A few days delayed, but I’d like to document my lame puns and eatery experiences from the 12 hours I spent in Incheon and Seoul en route to the motherland this past weekend. Though the thought of a 12 hour layover about keeled my mother over (girl? alone? Korea?) I had the BEST time in a country I never even quite considered as a destination. But my faux pas was proven wrong by the food (hot things to defrost frozen noses), the kind people, and the fascinating mashup of culture.
I took a prescribed “Seoul City Tour” organized by an airport tourism agency, led by the verbose “Mr. Bob”. Yes sir, I do believe that is your given name. We were led through a (really cold) palace, a (really cold) temple, and ended up in the (really cold) shopping district of Insadong, where were served a (really warm) and delicious meal.
I had the wonderful #2, as identified by Mr. Bob, also identified as a steaming bowl of bulgogi with short grain rice, and my (really cold) body felt quite rejuvenated.
(It was really cold in Korea, for which a girl traveling from the LA tropics to the Indian tropics was, you could say, unprepared.)
After walking around in Insadong, and meeting some really lovely grandpa-type shop keepers that sold me a scarf and gloves for about $5 USD, I said my farewells to Mr. Bob and the rest of the motley travel crew: a UC Irvine student returning from 4 months in Thailand, a Moroccan man en route to the US, and a Colorado native with a mysterious “travel job” in Abu Dhabi. And then I headed off into the icy Korean wind (guys, it was sub zero, Celsius) to find the thrice recommended shopping district of Myeongdong, armed with a tourist map and typed Korean translations of my destination, the train station, and the airport (shoutout to my favorite Yoonchan). Found it easily enough, by walking straight for about 15 minutes. I realized I had arrived after someone asked me “are you lost?” and I asked for directions to exactly where I was standing.
The area was bustling, despite the arctic chill, and shops ranging from Zara and H&M to area branded department stories, street sellers braving the wind, and young women in uniform parkas harking their store’s natural skincare products to anyone that passed. The Christmas season shopping craze has no doubt reached Korea ages ago, and the picture was completed with a bright white Christmas tree in the square accompanied by Salvation Army bell ringers collecting donations.
But I digress. We’re here to talk about food. There was a coffee shop to every street corner, often three, and they were both local and global brands (I resisted the urge to order my first PSL at a Korean Starbucks). The four-story Dunkin Donuts seemed to be a popular meeting place, where I retreated for temporary warmth and bathroom purposes. Street vendors were hawking all ranges of hot food, but as I had already eaten lunch, I sought out the most interesting looking pastry. I had passed this stall once already and when walking without sugar-in-belly became unbearable I trekked back to buy what looked like a ball of chocolate. YUM.
What was memorable about this, however, wasn’t the round conglomeration of wafers dipped in chocolate, but rather the interaction I had with the sassy lady that sold it to me.
So I bought one, by pointing and smiling, and holding up fingers for the transaction. The lady nodded and grabbed one out for me, put it in a bag and…..No she didn’t hand it to me. She held it up and next to it, raised a large wooden mallet, like the whack-a-mole kind.
And nodded at me.
I was confused, and I sheepishly grinned and shrugged and made awkward comments in English that no one around me seemed to understand, so I shook my head no. And she handed me what felt like a chocolate stone. OHHH. So I handed it right back, whack-a-moling to indicate my intention. And she grabbed the bag back and gave what can only be described as the most motherly of stink faces, the kind that your mom makes when she’s feeling silly but still wants you to know you’ve messed up.
It had “I told you so” written in the jut of the chin and cheeky smirk, and it just read mom, aunt, cousin, grandma to me, and I felt so at home.
And then I ate the ball of (fried?) wafers dipped in chocolate.
And I felt more at home.
And that was Shalaka takes Korea for a day.