Tag Archives: usk

Polka-dotted brolly and a wiseass tote bag

I am forever in awe of the things I see when I am out sketching.

They are not momentous, life altering events or rare, one of a kind objects. In fact, they couldn’t be more humdrum and yet I am hooked in the deepest and most profound way. Every minute spent observing life and documenting it in my sketchbook feels more honest, real, fulfilling and joyful than any other job I have held and drawn paycheques from. And I often ask myself why that is?

And each time I find myself thumbing through my drawings in search for answers.

These sketches are from my latest sketchbook. All 24 pages filled with drawings of people in different cafes and eateries in Seoul. The sketchbook starts roughly at the time when the city was emerging from the throes of winter. The sun felt warm on our faces, the breeze wasn’t bone chilling and there were leaves on brown spindly branches. We were reaching for lighter coats and winter boots were being stowed away.

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When I saw this girl in my first drawing, wearing a baby pink flowy shirt with her sweater casually thrown over her shoulders, drinking a matching pink drink I felt spring tiptoeing into our lives. And it was. The next couple of weeks were spent hiking, reading books in al fresco cafes and chasing cherry blossoms around Seoul.

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Fresh, new, colourful could describe everything – the weather, our clothes, food (strawberries were in) as well as our soaring moods! The two women in the drawing above wearing whacky, bright coloured jackets epitomized the ‘if you’ve got it, flaunt it’ nature of the season.

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See the guy in the red glasses enjoying his meal in the drawing below? I noticed him from the end of the room and eventually drew him because in a world of distractions, it was interesting to see someone so deeply engaged in just the one thing. He used his hands to pick up the food, admired it and then put it in his mouth very gently. With eyes closed he relished each bite as if to taste the ingredients and appreciate the workings of the recipe. To me, it looked like the food was nourishing his soul as much as his body.

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After the hubbub of Spring, it rained incessantly for days. The skies were grey and everything felt wet, cold and damp. I went out for a cup of hot tea to shake off the gloom and what do I find in the cafe? The brightest polka dotted umbrella resting against a chair occupied by a guy wearing a cap so red that it could stop the traffic. He had ripped jeans on and a t-shirt with a plunging neckline that revealed a tattoo very similar to a paramecium I had once drawn in my Biology notebook.

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This drawing above is also my favourite in this series because here I was looking sloppy, moping around because the sun wasn’t out and my laundry wouldn’t dry whereas this guy was dressed fashionably enough to walk the ramp, rains be damned. And in veritable defiance he was carrying the most happy looking umbrella that screamed ‘in your face, crappy weather’ in bold letters. If something is unacceptable, there can be really creative ways to push back! That evening not only did I feel avenged, I returned home with a better attitude.

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The next drawing is of a bunch of elderlies licking on pink ice-creams. What you don’t see in the picture is how excited they were to see each other when they met at the cafe and how impatient they were for their treats to arrive after placing the order! I drew their droopy posture and wrinkled faces, but what I couldn’t capture and only witnessed was their child-like abandon at rejoicing something so basic and timeless – friendship and $1 ice-creams on sticks.

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My neighbourhood in Gangnam is a shopping mecca, the reason why cafes in this locality receive a lot of customers with shopping bags in tow. Sometimes to entertain myself when I’m drawing them I try to guess the contents of the shopping bags based on the label. It’s a fun game!

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And occasionally educational because that’s how I came to know about ‘8 Seconds’ (see the drawing above) which is Samsung’s high street brand. Did you know Samsung, the South Korean multinational conglomerate that most of us associate with phones and electronics has an established presence in the fashion industry? In fact Samsung launched ‘8 Seconds’ to compete with the growing local presence of global fast fashion retailers like Zara, H&M and Uniqlo.

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On one such day while playing the scintillating game of ‘guess what’s in the bag’ as if to challenge my speculative prowess walked in a girl with a canary yellow tote bag that said, “How to be Popular”. See the drawing above.  After finishing her food and drink I watched her walk out of the cafe with the bag held tightly under her arm.

