The Bullet to Busan

Teachers Day is an annual holiday in Korea where students present gifts to their present and past teachers (usually a bouquet of Chrysanthemums or box of chocolates). My middle school students spent the morning visiting their elementary school teachers. I have heard that some parents actually take the time out of their holiday to visit their favorite university professors. I really appreciate the idea of the holiday as teachers spend so much energy educating and it seems once you graduate to the next tier of the education system they are forgotten. Korea on the other hand places a great amount of respect on their teachers and it was nice to be a part of this tradition. I was given several boxes of chocolate, a plastic rose and a designer perfumed silk handkerchief.

On Friday I spent much of my class pacing through the room as I was getting excited for my weekend trip to “The Land of Pooh and Sand.” Pusan is the second largest city in Korea, located on the southern coast of the country overlooking the Sea of Japan. A population of four million, a subtle animosity and competitiveness exists between the two largest cities. This tension always comes up in conversation amongst teachers who live in Seoul and Pusan. Teachers from Seoul, like myself, state they love the big city as there is so much to do here. The folks in Pusan typically make comments about the “pollution” and our lack of beaches. I started to refer to the coastal city as, Ye Old Land of Pooh and Sand, after having far too many meaningless patriotic conversations about our respective cities. It’s really simple. Seoul has, well, Soul…and Pusan has Pooh and Sand. Need I say more? I obviously had to check out the city for myself. The Pusan’ese have adamantly declared that upon my first visit I will fall in love and find myself crying on my way back home. I find this statement of certainty a bit odd as so many people from Pusan are frequently spotted in Seoul on weekends. If Pusan is so much better than Seoul why on earth are you here? Deer in head lights, the looks I get are precious.

During the last hour of class I took up the previous weeks speaking topics. A question they need to answer on their cell phones by calling a special 1-800 number. Their speech is then saved on the internet and easily accessible on my computer. I often play as many of these as possible when I am bored or want to see my students squirm from embarrassment as they hear their voices over the speaker system. Not surprisingly only five of my twelve students actually did their speaking topic homework. I decided to play a little game to entertain myself (and the class of course). I played all of the available speaking topics from my computer and then told the remaining students to stand up. Whenever I do something out of the ordinary the children glance at each other in horror.

My favorite student in this class is Mark .A dorky, clueless clown. I asked him why he didn’t do his speaking topic homework. He responded, “I was very busy and didn’t want to.” I told him, “oh that’s alright, no problem, I understand that you probably have better things to do with your time.” He stared at me in shock, peeled a smile across his face and sat down. I then shouted, “why are you sitting? Do you think teacher doesn’t have better things to do with his time? Teacher would love to be on vacation in Guam right now but he is here taking care of business!” The whole class erupted in laughter. Mike clearly realized it wasn’t going to be as easy to get out of this one as he had first thought.

I told him to make the shape of a phone with his left hand. Thump at his ear, pinky at his mouth. He looked entirely confused. I then started to chirp, “ring ring, ring ring, ring ring.” He just stared at me dumb struck. I then told him, “pick up your phone someone is calling you!” He quickly got the jist of the game and picked up saying, “hello teacher nice to meet you.” We had a short discussion over our “phones” and then he answered his speaking topic question right there in class. The entire class was humored for the next thirty minutes as I rang each student who had not done their homework. And all of a sudden it was the end of class, the students ran out the door and I sauntered home. I packed my little backpack for the weekend and headed to bed as early as possible so I wasn’t a crab hole in the morning.

Beep, beep, beep. Groan. Force these legs to get out of bed and walk towards the bathroom. Just slowly walk, get up, try your best. I rushed out of my apartment and unwrapped a granola bar breakfast as I headed to the subway. On my way to Seoul Station I noticed many students in their school uniforms. It is a Saturday morning at 7am. I’d love to know how many countries run school on Saturdays. Barbaric.

