April 23, 2016, late afternoon. I’m sitting on a rooftop cafe savouring a bowl of red bean soup. It’s thick, sweet and more filling than I expected. The sun is setting and the wind is getting a bit cold. I’m writing about the day as I overlook pastel-coloured buildings of Gamcheon Culture Village, fishing ports and ocean. To the west, a rooster is crowing. To my left, a man in sweatpants hangs up laundry on his rooftop. His silhouette moves slowly, occasionally blocking my view of the cheerful colours in this artistic village, painted by art students in 2009. A couple stray cats meow and wander through the streets, underneath a complicated maze of drooping power lines.
Most people here are tourists, Korean or east Asian, with very few Caucasians. Most look like they’re here for a day trip, like me. We sat on the same crowded tiny bus, winding up and around narrow roads to get up the hill. Together, we pass shops selling fruit, vegetables, and run-down restaurants. We get off and land in the tourist section of this village – lively and charming with cafes, music, food stalls, modest restaurants and paintings on almost every imaginable surface. I buy a stack of beautiful postcards, by an independent artist who depicts scenes around Busan. His wife asks where I’m from and wraps my purchase in a plastic bag with little yellow hearts.
At some point, I wander away from the crowd. Down the stairs. Past mops and brooms. Plants in the alleyway, leaking pipes, the faint smell of sewage. Past an old lady who is quietly folding up laundry. Despite the intrusion on her privacy, she hands me a pack of newly packaged tissues, with a small nod – a gift, for me. She didn’t smile but I feel a sincerity in her actions.
The people here live simply. They do not have the luxury of the life and opportunities that I’ve had.
At some point, I leave the village. I walk a different way up the hill, back to the bus stop. I buy fresh strawberries from a middle-aged woman who patiently waits for me, as I clumsily sort out my change. Behind her are three women – laughing, talking, peeling onions, cutting garlic, preparing for the week. Further up on the hill, is a gate enclosing a big building with green manicured lawns and white statues. I look in and wonder who lives there.
It’s almost dark now.
On the bus ride down, I think about the gift of being able to travel. To see, to hear, to feel, to experience, what others – different than me, yet the same as me – see, hear, feel and experience. As writer Gustave Flaubert once said – “Travel makes one modest. You see what a tiny place you occupy in the world“.