Saturday, May 29, 2010

City of Water

I will always think of  부산 (Busan) as a City of Water. Perhaps this is an inaccurate representation, but having only been there once, and unlikely to ever return, this image of the city is all that I will ever have. 

Busan is the second largest city in Korea, and fills the southern coast of the country. It lives on the water, and drinks from the East China Sea. The first day I was there, it was sunny and warm. Then, it didn't stop raining for the next two days. By the time I left, the streets were like little rivers, curling between buildings, and stone stairs throughout town had gutters cut down the sides, creating waterfalls that cascaded all the way down on either side of your feet. 

Most cities have a background ambiance of sound that is particular to them, like their own personal fingerprint. But all I can remember from Busan is an orchestra of raindrops. I remember laying on my "bed" (aka a blanket on the floor) of the hostel I was staying in, right across from the raw fish market and docks, with the window open, listening to the rain crash down on pavement, drum across wooden roofs, dance over aluminum garbage bins, and crawl through the swaying trees. I thought at the time how loud it made the city, and how different it was from snow, which made the whole world quiet. 

At one point, I climbed up to the top of the building my hostel was in, and crawled out onto the roof. I stood in the rain and watched it fall down and drown the city. It's a remarkable sight, looking down and seeing a sea of moving umbrellas in a hundred different colors, crawling down the sidewalks like bright, wet caterpillars. 

Well, the first day I was in Busan, there was absolutely no indication of any of this. The sun was high and hot, and it was Buddha's birthday. We decided to go see Beomeosa Temple, the largest Buddhist temple in South Korea. It was up in the mountains, cradled by a whole lot of green. We took a taxi, but the curving, one-way road winding up was crammed. As our cab fare ticked higher, we decided to just pay it and hike the last mile and half. The hike was gorgeous, and took us through trees, across stone bridges, down meandering paths and icy streams. It was so stunning, with a beauty that is not mine. I'm constantly reminded that I'm only a visitor here, and can experience Korea's beauty, but can never claim it. 

The temple itself was magnificent, with ornate buildings and stone carvings, and a sea of colored lanterns. But it was the tiny glimpses of humility that struck me most. As I wound through the lanterns and climbed the stairs toward the Buddha statue in the center, there was a small gathering of five or six old Korean women, hunched and wrinkled, sitting on prayer mats. Two more were on their knees, folded over on the ground, praying. 

And I thought about how many people were down below, eating the free temple food and laughing, and how few were up there, praying to the only god they knew.

The world is changing so fast. The youth here grow up in a fast, chattering, glittering world, and forget the faith and the religion of their fathers. And I wonder if Buddha will die with those few old women who still honor him, if he will fade away in the face of a new generation that worships other gods. And a part of me fears that the same thing is happening to Christ. No mortal man has died so many deaths as our immortal Savior, as He perishes with every generation that forgets Him.

The other sight that struck me at the temple was a tiny bracelet of wooden beads draped over the ear of one of the statues. All along the row of stone-carved beasts, shiny coins had been placed in piles on the statues' heads, shoulders, and mouths. And in amongst the treasure was that one band of plain beads, hanging there surrounded by others' silver. What an offering. What a humble, perfect gift for a god/prophet who taught his people to forsake the riches of the world.

There are so many stories about this trip. Of necessity, I must skip many. But I would like to mention the motorcycle-riding monk. After we came down from the temple and were eating rice cakes under the lantern canopy, we were approached by this old Korean monk who asked if he could have a picture with us. There were three of us girls and one guy. He asked the guy in our group to take the picture. Then he wanted individual shots with each of us girls. I was nice and polite, but inside I was cracking up. Afterwards, he regaled us with his many travels and showed us all the pictures on his camera of him with beautiful women all over the world. He then physically herded us toward the parking lot to show us his Honda motorcycle, and told us all about it. Pulling back his monk's robe, he showed us the Honda T-shirt he wore beneath. 

Well, the next day the water came. And we visited the beach and played in the surf, and found seashells tucked in the corners of rough, black rocks, and dodged the umbrellas on the mostly empty beach and watched the tide take the raindrops and make them part of the ocean. 

There was one older Korean lady who was perched on one of the jagged black rocks piled along the coast at the far end of the beach. She was just sitting there, looking out to sea, a blue and white umbrella hanging on her shoulders. I could only see her from behind, her hunched back and bright umbrella, facing off into the wild sea.The cold rain made the water seem unstable and frenzied, and more than usually mysterious. The ocean was not inviting, as it always is on a sunny day, neither was it menacing as it is in a storm. It was independent, aloof, and quite unknowable. And the image of her looking out at that ocean, lonely and free, was somehow riveting.