Remembering Anthony Bourdain

The news of Anthony Bourdain’s death hit us while on the train to our hotel in Busan.

All I could say when I got the alert on my phone was: “Oh my God”, and show the headline to Cameron.

We became familiar with Mr. Bourdain’s style through different channels: a copy of Kitchen Confidential passed on by a friend (which we still have) and watching No Reservations on cable. Eventually, I read Kitchen Confidential, and we continued to watch No Reservations (Travel Channel) and Parts Unknown (CNN) sometimes. Eventually, more than a show, these became a reference. Through my years of watching and reading Bourdain’s work, I’ve learned a few things. I think we both have.

Food is an experience that can lead to other experiences – the most memorable passage in Kitchen Confidential (to me) is the part of the book when Bourdain is describing his culinary awakening as a young kid by having his first vichyssoise. As he explains in the book, vichyssoise is a difficult dish. Not only is it a fish soup, but it’s cold. Now, I’ve never had vichyssoise, but the way he describes in the book realizing through that cold soup that food was meant to be savored and discovered, and could be such a joyous part of our lives if only we allowed it to be was incredibly powerful. I’ve become more intentional in my cooking over the years, and I think part of it started when I read that description of what vichyssoise did for a young Bourdain and how it awoke his culinary curiosity. I should say, I’m not the most adventurous of eaters. However, over the years, I think I’ve made a better effort at paying attention to what my food tastes like, the spice palate it contains, and what goes into my food.

One of the most memorable travel experiences we’ve had (and if you’d been there, you could have definitely pictured Bourdain doing the same thing) was Cameron eating at a small fishing village in Leshan (China). There were barely any people around (it was December, not exactly peak travel season in China), but there was an old lady selling noodles from her home. It was definitely not the best noodle dish we’ve ever had (I had a few bites) but the experience of eating these noodles from this lady we will never see again in this tiny Chinese village was somehow so great. We were sitting on the floor, there were not many amenities, and again, the dish wasn’t anything special (or was it?). This anecdote leads me to my next takeaway:

Food helps us when we can’t understand other people (most of the time): food can be highly misunderstood and diluted to a point where it looks nothing like the original. On the other hand, it can make places seem less scary – I think this was a big part of what Bourdain tried to do with his shows. In a lot of ways, I think the way he approached eating in his shows made “less formal” eateries be more accessible to people that would normally not leave their comfort zone. There will be instances when the attempt will not be very successful (our first attempt at ordering at a Chinese restaurant upon arriving in Shanghai – I cried at the sight of so many unfamiliar mushrooms!). In other instances, they can be incredibly rewarding (all the Uighur food!).

To this day, we still follow what Cameron calls “the Bourdain rule of restaurants”. When in doubt, find the places with lots of locals. If there’s a line, even better. Can’t say it’s failed us. If it has, I can’t remember.

Bourdain made traveling and exploring seem attainable and normal and even expected. His shows became almost mandatory research when it came to going to a new place – you pick up a travel guide and take notes from the corresponding episode of No Reservations or Parts Unknown. There’s a reason why restaurant owners keep his picture on their walls – they know that a previous Bourdain visit is at this point maybe a better vouch that a place is good than a certificate of excellence from TripAdvisor (although the latter should not be taken lightly, given that TripAdvisor’s reputation lays on the reviews).

I could write all day here. I could write about going to hear Bourdain speak during his book tour for Medium Raw (dead-on funny and relatable, like listening to a friend you haven’t seen in a while – that friend you’re living vicariously through because they travel more than you) or expectantly waiting to watch an episode for a place I had visited (or the Dominican Republic episode for that matter) and seeing someone committed to demonstrating that we, as people, are more connected than we think, and that the world is full of beauty and we should go see all of it.

