The Jackpot

Time Warp: Back to the evening of the fifth day of my bike trip in Korea. I had just passed over the top of Jinburyeong.

While I sat and panted in a convenience store parking lot, a few people gave me the ol’ thumbs up for making it all the way up. Over from the corner came the lady who was “manning” the steamed corn stall, bearing two ears. She offered them to me, explaining that her daughter was backpacking around the world and was currently in the Middle East – maybe it was Iran – and that she was always worried about whether her daughter was eating well and staying health. Thinking of her own daughter, and of my parents who must be equally concerned, she gave me the corn and wished me a safe trip.

I scarfed it and rode on. Though the ride up the east side of the mountain had been sparsely populated, the west side had been made into a sort of high-altitude valley resort town. Restaurants, souvenir shops, and hotels lined both sides of the six lane highway, and I could feel all of the fuzzies about nature that had built up on my way up the mountain start to morph into cynicism about people, their greed, their idiocy, their inability to understand beauty, and so forth. I welcome food and lodging just about anywhere – after all, people have to eat and live, and travelers have to travel – but do twenty foot tall neon signs really do anyone any good? Ever?

I was too angry to stop and eat, and also too concerned that if I did, the sun would set and I’d have to spend a night in a hotel rather than camp. As I made my way out of town, the road split into two. One side went up a steep incline and through a tunnel, undoubtedly a shortcut down the other side of the mountain; the other, which bicycles were directed to take, went the long way, around the side. My first instinct was to fight the man by taking the short, fast, dark, dangerous, and probably more-likely-to-cause-lung-cancer tunnel way but, perhaps still under the influence of the mellowness from before, I decided to put the brakes on the meaningless struggling for just once.

That turned out to be quite a nice decision, as the road led me alongside a river, again sandwiched between mountains on either side. No cars, no smoke, just fresh air, lots of rocks, lots of green, lots of good. The afternoon’s fondness for the mountain appeared once again, this time in the guise of a desire to descend to the river, to wash in its crisp waters, and to camp by its side. I spent the next thirty minutes of riding keeping my eyes peeled for a perfect place to camp, but they were few and far between. Further, a guardrail ran every inch of the side of the road that bordered the river, making it a major hassle, though admittedly not physically impossible, for me to get down. The angry thoughts surfaced again: Why are people allowed to buy cars that ravage for the environment, while I’m not allowed to practice my no-trace camping? Why does the safety of the car driver take precedence over the cyclist’s, or even pedestrian’s, right to go where he chooses? Why not just reduce the speed limit by half? Why do we make concessions to speed but not to beauty, to cleanliness, to slowness?

My determination to sleep next to the river grew and grew, but soon enough I passed through another resort town, so noisy and bright that trying to enjoy the river’s peace would be futile. On the other hand, the sun had nearly set and about five or ten kilometers ahead of me I could make out the outlines of apartment buildings, indicating that I had just about reached Inje, the biggest city in the region. Stuck between crappy resort town that pretends to love nature, and crappy city that has no pretenses of doing so. What’s worse, hypocrisy or just not caring? A classic Fauxbo’s dilemma.

No solution came to mind, so I turned to my stomach. I had already had several bibimbaps (mixed rice and veg bowls), sundubujjigaes (runny tofu in spicy broth), and jeongsik (bowl of rice and a hundred veggie sides) on the trip, so I looked for something a bit different, and finally settled on deodeokgui, (roasted Codonopsis Lanceolata. I don’t know what it is in normal English, but it’s a root, the “little cousin” of Ginseng.) The restaurant, which had a covered pebble garden and a plain old non-neon sign, was empty.

