Monthly Archives: September 2009

Launch was awesome! [Manila, the Philippines]

Typhoon Ketsana made the next few days wet as well, but we moved to Bianca’s Garden Hostel, a converted imperial Spanish villa in Malate district, with the clubs and the massage parlors and the Cuban food. The one sunny day we stayed on the hotel grounds and played backgammon in the yard and drank San Miguel with our takeout, which was a bit of a pity because there is a volcano where you can ride horses about two hours drive from Manila that is only worth visiting when it’s clear, but the roads were probably flooded anyway. Laundry in the sink and laid out to dry on the driftwood.

Marauding through Quiapo and Binondo districts, we bought white pellets from a candy seller’s basket that turned out to be cockroach poison, so I burped camphor the rest of the day but was otherwise just fine. McDonald’s has delivery scooters and at the carnival games you win sea snakes in baggies, not goldfish.

In the Green Mosque district near the swollen river we intruded on the Muslim ghetto, first hesitantly because of the sign admonishing against women over 12 without combong, and then with a swarm of two, ten, a score, a hundred miniature followers. Women peeked at us over balconies and behind curtains; men sought out status as our next models. The real stars were the mountains of kids: one was writing a book, two kind of spoke English even but mostly we spoke guidebook and stuffed animal, all of them clearly had seen Vogue magazine through store windows and knew all the model poses, most were apoplectic at seeing their faces on the camera’s touchscreen, and we won’t even mention the paroxysms of ecstasy everyone suffered at seeing their faces on the video playback. All hundred and fifty dogged us till we finally gave them all high fives and sent them home, and our few final bodyguards gave up at the bridge, like witches.

Malate district is sketchy at night but is as good a place as any for sangria and planning, and when the weather forecast warned of the imminent landfall of Super Typhoon Melor we acknowledged our defeat an escaped to Hong Kong, tailed by the wind and waves, satisfied at having properly seen the one city, at least, and when we come back we can explore the rest of the country and the underwater territories.

Pick your battles. Win all of them. [Manila, the Philippines]

Early flight south to Ninoy Aquino Chaos Doom Airport. Since it was pouring (thanks, Typhoon Ondoy), we got a car to the Peninsula in Makati district for luxury Occidentalism and nice Indonesian food while we found pants and a guidebook and the rest of the city began to dry out, or at least, the flood waters began to find their way into basements and garages and not peskily on the street. Generalizing horribly, the Philippines is an archipelago populated by Thai Polynesians who speak horrible Spanish. But for a third world country it is energizing and casual and friendly with a good equatorial fruit selection and a Catholic culture so pervasive they pipe “In Excelsis Deo” over the speakers at the Speedo store. Communal vans are more fun than the surly but efficient louages in Tunisia and van owners paint blessings and cartoons all over their jeepneys as they haul all commuters without scooters from district to district throughout the day.

The real railroad is non-functional as far as we could divine, but the elevated rail works great and we went north over Little Tokyo to flooded Bambang to visit what is nominally the electronics market but was at the time a regional repair shop, with only the luckiest and most industrious open for business hawking bootlegged Bruce Willis movies and cell phone parts. Through Chinatown (“Fake IDs made here!”) and the low encroaching slum skyscrapers of Santa Cruz we got wet, dried out, bought stuff, got wet, ate fried bananas, dried out, took pictures and video footage of typhoon madness, and helped assemble the enormous garbage heaps of soaked stuff for collection at a later date. In Intramuros we cleverly dodged the tourist horse rickshaws and got invited to gamble for coins in the alley behind the metro cathedral.

Filipino food is cheap (obviously) and can be great if you’re choosy (beef stew when you can get it, smoked stuffed milk fish (bangus) if you can’t). Every meal should have green mango juice, and the sugared salted fried plantains at revolutionary Rizal Park* can nourish you for hours. This typhoon season is going particularly badly for the island Manila is on, and even 7-11 is accepting donations in kind and going around handing out blankets and bottled water &c.

*Cute story! Apparently this Mr Rizal is one of the important national heroes of Philippine independence, and one of his generals or something was a Mr Benitez. So in cabs or whatever people would always be asking Danny “Soooo….Benitez…that a Filipino name?” as we drove up F Benitez Street.

We mailed home some of our masks in order to avoid burst luggage, but most banks were offline due to looming Typhoon Parma (Pepeng in Pilipino) and no ATM for a mile had accessible money, so working the post office was more a tribulation than we expected. Manila Harbor lends itself to beautiful walks at any time of day: in the daytime you can watch battleships and eat salted green mango from bicycle carts, and in the night it is lit up and there are nice families sleeping on the grassy median and adorable couples (one boy, one girl, one scooter) savoring their private time. Specifically post-typhoon there are whole palm and banana trees washing up on the rocky shore, and amateur scuba divers trawling for bonus valuables in their illegal fish nets.

mostly functional, mostly anarchy [Seoul, Korea]

Domestic flight to Seoul then the metro from Gimpo airport where we relocated from our first stay in order to explore throbbing Insadong neighborhood. We had bad enough fish for dinner that we actually complained about it and were told baldfaced that it must be because we didn’t appreciate Korean food. Banana Backpackers Hostel earned itself a sharkbanana for its cute name and helpful staff, although the plumbing across the entire country could stand to be repiped so sinks and showers don’t drain to the middle of the floor.

