Octopuses, the mafia and the climbing gym


Catsharks for din din

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.

Octopus with Michael Jackson Thriller eyes

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.

happy mined trails

I was trail running in Busan when I came upon a paved road at the top of a large forested hill. I followed the road up until I reached a sign with a drawing of a soldier’s boot stepping on a land mine.  I thought for a moment about the likelihood of getting blown into pieces and then continued.  The road went up and up.  I kept passing more mine warning signs.

After 10 minutes, I found a sign with a different picture.  It had a drawing of the kind of missiles that shoot from military trucks and hit far away targets with precision.  No English captions.  The warning signs seemed to be getting more and more elaborate. I was about to take a picture of the sign with my iPhone when I felt I was being watched.  I looked around and realized I had tripped a motion detecting sensor that ran across the road.  I stood still for a moment.  Then I slowly looked in the surrounding forest for CCTV cameras or the usual stalking commando dressed in a ghillie suit with his face covered in black war paint and who is slowly pulling out a big Rambo knife.   With that thought, I tucked my iPhone away and turned around.

I ran the other way.  I went down the road thinking it would expedite my run back to the city. It was drizzling, foggy and dark. The road was steep.   Ten minutes passed. Then twenty. Twenty-five. I kept running downhill.

I thought I was near the city when I saw a lamp post at the end of the road.  Under the light were bright yellow barricades placed to force cars to zig-zag and slow down. Next to the barricades moved a green shadow.  It held a long assault rifle with a bayonet at its end and wore a long, dark green overcoat.  I stopped running. I pushed my running hat up to show my eyes so the soldier wouldn’t think I was one of those mysterious characters that emerges from the rain and fog before an ambush.  I looked at his face and smiled surprised.  The soldier’s eyeglasses were too big and his smile too wide to look menacing at all.  He was too small for his coat and rifle.  He looked more like a prolific Starcraft strategist than a guard.  The little soldier told me I couldn’t go through his post by making an “x”  with his two index fingers in the Korean way of gesturing “no”.  Then he shook his head and his helmet wobbled a bit which gave him extra cuteness points. I smiled again and turned around.

Chile en Super8 Part 2

Part 2: The jail my dad was locked in during the early months of 1974 had three floors. It grew out of a hill like most old buildings in Valparaiso do. The southern exterior wall of the jail had a huge drop where more than one inmate must have tried escaping by jumping onto a passing hay cart. My dad told me they had him on the third level with the rest of the communists. He wasn’t a communist but he was charged as an armed subversive because he owned a gun in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 coup. According to him, the unregistered gun he kept in the toolshed next to the paint thinner was “older than him” and was meant for deterrence only. Every time I heard my dad’s gun story, peppered with his typical hyperboles, I imagined one of those guns pirates used during the golden age of the man blouse. A poor weapon choice in the event of an escalating conflict with anybody over the age of 11, in my opinion.

My dad was apprehended late at night on Cerro Marisopa in Valparaiso. I imagine him cooking ravioli when he heard a knock on the door. There were cops and they had submachine guns. He didn’t resist. Not even in his embellished retelling of the story. He spent the next three months in jail. How the cops knew my dad owned the gun has always been a mystery to me.

When I shot the Super8 film in 2002 the prison had become a cultural center.

El Funeral del Caramelo

Caramelo was our family’s gringo cat from Nantucket, MA. He died in December of 2008. We bury our cats with pomp if we feel creative. So my dad and I made this video (I had been morbidly wishing to make an Evita-style pet funeral since I saw the movie’s opening scene @6:25). Sadly, most of our cats have gone into unmarked grave around the white fig tree without an Ave Maria or nutcracker pall-bearers.

Caramelo’s death was mysterious. We thought he had contracted cat TB because mucus was constantly coming out of his nose and eyes.  The vet had been called but before he could show up, Caramelo disappeared. The sick cat most likely crawled into a cubbyhole in the roof, closed his eyes and took his last little catnap with dignity. Because his body was never found, I always thought somebody, a cat hater, had disappeared him.

India en Super8


My first trip to India and Nepal with my friends.  Shot in Super8. The intro is 8-bit animation. We meant to go for 6 months but dysentery, dengue, and black market, lucid-dream-inducing malaria medication took a toll on our friendship. Our group slowly disintegrated as we traveled deeper into India.  We arrived in July 2005 while terrorist attacks hit England and the monsoon rains overran most Mumbai shantytowns. By October, we all had left except for one, the physicist, who stayed for the entire six months.

I hated and loved India. So much.  India is a massive entity that extends from the greatness of its ancient, diverse cultures to its kind and amazing people to the microscopic parasites that lurk in the water. India doesn’t give up until it’s part of you.  Forever. Physically and/or psychologically. Because India is so overwhelming, sometimes I think I will wake up as 22 year-old in a small Indian town after a long malaria fever lucid dream. And my friends will be there, as well as the local shaman who is a total Hanuman devotee. Sort of like Jacob’s Ladder, Jacob’s Ladder The Movie and Dante’s Divine Comedy. (btw, Hanuman is by far the coolest deity, like, ever… sometimes I wished Jesus was a monkey because, then, I would be, like, the most the pious of Christians).

In India, I was cursed by a snake-charming Sadhu.  The fucker. I cursed him back by speaking tongues like a Pentecostal Evangelist. When I got back to Ithaca in America, his curse made me think I had an assortment of deceases and mental problems. But I’m glad I was cursed by a pro, because he was definitely good at making you feel you had been cursed with the full force of  a +3,000 year old tradition.  You could tell he was a pro and had cursed people before: he had this little wicker basket from which his trained cobra would emerge and dully complied to enchantment, and, of course, his Sadhu helper. His orange turban and kind eyes made me feel bad about cursing him back with some lame “your soul will burn in hell” tongue-speak.

I think I need to go back to India. I miss her like you would miss a one time lover that you lost in a crowd and who will never sign up on Facebook or leave cryptic notes on Craigslist‘s missed connections…  but that you know that once you go back to the place where you met her, that bench in that Medellin park across from the liquor store… she will be there…  waiting for you.  Waiting for you with the same passion you have been waiting for her all these years.

I’m writing this as I play Mercedes Sosa as if it was heavy metal, and drink Chile in the form of cheap Gato Blanco wine from el Valle Central. The cheapest liquid Chile I could find in Korea.