Four Tiny Jews in Korea: Jacobs Family Vacation Part 3
September 6, 2013
As our night of drinking in Hongdae had ended about an hour before we were woken up by our parents and several hotel security guards, Phil and I were still drunk as we haphazardly got dressed and left the premises to catch a cab downtown, where we would board a tour bus that would take us to the DMZ, or De-Militarized Zone – the most heavily secured border in the entire world. Great place to be drunk/hungover! The cab dropped us off outside a military base in the city, and we waited for the bus to show up. It was not even 8 a.m.
An American tourist woman with a real ‘This should be so interesting!’ attitude joined us on the sidewalk and began talking. This was too much for me. If I could’ve managed coherent thoughts, I’m sure I would’ve been upset. Finally, the bus pulled up, we boarded and Phil and I promptly fell back asleep.
We woke up with a start 90 minutes later at The Official Rest Stop of The DMZ, which looked like a rest stop anywhere else in the world. I noticed a strange, and terrible sensation. I knew right away: I had crossed the dreaded line from drunk to hungover. This is usually something that happens smoothly while people sleep, around, say 3 or 4 a.m. But here we were, mid-morning, and I could feel my body, and my parents, cursing me straight to hell. I felt, and looked, like the angry Korean solider above, but I was wearing a white polo shirt, not armor made of fish scales. The anger cast upon me was totally understandable — what kind of assholes sleep through every alarm and phone call and nearly cause their family to miss The DMZ Tour?
After The Official Rest Stop of The DMZ (I bought a water) came The Official Train Station of The DMZ, which looked like a train station anywhere else in the world, except it was empty. Are you seeing a trend? The DMZ is one of those tourist things that you have to visit, because you’d be an irresponsible person otherwise. But that doesn’t make it fun. The Official Viewpoint of The DMZ was the coolest offering, because we could actually see the Kaesong Industrial Complex that was once a joint economic venture between the two countries (and has since closed), but for the most part, it looked like a bunch of fields.
The centerpiece of any DMZ Tour is the 3rd Infiltration Tunnel, which is a tunnel. We grabbed helmets and walked down the brutally steep, 400 meter ramp to the actual tunnel — built to get troops from South Korea to North. At the bottom of the ramp, there are two birds and a vomiting turtle. I imagine they were put there as camouflage in case the North Koreans discovered the tunnel: “Hey, Kenny, is that a tunnel into South Korea?” “No, Bill, it’s just a nature reserve. Bunch of birds down here and a drunk turtle.”
The actual tunnel is a bit anti-climactic. You slog down this long, steep ramp, get totally thrown off by the vomiting turtle and bird lovers, then walk along a low-ceilinged tunnel until you hit a fence, then you turn around. It’d be way cooler if there was at least a cardboard cutout of a North Korean with a gun to spook the grandmas.
Once out, we were about ready to go. I think everyone was a little disappointed, and Randi and Steve were certainly still a bit angry, mostly at me, that we were so irresponsible. So, naturally, Phil and I began taking inappropriate pictures around the large statues on the grounds.
No tour would be complete if the bus didn’t stop at some place to go shoppin’! But this stop I didn’t get: once back in Seoul, our tour guide walked us to an underground mall, where everything was closed except for a jewelery shop. Had this jewelery been stolen from the North Koreans, fine, I would’ve understood. But this was purely for white ladies, Randi included, to look at pretty stuff.
Thankfully, we were out soon and looking for lunch. I was feeling a good bit better, and we set out walking, looking for anything edible. We found what looked like a Chinese restaurant nearby and walked in. We were the only people there, aside from an old woman watching television and waiting for people to come eat. We sat down at a table, and the old lady brought us menus and tea. But, shit, the menus had no English or pictures of food. Phil can read a bit of Korean, but these were straight up in Chinese. The old lady returned a minute later with pad to write our orders.
“Ma’am, do you speak any English?”
“Do you have any chicken dishes?”
The Jacobs vs. Old Chinese lady was on. We all stared at each other, not sure of the next move. Then Old Chinese Lady won: without a word, she collected our menus, took our tea and walked away. We sat there in silence, looking at each other.
“Um. Did we just get kicked out of a restaurant?”
Yes, yes we had. We stood up and recommenced our lunch search, soon eating at a different Chinese place that did have pictures on the menu. Whew!
Next up was the Namsan Tower, the highest spot in the city. It’s like the UN Tower in Toronto, but on top of a mountain. Take that, Canada. A bus took us up the mountain, then we hiked a few hundred meters to the tower. Randi and Steve had some trouble on the incline, and complained that we walked too fast. Our plans of hiking a mountain the following day immediately seemed in limbo: this was a walkway from a bus stop to the Tower, not a hike. But it launched what would be a theme of the trip: Young people walk too fast.
Regardless, the view was incredible — a full 360 degrees of the city. Truly amazing, though, is that Seoul is a city built into a mountain range. It’s not only surrounded by mountains, but lies in between them. The city is that big.
Literally, the highest bathroom in Seoul.
An art exhibit next to the tower also afforded me one of my favorite pictures of Steve and I. If genetics teaches me anything, it’s that my head will slowly get bigger as I grow older, just like my dad. From hairline to chin, he’s got a solid inch and a half on me.
