10 July 2004

Pilsung Korea.

We arrived in Busan, Korea early in the morning on July 6. I slept out on deck with a group of people to watch the sunrise as we pulled in to Busan, but we woke up to a thick fog all around. The pilot who steers us into the port couldn't get to the ship, and the immigration officials also couldn't reach us. Because of the fog, the Port of Busan closed for most of the day, and we were stuck on the ship. We finally got off the boat around 8pm, and went into the port area for dinner and exploration.

We wandered into a local restaurant down the street from the 7-Eleven, where you take off your shoes and sit on the floor. The waitress spoke two words of English- menu and coffee. Turns out, the menu is a sign on the wall, entirely in Korean. I attempted to explain my aversion to beef by mooing, then shaking my head empathetically. To further clarify, I squawked and flapped my arms like a chicken, followed by a fervent thumbs-up. I was humiliated, she was amused, but the language barrier remained intact. Banking on the notion that vegetarian dishes are the cheapest in the US, we pointed to a random 6000-won option. The tables had a burner in the middle, and the meal included a large metal bowl with soup that cooked on the table, a bit like fondue.

Forgetting that Busan is a port city, and the restaurant was literally feet from the ocean, our random meal turned out to be seafood soup, with shrimp, octopus (which turns from pale pink to purple when cooked!), and a few other unidentifiable meats. After consulting with the biologist back on the ship, we concluded at least one side dish was probably jellyfish. (Bearing a disturbing resemblance to flan in both color and consistency). It could have been worse- others witnessed sea cucumbers making daring escapes from certain death. Pity took over, and we decided that anything wanting to live that badly deserved to not be eaten alive. Barring the eerily recognizable seafood items on the menu, the food was excellent. Spicy as all hell, no doubt, but if you could take the heat, you reaped the rewards. Scientists are now theorizing that the spices in kimchee (pickled cabbage) spared the Korean people from SARS, so at least we’ll survive China.

The second day, I visited an elementary school in the morning. The school was amazingly high-tech, with computers in every classroom, and a big screen TV linked to the teacher's computer so everyone could see. In the English class, a computer program with cartoons of English conversations was entertaining. We practiced English with the kids, and had to sign their worksheets after we finished the dialogue. The kids went on a signing frenzy, asking us to sign anything- it was cute to see their excitement over anything English (although, considering we felt the same way about their Korean, we shouldn’t have been surprised). We visited the gym and cafeteria, and the special-ed room, which was as incredible as the regular classrooms. In the afternoon, we went to the Busan Cultural Center, where we watched a traditional theater/dance show, and a drumming performance. A smaller group of five drummers wore hats with long ribbons, and danced around drumming and twirling the tassels making patterns- absolutely hypnotic!

After the show, we walked through the UN Cemetery in Korea, dedicated to those who died in the Korean War, and the only cemetery managed by the UN. It was beautiful, but incredibly sad. That evening, we took a taxi into downtown Busan, and walked around shopping in the stores and markets. The downtown section of town was crazy! It looked like New York's Time's Square, with flashing lights and signs, only 10 times bigger. The western influence is strong in South Korea- in addition to the 7-11 and Pizza Hut, we saw an Outback Steakhouse, Bennigan's, McDonalds, Burger King, Dunkin Donuts, and Baskin Robbins.

On the third day, I took a trip to Hainsa Temple, a Buddhist temple situated in a beautiful national forest, with a river running along the long road to the temple. Hainsa is famous for its wooden library, a huge collection of Buddhist tenets carved into wooden books. After the temple, we had a traditional lunch in a small village by the temple, which, like dinner, was unidentifiable, but good. After lunch, we drove to Daegu, a big city due west of Busan. We visited the herb museum, where we learned about the traditional Korean herbal medicine practices, and walked by some of the herb shops where the medicines are custom-made for your ailment. Sadly, we didn't get to purchase anything because of the size of our group, but it was still interesting.

Finally, we went to a large park in the city, and explored the free zoo for a little while, before getting back on the bus for the drive to Busan. It was great to see different parts of Korea, especially since we didn't get a chance to get to Seoul or visit the DMZ. Those who did said Seoul was amazing, even bigger than Busan, and the DMZ was intense. On the last day, we spent all day exploring the huge International Market and adjoining Fish Market. The market was absolute chaos- people everywhere, lots of designer fakes, and fabulous street food. Instead of restaurants, we ate from street vendors all day, and it was the best food we had in Korea! We ate two different kinds of dumplings, fresh noodle bowls (sitting on overturned buckets in front of boxes of mysterious edible animal parts), mysterious bakery items, and some delicious fried dough pancakes filled with a cinnamon-sugary goodness. Once again, we're not sure what anything is, but some things are better left unsaid. The fish market was an experience- different kinds of fresh fish- live, dead, and filleted, eels, squid, octopus (live and dead), and many other sea creatures we'd never seen before, in oceans, zoos, or restaurants!

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