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She didn’t leave a clue about the bag’s contents. But she left me the story – of a wise-ass tote bag sighting in Gangnam! And that I realized is what keeps me hooked and makes me come back for more. The story if you pare it down is an interesting visual which I capture in a sketch and my response to that visual stimulation which I narrate to you in words. And it’s addictive because collecting stories like these on a daily basis makes me feel like I am participating in my own life.

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Like I’m in the field, playing the game and not cheering from the sidelines. Like every day could have something to wonder about.

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Isn’t that something? This sketch above on the last page of this sketchbook is of a woman I saw the other day, probably a teacher marking an answer sheet while talking on the phone. Judging from the red marks it didn’t look good for the student.

 

 

 

 

 

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Observing People on Seoul subways

line 9aI take the subway to get around the city a lot. It’s silly not to. The subway station is almost at our doorstep and a ride costs slightly over a dollar which is great value for money considering how big Seoul is and how modern, clean, safe, punctual and fast it’s subways are.

Another benefit, relevant to the curious eyes of a sketch artist is the ability to observe people at close quarters! It’s even more fun when you’re fresh off the boat and your senses are so alert that they pick out the slightest nuances in your brand new environment.

In our early days in Seoul, all my brain did was to compare and contrast. When I saw people in the subways or cafes I didn’t just notice their physical features, I also involuntarily observed their posture, demeanour, hairstyles, fashion choices, personal habits and idiosyncrasies and compared those with people I had observed in other countries.

line 9bIt was a wonderful phase of learning and discovering!

One year down the road, it still is and I attribute my unabated curiosity to sketching because it always leads to uncovering interesting insights about the place I am currently living in.

For example sketching people on Seoul subways has led me to spot innumerable Seoulites reading online comic strips or enjoying baseball games on their phones.  A little digging unearthed the profound love for Manhwa (Korean term for comics and print cartoons) that I did not know about.

Engaging storylines, unique plot twists and attractive colourful artworks have made these webtoons (Korean comics released online on a weekly basis) so popular that some have been adapted into successful Korean dramas!

Line 9cThe love for baseball, the most popular spectator sport in Korea runs equally deep. It is believed to have been introduced to Korea by American missionaries in 1905 during the Korean Empire. The sport gradually attained prominence in the later years. And today there are 10 pro teams in the Korea Baseball Organization and over 8 million people watch the sport annually.

I am yet to add a South Korean baseball game to my list of experiences but if what I’ve heard – the electric music, roar of drum beats and the rhythmic swinging of people dressed in uniforms lending the game a rock concert vibe – is correct, then it’s going to be even more exciting that I imagined.

Line 9dSee some folks wearing surgical style face masks in some of my sketches? I was blissfully unaware of the poor air quality in Korea until I started sketching people wearing face masks not just inside subways but almost everywhere and kept wondering what could they be for. Fine dust, technically known as Particulate Matter (PM) has been acknowledged as a serious public health issue in Korea and it’s common practice here to wear these fine dust masks, available at almost all convenience stores and pharmacies, to block out harmful air pollutants.

Another observation I owe to subway sketching is about the popularity of the blunt fringe hairstyle with Korean me. Not captured in the sketches are the occasional hair flips by the said men to adjust the fringe followed by casual finger-combing and stretching the fringe dangerously close to the eyes possibly impairing vision but I wouldn’t know for sure.

Line 9eAlso, the number of people taking selfies (see above) and women seen applying make-up inside Seoul subways can put the most self conscious of us at ease. I have yet to wield a hand mirror to touch up my face while balancing without the support of a handrail on a moving train that’s packed to the gills with people but the day I manage such a feat with the practiced ease and nonchalance of Seoulites, I’d consider myself to be truly assimilated.

Until then I’m happy to be looking in, documenting what I see, feeding my curiosity and slowly adjusting to the place I now call home.

Hope you enjoy these pen and ink drawings on toned paper.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sunday Afternoon

 

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Siesta in progress in the living room of our Seoul apartment. 

is the awkward empty space on our weekend calendar that we never know how to fill.

