The alarm went to wailing at 6:15 AM. As my eyes opened I instantly felt the regret of last night’s fun. I had been excited to go on the DMZ/JSA tour before we even left, but with the sun just beginning to peek onto the city outside, I wanted nothing more than to shut my eyes for a few more hours. But I somehow managed to pull myself out of bed and get into some clothes. We were out the door in record time, Kellie guiding us through the subway tunnels to the train stop we needed to be at to be picked at.
I was expecting a bus to come rolling up, its doors opening with a hiss and an old Korean driver motioning us to get on. But that was far from the case. Standing at the top of the stairs, we saw from across the street a young man in a pink dress shirt flagging us down.
"Come! Come! This way!" he yelled.
Before we could even get to him, he crossed the street, disobeying the oncoming traffic. He pulled a piece of paper from his pocket and unfolded it.
"Travis and Lindsey?" he asked.
We nodded our heads. “Yes.”
"You have your passports?"
"Let me tell you guys how to get back," Kellie said.
He held out his hand to her. “Do not worry. Our tour guide will be able to do so.”
Without much of a goodbye, we were shuffled away, following this tall man down two blocks before reaching a white Scion, the doors unlocked and the keys in the ignition, the car still rumbling away.
"Get in," he said.
Lindsey and I crawled in the back. He opened up the passenger door and held his hands out to Lindsey. “Give me your trash,” he said.
Lindsey handed over her empty Paris Baguette cup and doughnut wrapper. He casually tossed it on the ground and slammed the door shut. He walked around the car and got in the driver’s seat. And we were off.
What is this? I thought. This wasn’t anything I was expecting. This was fishy. I kept my eyes on the guy. He constantly straightened himself in his seat and leaned over to look into the rear view mirror, furiously fixing his hair that didn’t need any fixing at all. Taped along the dash of the car were several different pictures of the same K-Pop star. 90s rap blasted out from the stereo system, only to be turned down when his phone rang. And every time he answered his phone I would see the same wallpaper: a picture of himself, honoring the haircut he paid more attention to than the road. Periodically another phone would ring. That one was adorned with more pictures of the Korean pop star that was plastered along the dash. It was impossible for this guy to stay still. If he wasn’t fixing his hair or answering his phone, he was pulling the long list of names from the passenger seat and reviewing them over and over, as if something had suddenly changed on the paper since the five minutes he had picked it up before.
This is it, I thought. This is where all those Korean movies about serial killers I watched come into play.
Sure, we were supposed to go on a DMZ tour. But this guy was just going to take us through Seoul’s backstreets until we ended up at a warehouse where our organs would be harvested. The trip had gone so well. Now I was in the middle of Park Chan-wook script.
The car stopped and our driver ushered us out.
"In there," he said, pointing to a door across the street.
Lindsey and I hesitantly walked forward, both weirded out by the whole situation. This is where it happens. This is when we walk through the doorway and they throw the burlap sacks over our heads and hit us with the chloroform rags. And then we wake up without any kidneys. Or do we even walk up at all?
We opened the door to a familiar setting. A Dunkin Donuts. I guess the D in DMZ stands for Dunkin, I thought. We were sat down at the first unoccupied table we came across.
"Stay right there," the organ harvester said, laying down a info card about the DMZ tour on the table.
Lindsey and I watched as he paced around the Dunkin Donuts, finally grabbing a tray and filling it with a few doughnut holes. He ordered a coffee and sat back down. The doughnut holes were packaged up in plastic. He sipped his coffee and flipped over the info card to reveal a map of Seoul. He explained to us how to get back to where we came from after the tour was over at the end of the day and then handed the map over to us.
Don’t toy with me. I know you’re just trying to give us some peace of mind—some hope to hold on to. Put us in this comforting, public setting to ease our minds and then that’s when you slit our throats.
The Dunkin Donuts door opened and another well-dressed man stepped in—obvious friends with our pink shirted organ harvester. He greeted us and then the two went out for a smoke. It wasn’t long before our driver was back inside, nervously sipping his coffee and springing from his chair to pace around the building.
I see what’s happening here. You’re just the driver. You just deliver the product. Then the big guns come out. The guys who slice us up. I’d be nervous, too.
Finally, outside the window, we saw a bus pull up. The fancy-haired driver for the organ harvesting operation ran outside. When the Dunkin Donuts door opened again we were greeted by a younger looking guy.
"Hi," he said, extending his hand for a shake. "I’m Phillip. I’ll be your tour guide."
We introduced ourselves and then followed “Phillip” to the bus. I watched as the organ man placed the pack of doughnut holes in the hands of the bus driver. Perhaps this was all part of the tour operation. This is just how it works in Korea. But if you ask me, Phillip saved me and my organs.
When we got on the bus we were cramped. There was only about 12-13 other people on there, but it was less of a bus and more of an overweight minivan. I had to pull down one of the extra seats and keep myself from falling into the laps of those next to me as Phillip sat in front of us, explaining the history of the division of Korea, the state of North Korea, and the history of the DMZ. As we advanced down the highway, things suddenly changed. Typical roads are abruptly bordered with barbed wire and guard posts. Just across a fortified guard rail is a stretch of land narrowly divided by water. Beyond that water is North Korea.
When the bus finally stopped we were let off in a small area where we could use the bathroom, grab a bite to eat if we were quick eaters, and gaze at the monument erected in the memory of all those that died while aiding South Korea in The Korean War, as well as The Peace Bell, a bell constructed in 2000 to show South Korea’s hopes for reunification with the north.
We were given fifteen minutes to walk around before we reported to another bus and headed for Dorasan Station. As we neared the train station, Phillip explained to us that the surrounding bridges and overpasses were packed with explosives in case they needed to be collapsed if North Korea attempted an invasion. The distance between North and South Korea isn’t something you really find yourself thinking about too often, it’s one of those things you don’t realize until you’re there, facing it. But they’re right there, squished against one another.
Dorasan Station was a reminder of this—a country divided by little more than a river. On one side you have a nation rich in culture and prosperity, on the other a society restricted from truly living by the iron grasp of a totalitarian government. We weren’t given long to walk around there—there’s not much to see—but standing and looking up at a sign that reads “TO PYEONGYANG” feels a little strange. Lindsey got a photo with one of the guards positioned in front of the station’s turnstile. I refrained. The poor guy probably has to do it day in and day out. I figured I’d give him just a little bit of relief.
After that it was time to get back on the bus again. Before we made it to our next destination we stopped at out first security checkpoint. With passports in hand, a South Korean soldier boarded the bus, and with a rifle dangling from his shoulder, he inched down the aisle and inspected each person’s passport. Once he was off the bus we snaked through a series of metal barricades set up along the road and continued down the highway. When we stopped again we were able to peer into North Korea.
Just below a balcony’s view was one of the most infamous countries in the entire world. With a 500 won deposit you could peer through a pair of binoculars and look out on North Korea’s uninhabited city, Kijŏngdong. From behind a yellow line you can lift your camera into the air and snap a blurry photo of the "Powerful and Prosperous Nation." On the bus someone asked Phillip why there was a photo line and why we couldn’t take pictures beyond it. His response isn’t something I’ll quickly forget:
"Well," he said, "North Korea will shoot you."
A few people on the bus laughed.
He waited until the laughter died down. His face straightened less in anger and more in sadness.
"Yes," he muttered. "I wish that was a joke, but it’s not."
I watched as a woman ran over and grabbed a wooden stool placed in front of one of the binocular stands. She dragged it back behind the photo line and began to step up on it. Before she could plant both her feet on it, a South Korean soldier was already yanking the stool out from under her and waving his finger in her face.
The next stop was the last stop for the DMZ tour. Another short drive brought us to a building where we were equipped with hard hats and sent down the Third Tunnel of Aggression, a tunnel blown out and dug by North Korea to use as a means of performing a surprise attack on Seoul. It was discovered 1978 thanks to information provided by a North Korean defector.
The tunnel is a deep, dark climb down. Cool air snakes up between the narrow rock walls, but that hardly stops the sweat from flowing. Just when you think you’ve reached the tunnel’s end, you realize there’s still a ways to go. Even with the hard hats on it was impossible not to bump your head. I guess North Korea didn’t really accommodate for western height. I couldn’t help but grin as I passed little, old Korean ladies on their way back up that stood at full height without any danger of even coming close to bumping their heads.
The end of the tunnel is eerie to say the least. The stark metal door at the end of the downward trek looks like it was ripped straight out of a horror movie, sitting against a dark backdrop of jagged rock, offering a view into the second tunnel. There’s a darkness in this tunnel that doesn’t come from the low light or the leftover black paint on the rocks—something unsettling. The haunting presence of discarded memories of war, violence, and bloodshed that refuse to leave.
Once you reach the end of the tunnel there’s not much else you can do. A railway for mine carts sits in the darkness, as well as a fountain that pours water safe for drinking from the tunnel’s well.
The climb back up was a little difficult for Lindsey. We had to stop once so she could catch her breath. But it was hardly an inconvenience. Plus, I’m sure the group of freshly-made Korean soldiers didn’t mind the slow Americans getting out of their way.
When we finally got back to the top we were given time to take a water break before we were quickly herded through a small museum that mapped the history of the DMZ, and then taken into a small auditorium where we were shown a short video that expanded on the things we had just seen. It was a good thing I read all those info cards outside the auditorium and closely listened to Phillip, because I could hardly understand the narration of the video. It was like getting yelled at by a choking Kiefer Sutherland.
