This is a guest post by Denise from Travel with Den Den. Check out her website to find out more about the travels from the Maltese girl making her way around the world.
The drums beat rhythmically on that Sunday afternoon, or to be more precise, what was being played were K’kwaenggwaris (small gongs), Chings (large gongs) JanGos (hourglass-shaped drums) and Buks (barrel drums).
What I was witnessing was a street performance of SamulNori, a traditional Korean form of music, where Samul translates as ‘four things’ and ‘Nori’ as ‘to play’. The musicians wore an elaborate costume made of baggy white blouses and trousers, black waistcoats, three large ribbons (one yellow, one red and one blue) wound around different body parts and all ending up tied in bows around their backs, and disk-shaped hats with two tassels hanging from the back, one twice as long as the other.
The playing of the instruments was accompanied by a delicate choreography of light steps, elegant footwork, twirling of tassels and dexterous movements with drum sticks. A large crowd had gathered around to witness the spectacle and one particular middle-aged lady could not contain herself and jumped around leisurely to the sound of the beating drums. Most of the other viewers were more restrained, but nevertheless periodically cheered and clapped in appreciation.
This was my introduction to the wonderful world of Insadong district in Seoul, a place to which I would regularly return during the course of my month in Korean, sometimes to purchase yet another cheap and beautifully crafted souvenir to take home, sometimes to have dinner in a restaurant where I was sure to find an English translation of the complicated menu, and often, just to wonder its streets as I pondered the happenings of the day.
If you are looking to meet other Westerners, then this is the place to go – on my trips there I always came across more than in any other part of Seoul – but that does not mean that the locals shun it. On that particular Sunday, the nearby Tapgol park was filled with old men chatting or playing cards, and the crowd taking in the SamulNori performance were also almost all middle-aged or older Koreans, with the odd Westerner here and there. The younger generation of Koreans were found roaming the shopping and restaurant areas, the women looking impeccably groomed, wearing the latest fashion items and elaborate high-heeled shoes.
Like many of them, I would come to love Insadong during the evening hours, when the goods on display glistened under the stoplights and the pictures of myriad dishes enticed me out of the cold and into the comfortable eateries.
During one of my subsequent trips there, I came across a group of three westerners playing jazzed up versions of Hey Jude and O Sole Mio, a lone monk playing and singing, a man who kept trying to speak to me and followed me around until I disappeared into one of the shops and hoped he would leave, and most particularly, the little children.
I was wandering aimlessly as usual when a little Korea girl in her school uniform stopped me and asked me if she could have ‘an interview’ with me. She was clasping the hands of two even younger boys at both sides and she looked at me with lethargic, half-opened eyes.
‘Where do you come from?’ She asked, looking around her uneasily.
‘From Malta’, I answered with a big smile. ‘Do you know where that is?’ After I had blurted it out, I suddenly realised that I had just asked a little girl from Korea whether she knew where my tiny insignificant island was located. I mentally gave myself a hit on the head. Of course, she stared at me and shook her head. I proceeded to take out my guidebook and showed her its approximate location on the world map at the back. She looked at it, thought for a second and then continued, ‘Why did you come to Korea?’ she asked, still avoiding eye contact.
‘To visit friends.’
‘Do you like Korea?’
By the time we had reached the third question, I realised that I might have as well told her that I liked her country because of the groups of dancing monkeys at every corner, and that had I said that, she would have simply nodded and moved on to the next question. Later I would get to know that students were often sent on little expeditions as homework by their teachers, expeditions aimed at finding foreigners and practising English by asking them questions.
I smiled at the little girl and told her I had to start heading home.
On my last Sunday in Korea, I went back to Insadong to say goodbye to the spot which had become my favourite within the city. Again, I succumbed to a few more purchases and bought a hot chocolate to sip as I watch the young couples stroll by.
A little girl holding two young boys stepped in front of me.
‘Can I have an interview with you?’ she asked.
I smiled. It was the same girl.
‘We already spoke.’ I said. She looked back at me blankly.
‘Two weeks ago.’
‘Oh,’ she said softly.
Not even sure whether she had recognised me or not, she smiled shyly and walked away.