Tag Archives: sketchbook

Happy Chuseok!

Today is Chuseok, or Korean Thanksgiving, one of the most important holidays in Korea when people travel across the country to their hometowns (or to the place where the eldest family member lives) and get together to share food, spend quality time with each other, and offer thanks to their ancestors.

Ever since we started living in Seoul, this time of the year has meant two things for us – one, a short getaway to a nearby destination, and two, the arrival of a fancy gift pack at our doorstep from my husband’s workplace containing mega-sized, perfectly shaped apples and pears! In Korea, if you’re visiting family during this season, showing up at a relative’s place with a gift appreciating your host’s hospitality is considered good manners. For Korean companies, offering gifts to their employees during Chuseok is a way of recognizing their hard work and also to boost morale.

But why fruits? I remember being very curious about the significance of a fruit gift set when we received our first one and found out that it reflects the traditional meaning of Chuseok, which is to celebrate the harvest season. As the holiday falls in autumn, newly harvested apples and pears serve as popular presents. Also, both these fruits (along with several other items like persimmons, chestnuts, jujube, meat, steamed rice, soup, dried fish etc) are placed on the memorial service table that is set in order to honour the ancestors in a ceremony called ‘Charye‘. 

The above sketch is of my husband carefully unwrapping his Chuseok gift from work few days back. It came in a very secure package marked ‘fragile’ all over it. Inside was a bottle of Sauvignion blanc and a bottle of Chardonnay, well, big morale boosters considering how this year has been faring! The fruit basket arrived a few days later.

With no where to travel to, I can’t think of a better way of spending our five-days holiday during a raging pandemic, than being at home and clinking our glasses to making it thus far. 

 

 

The Elevator story

elevator story copy - low res

A few months back the most adorable incident happened in the elevator of our apartment building. It was Children’s day in Korea, a public holiday, so a lot of kids were out enjoying the day. We saw a few at the bus stop licking ice creams. Some were walking into restaurants with their parents. Parks were teeming with toddlers chasing each another as their slightly older siblings threw frisbees and rode bicycles and scooters. Evening saw these frisky moppets return home in their mom’s arms or on their dad’s shoulders, happy but tired faced, tightly hugging giant soft toys and balloons.

It was nice seeing the neighbourhood peppered with little humans in place of adults in suits and ties marching in and out of offices.

We spent the day outside too on a long walk by a lake. Later, we got some food packed for dinner and headed home. As we were going up to our apartment, we saw this boy, about 4 or 5 years old enter the elevator with his family.

He may not have seen many foreigners in his life, because as soon as he laid eyes on us, he was transfixed. There was no stealing furtive glances out of the corner of the eye for this little guy; he caught us in the most innocent, full-on face to face, mouth agape, utterly bewitched kind of stare! The look of wonderment lasted from level 1 until level 12 which made his mom very uncomfortable. Just before leaving, she bent down and asked him to say hello to us. Once out of his trance our starer became very shy. He did wish us eventually, spurred on by his dad, mom and sister who chimed in with a nice long – Annyeonghaseyo.

I sketched the scene as soon as I got home.

The Arrival of Melons

There are two fruits that announce the arrival of summer in Korea – Watermelons and Korean melons.

Now, watermelons I am familiar with. Back in India, in the little industrial town I grew up in, summers were terribly hot and dry. After we came back from school looking like two boiled lobsters our mom put out chilled watermelon slices before me and my sister to eat and cool down with. We’d put our feet up on the couch and gorge on fresh, crunchy slices until streams of pink juices ran across our hands and dripped from the elbow into our bowls.

emart watermelon

On a recent trip to E-mart I was greeted by these melon cousins piled up next to the entrance

While plump ripe watermelons harken back to fond childhood memories, I am yet to make an acquaintance of the bright yellow, slightly oblong Chamoe, also known as Korean Melon. It is eaten fresh and I am told that it tastes like a less sweet cantaloupe with a sight cucumber flavour. When pickled it can be enjoyed as a savoury side dish which I would love to try as well!

 

 

 

 

Back alleys of Gangnam

In my neighborhood in Gangnam, the back alleys are lined with outdoor BBQ joints, izakayas, cafes, small bakeries, basement game parlors, nail salons, copy and print stores, night clubs, food trucks, and convenience stores. As evening approaches the neon lights come alive. People pour in from all directions and the smell of food and the sound of thumping music and clinking beer bottles spill out from shops and pavements and fill the air.

During the day it’s much quieter though. With most people in offices, the alleys are empty save for the continuous flow of delivery trucks unloading beer kegs and cartons of food and supplies for cafes and restaurants. This is also the time when minor repair works and maintenance happen, so you hear hammers banging or drill machines making holes into walls or watch a crane hoist a window-cleaner up an office building.

In the sketches below I have captured the minutiae of everyday life over several months on random walks around my neighbourhood. The viral K-pop song ‘Gangnam style” that catapulted Seoul’s Gangnam district into international recognition synonymized this area with wealth, affluence, and a certain trendy lifestyle. True, the gleaming high rises, luxury cars gliding along Gangnam-daero and the swanky Gangnam cafes all attest to that image but as a 3-year-old resident of this district, I have loved exploring a different side of it – a slightly scruffy, often grungy and pedestrian side with loud wet markets, ugly utility poles, and dusty construction sites that live in the back alleys, away from the main thoroughfares.

Afternoon Tea with a view

Chloris Tea room

One summer afternoon I parked myself in the balcony of Chloris Tea Room facing a narrow back alley, ordered myself a cup of Rooibos tea, and looked out into this jumble of brick houses, utility poles, potted plants, hurried passersby, and a bunch of pigeons hopping about.

