Walking with Haechi (Part 1b)

4 12 2009

After lunch we checked out of the hostel and boarded the bus for Seoul

Remember I said that Korea seemed to be full of apartments? My impression was only reinforced during the two-hour bus ride – there were clusters of apartments so high and expansive, it looked as if they could easily hold the population of my city here in the Philippines.

For those of you who have been to Baguio city in northern Luzon, Seoul resembles it to some degree: the city is built upon several rolling hills, most of which are covered with buildings of one sort or another. Yet somehow, Seoul manages to retain a decidedly suburban atmosphere – even with highrises and skyscrapers all around me, I ever lost the feeling that nature and the countryside were only an arm’s-length away (contrast this with say, downtown Makati, where nature not only feels far away, it actually is far away).

We checked-in at the Hamilton Hotel on Itaewon Road. We were told that more foreigners were in this district than native Koreans, and the plethora of shops and restaurants cateringto foreign tastes stood as testament to this (there was even a mosque!).

With a few more hours left in the day, we were taken to Insadong – a well-known shopping district that, according to Hojin, specialized in traditional Korean…stuff. Jeff and Elsa, one of our NYC supervisors, attemptes to brave the cold in flipflops. I guess nobody informed them that the temperature drops at night.

Insadong street was, to put it simply, crowded. Sidewalks teemed with pedestrians and shopping stalls,competing for space. More than a few just set up shop in the middle of the street, leaving the few cars foolish enough to attempt to drive down the road to their own devices in negotiating their way through. It was here I saw my first ever homeless Korean – he looked (and smelled) very similar to our “taong grasa” – the difference being that he was bundled-up.

Korea is famous for its cheap and awesomely filling streetfood, and I think no variety of streetfood was absent from Insadong – there were stalls selling sausages on a stick (Soondae in Korean), rice cakes dipped in meat-and-chili sauce (ddeokbokki), fried dumplings, and my personal favorite, bbundegi – silkworm larva, which came boiled and served by the cupfull.

I just had to try bbundegi – what’s the point of going to a foreign country and not experiencing the native fare? Besides, we feed balut to foreigners with undisguised glee, so its a fair trade. Bbundegi’s texture in the mouth is like shrimp with the shell still on – firm on the outside, pretty juicy on the inside. As for flavor, I suspect it takes on the flavor of whatever it is cooked in – the critters in my cup had a decidedly nutty flavor. Not bad, really – but Jeff took one bite and to this day, cannot stand so much as the smell of bbundegi.

We made our way to Ssamzegil (spelled “ssamjigil” in Korean) market, which is a shopping arcade of sorts. With three floors built in a continuous upward spiral, all one has to do is walk along the main walkway and pretty soon you will find yourself on the roof, never having climbed any stairs.

It was at this point that my colleagues could no longer restrain themselves and thus introduced the Korean people to the “jump shot” – basically, a picture taken while the subjects are suspended, mid-jump, in the air. It is no doubt quite fun to do, but it is not the easiest shot to make, and repeated jump shots in public places quickly become obnoxious. I soon began noticing the annoyed glances thrown by passers-by at our little group (my companions couldn’t care less), and to keep my sanity, I chose to stick close to Junghyun and Hojin as they wandered off towards a tea house on the second floor.

True to form, I pestered them with questions regarding how some of the women (actually, a lot of them) could walk around in short (above the knee) skirts despite the cold (“They’re suffering for their fashion.” Hojin answered.), the popularity of bbundegi (“Excellent food if you’re into body building.”), and why everyone seemed to dress in somber-colored clothes (“I only noticed that now, once you mentioned it.”).

Dinner was at a restaurant in the basement of Ssamzegil – I didn’t get the name, but apparently, the place was one of the best restaurants in Seoul when it comes to bibimbap, a dish that consists of various vegetables (and an egg) arranged on a bowl of rice.

Now I’ve had bibimbap before (its one of my favorite Korean dishes, actually), but not on the scale that I had that evening. The bowl was immense…I think three cups of rice (the way they serve it at our local carenderia) could have easily fit in that brass bowl (now that I think about it, the bowl actually did contain that much rice), and while I’m known to finish whatever is set in front of me, I just couldn’t…there was just too much bibimbap. And did I forget to mention there were still about five or six sidedishes that were served alongside it?

Stuffed as we were, Jeff and I still stepped out of the hotel later that night (about 10 o’clock) and I…I treated myself to a nice big cup of Baskin Robbins ice cream from across the street – my first in over 20 years (I was maybe 4 or 5 years old the last time I had tasted their ice cream). I can’t quite express the satisfaction of buying something in a language other than one (or ones) you are comfortable with – just pointing to Raspberry Cheescake and saying “Igeo juseyo” (This please) and having the crew actually understand me was just bliss – almost as good as the ice cream itself. Almost. 😉

…although I must admit a little bit of awkwardness when specifiying the size of cup I wanted, since I had to pronounce it with a Korean accent – “King Cup” became “King Cuppa”…not to mention I couldn’t understand the cashier when she told me the price – “Samcheon won juseyo.” (3000 won please).

We then decided to walk the length of Itaewon, all the way to the highway, where we watched the cars (Kia and Hyundai, mostly) go by and shivered as the temperatures plumetted to the single digits. There were times, especially when the wind blew into our faces, that we could swear it was already below zero. Whoever said that there’s no wind in Seoul has never actually been to Seoul, as far as I’m concerned.

I spent a long time under the hot shower after that, needless to say.