Work today was better than it was last week, but it was still very hectic. I’d much rather talk about what happened last weekend. On Friday evening, a colleague and I went out for drinks in Itaewon. By day, Itaewon is a tourist haven where you can pick up all sorts of kitschy Korean souvenirs. By night, it becomes one of the crazier hangout places for foreigners in Seoul. I stood in front of Don Valley Korean restaurant and Burger King, two places I’d seen during the day, and was amazed at nondescript they looked, overshadowed by the glow of the blazing neon lights of the clubs and other establishments. By day, the nighttime establishments are ne’er to be seen; by night; they mysteriously appear and give Itaewon a seedy appearance. Of course, because Itaewon is close to a military base, it’s filled with all the good, bad, and ugly that you can find—everything a GI could want. Military patrolled the streets to make sure that none of the GIs were misbehaving. We went to a trendy bar called “Helios,” one of the more reputable establishments in Itaewon. Watching the Los Angeles Lakers on the big-screen TV was very exciting…not. The Guinness draft and pistachios were fabulous, though. I can’t complain—the Guinness beer made it thousands of miles from England and still tasted fresh. You might be asking, “Is Itaewon some sort of Red Light district?” Well, yes and no. It has brothels and plenty of seedy establishments. However, it’s also a foreigner’s mecca. Itaewon, for better or worse, is where many of the foreigners hang out at night and do whatever strikes their fancy. Churches and fast food restaurants lie adjacent to night clubs and hostess bars. Foreigners shop at the street-level souvenir vendors or head upstairs or downstairs for illicit activities. Barber shops cut hair and often offer other “services” for an additional price. Such is life in Korea—sometimes the obvious isn’t really what it seems. There are more upscale districts such as Gangwon and Apgujeong, but they’re south of Han River and much further commute for me. Itaewon is a convenient place to go for a drink on a Friday night. It’s also much cheaper.
On Saturday, another colleague and I drove to Icheon, an exurb of 180,000 southeast of Seoul. Icheon is the ceramics capitol of Korea. I am not a big fan of ceramics, but on a rainy day our travel options were limited. Saturday’s weather was miserable, cold and rainy. Friday was beautiful, and so was Sunday. Saturday was an anomaly. I should have waited for better weather, but I was determined to get out of town. After being cooped up in Seoul for almost two months, I was ready to see a little more of this Indiana-sized country. The drive to Icheon reminded me of central Pennsylvania. The hills and deciduous forests are reminiscent of the Appalachian Mountains, and the freeway at times hugs the hills, cuts through them, drives over them, or tunnels through them. The drive also reminded my trip to Western Europe during the summer of 1998. I recalled the trip my wife and I took through France and Italy on our way to Austria. On our way to Icheon, we passed by dozens of high-rise apartment complexes. Urban planning in Korea apparently extends far beyond cities. Rural Korean residents seem to be content to cluster together, cutting down on the suburban sprawl common in the U.S. The rain subsided once we arrived in Icheon. Nonetheless, we were disappointed by Icheon. The ceramics and pottery were gorgeous, but I had no interest in spending hundreds of dollars for large, breakable ceramics that probably would not survive a trip outside Korea. My colleague and I visited the future site of the World Ceramic Biennale 2005 in Icheon. The site is gorgeous! It sits on a hillside overlooking a lake and the Icheon skyline. It features many unusual ceramic sculptures. However, the Biennale doesn’t open for another two weeks, so not much more was available to view. If you like ceramics and pottery, I recommend visiting Icheon. You can also visit Everland, the Samsung amusement park not far from Icheon, and the nearby Korean Folk Village. Any of these three destinations would make a good family daytrip.
On Saturday evening I went to a house party hosted by one of my colleagues. It was fabulous! He was a great host, and fun was had by all. I felt like Will Farrell in the movie “Old School”—the family guy reliving the ol’ college party days (unlike the movie, I did not streak down the street). We danced and drank and sang, and we ended the night with a little hookah. Hookah is a special type of smoking prevalent in the Middle East. In the U.S. it’s a trendy thing to do and is popular in California, Michigan, and on the East Coast. My wife and I first tried hookah while visiting Fishawi’s Cafe in Khan al-Khalili in Cairo, Egypt in 1998 (Khan al-Khalili, Cairo’s most popular market, is the site of a recent bombing that killed several foreign tourists). Last year, I occasionally joined colleagues for Hookah Night in Washington’s DuPont Circle. I don’t typically smoke, but I do on a cultural basis when the situation presents itself. I prefer not to smoke, but smoking can be an important part of truly experiencing a culture (as is eating exotic food). I particularly enjoy hookah because it involves filtering smoke through water before inhaling. The tobacco is also flavored and has a pleasant smell and taste. On Saturday night I enjoyed passing around the hookah pipe and chilling out with other party guests. Smoking hookah and drinking Turkish coffee is one of life’s little pleasures. I do not advocate taking up smoking–act sensibly and partake when the cultural situation encourages it.
By Sunday I needed to recuperate from the previous days’ events, so I stayed home and rested. I ran some errands and met with some friends for a quiet dinner. Although I enjoyed the parties and travel immensely, I prefer spending most of my time in peace and quiet and socialize from time to time. Being solo in Seoul has given me a chance to do things I don’t normally do, and I’m making the most of it. And no, my wife doesn’t mind at all.