After the video we were taken back onto the bus and to a small restaurant. This is where the group split. Those of us that signed up for a full day were ushered into the restaurant while those that only signed up for half remained on the bus while Phillip bid us farewell.
We were served an unmemorable beef with onions and peppers. All the little side dishes were more satisfying. Lindsey had listed her meal preference as vegetarian and got served bibimbap. Finally, she experienced bibimbap in all its glory.
The two guys that sat across from us turned out to be Floridians as well, hailing from Miami. I wish I could have been more enthusiastic about meeting them, but they exuded that look-at-me-I’m-so-cultured attitude a little too much. However, the other guy across from us from Norway was great to talk to.
After the lunch we were greeted by a new tour guide, this time a lady. I didn’t catch her name. She loaded us up on a new bus, where I ran into the same woman I had talked to at the Biwon Secret Garden a few days back. It was really surprising—"what are the odds?" and all that—but it was nice to see her again.
After a quick SNAFU dealing with a guy who mentioned one too many times he was from the Netherlands leaving his passport back at the restaurant, we were off to the Joint Security Area. As we throttled down the road, the Imjin River flowing next to us, our tour guide explained that the JSA is the most hostile area in all of South Korea. I looked out the window as we advanced towards our stop. Lining the roads were fences of barbed wire, signs dangling from them that read “DANGER LIVE MINE FILED” under a picture of a helmeted skull and crossbones. Our tour guide pointed out Freedom Bridge, the bridge where North Korea’s prisoners of war were brought across and freed back into South Korea. I remembered my grandfather telling me how he was there that day, how he walked across the bridge and escorted the American POWs across to go back home, some of them relatively unharmed while others were withered to the bone. It was mildly strange to look at, weird to think that my grandfather once stood there, once occupied those same grounds, and now here I was all these years later in the same place. I already wrote of connections to the past, but this was the strongest link yet. The past is always calling us, luring us in some way. If it is a drain, the present is the water that circles it, the future the basin holding it all together.
After another security checkpoint and passport check, we were given forms to fill out that, among other things, read "The visit to the Joint Security Area at Panmunjom will entail entry into a hostile area and possibility of injury or death as a direct result of enemy action." A little unnerving even if you know you’ll be perfectly fine.
It wasn’t long before we arrived at the Freedom House, passing by a baseball game of South Korean and American soldiers in progress. An American soldier boarded the bus once we stopped and checked over our passports again before unloading us off the bus. We followed him and our tour guide in a single file line through the building to the other side. As you step through those doors, you are instantly faced with North Korea. Panmungak—North Korea’s equivalent to the Freedom House—stands in the distance, a North Korean soldier standing at the top of its steps, periodically raising his pair of binoculars to gaze over into the south, looking upon the faces of all the curious tourists and the ROK soldiers that stand perfectly still, their fists clenched in a Taekwondo stance. One between two blue conference room buildings, staring directly upon Panmungak and the sole North Korean soldier. Two others stood partially obscured by the buildings, an intentional position to offer less of a target to North Korean troops and to signal to the South if need be.
We followed our tour guide into one of the conference buildings. The building was populated with more ROK troops. They didn’t flinch a muscle as we filtered into the room, staring into an unknown distance, unfazed by all around them as if we were all invisible, as if the words coming from our tour guide’s mouth were muted. As she talked, I peered out of the window behind me. Between a stretch of concrete and a bed of gravel was a stone slab. And that was it. That was all dividing these two countries—nothing but a raised platform of smooth rock. Seeing just how close they are, it makes you think for a moment that the north and south becoming one again isn’t so hard. But it isn’t a matter of distance. It’s a difficult dream. And as you look upon all the monuments and landmarks, as you listen to the tremble and hesitation in the voice of the tour guides as they speak about it, you realize more than ever the prospect of reunification is something deeply instilled in the hearts of many Koreans. And you find yourself hoping for the same. If not for the benefit of the world, then for them. For Korea.
After the conference room we were taken back to the steps of the Freedom House, where we were given some brief photo opportunities. They stressed many times before hand to not do anything crazy when taking a photo. No fun poses, no jumping around—arms at your side will do. After that we were taken back into the Freedom House for a short break in the gift shop before getting back on the bus. As we boarded, I talked to the woman from the Biwon Secret Garden again. She told me what her and her son had been up to since we had last seen one another, and Lindsey and I updated her on all we had done.
Our tour guide informed us that the ride back was “nap time.” I followed her directions. I wanted to stay up and keep my eye on what was outside the window, but it was too hard. Exhaustion has really caught up with me. When I woke back up we were in the center of Seoul, just in time to see a protest demonstration of Korea’s construction workers. What seemed to be thousands of people swarmed the grounds of Seoul City Hall. It was a spectacle to say the least.
"It’s been a very busy week for Korea," our tour guide smiled.
Once we were left off the bus, Lindsey and I caught the subway back to Kellie’s apartment. We got all our things together and packed them up. As we zipped the last suitcase closed, the door opened and Kellie walked in. We went with her for a trip to Home Plus to grab some snacks for the journey back home, and a pair of headphones to make up for the pair I left behind in Busan. We also browsed for some shirts with badly translated English on them. Lindsey made a score, but I came up empty handed. So much for my A Youngster Stays Forever shirt. Oh well.
We got back to the apartment, grabbed up our bags, and jumped back on the subway, headed for Incheon Airport.
We really cut things by the grit of our teeth, getting to the ticket desk with 20 minutes left to board. But we made it. And now I’m writing this from a seat on an airplane bound for Japan. Together Lindsey and I watched as Korea shrank away from us as we climbed farther and farther in the air. All we wanted was to go right back—to never leave.
I can’t fully describe my experience in Korea and just how incredible it was. There will never be enough words, ink, or paper. This trip changed me. I don’t exactly know how, but I can feel it. Having watched those city lights fade away beneath a blanket of black sky, I can’t say I have an eagerness to return back home.
I just have the eagerness to go back. Back to Seoul. Back to Korea.
This was kind of our last true day in Seoul. I think we woke up later today than any other day of the trip—8:30 AM. We all got showered and dressed only to get dirty again. Bike rides along the Han River.
Before we got there we stopped at a tiny cafe tucked away in a busy corner of the city. When I say tiny, I mean tiny. With the three of us in there plus the girl behind the counter, there was hardly any room to breathe.
Lindsey’s had a hard time adjusting to eating Korean for breakfast. Personally, I love it. I’m not really the type of person that has to eat certain types of food at certain times. There’s no breakfast, lunch, and dinner to me. Just good stuff.
We both ordered the same thing, a potato sandwich. Lindsey got an iced coffee and I ordered an iced tea. I’ve actually been surprised by the amount of iced tea here. I don’t think Korea is living in the dark ages or anything, but iced tea was one thing I thought would sort of be left behind in the U.S.
"Lemon or peach?" the girl behind the counter asked.
I hesitated for a moment and for whatever reason, blurted out “lemon.” I love lemons. I love lemonade. I love lemon in my water. I love lemon on my shrimp. But I hate lemon in my tea. Which is weird seeing as I come from the south, loved it when I was little, and consider myself an Arnold Palmer enthusiast. So why did I choose lemon? I could have easily said peach. I love peaches. I love peach tea!
We were handed our drinks and our sandwiches, which were pretty much discs of bread filled with potato salad—not complaining, though. I looked down at my tea, the yellow slice of lemon bobbing around at the top. At least it’s small, I assured myself. I was just going to have to sip it down and toss it. I brought the straw to my lips and—SURPRISE!
It was really good. All lemon tea should taste like that. Then it dawned on me: maybe all lemon tea should be made with actual fresh lemons, not some lemon wedges stuffed in a metal container with a taste on par with something in the back alley behind a Golden Corral.
The “sandwich” was pretty good as well. Definitely not the best thing I’ve had while we’ve been here, but I wouldn’t mind eating it again if I had to.
We ate going down the street, hurrying back to the subway to make it to the Han River with enough time to still ride around before Kellie had to be at work.
Ever since the idea of a bike ride came up, Lindsey kept mentioning how she wanted to ride a tandem bicycle. It’s something I had been ignoring, hoping she would forget and I could just hop on my own separate bike when we got to the river. But she didn’t come close to forgetting, mentioning it over and over again as we drew ever closer to our destination. And I’ll admit it, I’ve never rode a tandem bike. They’re a cutesy attraction for a lot of couples, but after riding my bike nearly every day for almost three years I’ve seen far too many couples on the bike trail, arguing back and forth with one another as they attempt to keep the wobbly bicycle built for two steady, headed for a breakdown in every sense of the word.
I didn’t want that. And I especially didn’t want to expose any Korean cyclists to the senseless bickering of "you don’t know how to peddle!" and "you don’t know how to steer!"
Luckily, this wasn’t our fate. We still rode tandem much to my dismay, but we did all right. A few jerks and unbalanced moments here and there, but we never toppled over and we never stopped to scream at one another over our shoulders.
