Photos courtesy of Macbeth Omega
On April 11, 2016, my sister and I began our cultural immersion once again and made our way to Gimhae International Airport. I had one thing on my mind: I needed to intimately know the cities of Busan and Daegu. As we traveled to our rented house, a sense of familiarity ensued, and I reminded myself to be open to the small details I might be tempted to overlook in order to achieve my objective. Even as night fell, I knew that there was going to be something different about this trip.
Good morning, Busan! Here we are!
The first thing I noticed that first morning was that the backdrop of our house was a beautiful mountain. As my sister and I went out and made our way to the main street, we became suddenly curious about what a nearby food stall was selling and decided to stop. There, we found that the food that had caught our interest was called twigim (fried vegetables and tempura), and from then on, every time we passed by that street, we always bought it as our snack. We also felt at ease buying in the kimbap store. These shops became our staples for to-go meals, especially in the mornings. Amazingly, even with our limited knowledge of Korean, we were still able to communicate, and there were always warm exchanges of smiles.
Being lost is not such a bad thing. There was a night when we could not find the way back to our house. As we were walking, we realized that we made a wrong turn, so we retraced our steps. We were going in circles and ending up at dead ends for about an hour when, luckily, we found our way before the night became too dark. For sure, it is frightening to roam lost in a place you do not know, but that is the beauty of it. You may stumble upon something that is not common or you may learn something about unfamiliar territory. After that night, my sister and I had the benefit of knowing the place like the back of our hands. While surveying Busan’s landscape, I realized that the uphill ascent and close proximity of the houses was reminiscent of the housing landscape in my own country.
My sister had not prepared a detailed itinerary for our Busan trip; it was a come-what-may type of journey. Fortunately, our host where we were staying was good enough to suggest we visit the nearby Nakdong Rapeseed Festival. I remember gazing at the field and thinking how picturesque it was, suited to becoming the setting for a classic scene between two lovers. As I noted the families and loved ones enjoying their time together, a question popped up in my mind: could there be any beauty in sadness?
While my sister and I were exploring the festival, we saw an old man hopping from table to table, attempting to start up conversations with strangers. When approached by the man, though my sister and I did not entirely understand him, we could sense that he was lonely and longing for company. Together with the gentleman, we sat at a table and I guessed he knew right away that we were foreigners. He tried to talk, and we tried our best to reciprocate, only having mild success trying to communicate through hand signals and body gestures before the man gave up and moved on to another table. Before we left, I tried to look for the man and caught him sitting alone, looking out at the field. In that moment, I was hit with the conviction that people are all the same, whatever race we belong to. We live under the same sky and have the same troubles. And here was this man, simply looking for someone to talk to. Had the Nakdong Rapeseed Festival not been recommended to us, our trip might have been much less eventful.
If there is serendipity in science, I would say there is serendipity in traveling, too. When we were in Gamcheon Cultural Village, my sister wanted to go to a tourist landmark referred to as “the 100 steps,” but I told her that we should just follow the trail on the map. As we were looking for one particular spot in the trail, we suddenly realized that we had been unknowingly ascending the 100 steps all along! Sometimes you do not have to plan for everything because the most unexpected path makes for the best memories.
Gamcheon Cultural Village turned out to be the stimulus of our journey and I felt fulfilled having seen its colorful houses and its alleys. I was even further impressed when I discovered the history of the location. The village had been built through a concerted effort to uplift the spirit of the community. As I surveyed the beauty of my surroundings, I thought to myself, “This is what I want to see – not the tall buildings, not the glamorized living.” Should I pat myself on the back for checking off many things on my travel list? I do not think so. It was all thanks to my surroundings. Busan had presented itself to me without any pretensions. I went in merely a tabula rasa – a blank slate.
As my sister’s birthday fell on one of the days of our travels, I was overjoyed for the chance to celebrate a simple day with her. She cooked seaweed soup, then, in the afternoon, we ate strawberry cake. My sister later suggested that we split up for a bit to get some much-needed alone time and meet up in Oncheoncheon Park later on. After visiting Seomyeon Church, I found a perfect place to write my thoughts under the PNU station, and for a brief moment, I felt almost as if I lived there in that place. Was it luck that I found a four-leaf clover in the park before I went to meet my sister? Maybe.
“Why do they call it ‘Dynamic Busan?’” I wondered to myself as I walked. For me, Busan was the laid-back version of Seoul. It, too, offered a lot, but was less rowdy and more relaxed than its bustling counterpart. It smoothly merged business with the daily routines of its citizens. To me, Busan was like the “girl-next-door” type.