Tag Archives: Korea

Throwback to a chilly afternoon

While watching the Biden-Harris inauguration ceremony the other day I remembered sketching this scene at Terrarosa cafe not so long ago. We were itching to get out of the house that day for some fresh air and change of scene but since it was too cold for a walk, I and my husband opted to take the bus to our favourite cafe instead with our kindles in tow. The thought of settling down by a window with a good book, cup of hot chocolate and the possibility of stimulating conversation put a spring to our steps. The convivial company of physically-distanced strangers was equally beckoning.

The cafe, not far from our house and a fairly new discovery, is located inside a huge warehouse kind of space in the heart of Gangnam and is decorated with retro looking metal furniture, classic black and white chequered floor and my personal favourite (also the reason why I flock to this place so often) – hundreds and hundreds of books on travel, design, illustration, photography, fashion and cooking, all stacked in shelves that run up to the ceiling and wind around the room.

After the mandatory QR code scanning at the door (for contact tracing purposes) we rolled in. The place had just the upbeat vibe we were craving for. A table by the window overlooking some pine trees was secured and the hot beverages were ordered. I had been enjoying Susan Cain’s book – ‘Quiet’ and was reading the part where she explains, via the work of a psychologist Hans Eysenck why introverts enjoy quiet intellectual activities whereas extroverts crave high-wattage ones. Spoiler alert – introverts have wider channels in their brains that allow a lot of stimulation to enter causing them to feel exhausted or overwhelmed easily, whereas extroverts have tighter channels that makes them feel like not enough is happening!

Esysenck hypothesises that all human beings seek just the right level of stimulation, not too much not too little. The book encourages you to consciously situate yourself in environments where you feel optimal. I had a very good feeling about my environment but if I had to be really picky I’d say it was just one interesting subject short of optimal. I had my sketchbook open before me and colour pencils on standby and in between reading, I was also actively scanning the room for a target.

Luckily, it didn’t take much to sniff him out. My husband was sitting across from me riveted to his iPad screen, anxiously watching the 2020 US Presidential election unfold. There were no new updates in the last hour. Actually nothing substantial had happened in a while. There were thousands of ballots still waiting to be counted; the forecasters said the race was too close to call. I sketched him watching the CNN anchors repeat and rehash the same information over and over again.

Rebeginning

It should be new year, new beginnings but this post feels more like a rebeginning after the 3-months break I took from blogging.

It so happened that the pain from my shoulder injury I was recovering from last year paid a little visit recently and overstayed its welcome. While I couldn’t draw much or use the computer or do anything that strained my shoulder, I read a lot during this time which is never a bad compromise! I also made quite a bit of progress in Spanish which I am learning on Duolingo. It’s coming in very handy. I can now say sentences like Mi esposo nunca quiere se ducha to my husband with a straight face and watch him go nuts because he doesn’t understand a word. To set the record straight, he does shower everyday.

The sketch above depicts how we spent our holidays leading up to the new year. It was freezing outside. Temperatures had plummeted to -17°C and the city got placed under stricter restrictions due to surge in covid cases. There was simply no where to go except be at home tucked under a blanket with a cup of hot tea and a book. After finishing two non-fiction books, a short story collection, a novel, here I was devouring a murder mystery by Keigo Higashino which is set in Tokyo, a city I love spending time in and cannot get enough of. Although following detective Kaga through the quaint neighbourhoods of Tokyo hot on the heels of the murderer made for some pretty decent armchair travel and was the next best thing!

Day out in Euljiro

After spending a sunny weekend afternoon exploring the dusty alleys of Bangsan Market – known for its incredible range of baking supplies – we decided to rest our feet at the nearby Horangii cafe located inside Sewoon Plaza, a timeworn shopping mall that used to be Korea’s first electronic market back in 1968.

Today the place is a maze of identical looking stores crammed with audio devices, security cameras, room heaters, TVs, air conditioners, electric fans, arcade games and a vast selection of light fixtures. Because everything looks alike it’s easy to get lost, which we did, several times before finally locating the staircase that led us to the third floor where the scene was noticeably different – one made of trendy cafes, eateries, shiny boutiques and a flock of hipsters posing outside Horangii, clicking selfies.

Once inside, the cafe reminded me of the poignant setting of my fav Wong Kar-wai film – In the mood for Love. The narrow and dimly lit space with pale yellow walls, dark wood furniture and vintage lamps evoked nostalgia.

In stark contrast to this plush setting, the stained wall exterior, exposed wires, and the air-conditioning units were a lot of fun to sketch. The shopping plaza overlooks old print shops and metal workshops with tin roofs. Loud banging noises interjected the hum of conversations from time to time which seemed like a part of the setting.

We found a table right outside the cafe from where we enjoyed our lattes and scones. Interestingly, each coffee cup comes with a sticker of a tiger (or Horangii in Korean) which you can peel off and take home as a keepsake!

