Sunday, January 23, 2011

Like the Taste of Api

The last 3 weeks have been a bit crazy for me. I taught the Drama class at Winter Camp as well as a conversational English class for adults in the afternoon. The days were busy, but on Friday it all finished! The students performed their modern version of The Wizard of Oz, including music and dance to songs like "Eye of the Tiger", "Lean on Me", and "It's Gonna be a Bright Sunshiny Day."
The students did a great job and we had a goodbye festival for them as well as the adult students. Then after work, I caught a bus to Jeonju, a neighboring city where my friend lives who recently had a baby. She is from Colombia, and 2 other friends from Ecuador and Bolivia also were there for a visit. So it was a convergence of South American women married to Korean men. And it made me wonder exactly how many native Spanish-speakers there are living long-term in Korea. I have no idea, but it can't be that many.
We arrived in the evening, and soon after I noticed a distinctive purple liquid in a pot on the stove. "Is that api?!" I asked. Api is a Bolivian drink made from blue corn, cinnamon, pineapple juice, and oranges, usually served hot with empanadas, pastries, etc. The Bolivian who had brought it was shocked that I knew this regional drink. The thick, warming fruity taste brought back a flood of memories- of sitting at a street stall in Potosi one night, having an evening snack with a Japanese man who spoke almost no English or Spanish; of the camaraderie of the senoras in the cold high-altitude night air; of eating snacks in the market of Capacabana on the shores of Lake Titicaca amidst the smell of fish and bread. That one bright purple cup reminded me of whole other world beyond Korea, one where I could communicate with people and where I was deeply fascinated by the culture.

I have been in Korea for over 10 months, and have had a wonderful time. I wouldn't trade this experience for anything. But I am starting to sense a certain monotony, a certain apathy on my part, a sense that I am forgetting some part of myself. I think one year is just the right amount of time to be here. It will soon be Winter Vacation, and I will take a much-needed break from Korea before coming back for a few weeks to finish my contract.

Oh yeah, back to my happy South American vortex. In the morning, my friend made a sort of Colombian breakfast soup called chagua. It's onion broth with milk and cilantro with poached eggs and crackers (or stale bread). She also made traditional Colombian arepas which are corn patties (corn masa brought from her country) filled with various fillings, in this case cheese, and grilled on a griddle. To drink we had our choice between cafe con leche (coffee with milk) or panela, a drink with Colombian brown sugar. It was all really delicious.
Back home I'm considered a decent baker, on par with any of my friends. But here, I am considered phenomenal. It's only because hardly any foreigners have ovens, and Koreans don't have a tradition of baked goods. I was lucky enough to get a convection oven on loan from my school, but that's rare. I like to bake, but don't want to eat it all, so I end up giving a lot away. I bring it to my coworkers, friends, and the other day I really didn't want a whole carrot cake sitting at my house, so I brought it to the movies where I was meeting friends. They were a little surprised but definitely not complaining. I finally tried Molly Wizenberg's carrot cake recipe which was awesome. So while the South American friends cooked up their traditional food, I showed them how to make an apple tart. We made the pastry dough the night before, and in the morning rolled it out and assembled it. A great skills trade for every one!

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Take A Rest

Do we even say "take a rest" in English? I have been around non-native English speakers for long enough that sometimes I don't know what is correct in general American usage anymore. I call cell phones "hand phones" and scarves "mufflers" and cheating "cunning". Sometimes I leave out articles like "the" and "a" which I know is a horrible habit.

I'm not sure anymore, but I think I should say "rest up" or "get some rest" or "take a break" instead of "take a rest", which Koreans always say. Anyway, I did just that this past weekend (however you say it). The last few weekends have been pretty busy with the holidays and going out of town, and I really needed a mellow weekend in Gunsan. Plus, I came down with a killer cold last week... no way to bring in the New Year or the beginning of an energy-intensive Winter Camp. I dragged through the week until Saturday when I woke up at my usual time before 8. Then I went back to sleep until NOON- which I don't think I've done since I was 17. It was disorienting but I felt SO much better. Sometimes extra sleep is all you need.

Saturday night I went out for shabu-shabu, which is a Japanese-style hot pot dinner where a pot of beef broth simmers at your table and you can add thin slices of meat and greens and mushrooms to cook as you go. There are also side dishes of kimchi and salad, and after the veggies you can cook homemade pasta noodles. The final course is juk which is a savory rice porridge. Cooked rice is added to the super-flavorful broth and stirred with an egg and finely chopped green onion to make a really delicious ending to the meal. Overall you eat mostly broth and cooked vegetables, and it was the perfect end-of-cold food.

After that I went to a live music bar (new in Gunsan! So exciting!) to see a band from nearby Jeonju. It was 3 girls and a guy who looked about college-age and all played multiple instruments. The lead singer, though initially unassuming with her baggy sweatshirt and short bowl-cut, had an incredible stage presence. They were the first Korean band I have seen who didn't just play rock covers. They had a unique sound and wrote their own music. They sounded like if Mary Lou Lord got another vocalist, an electronic bongo, moved to the Caribbean, and spoke Korean.