In between active mornings spent outdoors, long leisurely lunches and evenings spent mourning the end of the weekend comforted by Netflix and a bowl of salted popcorn, lies the vacant, vanilla afternoons.

Never earmarked for anything specific, this orphaned chunk of time gets adopted differently each week. On some occasions we cozy up to our Kindles and catch up on reading. On others we play scrabble. Or video chat with our parents. Or dive into the bottomless pit of social media.

But on some afternoons when the low-hung sky darkens with ominous clouds, the lulling breeze blowing in from the windows soothes our skin and the smell of wet earth fills the rooms, on those afternoons with the pitter patter sound of the first raindrops our eyelids become heavy. And even though we squint and blink trying to stay awake, la siesta takes over.

One of us sinks into the sofa, rests his head against the cushions and puts his feet up on the table. The other drops everything, picks up a sketchbook and draws the scene!

 

 

Spring in Seoul

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Cherry Blossoms at Yeouiseo-ro Road in Seoul

is a reminder of how incredibly lucky I am to be living in this city right now.

How else would you describe this feeling of walking with your face to the sun, peeking at the most serene sky with puffy clouds floating across its chest from under the dense umbrella of pink blossoms, so delicate that the slightest hint of breeze dislodges them from the gnarly branches and sends them earthwards in a flurry of petal showers.

Suddenly your regular walk in the park is not so regular anymore. It has improved by a million degrees. At the end of each day when you’re home contended at having spent hours experiencing this unbound beauty, you find a petal stuck in your hair or coat. And at that very instant you pine to go back the next day. And the next. And the next. It’s never enough. Not just because cherry blossoms are spectacular, and when describing them you runout of superlatives but also because they are ephemeral.

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The Yeouido Spring Flower Festival on Yeouiseo-ro Road attracts tourists and locals alike

They don’t last long. And while their beauty is always laced with a sense of impending loss, I take comfort in the fact that for now, the city is abloom with thousands of cherry blossom trees, not just in the mountains, parks, gardens, royal palaces and the long stretches of pedestrian roads in certain neighbourhoods which are the best places to view them in abundance but simply everywhere.  You don’t even have to look hard. Just look around! Against a dark coloured brick house, by a lamp post or partly hidden behind the grocery store you find these lone soldiers bobbing their pink heads.

It is such a treat to be out and about at this time of the year!

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Drawn using dip pen and ink

For the last two weekends I am having my fill of the cherry blossoms by going everywhere my two legs would carry me. And so are hundreds of people, as you can see in my sketch. I drew it from an wooden bench on Yeouiseo-ro Road, right behind the National Assembly. It is undoubtedly one of the most easily accessible (National Assembly Station, exit 1) and best places to view the blossoms, 1886 Korean Cherry trees in bloom to be exact. From infants in prams to geriatrics in wheelchairs, the whole city is here and in awe.

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1886 Korean Cherry trees in bloom at Yeouiseo-ro Road, Seoul

The other places where we viewed the blossoms were in Yeouido Park (Yeouido Station, exit 3), at Jungnangcheon Cherry Blossom Road (Walk 15 mins from Gunja Station, exit 1 in the direction of Gunjagyo Bridge) in Dongdaemun-gu, stretching 3.4 km from Gunjagyo Bridge to Baebongsan Bridge, around the Seokchon Lake next to Lotte World ( Jamsil Station, exit 2 or 3), and inside Gyeongbokung Palace (Gyeongbokung Station, exit 3).

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Cherry Blossoms at Yeouiseo-ro, Seoul

There are many other popular as well as lesser-known spots across the city to satisfy your cherry blossom cravings in Seoul but if I had to pick one, I’d scoot off to the exact same spot in Yeouiseo-ro Road from where I sketched this view. If you’re planning a visit, I suggest you pick a bright sunny day and don’t look at your watch while you’re there.

Just be.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Coffee drinkers of Seoul

This is the latest bunch of observational drawings from the sketchbook I just finished.

If you have been following this blog, you know that I like to visit cafes often, which Seoul had no shortage of (every other building has one), to observe and sketch people drinking their coffee and doing whatever they do while they are at it which is a great variety of things.