Before leaving we walked over to the skywalk and soaked in the sweeping views of the ever-changing Euljiro skyline with its old buildings – some still standing while others already demolished with rapid construction underway. Below, the streets were packed with cars and Cheonggyecheon stream flowing right through the middle of this urban jungle, reflected the cloudy sky.

Content that the day couldn’t get any better, we took the bus home, which is where I spotted this lady wearing the neatest pair of frilly white socks with little hearts on them! The edgy black loafers complemented her delicate side-slit pastel dress. From where I was sitting, I couldn’t see her face but remember seeking refuge from time to time in the visual delight of those little red hearts on that boring 40 mins bus ride.

Longest monsoon

South Korea has been pummelled by torrential rains since late June and from what I’m reading – it isn’t over yet! Today marks the 53rd day of the monsoon season. The skies have been ominously grey forever. Humidity is so high that everything feels sticky all the time, even the apartment floor.

Compared to the inland regions that are experiencing floods and landslides, I’d say we’re lucky to be getting on with our lives with the least amount of disruption in this part of Seoul. If the pandemic has us wearing masks on a daily basis, the incessant rains that don’t seem to have an expiration date have us carrying umbrellas wherever we go, so much so that it feels like a part of our attire. Or an extended limb.

coffee bean in rain

I sketched this cafe scene on my way back from an appointment. We were a few days into the monsoon, a time when one could still trust the weather app and if it said no rains for a few hours, you believed it and didn’t carry the umbrella. It rained a lot and I had to take shelter here for a while. Luckily I had my sketchbook and a hot cup of tea on the side.

smoker with Umbrella

In the following weeks when the rains ceased to stop, we became inured to the wet weather and acted like this tattoed guy, probably a chef or a kitchen staff who I saw coming out from the back of a restaurant into the alley for a quick smoke. Even for a break as short as this, he couldn’t risk leaving without his most trusted accessory dangling from his arm!

Grandma in EBT

A few days back I was eating churros at Express Bus Terminal when I spotted this interesting character approach the table opposite me. She may have been in her late 60s and was wearing a bright green chequered shirt over a white tee paired with grey tights and classic slip-ons. Placed at a slightly jaunty angle on her head was a straw hat with a flower attached to it. The thing that caught my eye though was her yellow umbrella which gave this ensemble a cheery look!

Before settling down she got herself a cup of coffee. Then she kicked off her shoes, plonked the rest of her stuff on the floor, and put her feet up on the chair. An electric hand fan appeared out of one pocket and a piece of paper from the other which she held in her hand and studied for a long time.

Metro - peeps with Umbrellas.jpg

This year’s protracted rainy season has elevated the humble umbrella from a functional object to a fashion accessory. Instead of moping about the miserable weather, people are having fun carrying umbrellas in varying designs, colors, and fabric, sometimes matching them with their outfits! I saw some interesting ones on subway line 9. As you can see, everyone was keeping up with the times with their masks, color-coordinated umbrellas, and mindless phone-scrolling.

 

Hello again!

I have been away from the blog for a long time, so long that it makes coming back a little difficult. For the past few days and weeks, I have been mulling over what I could say to make my return feel less jarring.

For a while I toyed with the idea of making a comic which would in succinct panels illustrate why I was away. Or maybe a chronological account of what I was up to all this while would best demystify my unexplained absence. But I realized to produce anything of quality befitting the dramatic re-entry I was imagining in my head would take time.

And the last thing I want is to spend more time away from blogging. I have missed telling stories. And I have missed hearing from those who read my stories. If not for that one reader who in her comment on my Instagram page nudged me to start writing again, I would still be standing at the threshold, hesitating.

For the lack of a clever way of expounding my year-long absence from blogging, I will state the facts as plainly as possible.

Last year, in the month of May, I suffered a shoulder injury which took a physical and psychological toll on my body. What started as a nagging pain in my left shoulder that I thought would disappear on its own in few days only got intense and agonizing with time. The following weeks were spent undergoing physical therapy, taking muscle relaxants and pain medications and receiving half a dozen injections but they brought little relief.

The doctor advised me to rest my shoulder and back completely. My deteriorating condition made it difficult for me to sit upright for long. Very soon I was unable to write, draw, cook, clean or simply hold a book up to read. It required Herculean effort to lift a bottle of water to drink. I couldn’t tie my hair or dry myself with a towel after taking a shower. The pain remained unabated. My left arm hung limply from the shoulder and the medication caused such drowsiness and nausea that I spent days in bed, sleeping or in the toilet, throwing up.

self portrait covid

Eventually I got referred to a shoulder surgeon at one of the biggest hospitals in Seoul. MRI revealed frayed shoulder tendons and a rare congenital condition (found in a small population) that had caused the inflammation, and hence the pain.

