft inland. The beach was surrounded by cliffs, and off in the distance was a beautiful mysterious mountainous island. Even beach combing was a unique experience. I had never seen live starfish before, but they were everywhere. There also were some strange sea bugs and worms burrowing in the sand. SJ went to climb some rocks that reminded me of a particular Led Zeppelin album cover. When we climbed to the other side, we saw umbrellas with old ladies perched underneath. SJ went to say hi to one of them. The lady had tubs filled with water and different swimming ocean creatures, like octopus and some, well, I couldn’t identify the other creatures. I then noticed that the lady’s basket had sauces in squeeze bottles and wooden chopsticks in wrappers. She was trying to get us to buy and eat these things raw on the rocks. SJ thought about it for a while, and we both politely declined. It was strange that these women were selling food in this hard-to-reach area.

I bought a disposable camera at a convenience store. I hope the pictures turn out. It looked like Korean spring break on the beach. The difference between the Korean and American spring breaks was that the colleges grouped themselves around large flags and banners, sang college anthems, and played soccer against each other. There was also a group out practicing Gum Do, Korean swordfighting. I so badly want to learn this martial art. People who have known me a while know I have a bit of a sword obsession, and I would prefer the two-handed Gum Do style over the one-handed European fencing style. It was very windy on the beach, and the temperature had dropped on Saturday. Nonetheless there were people out on surfboards being pulled by what can best be described by giant kites.

We went back on the beachwalk, looking for a restaurant to eat lunch at. Each restaurant had aquariums in the front with different fish swimming around and shellfish. One restaurant even had small sharks. SJ asked if I was in the mood for raw fish or shellfish. I was leaning towards raw fish, but she convinced me on the shellfish idea. And it was a good idea. We entered a mom-and-pop restaurant and sat down at a small table that was essentially a grill with a little area to hold your drinks. SJ actually was able to haggle for a lower price for our lunch. She’s good at that. A man came by and put two burning charcoal braziers under our grill. They then came by and dumped a bucket of shellfish on our table. There were oysters and scallops and, well, no idea what the other ones were, but they were all good. It’s fun to sit at a grill eating roasted shellfish, even though it’s a bit dangerous with the inevitable popping of juices from exploding shells. Still, if you can deal with the liability issues, this type of restaurant would make a killing in the U.S. I impressed SJ with my technique in opening raw oysters with a butter knife. We both like oysters raw, so we held some off to the side to keep from roasting. Our meal was accompanied by just a bowl of sweet hot pepper paste and chopped peppers and garlic. I’d place some peppers and garlic in the liqueur of an open shell sizzling over the fire. That was good. And the soju went well with the shellfish. Anyway, we could not finish all the food. It was a meal meant for four. And I couldn’t think of another shellfish for the rest of the day.

After walking around town and passing a few dog soup restaurants while watching a dog on the street eating a questionable bone, we did what Koreans do when they’re looking for something to do: noraebang. It was late in the morning, and we were the first customers at the noraebang. We had the whole place to ourselves, and we sang for an hour. I’ve come to really like noraebangs. And SJ has a wonderful strong singing voice. By now, I’ve been to a few noraebangs, and I like the intimate 2-4 person rooms. The thing that makes noraebang interesting is that they have two microphones, and the machine actually gives you a score on how well you sing. I have no idea what its criteria is because songs that I nailed I got an 85 on, and one song I screwed up I got a perfect 100.

We got in the car and headed a few hours east, near Gongju, the historical capital of Paekche. There’s a national park there with some ancient Buddhist temples. We went to this one area that was famous for its cherry blossoms. It was breathtaking. We went down a road lined with humongous old cherry blossoms so thick, there was no sky. It was a canopy of pink popcorn. The trees led to the base of a mountain, where we parked the car. The place is a little touristy, with souvenir shops and food tents. But we entered the park area and went up this beautiful nature trail to the temple. It was under renovation. It looked more like they demolished a temple to build a new one. I love seeing the ancient mixed with the new, though. And I got a kick out of the site of this old temple with a satellite dish on top and an SUV parket in front.

The sun was starting to set. We left the park and headed to the boulevard to get some dinner. On the way, I took a beautiful picture of the daylight full moon framed by mountains and the branches of a cherry blossom. I hope that picture turns out, especially that I got honked at by a few cars while I was trying to frame everything perfectly. There were more shellfish restaurants, but what caught my eye were the tents where in front were sides of pigs turning on spits. Sitting in front of each spit was a man who would rub the pig with soju each time it turned around. I gotta have that! So we entered a tent and ordered some of this soju-rubbed BBQ-ed pork. It was sweet and fatty and served with sweet soy paste and some type of seasoned salt. It was great just by itself. The cherry blossoms and the stringed lights in the area reminded me of a scene in “Big Fish” where Ewan MacGregor’s character ends up in this perfect Southern town where they have this beautiful festival. To make it more surreal, a Korean clown was eating at a table near us. I wish it wasn’t so cold because I could have spent all night in that area.

SJ and I drove back at night through the mountains, got lost a few times and found our way back. On the way, SJ gave me a good lesson on personal pronouns and verb forms in Korean. I drifted to sleep in the car. She dropped me off at Sanbon station, which was a lot closer to my home than Beomgye. She was way too tired to make the trip to Ansan and then back to Beomgye, which was fine. She had driven a total of seven hours that day. So I found my way through Sanbon station and got on the subway platform. Rode the train back, reflecting on the day. I arrived at my station in Handae-ap, stuck my ticket at the turnstyle, and the machine started buzzing. I pointed this out to the guard there. I said in the best Korean I could that there’s no way that my ticket was out of money because there was still 8300 won left on it on my last trip. He checked it out and told me that the magnetic strip on the ticket had been damaged by something like a cell phone. I don’t own a cell phone. I have no idea what could have damaged it between Sanbon station and Handae-ap. That’s the second time this has happened to one of my tickets. Rather than fix my ticket, the subway people gave me a refund of the money I had left on the ticket. I have to figure out how to prevent this from happening again. Next time I may not have such understanding subway guards.

At around 5 AM, I awoke to a feeling I hadn’t had in a long time — acid reflux. The fatty pork was talking back to me, and I didn’t have any antacids to take care of it. I was writhing in pain when the phone rang. It was Dad at Beba and Grandaddy’s house in Decatur. HA! The first phone call from someone in the States since I’ve been here. I told him about my day and the past week, the Mak Jo Dan incident. I talked to Beba, who sounds much better since she was in the hospital. My acid reflux vanished, and I was able to sleep until late in the morning.

Later Note: That would be the last time I’d talk to my grandmother.  She died the next month.

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