Tuesday, January 25, 2011

DMZ and Beyond...

I tried to visit the DMZ, but my timing was bad.

The best way for Americans to see the Demilitarized Zone is to book a seat on the USO tour, which I did, and I was pretty excited to see the North Korean soldiers standing guard, the secret tunnels, and all the animal life that inhabits this unlikely and inadvertent wildlife sanctuary.

I went to the USO office on the morning of my tour. It had less razzle-dazzle than I was expecting--Bob Hope wasn't there--it seemed like it was mainly a place for soldiers to check their email and watch CNN. Me and the largest group of foreigners I'd seen in one spot since I'd arrived in Seoul boarded the tour bus.

Once we were well on our way to the North Korean Border, our guide Sunny got up and asked if everyone knew about the shootings from the previous day. I had no idea what she was talking about, but almost everyone else raised their hand, so she didn't bother to recap, she only mentioned that it might not be safe enough to visit. We would have to go there and check it out. Yikes! I was really confused and contemplating my death for the next hour while we were driving toward our suddenly terrifying destination, until finally she announced that it was indeed too dangerous and we would be heading back. Yay! I was disappointed to miss the DMZ, but ecstatic to not get caught in crossfire.

Once I got back to Alps Seoul I read the news about the North Korean shelling. WTF! I decided to hide in my room and watch television. After a few days of morbid dread and internet news obsessing, I realized I only had a few days left in Korea, and maybe I should be making more of it, so I rallied and had a nice last few days there.

After a couple of failed attempts, I finally met with Jin-kang, who is an artist living in New York but from Seoul, who was there for a show she was having and to visit her family. We hit it off immediately. She escorted me to her gallery, which I had been previously unable to find, and then we got pancakes and beer at the cafe of a friend of hers who is also a famous Korean actress (who, unfortunately, I didn't get to meet.)

I asked Jin-kang if she thought South Koreans were anxious about the military gestures from the North--it had seemed to me that there was an eerie calm in the city, and a strange expectation that everything would be perfectly fine. But my impressions were those of an outsider, and I really wanted to know what Jin-kang thought of it all. She said that she thought people were affected by it, and cited a very low attendance at the performance of "Spamalot" that she went to the previous night as proof of the general feeling of solemnity, which I thought was a hilarious but probably accurate barometer.

The next day I went to Itaewon, which is the neighborhood where most foreigners in Seoul live, where American soldiers go to cut loose, and also the only LGBT friendly area in the city--it seems like Korean culture doesn't generally even acknowledge homosexuality. There are lots of bars and clubs and ethnic food and shops, but I was a little underwhelmed--I probably should have gone at night when there was more going on.

During my last few days in Seoul I spent a lot of time at Shinsegae, the fancy department store with the food market in the basement, which I really grew to love. Who doesn't enjoy paying eight dollars for a Toblerone?

I also spent a lot of time wandering around the endless subterranean shopping malls. I was a little surprised to find this record store--LP's seem too analog for Korean sensibilities (maybe why it was completely empty.)

Peruvian flute bands are a familiar sight in New York City subway stations, but I was amazed and tickled to see these guys playing underground in Seoul on my last night. Despite hating Peruvian flute music with every cell in my body, I secretly hoped they would play "I'd Rather Be a Forest Than a Tree", but they didn't.

So long, Korea!


I wasn't expecting to enjoy traveling alone as much as I did, but there were some lonely moments--some times when I felt really alienated visiting such a homogeneous culture that I wasn't a part of, and some nights where I felt a little scared to be alone so far from home. Thank god for television! It really is like an electric friend--and I left my friend on whenever I was home.

The commercials on Korean television are often hilarious and always super-annoying. I saw a bunch that used American pop songs in really incongruous and unintentionally funny ways--like using "You Had a Bad Day" to advertise a scary zombie show.

There was always at least one channel playing American movies or television--luckily I like police procedurals. A lot of "Sex and the City" (which has apparently ushered in the practice of having brunch to the Land of Morning Calm) and "America's Funniest Home Videos". There were also some Spanish-language soaps.

On the Korean-language channels there always seemed to be playing some serious-looking Josean-era palace soap opera that seemed really excrutiating to watch.

And some positively terrifying cooking shows.

There was always at least one channel broadcasting English lessons. There was a channel that always showed someone explaining how to play video games, and three golf channels (wow).

Any images on television of people smoking, drinking, or doing drugs were pixelated or blurred out, but there was always this comical period-piece soft-core porn set in traditional hanok playing at 5 or 6 a.m.--a time slot I tend to associate with the "Sesame Street" set.

Bonguensa Temple

Since I love, love, love the westernized and easily digestible nuggets of wisdom that Buddhism-lite has to offer, I was stoked to visit the temples of Seoul and get my Buddha on for real.

Did you know that Buddhism is actually a religion?

I knew it was, but I didn't really know, you know?

That is, until I visited Bonguensa Temple and finally connected the dots. Bonguensa is less central than Jogyesa Temple which I had already visited and enjoyed, but I heard that Bonguensa was very beautiful and relatively serene. Which turned out to be true, and it was fun to bop around all the little temples that comprise it. But I was struck for the first time there that Buddhism is something people really practice and believe in in a very ordinary, non-exotic way that I want no part of. Don't worry, this discovery hasn't shaken my pseudo-faith.

My favorite part of Bonguensa was the giant Buddha statue.

Also the wildly eclectic group of tiny Buddhas someone had nestled into a nearby nook.

Here are some stone lions...

...and some trees.

Secret Garden

Of the many palaces in Seoul, I was most excited to visit Changdeokgung Palace, as I read it was the most beautiful--it's a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and you can only see it through a guided tour. There is a special and infrequent tour you can take in the palace of the Huwon Garden--also known as the Secret Garden--which I was hell bent on doing, even though it didn't work out until the third time I tried to go.

It was really beautiful!

Here is our funny tour guide who told me he used to live in Long Island, but he couldn't remember where.

We tramped around the palace, checking out the buildings and the nature.

Mossy! Moss is soothing.

According to our tour guide, the paint on the ceiling of this gazebo is original to the 15th century. He also told us it was the only hexagonal gazebo in the world.

Many of the buildings in the palace were used as living quarters.

Here is the royal latrine (the servants had to use the woods).

Here's why the grounds were kept up so perfectly.

I liked the way our guide described these native rocks as "grotesque and beautiful".

Everyone on the tour was excited about the weird twin cats.