The treatment? More medication, continued physical therapy, and plenty of rest.

I was told that in the next six months to a year (possibly more) I should regain some of the strength and flexibility back in my shoulder. “Really, that long?”, I remember asking my doctor incredulously. For me, coming to terms with this long recovery period was most challenging. It meant depending on others for simple tasks; it meant not being able to do things I loved doing; it meant being in pain for longer than I had expected. Other than a flu here and a sore throat there which took most a week to heal, I had been blessed with good health. The complacency that comes with that sort of thing is a deterrent to you ability in handling stress and ambiguity. Lesson learnt.

The biceps is one of the most exercised muscles in the body, my doctor had explained in halting English. He backed that up by picking up the pen lying on his desk. “There, I just used my biceps”, he said. That’s why healing is slow. So slow, I realized, that it takes a long time to sense any sort of improvement.

But it’s there. It’s happenning. I know because I opened a jar of olives today and it didn’t hurt.

It took me a year to be able to do that. I have still a long way to go in terms of recovery and I don’t know if wishing to get back the shoulder I had is unrealistic but in the process of dealing with this crisis, I have made few good changes and adjustments in my life. And if they stick, why, I should still have gained a lot!

For now, I am happy to be back here with the renewed desire to share my stories again and drawings, of course. The above sketch is a current self portrait of a first time mask-wearer with improved shoulder strength.

 

 

 

 

Viewing Cherry Blossoms

There is no sight more wondrous for me than that of an endless path leading under a canopy of pink cherry blossom flowers. I feel lucky to be living in a place where I have access to views like that every spring! So do the locals and tourists who visit Seoul during this period to marvel at the piercing beauty of these flowers and celebrate their transient nature.

The build-up

It all begins with the media reports of cherry blossom forecast dates. And since the blossoms last no more than two weeks everyone wants to make the most of this period. The city starts preparing for it by organising cherry blossom festivals at parks and alongside lakes where there are food trucks, art and cultural performances, competitions, musical concerts and exhibits even. Cherry blossom themed drinks appear on cafe menus and tour companies offer great deals on blossom-viewing trips.

Gangnam scene

Riding the wave of anticipation I was made my own list of places I wanted to visit this year when the time arrived. The sketch above is of a bright sunny day in my neighbourhood in Gangnam when spring had barely set its foot.  It was early April and the trees along the road were waving their naked and spindly arms in the breeze. But not for long.

The Precursor 

One Sunday afternoon we decided to take advantage of the relatively warmer weather and walk 4 km from our apartment to Bongeunsa Temple to see one of the tallest (28 meters) stone statues of Buddha in the country. It’s a sight to behold, both the statue and the sprawling temple grounds, part of which was decorated with brightly coloured paper lanterns. The sound of chanting filled the air and our hearts with an all pervading calm.

Bonguensa CB

The spell of tranquility however was short-lived and we were quickly drawn out of it by murmurs of excitement rising from a crowd gathering by this lone tree (in the sketch above), not far from the statue. Against a muted backdrop of rust and olive green vegetation, the bright pink flowers of this single blooming cherry tree stood out in stark contrast. Countless hands with cameras and selfie sticks wanted to grab a piece of spring’s early bird offer! Some people climbed nearby rocks to get a better angle for their shots.

I inched as far back from the scene as I could to enjoy this comical sight unfolding in its entirety. It was not until another week or so before the thousands of cherry blossom trees in the rest of Seoul burst into flowers.

The spectacle

CB 1

Spring had dressed Seoul Forest in its most breathtaking regalia. This massive park located on the bank of Han river was the topmost location on my cherry blossom viewing list this year. Few hundred meters from the entrance gate was a field bathed in sunshine and fringed by dense pink flowers delicately hanging from the branches of cherry trees.

Beneath the trees were couples pick-nicking on blankets and nibbling on goodies out of wicker baskets and families playing cards and listening to music. There were kids running about with wild abandon and trusted friends bending over backwards (and in all sorts of ways) for each other to help take that perfect Insta-worthy shot.

CB 4

CB 5

CB 3

Wondering if the park offered more scenic spots like these I decided to follow a film crew with actors and filming equipments walking with urgency in a certain direction. We climbed a flight of stairs, passed by few convenience stores and a pond with turtles before arriving at a brown unpaved path that as far as my eyes could see was lined with hundreds of cherry blossom trees!

CB 2

I took my time in walking all the way till the end of the path, soaking in the scenery as much as I could. The bridge you see in the distance in my drawing above turned out to be the best spot to be cheek to cheek with the flowers provided you could get to them past the million selfie sticks!