Yeouido Island sits in the Han River, which bisects Seoul, and is a combination art park and jogging/chilling area. After a harrowing experience with an emphatic elderly lady pushing me down the stairs as the climax of her inexplicable pantomime, we had grilled potato toast and watched the man with the tame sugargliders as they ran up and around him and any bystanders. Back to Itaewon district for the Lee-um, Samsung Museum of Art, which was spectacular and had pieces by Damian Hirst and Takashi Murakami that impressed Danny a lot and a big floating robot ginseng by Lee Bul that I found mesmerising.

Dinner at Briquettes turned into madness of the quantity measured by double digit bottles of shoju, but a Komerican engineer who sings like Frank Sinatra has promised to sing at my wedding and I wrestled Danny home to bed in the only hotel in Insadong with a vacancy and slogged off back to Bananas to deal with the bags. The receptionist was just leaving for the night anyway so he helped me manhandle five person-months worth of luggage across uneven pavement and earned himself a grateful couple of beers in a street stall before I went home. The only actual consequence was that we slept through our planned tour of the DMZ the following morning, but we can save that for next time we’re in the area.

It just so happened that Saturday was both the Insadong Children’s Festival (with exciting activities like Make Your Own Hand Sanitizer, I swear) and the Original Kimchee Festival And Taiko Drum Performance, where a picture-perfect respectable kimchee chef taught local politicians how to make fish look more beautiful than real life. We whiled away our last afternoon in an absurdly cute upstairs cafe with a library theme, and instead of posting wishes on the wishing tree we derived the equation for a hyperbola.


Lovely country, Korea.

Deceive. Inveigle. Obfuscate. [Jeju Island, Korea]

Jeju Island is a special autonomous province in the Korea Strait. It is volcanic with the highest peak in South Korea, the tallest waterfalls in Asia that fall directly to the sea, UNESCO lava tubes, black pigs from which stupendous pork products are made, and carved stone grandpa guys like the Easter Island ones but friendlier. On the short short domestic flight from Busan the stewardesses made everyone play rock paper scissors, during which the old Korean ladies in front of us cheated gleefully and won a Jeju Airlines pen. We stayed on the south side, in Seogwipo (doesn’t that sound etymologically more Malaysian than Altaic, like Korean? I thought so too).

Food! Food on Jeju was glorious. From the acres and acres of greenhouses growing Jeju brand tangerines, we found Korean rice tea and bubbly (“rustic”) rice wine. Because Jeju was apparently where the Mongolians used to bring their ponies to be trained when they overran the Korean peninsula, we had an amazing horse meal with a dozen courses of different preparations of horse. Another time we had a pheasant table, with dumplings, shabushabu, the oyster, liver, and buckwheat pheasant noodles spooned out to be cooked at the table. I wanted abalone porridge so we found a porridge restaurant and by great good fortune we got invited over to the Goh family reunion at the other table and got toasted and fed in exchange for stories and English jokes.

Jeju calls itself Korean Hawaii, which might well be overblown but they absolutely have the natural wonders to stand on for their defense. Cheonjiyeon and Cheonjeyeon (tell those apart on a map with small fonts, I dare you) are beautiful waterfalls where the first three gods who populated Korea fell to earth. Sambangsan grotto is supposed to make you live longer although it requires a heart-attacky slog up a mountain to drink from. The Manjang-gul (Manjang Caves) are far-ranging UNESCO-protected lava tubes from an eruption 300,000 years ago that extend for kilometers and kilometers and you can go exploring in the deep dark pits of time. Sunrise Peak is a tuft volcano which we made it to one time in the fog for a somewhat muted sunset, but the planes of which were also pastures for those same Mongolian ponies from the previous day’s dinner. Volcanic islands mean volcanic beaches, and we spent most of one night on long-exposure photography by fishing boat light drawing sharks with flashlights and hoping the photon count per pixel was high enough (no Photoshop above).

Notes about Koreans for today: couples wear matching sweatshirts. It is the most disturbing thing. Holy cow. Stop it. But they must be absurdly honest, because there are all kinds of unlocked things and honor system fares and unchained valuables that I don’t really know how to process. But even when a bus driver who was supposed to be taking care of us and getting us somewhere forgot us he got out of the bus, flagged down the one going the other direction, and entrusted us personally to the next driver, instead of just leaving us to our fate in the wilds of the tangerine plantations. Good guy.

