Finding the Busan Climbing Gym in Yeonsan presents a problem. Take the backstreets until you get to the alleyway that looks like a Korean mafia execution site.
It’s night. I’ve been walking back streets for a while looking for the gym. I find the right intersection. On the corner there’s a seafood restaurant with sad aquariums holding a few moribund octopuses. The octopuses’s heads expand and contract as they breath. Their tentacles are stiff implying they have given up all of their life ambitions. Next to the restaurant there’s a grain mill store that’s lit up but nobody’s around. Its emptiness suggesting suspicious work being done off-screen. Next to the mill is the gym’s alley, dark and crummy.
Over the alley a white “Busan Climbing Center” banner hangs. But the dilapidated surroundings makes it look like a ragged flag left behind by a vanquished people. I go up the concrete stairs under the banner and hear Korean voices very close by. There are double doors to my right from where a slit of green fluorescent light spills onto the stairs. On one of the steps I see two broken climbing holds and dry blood… or cat piss. Too dark to tell. The doors seem too small for their frame. I carefully push one of them open. I expect to find a so-happy-to-see-somebody kidnapped victim gagged and strapped to a chair. The chair has fallen on its side in the struggle for freedom. Your typical mafia safe house.
But not rearry.
Inside, the gym stretches away as a tunnel with walls speckled with multicolored climbing grips and fit Koreans crawling them like spiders. I look at the price chart and decipher the Konglish: Climbing Shoe Lentals are ₩2,000. A woman with callous hands and a green vest approaches me. She’s the ring leader. I start miming climbing, shoes, money. As I try communicating with her, I’m distracted by one of the spiders as it gracefully glides across a slanted wall behind her.
I leave satisfied. The gym is small but nice. I’m eager to return and climb. On my way out of the backroads, I stop by each seafood restaurant and look at the live octopuses and little catsharks they have for dinner. I feel the onset of a personal obsession with octopuses. I think about getting a little pet octopus and calling it Marshmallow.
As I walk past more aquariums lining a long cramped market, I start thinking about the Korean mafia again. According to Wikipedia (whose founder, btw, looks like a goodhearted roofer with puppy eyes) the K mafia in Busan is strong. I go into a fishy indoor market looking for a bathroom. The indoor market is mostly empty except for old Korean market ladies. Severed fish heads, blood and guts are scattered across the white tile floor. A sappy Korean singer wails from a radio somebody is using to keep loneliness at bay while cleaning their market stall. I look through a large window into an eating room where four overweight men with tacky suits, gold chains and tough faces finish their meals. One of them looks at me but pretends I don’t exists. He lazily brings a cigarette up to to his scarred face and squints pleasurably as he takes a drag.
Days later I keep daydreaming of eating little octopuses mixed in with Annie’s organic mac and cheese. I imagine the little octopuses tasting like big rubbery chicken-flavored gummies. Yum. Tough luck for Marshmallow and his friends.