The retreat

Last weekend while sipping tea at the alfresco cafe in my neighbourhood I noticed the cherry trees along the sidewalk shedding petals. Tiny green leaves were filling up empty spaces left behind on the branches. The atmosphere that was taut with excitement only a few days back at the sight of these blossoms was replaced with a poignant reminder of the passing of time.

CB at Coffeesmith.jpg

Coffeesmith

Around me people seemed to have already moved on and were going about their businesses – walking their dogs, returning home with groceries and sipping coffee while browsing the Internet on their phones.

Until next spring arrives with the promise of fresh blossoms, I take comfort in the fact that I have to only turn back the pages of my sketchbook to relive the memories I just made.

Too cold for ice-creams?

 

Not in Seoul! For the last two winters in Korea I have been processing images of people consuming cold beverages and frozen desserts in their down jackets and mittens with absolute wide-eyed wonder.

I am the kind that associates frigid temperatures with drinking hot cocoa or tea with fingers wrapped around the cup for extra warmth. So imagine my befuddlement at finding Seoulites sipping coffee with chunks of ice in them all through winter.

One night in Jamsil station not too long ago, I saw this dad buying soft serves for his kids at Lotteria –  a fast food chain. We were waiting for our order and in those 15 minutes until our food arrived we saw soft serves flying off Lotteria’s shelves and landing in the hands of pimply teenagers, kids and elderly couples, practically everyone except us.

Lotteria Jamsil

Now, I may not be fully convinced about eating an ice cream at the height of winter yet but the more I see people doing it around me, easier it is getting for me to wrap my head around something which I thought was outlandish!

Isn’t it interesting how travel constantly stretches our perspectives and makes it easier for us to acknowledge and even adapt if we so desire to norms, values, beliefs, behaviours, attitudes that are far different from ours?

Rick Steves in his book, Travel As a Political Act says “Travel challenges truth that we were raised thinking self-evident and God-given. Leaving home we learn other people find different truths to be self-evident. We realize that it just makes sense to give everyone a little wiggle room”.

This sketch will remind me of many such truths that are different from mine and how I can always choose to coexist with them.

White Day

 

I made a fascinating observation the other day on my walk around the neighbourhood.

Every convenience store on either side of the road had built an outdoor makeshift facility with a table and few wooden racks for peddling love-themed goodies in bulk. Candies, chocolates, flowers, cards and soft toys were being sold as individual pieces or collectively in baskets wrapped in cellophane and ribbons.

Seoul streets seemed to be plastered with packaged love and I wanted to know why?

White Day

Turns out that today, March 14 is celebrated as White Day in South Korea and in few other countries such as Japan and Taiwan. In these countries, while Valentine’s day tradition (which is a give-and-receive event for couples in the West) requires women to offer chocolates to men, the reverse occurs on White Day! Men are expected to return the favour by plying women with candies and gifts.

On my way home from the walk I peeked inside Artbox – a popular stationary shop in Seoul. The place was an explosion of red and pink hearts printed on all kinds of merchandise imaginable. Across the room I saw two strangers shopping for greetings cards and of all the choices available, they reached for the exact same ‘I love You’ card which was awkward for them but I got a big chuckle out of it!

And a sketch to immortalize the moment. I just hope it isn’t intended for the same person!

 

 

Two years in Seoul

Ilove seoul.jpg

To mark the occasion of our two year stay in Seoul today, I wanted to share this drawing of a guy I once spotted inside Gangnam subway station probably returning from a trip, lugging his suitcase up the stairs towards the exit gate.

What caught my eye as he passed by me was not his very conspicuous cherry red Rimowa suitcase but the large ‘I love Seoul’ sticker pasted on it which got me thinking about my own relationship with this city. Would I ever consider making such a declaration?

To be honest, I’m not there yet. After a rocky start and a reasonable number of ‘oh wow’ and ‘aw snap’ moments we, this city and I have eased into a steady pace. Found our rhythm. And a certain fondness for one another. Like every relationship, this one’s a work in progress. And if experience has taught me anything it is to not make snap judgements and to never compare especially on occasions when things don’t work out (very hard to execute as it’s all I wanted to do in my first year here).

You have to take it slow, keep an open mind and have patience. I’ll keep enjoying this ride while I’m on it and who knows, maybe somewhere along the way I may reach for that same sticker!

When it snowed

snowscape.jpg

Our apartment in Seoul is on a high floor and has floor to ceiling glass widows that face the road. When it snows, and it doesn’t snow much here, the world outside feels like a giant snow globe.

Couple of weeks back when it did snow, I grabbed a few crayons and a kraft paper, jumped on the bed and drew the view outside my window as snow flakes floated from above and settled on the roofs of buildings, sidewalks and on top of cars, blanketing everything, blurring edges and corners until what was left was an unidentifiable white blob under a leaden sky with splashes of bright colour peering out from places.

This sketch is a depiction of what I saw that day and an expression of how I felt in that moment!