Monday, September 19, 2011

Liaison at the 포장마차 / bOtTLe caFé, Gwangju, Korea

Liaison at the 포장마차 (street food cart)

The man was short, his white cap matched his scuffed white track jacket, I think, though I didn’t get a good look at either. He was already done with one stick of 오댕 (processed fish cake) when I turned to look at the couple; his thin lips were chewing, smacking, stuffing the stuff past his teeth. The 오댕 stick was marked on the end with red paint, and it had flaked a bit on the tips of his fingers. He grabbed another stick and I stole a look at his companion. Her hair was dyed a shade of brown/red, the same shade I find my college freshmen favor, finally freed from 6 years of forced middle and high school dress code conformity. She was maybe 42, or perhaps 34, not any older than 45 and certainly not 29. Her shirt was unbuttoned one too many, not totally obvious but certainly adding to a general sort of atmosphere about her. Her hair stood out, mostly tucked behind ears, a few strands escaping at the temples; here in Korea, it stood out in much the same way a belly button ring would stand out on a mom-aged woman back in the States. Her glasses were framed with an ornate, spidery kind of wire that looked like it might frame the borders of the diary of a teenage vampire wannabe. She was the sort of person who you could tell was wearing a lot of makeup from say, 50 feet away, at a glance. The possibility of high boots disappeared under the sheen of gray business pants, and the frills of her white blouse contributed to the overall impression that she was just off work. She seemed simultaneously too well poised and too much sex for this man in the ratty white track jacket, loose khakis and blown out sneakers.

They spoke to each other in clips of sentences. I caught “one more?” as they reached into the bubbling broth for more fish on sticks, piling up spent sticks like kindling in front of them, fueling up for some ferocious activity or perhaps refueling after the same. I noticed the way they conjucated verbs - he spoke in 반말 (informally) and she in 존댓말 (respectfully). The woman at the cart blithely stirred the two vats of 떡볶이, and I munched on my 순대; we all ate around the 포장마차, brought together by the food there glistening, propped up on metal trays or laid out resplendent and magnificent, sugar glazed and spicy and marvelous, a cornucopia of Korean fast food. 닭꼬치 (chicken on a stick) sat lined up like matchsticks, and at their stick/feet sat hard boiled eggs, looking oddly and intensely fertile and glaringly unpeeled and white against the glazed brown of the chicken on their sticks. The man nudged his companion, he was ready to go and started walking, strutting and stretching his legs an impatient 10 feet from the truck; she looked back at him and asked “국물?” (broth?), and she ladled some of the 오댕국물 into a paper cup and he stuck his hand out and had at it, in the same way I imagine a hawk might approach a paper cup filled with broth, if gripping a paper cup was ever a possibility for a bird of prey. She handed the vendor a fiver and grabbed her change over the nubs and nodules of steaming food, and they clipped and scuffed their way down the street behind me.

As they left and I sighed and I took it all in, at all this food filling every possible surface of the transformed rear of this woman’s truck (it was indeed just an elaborately unfolded truck, blocking the end of a pedestrian street in Gwangju downtown), an end of a toilet paper roll serving as napkin/papertowel/whatever else, unfurled a little too much and blowing in the wind, the edge of chill in the late September air breathing a growing reminder of fall weather, and the street itself, this truck food cart in the middle of sidewalk and street with cars rumbling past, neon lights of cafes and banks and shops pulsing and situating the stroller or the street cart eater in the exact center of Korean society, at the epicenter and the keystone of it all, happening all around, as said eater munches on sugary/spicy fare in lieu of dinner. I had a little more broth in a paper cup, paid my 4,000 won (a little less than $4) and kept walking.

bOtTLe caFé, Gwangju, Korea

I was a little hesitant to go in, alone, but something about the gray painted steps and the Spanish music enticed me. The decision was made for me, thankfully, my feet dropped, one in front of the other, all the way up the steps. I nearly don’t remember the decision to just, enter. The music was loud upstairs in the restaurant, it was some sort of Spanish rhythm with instruments I can’t name but would like to. The lights were incandescent and you could tell – the light reminded me of an artist’s loft in a warehouse, or an Ikea, or a Home Depot with smooth painted concrete floors with snaking white cracks built right in, smooth and imperceptible to a finger’s touch (though I didn’t touch the floor, I’m guessing). The clientele was entirely, 100%, Korean girls in their 20s gesturing gently to each other and smiling.