A balding old man stood on a footstool in front sawing limbs off of a tree. I told him, consciously trying to keep the desperation out of my voice, that I’d like to eat at his restaurant, but that I’d also like to camp outside of the city, but that if I ate, it’d be dark and I’d have nowhere to go, so could I please pitch my tent here in his little pebble garden. He said no problem and called his wife to get me a menu. In the meantime we exchanged some pleasantries. He explained to me, cheerfully, in English that was deeply broken, that his brother lived in the USA and that he’d been there a few times to visit. It occurred to me that this guy approached English much like I approach foreign languages: the fact that I suck, (at the beginning), is natural, nothing to be ashamed of. Why should he know English? Why should I know Chinese? We speak what we were born with, and any word or phrase or two that we manage to pick up somewhere else is just a bonus. In the beginning, accuracy be damned. It’s the attempt at communication that counts; the kindness, the appreciation, and the sheer desire to communicate with another that underlie the words themselves often shine through all the more clearly when one takes the effort to express something in a language other than one’s own. A kindred soul, in the form of a seventy year old Korean man!

The wife soon appeared and handed me a menu. Practically without browsing, I picked the deodeokgui (pronounced duh-duhk-goo-ee), which cost ten bucks. The “fresh mountain vegetable bibimbap” also tickled my fancy, and was three bucks cheaper, but I figured I ought to spend a little more if they were going to give me lodging as well, and also, DDGI is one of my favorite Korean foods, made all the better by how hard it is to find. My choice gave her a pleasant little surprise, in a kind of “what’s a young(ish) foreigner doing eating this stuff? Koreans under thirty hardly touch it, let alone order it for the centerpiece of their meal” sort of way. She smiled and asked if I was hungry and I said yeah, I had just come over the mountain at Jinburyeong. She smiled again and headed off.

My choice also won over the grandpa, who spontaneously suggested that I sleep on the floor of the Korean-style section of the restaurant* (where there are carpets on the floor and guests all take off their shoes to enter). I gladly accepted and thanked him profusely and, in a rare gambit, opened up fully, telling him that I had just been over the mountain and along the river and that I couldn’t bear the thought of winding up such a beautiful day in a sauna in the city that night. I think this moved him a bit, and started to ask about my journey, in particular about the way over the mountain. Was it tough? How long did it take? You must be quite strong. To this last comment, I offhandedly replied “No, just patient. Once you’re on your way up, you don’t have any choices anyway. Even if you have to push the bike up, there’s no turning back.” He appeared to take it philosophically, saying that he like that I put it that way. Then grandma shouted out that the food was ready.

There’s an expression in Korean: “상다리 부서지겠다,” (Sangdari buseojigetda, “table legs break will”) meaning that the food is so plentiful that its weight will cause the table’s legs to collapse. I tell you this because grandma brought me the most giant, plentiful, beautiful, cornocopious** spread I have ever in my life seen. (Honesty check: I’ve seen bigger spreads at fancy Jeongsik places, but I’ve never been as excited as I was about this one.) Sauteed eggplants, candied soybeans, old sour kimchi, stir-fried kimchi, pickled sesame leaves, julienned radish, a big bowl of soybean paste soup, a GIGANTIC serving of deodeokgui (going on ten times the size of the portion you get at the one place in Daegu that serves it), and TWO bowls of rice. I was starting to regret saying I was hungry. Then again, I figured I had earned a good meal.

I started to chow down. Everything was incredible. The eggplants squeaked just enough when chewed; the radish was extra spicy, the kimchi perfectly pungent. The soybean paste soup was astounding, with a deep spiciness, but not too much salt or stink. Not to mention that the tofu was, no exaggeration, the best I’d ever had. I told them so after one bite. It had just the right firmness, and crumbled just right when you bit it. Better yet, it actually had its own taste, rich and full without being overly beany. In all these years of vegetarianism, I had never encountered tofu that I would really want to eat without some sort of sauce or soup. Even at its best, it always just seems to act as a vehicle or filler. This tofu, though, stood out as the best part of the soup, the most memorable part of the meal. When I asked why it was so good, she said it was because she had made it herself with beans they had raised, organically, in their own fields just behind the restaurant. I had struck gold!