Incredibly sad as we both were to read about the news of his passing, to us at Nomadic Gregors, it was somewhat poetically beautiful that we got to read the news doing exactly what Bourdain, among others, inspire us to do as much as possible: travel and explore, not dismiss any places based on preconceptions, make the best of the bad situations, don’t try to plan everything – traveling or otherwise. As we are coming back to the United States for our next teaching stint, we can’t help think about how China and Korea were both places where we didn’t really plan on going. I had, in fact, told Cameron I was not moving to China under any circumstances when we first started considering moving abroad. Both were incredibly rewarding – we saw places we didn’t even know existed, made some of the best friends we have and learned a lot about ourselves. And while returning to the States was, as those places were back then, not our first option, we are ready for what’s coming. We’re ready for Hawaii and we’ll make the best of it, see as much as possible, smile, be respectful, and try as much of the food as we can manage. I think at the end of the day, what Bourdain tried to show through his books and his shows and his adventures was that we can feel at home anywhere, that the world doesn’t have to be scary and unknown. That going out there and exploring makes us better people.

I believe Mr. Bourdain leaves a legacy of teaching people to be open-minded and find ways to understand each other. Sometimes food is the only way we have and that’s okay. I’ll be sure to follow that wonderful message and look forward to trying vichyssoise someday.

 

 

 

Before we Go: A weekend getaway in Busan

Our first time in Busan was an accident – it was an overnight layover we were forced to spend outside the airport. As it turns out, this is the only stamp we have of Korea in our passports except for the one we got when we first started our teaching stint here.

That time, Busan looked a lot seedier than it really is. After a day of traveling, your ability to be flexible is a bit depleted, and we probably approached that overnight layover five years ago with a not-so-great attitude. After a quick weekend trip with the boys last year, Cameron got to see the cooler side of Busan, and was hooked. He was determined to make sure I got to go before we left Korea, so we found a weekend in June when we would not be either tied up at work or other commitments.

In some ways, it would be unfair to say we went to Busan. We went to Haeundae Beach and stayed there for the vast majority of the weekend. Haeundae Beach is incredibly entertaining, and beautiful in its own right. It was what we thought Qingdao could be if it were properly developed (maybe in a few years Qingdao will get there now that it’s becoming the Hollywood of China).

Haeundae Beach is an extensive stretch of coastline – it has beaches and some rocky cliffs, making the coastline rather diverse. The beach has golden sand, and despite strong winds, almost no waves. That doesn’t deter the locals from trying to catch some waves on their surfboards in the late afternoon, which makes for great people-watching. For a North Asian beach, Haeundae Beach is possibly the one that has seemed most inviting to actually go swimming in (when you are born and raised in the Caribbean you kind of become a beach snob). Haeundae has lots of beachfront hotels, restaurants and bars right across the water, so there is really no need to go very far. One other thing I loved about this beach is the facilities – coin-op showers, small pools and air pressured guns to remove the sand from your feet, bathrooms, and quite a few shady spots if you need a sun break.

Our favorite find at Haeundae beach was a walkway that takes you through the cliffs next to the beach. Among it, we found some interesting finds, including a stone carved in the 9th (?) century with the name Haeundae – this stone is what gives the beach its name.

Our time was mostly spent people-watching, playing darts at the Wolfhound (a local Irish pub) and trying some of the street food available around the Haeundae area (mostly fried chicken, because there is no such thing as bad Korean fried chicken).

Our one fail of the trip was attempting to go to a baseball game. Baseball games in Korea (as in Japan) are an event on the field and on the stands. Coordinated cheers, cheerleaders, bring your own food…all goes. Cameron went to a game last year and loved it, so naturally, knowing how fun games are in the Dominican Republic, and being well acquainted with my love for baseball, he wanted to take me to one. Based on what the stands looked like the day prior, and the fact that the local team (the Lotte Giants) was playing terribly, we figured getting a (cheap) ticket would be easy. Well, we were wrong.

Upon arriving at the stadium the following day, we found out the game was sold out. To our comfort, we weren’t the only ones.

Busan was a great weekend getaway to get a respite from Jeju. It might seem odd since Jeju is also beachy, but…the key here is beach plus amenities. A beach in a city you can easily navigate on the subway for very little money. And a beach that is seemingly popular with lots of other people (there were lots of Russians!) which makes for great people watching.

