And for the moment, at least, a lazy Sunday morning chewing through Alex Garland's novel "The Beach" seemed the best of all possibilities. Especially when, minutes later, a shroud of gray settled over the sun and stayed put for the next few hours, bringing on a few light showers that lasted until late morning.
By 11:30 I was tired of waiting for the clouds to burn off, and eager to see a bit more of Busan. I had hoped for bright skies and beach-perfect weather, but I'd make do with whatever I had at my disposal. So I pulled a slipdress over my swimming suit and headed toward the metro station. An hour later I was stepping off the metro in Dongbaek, a 15-minute walk to the rocky headlands on a small peninsula overlooking the Sea of Japan. I wandered through the APEC building, a famous spot for national and international peace talks, and took in the view of Gwangali bridge and the gray-blue water stretching out and beyond it. Here a sailboat breeze along the water, there a fisherman cast his line in the foaming spray.
I walked along the coastline until I reached Haeundae, Busan's most popular beach bustling with more weekend activity than should be allowed on any beachfront. Parasols literally stretched from one corner of the beach to the other, a continual sea of red and white plastic, creating one enormous canopy of shade for the sun-phobic beachgoers (is that an oxymoron, or is it just me?) settling into the sand.
After some ordeal trying to communicate to the eager entrepreneurs flocking to me that I didn't want a parasol, beach chair, or anything else for that matter, I managed to miraculously find some unshaded spot to spread out my meager towel and relax under the cloud-covered sky. No sooner had I stretched out and begun to relax, then a high-pitched voice squealed from mounted loudspeakers just a few yards from where I lay, shattering any semblance of peacefulness I had begun to spin around me. It didn't take long for me to realize that the obnoxious loudspeaker announcements were more or less a permanent fixture, background noise to the caucophany of distractions swirling around me.
This was a beach, was it not? People did come here to relax, did they not? This has to amount to one of the most stress-inducing beach experiences I've had thus far...
Minutes later, I woke to see a fiesty ajumma rattling off some unpleasant-sounding words aimed at me, pointing at her beach mats and gesturing to me wildly, as if I were some kind of low-life for taking up her precious sand space without agreeing to pay for the pleasure of using one of her plastic beach mats. I hastily gathered up my things and stomped off northward, in disbelief at the impossibility of relaxation to be found on Haeundae. I must have lucked out because, after walking for several minutes, I came to what appeared to be the perimeter of a sound stage and just adjacent to it, a comparably quiet spot of sand where I promptly parked it.
I spent the next hour in relative peace, despite the continual stream of people traipsing up and down the boardwalk just behind me. At one point, the Korean family spread out in a beach tent just next to me made their way to my towel with a hunk of juicy watermelon to share. It was a simple gesture, but went a long way towards smoothing over the irritations of the day.
I rounded out my day with a late-afternoon trip to nearby Yongungsa Temple, about an hour by bus northward along the coast. This Buddhist temple is set beautifully on an outcropping of rocks along the shore. And between stone carvings, lilting monk-led melodies, and a massive gold-laquered smiling Buddha set into the hillside, it was the perfect place to ward off the heat of the day.
I sat for awhile on the rocks overlooking the grayish waves rippling below, watching the parade of Korean parents toting youngsters, older couples hobbling up and down the stone-carved steps leading to the temple complex, others stepping forward to light incense and send a prayer to the skies.
As night began to fall over Busan, I took one last subway ride to Gwanali Beach, hoping to enjoy a little bit of the night scene that comes to life here on summer evenings. Sure enough, there was no shortage of couples, families, and larger gatherings of people milling about, parked on blankets along the beachfront, walking to and from the restaurant area where flashy, multi-story buildings glowed with neon lights of enticement, and looking on at dancers on a wide stage, performing for an appreciative audience under the stars. The energy of the locale was so enjoyable that I felt a bit disappointed at the realization that I had no one to linger here longer with. But this is the trade-off for the freedom of traveling alone.
And with that, I began my hour-long walk and metro ride back to Marina's flat, where I finally got to meet the girl who saved me from bumming off a park bench the night before. As it turns out, Marina was absolutely delightful to visit with; an optimistic and warm young woman who had no doubt been dealt a challenging hand at the public school where she had been working for the past month since coming to Korea. Talking to her brought home to me a wave of gratitude for the teaching situation that I have been given in Seosan.
It's always tempting to compare and to assume that others have things better than you. Marina's apartment, for example, was much more modern and spacious than my own. She lived in the middle of a thriving metropolis with access to beautiful mountain trails and beaches, and on an excellent train line connecting her to points all over the country. On the surface, it seemed, I really had the short end of the stick. But after spending some time visiting with her, I began to see that truly, everything evens out, and that for me, teaching at EGA is the best of all possible scenarios for me at this point in time.
Day 2 of vacation week had come to a close. It had been eventful, moments of relaxation sandwiched between overpopulated beachfronts and a plethora of perspiration. But all things considered, today had been a discovery, a change of pace, and a soft adventure. And with a little rest, I'd be ready to do it all over again tomorrow.