Monthly Archives: August 2017

Insadong’s charm

lies in its alleys as I found out on one of my sketching trips.

I had been waiting to go out sketching for a while but I’m slowly realizing in my first year in Seoul that to wait for the perfect day in the months of July and August is to wait forever. After two weeks of oppressive heat it has been raining incessantly.

Needless to say that I arrived at Insadong on a rainy afternoon and after securing a map with tons of information about the area from the tourist office (out of exit 6 of Anguk Station), I decided to do away with it. The rain was turning it into pulp.

Lying straight ahead was the 700 meters long and 12 meters wide pedestrian (on weekends) street called Insadong Gil, stretching from Anguk-dong to Jogno 2-ga. It has a 7 meters tall Korean calligraphy brush sculpture at the beginning which I had already seen on my earlier visit.

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Ajumma standing in front of her hanok and the neighbourhood delivery guy passing by

I was also done browsing through the street’s innumerable souvenir shops, folk handicraft stores, art galleries, Korean paper shops, had tipped my hat to world’s only Starbucks with its signage written in local language, visited a traditional tea house and checked out the quirky Ssamziegil mall.

As per the guidebooks I could have checked Insadong off my list of places to see. What more was there?

A curiosity laden turn away from the main commercial street into the atmospheric side alleys revealed the answer.

What I saw and then sketched seemed like an alternate Insadong, one I didn’t know existed – a watered-down version of the deeply cultural neighbourhood of 1930s selling antiques, books and art, way before its colonisation by coffee chains and cosmetic shops, before Korean war even.

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Insadong 16-gil

First thing that hits you when you make this unplanned diversion is how quiet and empty the alleys are, a welcome respite from the neurotic busyness of the main strip. Barring a monk, a school girl and a delivery guy I hardly saw anyone. And then in the course of exploring this labyrinth of narrow arteries, one leading to another and sometimes ending abruptly in a cul de sac, you get a whiff of old Seoul that maybe gritty and rough around the edges but is authentic to the core.

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One of Insadong’s many narrow alleys

With Insadong’s popularity with tourists in the recent years, rents on the main street have soared such that it can only be afforded by big commercial establishments, thereby pushing older, smaller businesses and artists to the winding back alleys laid out 500-600 years ago (dating back to the Joseon dynasty), where life is still quaint, unhurried and very ordinary.

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Another beautiful alley in Insadong

I saw laundry drying on wires, potted plants outside wooden doors, beer bottles stacked in crates, cracked egg shells lying near a trash can filled to the brim, a plastic broom, a wind chime, music wafting out from open windows, someone napping on a red chair by the kitchen and pigeons hopping around, drinking rain water collected in little potholes where the road had caved in. An ajumma (as middle-aged Korean ladies are respectfully called) was standing in front of her hanok (old Korean cottages) turned restaurant, caressing a snarly lap dog and staring at me with utter intrigue.

I was sitting on the steps of a closed bar in an alley I had just wandered in, and had started drawing.  For the longest time ajumma maintained a distance from me, trying to understand what I was doing while pacing outside an imaginary fence that seemed to be between us.

Insadong linework2

I got to work, started tracing lines with my eyes and then put ink on paper.

Slowly but surely. A bunch of Absolut Vodka bottles, window slats and a door emerged.

I am always amazed how drawing makes you lose all sense of time. You surrender to this repetitive cycle of seeing, comprehending and mark making. Everything else becomes invisible. I find this heightened sense of focus the only way to connect with my new environment. You get to immerse yourself so deeply and wholly in the process that when you emerge, you feel a kinship with the place you were drawing. It doesn’t look as foreign as it did when you started out.

I like to believe that by connecting with my environment in such a way I blend in and don’t look as foreign to it too and become an ordinary person sitting in the corner doing something innocuous. That’s when imaginary fences vanish. Ajumma comes over. The dog too. They are thrilled I drew their house. The dog shows its appreciation by not snarling at me anymore and Ajumma by bringing me a steaming cup of coffee in a paper cup.

Insadong linework

A sketch and two steaming cups of coffee. I added the delivery guy later.

I must accept it, she insists. Then she takes my sketchbook and shows my sketch to her neighbours. They come closer to meet me. We huddle on the stairs, touch shoulders and giggle at our communicational ineptitude. Another cup of coffee is placed before me. When the neighbourhood delivery guy passes by, everybody raises their hands to wave at him.

I raise my hand to wave at him too, on impulse and realize that it doesn’t look out of place.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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If not for the toothless grandma

I’d have quit. And gone home.

Since the last couple of days, the sun has been blazing down on us in Seoul and it is becoming unbearably hot. I watched the temperature rise from the pleasant 26 degrees with soft mornings and breezy evenings to now 34 degrees when the air feels like it has its clammy fingers wrapped around our necks. Every other day, there’s an ‘Emergency Alert’ text message on the phone warning us about a heat wave, asking us to stay indoors and hydrated.

