Tuesday, December 16, 2003

Winter has arrived on the Korean peninsula. The icy Arctic winds have started blowing again and yesterday we awoke to our first frost. Which will be a welcome relief because hopefully it will have finally killed all those damn mosquitoes. Who’d have thought they could be so resilient?

Winter in Korea also means it’s time to make kimchi again. Kimjang is the traditional Korean period in which Kimchi is prepared for Um-dong (the coldest 3 or 4 months of winter).

So a couple of weekends ago, Amy, Megan, Julianne and myself headed over to our director’s house to make this spicy cabbage concoction. Actually, if you remember, Amy and I had made once before last year, but being kimchi rookies at the time once we’d taken it home and it started to ‘mature’ – we threw it all out.

This turned out to be a massive faux pas, as that is just when the kimchi gets good. Now, after a year of living in Korea and sampling many kinds of kimchi (including apple kimchi, on our trip to the Martial Arts Festival), I know feel I qualify as a kimchi pro and I was looking forward to the opportunity to make it again.

Kimchi (despite it’s reputation as rotten cabbage) actually refers to the process whereby vegetables (and occasionally fruit) are pickled using a paste made up of red pepper powder, garlic, ginger and green onion. In that way really, it would be similar to a spicy German Sauerkraut.

We arrived at our director’s house to the sight of mountains of cabbage and washtubs full of red pepper paste. The four of us sat down with our rubber gloves and got busy with the kimchi making process.

Basically, to make kimchi, you grab a head of cabbage (which has been washed and quartered) in one hand and a handful of the pepper paste in the other. Using a kind of washing motion, you rub the red pepper into the individual leaves until the head is covered in the paste. It’s then placed into a separate tub and sprinkled with salt (to speed the pickling process).

We spent the better part of that afternoon rubbing pepper paste in the cabbage. At one point I looked around and realized it was only Amy, Megan, Julianne and I making the kimchi. Was this really experiencing a Korean tradition, I wondered, or was it just a way to get us foreigners to do all the dirty work!

Either way, we each left with bucketfuls of kimchi under our arms and our director was left with some pretty unique kimchi, handcrafted by a bunch of waygooks.

I’ve also now spent a second birthday in Korea and this year to celebrate, we decided to head down to Busan with our friends to go and conduct our own mini Korean War. So bright and early Saturday morning, 25 or so of us piled into the English 2020 school bus to go and play paintball.

We arrived down in Haeundae Beach and picked up some more friends and piled back on the bus. We were now at about 35 bodies (this would prove to be an important fact later on, but enough about it now).

We met up with our contact a short distance away and followed them up to the top of the hill. There we were outfitted with coveralls, helmets and our weapons. Unfortunately, being that we were in Korea, the sizes of the coveralls were… let’s just say, a little on the snug side.

We played several games of Capture the Flag and Last Man Standing and had a great time throwing ourselves around, crawling on our bellies and sneaking through bushes. I couldn’t help but think that this would have been a miserable country to fight a war in, as the terrain is so mountainous and hilly. There’s very little flat land in Korea and any war would have had to be grueling. After only a couple of hours, we were all beat tired of running up and down the hills, gullies and ridgelines.

Back at the parking lot, many of us still had ammunition left over, so it was suggested that we have the equivalent of a high-noon standoff. Standing back to back, groups would walk five paces and then turn and fire. Only headshots counted and we all got out of there with welts all over our bodies!

Time to go and the fatal flaw in our otherwise flawless planning appeared. We’d only booked the bus for a one-way trip and it had long since departed. We now had 35 people that had to get back to Busan from our hilltop location. So, most piled into the back of the paintball guys’ little panel truck for the ride back to the hotel. Apparently, it was a hot, dark and claustrophobic trip. I wouldn’t know, as somehow I scored a ride in one of the few cars. I guess it pays to be the birthday boy sometimes. In any case, we must have looked a sight as we pulled up back at the hotel and a good 20 or more foreigners piled out of the back of this truck!

For the remainder of the day we strolled around Haeundae Beach and then later ventured into downtown Busan for dinner. Our goal was to get to Texas Street, which is where most of the Russian prostitutes congregate. That, of course, was not our particular goal. Instead we had heard there was an excellent Indian restaurant there and we wanted to check it out.

Texas Street is the destination for most of the US Navy sailors who come into port and is full of knockoff clothing and bags. Lots of FUBU and No Fear stuff, which probably tells you a lot about the types of people the sailors who frequent this area are.

Anyway, we found the restaurant, which turned out to be Pakistani and not Indian, which caused a split second of tension between the owner and our Indian-American friend Mehul. The big t-shirt on the wall, adorned with nuclear ICBM missiles, proclaiming Pakistan’s Independence Day, didn’t help matter much. But, the food was good nonetheless.

We spent the evening back at our hotel in Haeundae and in the hotel bar. Overall, it was a very successful weekend.