I was greeted by half a dozen servers in white chef’s aprons, befuddled that I was alone but happy to see me. I indicated I wanted to sit at the front, on one of the two chairs conspiring with a couch around a coffeetable in front of a screen projecting some sort of movie featuring an Orthodox Jew shoveling his sidewalk. The sound was off (Spanish music had changed to something reminiscent of snake charmers and woven baskets).

I sat down in one of the chairs, which looked like it might be more comfortable on a porch somewhere tropical, and instantly felt like I was on safari, and knowing that this reaction was very misplaced, I continued to relentlessly believe it. The feeling was intensified by a very odd plant/tree – with a stick of a palm tree’s trunk and what looked like a tiny aloe vera cluster of fronds at the top, the palm-like trunk veering sharply to the right at the top, as if swaying to a windy day in a Dr. Seuss book.

Each and every table and chair in this café is different, and it's intentional. Curved back wooden chairs sneer across a white table at their straight backed metal counterparts. The center cushion of the couch opposite me is a different brown than the others. A leopard-ish print pillow sits against one side of the couch, waiting.

A menu arrives, and I order a glass of house red, and it comes in a kiddie swimming pool a couple of minutes later. I open my laptop to write something else, and then I started writing a sentence or two about this café, and then I couldn’t stop.

This place gives you an entire repurposed wine bottle full of water and a glass to start, and I had slurped ¾ of the way through mine before I even realized it. I guess I’d been thirsty.

P.S. They just gave me free nachos.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Wild Swimming Inspiration - Tad Alang

My good friend Katy over at Wild Swimming New England has asked for submissions from other wild swimmers worldwide to showcase their favorite natural swimming holes, so although it's been a few months since I was in Laos, I thought I'd blog in more detail about the best wild swimming I've ever done.

The story of my wild swimming experience began with an idea - my buddy Forest and I decided that we'd hire motorbikes and explore around the Bolaven Plateau in southern Laos, since that's what all the backpackers we met in that area seemed to recommend. We had one waterfall picked out, Tad Lo a bit north of the plateau, but as for the rest of the trip we figured we'd head to the city in the middle of plateau, and just ask people what's up.

The "city" of Pakxong was basically one main road with a couple of hotels, a marketplace, and a coffeeshop called simply "COFFEE" in block letters. The Bolaven Plateau, being of higher altitude than the rest of Laos, has a perfect climate for coffee and numerous plantations; the coffeeshop was run by a Dutch expat who hand wok-roasted his own beans. At the shop we found a hand-drawn map to a secret waterfall with a new homestay opened just a month before, plus a few favorable traveler reviews of the place. I took a picture of the map and we headed out immediately. Though to be honest, the "71 km dusty trail" didn't look too appealing.

The road ended up being under construction (in the process of being paved) which was even worse, we were thundering down the shoulder the whole time, sometimes in dust halfway up to our knees. The real fun came though when we came to a series of forks in the road that weren't on the map, I was dizzy with hunger since we had skipped lunch (no villages on the way and we hadn't eaten packed any snacks). We backtracked a bunch of times, and took a road that pointed toward a dam, and finally stumbled upon it.

View Larger Map

To follow where Forest and I traveled, find Pakxong and the three roads leading east. Tad Alang (the waterfall) and the adjoining homestay are somewhere along the middle road, most likely between Ban Latassassine and the edge of the green conservation area.

We knocked on the door of the homestay hut and met a group of French travelers who had arrived a short while before. The homestay owner had apparently driven off to a village to buy ingredients to make them dinner, so there was nothing to eat. Never having in my memory as a child or adult ever skipped a meal, in desperation I went out to the fields around the homestay with my Lonely Planet phrasebook and begged them for rice, but didn't get any offers. Below is me, dirty from the road, in the homestay, and a view from the exterior.

Sugar-high from candy from kind French folk we all decided to hike down to the waterfall while we waited for dinner. It was only a maybe 15 minute hike downhill, through bamboo and banana groves, and then we saw this:

A waterfall probably a little over 100 m tall. For a better perspective, check out this video I shot as we headed back up after swimming.

