[ITAEWON WANDERINGS]Art of the one-way ticket

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[ITAEWON WANDERINGS]Art of the one-way ticket

Many of the wandering spirits you meet in Seoul are English teachers. They're here for nine months or a year, sweating through muggy summers full of classes teaching businessmen, then kids. They pinch every won until they reach their savings goal. Then they take off for someplace new, maybe beaches in Thailand or treks in Nepal. But no matter the destination, the objective is to go. Stay too long and you'll stagnate.

There are other types here with the travel bug. To see one, go to Gecko's bar, the epicenter of Itaewon's nightlife, on any weeknight. Standing in the downstairs lobby unprotected from the cold night will be a tall, slim, nattily-dressed artist. He'll be shivering, his hands sunk deep in his pockets, his shoulders hunched. He'll be shifting his weight from one foot to the other. He may be sipping a machine-brew coffee, one of four or five he'll buy on the night. He'll ask you and your friends to take a look at his work, some paintings and prints propped against a wall. You'll reflexively brush him off. But then you'll see the colors -- warm, rich reds and browns, subtle yellows and greens. Over the colors are drawn enchanting figures and patterns, with motifs such as spiraling eyes, elongated faces, dervishes with slanting outlines and cows with swooping lines.

Ahmed Almardi, from Sudan, came to Korea a year ago. Before that he lived in Thailand, Jordan and Syria. He had the travel bug all his life. He would journey south from his home, Sudan's capital of Khartoum, to visit his grandfather's cattle farm. Or he would go to see his uncle, who lives in a port town on the Red Sea. Three years ago he made his first trip abroad, to Syria. That's where he got his gift for color, he says.

Stop and ask Mr. Almardi, 26, about his art. His face will light up and his mouth will go glib. "When I feel energy, spirit, I want to express humanization. Humanization. Everyone has genius, this is my genius, my feeling for color, and for emotion. This is how I make connections to a new place, to people, to the world."

But ask him why he travels, and words fail him. Why did you go to Syria? "There the tourists loved my paintings; the Germans were crazy about them." But why did you go, what was your plan? He'll shrug and smile a "what do you mean?" smile.

Ask why he went to Jordan, Thailand or Korea, and he has no real answer. "I like to go to new places and see new people. I want to go everywhere. A country to me is a new flower."

He loves it here in Korea, he says. He's always meeting his friends -- Canadians, Americans, Germans, French -- in coffee shops or bars. He loves to talk, he loves to dance. He goes to the mosque every Friday, or almost every Friday. He hints that he has a Korean girlfriend. He likes his cramped Itaewon apartment.

Everything's great. So it's time to go. To get money for a one-way ticket out, he's arranged an exhibition at the Gecko's Garden restaurant, behind the Hamilton Hotel, starting Sunday.

He says the next place will be Australia. Or New Zealand. But don't ask why.

by Mike Ferrin

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