We caught a breeze as we rode, a welcomed contrast against the heat. The view was magnificent. The Han River shimmered as its tiny ripples caught slivers of sunlight and reflected them back to the sky. Just across the way was more of Seoul, the glass fronts of skyscrapers capturing sunlight just like the water, causing the city to glow with opalescence—all of this set against a backdrop of towering, rocky mountains and long spans of dark green trees, thick and bushy, that together stretched up to meet an endless horizon.
I recognized large parts of the river and the surrounding areas from The Host. It was awesome to be able to point and say to Lindsey, “Look! That’s where the monster came out of the water!”
We rode for nearly an hour and a half before turning the bikes back in to the rental place and heading back to Kellie’s apartment so she could get ready for work. Before we even left Florida, when the trip was still in its primordial stages, we had already planned to meet Kellie’s class at some point. With tomorrow being our final day in Korea, today was the day. We changed out of our sweaty bike ride clothes and caught a cab with Kellie to the school she teaches at.
With some pre-planning still left to do, we agreed to make it back to the school at 2:30. We walked across the street and sat in a little park for a while before venturing into the shopping mall next door, mainly to escape the heat. It did result in me finding some shirts I liked. Then we high-tailed it back to the school, where we were quickly rushed into an empty classroom and told to wait as the kids arrived in over-excited droves, the sounds of their laughter breaking through the walls.
What were we, celebrities? Locked away in a green room before the show started so the crowd wouldn’t mob us?
The door to the classroom opened and Kellie poked her head in. “Okay,” she said, “they’re ready for you.”
"They’re super excited," she said as she opened the door to her classroom.
Ever since we arrived we had been briefed on this moment. Introduce ourselves, say where we’re from, pull out the dinky double pack of Disney pencils Kellie had bought a week prior and say it was a gift from Florida—prizes for the the group that did best on that day’s lesson.
"Look who came to visit!" Kellie exclaimed in a forcefully cheerful voice.
The little kids straightened in their seats as we moved to the front of the class. Their eyes were fixed on us, their adorable faces frozen in awe. It was absolutely bizarre. I’m nothing special, just another little blip, but to these kids I was a spectacle.
"Hi," Lindsey said in a soft voice, "I’m Lindsey. I’m Kellie’s sister and I’m from Florida."
"Florida," some of them muttered.
"You’re what?" piped a bespectacled boy no older than seven or eight.
"Lindsey," the class breathed in unison.
"And I’m Travis. I’m from Florida too, and I’m Lindsey’s boyfriend."
"Ooooh!" they all chimed, wide grins stretched across their tiny faces.
"So does anyone have any questions for them?" Kellie asked, enthusiastic as ever. "Anything you want to know about the United States?"
Kellie assured us plenty of times that all the kids were eager to ask us tons of questions, but looking at all of them sitting there, staring at us, I knew it was never going to happen. I’ve been in that same position more times than I’d like to count. So very curious, but so terrified to ask anything. Even Kellie’s egging on couldn’t help. Their excitement had shuddered under shyness, but it was still there, trying to break through the surface. They asked Kellie over and over if we were going to watch that day’s educational video with them. Part of me really wanted to. I wanted to get to know these kids—talk to them, laugh with them. Already, they all spoke English so well—better than some Americans I know. It just goes to show how remarkably intelligent of a country Korea is. I couldn’t even imagine learning a second language when I was that young. Yet there they were, making it seem as if it wasn’t the slightest challenge.
Seeing these kids learning English shows an arrogance on part of the United States. Learning English is practically ingrained in the Korean education process. There’s such a stress for students to learn another language, yet in America learning other languages almost seems secondary, something of little concern. What gives any country the right to parade around and pretend their language is superior? Again, it’s all just funny noises.
We said goodbye not long after. As we walked down the hallway a loud noise boomed from the classroom. Fifteen children in unison:
There it was. There was that bottled up excitement finally spilling out.
We hurried back to Kellie’s apartment after leaving the school to grab all the little things we’d need before going out for the rest of the day. I took a moment to finally give mom another call. Sitting down has been detrimental to my spirit on this trip. I want nothing more than to explore during each second of every day, but any time I get a moment of rest I feel like just staying there, rolling into hibernation for a month and then coming back out into the swing of things. It’s safe to say I’m worn out. But I’m not letting that stop me in the slightest.
When we finally left for the apartment, we headed for the Wall of Hope. We found out about the Wall of Hope from a Seoul travel guide booklet Kellie had given us to walk around with. The subway ride brought us to Cheonggye Stream.
There’s a peace constantly worming through Seoul and it’s name is Cheonggye. It was something that was instantly felt when we walked down to the stream. Giant koi drift with the water’s current, mother ducks lead their children on excursions for food as curious humans point excitedly, people sit at the edge of the stream with their bare feet dipped in the water, couples watch it snake by with their arms wrapped around one another, old men sleep under the bridges—a little too caught up in the stream’s sereneness, children squat down and feel the coolness of the water between their tiny fingers.
No matter how busy the cement walkways may be along the stream, you can’t help but feel instantly calmed by it all. Watching it pass by takes you to a simpler time, a more ancient Korea not caught up in an expanding future. The modern rush of Seoul fades away and you’re just there, flowing with Cheonggye.
We walked along the stream for nearly an hour with no Wall of Hope in sight. The walk was pleasant, but time was dwindling away. We were to meet Kellie back at the school at 8:00 to go out for barbecue with some of her friends. If we were going to find the Wall of Hope, it had to be quick. We climbed back up to city streets and looked around, trying to find somewhere that could help us.
"There!" I said, pointing to a hotel in the distance, a multitude of flags on its roof blowing with the wind. "There’s an American flag on that hotel. Someone’s bound to know a little bit of English."
A man was behind the service desk at the hotel.
"English?" Lindsey asked as we approached him.
He held up two fingers separated by a narrow space of air. “Little,” he said.
Lindsey opened up the travel book and pointed to the tiny picture of the Wall of Hope. He bent over and squinted at it. His head popped back up.
"Yes! Yes! You—" he hesitated for a moment, "down! Then…left." He held up one finger. "One kilometer."
We thanked him and began to head back out before he stopped us.
"Uhh," he pointed to Lindsey. "Your grandfather, grandfather, grandfather. Where they from?"
"What?" Lindsey said. "I’m from the United States."
"No, no." The man shook his head. "Your grandfather, grandfather, grandfather. They came to United States from where?"
"Oh! Her ancestors! They’re from Germany," I said.
The man smiled. “Yes, yes.” He nodded. “Germans—” he stretched his arms out, “Germans are big people. Tall.”
We laughed about it, thanked him again, and set out for the Wall of Hope. We found it not long after. The Wall of Hope consists of 20,000 tiles painted by citizens of Korea and Koreans living abroad. It lines Cheonggye Stream as a symbol of hope for reunification of North and South Korea. Partly beautiful, the Wall of Hope is also a grim reminder that Koreans are living in half a country that remains divided through a hectic history of war. We all know of the disheveled state of North Korea, of the injustices that occur there everyday, and the terrible state of seeming disrepair it has fallen into. But as we sit comfortably in our homes, the idea of these two countries becoming one again never really crosses our minds.
But as I sat there and stared at all these tiny paintings, you can’t help but feel that same passion. I’ve read a lot about Korean history, both that of the North and South, and I can only hope that I can live to see the day when finally the South is able to welcome back their Northern brethren with open arms. North Korea is in desperate need of help and change, and hopefully reunification can one day bring that. I believe it will happen eventually. But I hope it is sooner rather than later.
After a short break at the wall, there was hardly any time to spare to make it back to meet Kellie. We flagged down a cab to get there quickly. After some slight navigating trouble, we met back up with Kellie and headed for barbecue.
I’m not exactly sure where the barbecue restaurant was, or its name, but oh, was it delicious. We met up with Kellie’s friend Bridget—a fellow English teacher—and her boyfriend, Tiger—a Korean native—as well as Kara, who we met our first night in Seoul—all great people.
I was excited to be able to taste another staple of Korean culture. And the first bite I took into that beef wrapped in lettuce only boosted that excitement. Before I even left I had been told on more than one occasion that Korea had the best barbecue in the world.
That wasn’t a lie.
I can’t even begin to describe the taste, only that it was absolutely wonderful. There was a lot of conversation around the table and I chimed in a little, mainly when it was about Korean movies, but I stayed mostly quiet. Not because I was shy. But because I was too busy stuffing my face. That barbecue was some of the best food I have ever eaten. I could eat it everyday for the rest of my life and be completely content.
I don’t even know how much I ate, but we were there for a while. And honestly, I could have ate tons more. It’s heartbreaking to know that I more than likely won’t come close to food that good for a long time.
Korean barbecue, how I love you.
The next stop after barbecue was something I hadn’t been looking forward to at all. It had been talked about way before we ever got on a plane and I thought there was a chance that Kellie had forgotten and I could just scrape by. But with everyone around, it was bound to be suggested no matter what. And it was:
A noribang is high-powered karaoke. You and your friends are put in a room of dancing lights and booming music to sing your heart out. I’m sure that sounds like loads of fun to a lot of people. But it’s just not my thing. I’m a grumpy old man stuck in 20-year-old’s body. Getting tipsy and singing Madonna in a crackling voice isn’t my idea of fun. I like sitting around with friends, eating good food, watching good movies, stuff like that. I don’t do karaoke. And as much as everyone tried to convince me a noribang isn’t the same as a karaoke bar, it pretty much is. It was great for the experience, to go to Korea and take part in something dear to many Koreans, but after the first twenty minutes, I was more than ready to go. I’m not a very fun person. I just get roped into these things somehow.