For dinner, we headed back to Hongdae for a real-deal Japanese restaurant. Now, the Japanese used to rule Korea, so you won’t find a ton of Japanese stuff in the country. Thankfully, Phil took us to one of the best remaining spots. I had eel. It was fresh and delicious. The entire restaurant was the size of a large bathroom.
We were exhausted after dinner, and finally not hungover. A success.
We set out early to Noryangjin Wholesale Fish Market, an absolutely massive fresh fish and seafood market, for what would become the weirdest and most awesome brunch of the whole trip. Here’s the great catch about Noryangjin — most of the fish vendors have corresponding kitchens on the second level, surrounding the open marketplace. So the thing to do is buy your seafood, bring it upstairs and watch the same family you bought it from cook it for you. Seafood does not get fresher than that.
The market itself was like a wonderland of weird shit. I was completely overwhelmed. Not only were there endless rows of live fish in tanks, but there were also gigantic crabs and lobsters, foot-long shrimps, fist-sized scallops, stingrays, squids, sea cucumbers, snails and the mother of all weird seafood — octopus. These pics will give you an idea of what we saw, and either enthrall or disgust you:
And I even made a new friend.
After lots of searching, though, it was game time. Buying a fish was obvious — something safe we could all agree on. After haggling prices (or, just pointing at things and saying ‘How much?’), we decided on a big, live, red snapper, which we had half sashimi’d (raw) and half ready to be barbequed. Some shrimp were another obvious pick, and we got a whole shit ton of jumbo tiger prawns. But Phil and I wanted to get weird. We decided on buying an abalone, which is like a large scallop.
Just our luck, a guy who spoke English was buying some sea cucumbers next to us and heard our English mumblings. He gave us some advice of what to try (abalone, sea urchin) and what to avoid (these little red things with spots that most resemble a scrotum; any assortment of worms; the barrels of old, salted fish guts) and was on his way. But one creature loomed in my mind: the live octopus. Steve wasn’t into it, so I bought one myself — for under $5, a little, wiggling octopus swimming around in a bag.
We were ready. We ascended some stairs and delivered all of our seafood to a friendly guy in a tiny kitchen. First came the red snapper sashimi. The freshest fish you could imagine, unless you imagine yourself fishing and eating a red snapper while it’s still on the hook.
Then the prawns, barbecued and covered in sea salt. Delicious. How could they not be?
Next came the abalone, also barbecued and crispy. It arrived on a plate of tin foil. I liked how not sexy the place was. Just a bunch of people grubbing on the messiest of all foods, which was prepared just feet from our table in a tiny, open kitchen. It was less of a restaurant and more of a ‘Welcome to my kitchen!’
We ordered the requisite beers and Phil got Randi and Steve to try makgeoli. I refused, the memory of Makgeoli Man’s gross brew still fresh in my head. But my parents thought it was passable. Fair enough. Just as soon as we’d forgotten, out came the octopus. Not cooked, just diced into strips, and absolutely still moving. I’d never eaten something that was basically still alive, except for the time in middle school when I tried to recreate “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom” and ate my friend’s heart. It’s a weird feeling. The octopus legs have suction cups, and they use them: on your finger, on your tongue, on your cheeks. They don’t stop moving until, well, you chew on them. Doused in wasabi and soy sauce, they were pretty delicious, like a thin gummy worm that tried to wrap itself around your tongue.
Pretty sure that's an eyeball.
By the time the barbecued red snapper came, we were full, but it was too delicious not to devour. We asked the table next to us — some girls from Hong Kong — whether a last minute sea urchin purchase was worth it.
“No, it’s not nearly as good as Tokyo,” they responded in perfect English.
I guess that’s the equivalent of a Philadelphian telling someone in Boston, “I mean, the cheese steaks are alright here, but it’s just not the same.”
Lunch concluded, the parties split up. Phil and I left to hike up a mountain, and Randi and Steve headed to the river for a boat tour of the city. We had wanted to hike with the old folks, but their performance in the days prior made it clear that a family hike just wasn’t in the cards. If steps are a challenge, a mountain is out of the question.
Phil and I bused across the giant metropolis to one of his favorite hikes, Anchsan Mountain. We stocked up on soju and beers and began walking down a busy street when Phil said, “Ok, make a left,” and there was the mountain. Out of nowhere. The quiet of the mountain was nice, and we had some good time to actually catch up. It’s probably a good thing Randi and Steve didn’t join, not only for their physical inability, but also their dignity. The Koreans in their age range may be the best hikers in the country. These little Korean men and ajummas kept whizzing by us, just flashes of black and grey hair, with professional walking sticks and expensive hiking outfits.
At one plateau, we found a rudimentary gym — pull up bars, sit up benches — and dudes in their 70′s were displaying outrageous shows of strength and agility. One guy kept bending himself in half and swinging his legs over his head. I think he could have fit inside a preschooler’s cubby without breaking a sweat. I also don’t know if he had a penis, because that just seems impossible.
The views were pretty incredible, as was the scenery.
We reconvened back at the hotel and headed to Jukjeon, the Seoul suburb where Phil lives and teaches, and went out to some spectacular Thai food with Phil’s lovely and awesome lady Grace, who is Malaysian. The food was delicious and spicy, and Grace challenged me to see who could eat more. She must be 5′ tall and weighs about as much as a half-empty can of Diet Coke, but she won. I’d never seen anything like it. She was the sensei, and I was a mere student.
The next day was reserved for meeting Phil’s students, so we headed back to the hotel for a good night’s sleep before school.