Sunday, June 6, 2010

My Adventures in Itaewon

I realized recently that I have been relying on other people to plan my adventures for me for the past couple of weeks and I decided to get out of this pattern right away by planning a trip down town.

Now, Seoul is about 45 minutes away by bus and 2 hours by train so to make the trip worth while you have to be prepared: know what you want to do and where you want to go. I decided I needed a goal. I had been trying to find cumin (to make tacos) for a while and having no success. They aren't big on spices here - or at least the ones that don't make your food super hot - and the only ones they have in the regular grocery store are basil, oregano, chili powder and garlic salt. I decided that I would plan my trip around finding this magical spice.

My choice was between two areas in downtown, both had foreign food stores. Itaewon and Insa-dong. Insa-dong was where the lantern festival was and is known for its traditional crafts and old school tea shops. It has the headquarters of the local Zen Buddhist sect there at the temple (the one where we got the lanterns from during the parade). Since I had been there more recently, I decided to go to Itaewon.

Itaewon is known as the foreigner hang out because the military base is right there on the edge of the main street. As I have mentioned in a previous post, it is a little bit of a shock going from seeing a foreigner every other day or so to seeing them every other second. The shops on the main street cater to foreigners - its literally the only place in Korea where you can find a size 13 men's shoe.

First, I sought out a Greek restaurant that was off the main street because I was craving some soup. They didn't have the specific soup I wanted but I ended up having chicken soup and pita bread which was pretty good. It was a great little place, hidden away in an alley with a terrace that overlooked the streets. The chef was supposed to be Greek and the food looked pretty great.

Finding it was a little bit of a hassle because the map I had made no concessions to the actual size of the streets. They all looked to be the same width so every time it made me turn down a tiny alley I had to stop for a couple minutes to check and re-check my directions. I was never once off track.

When I got back to the main street I ran into the new teacher at our school, Matthew. He and his friend John were there looking for shoes and it was their first time in Itaewon. I diverted from my plan to show them around the stalls and try to bargain for shoes for John. It wasn't really effective because, as I have said, the shop owners know its the only place where you can find size 13 men's shoes and they charge a lot because of it.

Since John and Matthew had no other plans, I dragged them with me to see the only mosque in Korea. I felt pretty bad by the time we got there because it was quite a hike to the top of this steep hill but they didn't complain. Like I said, the area is known for foreigners and there is a significant Muslim population in the area. The streets around the mosque are filled with stores catering to Arab and Indian tastes - delis, bakeries, and spice shops. The mosque itself is surrounded by a wall so that we were walking by it for a while before we knew it was a mosque. But suddenly we were facing the entrance to the complex and it was covered in blue and white mosaic tiles. The mosque was a typical one - mosaics, spires, and Arabian-style arches.

We then headed to the foreign book store which was everything I hoped it would be - used and new books from the American market. It made me very happy. Except that I couldn't buy anything because everything I wanted to buy I had on my kindle already and just hadn't read it. It kind of sucks not having the physical book in your hands. I knew this when I got the Kindle and decided to get it anyway in the name of convenience. My big problem with packing for trips thus far had been deciding what books to take. Now, I wouldn't have to choose, I could take them all.

Still, I missed the smell of books and the weight of the book in your hand. The way you can stuff them in your backpack or roll it up in your back pocket. You may not do this with your Kindle.

I bought a book written by Tony Hawks (not Tony Hawk) that looks good, about traveling through Europe to challenge a soccer team to a tennis match in response to a bet.

Finally, we ended up at a foreign food store which had been my destination all along. I bought chicken soup (really missing it) and maple syrup and I contemplated a large block of cheddar cheese. Cheese is kind of sold at a premium here, so a block of cheese the size of one of those tiny cereal boxes (the ones that come in six packs) is about 10,000 won or $10 USD. I figured I didn't need cheese that badly. Maybe one day I would get that starved for cheese but I wasn't to that point yet.

No cumin.

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