As I zoomed across the city I found a sort of lazy beauty as the city welcomed the sun. Within seconds the cities apartment towers were sending shadows across the mountainside. I arrived at Seoul Station, the countries largest train station, twenty minutes before my KTX Bullet. I hadn’t taken a proper train journey since Europe two summers ago and I was looking forward to seeing how Korean trains compete globally.

I found my train car and dropped my bags at my window seat. Each passenger is given a pillow, KTX gift shop booklet and Korail glossy monthly magazine. Samsung plasma screen televisions hung overhead and the speaker system played a calming Asian orchestra ballad which made me feel as though I should be running through a bamboo forest. I was pleased (yet not shocked or surprised) to see that each train car had computer gadget for charging your cell phone and accessing wireless internet. While flipping through the Korail magazine I thumbed my way through the travel times between cities and stopped at a blueprint of the train. Every odd numbered train car featured a special breast feeding room for lactating mothers. What will they think of next?

As the Bullet slowly slid out of Seoul Station a stewardess came around to check tickets. I handed her my ticket and she scanned it with her portable hand held device gizmo and bowed her head at me.

I spent the next 2 ½ hours staring out the window as we soared over rural landscapes between urban pockets throughout the peninsula’s central valleys. The KTX train is a high speed bullet train. The overhead screens were showing a football match between Osaka and Seoul and in the top left corner an up to the minute speedometer reading could be found. We coasted at 302 km/h for a good thirty minutes. The only way to really know how fast your train is going is to close your eyes just before zooming into a mountain tunnel. The train shudders and as soon as you shoot yourself into daylight through the other side you can hear the hustle and bustle of wind.

As the train travels south to Pusan the landscape changes dramatically. Starting in the north the train passes through the center of metropolitan Seoul and for the next forty five minutes zooms out of the mega city surrounded mini cities. To the untrained eye you really wouldn’t know where Seoul ended and Osan or Suwon began.

Outside of the urban landscape small farming communities exist. I saw my first “normal two story houses” dotted along endless rice patty communities. Fields of lettuce, strawberries and apple trees as far as they eye can see. The entire Korean population lives amongst a backdrop of rolling hills and mountains. We crossed rambling rivers, and mirror calm lakes as the scenery became more and more green and tropical.

The Samsung TV screens played several rather hilarious Korail ads. Each short commercial informs you on proper train etiquette. In thirty second vignettes it became clear that screaming babies, eating smelly fish meals, smoking and impolitely budding in front of seniors was frowned upon. The lead actor in the commercials was a wildly haired magician who solved all of these problems by: pulling a bunny out of a hat to quiet the infant, turning the fellows plate of fish into a Red Delicious apple, transforming a lit cigarette into a hand held video game, and the impolite are jokingly thrown out the window by an aging grandmother in pink and green hanbok.

The train doors hissed open and I stepped out into that fresh ocean smell of tropical coast love. I met up with my friend Kevin who I would be couch surfing with for the weekend. He’d be my personal local tour guide for the next two days. We walked out of the Pusan train station and I instantly felt compelled to take off my jacket as the heat was unusual and unanticipated.

Pusan is far less multicultural than Seoul. Which means, Pusan is pretty much a Korean dedicated community. If you see a white person in Pusan you can assume they are either Russian or an English Teacher. Throughout the weekend I spotted many Central Asian folks from India, Pakistan, Egypt and Iran. The English community in Pusan is much different from that in Seoul. I found it shocking that Kevin knew every Westernized Anglophone that we ran into. The community of teachers here is small and they all tend to gravitate to their own popular hang outs. In Seoul if I run into a white person I never assume anything. It’s impossible to know as they could be a military wife from the American base, a Italan model, a Russian hooker or an English teacher from Wyoming.

We walked through a street festival going on in China Town and then stopped at the Russian quarter to peak around. Kevin said its safest to visit Russian’s during the day rather than at night when the street is full of prostitutes and Soviet bars playing gangster rap. The cities Russian population is rather large as Vladivostok is located just north of the Korean peninsula.

