It would have been a normal hotel room had there not been a frosted window to the bathroom with a stylized naked woman painted on. David and I had decided to stop in Daegu on our way to Seoul to meet up with a friend I made in Fukuoka. Since it was a holiday week, Matt, an American English teacher like David, had off from work and kindly offered to meet us at the train station and show us the way to Hotel Mythos, an affordable hotel I had found on the Internet. For what it’s worth, the hotel was very clean and comfortable, cheap to share between two people, and even generous – the bathroom was as large as the main room in both Chas’s and David’s apartments.
After throwing our bags down, Matt took us to a nearby restaurant to order jjimdalg, a communal dish consisting of chicken pieces in a sweet sauce with onions, glass noodles, and some chewy tteok-beoki (rice cakes sometimes filled with mozzarella cheese). Later, we met up with his friends Linda, from England, and Jeongmok, from Korea, to enjoy bagged cocktails from a stand blasting American music ranging from Fleetwood Mac to DMX and to lounge about in a nearby park. The highlight of the evening – walking to the local noraebong, or Korean karaoke joint, after midnight and singing ourselves hoarse.
On the train to Seoul the next day, I remembered that another one of my Fukuoka friends, a Korean living in Seoul, had told me to let him know if I ever found myself up there. Thus, even though he had to fly abroad the next day, Sungho made the trip to Hongdae, the part of Seoul David and I were staying in, to introduce us to Army Stew. This classic dish has a sad history since it came about from impoverished people after the Korean War making meals out of anything they could scrounge, including Spam from the garbage of American army bases. Still, it was delicious (spicy!) and very filling. We all had so much fun hanging out that we ended up chatting and making jokes for a few hours at a nearby coffee shop over cups of rich Jeju green tea.
Seoul itself has a lot of fun attractions. Seonyudo Park, a park made out of the ruins of a former water purification plant, was pretty and had great water views. We visited the War Memorial on Children’s Day and saw soldiers on parade as well as plenty of memorable exhibits. A North Korean submarine on display was spotted as recently as 30 years ago off the coast of Dadaepo Beach, just a handful of subway stops from David’s apartment. Gyeongbokgung Palace, where a middle school-aged volunteer guide gave us an hour-long English tour, was a fascinating Joseon-era palace full of beautiful wooden buildings and well-kept gardens. We even made more friends in our hostel with Sharon, from Taiwan, and joined her with her Korean friends, Song and Nick, for the full two hour limit at an all-you-can-eat Korean barbecue restaurant. I was surprised at how much I enjoyed the kimchi pancake and even pig skin (slightly sweet but extremely chewy).
While South Korea has an unfriendly neighbor, life here is much more normal than the news back home would suggest. At Seonyudo Park, we saw someone water-skiing in the adjacent river as well as cosplayers in one of the buildings. There was even a shirtless male model modeling in industrial surroundings (my abs are better, though). At dinner in Daegu, Matt joked about the ‘escape plan’ he gave his worried cousin – basically, he would fly the imaginary 747 that he hides in his shoebox apartment to safety. The take-away is that life goes on, especially considering how life here is many times better than it was 50 years ago.