In summary,  my old perceptions of Busan have been dispelled and I would definitely go back. Gotta catch that pending baseball game!

Next, we’ll take a page of our travel journal to pay our respects to one of our great inspirations in this nomadic life.

Cheers,

Ana

 

Before we Go: Returning to Udo

This spring we had the chance to return to what may possibly be one of our favorite places in Korea. Udo, a small island off the northeast coast of Jeju, was one of our first adventures when we arrived two years ago. In the early fall, it’s quite striking in its beauty. We had the same experience during our last visit in the springtime.

This time, we found a better route now that we know the island better, so we were at Seongsan port in about an hour, as opposed to the almost two last time took. Long story short: take the highway to Seogwipo and bypass the city proper. Follow signs to the Seongsan port. Don’t go to Udo on holidays, it’s impossibly busy.

We also had a friend with us! Our friend and colleague Nicole, who also teaches at a school in Jeju, joined us for the day trip (and drove us in her car, since we had sold ours by then).

You can only get to Udo by ferry. It’s maybe a 10-minute ride on the ferry. You can still take your car on the ferry and drive yourself around, but the provincial government wants to decrease the number of internal combustion vehicles on the island – the public buses are electric, most of the scooter rental options are electric, and truly, the island is not that big. Cars just create traffic that doesn’t help anyone.

It was a beautiful Saturday with sunny, breezy weather. Our day consisted primarily of driving around the island in our scooters and stopping for pictures in the most scenic places.

The highlight of our visit was definitely seeing the Haenyeo (women divers) in action. In a nutshell, these are women (some of which are quite old!) who dive without oxygen to harvest shellfish and seaweed. They are a revered part of Jeju’s cultural heritage, and even have statues erected in their honor all over the island. Seeing them carry their loads from the ocean was deeply humbling. You can see more about these incredible women here: Jeju Lady Divers

Udo is a place of striking nature. It’s a bit sad to see so many buildings taking over the farmland. It’s understandable, as it’s a very popular tourist destination, but we do hope its natural beauty is somewhat preserved.

 

Before we Go: The DMZ (or, the closest we’ll get to North Korea!)

Hello readers!

Have you noticed I’m blogging up a storm?

Well, just when I thought I was out of the woods with spring allergies, BAM!

I was fine on Sunday, and it’s been an unusually rainy spring. I’ve also been taking allergy pills regularly. Then on Monday, allergies came back to bite me in the butt…which meant staying home and blowing my nose repeatedly in private.

Before we go into actually explaining how our visit to the Demilitarized Zone went, let me give you a little background.

We have tried to go to the DMZ and the Joint Security Area (the border with North Korea where the important meetings and negotiations happen) ever since we got here. If you haven’t been living under a rock, you’ll know that ever since we moved to South Korea almost two years ago, things have taken a turn to the tense. Due to the election of a rather…em, impulsive American president, the rhetoric has gotten a bit…uncomfortable. Needless to say, that means that the DMZ and the JSA have experienced last-minute closures and we’ve been kind of caught in the middle. Sadly, the tour companies that operate the DMZ routes cannot guarantee that these will be open, so last-minute cancellations happen. It’s also important to remember that the JSA is closed on part of the weekends and public holidays, so it’s not exactly easy to go when we have time off.

In total, we had attempted about 3 or 4 times to schedule a tour that would take us to the DMZ and the JSA. We were set for Saturday, May 12. Tickets to Seoul were booked. Instead of going for the weekend and adding the costs of feeding ourselves, booking a place to stay and having fun in Seoul, we decided to go for the day and come right back – quick turnaround, but it will allow us to keep the finances in order for the very busy months to come.

About 4 days before going, we received an email from the tour company saying that the JSA would be closed and we had the option of either canceling or just going to the DMZ. Given that our time in Korea is so short and we don’t really know when will we make it back, we decided to book the DMZ tour and make the best out of it.

Silver lining: in the midst of the JSA being closed, three Americans detained in North Korea were released and are back with their families. I’ll take it! You can read more about it here.