Pusan has the 4th largest sea port in the world so many parts of the city have an established sailor culture. Bars and restaurants are full of sailors from every imaginable location. American sailors pushing Costco crates and Samsung electronics across the Pacific. Indian ship mates carrying dry goods and magic carpets. Japanese boater boys who take the shortest jaunt across the Sea of Japan to transport food, electronics and Sailor Moon.

We hopped on a local bus for the cities top tourist site, Taejongdae Park. Sheepish to say, this was my first Korean bus adventure (in Seoul I always use the subway system it’s much easier). I didn’t think it was possible, but the bus drivers in Pusan are far worse than the cab drivers in Seoul. I gripped the dangling handles that hung from the bus ceiling and spent much of the trip airborne as we bounded across the city. The trip featured several wide turns and sudden stops where everyone standing on the bus flew off the floor. Once we finally got off the bus I had to sit for a few minutes to gather my strength and rid myself of an upset stomach and dizzy head space.

Taejongdae Park is located on the tip of Yeongdo Island, southwest of the downtown area. It is a very hilly and heavily forested area with rugged cliffs dropping straight down to the sea 150 meters bellow. The cliffs are famous for their fossilized dinosaur foot prints which can be found at the base of the light house. After hiking our way down the mountainside we crept along the cliff face and sat on weathered volcanic rock. I stared out at the horizon spotted with Japanese Islands. Huge barges rolled across the horizon and Korean fishing boats sat along the shore harvesting squid. I hysterically laughed at an outrageous Korean family. The young mother decked out in designer stilettos clearly felt out of her element. The father wore a pink Lacoste golf shirt and khakis ensemble with a massive camera hanging around his neck. Their son plopped on a massive rock wearing his mother’s huge sun glasses posing for his father.

The hike back up to the road was arduous and had me moaning all the way to the final step. The ocean breeze blew through the trees as we sped through the island on a tourist train. We spent the later afternoon and evening at the cities famous Jagalchi Fish Market.

The market is located on the bottom two floors of a modern eight story building which resembles a ships sail. It is a fantastic seafood market where retailers haggle over foods from the deep blue sea. The fishing fleet comes in before dawn and the catch is immediately unloaded onto the docks. The fish market was like nothing I have ever seen in my life. Tanks full of King crab the size of a truck tire. I snapped hundreds of pictures of the world’s most bizarre aquatic life. Fish mongers wore big rubber boots and plastic aprons covered in blood. I was at my wits end when a tank full of slithering eels frothed. The eels could barely move and several jumped out of the tank onto the floor. I screamed in terror as the eel flapped itself across the wet floor at my feet. The fish monger lady grabbed the eel and flung its sharp teeth in my face as a joke. She thought that was hilarious.

Surrounding the market building hundreds of stalls are set up outside selling massive prawns, monster octopus, squid and various smelly fish. The two critters which I was not familiar with were the Sea Squirt and Penis Fish. The Squirt is the shape and size of a human heart. It has several little arms coming off of its main body and is the colour of a ripe mango. The Penis Fish is absolutely traumatizing. Vendors sell these squirming phallus fish in water trays. They move like worms so their bodies engorge like a massive erection as they squirm in their tray. No thank you!

The Fish Market building glows at night and overlooks one of the cities many fishing boat filled harbors. We ate dinner at the cities famous hoe restaurants which are located two floors above the open market bellow. Hoe is Korea’s version of Japanese Sashimi and famous throughout Asia. Once we had climbed the stairs I stared out at the massive restaurant dining space. Along the window overlooking the harbor business men and families sat on raised floors sipping on soju. In the center of the building are all of the restaurant kitchens and fish tanks. You sit at whichever restaurant sells the seafood of your choosing. You can eat raw lobster, crab, eel or flounder fish (and I’m sure many others). We sat at Kevin’s favorite spot which specializes in raw flounder. I stared at the fish swimming inside the tank and pointed to a big fat one. Our “waitress” (wearing rubber boots and gloves) scooped out our fish and started to prepare our meal.