There’s light reading for pleasure, there’s heavy-duty studying for entrance exams, then there’s intermittent reading and checking online stores on the phone by the side; there’s celebrating life’s important milestones, there’s debating with colleagues, arguing with family, catching up with friends, there’s watching a soap opera with a loved one and there’s working alone knee-deep in reports and presentations, there’s lunching while on a break from work, catching a break in between shopping and once in a while there’s staring vacantly into space.

My sketchbook bears testimony to all that happens over a cup of coffee.

This particular set was drawn during the winter months, which is why you see warm clothing on people’s backs or piled on chairs and tables next to them depending on the heating inside the cafe.

Hope you enjoy seeing the drawings as much as I enjoyed drawing them!

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This guy was having an animated conversation with his friend (not imaginary) and was thrusting a lot of thumbs-up in front of his face

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(L) Studying but also checking the phone for updates (R) Looked like their’s was a long-standing friendship

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(L) Someone other than me who owns a lurid pink jacket in Seoul (R) Someone who likes to fold their scarf neatly even when no one’s looking. 

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This couple was so captivated by whatever they were watching that they remained still like statues glued to their iPad for the longest time. 

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(L) Two Zara employees on their lunch break (R) Someone straight from Bruno Magli, consuming a $6 salad and tapping her feet to cafe music. 

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(L) She’s no Jack and she’s not dull (R) Somebody kept this guy on hold for a very long time and never for once did he lose his temper. 

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(L) Thick glasses and a big fat SAT study guide (R) She ate the cake and saved the cherry until the very end. 

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One sassy lady in green pants and round glasses catching up with her friend. 

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(L) Nose in the cup, finger on the screen (R) Ruminating in a power suit. 

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(L) Edgy hairstyle on someone who looked rather mild-mannered and affable 

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Girl at the next table turned 15 and I got to sketch her! That delicious cake with strawberry topping was from Tous Les Jours.

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When I sketched an argument in progress. “Explain yourself, Bob. Linda, calm down”

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I could never pull off a pixie hat with a straight face but she did it so well

Three seasons, one sketchbook

When I finished my latest sketchbook, it struck me how this particular set of drawings reflect changing seasons.

The initial pages were drawn when the weather was still warm but not hot. People were romping about in shorts and light coloured tops and ordering cold citron tea, but Bingsu was on its way out from the menu and dainty looking Chuseok (Korean Thanksgiving)-themed goodies were filling up the shelves.

Mid-sketchbook you see traces of fall – sketches of people facing or with their back against cafe windows that frame trees ablaze with the most brilliant shades of yellow and red. Temperatures drop but those in denial keep their hemlines low. The rest of us take refuge beneath light coats and wrap scarves around our necks. Hot chocolate drink starts to look tempting but is definitely a good fortnight or even a month away from being the undisputed object of desire.

In the last couple of pages, winter arrives, but in phases. It starts innocently when a few woollen hats pop up on people’s heads here and there. Then with the first snowfall, out comes the cable knit sweaters, duffle coats and hooded parkas and finally on a day like today when it is -12 degrees outside I see people milling about in overcoats, oversized down jackets with faux fur trims, striped woollen mufflers, fitted cashmere blazers and distressed leather boots. And this is only the outermost layer.

Some cafes have their heating so high that it prompts people to peel off their winter clothing layer upon layer as soon as they get seated until everyone has a small pile next to them or on the chair while others have the temperature setting so low that it makes sense to have everything on your body, even the backpack. See the last sketch.

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A lot on the mind and on the table

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Five friends and a conspicuous bag charm. Seen at Alver Cafe, Seoul

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Office meeting in progress. Seen at Angel-in-us cafe, Seoul.

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(L) I once saw the most dedicated, zesty, sincere and patient tutor trying to teach the most distracted student who kept texting the entire time.

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Sipping the last dregs of Summer. Seen at Paris Baguette cafe.

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Seen at Paris Baguette Cafe, Seoul

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Fall colours outside the windows of Gontran Cherrier cafe, Seoul.