Following the format of Katy's blog, I'll include some wild swimming details here:

Wild Swim Type: freshwater river / waterfall.
Convenience: 4 hours from a major city by motorbike, 30 confusing minutes from a village with gas for said bike, an easy hike from the homestay, a dangerous scramble over sharp rocks to get to the waterfall itself.
What to Expect: A handful of backpackers, a friendly homestay owner, a somewhat jealous wife when she sees said homestay owner talking with foreign backpackers, various dogs, gorgeous purple flowers everywhere due to constant mist from the falls, in Forest's words, "speechlessness".
Amenities: warm beer a 15 minute motorbike away, homestay bamboo hut, possibly food poisonous salty dinners, no running water, no bathrooms (be prepared to do your duty in nature).
Swim level: advanced due to currents and sharp rocks underwater. Best to swim with your legs in front of you so that if you do get scraped up, it'll be feet instead of stomach. Water though is clear. Resist the urge to get as close as possible to the falls, or if you can't resist, fight that current!!
When to visit: Winter, as that tends to be the most comfortable season in Southeast Asia, though since the Plateau gets colder layers are advised for a good night's sleep.
Why to visit: There's nothing more stunning than a secret enormous waterfall in the jungle.

When I finally got dinner, it was blissfully delicious: cabbage and pork cooked in what we all guessed was pure MSG sauce. I ate about twice the amount that everyone else did, and gobbled up clumps of sticky rice by the handful. That night we drank warm beer we bought from the back of a woman's house in a neighboring village, I pored over my Lao phrasebook with the owner, and we strummed ukulele and sang songs. In the middle of the night I woke up all kinds of sick, possibly food poisoning, and ended up bailing alone at 6 AM to bomb it back 4 hours across the plateau and into Pakse before I was too weak to ride on dusty / muddy (it was raining) roads. Made it back and had the best Indian food of my life for lunch.

If you haven't checked out Katy's Wild Swimming New England blog, and especially if you live in and around the Boston area, you should give it a read!

Sunday, July 03, 2011

Lapis Lazuli by W. B. Yeats

I have heard that hysterical women say
They are sick of the palette and fiddle-bow.
Of poets that are always gay,
For everybody knows or else should know
That if nothing drastic is done
Aeroplane and Zeppelin will come out.
Pitch like King Billy bomb-balls in
Until the town lie beaten flat.

All perform their tragic play,
There struts Hamlet, there is Lear,
That's Ophelia, that Cordelia;
Yet they, should the last scene be there,
The great stage curtain about to drop,
If worthy their prominent part in the play,
Do not break up their lines to weep.
They know that Hamlet and Lear are gay;
Gaiety transfiguring all that dread.
All men have aimed at, found and lost;
Black out; Heaven blazing into the head:
Tragedy wrought to its uttermost.
Though Hamlet rambles and Lear rages,
And all the drop-scenes drop at once
Upon a hundred thousand stages,
It cannot grow by an inch or an ounce.

On their own feet they came, or On shipboard,'
Camel-back; horse-back, ass-back, mule-back,
Old civilisations put to the sword.
Then they and their wisdom went to rack:
No handiwork of Callimachus,
Who handled marble as if it were bronze,
Made draperies that seemed to rise
When sea-wind swept the corner, stands;
His long lamp-chimney shaped like the stem
Of a slender palm, stood but a day;
All things fall and are built again,
And those that build them again are gay.

Two Chinamen, behind them a third,
Are carved in lapis lazuli,
Over them flies a long-legged bird,
A symbol of longevity;
The third, doubtless a serving-man,
Carries a musical instrument.

Every discoloration of the stone,
Every accidental crack or dent,
Seems a water-course or an avalanche,
Or lofty slope where it still snows
Though doubtless plum or cherry-branch
Sweetens the little half-way house
Those Chinamen climb towards, and I
Delight to imagine them seated there;
There, on the mountain and the sky,
On all the tragic scene they stare.
One asks for mournful melodies;
Accomplished fingers begin to play.
Their eyes mid many wrinkles, their eyes,
Their ancient, glittering eyes, are gay.

Friday, April 29, 2011

Dunkin' Donuts, Korean style

Carrot donuts, spinach donuts, glazed tofu, and broccoli. Boston, are you ready for all that??

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Engagement rings

Our engagement rings are in! We ordered them a little while ago, and they just came in. Perfect.

