Before closing the door behind me, I took one last look out the window wall at the panoramic view of Busan’s crammed blocks of mid- and high-rises, not yet awake, nor undressed of its early morning mist. A view Tom and I had woken up to for the last week, a view that had shimmered in multi-colored light as our eyes closed on another day actually spent together.
The trip, my final port visit, was longer than normal as Tom arrived ahead of the ship, which gave us a few extra days of eating breakfast and often dinner together, whenever he wasn’t meeting local officials and police or cruising the city to be briefed on the popular sites sailors would potentially explore (hopefully, on their best behavior).
Fortunately, he slept through most nights without a call, especially since each morning he work up feeling worse than the last, a subtle sore throat that morphed into full-body aches to a hack-up of mysteriously colored mucus. Was he sick or reacting to the air flowing in from China? I hoped for the latter as we lay in bed reading most mornings, his hand on my ever-growing belly, eagerly awaiting the next kick. Our eyes looking up to admire the view of the city we were visiting but not wandering the way we usually do, trying to dig deeper than the normal tourist experience.
This was potentially our last trip for a while, so I struggled to lounge. How could we just stay inside half the day? I’d never been to South Korea and would most likely never return. But Tom wasn’t entirely to blame. My first morning in Busan, after he left for work, I just stood in our hotel room, staring at the busy city below, unmotivated to get any closer to the alleys that would usually lure me downstairs. Who knew where they could lead? What people I might meet? What treats would delight my taste buds (or require a quick chew, gulp, and grimace)?
But I easily rationalized staying inside — the next adventure that looms ahead, the one brewing in my belly, will soon leave these moments of solitude, of peace and quiet, as rare as the Korean treats that might just further upset my stomach, already grumpy about the lil one’s recent growth spurt, as if my newly squished organs were trying to figure out how to rearrange their living quarters, unhappy about being kicked out of where they’ve worked just fine for the last 32 years. The thought of trying to figure out another transit system in another language of symbols I don’t understand made my writerly to-do list seem that much more appealing.
So when Tom needed rest, I rested beside him. But then, when too restless, I ventured for a walk in the massive green expanse that beckoned from the window. A park I wish I could transport to Newport, RI, to bring our little tot to explore its winding paths through gardens and ponds and interesting playgrounds. One in particular looked like a space station, more fit for the moon than a green field. Steep staircases led up and up to a metal tower shaped like a cartoon diver’s scuba diving mask, from which slender tubes twirled their way back to earth below. The gates were closed. The signs in Korean, boxy characters made up of circles and lines, warned off big people like me from running up and sliding down, I was sure, but my feet still slowed as I walked, tempted to try and see if I fit anyway. The excuse of illiteracy.
Instead I wandered up a wooden staircase that led to a bridge that led to a trail I was tempted to follow, but seeing the backdrop of lush green mountains, I left the opportunity to get lost behind. Trying to find the park from the hotel was enough adventure seeking for this lady, and I still had to find my way back.
Tom had mentioned the park as a not so great place to run, so I wasn’t expecting much – of the city in general, actually. He didn’t really like the food. He enjoyed running the trails (for which many locals seem dressed for every day, donning brightly colored hiking pants and shirts when just out for a stroll), but the city itself was just a city. Nothing special, he’d warned.
His warning became my challenge – find the gems. As much as I loved the park, Tom’s conclusion seemed right. Busan is a bustling port city (though many websites call it the countryside compared to Seoul!). There are a few things to explore — the famous Jagalchi Fish Market where stalls’ menus are the tanks of fish and crabs and other mysterious sea creatures you can point to and have delivered freshly cooked to your table. Haeundae Beach broke the world record for most umbrellas (7,937 parasols, over 300,000 people) in 2011. And nearby Gwangalli Beach boasts an assortment of foreign restaurants, many having views Gwangan Daegyo’s (or Diamond Bridge’s) twinkling twin arches at night.
The rainy season’s thunderstorms (or threats thereof) kept us off the beach. On my day alone, I took the City Tour Bus out to Taujongdae Park where I hiked the coastal loop and quickly met a steeper climb than I’d expected. After trudging up for so long, I almost whimpered when I saw the fleet of stairs down to the base of the lighthouse. Would I make it back up?