After the noribang adventure—which ended not a moment too soon—we crawled back out on the streets. It was nearly 1 AM and Seoul’s nightlife showed no sign of slowing down. Hundreds of people moved up and down the streets, bars boomed with cheerful voices and loud music, restaurants were packed shoulder-to-shoulder. A guy on a scooter periodically zipped by, lifting a clenched fist in the air, and then releasing it to let fliers soar into the air, drifting down onto the streets of Seoul under a canopy of glittering lights.
It was almost 2:30 when we realized we had to be up at 6 to be picked up for the DMZ tour. We said goodbye to Bridget and Tiger, and got into a cab headed back for Kellie’s apartment. As I laid down for sleep that night, I prayed no noribang nightmares would haunt me. But with such good food in my belly, I was safe.
Today has really bled together. I can’t exactly remember how the day started, but I know we ended up in a cab bound for the Biwon Secret Garden. This was my first long cab ride in Korea. You usually travel at light speed, but due to a car accident or something of the sort we ended up travelling around the city. Kellie got pretty aggravated at the cab driver, but I didn’t mind it. Then again, I didn’t have to make it to work later. I was content with more scenery to watch pass by.
But regardless of how long it took, we made it. Just in time, too. There was five minutes left before the last English tour until 1:30. We bought our tickets—9,000 won—and hurried to where the rest of the tour was. Our tour guide arrived about the same time we did.
I absolutely adored this lady. When she spoke, her accent was an amusing blend of Bostonian and Valley Girl. Her explanations of the palace, Changdeok, and the garden came with an abundance of sass and spunk. Mix that with her “if you’re not here to listen and can’t keep up, I don’t care” attitude and you have a tour guide experience entirely different than any in the U.S. She’s there to educate you, but all the subservient nature of an American tour guide is tossed right out the window.
The palace was just as fascinating as Gyeongbokgung from yesterday. Changdeok is set apart from its Joseon Dynasty counterparts by the garden surrounding it. Gyeongbokgung had little foliage, just sandy pathways and little refuge from the hot sun. The “secret” garden contained within the walls of Changdeok is removed from the traditional idea of a garden. You won’t really find any vibrant flowers or expertly trimmed hedges, but rather high-reaching trees older than you could ever imagine and thick bushes that, coupled with the steady stream running through the palace’s grounds, made it seem like a place that would make being a king not too shabby.
The information on the tour itself was just as rich as our surroundings—an insight on the history of the palace that is as deeply rooted in Korean history as the trees that call Biwon home; a look into the brilliant minds that designed the palace, incorporating methods of environmental science and simple genius to make the palace an absolute marvel.
Kellie, who had already gone on the tour when she first moved to Seoul, now saw this as more of a gratuitous photo opportunity for me and Lindsey instead of an educational experience. I never thought one could become exhausted from taking photos, but after nearly a billion snapshots of the sun in my eyes, I was ready to set someone on fire if I had to pose and look happy one more time. Fashion models, I now respect you. I have a feeling the shutter of a camera lens could bring on a serious case of shell shock if I’m not careful.
Towards the end of the tour as we, under the order of our tour guide, looked for a chimney, a middle-aged Asian woman leaned over to me and whispered, “Excuse me, what did she say the significance of the chimney was?”
"Uhh…" I hesitated. "I don’t really know." I laughed lightly.
"Yeah, we weren’t really paying attention," she said, nodding to her young son next to her. "We were over there." She pointed behind her to the bottom of the small hill the house with the chimney was positioned on.
"Yeah, so was I," I said, thinking back to yet another posed photo of me and Lindsey.
"Where are you from?" she asked.
"Florida," I answered.
"Where in Florida?"
"We’re from Chicago."
"Ohh, all right. I’ve been there," I said. "It’s nice—cold.”
She smiled. “Is it hot like this in Florida?” She fanned her face with her hand as the group started moving again.
"Worse," I said as we began to climb up a winding series of ancient stone steps. "The nights don’t cool down like they do here. It’s just always humid."
We spent the rest of the time on our walk back to the tour’s starting point talking about the science employed in the palace’s construction, why we came to Korea, what we had done in the days prior, even sharing some personal stories with one another:
"I left here when I was twelve," she told me. "But when I was a little girl I used to come here with my parents. It wasn’t like it is now. You didn’t have to take a tour or anything like that. We used to always just come, find a nice spot to sit, and have a picnic."
Eventually we wished each other a good rest of our trips and went our separate ways. It’s always nice to be able to connect with the most unlikely stranger in some way. I’ve met people that have expressed little to no desire to travel and that astounds me. If you don’t want to go somewhere for the sights, go for the people. Whether they be natives or visitors just like you, people can be just as enchanting as new surroundings.
Kellie left for work once the tour concluded. Lindsey and I explored the rest of Changdeok. In all honesty, Changdeok isn’t as impressive as Gyeongbokgung. Not much of the palace is left to explore after the tour and what is left is very similar to that of Gyeongbokgung, but without the impressive throne rooms. It’s still remarkable in its own right, though. Especially when you consider all the history that took place on its 600-year-old grounds.
Lindsey and I left Changdeok and headed for Deoksugung. The streets on the walk away from Changdeok were different than any others I have walked so far in Seoul. Houses—not apartment complexes—surround the palace. A little girl waved from a balcony. Cars zipped by in impressive numbers but not with such dire urgency. As I understand it, this is as close as you get to suburbia in Seoul. But there’s no sporty soccer moms transporting the kids around in SUVs, getting home just in time to review their credit card statements before a spaghetti dinner.
With each broad leap Korea makes towards an even more rapidly moving future, it still finds itself deeply rooted in the ancient traditions of the past. As Korea jets forward into a technologically advanced future with each new day, its people have shown they will not forget where they come from and who they are. The Korean people are extremely proud of their culture and even when the world moves fast, Korea isn’t afraid to periodically slow down and echo their ancestors.
The walk to Deoksugung brought us back to Insadong. Insadong seems like a different place in the day time, the locals claiming the streets before all the tourists filter in come sundown. We were attracted like magnets to a little cart decorated with piles of some of the brightest lemons I’ve ever seen. The sign above said it all:
Fresh squeezed lemonade.
A treat I know all too well. Lindsey and I ordered one to share and watched the old man behind the stand quickly go to work: juicing lemons and scooping ice. Then something completely unexpected happened. Straight out of left field, Sprite. Regular old Sprite. Wait a second, I thought. That’s not the fresh squeezed lemonade I know! What is this devil’s trickery!?
And the madness didn’t stop there. The lemonade didn’t go into a cup. It didn’t go into a bottle. It went into a bag. Half Capri-Sun pouch, half Ziploc baggie—pop a straw in and enjoy. All in all, it’s not too bad. Korea likes its lemonade with a little fizz. Fair enough. But from now on I’ll stick to good old fashioned way I’m familiar with.
Some quick pit stops were made on the walk through Insadong. Lindsey bought some hand painted necklaces for her and her friend Jazzy.
"My sister," the woman in the shop smiled, lifting her hand in a broad sweep at the necklaces dangling from the open door, "She paints all these."
We continued through Insadong and that’s when I saw it. The gateway to the one souvenir I wanted to bring back home with me. Tucked away in a narrow alleyway was a long table decorated with a ton of little toys. It only took me a few seconds to spot them—the perfect blend. A combination of my love for Star Wars and South Korea. Somewhere between Lego and action figure, little plastic bears painted as different Star Wars characters. Not to mention they doubled as rings. Ahh, Korea. You kings of cute.
I instantly snatched them all up, and with the small wallet that caught Lindsey’s eye, dropped them into the hands of one of the young guys working the table. His reaction was priceless. Of all the English words to know, of all the things to say, he uttered one simple, long-winded "Shiiit."
There’s always something intriguing when you’re younger with learning swear words in other languages. I remember my friend Kyle teaching me how to say “shit” in German when we were in 5th grade. The dirty words are always the ones you want to know first. My guess is this guy learned young like the rest of us.
Not long after we were at Deoksugung. Unfortunately, by the time we reached Deoksugung we had missed the famed changing of the guards ceremony by just an hour. It was a slight disappointment but not anything I think I’ll lose sleep over. As entertaining as it would have been to watch, I’m often just fascinated that I’m actually here.
Of the palaces we’ve been to, Deoksugung is by far the smallest. But that’s not such a bad thing. We spent most of our time after wandering the palace grounds, just sitting on one of the many benches around the National Museum of Art. Seoul’s late afternoon breeze was beginning to rattle the leaves of the trees and stir up small clouds of mobile dust as the sky transformed from bright blue to burnt orange.
We left Deoksugung at 7:30. Perfect timing to meet up with Kellie at the Dunkin Donuts across the street. It’s a funny thing to look at. A testament to the past so close to a splotch of a modern, consumerist world.
When we met up with Kellie she was spending her time waiting as a chance to brush up on her Korean. We quickly left the Dunkin Donuts and caught a cab. Next stop: Seoul Tower.