Back street architecture

Gangnam backstreet

As I turned this street corner a visual explosion of incongruous colours, shapes, and sizes of random urban objects compelled me to stop and make sense of my surroundings. The brick building seemed to be heavily ‘ornamented’ with all kinds of shop signages, AC condenser units, and pipes. There were trash cans leaning against it and a utility pole with car parking instructions stood guard. So much was going on in such a small space!

End of a workday

view from Paul Basset

I sketched this scene from a tiny Paul Bassett cafe inside an office building overlooking a busy alley. It was the end of a workday and out of the cafe’s large glass windows, I saw people spilling out of nearby offices and rushing towards bus stops and subway stations. If you’re curious about the ‘No Brand’ sign on that building like I was, well, it’s a brand by Emart (one of South Korea’s biggest supermarket chains) that sells products at super affordable prices. Their purple sweet potato chips and cheddar cheese balls are very popular!

Queen of hearts

Gangnam backst

There’s a small Korean dumplings shop around the corner from this Copy and Printshop where I often go to buy a prepacked set of 10 delicious steamed Kimchi dumplings for $4. One day on my way there, I saw this tourist in a baggy red sweater full of hearts leaving the shop with a bag of dumplings and her heavy suitcase, perhaps heading to a nearby hotel. She was looking at a map on her phone to find the way.

The Window Shopper

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Gangnam back alleys are rife with independent boutiques selling fashionable clothes and accessories. One day while I was out with my sketchbook looking for subjects, I saw this woman eyeing a red coat at the shop window of this boutique on her way to Gangnam Station. She seemed very interested and paused for few minutes in front of the store but eventually walked away. She probably wanted to give it some more thought.

Fall chores

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A common sight towards the end of fall is dead leaves getting swept off the roads and sidewalks.

Scary Hoodie

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Since I can’t read Korean, when I am out on the road my eyes naturally wander towards anything written in English. One day while waiting to cross the road, I happened to stand behind a person wearing this very amusing hoodie which was totally worth documenting!

Sighting of the Pig Head

Nonhyeon Market

I love visiting traditional markets in Seoul but didn’t know there was one, south of Han River, close to where I live! There’s so much to explore at Yeong-dong Market and as I walked slowly past shops selling beans, rice, tea, kimchi, bean paste, meat, condiments, sauces and a variety of fried snacks, I came upon this scene – a dog owner and his dog in matching outfits. The dog was clearly excited by a severed pig head displayed at one of the stalls and was pulling at its leash really hard and barking while the embarrassed owner did everything to calm his pet.

Boiled pig heads are used at a Korean ceremony called Gosa intended to bring good luck to someone starting a new business or buying a new car or moving into a new home. The head is placed on a table along with different kinds of foods. Those who visit the ceremony stuff cash into its mouth and ears. When the ceremony is over, everybody eats and drinks together. These days, however, people have even started replacing the real thing with a sugar-coated cake resembling a pig head.

The Sign Walker

EDM signage

The guy with the ed:m sign (an education consulting firm) is a permanent fixture on the busy stretch between Sinnonhyeon Station and Gangnam Station. Come rain or shine, he’s always there. What I find unique and also heartening about this guy is how intensely absorbed he always is in his books and therefore oblivious of his surroundings and the passage of time. For me, this sign-walker stands out more than the sign.

Follow the leaves

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Only a few meters up this alley lies the famous Kukkiwon, also known as the World Taekwondo Headquarters. On weekends, I often see parents heading there with their kids dressed in white Taekwondo uniforms. My interest, however, lies in visiting a small park on the side of this alley which I accidentally discovered one fall afternoon by following this line of Gingko trees and their fallen leaves. When I crave nature, this is where I go for a quick fix.

Slice of Gangnam

Gangnam scene

This sketch isn’t of a back alley but of a view from the back alley of Teheran-ro – one of the busiest roads in Seoul, choc-a-bloc with cars and lined with tall gleaming skyscrapers and lampposts that have the Korean flag fluttering from them. Sometime last year for a certain period of time, all the Korean flags were replaced with flags from different countries of the world. Everytime I walked along Teheran-ro with my husband, we had a ‘guess the flag’ contest.

Tulip Lady 

CB in gangnam

One of our favourite things to do in spring is to walk around the neighbourhood in search of cherry blossom trees. Since they are around only for a week or two, we try to spend as much time outdoors as possible. On one such excursion, I saw this woman walk past a hardware store under a row of cherry blossom trees with a tulip plant in hand that had a single blooming red tulip. Everybody else had sandwiches or coffee in their hands. It was lunch hour. I wondered if the plant was for her own work desk or bought as a gift for a friend she was going to meet later in the day.

The Bargain-hunter

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Right before the onset of winter, I found this guy perusing winter coats at Vin Prime, a thrift shop in one of the back alleys of Gangnam. He didn’t buy anything but he browsed for a long time and let me finish my sketch from across the road. My hands were freezing.

 

 

 

 

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.

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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!

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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

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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!

Second-guessing

I bought several pairs of really cheerful looking Happy socks for my husband few weeks back. Realising I had gone slightly overboard in choosing the designs, I saved the receipt in case there was a need for exchange. To my surprise there wasn’t. He liked all of them.

This is my husband leaving for work, wearing the socks with the one design I was definite he’d want to get rid of but didn’t. Strangely, what once charmed me as a classic polka dotted print is now starting to look like a slice of the most obtrusively bright pepperoni pizza.

What was I thinking?

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