In 2006, I went to Seoul, South Korea. It was the first time I'd been to an Asian country. The city, made of concrete, tile and glass, erupted suddenly, massively, out of the earth. Built on either side of a river, Seoul depends on a gridwork of four-lane boulevards and eight-lane freeways. The traffic is a living creature, so constant, so prevalent, that pedestrians cross major streets by passing underneath them through wide tunnels.
I love to travel, but not as a tourist. I like to just live in the place I'm visiting. Like any traveler, I absorb where I am and what I'm seeing through the only filter I know: me. I look for things that resonate with me, no matter how foreign the environment. Horses will always be one of those things.
Where were horses in South Korea? The only thing I knew was that there was an island, Jeju, off the southern tip of the Korean Peninsula, where horse-fighting was a cruel betting sport, like dog-fighting is in America. Nothing could have made me go there.
Animals are unbelievably scarce in Seoul. I was there for three days before I saw a squirrel. Cats are considered vermin; the few I saw had respiratory infections. They skittered through shadows, down narrow, neon-lit alleyways, canny and wise to dumpster diving.
My friend Diana, who was working in Seoul at the time, is stubbornly resourceful. "I'd like to see their idea of a tack shop," I told her during our 14-hour flight to South Korea. It took her a while to find one in the impenetrable phone book, but she did. One day we took the subway to an industrial district somewhere at the edge of the city. After walking blocks past factories and warehouses, we arrived at Sanda Saddlery. The store was locked and dark. Through a dust-dimmed bay window, I could make out a narrow, crowded space.
Diana found a doorbell and leaned on it. We waited. I looked at the display in the bay window. A sun-faded rain sheet hung from a hook, artfully draped behind a thirsty potted plant. A pair of riding boots, fallen over, lay beside a thin, dispirited display of mane combs and body brushes. Eventually, a small man emerged from a building next door. Smiling and nodding, he led us into the store, flipping on the lights. A horrid fluorescent glow aged all of us instantly.
I moved into the depths of the silent shop, past tall racks of saddles by Passier, Courbette, Stubben and Hermes. Kor-Steel bits gleamed harshly under the prison-like light. Headless mannequins wore expensive riding apparel. The store and its contents were preserved in a film of fine dust. Sanda Saddlery seemed frozen in time, a curio cabinet filled with pieces from a life long obsolete. The small Korean man smiled and nodded.
Something drew me back to the front of the store. At the back of the display window, partially hidden by the rain sheet, was a tiny saddle. I pointed. Diana spoke to the man. The Korean language has no handles to grab on to for an English speaker. I stood by, listening to sounds I could make no sense of. The small man lifted the tiny saddle out of the window and handed it me. He seemed surprised, but he smiled and nodded.
This little handmade saddle weighs about two pounds. It measures 10 inches from the pommel to the bottom of the knee flap. It has billets, stirrup bars and flocking.
I wanted it. Diana told the small man. He shook his head. Diana persisted. They haggled, because that is her way. She translated for me. What I was buying was a promotional item, part of a saddle display that had been shipped from London years earlier. I don't remember what company's saddles this miniature was promoting.
I went halfway around the world, to Seoul, South Korea, and, instead of a T-shirt, this is what I brought home. H.G. made me a little saddle rack for it. One day I'll find a way to add leathers and stirrups.