On Sunday I really wanted to go for a bike ride, although it was freezing and there was still snow on the ground. I rode across town on icy sidewalks without one incident. I did a fair amount of sliding and falling in the last 2 weeks, so I think now I'm becoming a competent snow-rider. The roads are totally clear of snow, but more has been forecast for the coming week. And temperatures down to -10C... which is 14F... much colder than I'm used to. But I'm having fun doing drama with the Winter Camp students, trying to get outside when I can, and rest when I need to.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Starting the Year in Busan

Busan is the 2nd largest city in Korea after Seoul, located in the southeast corner of the country. I've been wanting to visit there for a long time, but was waiting for a 3-day weekend since it's over 4 hours away by bus. My school was nice enough to give us the Friday of New Year's weekend off, so I caught a bus with Aaron Friday morning.
There was still at least 6 inches of snow on the ground in Gunsan, but as the hours went by, there was less and less snow to the south and east. We didn't have to go very far for me to feel like I escaped the bleak, icy roads of Gunsan. The weather is Busan is known for being nicer than most other parts of the country, not as humid in the summer, and warmer in the fall and spring. We checked into our hotel after navigating the (yeah! new to me!) subway system. Our first stop was the Fish Market, the largest in Korea. It was late afternoon and chilly, but beautiful clear skies and as good a day as any for people to buy and sell all sorts of seafood.

It was New Years Eve, so we got ready to go out for the night. I wanted to do something fun, but not too crazy, as I long ago decided that tired and hungover is no way to start a new year. A friend had recommended an Indian restaurant, and I was excited just to eat some much-missed ethnic food. The food was good, the wine was delicious and affordable (rare in Korea), and the decor was lush, over-the-top, and romantic.
Then to Gwangan Beach for a chilly stroll and view of the city and bridge lights. Fireworks were for sale and families were lighting them off along the shore. Then to a bar chocked full of more foreigners than I've seen in one place in a long time. We listened to good music, did the countdown, sang Auld Lang Syne, people-watched, and turned in not-too-late.
I feel like in every other post I mention how much I miss Western breakfasts, so of course I had to seize the opportunity for one in Busan. At an Irish pub/cafe the next day we had eggs, baked beans, fried tomato, toast, hash browns, bacon, sausage, and coffee. It was noon and there were definitely people who had not been to sleep yet. The guy at the table behind me had a bleached mohawk and was drinking a beer and said a prayer over his food. Later as I was about to leave, the server brought around jello shots for every one. It seemed like a novel idea, but after some deliberation I decided to pass, and my shot was gladly accepted by the table next to us.
With full bellies we walked along Haeundae Beach, possibly the most well-known beach in Busan. Apparently it is completely packed with bodies in the summer time, and I'm glad I could go when I had a little more breathing room. But for a cold winter day, there were still quite a few people out walking around.

We came across this sand sculpture, and I didn't even realize until later that 2011 is the Year of the Rabbit. After the beach, we headed to northern Busan to a jimjilbang. Jimjilbang is a Korean spa, and this one was called Hurshimchung which is known for being the biggest one in Korea, and ostensibly all of Asia. From the women's locker room, you go up into the tub area, which is a beautiful and grand upstairs room with domed glass ceilings and many pools and shower areas. There are hot tubs of different temperatures, with oriental herbs, with foots soaks, with falling water, dark caves, outdoor tubs, cold tubs, saunas, swimming, you name it. It was packed on the first day of the year, full of families with kids running around, starting 2011 with health and cleanliness. Of course, I couldn't take pictures, but here is a picture from Google Images of the inside.
After the tubs, you can get a tropical-looking flowered shirt-short set to go downstairs to the co-ed area where there are several saunas, a resting room, an oxygen room, massage areas, and a snack bar. It would have been more relaxing if it weren't packed to the brim with people, but it was still an awesome experience. In the evening, we went to a German-style brewery, the first brewery I've been to in Korea. The beer was better than your average national brew, but nothing to write home about. It tasted like sour lemon-hops water, and if there are any brew masters out there reading this, I'm sure you could find a job in Korea real fast. I appreciate that they are trying though, and maybe in years to come they will get the methods and recipes dialed in.
On Sunday morning we went to Beomeosa Temple, which was lauded in my guidebook as being Busan's "most impressive sight". I like temples and it was beautiful, but after 10 months of being in South Korea and seeing many temples that all look the same, it was nothing new. Still it was a gorgeous morning and great to be out of Gunsan.

We stopped for lunch after the temple, a typical and casual Korean meal of chamchi kimbap (seaweed roll filled with rice, tuna, pickled radish, and other veggies), kimchi fried rice, kimchi stew, and side dishes such as (you guessed it!) kimchi, marinated bean sprouts, kimcheed radish, and fish cakes. Before getting on the bus home we wandered through a market in Nopo-dong, where I got some dried persimmons. Here they dry them whole, so they end up resembling an apricot, and they are delicious. Overall I really like Busan as a city and am so glad I could ring in the new year here.