You get to the base of Seoul Tower by cable car. This was my first ever ride in a cable car and I can’t think of a better place to have done it. After purchasing our tickets and walking up some winding stairs, we were packed in the car with about thirty other people, mostly couples. Seoul Tower is mainly an attraction for young lovers—a prime spot for date night whether it be Koreans or foreigners. But Lindsey and I didn’t take this trip to rub our noses together and whisper sweet things in each other’s ear, so the addition of Kellie was hardly a concern.
The climb to the tower in the cable car was eye-catching. Darkness began to bleed through the sky over Seoul, the city’s bright lights flickering on in response. It was like a firework show from the ground up.
When we reached the top we climbed out of the cable car and after a few quick photos, partook in the tradition of Seoul Tower.
Nearly every inch of the long fence that borders the base of the tower is covered in thousands upon thousands of locks, each scribbled on in countless languages. The messages may look different, but they all essentially say the same thing—couples from all over proclaiming their love for one another to the world, locking it away in hopes it will never be broken.
Lindsey and I bought a lock and a little rubber heart. We jotted down our message to one another (Lindsey & Travis Together Forever!) and then scoured the seemingly endless wall of locks to find a resting place for our love. We eventually decided on a nice spot towards the bottom of the fence, locked it with another lock scribbled on in Korean, and pocketed our respective keys. And now it’s there. Our love, locked away on Seoul Tower. Maybe others that go to do the same will see ours and wonder who exactly we are and if we’re still in love, like I did with so many others.
And though the concept of Seoul Tower and the locks of love can’t help but make you smile, I spotted undoubtedly one of the most absurd things I have ever seen in my entire life. Locked at the very top of one portion of fence was a lock the size of an infant. This thing could have been used as a weapon. But it only got worse. Etched into the surface of the lock were the faces of the pompous couple I had watched lock it away only moments ago. Beneath their black and silver portraits was their names, a message in Korean of what I can only assume was a gooshing sentence of self-absorbency from the both of them, and their website. Kellie suggested it was a website that told the their love story and plans for the future. I still think it’s a live stream of them having sex.
Yet the hilarity of the giant lock didn’t stop there. Seoul Tower is an attraction for everyone. I watched several people, all from different countries and cultures, walk over and have a laugh at the ridiculousness of the lock.
Is there such thing as too much love?
We eventually bought our tickets for the elevator ride to the top of Seoul Tower. One long line and cheesy green screen photo later, we moved inside the elevator where the operator pointed to the ceiling as she sent the elevator up. As you travel to the top a short video plays across the ceiling to keep your mind off the climb. According to it, we were rocketing away from Earth and out into space where we ended up crashing into a distant planet. I’m a little unclear on the details.
The elevator doors opened and we walked out into a crowded circular room. I was vaguely reminded of the time I went to the top of the Space Needle in Seattle. Lindsey said she was reminded of her climb to the top of the Empire State Building. I guess all these attractions bear similarity. But once we walked over to the wide panes of glass, I knew this was an entirely different experience from the Space Needle.
The Emerald City has nothing on Seoul. The city I had walked through all day was now a pulsating field of brilliance. Seoul was illuminated nearly everywhere I looked. Cars shrunk down to the size of ants, identified only by their headlights, moved across roads and bridges to journey inside the gleaming titan. It was absolutely stunning. From that high everything seems so calm. I imagined floating freely out in space, looking down on the earth and Seoul shining back at me. When towering above a city like that, the world doesn’t seem so daunting. Life seems a little less scary when you’re removed from the brunt of it all.
We took the cable car back down and journeyed through a few empty back streets until we came out on lively Seoul once more. After some quick directing from a restaurant employee, we set out on foot for Myeongdong.
Myeongdong is Seoul’s Times Sqaure. Well, maybe minus the KFC and Papa John’s. A radiant ball of artificial light, blinking and flashing. Restaurant here! Store there! The wide back and side streets are jammed packed with just as many people as the main stretches, stands pushed close together, each vendor eager to sell you their wares—glasses, socks, cell phone cases, toys, jewelry, clothes. You name it, Myeongdong’s got it. Music blares from shops that have no intention of closing even as it breaks well past midnight. For Myeongdong, the night’s just begun.
Pretty, young girls outside the shops speak through microphones that broadcast up and down the street, their voices snatching you in with promises of excellent prices and exquisite quality. Men run around dressed as bunnies and bears, dancing and playing with you beneath the twinkling signs of the store they wish to draw you into. Commercials are being filmed, food is being cooked, businessmen retired from work for the evening laugh and smoke over bottles of soju in the countless bars lining Myeongdong’s bustling strips.
We momentarily ducked out of the night life and into a tiny restaurant. We climbed the stairs to the dining room where we were quickly seated and given a menu. After flipping through it I turned it over and looked at the back. A series of Korean characters was sprawled across the page. Situated in the middle of the paragraph was the only thing I needed to understand it all:
For 33 years this restaurant has endured. Beneath the words was a picture of a woman proudly smiling in the space not far behind us. A little older and a little different—a snapshot of the restaurant’s first day of business.
And who was it that took our order? The same lady in the photo, hardly untouched by time. I pointed to what looked good and she nodded and smiled enthusiastically, doing the same with Lindsey and Kellie.
I thought what I got was going to be similar to bibimbap, but when it arrived it turned out to be a stew filled with tofu and rice, and as I dug deeper, bits of octopus. The octopus wasn’t off-putting—I’ve had some before. But this was unlike any octopus I’ve tasted. I’ve only had octopus sushi, which is kind of like chewing on a car tire. But this octopus was tender, nearly crumbling away with the bites I took. It carried a spice that filled the rest of the stew. Not a mouth burning spice, but not subtle either. A strange tinge that kept the palette alive. It was unlike anything I’ve ever tasted. I’m still a little unsure if I liked it or not, but I think I’ll hold off until tomorrow on telling Lindsey she ate pieces of a cephalopod.
After a little bit of hanging out, we paid and left and continued our walk through Myeongdong. We filtered in and out of the different shops. At one point Kellie was told by a friendly shopkeeper that she looked like Lady Gaga.
We stayed out until the shop doors closed and the carts were sealed up, until the incredible amount of people in this massive district had dwindled down to stragglers refusing to call it night.
With the trains shut down for a few hours we caught a cab back to Kellie’s apartment. A brief moment of rest in the back of the cab brought on the true level of exhaustion I had done a good job of ignoring all day. I nodded off until we got back to Kellie’s building. It was probably the first time I’ve fallen asleep in a car since I was six years old.
I’m writing this as I sit on Kellie’s bed. This is the first entry I’ve wrote on the day it actually happened since the New York entry. Lindsey is in the shower. Kellie sits at her computer just inches away from me. I’m so tired, but so eager for tomorrow.
The day started with another early wake up. We were in our clothes and out of the motel in what seemed like a flash. The walk to Busan Station was short and peaceful. The sidewalks that had been thriving with seas of people the day before were virtually vacant. The city lights that had shimmered so brightly had faded with the night, leaving only a few to match the faint stars above still pulsing against dawn’s premature light.
In this early morning haze I found a calm in Busan that is absent from most areas of Seoul. Seoul is a runaway train, constantly speeding up, throttling towards the horizon on an endless track. Busan is one of the giant ships that calls its ports home, methodically faring the open path ahead, occasionally taking the time to dock and rest for the day. Again, neither of these descriptions should discredit either city. There’s just a contrast between these two behemoths tucked away in opposite corners of the Korean peninsula.
Our train for Seoul left at 5:00 AM. What time we woke up, I don’t even know. But my body didn’t hold back from letting me know it was too early. I refrained from getting any food for the trip out of fear it would wake me up.
Perhaps one day in the future I’ll regret sleeping on the train and not looking out on Korea’s majestic scenery like I did on the way to Busan, but writing this right now, assessing how I feel, I can’t say I regret it. Simply put, I was tired. I must have stepped into some bizarro world when I boarded the train, though. Never has there been a time when I’ve nodded off and Lindsey’s stayed awake. Maybe it was to badger me over leaving her headphones behind in the motel room in Busan.
After nodding in and out for a while, I woke up for good with two hours left on the ride. Behind us there was some sort of commotion going on. This happened on the ride to Busan as well. Some man yelling about something as the train authority attempted to calm him down. In the train car in front of us a television crew filmed something.
When the train came to its final halt we were back at the familiar Seoul Station. We walked out on to Seoul’s streets and the rush of excitement overtook me. I was glad to be back. Busan and the outerlying areas were fantastic, but I was ready to really explore Korea’s colossus. The food, the people, the culture, the sights—they were now mine to devour. An eagerness was itching at me.
We caught the subway back to Kellie’s apartment. After a little relaxation and unwinding, Kellie got ready for work and left us with some directions to get around Seoul. Lindsey and I planned to spend the day exploring some of Seoul’s palaces and hopefully eating some delicious food. We would meet up with Kellie at 8:30 at Balsan Station, Platform 6 to go and browse around Insadong.
I showered and changed. While Lindsey did the same, I laid down against the hardwood floor of the apartment. At that moment I didn’t need a bed or a pillow to feel comfortable. All I needed was a second to stop moving. I never thought a hardwood floor could feel so good. The constant going of the trip was rapidly catching up with me.