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(L) Fall colours vs furrowed eyebrows (R) This guy’s winter jacket looked like a satin and velour Tudor robe fit for Henry VIII’s court. Seen at cafe TerraRosa, Seoul

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Together yet distant. I drew this couple from the most coveted seat in Alver cafe, which is against a beautiful vertical garden. You can see some of it behind the lady.

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Interesting woollen hats seen at Paris Baguette cafe

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Winter brings out the puffy down jackets.

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(L) This lady bore an uncanny resemblance to the actor who played Mrs. Kim in Gilmore Girls! She had the same hairstyle, identical gait and spoke in similar staccato sentences.

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Keeping the backpack on for extra warmth.

 

 

Furrowed eyebrows vs Fall colours

I saw this guy at a cafe yesterday in the CBD. Dark coloured tailored suit, slicked back hair, serious looking glasses and still like a statue with his nose buried in a book on finance and investing. And just outside the cafe separated by glass windows were trees in the deepest shade of red and in the brightest shade of yellow, branches swinging in the breeze and leaves flying around like confetti.
It was such an interesting contrast and I was glad I had my sketchbook to document that moment!

Tera Rosa sketch

The Back alleys of Insadong

are becoming a favourite place of mine to not just sketch but to hang out as well.

What draws me to these narrow and winding cobbled streets is the errant undisciplined, out of control commingling of the old and new that you see every step of the way.

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My take on Insadong 14-gil, Seoul

From my corner on Insadong 14-gil, I see two conspicuous and ugly looking air-conditioning ducts slapped across the face of a hanok (traditional Korean house) which I assume like all hanok houses had once looked regal and in tune with its centuries old surroundings.

The rest of the house’s facade is mired in electricity cables, wires, switchboards, gas pipes, drain pipes and commercial signages which cumulatively seem to be swallowing the house bit by bit. Its original tiled roof and sturdy wooden beams are still intact but I doubt their fate. A satellite dish pokes its head from the roof of a jerry-rigged laundry room upstairs, another add on, exhibiting a colourful range of towels and lingerie. Outside, a trashcan stands guard like a dutiful sentry.

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Back alleys of Insadong, Seoul

It is not pretty in the conventional sense of the word but the bare-all, guileless stark honesty of it all is what’s endearing to me. It’s sort of like an in-between place. It’s neither derelict or in squalor without electricity or cable nor is it a picture perfect painstakingly refurbished ‘heritage district’ where everything is made to look and feel exactly how it was 500 years ago.

In the Insadong back alleys, you get what you see and you see everything, hear all and bump into everyone. Nothing is staged.

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Insadong 14-gil sketched using dippen and ink

For the short while I was there, sketching this view I tapped my foot to a peppy Korean song someone was singing in the shower, got soaked with the plants someone was watering next to me and stopped the traffic when the trash collector parked his cart by me to a take long look at my drawing.

All in a day’s work!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Gwangjang Market

is worth a visit not just for the finger-licking good street food as all guidebooks promise but also for the experience of buying that street food and eating it in a traditional market. Not that I needed any convincing. I love visiting traditional markets. I have loved visiting traditional markets before they were ‘traditional’.

In the little town I grew up in Eastern India, my parents used to take me to the local bazaar every week. Too little to help in any other way my job was to hold the cotton tote bags tightly to my chest until the vegetable seller finished weighing baskets of potatoes, onions, carrots, brinjals, green beans my parents had picked out and nodded in my direction.

I would keep my eyes peeled for that signal and would immediately stand on my toes and hand the ‘vegetable bag’ to him or her. Then we would go to the fish section and the poultry section and I’d hand the ‘fish bag’ and the ‘poultry bag’.

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Sketch of a Mung Bean Pancake stall in Gwangjang Market using dip pen and ink

More than the vegetable peels, fish scales, feathers and blood strewn alleys, more than the glinting knives and weighing scales, more than the stench of open drains and smell of sweat, more than the feel of weathered notes and wet coins exchanging hands, more than the loud street cries of merchants and haggling by their customers and the screeching of chickens about to be slaughtered, more than buzzing flies and limping dogs, more than the rough leathery hands of shop owners, more than the waves of people we pushed through and more than the glow of bulbs and hurricane lamps that painted everything a lurid yellow, more than anything at all, I remember how important I felt to be entrusted with this responsibility.

