The ship arrives in Busan, Korea at one o’clock in the morning, 18 hours behind schedule. At breakfast the following morning (pancakes!), the Captain informs me that the agent will arrive between 08:00 and 09:00 to take me through customs. I say goodbye to the officers and crew who have taken me safely across the Pacific Ocean.
Four hours later (the Korean port authority is not known for punctuality), I finally step off the ship into the busting Port of Busan. I count over forty cranes from my vantage point—much larger than Vancouver. The agent takes me through customs, where I fill out the standard paperwork and a hilariously-mistranslated declaration form (do you have any murder weapons?), and then drives me into the city. He is a master multi-tasker: he puffs on a cigarette, sends text messages, checks hotel prices on my behalf, phones his girlfriend, selects songs (angry American hip-hop is popular) and complains about his job, all while executing acrobatic driving maneuvers (such as an impressively agile left turn from the right lane on a red light squeezing just in front of a transport truck).
I only have 18 hours in Busan before I head to Japan, so I ask the agent to recommend an affordable hotel in a district where I can experience a little piece of Korea. He takes me to the Hotel Mirabel, a Russian hotel on Texas Street in Chinatown. “This is where foreigners like to go,” he says as he hands me my luggage and I hand him a crisp American $100 bill (the transportation fee, I’m told). I’m anxious to use my legs again after two weeks at sea, so I drop off my bag and then head out to explore.
It’s Saturday afternoon, so the streets of Busan are buzzing with activity. I wander away from Americatown and into a vibrant street market, where orderly stalls sell street food, fortune-readings, massages, knick-knacks, and clothing. An uncountable number of Korean socks are piled at the angle of repose on a small flatbed truck, each pair covered with overtly adorable designs ranging from fluffy doe-eyed sheep to neon-clad robots. It’s hard to imagine any of the people around me wearing such garish socks; everyone is impeccably dressed. A popular outfit for young Korean men is dark slim-fitting pants, a knitted cardigan, a tailored knee-length lapelled jacket, and thick-rimmed glasses. The women wear elegant jackets over textured dresses with matching heels. Stores selling cosmetics and fashionable clothing abound. Yuppies sip coffee in the hip cafés that have sprung up everywhere, yoga-inspired slogans stencilled in English on the walls and windows. I am surrounded by the new generation of Koreans who have grown up with prosperity inconceivable to their grandparents.
With only half a day in Korea, I try to make the most of it. I’m hungry, so I walk into a random Korean restaurant that has pictures of the food pasted to the window. Everything on the menu has a base of rice-in-a-bowl, served with various other things on top or mixed in. I am guided to a kiosk to place my order, and my choices are relayed to the kitchen. About ten minutes later the frantic hand-waving of a cook alerts me to my meal, which has been languishing on the counter since they called my number (in Korean) 9 minutes ago.
Here’s some advice vis-à-vis Korean food: don’t order anything with the word “spicy” in the name. Everything is spicy in Korea, by default. If it actually says spicy, what they really mean is “prepared with a mixture of basilisk venom and hellfire.” After the first bite I am casting about for something to neutralize the fury on my palate—milk, iced tea, slaked lime—but there is nothing in sight but tubs of kimchi and hot sauce. Not one to be defeated by food (I can’t let $5 go to waste!), I finish the bowl, and then claw my way to fresh air.
I finish the evening with a walk up to Yongdusen Park, a delightful oasis of wandering pathways and gardens built into the side of a hill which culminates in a graceful sightseeing tower. Many thousands of little colourful plastic hearts, each with an anonymous message scrawled on it, decorate the fence at the cliff’s edge. I see lovers pausing in front for a photo. A mother and her small daughter hit a badminton birdie back and forth, while elderly gentlemen stretch and grunt while looking out over the cityscape in a sort of outdoor gym constructed for public use.
The following morning, I walk to the ferry terminal for my “jet ferry” to Japan, which will take me across the Sea of Japan from Busan to Fukouma in less than 3 hours. On the way, I spot a man laying on his back on the pavement of a parking garage, his face crunched into an expression of extreme concentration while his outstretched legs are maneuvered every which way by the parking attendant in some sort of makeshift personal training session. It makes me regret that I must leave Korea so soon after seeing so little.