After Lindsey was ready we slipped our shoes on and headed for the subway. One tiny mistake in navigating later, I got us on the right train and we rode all the way to the City Hall stop. When we climbed the stairs back onto the city we were in the center of Seoul—standing there on the city’s beating heart. Police stations and embassies and government building swirled together with restaurants and shops and, as it drew ever closer with each step we took, framed by the incandescent sunlight, Mount Inwangsan in the distance gleaming with ancient glory as if to say, "This is it. This is Seoul. This is Korea. Welcome," was Gyenongbokgung Palace.
We originally intended to go Deoksugung first, but we quickly discovered it was closed due to it being a Monday. So we hoofed it a little farther until we came upon the towering statue of Admiral Yi Sun-shin. Standing defiantly and staring down at all the passersby, the sun bearing down against the immortalized admiral’s metallic surface, it is a monument to a more patriotic and prideful side of Korea.
I’m not really one to be enthralled by the tales of war, but the history of Yi Sun-shin is fascinating no matter where you stand on the political or ideological spectrum, particularly the account of Yi leading the Korean naval fleet to victory against the Japanese fleet with only 13 ships to spare compared to Japan’s 333.
It’s kind of mind-blowing to think in an age where we are constantly developing new and more advanced ways to eradicate one another that this admiral all these centuries ago is still able to hold one of the most impressive military records of all time.
Past the statue of Yi Sun-shin was a golden statue of King Sejong the Great. With a wide smile etched across his face and his arms spread wide it’s almost like he’s welcoming all those that pass underneath the statue’s shadow to Seoul. A greeting from the postmortem to the postmodern.
Beneath the statue is actually a museum dedicated to the king. Unfortunately, it was closed on Mondays as well. Luckily, Gyeongbokgung wasn’t a victim of the Monday closings. After watching the hordes of cars whip past its colossal main gate—known as Gwanghwamun—we crossed the street in a brief moment of calm, paid our 2,000 won to get in and entered one of the most fascinating parts of the trip thus far.
Show me towering skyscrapers and vast cityscapes and my eyes will widen in enchantment. Feed me delicious food and I will smile endlessly. Let me walk the site of hundreds of years of history and my mind will overflow with amazement.
I was nearly dumbfounded walking the grounds of the palace. Climbing those weathered stone steps to peer into an elegant throne room of master craftsmanship, a throne of bright red woven with shining gold beneath a ceiling of intricate, meticulous carving and vibrant colors. It was absolutely impossible to not stand there and think, "A king really sat there. A king and his people walked these same grounds." Another strong link to times long passed. I constantly had to remind myself that I was wasn’t at some Disney model. I hadn’t stepped into Epcot’s half-assed attempt at Korea. This was the real deal. This was rich history left behind. More than once I turned to Lindsey just to say, “Hey, this is real.”
For over ten years I’ve been enamored with Asian history, architecture, and culture. Now, here I was. A healthy dose of all that in one.
We explored the palace for four hours, finally leaving as the sun began to set against Seoul. Behind us, as we walked away, were beautiful structures and monuments to human innovation and Korean history. Built so long ago, battered and restored, standing now with a sense of near invincibility, ready to stand the trials of time as a representation and reminder of where this incredible country and its people came from.
Our search for Balsan Station brought us to Insadong without us even knowing it. The main area of Insandong is a long stretch of shops, food, and don’t forget the people. This was one area of Seoul where the actual streets were populated more by people than cars. A cool breeze had just begun to funnel down the narrow street as the sky dimmed. The amount of people grew each second. Americans were situated on the sidewalk, playing trumpets and violins and guitars with their cases propped open for tips—something not all that foreign.
We never found Balsan Station without the aid of a cab, but the aimless wandering we did hardly aggravated me. It was nice to just walk, watch Seoul not from a tourist attraction, but just from another series of streets; cars rushing by, people laughing and walking, on their way to bars and restaurants and home. Simple existence in the most complex form.
I stopped by a food stand operated by an old man. Cooking on the grill before me were the most tantalizing chicken kabobs, skewered with vegetables and slathered in a deep red chili paste.
I pointed down at them. “Two,” I said as I raised the same number of fingers.
He nodded. “How spicy?” he asked. He pointed to four painted wooden panels linked together by a copper wire dangling from the top of the cart. Each one was labeled with a level of spice (how much it would set your mouth on fire) and accompanied by a corresponding number of painted peppers.
Mild- one pepper.
Regular- two peppers.
Spicy- three peppers.
I thought back to the restaurant in Busan. I had learned my lesson.
"Regular," I said.
"Regular, regular." He nodded.
He slathered the kabobs in more sauce and dropped them into sheets of aluminum foil. He lifted up a bottle. “Garlic powder?”
I nodded my head. “Ne.”
He grinned at my minute knowledge of Korean words as he wrapped up the kabobs.
"Take-away?" he asked.
I nodded again. “Ne.”
He dropped the wrapped kabobs in a bag and handed them over to me. I handed him 2,000 won, thanked him, and joined Lindsey for more trekking down the street. We eventually stopped so I could eat.
These kabobs were the first bits of food I had had all day and it was nearly 8 PM. A day of non-stop going had made me forget just how hungry I was. My first bite into the chicken and vegetables was divine. So far it’s seemed Korea can do no wrong with food. I devoured the first one and, after seeing my ecstasy over it, handed the second one over to Lindsey.
She was in just as much love with each bite, but her mouth was a little more on fire than mine. It had kick, but hardly enough to send me into an air-sucking, tongue-fanning frenzy.
After getting Lindsey a drink we hailed a cab.
"Balsan Station?" Lindsey asked the driver.
He looked puzzled for a moment before a realization hit him. “Busan!?” he screamed. Quickly, we were shooed out of his cab before we could even explain ourselves.
Standing abandoned on the sidewalk, I couldn’t stop laughing about it. Wherever you are now, sir, I promise you I would never expect you or any other fellow cab driver to deliver me across the Korean peninsula.
We got another cab, one that didn’t think we were insane and got us to where we needed to go. We found Platform 6—not until after Lindsey slipped down a set of stairs—and waited fro Kellie.
It was great to finally be able to sit down. I don’t know what it was, maybe the fact I had woken up so early, but this day had really taken it out of me. The whole time walking through Gyeongbokgung and Seoul’s streets I wanted nothing more than to just take a moment to rest, but we didn’t have that kind of time and I knew that.
It wasn’t long until Kellie came up the steps and we headed back for what we would soon find out was Insadong. When we made it back to that familiar stretch of tourism the streets were more crowded than our first visit. Shopping and night life was in full swing.
"So this is Insadong," Kellie said.
In unison Lindsey and I breathed out an “Ohhh,” and said, “We ended up here when we were lost!”
To put in bluntly, Insadong is a tourist attraction. It’s lined with shops filled with little trinkets to commemorate your time in Korea. Any shopping stretch on I-Drive in Orlando carries the same sort of similarity, but Insadong is not without Korean authenticity. Slipped between the souvenir shops that are nearly identical to one another are traditional Korean porcelain stores and Buddhist shops. It’s a stir-fry—one part tourist trap and one part a reflection of Korea’s past and a representation of its present.
We spent a while browsing the shops. Lindsey picked up some little gifts for her family back home. With hunger gestating within us all, we decided food was a great idea. Our search brought us to one of my favorite areas of the trip so far. It was a little outside of Insadong’s more touristy area, where exactly I’m not sure. All I know is the food was good and the atmosphere was refreshing. After an overdose of feeling too much like a tourist, we came to a wide arrangement of food stands where tons of people were gathered around, dining at tiny plastic tables and drinking soju. In the middle of it all a woman hurriedly washed dishes in giant tubs of soap and water that sloshed along the pavement. The air was thick with conversation and laughter. A man quickly sat us down and handed us a menu. I already knew what I wanted. A little bit of this, a little bit of that, and don’t forget those delicious dumplings.
We ordered a sampler that gave us some of everything the stand had to offer, one woman cooking it all. The food was fantastic but the whole experience was even better. Sitting in Seoul’s cool night air, surrounded by Korean citizens there for the same reason, all of you eating and talking and enjoying yourselves, packed close together but no one seems to notice. The air was rich with the smells of good food and the sounds of simple enjoyment. It was another welcomed disconnection from American society and a moment where I felt most ingrained in the Korean culture. I could have sat there for the rest of the night, just eating and absorbing it all.
We left after a free dessert of youtiao, walking through the city for a while until climbing a set of steps and coming to the Buddhist temple of Jogyesa. Before reaching the entrance we found ourselves sealed away from the night sky by a long stretch of colorful lanterns tightly woven together, rattling with the wind.
Everything seemed strangely peaceful. We removed our shoes and carefully walked inside. The temple was silent besides the light whispers from those knelt down in prayer, three giant gold Buddhas towering in front of them. We laid down floor mats and took seats ourselves.
Sitting there in the sereneness of it all, it was, without a doubt, one of the most peaceful experiences of my entire life. There was an air about the temple, something I can’t fully explain, brought on not only by its beauty, but by the remarkable calm that instantly draws you out of everything you had been through that day. I didn’t think about the pain in my legs or the tiredness bearing against the back of my eyes. I was just there.
Just outside the temple is Seoul, one of the largest cities in the world, constantly busy and constantly going. But inside the temple I forgot all that. The city noise shrinks away and the rush to be somewhere and do something is absent. It’s a bubble of serenity, a removal from the madness of the world.