We were served a plate of figs, cherry tomatoes, steamed shrimp and broccoli before our plate of raw flounder and eel was placed on our table. We cheered with soju and dipped our flounder hoe in little bowls of soya sauce. Since Kevin is a regular here the waitress provided us with a free “service plate.” How vile. On the plate sat sea urchin and chopped up Sea Squirt. I stuck my nose up to the awful aroma and unappetizing look of the things. Kevin braved the Sea Squirt and was told how to consume it by our energetic Ajima. You are supposed to suck on the exoskeleton of the squirt with as much force as possible. We all cheered him on and he almost gagged upon completion. He later told us that he had felt a huge piece of goo hit the back of his throat. It felt like a piece of mucus sliding down his throat. Ew me, Ew my. Once we could no longer eat any more of our hoe a portable element was placed on our table. A soup was made of every fish scrap (including our left over sashimi, tale, head and guts).

After dinner we hopped in a cab to one of Kevin’s friend’s house where we sat on the balcony of his new apartment overlooking the ocean. After a few hours of vino saturated banter we all walked down to Gwangalli Beach. In the summer this beach is covered in Koreans. I have seen pictures of this beach in July and my eyes bulged at the sight of it. I have never seen such oversaturated beach conditions in my life. Apparently it is practically impossible to walk along the beach as bodies are crammed across the sand. Tonight the beach was perfectly calm and vacant. The street which clings to the beach is full of bars, restaurants and cafes overlooking the romantic modern neon-lit bridge in the distance.

We spent an hour or so on the beach sitting around a camp fire with a group of foreigners. Ajima’s walk along the beach selling hand held firecrackers and Kevin insisted that we all light one and shoot it into the sky. As I held my three foot long fire cracker into the air I thought, “this can’t be legal back home.” The firecracker shook as each blast of multi-colourful spark shot into the night sky.

We hopped in a taxi for Kyeung Sang Dae a neighborhood full of University students and popular dance clubs. We spent the next two hours dancing at a club with what appeared to be the entire United Nations. I met the French Consular of Korea, two sailors from India, a few Japanese tourists, two French teachers from Lyon, a group of uproarious Russians and a handful of English teachers from the UK and US. We took a taxi home and as I opened up the cab door I noticed the sun rising over the mountains. Heading to bed at 7am on a Sunday morning is always a bit confusing as shop keepers open their stores and you can spot business men walking to work.

The next day we woke up predictably late and spent the afternoon enjoying several American binge moments. When surrounded by Asia on all sides a longing for something familiar can take hold. Everyone decided it would be best to pretend we lived in North America for the day. We ate lunch at TGI Friday and then shopped till we dropped in a nine story department store. I was very excited to find a UNIQLO store as they had been advertising for weeks their graphic t-shirt promotion. Several of the world’s most famous contemporary artists had designed the shirts and the store was buzzing full of people as they grabbed shirts left, right and center. I found myself enamored with a Japanese artist who sketches quirky animations of samurai and geisha.  We spent an hour sipping on Starbucks before meeting a group of people at a bar called Wild West. The bar smelled like a stable and was covered in American Cowboy paraphernalia. The group ended the night on a low note with a Burger King binge. American appetites had been satiated and quieted for another few weeks.

We went to bed at a reasonable hour as I had to be up in the morning for my Bullet back to Seoul. I was ever so fortunate as a massive thunderstorm hit Pusan around ten in the evening. I miss good ol’ fashion storms with the cracks of thunder and flashes of lightening. I stared at the ceiling as sparks of light flew across the room and the sound of frenzied winds whistled along the window.

In the morning I gathered my things and hopped onto the subway for Pusan Station. Arriving at the station I stepped out into a garden and smelled that lovely fresh “morning after a storm aroma.” I stood on platform B as I waited for my train and looked out over the mountains in the distance. The trees were bright green and the ocean air flew through my hair. I felt pleasantly ready for return.

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