Itaewon. Even the name sounds mysterious. Eeee tay wan....It is the tourist part of Seoul where the dark and dank meet the glamorous sparkle of night life. It is all that we fear and all that we embrace. Salsa clubs and French bakeries, the old peddlers and fancy shops, Starbucks and Gim Bop Jang Kuk. It is a mixture of this and of that.
Here, in this place, taking Metro Line 6 to the center of somewhere, the people push and bump into you until you are a top spinning about, anxious for the escalators that travel up and up and up. Stepping out, there is the dark musky scent of grilling silk worm larvae over here and the aromatherapy of patchouli over there. Indians and Saudis and Americans and Koreans all have staked a claim in this little part of town. Walking along, the sounds of a dozen languages roll over your ears or tap staccato like against your head. An oasis for strangers, there are foreign markets where the thrill of finding Hershey's or panak paneer or digestivos can be heard in the squeal of those dozen languages.
The second hand book store is here, a quiet place, well lit in a basement on Hooker Hill. It is a salve from the crying out of the vendors and the college students calling out to one another. It is in this room that an almost sacred quiet descends, punctuated by the ding ding ding of the cash register. That $5 Smithsonian magazine is double here. But a second hand fiction paperback is just a few thousand won (three or four US Dollars). It is a quiet place to steady your mind before stepping outside to the "custor tailoring" shop across the street and the Mexican restaurant down the road.
That night I had promised myself something other than Korean food, but my feet hurt. I was tired and grumpy. My bag is heavy with books (and peanut butter and oatmeal if I'm honest here). It's dark, and a one hour subway ride, complete with two transfers, awaits me. I want to go home. I want to whine. I want to stomp my feet and kick somebody. But I promised myself... and my stomach growls. Sigh. Standing at the steps to the subway a simple little shop 5 feet in front of me. There, right there, is a flag, the blood red backdrop enveloping a bright yellow star and moon. It is the Turkish flag, the men inside all dark eyed and curly haired charm. Well, at least I won't have to walk any further. And eye candy is always welcome.
I stand in line, my nose in a book when I realize there is a man behind me, an American even! He tells me this is the best kabob place in town, we begin to chat, and my feet don't hurt anymore. I am lulled by the moonlight, the sizzle of the meat, the chatter of a dozen words, all meaning "delicious" around me and my very own next to me. It is now my turn to order. "Do you want to cry or do you want to die?" the man behind the counter asks. "Ohhhh," I laugh, "I want to cry, I'm not ready to die just yet," I tell him. And his grin tells of hidden stories that I am wishing to tease from him, but instead he brushes my pita with peppers, and yogurt, and with a devilish grin, more peppers, some greens, some more yogurt, and voila! instant karma! I have evidently done something. "Don't take it out of the paper," they all tell me as the juice drips down into a tiny waxy paper. No, no. No, I won't.
I sit on a little plastic red stool, take a bite or two or three and soon my eyes are blinking, my nose is running, my entire mouth is on fire. It is heaven! Or maybe it is hell. I don't know for sure, but it seems right in this place of opposites. It fills my belly as the night turns colder, and I suck on my water bottle, suck on the chill night air, and suck on a piece of peppermint gum hoping to douse the flames that burn my lips and tongue.
"Are you crying yet?" the dark eyed Turk asks me, passing a napkin across the counter. "Mmmm hmmm" is all I can mutter as the others laugh and I smile, taking another big bite. Tears brimming in my eyes. The American man who rescued me with a bottle of water has left, and I am alone and one of the group of a dozen languages all united in the heat of the moment, the heat of the peppers. It is a moment of extremes and synergy.
Here in this area of seedy prostitution and arrogant swaggering of soldiers there is a place to find friendship if even for a moment. Open to something new, adverturing within the plan, there is room for something exciting and new. One just has to be open to it. And of course be willing to cry to find it... or die.