I could have sat there for hours. When we walked back outside and put our shoes on we were back in the flurry of Seoul. We wandered the city for a few hours more—even taking a trip to Sinchon—before turning in for the night.
Sleep came the easiest last night. Perhaps it was because I was so exhausted, or maybe I still had some of that peace left in me from Jogyesa.
I originally intended this and the Goseong entry to be compiled as one, but my wrist and my mind were getting too tired and I was verging on novella territory. I did so much in this one day that it almost seems impossible.
When we made it back to Busan a light rain had already fallen on the city. We were now left with a thin mist periodically falling from the sky—a welcomed relief from the sun that had been making me sweat buckets since the trip began.
We spent a while just walking around Busan’s streets. Korea’s second largest city. It was slightly reminiscent of San Francisco—a city that moves up rather than across, packed ever so tightly along the dips and climbs of mountains. The scent of salt water lingered in the air, a hint of the fish market that seemed to never be too far away.
Like Seoul, Busan is a giant. But I found the two to differ greatly. I can’t quite put my finger on it. Seoul is a breathtaking rush where Busan is a mellowed journey. Neither of those descriptions is intended to discredit these two wonderful cities, they just can’t really be compared.
We walked through plenty of tiny shops, many of them clothing stores and suppliers of overwhelmingly cute trinkets, accessories, and nick-nacks. I’m pretty sure Lindsey fell deeply in love with a store called Art Box.
All this time was mixed with more ventures into Korean street food. Food has easily been my favorite part of each day. On the walk to the fish market I grabbed some delicious dumplings for only 1,000 won, some fried pumpkin, a waffle cut in half and lathered in cool whip, and a corn dog wrapped in fried potatoes and smothered in sugar and ketchup.
Everything was great. I cannot begin to describe my infatuation with Korean street food. I don’t even want to imagine the day we leave and I have to say goodbye to these wonderful food stands always operated by the most generous vendors offering you quick doses of Korea, whether they be dishes of age-old tradition or a more modern, culturally fused spin.
We left the shopping district behind and made our way to the fish market—not before stopping off at the docks to take in Korea’s fishing industry at work; massive ships coming in to port, tiny boats sailing off into the distance, old men with their legs dangling off the dock, high, arched fishing lines cast into the water, attached to poles gripped tightly in their wrinkled hands all while the calls of seagulls filled our ears as the sun peaked through a curtain of gray clouds.
"Where are you from?" a tall man with a thick accent asked us as he stared out on the water.
"United States," Lindsey smiled. "Florida."
"United States," he mumbled. "Big." He went on to carry a conversation in Korean with himself as we left, the fish market close in the distance.
The walk through Busan Cooperative Fish Market was the most detached from Western society I’ve felt so far, and the most attuned to the culture of the Korean people. I don’t want to call it culture shock—I loathe that term. I’d instead call it an enriching experience, because that’s what it truly was.
For what seemed to be miles, fish of every variety were laid out to passersby—octopi, squids, toadfish, sea slugs, eels, bottom feeders, fresh water, salt water—you name it. Some still brimmed with life in tanks and bowls while others were long dead from that morning’s catch, their empty eyes aimed at the sky as their scaly heads dangled towards the pavement.
We silently observed as a Korean couple approached an elderly woman sitting in a chair with a wide tub filled with octopi at her feet. They pointed down to it and she immediately placed a bowl in her lap, snatched an octopus from the tub, and while carrying on a casual conversation with her customers, thrust her hand into the octopus’ head, yanked out its brain, and tossed it onto the pavement. She dropped the dead octopus into a bag, tied it up, took her small fee, handed it over to the couple and bid them good day.
I wasn’t disgusted by any of this. You don’t have the time to be. You’re experiencing ancient traditions of a vastly different culture. It’s rather beautiful if you think about it. Not very often are you given the chance to look in on a culture so rich in such a direct way. There’s no culture shock involved. It’s just cultural enrichment.
After our tour of the fish market and a stop at a candy stand where Kellie bought some sugary treats from a jolly vendor, we climbed a few sets of stairs to reach a park that led to Busan Tower. A short rest and then Lindsey and I made the climb in an elevator to the top. Just as we peered out the giant glass windows the lights of the city sparked to life, offering us a shimmering metropolis mixed with fishing town simplicity situated on the edge of the sea.
There’s something about looking down on cities from so high—the slight sensation of playing god, looking down on creation, observing the world and its people from a perch where everything looks so small but strangely big all at once.
When we finally went back down we met back up with Kellie. She took my and Lindsey’s photo at a few of the little, flower decorated arches and a bench framed by a lit up heart where we helped eternalize a moment for a young Korean couple that became overwhelmingly enthusiastic when we agreed to operate the camera for them. It made me smile, how thankful they were.
We worked down the stairs and back out on Busan’s streets. Nights in Seoul and Busan hardly feel like nights. Lights woven together in thick patches act as detractors from the night’s darkness. The nights tend to always feel relatively young here. People are always roaming the streets and somewhere’s always open.
The short stroll brought us to a tiny restaurant. I never caught the name—the idea of food too heavy on my mind. The place was nice. It carried a bit of a modern feel, but that hardly damaged the taste of the food. I ordered pork rib stew.
"Uhh," our server said as I pointed to what I wanted, "Spicy is, uh, okay?"
I nodded excitedly. “Yes. Yes.”
When a Korean native warns you that a dish is spicy, don’t nod your head excitedly. Take a moment to reconsider. When a Korean native warns you a dish is spicy, don’t think all he is telling you is that it’s going to supply a little kick to the senses. What he’s trying to tell you is that it might just kill you.
And that’s nearly what the pork rib stew did. With one bite my mouth erupted in a fury of hellfire that almost caused my brain to drip out my ears. It took all my power and all the water at the table to not pick up the scissors intended to cut meat with and use them to chop out my tongue.
Thank the heavens for the eggs on the table. If I wasn’t able to crack three of them into the stew I probably would have ended up as another mysterious case of spontaneous combustion.
I ate all the stew I could—nearly all of it—and then dined on the other offerings set around the table: kimchi, bean sprouts, sea weed, fish cakes, rice topped with anything of your choosing, kimchi pancakes, and so much more.
One full and rather warm belly later, we returned to Busan’s streets before heading to a jimijibang.
Let me quickly sum up my jimijibang experience:
A large, loud, hot room with an even hotter room inside it, hard tile floors to sleep on with nothing but a thin blanket and tiny leather squares that look more like the top of a car seat than a pillow.
We had been walking around in 80 degree weather for the most of the day. The last thing I wanted was to sleep somewhere that felt exactly like it did outside. I had sweated all day. No part of me wanted to sit in a steam room where I’m supposed to sweat out the toxins in my body. Once is enough, thank you.
I wasn’t perturbed by all the naked men hanging around in the locker room, but I was less enthusiastic about stepping in a shower with twelve other people. I’m comfortable with my sexuality and all that jazz, but showers are one of the few things in life where I truly value my privacy. I’ve always found the shower as the best place to relax and unwind, not stand next to a whole bunch of other people as they chat to one another.
I didn’t hate the jimijibang—it was nice to experience another slice of authentic Korean culture—it didn’t make me uncomfortable. It was simply unappealing. For someone who had walked around all day, at the end of it all all I wanted was to shower and sleep.
As I put it to Kellie and Lindsey:
"I don’t hate it. It’s just kind of like if you were at a cardboard box museum. And you just keep asking yourself: 'Why am I at this cardboard box museum?'”
Much to Kellie’s displeasure, we left after another half hour and just went to a love motel, a place where young Korean couples go to get it on. I showered in peace and then closed my eyes and slept.
When they opened again I would be heading back to Seoul.
I woke up in the motel room before anyone else. Waking up first is hardly anything new for me, but waking up at 5:30 in the morning is.
I hobbled into the shower, knowing it would be a while until Lindsey and Kellie woke up. I let the shower last longer than usual, the sounds of a small town slowly coming back to life creeping in through the open window above me.
After getting dressed a little prematurely, Lindsey and Kellie woke up. It was only 6:30, nowhere near the alarm set for 10. Slowly but surely they got dressed and we walked out on this tiny town to find something to eat. Most everything hadn’t opened yet…except for a Paris Baguette. All I got was a doughnut because I knew we’d be making it back to Busan and it was my sole mission to devour as much street food as humanly possible.
We made our way over to the bus station and inquired when the next bus to Goseong to “see the dinosaur footprints” was leaving. The man behind the glass was having a difficult time understanding the mixture of Korean and English Kellie spoke, but luckily, out from the line next to us, in this tiny town, stepped a girl no older than I and hesitantly said, “Do you want me to help?”
She was a saint and I won’t soon forget her. Incredibly helpful and she spoke English perfectly. She told us how she had visited the United States for the first time last year and how excited she was to see us. It made me smile and it still does thinking about it now. We’re often guilty of giving our fellow human beings a bad rap, casting an entire species in a negative light, making it seem as if this world is populated solely by vile, evil people. But that simply isn’t true. There are so many wonderful and kind people all over the world, in numbers most of us would like to ignore so we can portray ourselves as the shining white knight in a sea of filth.
I wish I could have caught this girl’s name. But her help was great enough. We learned there were two buses: one that left at 8 AM and would take you directly to the area with the dinosaur footprints and another that left at 8:25 AM and would drop you off about ten minutes away. Both the young woman and the man behind the glass recommended the 8:00 bus. With about 20 minutes to spare, we rushed back to the motel, gathered our things, returned our key to the old couple sleeping behind the front desk and rushed back to the bus station.