For my parents it probably was just a way to keep their child engaged but for me it was a big step up. Like all my friends I was in such a hurry to grow up.

A great deal of growing up has happened since.

These days if I were to make spaghetti meatballs, I’d get a cleanly wrapped portion of minced meat off a shelf inside a clean air-conditioned space. I buy lemons that come in protective casings such that I can’t touch or smell them.

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Jeon Alley, Gwangjang Market

Only when the fish monger showed my mother how deep red the gills of hilsa were and how firm its body was and how clear its eyes were would she pay him, but not without examining a few other pieces and definitely not without the friendly haggling.

And now if I need a bed sheet, I lift a finger and order it online.

Progress is essential and elemental, I know. Progress is important. Progress is also placing experiences similar to the ones I had as a child inside invisible glass cases and labelling them ‘traditional’ as though they are rare exhibits.

Progress is sending what once was commonplace on the road towards extinction and that maybe inevitable but it is disconcerting none the less.

So when I can read about Gwangjang market, built in 1905 and called Seoul’s oldest ‘traditional’ market and one of its largest, I knew I had to go, not just to sketch but to get a feel of the familiar while I still could, albeit in a foreign country.

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Gwangjang Market

Narrow lanes lined on either side with shops cheek by jowl selling  pajeon, gimbap, sundaeguk, bibimbap and tteokbokki ran into one another like a maze. Massive waves of people from students, office workers, tourists to the elderly hikers you see a lot of in Korea rolled up from all directions to eat at those shops manned by hardworking ajummas in short perms and red lipstick. Sound of chatter and cacophony melded into the smell of hot oil and the lurid colour of shop signages. The glow of bulbs hanging low over trays of food added to the visual drama and lent the space a honky-tonk aura.

As opposed to the clinical white spaces we are used to shopping in with clearly marked aisles and properly arranged shelves, a traditional market is a place where the first order of business is to lose your bearings and be overwhelmed by what you see, hear and smell.

Check and check.

I had a vague idea of where I was.

Perhaps, the Jeon Alley.

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Jeon Alley in Gwangjang Market

Some dishes are so popular in Gwangjang Market that they have entire alleys dedicated to them! In Korean cuisine, Jeon is referred to pancake-like dishes made by pan frying a mixture of rice or flour batter with vegetables, meat, seafood and poultry in it.

I couldn’t have been in the Yukhoe (steak tartar) Alley or the Gimbap (similar to sushi) Alley considering all the fervid grinding of mung beans that was happening around me. The jerry-built enterprise right before me had 5 ajummas working together like a well-oiled machine. Two in yellow tops were stationed at the ‘kitchen’ frying Bindaetteoks (mung bean pancakes) and piling the golden discs one above the other on the counter; one was serving the pancakes to customers gathering on the long wooden table while two more were luring people in to the shop.

And in all this madness if any of them managed to catch a breath, they’d leave their stations and come over to check my progress. I was sitting on the ground wedged between two other Bindaetteok stalls. But I was sketching them.

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Sketch of Gwangjang Market with the drinks that a kind elderly couple bought me

In return the band of ajummas kept an eye on me, nothing more than a glance in my direction from time to time and once shooing a drunk guy away when he tried to get too friendly with me. I got sober visitors too. A tour guide stopped by, a magazine editor gave me her business card and an elderly couple bought me some cooling drinks (see above).

On my way out I got the ajummas to fix me a piping hot plate of mung bean pancake. And while I savoured the crispy goodness in my mouth, I saw three young backpackers doing the same and talking about how good it tasted and how cheap the food was (4000 won for two big pieces) and how glad they were to have visited. They couldn’t wait to tell their ‘mates’ all about it.

I hope they do, ad nauseam.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

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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.