Beach & Coastal Walking, Korea, Urban Walking
Comments 14

The Gladiators


It seemed I’d stuck my big western nose, and my camera lens, into one too many shipyard doorways. The security guard dashed out so quickly, right after taking the shot below, I was sure he’d been watching and waiting to pounce:

I backed off a step and he did a little rage dance, as though doubly furious that his reprimand would be wasted on this foreigner. Silly me: I feigned ignorance, no doubt poorly, saying “No pictures?” with my tone and expression set to Bambiesque Innocence.

“BLARRGGEUGHGHHEH!” is what his response sounded like, though there may have been words in there beneath the rage.

“Okay, okay…”

I strolled down the alley, feigning nonchalance, though I could feel those eyes trained like crosshairs on my back, and stopped right here, still within range of the guard — and, I was certain, at least one closed-circuit camera. This looked like a pleasant spot to enjoy a sandwich, and I took out my lunch and sat down where I could watch the street:

I realised I was hungry. I enter these trancelike states sometimes when I’m walking in a new and fascinating area with my camera — I was a virtual zombie for three months in Switzerland, a one-eyed zombie with a viewfinder conjoined with my face — and the guard had shaken me quite abruptly back to reality.

I’d been walking for a few hours, starting at the fresh-fish markets, which are always enthralling (seriously!), and working my way through the dried-fish zone and over the bridge once more to Yeong-do, where I’d lost myself quite willingly among the piles of rope and nets, the bollards and cables and crates and chains, the whole fascinating mess of the wharves and shipyards and dry-docks.

I looked across the bay towards the fish markets. The electrified guitar of a busker lunged across the water. I was a little uneasy. I felt watched. All over Korea — I’m talking everywhere — you see these damned CCTV warning signs and stickers. If you thought we were over-scrutinised in the west, you might quickly turn into a blubbering paranoid over here.

The guard had gone back inside, but now three burly fellows came down the alley and got inside a big black car. The car didn’t move. Were they monitoring me? Surely I was a little too obvious to be a North Korean spy?

At last they started the car and drove off. I went on my way…

..into a district of ancient machine shops, marine engine parts glistening in freshly oiled piles, and paint-splattered Europeans, at least some of them Russian, glaring at me as I passed.

A giant…something loomed over grimy waterfront hovels:

I couldn’t shake those heebie-jeebies. I felt like I stood out, like I’d broken some unwritten rule by straying out of the tourist zone. Maybe you can’t even walk around the docks with a camera anymore in these crazy times.

I left the water and headed into the thriving shopping zone. I tried to enjoy it, but the magic had gone and I turned and aimed at the bridge again. One last stroll through the alleys…

..and under these gangways where a shift was just finishing, workers emerging to pull protective masks from their dusty faces and breathe in the cooling air of dusk:

I reached the water near the bridge and sat down to eat a Snickers…

..and damned if there wasn’t another black car nearby, engine idling.

I knew I’d probably just seen too many movies, but I soon got up and moved on, flinching a little every time I raised the camera — but it was just too colourful and dramatic to ignore:

Suddenly a bunch of boys of eight or nine came flying down the footpath, almost knocking me into the water, each emitting robotic HELLO! HOW ARE YOU? PLEASED TO MEET YOU!s as they whooshed past. I ignored them — I wasn’t at work now — and came to what might have been their older brothers huddling and scurrying and carrying on with a great commotion:

How refreshing to see boys enjoying the outdoors, and not a handheld entertainment device in sight! Instead, they were making their own fun with hooks, line and a container full of chunks of fish. They would lower the bait quite a distance into the water and within seconds a hapless crustacean would grab at the windfall…

..only to be jerked out of the water amid cries of triumph and quickly shared with the fisher’s cohorts.

I’d hate to be reborn as a sea creature near Busan:

Two adversaries would be prodded together till their natural instincts were sufficiently aroused, and the tournament commenced:

I quickly immersed myself in the action with genuine fascination. The kids seemed to enjoy the audience. The limbs littering the arena suggested it wasn’t as much fun for the competitors, however. Is there any force more murderous than a group of boys with a communal bloodlust? My own cohorts and I committed appalling crimes against innocent armies of soldier crabs when I was their age…

Barely had one bout concluded than they began seeking fresh talent:

A final shot of the proud hunter…

..and with the sun setting I bade them farewell to aim at the bridge.

I felt reinvigorated after that encounter, and even when I passed a parked police car with two occupants faintly visible within, I convinced myself they were just sleeping and went right on taking pictures till it was almost dark:

The bridge and the western sky were aglow with warm light, and I took my sweet time. When I finally approached the far side, Busan, stretching into the hills, was sparkling beneath the cool blue cloak of early evening:

Soft Boys, ‘The Return of the Sacred Crab’:

~ And that’s all the Goat wrote



  1. I noticed during my couple of days in Seoul that the Korean language sounds like the speaker is angry. Pretty scary when you don’t understand a single word.

    I hate the robotic greetings by complete strangers, although in my case I get the “Harro!” from a group of boys AFTER they’ve passed me, followed by giggling like a bunch of girls.

    And I agree that it’s nice to see boys outdoors and doing something like fish for crabs instead of playing their portable video games. (I sometimes see this at parks, zoos, museums etc here)

    • Yeah, I’m always turning my head in the office to check out what I think is an argument or dispute, because the teachers talk to each other so LOUDLY and in such a strident, aggressive tone (to my ears). God, it’s no wonder I can’t wait to get out of there at day’s end.