So, how did I pop the big question to Hanna? Here's what happened. Ages ago when I was visiting this beautiful girl on Jeju Island, I was just hanging out for the summer but Hanna was working hard hours at an after-school academy (학원). On a particularly rough day, we went out for a drink afterwards, and I happened to tie a napkin around her finger to cheer her up. She loved her napkin ring so much that she ended up saving it, I think she even has it in a box somewhere back in Jeju.

So April 10th was her birthday, the day I had been waiting weeks for - I'd made the decision to ask her quite some time before, but I was nervous as all hell, of course. It was a Sunday, but I woke up at 5 AM and and couldn't fall asleep, I read a book in bed and watched the skyline slowly brighten. Around 6 I got out of the little napkin I had stolen from the university dining hall, and tied it around Hanna's finger as she slept. I had meant for her to keep sleeping and for her to ask me about it when she awoke, but I guess she could sense something, and she sat up and looked at me. It was now or never. I got on one knee, asked her, and ... well you know the rest. She said yes. :)

That night we went into the city and picked out rings together - Korean style. I wanted to get her one with a stone, and I didn't want a stone in mine, though all of the Korean "couple rings" were bejeweled even for the men. Finally found a little shop with a couple of real nice ladies who gave us a discount for the two we ended up with. This will be my wedding ring, and Hanna's is an engagement ring (I'm sure she'll get a wedding ring as well too^^). I think Hanna has pictures of the napkin ring on her phone, I'll ask her to upload them when she gets a chance. The band-aid has no romantic story attached, just the unfortunate consequence of early morning veggie chopping.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Spring days

Today Hanna asked me, where in the world is the weather like this all year long? I said maybe southern China? Ahh to live in a land of eternal spring!

An unexpected hike

Last week, I went on a run toward a spot on Google Maps where a road disappeared into the foothills of Mudeung Mountain. My plan: go for a quick hike after the run, and if I was too tired to run back to take a taxi.

Here's the very edge of the paved road, disappearing into meadows with burial mounds in the valley.

Since I was planning on running for only about an hour, I didn't think I'd need any water, and I had my wallet just in case. But there were no convenience stores out here, only farms. I almost turned back when I stumbled upon this 약수 (literally medicine water, basically fresh stream water) at a tiny temple, which was just a shack on the side of the road.

Close-up picture of the shrine outside the temple, the red ladle is what you use to drink the water, I just scooped it with my hands right out of the stone bowl. The mat is for your knees as you do the traditional 108 bows.

After drinking I walked up the dirt path you can see in the above pictures to find a hidden lake in the meadow with a bold "NO SWIMMING" sign. I was hot enough that I almost disobeyed, but I ran into some fishermen there so I decided not to. I ended up chatting with them for a little while after asking them how the day's catch was going (not well). One of the fisherman's daughters is a student at Gwangju University where I teach. Drank some beer and ate some snacks with them, and then, properly refreshed, continued on the path up to higher ground.

I could see on my GPS that if I walked for about 30 min or so and cleared the next ridge, I'd be at a bigger lake with another temple and a road back to civilization, so I decided to follow the mountain paths in that direction. As I reached the top of the ridge, caught a glimpse of Mudeung Mountain with some wild flowers.

The white spots in this picture are wild cherry blossom trees in the hillside.

As I came down the other side of the ridge I could see a large lake, dammed on one side. On the bottom left of the picture you can see a cliff, this was a stunning vantage point and a great view of Mudeung Mountain, and the valley below. Wonder why more people don't hike this way? Probably because of the "산입금지" (don't enter the mountain) sign posted near the dam in this valley. In my defense there wasn't a sign on the valley where I came in! ^^

As I hiked back toward the road in the second valley, came across this female Buddha statue at a small temple. Hanna looked at this picture and said 무섭다 - scary!! By this time I really needed another drink of water, but had to walk another 30 minutes on a lonely village road until I found - huzzah! - a tiny convenience store, and a main road where I could flag down a taxi. An hour's run turned into a 3 hour adventure, totally worth it.

Tuesday, April 05, 2011

New glasses

Sweet frames, sweet lenses. Never, never  underestimate Korean fashion.

"I don't believe people are looking for the meaning of life as much as they are looking for the experience of being alive." ~ Joseph Campbell

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