We scheduled a flight out of Jeju at 6:40 am. Checked in online with the Asiana app so we wouldn’t have to waste time at the airport. We had two small backpacks, so security was easy. We had to be at a certain train station at 8:30am. Our plane landed at 7:40am. Stress o’clock!!!!!! We didn’t know that apparently there’s an express train you can take to the city which would have taken less time. Lesson learned. The tour company called us twice, but…we made it to the train station in question and they were not there yet! Phewwww!!!!!! Within a few minutes, they arrived…a bus full of foreigners like us (mostly college kids on study-abroad programs, I suspect) who wanted to catch a glimpse of North Korea from the safety of the DMZ.

The day was rainy, cloudy and foggy. Our tour guide warned us that we might not be able to see much, but we would stop at different viewpoints. Getting to the DMZ takes about an hour by bus. Once you’re about halfway through the barbwire and the walls begin. We stopped at four different places:

  1. The Freedom Bridge/Imjingak Park
  2. The DMZ Museum/The 3rd Tunnel (more on that later)
  3. The Dorasan train station
  4. The Dora Observatory

It was surprisingly busy, given that the weather was really not conducive to being outside and walking around (we, of course, had decided to leave our umbrellas at home at the last minute!), but given that many of the past times we had tried to book a tour everything was full weeks in advance I guess it makes sense.

Normally, we stay away from prescribed tours and do things like these on our own, but we’re not sure that’s possible in this case so prescribed tour it was. In total, we spent about 20 minutes in each place.

The Freedom Bridge used to be an exchange point for prisoners of war during the conflict in the 50s. It does have a checkpoint, after which tourists are not allowed. Eventually, this bridge leads into North Korea. It’s not the only bridge in the area – we took some pictures of others. The other side from our point of view (when you cross the bridge and the river dividing the land) is North Korea. There are, of course, the ubiquitous peace message ribbons and South Korean flags along with historic landmarks. And of course, it wouldn’t be South Korea without a convenience store, a skincare store, and a coffee shop. All these three things are part of the Imjingak Park plaza – God forbid access to snacks, skincare and coffee would be compromised in this country! It’s so comical. IMG_2236

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Restricted!
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Past the river, and past the water…the DPRK

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North Korea is at the end of this bridge.

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After the bridge we headed to the DMZ museum, where of course there are some models and timelines about the development of the Korean War, the division between the two countries, and the efforts for peace. I personally don’t have the most knowledge about the Korean War (tsk tsk – I’m supposed to be a history teacher!) so I found the exhibits pretty informative. I did find a bit contradictory that the exhibits in the museum give a less propagandistic version of how the conflict went down. The video we were shown about the tunnels made me a bit uncomfortable – it was just strange how they chose to not mention the outside powers that were meddling on something that was essentially none of their concern and turned a local issue into a satellite Cold War issue where people that didn’t need to be involved were. Rant over.

The 3rd Tunnel was sure interesting. We went down on a monorail and came back up on a monorail. It’s all solid rock so I can only imagine how hard it was to dig in the 1950s. According to South Koreans, this and three other tunnels were dug to prepare to invade Seoul from the north. When you walk to the end, you can see the Military Demarcation Line from underground. Sadly, no pictures are allowed.

We actually thought the Dorasan station was the coolest thing we saw. It’s the last train stop in South Korea before you connect to the North by rail. It’s not fully functional yet so there’s an air of “what it could be” when you’re there. You can buy tickets for KRW 1,000 (which we are keeping for our scrapbook) and get commemorative stamps for free in a postcard. Once you step onto the station, it’s really eerie – it’s empty and you’re not sure if you’re allowed to take pictures. You keep waiting for a train to show up. None did in the time we were there.

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Mandatory picture.

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Empty train station. I wonder how long before it’s actually busy.

It is incredible to realize that in that station lies the possibility of completely connecting Europe and Asia by train. The hope and the dream is to connect the Inter-Korean rail to the Trans-Siberian rail in China and into Europe, which would just be amazing. When I shared that with a friend, he just said: “imagine the trade opportunities we’re missing out on”. Trade, travel…you name it. It would be amazing to see in our lifetimes.

