Busan, South Korea
October 22 – 25, 2014
Murphy’s Law had caught up with us even before we left Manila. Anything that could go wrong DID go wrong. Cindy, in charge of online airline booking, inexplicably unticked baggage options for Melds and me. With our suitcases (“fridge” to Cindy) in tow, we had to queue anew at the cashier and cough up twice the fee. At Busan, our port of entry, an airport bus conductor who had just carried my girlfriends’ luggage stopped short at mine and blurted out condescendingly that men should carry their own. Melds knew enough Korean to translate for me. Not that I was expecting a hand from an adjussi like him, but he did push a button.
The airport bad vibes all but fizzled out when we got to my friend’s well-appointed apartment with an ocean view at Dalmaji-gil. All was well until our second night when water heating conked out. Every shower from then on was an Ice Bucket Challenge, considering it was the middle of fall, and a chilling reminder of the long arm of Murphy’s Law.
No cold shower or jinx could dampen our spirit. We set out to imbibe what this sunny seaside city had to offer. Along the way, we managed to miss subway stops, which entailed more walking than planned, but the city did not deny us two of its charms: beach and food.
Bad vibes turned to beach vibe in a jiffy. Slowpokes as ever, we strolled down quaint and scenic Dalmaji-gil and reached the beach at almost sundown. The street ended up at a roundabout overlooking Korea Strait. A bright orange tsunami evacuation sign pointed uphill. It was reassuring to know that my friend’s apartment, although near-shore, was at a safe elevation.
I had not been to a beach city, save for Santa Cruz, California which was not much of a city. Busan’s Haeundae Beach, a crescent-shaped strip of sand lined by skyscrapers, was a visual oxymoron for a visitor from another coastal city that, sadly, had defiled its seafront with slums and garbage. The entire time I was frolicking on the sand, I came across a lone discarded bottle.
Late aftie in autumn was not beach weather, however. It was too nippy for my nips; I stayed topless for only three minutes tops. I quickly bundled up as other beach bums did. City lights came on just as the setting sun painted the sky in sepia tones. The sun did not set directly across the sea but behind a silhouette of skyscrapers. My friend Wowie said Haeundae Beach came alive in summer, but this less eventful, more laid-back beach vibe was after my own heart.
All that frenzy was monopolized by seagulls, flocking over kids and kids-at-heart with bird feed and then flapping away, usually in concert, to the next food source. I would’ve preferred to watch them diving for fish, as they would naturally do, but at least they imbued this tourist attraction winding down for the day and for the year with some excitement.
Any seaside city worth its salt would boast of the freshest seafood. The bounty of the sea could not be any fresher than at Jagalchi Fish Market, located right at the Nampo Port, the berthing area of fishing vessels from the Pacific. We ambled through crowded back alleys choked with crates and basins bearing marine creatures of all shapes and sizes. I was on the lookout for octopi I could swallow alive, but later chickened out at their otherworldly appearance. Laid out flat, they had that TV alien look depicted with a disproportionately large head and long limbs.
We chose a random market eatery among a row that all looked the same: low tables, no chairs, no menus in English, mostly elderly clientele. Fellow tourists on the alleyway were probably turned off by such strong local smells and flavor; we were the only foreign diners. We picked out a fish, the fleshiest one, displayed at the door and had it cooked. The meal was truly a taste of Busan – seafood spiced up by an array of Korean side dishes.
Busan had other delights aside from fish. My favorite find on the streets of Nampo-dong was bungeoppang, a red bean cake made in a carp-shaped mold. The cake was as sweet as the vendor was not. She waved away my camera, albeit belatedly. I had already snapped some photos, thank goodness.
Korean food was best eaten on the street, such as tongue-scorcher toppoki (spicy rice cake) available in any sidewalk, and in hole-in-the-wall restaurants, such as seolleongtang (ox bone soup). Both turned autumn’s chill into chilly hot and both were tasty, more so the latter that I told the adjumma server, saranghaeyo (I love you), when I meant gamsa hamnida (thank you)!
Fine dining was at par with street food. I had my first bulgogi burger at Kraze Burger, a blend of Korean and American, basically South Korea in a bite. On a date night with my hostess with the mostest, Wowie, we walked to an upscale restaurant-bar-cafe-noraebang, Opera Restaurant, near her flat at Dalmaji-gil. She had not dined there although she lived a skip and a hop away. We had a delightful Italian dinner at Tosca Ristorante on the third floor. Their black seafood risotto was to-die-for.
My thought bubble went, “All’s well that ends well?” The universe retorted, “Wait, there’s more!”
Avoiding potential delay, we pre-purchased our bus tickets to Chuncheon a day before. Of course, that did not guarantee punctuality. Cindy insisted on having an online class the morning of our departure – Cindy was to blame (again?). Scuttling down Dalmaji-gil, we realized the metro station was not walking distance when time was of the essence; we decided to hail a taxi. In the end, we still missed our bus, and once again, spent more for another ticket on top of cab fare. The wonderful experience of Busan’s beach and food culture was a brief reprieve. We had not dodged Murphy’s Law, after all.