Of Shells and Ships

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About three minutes in to my recent visit to the Jagalchi Fish Market–where Korea’s biggest gathering of seafood vendors hawk the day’s fresh catch–I saw a creature I didn’t know existed. 

It was pink.  It had no eyes and was shaped like a sausage.  After peering at it for a few seconds, I noticed it was alive–moving in a slow, blind wriggle.  My toes curled in their flip flops.  The ajumma–rubber-booted, plastic-aproned women who work at the market scraping, scaling, beheading, chopping, and serving Korean sea-life to the daily crowds–had displayed the creature in a silver metal bowl, alongside its pink peers, next to a few clams and some kind of urchin.  The floor was wet and the air smelled like salt.  Everything around me, I realized, was alive; it was as if I’d stepped into an above-ground reef.

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 ”It was probably a sea cucumber,” my mom said, when I called her the next day.  Turns out the pink sea sausages are called gaebul, dubbed “Sea Penises” on more than a few foreigner blogs.  Apparently they’re hollow inside and taste like seawater.  The restaurants above the market serve them live.

I didn’t buy anything at Jagalchi, but wandered through it awestruck, partly at the coloured and squirming gills, arms, tails and tentacles that crowd the tanks along each aisle, and partly at the women running the show.  Ajumma in Korean means a woman of married age, but the term carries with it the connotation of being tough. 

A Jagalchi ajumma has likely spent the bulk of her life squatting at a stall, gloved hands coated in fish parts.  She can grab an octopus from a tank and bag it up with her eyes closed.  In the aisle she’ll push past you, dragging a net of jumping mackeral toward rows of metal bins and cutting boards.  Outside, you’ll find her crouched over a plastic bucket, de-shelling clams on the concrete while the sun drifts over the Korea Strait.

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I was a little squeamish checking out some of the creatures…

 and felt bad watching their attempts at escape…

 

especially the octopus, who, my mom informed me, is the most intelligent of invertebrates.

 

But the colours and patterns were beautiful…

and reminded me that nature blows away the competition in design.

Outside, the fish dried in the sun…

and a knife or two was displayed…

across from the shells and the shoes.

But my favourite part was the edge of the port, where men whose lives I’d never know worked on rusty ships…

 

and the mountains were green, and the gulls were free.

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