Positive Signs

DMZ LR--12
North & South at the DMZ

Local and world news is peppered with tales of aggression, violence and corruption.

It’s good to see positive stories of hope and peace.  Kim Jong-un’s crossing of  the North and South Korean border is one of them.  Optimistically, it is a precursor to the end of years of disunity and antagonism.

It is eerie to see  Kim Jong-un and Moon Jae-in walking across a path that one year ago heralded gun fire.

I remember visiting the DMZ in 2016 and I recognize every angle of this video’s background. The place struck me then as a surreal setting for a Twilight Zone scene.   I am  hopeful now for a Disney HEA.

Photo taken in South Korea, 2016.



Spectators in Seoul

Quick. When you see this picture what do you think?

If you’re my brother: “Why all those people wearing Kleenex boxes?”

If you’re me:  “Dude, even the kid up front figured it out.”

If you’re my Korean friend: “There ain’t nothing wrong here.”

Old Lady and Maid
Sidewalk blockers

Actually, the Koreans are no more phobic about sun exposure than the Japanese, Chinese or Singaporeans.

In fact most Asian women seem abnormally preoccupied in keeping their skin pale and blemish free.

In Singapore on really sunny days (that would be 9 out of 10 days) I am routinely sideswiped by exploding umbrellas at crowded street corners.

On busy and not so busy sidewalks, it’s challenging to dodge slow moving people with unfurled umbrellas.

At times like these I appreciate the merits of another distinctively Asian head wear – the full-face, paisley piped, sun eclipsing  visor cap.

Caps for sale

Seoul & Singapore. June 2016

Life and Art in Ihwa

In the north east corner of Seoul, beside the old city wall on Naksan mountain there’s a quaint little village called Ihwa.  In the Josean era this area used to be grand, a fortress locality for the new capital. But the times peaked and declined and by the end of the Korean War it was a derelict shanty town. In 2006 the Ministry of Culture & Tourism established the Naksan Art Project, an initiative to re-invent urban areas into arts and culture friendly environments.  Ihwa was selected for revitalization by painted murals and art installations.

The Ihwa Mural Village is a popular but not so well known tourist spot. On TripAdvisor it is #53 of Things to Do and it is not even mentioned in my Lonely Planets Korea guidebook.  I forget how I’d stumbled across it.  Maybe I did a search on “quirky Seoul” or “alternative sites that are not castles, palaces and museums.” Suffice to say I found it and on a dark and overcast morning, I headed out to Hyehwa Stn on Line 4.

BW--2The village is tucked in high on the mountain side.  My Google search hadn’t quite prepared me for the climb nor for the unmarked route through a clubbing district, up a hair pin road and around a sprawling hilltop park.

The rain had degraded into a drizzle and cloudy skies obscured scenic views of the city. On a sunnier day the mural village would have provided cheery photo ops.  I had one.  But mostly my pictures were somber, black and white super-impositions of life and art.

Life is not always cheery. Sometimes we have to stand in the rain and look in to the window of someone else’s warmth.

For more about the Naksan Art Project (and cheerful pictures) see the Visit Seoul website

Ihwa Village, Seoul.  May 2016

Dongdaemun Market

Across Seoul’s ancient Heunginjimum Gate lies the  Dongdaemun Shopping Complex and entrance to one of the busiest textile districts in Asia.   This is a busy but orderly intersection with cars, minivans and motor bikes turning right into downtown Seoul or heading left, out of the city core. When the traffic light changes a huddle of well dressed pedestrians surge across the street.   A lone chige porter runs through the crowd, his stride quick and nimble with an empty wooden A-frame balanced lightly on his shoulders.

Further away, in the core of the textile market, the traffic composition changes. In this  neighborhood of wholesalers and resellers, the roads are congested with people and automobiles delivering and unloading goods. The warren of narrow alleys are blocked to large vehicles. Instead they  stop at the boundaries where porters load bales of  cloth and packages onto  their A-frame carriers.    Three wheeled and bi-pedaled porters throng the streets and it’s an artful dance to avoid collision on the packed sidewalks.

Gwangjang LR-9259

I am fascinated by the chige carriers.  Made of wood and rope, the sturdy A-frame back carriers were originally used by Korean farmers and field workers.   It was designed to hang the weight of the load on the shoulders while the center of gravity was low in the back.  This allowed the bearer to carry heavy loads while walking, even on a steep gradient. During the Korean war, the carrier was quickly adopted by the United Nations troops.  The Americans called them  A-frames, the British called them ‘jiggies.’   Backpackers will recognize the origins of modern day aluminum frames used to hoist camping, hunting and baby gear all over the world.