And yet, I thought, how hot could it be? When I tell people I am from India, they say, “Isn’t it hotter there?” Much hotter, I say. “Then this should feel nothing!“, they say. So I left the house one day with a sketchbook and pen and headed towards Bukchon Hanok Village.

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When I reached Anguk station it was already 2 in the afternoon. The roads were empty except for construction workers and few lobster red tourists walking doggedly with a map of Bukchon in one hand and a hand fan in another.

Completely disoriented by the blinding sun and blistering heat, I decided to fold away my own map and follow them. But they – a group of three women and I should’ve known – led me to a souvenir stall first, then to an ice cream shop and finally to a jewellery store where I abandoned them and decided to take matters into my own two hopelessly clammy hands.

For a person who doesn’t sweat easily, I was melting like a candle and it wasn’t a pretty sight.

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Sketching with the help of water, a hand fan and a toothless grandma by my side

Bless the kind staff of Emart, where I went in purely for the air-conditioning but pretended to closely inspect melons, for giving me directions to Bukchon. “..keep going straight and turn left. Just 5 mins.”, they said. I bought bottles of mineral water to show my appreciation. Melons were expensive.

So once again, I was on the road, in the furnace, but this time with dry armpits. And while that lasted, I managed to find myself a spot in the shade on this quiet alley called Bukchon-ro 11da-gil.

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Bukchon-ro 11da-gil

Travelers who haven’t visited Seoul yet may already have seen pictures of Bukchon Hanok Village on every guidebook, magazine and internet article describing Seoul. This area has a large cluster of hanok or traditional Korean wooden houses dating from the Joseon dynasty. These houses are not only picturesque but have been so beautifully preserved that a stroll down the narrow winding alleys they are lined with may well feel like time travel, especially if you arrive at an ungodly hour like I did and get the place entirely to yourself sans selfie sticks. Wouldn’t that be something?

It was. I hardly saw anything or anyone for the entire hour I sat on this street corner sketching except two stray cats, an SUV and the distant figure of a person hobbling in my direction. It was easy to imagine what a 600 years old office rush hour would look like –  noblemen and high ranking government officials emerging out of these houses while adjusting their elegant silk court uniforms and hurrying towards the royal palace – but my brain cells were too dehydrated to carry on with the mental imagery.

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A quiet alley in Bukchon Hanok Village

The air was still. And clingy. There was no respite even in the shade. The thought of quitting clouded my vision such that I lost sight of the lone approaching figure that was now standing behind me. Dressed in a lemon yellow floral patterned dress was this slightly bent, excessively wrinkled toothless grandma looking intently at the sketchbook on my lap and then matching my drawing with the scene in front. With a nod of her head she asks me to go on.

Umm..no, see it’s too hot. I was leaving..“, I say to her pretending to pack up but she keeps nodding and pointing to my dip pen. She doesn’t understand a word I’m saying. Sigh! I feel like the performer who’s obligated to perform because one person showed up.

But sometimes that one person is plenty, if they care. So I start again. Grandma leans over with interest or to compensate for her failing eyesight. More nodding. And smiling. She looks pleased. So I keep going like a 5 year old being watched while she finishes her school homework. Grandma sticks by me, sometimes pointing out features I missed drawing or decided to overlook. A stickler for details, this one.

When I finish the drawing I was giving up on a while back, she was still there grinning ear to ear. I could see her gums.

 

Six years ago

in a dusty cobblestoned alley in Santorini, a Greek island in the Aegean sea, I had tasted the most scrumptious dish of my life – Lemon chicken with chunky potatoes served in a chipped plate with roughly sliced bread on the side.

The taverna which had served this dish had an old wizened look about it that you see on places and people that have been around for a while and therefore know their shtick better than anybody. While that itself was a comforting thought, what really pulled me towards it was the picture its pretty teal coloured windows framed inside them. The picture of conviviality, warmth, love and a look of utter contentment on the faces of its diners that only good, homely food can bring at the end of a long day.

Trust me when I say that I am salivating as I write about my first bite of that buttery soft chicken doused in a light lemony sauce perfumed with garlic and oregano.

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Quick sketch of Moroccan Cafe in Seoul, done on kraft paper

It was a gustatory experience like no other and even though I’ve traveled far and wide since, nothing came close to what I had tasted and how I felt that one time in Greece until I visited Moroccan Cafe in the Itaewon neighbourhood of Seoul and had their Lemon chicken.

Except for the distinct flavour of cumin in the Moroccan version and few other minor variations, it was the same honest, fuss-free, homespun food served in an intimate environment.  The cafe has only 9 tables and 3 main courses which makes you feel as if you are dining in somebody’s home until of course the cheque arrives!

Before the food got cold and the floodgates for six year old memories opened and swept me away, I did my best to document this new inadvertent experience in the form of a quick sketch. If you’re in Seoul and had enough Korean bbq for a lifetime, give this place a go.