Last stop of the day was the Dora Observatory. In good conditions, you are supposed to be able to see a lot, including a large North Korean flag and an even larger South Korean flag! As you can see, however, visibility was almost none that day so we could only see a few feet ahead of us.

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See? Terrible visibility.
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This is North Korea you see on that fog!

On the way back, we stopped at a local restaurant for a bulgogi stew lunch, and then Cam and I went back to wander around Itaewon for a few hours before catching our flight.

And that was it! This was our experience peeking into the border with North Korea. If you want a good read into the experience we were hoping to have, click here: JSA Tour

Maybe one day. Or maybe miracles will happen and this will be no longer necessary.

We have some Shanghai friends coming at the end of the month, so we’ll be sure to show them some of the beauties of Jeju – we are hoping for U-do on a different season!

Until the next adventure!

The Team

 

Before we Go: Hiking Hallasan

Well, it finally happened.

After monitoring the weather for, well, a year and a half (haha) and a failed attempt in the early fall, we hiked the tallest mountain in Korea a few weeks ago.

Mt. Halla is 1,950 meters tall. Based on the fact that our 5th graders climb it at the end of the school year, and a lot of our 5th graders are not exactly the athletic type, I think there was a part of me that figured it wouldn’t be as hard as people say.

Boy was I wrong.

Hallasan has a couple of trails – 4 or 5 – but only two of them summit. One of them happened to be closed due to some falling rocks on the days prior to our climb, so we decided to go for Gwamneusa, the steepest of all the trails.

It’s steep.

We had a protein shake at home for some energy (no way we were having a heavy) breakfast at 5:30am, coffee on the road, and snacks. We settled on Korean Ritz crackers, Dr. You bars (our favorite little Korean energy bars), and hard-boiled eggs (maybe that one wasn’t such a great idea). We reached the trailhead at 7:00am and started the hike at around 7:11am. The last song we heard on the radio was “Benny and the Jets” by Elton John. It’s kind of been stuck in my head since then.

The hike started in a promising fashion: soft ground with some wooden paths and seeing a wild boar. Not a lot of people on the trail with us. So far, so good.

The trail is basically divided in four: what we ended up calling an okay part (about 20% of the trail), a “hard part” (about 60% of the trail – I kid you not), another easy part (maybe 5% of the trail and not that easy) and a rather hard climb up to the summit. And then, you’re there. Piece of cake.

Well, it turns out the trail is VERY rocky, and doing it in running shoes like we did will be a challenge to your ankles. There are no pictures of the climb because I was too busy catching my breath and trying not to cry in front of Cameron (I failed when we had about 20 minutes left on the descent – I didn’t cry for long but I did cry).

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Beautiful views regardless of the cloud cover.
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Paths and stairs, stairs and paths…
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We thought this was the summit. We were wrong!

Considering how few people we found on our way up, we were surprised to see how busy the summit was! People from all over, Koreans and foreigners, who come to Hallasan in an almost pilgrim-like fashion to stand in the highest point in Korea.

This spring has been quite weird weather-wise, and that day was no exception. The previous day was very hazy, which meant leftover clouds and not great visibility from the summit.

I had become rather insistent on wanting to climb Halla. I’m glad we did it, but we would probably not do it again (at least not summit). It’s a 7 hour round trip endeavor, and the view from the summit is not going to change anytime soon. I also didn’t want to do it when the weather was hotter – it’s already quite humid albeit not as hot as it could be.

Overall, it was a very interesting challenge. Cameron always says I sound like I like hiking but then I go hiking and don’t really sound like I like it that much. I’m not very skilled at the “not giving up” mentality – it remains a work in progress for me, whereas thanks to his many years of playing sports he already has a trained mindset on not giving up and pushing through the physical pain or difficult circumstances.

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Neither of us had climbed a point so high, so it was special to do it together. Another great adventure on the books!

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Our time in Korea is quickly coming to an end. We’ll be here for exactly another 35 days, and then…off to Oahu we go!

Stay tuned! There will be more posts soon with some of the last sights we are seeing before we leave Korea!

The Team

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