a couple of days spent far from the big city



It’s something we had been needing to do for quite some time, but what with this and that it is not so easy to schedule in a little time just for ourselves, to light out for some spot or another we had never seen before. We managed it, though, if only for a couple of nights.

Tongyeong is a smallish port city on the southern coast of the South Korean peninsula, a little less than four hours from our home in Seoul by bus, probably midway between the eastern port city of Busan and the western one, Mokpo. I didn’t know much about the place, but I learned from my tablet on the way down that it had some history attached, as the site of the first naval academy in Korea and the home of Adm Yi Sunshin, a storied figure who had masterminded some victories against great odds in response to some invasions on the part of the Japanese – also the subject of a blockbuster film this summer called Roaring Currents in English.

The first evening’s dinner had to be seafood, and what I chose turned out to be a soup made from the pufferfish, and I’m pretty sure it is what the Japanese call fugu, extremely poisonous if not prepared the right way. Over there they eat it sashimi-style but here it gets boiled and that might have some effect on whatever toxins might be present – about a half dozen people die from it every year, apparently, but not at this restaurant, you can bet. They’ve been open for 30 years so they must know how to avoid killing their customers.



 it’s what pufferfish soup looks like close up

Still, it’s kind of interesting to eat a fish that so clearly does not want you to and will try to off you for trying. The flavor of the broth is quite good, and I’ll have it again when I get a chance. If you want some for yourself, it’s called bok-guk and written 복국.

Sure, there’s a fish market near the marina, how could there not be, and even though we have them up here in Seoul, we had to walk through, as I suspect I’ll never tire of the photo opportunities of such places.



dead fish in the market, mackeral I think

The people who work in there are well aware that they are part of a tourist attraction, and consequently are well-used to people from the city with their silly-ass cameras, even though we are unlikely to buy a fish from them today.

This woman has got a bit of attitude and didn’t mind posing, even with mismatched rubber gloves on.



An interesting place not far from the marina shows up on the maps as Donpirang Art Village. It’s a small hill where the oldish single-story houses have had a whole lot of paint slapped on their walls in the form of murals, and that doesn’t sound like much, I admit, but the story I’m hearing is that some developers had come around with the idea of knocking them down and putting up yet another cluster of soul-less hi-rise apartment buildings which, incidentally, would end up being too expensive for the people there to live in themselves.

Instead of organizing sit-down strikes, throwing bottles of acid at the police and burning everything to the ground – which is, um, what happened a couple of years ago in Yongsan-gu, not far from my neighborhood in opposition to a similar attempt at gentrification – someone had a different idea. Hey, let’s get local artists together, paint murals and stuff all over the place, and after it becomes a tourist destination it will be much harder to bring in the wrecking ball.

Turns out it was not at all a bad idea, and I don’t know who thought of it first but it has been tried in some other places, like the favelas in Rio and the ghettos in South Philly.



extended family

Is it great art, or fine art, or even Art with a capital ‘A’? Naw, not so much, and a lot is somewhat childlike or primitive, worthy of use as backdrops for sightseers to take self-portraits or group shots against, but even the worst of it looks better than an empty wall, definitely that – oh, don’t get me wrong, I like empty walls sometimes also – and to the extent that it has helped preserve and even unify a small neighborhood it does something most art seldom even tries to do, which is to be of service to human beings.

And some sport examples of cleverness worthy of Magritte, perhaps, such as this painting of a red plastic chair on the wall next to its real-life model, but rather than an advert for American soda pop, the inscription on the 2-dimensional version kindly advises us (in Korean): ‘Don’t sit here!!’



 you can only sit in one of these chairs

I suppose you could think of the place as an outdoor gallery, though of course you can’t buy anything to bring home and put up on your own walls at home. There is an indoor gallery along the route, though it was closed for lunch when we were there and I wasn’t in the mood to wait for the curators to come back from their meal.

Apparently it all gets redone every year except for one or two bits that someone decides is worth saving for a while. There is a committee that reviews proposals and decides what will go up next time and where, and what gets to stay a little longer. I might go back there next spring and if I do I’ll have to take a bunch more pictures, I guess.



flying goldfish over Tongyong marina

The very human benefits of such a project might not seem so obvious unless we sit down and talk to people in the midst of it all. As you might guess, the place seems a natural spot for a little cafe – you are on a hill, and even when the weather seems not so good, the view is striking – but you won’t find a Starbucks or even it’s local clone, Angel-in-Us, and I have to suspect it’s because the streets are not really streets but walking paths, narrow enough that shooting the art on the walls can be a little challenging, and often staircases and quite steep. Hence, the big trucks might have a little trouble making deliveries.

There are several little cafes, though, that are run by the people who live in the actual buildings next door or near by – the new status of tourist destination seems to have provided a small livelihood for for a few enterprising folks who, being retired, seem to have some time on their hands and decided to employ it by serving refreshments to those of us who walk up.



 three grandmothers of donpirang

I suppose this is another way of saying, ‘We paid 5 bucks for an instant coffee served in an old ceramic mug – but the view out the window was great.’

We chatted a bit with the three ladies above – yes I know, one of them is wearing a marijuana print blouse, and yes maybe a salesclerk was having a goof when he sold it to her, but let’s not speak of it, okay? – and one of them made an aside that I confess I found a little heartwarming: ‘The nicest thing about all this is that we don’t just sit around all day or have to travel off to see our daughters and grandchildren – we can be busy and people come to us, and we can talk.’

I definitely have more photos from my (very short) summer vacation, and I’m sure I’ll show you some more of them one of these days, but before we go, here’s a TED video about a project I referred to in passing above.



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