The lighthouse was not worth the climb, but the view was (on a clear day you can see the controversial Tsuchima Island, caught in an “It’s mine!” tug-of-war between Japan and Korea). I rested near the edge of the plateau-like cliff, where far below aquamarine waves crushed white against the rock. The wind’s chill against my sticky skin, a reward.
Slowly, my quivering legs ascended the stairs to the cement trail that runs along a road where the touristy mini-tram loops the park, one I wished I could hop on now that I’d seen the highlight. But I was wrong.
Focused on finishing, I almost passed an offshoot to a temple, but was lured down the path by bushes afluff with blue, pink and purple blossoms. The hydrangea festival! I didn’t linger long near the temple, but followed a path of lanterns to an even thinner path whose lush overgrowth required ducking until a small clearing opened, hugged on all sides by tiny flower bouquets of brilliant fuchsia and a surprisingly deep purple past kings and queens would’ve drooled over. Fairies could’ve fluttered by next and I honestly wouldn’t have been surprised, so at home they would’ve seemed in this wonderland.
My luck continued the following day when my friend Andy, an Antioch MFA study buddy, hopped on a bus from where he and his wife are teaching English. Five-plus hours of bus and train hopping later, he arrived in the lobby of our hotel toting a backpack and a kick-back travel plan to see just where the night led. Over pizza and beers (water for me) at Galmegi Brewery, Busan’s first craft brewery and pub, we swapped stories about living in South Korea and Japan, our love for transit systems, and the gratification that surpasses the frustration of navigating a culture at once similar and yet so foreign from our own.
We came to the same conclusion that another Antioch alumnus, whose family recently finished teaching in Taiwan, relayed to me in an email. Before moving here, Andromeda said, Asia had seemed like just a massive continent; the opposite side of the world. For all of us, traveling throughout Asia has been like pausing in a crowd and actually taking the time to see each body as an individual, to pause and appreciate the complex, unique characters that make up the mass.
The door clicked shut behind me, sparking a dull sadness and the realization that these port calls are not mere travels, but opportunities for reconnection, respites for sailors working insane hours without holidays at sea, and I have been but a beneficiary. Sadness outweighed by wonder — was this really my life for the past two years? — and gratitude. For me, these trips often felt like a reward for building our lives in Japan on my own, adventures that many spouses cannot take advantage of, but patiently wait instead for their other halves to return home.
If you go:
– Enjoy a stroll around Haedong Yonggungsa Temple. Waves crashing on the adjacent rocky shoreline complement the serenity of the scenic holy grounds.
– Andy recommended visiting Gamcheon Culture village; his first-hand recommendation confirmed all of the others I’d found online (directions at the end of the post). This World War II safe-haven’s colorful history is reflected in the rainbow of tightly packed homes that climb the hillside. Painted fish nailed to the walls guide you to the most scenic sites, including houses revamped into quirky art installations.
– Eat! You’ll have no trouble finding Korean Barbecue. I’m not much of a meat eater, so I have no suggestions for you there. Sorry! My favorite Korean food is bim bim bap, a classic rice dish that arrives steaming in a very hot stone pot. (My rec here.)
– Lame as we were being some afternoons, we simply ventured down into the basement food court at the Lotte Hotel, where a bounty of international and local foods are whipped up fresh before your eyes. An interesting walk through if thunderstorms or heavy heat push you inside.
– When I tried to order the veggie patty on the menu at the Butcher’s Burger (across from Gwangalli Beach, with a sparkling view of the bridge), our Korean waitress cocked her head and looked closer at the menu. She had no idea what you’re talking about, Tom laughed after she left. Who goes to a burger place and gets a veggie burger, especially in Korea? Sure enough, my burger showed up a delicious cheesy mushroom mess sans lentil patty, which another server giggled at when he plopped it on the bar. Turns out, I was the first person to ever order the veggie patty! The expat chef whipped one up fresh for me. Totally worth the wait for this lentil lover who longs to one day stop being lazy and make veggie patties of her own…and serve them to Tom for dinner! hehe