Saturday, March 25, 2023

Tao for Travelers: My weekend in Hong Kong

I have an old friend, Rosann Santoro, who has lived in Hong Kong for decades and it's been that long since I've seen her. As Korea is so close, I decided to visit for the weekend -- how cool is that? Looking at what's going on in my hotel, I was reminded that one thing people come to Hong Kong for is shopping. They come back from their forays with shopping bags from all sorts of luxury stores. And I'm told that there are underground stores that sell the fake versions of everything and even the fakes of the fakes. Mind-boggling. 

As I don't shop enough to know what's what, I have stayed strictly on the sidelines: looking for small presents, a camera case and a fountain pen. Now, I don't need a fountain pen -- it's just that a stationery store had a great display of pens and the announcement that it was their annual sale -- and this was interesting because a fountain pen represents a lifestyle of ease and pleasure, which dances in my head when I see one. I do have a very pleasurable lifestyle, but not so much ease, and rarely use the fountain pens I have -- you see my problem. 

Hong Kong is a "love at first sight" kind of place if you like crowded cities, which I do. It throngs with people, the buildings are jammed together, the majestic, historic banyan trees shelter the nearby avenue -- it's quite spectacular. And I haven't even really seen the harbor yet, except from the air. 

In the meantime, Rosann has been taking me to dinner at the Kowloon Cricket Club, a sea of green fields that completes the urbanity. The club is and has always been multi-ethnic and multi-cultural, so you can get food from around the world. I've been focused on the Cantonese dishes, the like of which I've never tasted before. I say to myself, "Oh this is what they mean by the difference between Chinese fast food in my neighborhood and the real thing!" 

Today it is raining, so we may go to the nearby museum of the history of the city -- always a top choice for me! And then we'll chat about our families, our lives since we last met, and the curious state of the world and how we might help.

Monday, March 20, 2023

Tao for Travelers: Touring

I am visiting South Korea for three months so I haven't felt any pressure to see the sights or even to leave Itaewon. But my visitors are here for shorter periods of time and getting out and about is, I've learned, more a part of short visits than long ones. Because of my guests, I've been to museums, lovely restaurants, parks, markets and a long list of coffee shops. 

Marisela wanted to learn about Korean Buddhism, so we did a templestay at Tongdosa, the oldest and largest temple here. We spent four days and three nights there, immersed in the culture of the temple, meaning the structure and practice of the religion. We watched the ringing of the four instruments of Buddhism, went to a variety of services, and had tea with three monks who kindly answered my questions. Because Tongdosa is south of Seoul, spring was already arriving there and the plum trees were coming into bloom. The experience of sitting with a monk and having tea is one that I will cherish -- so different from rushing to a coffee shop or even grabbing a cup of tea as I head into a Zoom meeting.

Lily wanted to go to Namsan Tower for a second time. Lee Bora, a physician we were introduced to, took us there but it was a foggy day and we could see only the fog. We got a ticket to go back for free and Lily thought that would be great. We wanted to take a cab there, but the cab driver explained that they're not allowed on the mountain and could only take us to the cable car. Lily, being braver than I am, took lots of pictures on the way up, while I stared straight ahead. When we got to the top of the tower, it was so amazing to see the difference between complete whiteout and sparkling sun!  

Molly wanted to go for a Korean facial. She researched online for one that was highly recommended. She decided on Spa 1899, because it was both great and friendly to people speaking English. It was really an amazing experience. NO extractions -- just massage and masks and lovely ginseng oil. It actually started with a cup of ginseng tea and five minutes of foot bath with the ginseng added to the water. What an experience! We came out glowing! 
Doug was deeply committed to food adventures. We went to a variety of restaurants and to several markets, including a night market tour. I liked the Mangwon Market best. Dr. Lee took us there. Her husband is a social activist who helped to organize the market and manages its coffee shop. Her daughter likes to get a special ice cream treat which is like an ice cream S'more, with the toasting of the marshmallow provided by an alligator blow torch. Dr. Lee even sent us home with a Korean version of chicken nuggets in three fabulous flavors, which we savored at dinner. Both of Dr. Lee's tours included fabulous food, which I could never have experienced on my own. 
And hosts also have ideas what one should see. Lee Bora has been so generous with us, taking us first on a City Bus tour, which included our first visit to Namsan Tower, and then second on a "miserable history" tour, which took us to Seodaemun Prison History Hall and the War and Women's Human Rights Museum. The latter is dedicated to telling the story of women who forced into sexual slavery by the Japanese Army duing the colonial period and World War II. There is an ongoing protest of the Japanese refusal to acknowledge the government's role in this violation of human rights. For the 1000th protest, the protesters made a statue of a young girl staring at the Japanese Embassy and an empty chair beside her, inviting us to join in solidarity. We took turns sitting with her.  

I'm on a short pause with no visitors at the moment, so I've settled into my own wu wei idea of getting to know the country. I had a great conversation with Professor Eunju Hwang of Sogang University. She agreed with me that no woman would have ever expressed whatever the sentiment of wu wei is as "do nothing." That formulation had to come from a wealthy man. But what is the intent? We agreed that "do one thing at a time" was a definite possibility and it was certainly something my mother said to me, usually combined with "don't get ahead of yourself," similar to the more current saying of, "keep your head over your feet." 

There are lots of things to do today, so I'm taking them one at time, while appreciating the sunlight pouring in the windows of my apartment in Itaewon. I have time to listen to Han Kang's Human Acts, and ponder the many ways in which deep suffering colors this splendid place. I might otherwise be lulled by the wonderful bus system and the gorgeous movie stars into thinking they have it all. 

Wednesday, March 1, 2023

Tao for Travelers: All the Food

When I told people I was going to Korea, they'd invariably say, "You're going to eat such great food!" It didn't matter if they'd been to Korea or not. Some stereotypes are true and some are not, but this one, so far, is true, true, true. And it's not simply that high-end places have exquisite fusion cuisine. The street stands, the hole-in-the-wall joints, the restaurants from back-in-the-day are offering such delightful meals it makes every day a holiday. Of course, in a way for me, every day is a holiday, as my work is to wander around and take in the sights, sounds, smells, tastes and feels of the place. 

Seoul is all about style -- places like Starbucks or McDonald's are the same here as anywhere and you can't say they're stylish or not because they're frozen. Cool is what is being invented. Two of my favorites -- a coffee shop and a small restaurant -- have these signs: 

In a space of amazing food, bread not so much. And I'm just a person who likes toast for breakfast. Being a stranger defamiliarizes habits and I find myself asking why. I suddenly remembered dinner at my house growing up. My dad liked bread with dinner. If we didn't have bread, we'd make biscuits -- that was always great by me. The bread in the supermarket or even Paris Baguette is in the spirit of Wonder Bread, not Liv Bakery, the fabulous bakery near me. Happily, tucked in among the neighborhood clothes stores were three marvelous exceptions -- a Turkish bakery, a bagel shop and an Italian coffee place that has fresh bread. Ahhh! Simit and coffee get the day off to a very good start -- and then food exploration is right outside the door.