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Leaving Busan

Rain is hammering down outside, striking its damp intricate melody on the cacophony of roofs and streets. How could it be rainy season again? Where did the year go?

The shapeless sprawl of Busan took a long time to imprint its layout, and deliver me from following scribbled notes of subway stations and getting off at wrong stops, to cycling alone across the city late at night without a map. On my first day I was afraid to leave my tiny apartment for fear of not finding it again. By now I have a sense of orientation with the landscape, and with the food too, and the people. Sadly I cannot traverse the language for any distance beyond a motley crew of common words. At best I can read hangul painfully slowly in the hope that the key words are Konglish.

In less than two days though I will be gone, assuming I make the airport on time and my trail through the international jet traffic is routine. Then the process of reverse culture shock will begin, with restraint of head bowing, an Irish diet of potatoes, and the pain of all of those high prices. Goodbye cheap dentists, taxis, snacks, alcohol, Internet, haircuts, and doctors. Hello the dismal fiscals of the Eurozone.

Last week I spent a day with my camera and tripod in Nampodong, in a vague effort to capture something of its detail and motion. Over 3000 pictures, 16Gb of jpegs crammed onto the memory card, two drained batteries, and many bemused stares later I settled into a cafe and fought with my laptop to stitch them together into a messy montage. Over the top went a song I recorded right before I came to Korea, a demo quality DIY effort inspired by the search for meaning and progress that scatters us from home in the first place.

As now, it was raining then in Nampo, but only in fits and bursts, and a steady breeze dragged the drops and their clouds and mist from the open sea over the squat mountains, whose lower shoulders support mazes of steep streets and dense hives of irregular houses. From the water’s edge at Jagalchi, among the camera-carrying visitors and fish-gutting workers, I waited and watched the weather roll across Yeongdo to the east and Amnam to the west. The bridge from Songdo appeared and disappeared in the fog. Boats scurried across the port from every direction, cranes rose and spun over hulls pulled from the water.

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Behind me an ajumma in a big black saloon runs over an ajoshi’s foot. He yells and beats her windscreen with his umbrella as she struggles to realize her error. Faces momentarily turn to look then gradually go back to catching, poking, gutting, selling, buying, or eating something that until recently swam, crawled, or drifted in the open water. Every inch of the market is laden with the ocean’s bounty. Some flopping, some already fried, they all wait the same fate. Fat mackerel slice easily under quick steel blades.

Only a street’s width from the sea the clamour of the fish market begins to crossfade with heavy traffic and high street shopping. Another intricate maze of detail and motion takes hold, another forest of competing crowded stalls, cosmetics shops, chain cafés, and busy restaurants. Here too there is a restless energy. Competitive and hurried, with a stratified social structure that is cohesive, conservative, and consumeristic, the streets are alive under the canopy of chaotic wires.

This mass of humanity seems comfortable when concentrated; gaggles of students, herds of tourists, a stream of color-coded couples, and the odd old grandfather pulling his stacked cart of cardboard to earn some minor measure of paper money. The latest overproduced pop tunes try to drown each other out from each well-staffed well-branded business, though most heads are slightly bowed, not out of respect, disregard, or politeness, but to catch the light best from the necessary smartphone.

A few more streets north and the ground climbs to ascend to Yongdusan park. Above this rises Yongdusan tower, its lower half currently smothered by scaffolding. From its lofty vantage I rise to get a broader view, and try to pick out familiar details below. Now I can see beyond Nampodong, from the ship strewn sea over the streets thrown on streets up to the weather satellite of Gudeoksan. I find the construction site opposite my just-left apartment (another health center), and a little further on the area where the school I taught in will be on the second class of the day. I can name the students and the books they will be using.

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After a year soaking in the detail it is still hard to get a broader grip on Korean life. A year of long evenings of English classes, hundreds of hakwon students willing or dragged, weekends of food and fun and trips to new places, and slowly, slowly the four distinct seasons giving way to each other as the clock ticked one rainy season to the next.

After a day spent chasing the tails of everyday lives followed a few of rest and easy leisure. My classes taught, my visa edging to expiry, my plans for the future as cloudy as the monsoon season’s grey temper, I will catch a flight with a headful of Busan, and will dream scattered farewells in the night from a tin tube going west in the sky. Maybe I will be back- I cant say. But it is better to head home with a heavy heart, because if leaving has no cost, then the stay has not been of value.

I expect a rainy welcome in Dublin, and a sharp recognition of myself in a familiar world. Another bus to bring me further west to Galway, maybe more rain once over the Shannon, and welcome exercise for the green cones in my eyes. Family, friends, sleep and jet lag, and anxious promptings about what to do next. Has this thrown stone another stretch to skip?

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