It is early afternoon, late in a day that started in midnight morning.  Dongdaemun is busiest at night  during the after-hours of day-time business,  when buyers converge on the district to purchase supplies. It makes sense that food vendors dash by, delivering dinner on heavily laden trays balanced on their heads. They move with apparent sonar vision,  eyes cast down, deftly avoiding stationary and moving obstacles.

Gwangjang LR-9293

I love the  busyness of the market, the earnest vitality of hard working people going about their lives. There’s nothing  artificial here. Nothing reconstructed, recreated or re-enacted.  It’s a working market with a thrum of energy that’s as real as the sound of  traffic, the heat of the crowds and the brush of pedestrians passing you by.

Seoul, South Korea. May 2016

Seoul Photos

Visit Korea logo

When visiting a new place it’s good to have no expectations.

If it’s my turn to organize, I’ll make a vague plan for each day.  One destination only.  Flexible and changeable in case of rain or whimsy. Every day becomes a surprise.

My camera and I walk around capturing moments and scenes.  Here’s a few.

Seoul, South Korea.  May 2016

If we were having coffee … in Seoul

20160502_082543If we were having coffee in Seoul then it would be later in late morning … because the coffee shops don’t open any sooner.  Our hotel was in the Ewha University area, ensconced between two train stations, surrounded by neighborhood eateries but nary a one to open before 10 am.

Well there was one coffee shop, it opened at 8:30.  We found it soon enough and quickly became regulars.  Like clock work, every morning we squeezed through the door as soon as it cracked open.   One latte and one Americano please.

It opened everyday at 8:30am except for Sundays.  On that day we scoured the sidewalk until we found the lights on in a European style sweetery, which also sold coffee. We ordered our brew  and for good measure, ordered their specialty.  It was a hot sweet bread slathered with jam, chocolate or nut butter.  Making it involved winding fresh dough onto a thick wooden dowel and slowly baking it in a rotisserie type oven. It took a while. I got to talking with the young man behind the counter.

“Where are you from?” That’s a standard question for aliens in a foreign country.

“Slovenia,” he said. In my head I knew this was part of seceded Russia.  My geographical puzzlement may have shown.  “It’s in the same area as Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia.”

“Are there many ex-pats like you in Seoul?”  The day before I’d been surprised to see a grey eyed Caucasian girl working in an Azerbaijan (another cartographic mystery) restaurant.

“There are some.  Most Serbians go to America, only a few go east and fewer to Korea.  There’s maybe twenty five of us here.  It’s a great place to travel around.”

He removed the rotating dowel from the oven and shifted it up a slot closer to the top grill. On the counter he readied a steel dish fashioned with two support beams at either end. The device looked vaguely familiar.

“What’s this bread called?” I asked.

“It’s a bit hard. TrrhhdLoh,” he said.  “Like how it’s spelled. TRDLO”

I may be poorly versed in geography but I’m encyclopedic about food. I now recognized the bread as a traditional Czech pastry and became quite excited to taste it.

Later I carefully tore apart the warm trdlo.  It was  buttery sweet, chewy and gooey, messy with melted peanut butter and chocolate chips. An unexpected taste of Eastern Europe in South Korea.  Wonderful with coffee on a Seoul Sunday morning.

Seoul, South Korea.  May 2016

Free & Easy in Seoul subways

Subway map
Seoul Subway map and pre-paid transit card

My friend asked if I was visiting Seoul ‘free and easy’. It must be a Singaporean term because I’ve never heard it before. It means visiting a country outside of  a tour group. Truth be told, I never visit inside of a tour group. Instead I get lost with my own itinerary and I use the local transit.

In places like Seoul it’s easy. The subway is complex and widespread. With eighteen lines and hundreds of stations it will take you anywhere. The map is so dense it is impossible to read. Instead I use a phone app to locate the nearest line and  interchange.

Asian subways are remarkably clean and safe. Although no one’s allowed to eat or drink on the trains, there are always eating and drinking places along the tunnels. It makes for excellent viewing. As everyday people rush along with their everyday lives, it feels surreal to just observe. You capture movement and moments that are at once strange and familiar. Like an 80’s style pay phone, slightly battered, mounted against a steel green wall. It could be home, except for the hangul scribbling on the side.

Old School phone
Pay phone
School girls in uniform
Subway platform

Or uniquely Seoul, the cabinets of ‘Relief Goods Storage’  with emergency supplies of gas masks, in case of North Korean attack.

The threat of North Korea is ever present.  Felt but never dominant in the city’s hustle bustle. Seoul teems with energy and youthful anticipation. The sad gray colors of M*A*S*H and the Korean War are washed away, the city rebuilt and sparkling new.  The kids (and everyone below 40  looks like a kid) preen and prep themselves. The bill board “HERE I AM” says everything.


Seoul, South Korea. May 2016