Monday, November 19, 2007

Travelogue #12: Hiking and Fooding in Namhansanseong

<---Travelogue #11: The Alex Pollack Welcoming Party
--->Travelogue #13: Eating SpongBob and His SquarePants, Too.

Wednesday November 14 2007

Three weeks down in Korea and forty-nine to go.

Maybe that's not the best way to phrase things, for it makes it sound as if I'm ticking down the days till my contract is over. Nothing could be further from the truth. Moment by moment I'm feeling more comfortable here, more at ease. Short days and long nights have changed into long days and shorter nights, meaning I've been spending my time not orienting myself in a beer-soju aftermath, but rather hiking mountains and walking yellow-leave splattered streets.

On Tuesday I join Emily and Jerry for a visit to Namhansanseong, a.k.a a place where we're the only non-Korean people in sight. Seriously. The three of us feel like celebrities, gawked at by kids, stared at by grown-ups. Jerry might very well by the only black person Namhansanseong has seen in months, and I might be the only Jew they've seen in years.

Our mission in Namhansanseong is to hike; I'm not much of a hiker. I did climb Mt. Masada when I visited Israel, but aside from that, my experience is limited. With that being said, Emily leaves Jerry and me in the dust. She keeps going and going, up and up and up and up along the trail, leaving Jerry and I pacing. I suck down a lemonade I bought from a quick shop. Lemonade has never tasted so good.

I contemplate how bad it would be if we somehow tumbled down the side, where all we see is haze and trees and a deep, precipitous slope. "Well...we are on a mountain," Emily says. Thanks, Emily.

Along the way we see a temple. Buddhist. I decide not to walk in. I feel like it's not my place; if anything, being at a sight somebody else considers holy serves principally to remind me of my own faith. I'm a Jew, not a regularly practicing one by any stretch of the imagination, but a Jew nonetheless. When I visited Israel I felt a sense of belonging; a traveler still, but something more than a tourist. I can see how a visitor would feel a similar connection to this temple, but that visitor is not me.

Clearly, this is no ordinary mountain. Full-scale workout equipment is arranged neatly along our path. Older men work the weights; older women twist wheels. The equipment presumably stays here through the winter. I wonder how it looks all covered in snow.
So we walk on. More huffing, puffing. I need to get into better shape. We enter a grassy expanse where women do the hula and a man with a New York Yankees cap sits on a bench eating gimbop, a sushi-like treat featuring rice, meats, and seasoning wrapped in seaweed. This man waves his chopsticks to Jerry. Jerry nods to him, and then nods to us. We walk towards the man, who silently offers us chopsticks. He points to the gimbop and grunts.

We maneuver our chopsticks around a piece here and a piece there, but he motions for us to continue.

While Jerry and I don't hide our hunger, Emily is a bit more shy. She says no thank you but she doesn't have a choice, for the man thrusts a piece of gimbop towards her mouth. She eats it. He repeats this twice more. She's slightly uncomfortable. Here we are, with this kindly Korean stranger feeding a twentysomething American girl gimbop amidst the haze of Namhansanseong on a November afternoon. We don't say much as we eat. Probably for the best. His little English and our little Korean brings me to the conclusion that food is our shared language, and there's nothing wrong with that.

This is not the only time we're offered grub, for later, a man with a smile offers us banana bread. Score. Being foreign in Namhansanseong = free food.

We conquer the mountain. Whew.

Back in the world below, we wait for our train to Sunae. I gnaw on hatuk, a delicious chocolate-peanut flavored patty bought off the street. A wrinkled old man approaches me and mumbles something in Korean. I smile, "hatuk!" I say. Without warning he seizes my wrist. Emily and Jerry just watch me, Emily smiling as if to say silly you, Alex. What? All I said was hatuk. Is he trying to arrest me? Why is this stranger's hand on my wrist and why is he gently turning my body around?

After realizing my perplexed expression, the stranger relents with the body contact. He says something to Jerry, and then he wanders off.

If only he'd offered me food, we would have understood each other.

<---Travelogue #11: The Alex Pollack Welcoming Party
--->Travelogue #13: Eating SpongBob and His SquarePants, Too.



Michael said...

What does "hatuk!" mean?

Did you ever figure out why he grabbed your wrist?

Alex Pollack said...

Hatuk was just the name of the food I was eating...I didn't know what else to say.

I guess he just wanted to be friendly? Koreans are a touchy-feely people from what I hear, though I've only experienced that slightly so far.