Plastic bag, plastic bag, plastic bag! [Busan, Korea]

Busan is a huge port city with sprawling sandy beaches where we made the mistake of arriving hungry and having the worst Guk Bap near the train station in one of our only two bad meals the entire month. But we found a centrally located love motel for a few days for cheap and were able to take the super user friendly metro all around to “Let’s Eat Alley” for pighead soup and the crazy fish market at the ferry building.

One of the days we took the bus to Taejongdae National Park with apple lychee gatorade and raisin pancakes for sustinence. It is a whole peninsula with a little train that can take you round all the coastal attractions if you are lazy, but we walked the few miles and got our bugbites and stopped for waffles at the visitors center. There is a beautiful pebble beach cove with a lighthouse and some memorials to veterans and lost fishermen and we played on the rocks acting like mollusc farmers.

Busan is a very long city, tentacling along the coastline with lots of disconnected neighborhoods and noone ever more than half a mile from the sea. So far out one end we went to a restaurant with, naturally, a grean ocean view, and we ordered a bulgogi pizza and some champagne, but the pizza was late, so they mysteriously brought us jasmine tea as an apology. But that was okay because when the pizza did come they had hidden hot dog bits under the bulgogi and we were upset about that instead.

Two miscellaneous comments: Korea has Sabado Gigante too! We don’t know what it is actually called but it has midgets and vampires and big-bosomed chorus dancers. Also, a somewhat traditional drink seems to be a raspberry wine thing, but of the brands we sampled we had several nos, a half yes, and only one real yes. Chrysanthemum liquor is okay. Lemon is bad. Tangerine is bad. Cass beer is better than Hite.

Midnight Orbitz purchase for a morning flight to Korean Hawaii (really–it is a sister park to Volcanoes NP) because we had missed the overnight ferry and needed to fly instead.

Fashion police: now recruiting ducks [Cheonan/Asan, Korea]

After Seoul we allowed ourselves to be impressed with the high-speed KTX rail service across the breadth of the country in about three hours total, discounting the stop in Cheonanasan to visit Thunder. For lunch we and his friend the Viking with the R1 motorcycle all intentionally and unadvisedly had Spam ramen noodles on his recommendation. With Nalgene-brewed white tea we then drove up to a hilltop cave temple to meditate underground by candlelight. Pretty cool, then home to reminisce about Senior House, feed a praying mantis, and drink Scotch with some expat neighbors including a flaming Welshman and a Kentuckian convinced of the holistic healing properties of silver colloids.

Gloriously tacky love motel (even seedier in the daytime) where you drive through carwash flaps to get to the parking lot to prevent people seeing your license plate number, you can rent rooms by the hour if necessary, and you pay in cash from behind a privacy screen.

Are you magically delicious or just angry and drunk? [Seoul, Korea]

Your first indication that the Americans still occupy South Korea is probably the Dunkin Donuts at the arrivals terminal of Incheon Airport, where in a nod to the local cultures they want to sell you brown soy filled and black bean old fashioned, kimchee croquettes, a mysterious “olive chewisty”, lentils cacao, and honey glutinous rice stick. Ew. And every single adult human smokes. A lot.

The Sofitel Ambassador near Seoul Tower was as happy to have our business as we were happy to have their views, luggage and laundry service, concierge, fitness center, and bar. It is right near Dongdaemun clothing markets, where we didn’t buy anything except $1.50 kiwi skewers–a refreshing change from $30 Japanese melons, I tell you–because we couldn’t carry a single ounce more. We started a tradition which then only failed us twice all month, which was sounding out the first item on the menu on the wall and announcing to the waitress that we wanted two of those. I would like to publicly thank Seung Yeul Yang for helping me waste most evenings during my second year of PhD program learning to read Korean while we waited for our vacuum chambers to cool, because otherwise Danny and I would have starved. As it was we can count among our accomplishments a traditional chicken dinner in Jongno-gu, a fish place with muskmelon kimchee in the difficult to find but so worth it Samcheong-dong, and an amazing teahouse* with floor to ceiling windows and chrysanthemum infusion called ChaMassi-neun Ddeul.

*Interestingly it was the Frommer’s that recommended the tea place, but otherwise their information was cataclysmically bad–$150 instead of $40 tickets places, nonexistent hotels and restaurants, impossible directions. For the Philippines we got a Lonely Planet and were much less hateful.

Koreans are mad Christian so there are neon megachurches round most corners, and obsessed with shopping so the Myeongdong night markets will sell you earrings or noodles whenever you want. It isn’t like Taipei of Saigon and there certainly *exist* scooters with only one or two riders, but they do their best to keep the Asian cred and stuff as many family members and a duck on every seat, even though the metro system is user friendly, cheap, and extensive. Itaewon is the American district so we stopped by briefly to check in: the first restaurant you see coming out of the metro is an Outback Steakhouse and the first dozen people are in digital fatigues, so we backtracked in a hurry.

The absolute best restaurant in all of Seoul is Happy Memories of Charcoal Briquettes near Dongguk University. Bar none. Ask either of us for directions.