One summer day in 2008, I received an email. It had the subject JAKE JAKER JAKEST. I met this Filipino friend in a guesthouse in Beijing while backpacking a year before.
In the email, he said he was staying somewhere in Jongno for a month. He said he was having a good time. But I thought he was probably having trouble with money, so I decided to buy him samgyeopsal and called him using the phone number indicated in his email. He said he was staying at Daewon Guesthouse and sounded as if that was all I needed to know to find him. Later, I found out that the place was quite well-known among non-Korean backpackers.
One afternoon, I went out to pay him a visit at his guesthouse in Dangju-dong, Jongno-gu. After getting off the subway train at Jonggak Station, I asked one person after another for the direction. Walking along a maze-like back alley, I felt a dusty wind cooling off my sweaty back. Finally, I found a large wood signboard saying INN DAEWON -- with “Inn Daewon, Welcome to Korea” in smaller letters below it -- on one corner of the alley. It was a square-shaped hanok (traditional Korean house) with a small stone-paved courtyard in the center. The roof was round and transparent, with blocks making up the floor; it was a fusion hanok. There was a time-worn wood table with chairs in the courtyard. Behind them were pots containing plants as tall as me. The owner of the place, who was in his 50s, told me Jake was out to buy something but would be back any minute. There was a continuous flow of Japanese and westerners visiting and leaving the place. The place felt comfortable and had the atmosphere of a boarding house near a university.
A while later, Jake came back, and he did seem fine. He told me he was paying 7,000 won a night there. According to him, the place provided everything a traveler needed, a party was held at the courtyard every night, and other boarders gave him tips on how to have a good time in Korea with little money. Jake was even making money from a business he started in Seoul. He and an Irish friend started a business of selling Indian accessories on the street. He said he earned 300,000 won the day before. “That’s quite a lot,” I thought. We bought jokbal, cookies, and beers and held a mini party in the courtyard. One boarder after another joined us, saying “Hey, Jake. You look like you’re doing well with your business” and what-not. We introduced each other, shared travel information, and showed each other the things we bought. A Japanese my age named Kenji spoke well of Christmas in August, the Korean film released recently. I found out about the director of that film, Hur Jin-ho, that day, and he became my favorite after seeing more of his works. Alex, Jake’s business partner, said that he bought Indian accessories at a store in Namdaemun Market and sold them in small cities like Yongin, Paju, Guri, and Euijeongbu near Seoul. He claimed that his business was profitable and interesting. A friend named Susan told us she was attending a meditation class held at Jogyesa Temple. She talked about the deep liveliness of Korean Buddhism. Kumiko, a Japanese girl, said that she was visiting Seoul for the tenth time or so. She showed me a note containing detailed information on restaurants serving delicious food at good prices.
That day, I paid a visit to the guesthouse thinking of buying a foreign friend a meal, but I was learning about nice places in Seoul from them. The information provided to me through a filter that was the perspective of foreigners helped me look at the city I live in more clearly.
At that time, many people including myself thought that they needed to say goodbye to their work to start backpacking. I had thought that a real journey required me to leave the country on a plane. That night, however, I learned that I could start backpacking with 7,000 won a night, and it stirred my heart. What I felt was similar to what you feel toward a female member of your club when you start regarding her as a woman rather than a friend.
That was how I came to feel the taste of travel in my daily life and encountered lots of interesting things, nice people, and possibilities of life other than those I had already experienced. After all, I was able to publish my book Guesthouse, Anyhow a while ago. What is particularly good about all these things is that I learned how to look at reality from a slightly different perspective and to have a more positive way of thinking.