Radish

Eggplant

Beans
Kimchi

My enthusiasm for the food and the two of them and their way of life shone through and grandpa happily broke out a big bottle of rice wine made, in the local style, with a bit of corn thrown in as well. Of course, when drinking rice wine, one needs appropriate side dishes, so he ordered up a couple local-specialty potato pancakes as well. The booze flowed as we excitedly conversed about farming, organic, the land, community, slow life, slow food; it turns out that not only the tofu, but everything they served, was homemade, home-raised, organic, though not certified. Even the deodeok itself – grandpa had hand-picked it while ambling around the mountainside. We also spoke of travel, grandpa commented that he wished he had had the courage to do what I was doing, and what I would soon be doing (I.E. what I’m doing now, fauxboing around China) when he was young. I responded soberly (in only one of the two senses of the word) that I was a lucky guy to be in the position to do it.

Corn booze

Meanwhile, My philosophy of “Save the best bite for last,” along with the intensity of the conversation and, perhaps most importantly, the positioning of things on the table, had so far kept me from trying the deodeok. I was not the least bit surprised when it blew my mind. Just the right mix of texture and tender, tough and soft. The only way I can think to convey it is to say that good deodeok to me must be like good ribs to a full-time meat aficionado. And the pancakes! Made with local glutinous potatoes, ground into a powder before being turned into a batter and fried. Crispy, golden outside, chewy, steamy inside, dipped just so in soy-sauce. Heaven. I made some sort of joke about extending my trip for a day or two just to eat more, and he replied jovially that he wouldn’t have it, that he wouldn’t stand in the way of my travels.

Beloved Dedeok Root

In some sort of vicious virtuous cycle, my clear love of the food turned the couple more generous, as grandpa broke out his own home-brewed Ogapi (Korean mountain herb, not in my dictionary) booze. I of course loved this as well, smoky and medicine and sweet and strong. It must have been apparent that my head was spinning – only half from the booze, mind you – and that my energy was waning, so grandpa called it a night, insisting that I use their shower and then promising to feed me more before sending

Then, before retiring to our separate wings, he taught me a new word: 횡재 (Hwaeng-jae). I understood that it meant extreme good luck, or jackpot. Here’s what the dictionary has to say:

“A windfall; a godsend; an acquisition; a find; a killing; a cleanup; a bonanza; to fall in with a piece of (good) luck; make a rare find; realize a windfall profit; receive one’s share of the windfall; make a killing; strike a bonanza.”

No doubt.

*Does it strike anyone else as odd that I interpret the reception of an invitation to sleep on the floor as a great stroke of good fortune?

**Word officially coined.

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7 Responses to The Jackpot

  1. Are you trying to throw us off guard? I thought you were in China?

  2. Mike says:

    Thus the first sentence!

    Why is it that it’s day 21 of my China/World trip and I still want to finish writing about days 6 and 7 of my Korean tour?

  3. AZ says:

    This is somehow deeply touching. I could feel my tear ducts holding back as I read about the generosity of these folks, the kindred-spiritedness you felt while being with them, the delicious food. This is what traveling is all about, I think, yes? And the food!

  4. Andy says:

    Sangdari buseojigetda: my new favorite phrase.

    I can’t quite believe the person writing this post about all these crazy foods is the same one who literally vomited after eating scrambled eggs and/or fried potatoes.

    For some reason I was thinking at the end of the post you were going to reveal that they had robbed you during the night. Am I a cynic?

  5. Mike says:

    @Andy: Not only did I puke, I also cried. One time I even flushed an orange down the toilet because I didn’t want my dad to see that I couldn’t eat it. Will I be that/this weird forever?

    @Anna: For sure one of the highlights of my travels. If I run into folks like this even just once a year, I’ll be amazed.

  6. even though you experience a nice food in your travel… where are you now?

  7. nice adventure and nice food