This will not be as artful as I’d hoped – so many adjectives! – but I am back from one conference and off to another (and then another and another) and I fear if I do not write something now, the rest of the experience will pass unchronicled and I’ll be left with only an initial Hello from Songjeong. So here is the rest of it…

THE CONFERENCE

To recap, I came to South Korea (aka the Republic of Korea) to attend the 7th International Marine Debris Conference, which is hosted by the United Nations, NOAA (aka the United States weather service) and others. The conference brought together academics, activists and industry players from all over the globe to present on and discuss a variety of topics related to “marine debris,” a euphemism for plastic pollution. 

I presented in three (!!!) different sessions representing the full spectrum of Surfrider’s plastic pollution work. I’d had some second thoughts about going, concerned the trip might a big investment of time and travel funds without necessarily much in the way of return. However, the opportunities to speak to our work (and practice my public speaking skills) proved worthwhile. Also valuable: the chance to reconnect with old colleagues, meet new ones I knew only from Zoom and listen to people from around the world share their stories. So, all good there.

IN WHICH I CAUSE A BUILDING EVACUATION

On the less-good side of things, I set a small stovetop… “fire” might be too strong a word… in the Airbnb. What happened was, first, the time change made thinking hard and, second, I couldn’t find a vegetarian meal anywhere, so I ended up buying ramen at a convenience store thinking I’d boil some water in the apartment and call that lunch.

Thus tired and hungry, I returned to the tiny Airbnb, peeled the paper top off the ramen, turned on the induction stove, reached down to pick the kettle off the shelf, filled it with water and set it on the stove top. Then I sat back down in front of my laptop waiting for the water to heat up. Ten minutes or so later, a horrible smell made me look up. The smoke billowing from the kitchen prompted a dash to the stove. Oh shit, I realized, the kettle was an electric one – I noticed the base on the shelf at this point – and now it was melting all over the induction stove.

I lifted the kettle off the stove and set it in the sink. It was at this point that I saw a circle of flames on the stovetop. I looked around for something, a pan lid would have been great, to set on top of the fire, but everything was plastic or not in existence within the space. The flames went out on their own, whew, but the billowing smoke triggered the fire alarm, one of those talking ones demanding, “Evacuate now!”

I went downstairs and tried to explain, through the language barrier, the situation to the person at the front desk, but she didn’t want to hear from me as she was busy on the phone (maybe she thought I was trying to ask her what was going on). People had gathered outside. No one seemed particularly worried, just annoyed by the inconvenience. No firefighters showed up, so I returned upstairs and tried to disperse the smoke by flapping a towel – I was disappointed the window didn’t open when I’d arrived at the Airbnb and was now especially disappointed as some ventilation would have really, really helped here.

At first I thought the induction stove was ruined, since I’d melted the bottom of the electric kettle all over it, but as it cooled down and I started wiping it off, turns out the situation wasn’t so bad. The stove, in fact, cleaned right up! I scrubbed everything in the Airbnb, even wiping down walls to minimize any smell.

At some point after I’d cleaned up, a couple inspectors arrived and looked around at the smoke alarm and tiny apartment. I don’t know if they were the building managers or fire officials or what, but they seemed satisfied and when I asked if everything was “okay,” they said, “Yes.” The one thing I hadn’t yet done was ditch the ruined kettle, so the place did still smell like burnt plastic, but once I wrapped it up and surreptitiously snuck it into the basement garbage (as surreptitious as one can be with video cameras everywhere), it was almost like nothing had happened! At this point, the apartment was super clean and smelled fine – was I going to manage to get through this unscathed?

The answer turned out to be yes. I bought a very nice replacement kettle at a very fancy department store, and the whole incident passed without me getting kicked out or even a bad review. (Apologies to all my friends with vacation rentals.)

THE FOOD SITUATION

Anyone who knows me knows that I love pastries and desserts and various sugar bombs, but I also like actual meals, too, and even though I expected finding vegetarian options to be a challenge, I did not think the quest to do so would be almost completely impossible. As a result of no easy options, I lived off coffee, pastries and other desserts – Korea boasts excellent, plentiful coffee and baked goods – along with convenience store snacks. Otherwise, over the nine days, I had one incredible box lunch at the conference, one fantastic curry, a decent Thai noodle dish and a fabulous salad at a very American-like downtown salad joint. I never would have expected to tire of donuts and cake.