      Yeah, I actually had an “I’m fine” from a kid I’d just passed — from behind me, without my even asking him how he was! Years and years of English and that’s the best they can do… I will not acknowledge these stupid “greetings” from (usually young) strangers. I often ignore them even in the hallways at school. They’re obnoxious, inappropriate and very rude; they are not real communication, they just think they’re being cute. Imagine if, in our country, we hollered at anyone who looked foreign with a few cheesy chunks of rehearsed language! I’ve even had a kid I’d never met come to me and try to “high five” me! I turned away. What, I’m western, so I’m cool? Maybe I should run up to interesting Asians and bust out a bow? And WE DON’T HIGH-FIVE IN AUSTRALIA.

  2. Robert says

    You really conveyed the tension of that confrontation and the period after it – stay away from the covert operatives in those black cars!!

    The Busan skyline shots are interesting – amid the architectural banality, one building stands out. Its roofline looks like three gliding seagulls.

    • Thanks, Robert, yeah, the light of dusk does great favours to a lot of cityscapes, that’s for sure. As for the goons in the black cars: I think I was dangerously close to blubbering paranoid territory there! But I really did feel “watched”, and I always thought that was a cinematic cliche!

    • Ha, you read my mind! I actually played it and decided it might cost me precious readers! But it was a good excuse to play some more Robyn and the lads: I mean, that guitar, Jesus! RH even name-checks Mr Rew on there! I’ll endeavour to send you a copy, stay tuned…

  3. Great pix of those lads! People engaged in an absorbing activity are usually good subjects, aren’t they?

    Glad you got the Snickers in . . . posts of yours just wouldn’t quite be the same without this leitmotif!

    • You know, SW, I’ve been trying hard to get better at street shots, as it’s undeniable most of my walking shots are curiously humanoid-free. And these kids made it easy as they weren’t camera shy and enjoyed having me there. I’m really happy with this little series — it was great fun to watch and shoot, though I wish I’d got more close-ups of the crabs themselves.

  4. You’re certainly out at the right time with those lovely lowlight shots! I’m also impressed by your attempt to accurately record a, ‘BLEUUURRRGGHHHHH!’

    It looks like you’ve adopted a bit of guerilla style photo method? Keep up the sneaky work!

  5. Sundance says

    Good hear a new post from you, Goat!

    I have to respond and say: I was changing planes in the Seoul, South Korea airport back in February of 1997. I had spent a little time in Hong Kong, and was flying back to LA on a direct flight from Seoul. Anyway, I was really enjoying some book (I can’t remember now what I had been reading, but I was truly absorbed!) and after I had perused the gift shop and meandered around the terminal in my section of the Seoul airport, I wanted some peace and quiet where I could read undisturbed during the long layover and I sat down and a few minutes later felt someone looking over my shoulder in the empty waiting room area—And I looked up and suddenly this man abruptly was darting away from me. He had gotten very close to me and had been looking at the book over my shoulder from behind me before I realized he was doing it. The guy literally darted out of the gate waiting area.

    About 10 minutes later I had settled down and relocated to another seat in the empty airplane gate waiting area in my terminal of the Seoul international airport, except this time I picked a seat in an row against a wall (so nobody could sneak up on me again–the waiting area and the section of the terminal I was in was completely empty, mind you!) Again I got totally absorbed in this book I was obsessed with (that now I can no longer remember the name of!) and I’m a five or so minutes in to doing this, and suddenly I feel the presence of another intruder peering over my shoulder! This jackass had crept up in the four or five inches of space between the row of empty gate waiting area seats I had been sitting, and tiptoed his way between within about five feet of me trying to peer over my shoulder and see what I was reading! He abruptly looked up as soon as I felt the intrusion and he bolted!! Though it took him a longer moment or more to backpeddle in such a panicked state out of the tight space he was navigating in and out of the crawl space between the wall and row of plastic airport seats and quickly zip out of the empty waiting area and somewhere down the empty terminal hallway.

    I finally just packed up my small pack and put my book away and walked back to the VERY boring Seoul airport gift shop/magazine area/snack area–that was SO incredibly bland and very boring! I figured the men were security trying to make out what I was reading. But it gave me the creeps!! I had always thought South Korea was a democracy and allowed free movement of its citizens! Creepy! And strangely I felt kind of violated. Needless to say it completely changed how I view South Korea, a country I have never even visited beyond my “Peeping Tom” airport incident. And quite honestly I have no desire to see or visit there at all, where as before? I was completely oblivious to it all. Truly I could care less about ever seeing Korea in any way at all!! My bad experience really intimidated me and gave me the creeps.

    Goat, I really admire your visiting/touring/hiking there. I’m sure there’s A LOT more to Korea that the creepy “thought police” at their airport.

    Enjoy your posts!!



    • Great story, Sundance! I don’t blame you at all for your misgivings about this place. First impressions count for a lot. You know, it wasn’t very long ago at all that this place was run by a succession of military strongmen. The democracy here is relatively new – post-’80s. And though they like to believe they’re living in a thriving, modern, international economic powerhouse, I find that the unsavoury past is never too far beneath the surface. There are times every day when I think I’m in a developing country (to put it politely)…

      You got me at a bad time — I had a shitty day here yesterday that had me reevaluating my time here yet again. At the moment I have to say it’s not a love-hate relationship I have with Korea, it’s more like a quite like-hate thing. Maybe that’ll change with the coming warmer weather.

      As for the peeping Tom — I get stared at very rudely and obviously several times each day. Another example of the third-world reference I made above.

  6. Great photos of a not so pretty place ( unless you believe that beauty is in the eye of the beholder)

    • Thanks, Frank. That horrible word “interesting” comes to mind a lot. But I don’t suppose too many shipbuilding districts anywhere in the world are easy on the eye.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s