My Seoul patrol

I spent a good five days in Incheon, Korea. I was part of a group of representatives there on official business (to attend a conference on the United Nations International Strategy for Disaster Risk Reduction) and although I was not able to see the place extensively through the eyes of a tourist, I did get the chance to appreciate it essentially for what it is. Let me start by saying that the trip was a little bit depressing at the onset (maybe disheartening would be a better word), mainly because it was so evident how far they have progressed, especially in light of the fact that after the war they were worse off than the Philippines was. Thankfully, though, things always have a way of looking better once the reality of it has settled in, and as the days rolled along, hope prevailed and that sad feeling was replaced by a dream that maybe, just maybe, we could also progress in that direction someday.

Suffice to say that at the end of it all, we were inspired and we went home teeming with motivation and imagination.

But that is another story altogether, for another time soon, and what I want to share with you offhand are bits and pieces of Korea as I saw it, be that ever so brief.

A poignant moment was when Genie, our tour guide, sang a cappella the song Arirang, which is like a national song of sorts. She sang it one afternoon — it was our last day, actually — as the bus cut through the streets of Seoul back to Incheon in the rain. I had every reason to be happy that day but that song, sounding very much like a lullaby, made me feel so sad — so very sad, actually, I wanted to cry. I understood why I felt that way as soon as she explained the meaning of it, going on further to say that they would hum and sing it as a nation when they were dealing with something painful and difficult. The direct meaning of the song is more romantic in nature though, telling of a woman who is calling out to her man as he walks away from her. She begs him to not leave her and somewhere between her plea and her pain she resorts to cursing him, wishing that his feet would hurt with every step he took away from her. Ah, love. How can it still be so beautiful even when it is already incomprehensibly painful? And really, when you think of it, how can it be any other way than that?

The time we were there the sun hardly shone. The weather was white and gray and comfortably cool, calling for huddled walks under big umbrellas. The weather was romantic, justifying why it is such a beautiful backdrop for all the Koreanovelas we Filipinos are so crazy about. For what seemed like a split-second only we were set loose in Insadong, a mecca of arts and culture, which I loved. It felt very much like a tourist center, where a sampling of Korea’s arts and crafts is scattered in colorful splendor. We wandered around the streets, where I saw masks and fans and lamps which I kind of liked but could still walk away from. I bought little pillows, though; those I could not resist, stuffed with fragrant seeds or buckwheat, in beautiful linen and embroidery that was even more so. It is almost magical when I put my head on it, the seeds ruffling melodically inside, and it feels like being part of some old ritual that will always hold true no matter what. My daughter loves it and has been using it as her own since I got it out of my suitcase. They had little pouches with careful embroidery that got me wishing every barangay in the country could have someone so skilled in all things handmade and homemade, too. Imagine the lovely things we could share with the rest of the world! I love how they present everything ceremoniously. I remember walking into a shop and after buying three different little things, the shopkeeper gave me a pouch that she said she had made, and a pretty little bookmark. The latter she wrapped ceremoniously in crisp plastic, sealed with a pretty sticker. Every little thing was presented prettily, like a gift, and as such feels very much like so.

And don’t get me started on the food. Every day I swore not to eat because I would always eat so much the day before but at the sight of little bowls of colorful vegetables in front of me, kimchi especially, my resolve would crumble. I do not know what they are or exactly how they are prepared, some are pickled while others merely steamed, and the beef is always tender and tasty to be dipped in one or two of the many sauces set before you. I love the ritual of it all, eating slowly, conversing a lot, filling both memories and appetites simultaneously and in a most pleasurable way at that. I find that each dish builds up to the next to make for something that feels grand yet discreet and somehow I get the feeling that it translates to more than just food there. There is something gentle and genteel about the place, an old world charm that is still palpable even amidst all the modern structures that abound.

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Kimchi is eaten with every meal. We were told that it is considered one of the top 10 healthiest foods worldwide, so much so that during the SARS outbreak Korea was unaffected. This was attributed to their regular intake of kimchi. The pumpkin tea I got to taste in another restaurant was outstanding and definitely something very new to me.

I came home a few pounds heavier and loving most things Korean very much. They are a pleasant people, temperate in their manner, and easy to give and accept a smile. I think the place can also be best symbolized by something that they have there, called a bojagi, which, as a kind shopkeeper explained to me in endearingly broken English, is a traditional Korean cloth used for gift wrapping or display. It is made of a variety of materials — silk, hemp, cotton among them — a flat quilt of sorts where small squares are stitched together in varying sizes and contrasting colors. The Korean women take delight in doing this artistic activity because these lovingly made objects are actually expressive of the good wishes they want to send forth to the happy recipients: their daughters, nephews, friends, elders. They use the bojagi to cover, store and carry all kinds of objects, whether precious or ordinary, small or large. They have a way of making the ordinary seem special, and the latter even more so. Prettiness, organization and structure is a way of life there.

Korea is a lovely place, rich in culture and the people are reverent of their heritage. I want to go back there and discover the place all over again. Then I hope to learn even more lessons, among them important ones in mindfulness, self-control and fortitude.

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