A CULTURAL MOMENT

Here’s the context: 300 or so conference attendees coming off a third day of presentations and a three-hour field trip featuring an amazing temple and lovely park but without any snacks packed onto a mid-sized cruise ship after a one-hour boarding process. People are hungry. Thirsty. Tired. Wondering why we’re stuffed into the surprisingly windowless, airless dining area of a cruise ship with only a half-glass of wine, a glass of water and a small tumbler of apple juice on the table. No appetizers, no water refills, only a series of speeches from Busan dignitaries expounding on the wonders of the city to a trapped crowd. Just when I thought people were either going to pass out or mutiny, they released us to the buffet. For the non-meat side, the “buffet” was a series of bowls with different kinds of leaves culminating in a station offering nuts, berries and dressing – it was a long process to create a very sad salad.

Anyway, none of that mattered once we were released to the top deck (where the VIPs had been all along!). At last, an incredible view of the city and bridge! Picture being on a boat in SF Bay looking at downtown and the Bay Bridge, very similar vibe, but with five times the number of skyscrapers. Disco lights! Dance music! A stampede to the open bar! Fresh air! Oh, the joy! Next thing we knew, a sax player took the small stage, styled out in a suit and shades, adding his melody to the pumping tunes. And then a fireworks show! Which is a terrible way to celebrate a conference dedicated to ending plastic pollution! And a real example of not playing to your audience, in this case, a bunch of ocean enviros! But people whooped and hollered because we were all insane at this point! They shot off the fireworks from the bow of the ship! It was nuts! And then we were asked to please make room for the dancers, so we cleared a space around the stage expecting some sort of traditional Korean dance show, but no! Three young women in shorts came out and rocked it to K-Pop tunes! Was this real or mass delirium?! Who knows! I loved it!

MY ONE NIGHT OUT

Generally I was “home” by 8 or 9 p.m., but I was invited to a group happy hour Thursday evening. This was after a movie and art night featuring performance art by a clown band who incorporates trash into their show and a screening of the 13-minute film Lessons from Jeju, an exploration of lessons learned from the women divers of that island about motherhood, endurance and independence (recommend!).

I was hanging with a Costa Rican colleague and figured we should go to the happy hour even though I was sleepy, because when else are we going to socialize with a group of people from around the world in South Korea? It was that kind of thinking that led to joining the part of the group that split off after for karaoke in a basement dive in the older part of the city. The Koreans performed everything from System of a Down to Frank Sinatra, a couple Norweigians did A-ha’s Take On Me and my pal Diego busted out Bad Bunny. I finally caught a taxi back to the hotel around 1 a.m. (Oh yeah, and all this sober!)

SPA LAND

The next day, after several delays, I finally made it to Spa Land. A couple Brits, intrigued, joined me. I am not sure if they were thrilled or traumatized by the experience, but they did describe it as “unforgettable,” “life-changing” and “quite mad.”

THE SURF

Imagine the smallest waves you’ve ever surfed. No, smaller. No, even smaller. Like, so small that you get excited for ankle-high “sets,” because you might be able to catch one and ride it all the way to the sand (because the sand is about 13 feet away from the “outside”). Now add in about 883 surf school students, another 20 or so beginners, most everyone on giant foamies.

But the ocean is glassy and the water is 77 degrees and the sideshore wind isn’t quite gale force and, among the crowd, some select locals on actual boards are somehow catching these tiny waves and riding them with a semblance of grace. And then the tide comes up a little and the sets begin to come in consistently knee-high and what do you know, it’s actually possible to catch endless tiny rides on a giant rented orange board so wide it has a handle built into the bottom and you find yourself having a rather ridiculously fun time.

Also, based on the number of surf shops, Songjeong is the surfiest town I’ve ever been to, making Santa Cruz look like Bakersfield in comparison.

EPILOGUE

I hope to type up another post that is a simple, useful 101 guide for anyone else trekking to Busan. For now, I’ll leave this at the trip was, if not wholly life-changing, fantastic, unforgettable and, at times, quite mad.