Tuesday, 22 January 2013

Guryong Village: Sharing The Warmth, One Briquette At A Time

This has been a nasty winter. On some nights, the temperatures even dropped to -16'C. And when this happens, I remember the homeless people at that pedestrian pass between the Yongsan Station and the electronics mall behind it. At night, they would pick a spot and lay out their big cardboards on which they would sleep and cover themselves with. This scene is replicated at other subway stations all year round.

While most of us may be comfortably lying on our soft beds inside our comfortably heated homes this winter, we have some unfortunate brothers and sisters who may not have the same luxuries we enjoy and take for granted every day...and night. I just wonder how they are able to get through the very cold night sleeping on the cold pavement.

So when our volunteer group sent out an invitation for an activity to deliver briquettes to one of the poorest neighborhoods in Seoul, I immediately thought of joining. Although I was told to be easy on my back by my spine doctor, any pain from carrying those briquettes would be nothing compared to the conditions  people of this village have to go through every day.
                                                            (Dogok Station)
And on a very chilly December day, I made my way to Dogok Station in the Gangnam-gu area to meet up with my fellow volunteers. Right next to Dogok Station are Tower Palace I, II and III, residential buildings whose units are one of the priciest in Korea. From there, we took a 10-minute bus ride up to the bus depot which is right next to Guryong Village.
                          (The imposing Tower Palace)

Guryong Village is situated at the foot of Guryong Hill. Hence, the name. I was told, during the redevelopment of Seoul decades ago, the ones who could not afford to buy their own homes ended up living here, which is actually considered an illegal settlement area. That's why the residents do not receive administrative services from the government. 
                      (The bus depot next to the village)

And those living here are mostly old people. Perhaps, in their 60s and 70s. Or may be older? One can just imagine a grandmother or grandfather who sleeps in an unheated room and in the dark. And since these shanty homes are old and damp, molds usually grow on the walls, causing lung problems to any one living in it. And most homes don't even have running water or toilets.
                             (Snow and neglect have covered the village)
                  (This grandma, standing near her home,
                       welcomed us into the village)

And when we got there, we were briefed by a volunteer-in-charge at the village, and were assigned the homes to which we were going to deliver the briquettes. I wasn't surprised we were not the only volunteer group who signed up that day. Several volunteer groups from around Seoul still care to look after this village.

We had to put on plastic gloves over woolen ones as briquettes were oily. And on top of our clothes, we needed to wear aprons to protect ourselves from the soot and dirt while handling the briquettes, which are actually molded coal that can provide heat when burned. It's cheap and a source of heat in homes where electricity is not available.

And as hundreds of briquettes were already deposited by the road side when we got there, we only needed to bring them into the homes, and the most efficient way was to form a relay line along the narrow alleyways, starting at the pile of briquettes up to the recipient's home.

Well, they weren't that heavy. Each weighed about 3-4 kgs. and, although passing them from one volunteer to another was mechanical, it was actually fun by chatting and exchanging jokes with one another. Both time and briquettes flew quickly by.

There were about 36 of us, and we were able to relay about a few hundred briquettes over two-and-a-half hours. We started about 9:45AM and ended around 12:15PM, with a short break after a few 'home deliveries'.
                           (Taking a break with coffee and bananas)
As expected, I felt my back complaining by noon, but I shrugged it off knowing it would go away after giving it a rest. 
                                                        (The heat is on!)
                  (A briquette burning and providing heat)

After we were all done, we all gathered for lunch at a restaurant within the village area, and had some spicy and hot kimchi-jiggae and soju after a chilly morning's volunteer work! 

And as we made our way back to the bus stop, from afar, I could see the Tower Palace residential buildings, which were just a couple of kilometers away. I found it very ironic. One of the poorest neighborhoods in Seoul, where most of the neglected people live, sits in the Gangnam-gu district, probably the most affluent area in the city, and just a bus ride from the priciest homes in Korea. I just shook my head in disbelief. Sad, isn't it?

                       (Tower Palace buildings from afar)

But what's also sad was that these very cold days and nights in Guryong Village won't go away any time soon. Spring is a couple of months away. But by doing our share of volunteerism on that cold winter morning, each of us was able to share the warmth with our less fortunate brothers and sisters...one briquette at a time. 

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