Category Archives: Daegu

Craving kimchi

It’s strange the things you find you miss when you’re not there anymore. I never, in a million years, thought kimchi would be something I missed. And yet, I found myself, last week, really, really wishing for some proper, hot, crunchy kimchi. It wasn’t even a specific nostalgia moment. Some days, for example, I really feel like going down to the hut and ordering kimchi-jeon and dongdongju and sitting there with those friends for hours on end.  The memory is so strong I can almost taste the heat of the kimchi and the icy-cold dongdongju and the touch of the table and and the sounds: the loud foreigners, the background of quieter hangul and, of course, ‘Congratulations’.

This wasn’t that. I just wanted to be able to pop down to the local ‘mart’ and get some kimchi with the rest of my groceries. Apparently there is a Korean mart, of course not in the small town I’m currently in, but as soon as I go to Cape Town again, Korean food it will be. I miss metal chopsticks, too. I guess the places you visit become a part of who you are.

It’s funny the things you miss and remember. I was idly sitting in front of the cooking channel, reading my book, the other day and they were making pancakes. Pancakes, South African-style, so crepes, rather than American pancakes (which we call flapjacks for some reason). Pancakes make the think of Windhoek now. One of the best things about the backpackers where I stayed in Windhoek was the pancakes in the morning. The price of accommodation included 2 cinnamon-sugar pancakes and coffee or tea for breakfast (7am to 10am). It was a gorgeous wake up, in the cool of the bar area, by the pool, early enough that the day wasn’t yet hot, with BBC World News on the TV, to keep track of what was going on in the real world.

That experience, traveling there, has changed my reaction to hot days, too. It’s hot in the Eastern Cape at the moment, hot and humid a lot of days, but it’s not hot like Windhoek. The cool of the morning reminds me of how hot it gets there. The cool morning air feels the same as it did in Windhoek in December.

The heat is like Gaborone. There was a thunderstorm here the other day and I found myself wishing for the downpours of Gaborone, the hard, pouring rain, relief after the glorious, exhausting, almost-overwhelming summer heat. The feeling of ice-cold water after a round in one of the sweltering venues. Sitting that hot, stuffy briefing room. Still hot at three in the morning. All the people. The Irish singing.

Sensory memory is so strong. Some days it makes me glad to be here, remembering. Some days it makes me wish for the things that were normal there – like kimchi and early morning pancakes. Other days it makes me wish to be off, a backpack and a guidebook, traveling again.

The bittersweetness of boxes

On a warm Wednesday morning in May, I sent two medium-sized boxes on their way, hoping against hope that between the Korean Post Office, the South African Post Office and two customs departments they’d arrive in one piece. The first one arrived today.

I set off with ID and R25 customs duty, alerted by a parcel slip in the mail. The Post Office teller looked utterly bewildered, which did not bode well. Luckily, she had a friend and between them it took a mere 15 minutes to locate my 1 box. Another 10 minutes and I was walked out. It was an easy late-winter day – sun, blue-sky, jasmine – very similar, now that I think about it, to the day I posted the boxes. I found myself feeling strangely prickly and protective. I wanted to get to where I could be alone with my box. This box, with its twin still to come, was the last part of me to come home, my last link to another world so very far away.

Back home, I opened it. Three months (almost to the day) since I packed, I had no idea what to expect. Inside was a smaller box stuck closed with sticky-tape. It began to come back to me. I remembered the frantic packing and the long walk to the Post Office. Somewhere in here was a mug I got at the Opera. I wondered if it was still intact. The small box contained little mementos – one or two things from my Korean Christmas, the miniature windsock from when we went paragliding, a bracelet I bought at that temple we went to on that Daegu City Bus Tour.

Underneath was the backpack I bought at that little shop in Suncheon, that last epic weekend when I went to see the Islands. I’d packed it full of clothes – clothes I’d almost forgotten existed. Summer clothes I’ll be glad of soon. Depth-of-winter clothes I may never use again: long underwear, heavy denim jeans, my coat, so crumpled I’m going to have to get it dry-cleaned.

I sat on the floor with that coat in my hands and the memories flooding back. I remember the day I bought it. A random day on my way to school. I stopped at Fashion Exchange opposite the bus stop. They had racks of coats outside. What did I know about buying coats? The only coats I’d owned had been second-hand imports I’d never worn more than once or twice in a winter. But here I was going to need a coat so I took the one that fitted. It was the first winter thing I bought and my comfort against the cold for all those months. It felt so strange to have it here, now, back in my real world. All these things. As if the memory of another lifetime had somehow arrived in the post.

Dreams of kimchi-land

“We live, as we dream – alone…” Joseph Conrad

There is nothing quite like travelling alone to a foreign country to isolate one. This is not to say that I haven’t been loving every moment of seeing friends and family since returning. It’s amazing to see everyone but it also a reminder of how experiences isolate us. As a friend observed the other day, it’s the little things – the food, the household practices, cultural idiosyncrasies of a place far, far removed from anything those around me have ever known. A couple of months returned and I am particularly aware of those little things. I keep thinking of something or noticing things that remind me of Korea. It doesn’t seem rational. I am so very happy to be home and have no desire to go back. I guess when you live in a place for month upon month it gets under your skin and I always miss the places I’ve called home.

Some of the things I miss are obvious. I’m still subscribed to the ROKetship feed so I get each new cartoon and find myself laughing and thinking of the people who share that context. Some mornings I also wake up full of the urge to head to DongDaegu to take a train or a bus to Gyeongju or Busan or Seoul and go exploring. It’s a lot harder without that super-efficient public transport system. It’s also harder without a thousands-of-years-old Silla Capital and museums around every corner. Or an Opera House just across town. I miss living in a country that invests heavily in history, tourism and the arts.

I miss the little things too. Not even miss – I’m just aware of the difference and less comfortable in my own culture than I used to be. I feel just a little bit uneasy every time I suddenly register that I’m wearing shoes in the house. Anyone’s house. I miss having a ‘mart’ on every corner selling the basic essentials – like garlic and instant rice and plastic cheese slices and Spam. The shops are lovely and western and modern here – not to mention clean and pleasant – but they are so far away and wandering down aisle after aisle makes everywhere feel like Costco or HomePlus (which isn’t as good a thing as it seems like it should be). I find myself reverting to Korean – strangely most often when I’m trying to use a language other than English. Saying ‘Kam-sa-ham-nida’ to an Afrikaans-speaking bag-packer at the local PnP gets odd looks.

Other things are less expected. I miss eating with chopsticks. It’s not intellectual, either. I miss the feel of metal chopsticks in my hands. I feel the need to eat (ramen) noodles with chopsticks just to be eating with chopsticks. But really what I want is pajeon or galbi. Korean food. Proper Korean food, with all the side dishes – even the ones I don’t like. And, of course, kimchi. I miss kimchi. It is strange and odd and a little embarrassing, but I really do. I keep thinking about that Galbi place next to Festival downtown. Or the Hut. I miss the Hut. I miss the people and the place and the music and ‘Congratulations’. And dongdongju. Bizarrely, I miss Korean beer, but I think more for the sake of Somaek. Some days I want nothing more than to be able to head to the Hut after work at 9pm.

I miss that part of my life – far enough away now to be something that happened, another chapter. Missing places and people, like regret, is probably futile, except that it strengthens memories, histories. Things experienced alone only really exist in the mind of the experiencer. In remembering, we travel back to those places and those times and revisit, reinforce, sometimes recreate, what exists nowhere else. At least, that’s how I think of it – with a secret, private smile – when I suddenly feel that crazy urge to go to the hut or drink dongdongju or eat kimchi with metal chopsticks.