The familiar man behind the glass nodded upon seeing us, instantly knowing what we wanted and where we wanted to go. As the tickets printed, he jumped from his seat and ran outside to the bus terminal, yelling all the way.
This time we didn’t need a translation to know what happened. We didn’t make it in time. The bus had already left.
He printed us tickets for the 8:25 bus, which wasn’t a bad thing. This gave us time to wander the empty bus terminal, looking out at the traditional Korean housing and rice fields stretching out towards the mountains surrounding us from each angle.
I stayed awake on the bus ride. Wide awake. It was impossible not to. This bus ride rivaled any rollercoaster I’ve ever been on. Flying up a mountain, sharp turn after sharp turn, gunning it downhill and then back up again, throttling past pastoral scenery as each bump nearly sent me through the roof and each turn nearly spilled me out onto the floorboard. I’ve never held on so tight in a bus before. The senior citizens sitting around me hardly flinched a muscle. The three of us must have seemed like a bunch of big babies to them.
When the thrill ride was over we were dropped off on the side of a mountain road and pointed in the right direction by the bus driver. Down below was an archway in the shape of two brontosauruses. If that wasn’t the spot, we were doomed.
Tiny droplets of water fell down on us as we eased ourselves downhill. The area around us was mostly long stretches of rice fields, speckled with the occasional house, one of which, positioned perfectly on a raised point on the mountain, was absolutely beautiful. It had a traditional Chinese design with a backyard decorated in flowers.
Another five minutes of downhill walking and we reached the sign welcoming us to the park. Below the Korean characters was an English translation that hardly made any sense. I love terrible translations. I’ve spotted countless Korean teens wearing shirts adorned only in bland text that always spells out a horribly translated English “phrase.” My favorite has definitely been "A Youngster Stays Forever." I really hope I can find that same shirt somewhere. I want it so bad.
After a light laugh at the sign we proceeded even further downhill, towards the park. My eyes were fixed on the ocean ahead, slowly washing in and out across layers of smooth stone. Suddenly, I heard a thud next to me. I looked over and Lindsey was pushing herself up from the pavement.
"Whoa! Are you all right?" I said, slightly concerned. In reality, I knew she wasn’t seriously injured. For lack of a better word, Lindsey is a Grade-A klutz. Falling down is hardly foreign to her.
"Yeah, I’m fine," she said as she inspected the patch of tendered, blood-speckled flesh on her knee. "It didn’t really hurt."
"That looks really bad," Kellie said. "You want to go and clean it out?"
"No," Lindsey answered. "I’m fine."
But as we moved farther down the mountain, thin streams of blood began to trickle down her leg.
"Hey, you’re kind of bleeding all over yourself," I said. "Are you sure you just don’t want to wash it out?"
Lindsey looked down at her knee. “Oh, whoa. Yeah, I guess.”
We made our way across the park where a number of campers mingled about to a fountain where people were washing out beach toys and bottles. Lindsey wet a napkin and began dabbing the blood from her knee when our attention was diverted to an old man waving and calling out to us. He shouted some things we didn’t understand before flashing us one raised finger—the universal symbol for “hold on a second.”
He ran inside a little building and when he came back out he was carrying some Q-tips and a tube of antiseptic. He motioned us over to a picnic table and sat Lindsey down, quickly squirting one of the cotton ends of the Q-tip with the antiseptic and applying it across the cut.
Instantly, people began to flock over to us. A middle-aged woman sat down at the table across from us and asked us what happened. We explained the fall and she immediately began helping the old man apply gauze and band-aids to Lindsey’s knee. All the people that gathered didn’t come to smile at Lindsey’s minor misfortune or anything of the sort—they came out of genuine concern. They came to see if they could help—if everyone was all right. And even though it wasn’t anything serious, they stuck around until the end just to make sure.
I wrote earlier in this entry of kind human beings and how they’re everywhere, we just often choose to ignore it. This day was a healthy dose in reassurance of that belief. It was incredible to encounter so much kindness in the short span of a single day.
We gorge ourselves on selfish bitterness so often that it skews our view of the world. We let the bad things in life harden us until we can only see the ugliness of the world, ignorantly disregarding its beauty. The girl back at the bus station, these people crowded around us, concerned only of Lindsey’s well-being are proof of this beauty. Underneath all the bad things—the wars, the famine, the blind hatred and prejudices, the inequalities—the world is a place rich with beauty and part of that beauty is its people.
When I was a teenager I overdosed myself on apathy. I convinced myself people were poison. And while at times we can be, if we apply ourselves positively to the world and the others around us, the outcome could be magnificent.
Once Lindsey’s knee was patched up, many of the people that had gathered around didn’t immediately vacate. They asked where we were from, why we decided to visit Korea, where we were staying, how we were enjoying it, how we found out about this spot all the way out in the country.
The lady across from us was a Korean native that relocated to Hawaii years ago. Now she was a visitor just like us. They were all incredibly nice, one lady even sharing her experience in Orlando from several years prior.
We finally bid them farewell and set off down the wooden path built over the slick rocks that high tide was beginning to swallow. As we moved along, we began to notice depressions in the stone. They were dinosaur footprints, long secured in the sediment.
At first glance they could have just been holes in rock, but if you stand there and take it in—really think about it—it’s incredible. Dinosaurs walked there millions of years ago. And now there you are, all those years later, taking those same steps. We regard the past as such a distant memory, but we are tethered to it in one way or another, constantly echoing and mimicking those before us.
When we reached the end of the wooden path we crawled over some wet rocks and came upon a long stretch of stone that led out to the whistling ocean. Sitting silently on a set of stone steps, watching the tiny ocean waves cascade upon the rocky floor, was an old man. Positioned next to him were a line of photos propped against a rock wall that led inside a cave.
We walked over to him, asked him if we could go in. He smiled, nodded, and motioned with his hand for us to enter.
The inside of the cave was astonishing. We were sealed away in shadows generated by the broad stone ceiling above. The narrow walkways lead out onto a vast view of the ocean as it washed inside the cave, catching itself in the depressions in the floor and the cracks in the walls.
I took a seat on a stone slab jutting out from one of the rock walls. I leaned forward. Set between two slender stone pillars was a spider web. Caught in the web was the exoskeleton of a shrimp, probably displaced during a more chaotic high tide—crawling and scratching for safety only to end up in greater danger.
The cave was a monument to the natural order of the planet—a sanctuary to Earth’s physical beauty.
We left the cave, climbed back up the rocks, and took an alternate path on the wooden walkway, taking us to the dinosaur museum, which only cost 3,000 won. (3 bucks.)
The climb to the museum was filled with some fun photo opportunities with some cartoony dinosaur statues and a stop at a snack stand where I bought a cheap ice cream snack that was delicious. Vanilla soft serve drizzled in strawberry syrup with a layer of strawberry sorbet beneath.
The museum was pretty fascinating. There were a few actual dinosaur skeletons there which is always something remarkable to look at. However, all the info cards were in Korean, so after looking at everything there wasn’t much else to do.
We headed back downhill where, had we known it wasn’t exclusive to children, we could have taken a slide down to the bottom where we had a cab called to take us back to town.
Before catching a bus back to Busan, we stopped at a food stand. Alas, my first taste of Korean street food. I got a fried pepper stuffed with sticky rice. As I ate it on the bus I instantly regretted not getting three of them.
Just as quickly as I ate the pepper the bus started moving. It was easy for me to nod off to sleep. When I woke up I was in Busan.
We woke up hardly bright and definitely early to catch our 5:30 AM train to Busan. We jumped in our clothes and jumped in a cab and headed for Seoul Station.
The cab ride was an excellent way to start the day, cruising across the towering highways of Seoul as the morning air rushed in, the smells of the city wrapping themselves around you as the sky pulsed new dawn blue.
We crossed over the Han River, passed by the fish market where hundreds of trucks unloaded thousands of fish. We rushed through the station, sadly stopping at the Dunkin Donuts inside to grab a quick snack, and got on the train. A five hour ride was ahead of us.
I thought this might be a great opportunity to catch a little more sleep to keep me running the whole day, but as the train rolled away from Seoul Station I realized that was never going to happen.
Looking past Lindsey and out the window, the scenery that rushed by was absolutely breathtaking, as overused of a phrase that may be. Giant mountains topped with lush, vibrant trees meeting with the pale blue sky, dipping up and down, giving way to sprawling rice fields where old men and women climbed down into the soaked soil to begin a day they have begun years and years over; what appear to be tiny cities but are actually small towns popping up sporadically in the middle of these great stretches of untouched nature.
It was incredible to watch this all rush by as I popped in my headphone sand queued up some music. Any anxiety I had experienced about this trip was completely diminished at this point. It’s remarkable how music can instantly ground you, bring you back to a sense of familiarity even when you’re somewhere so foreign.
When the train ride came to an end, we stopped for a quick bathroom break and then some food inside Busan’s train/bus station, which sort of doubles as a shopping mall. I got more bibimbap. It was too tempting and all my expectations of train station food were tossed out the window. Again, this was delicious and I honestly don’t know which of the two I had were better.
Three bus tickets and a rather short glimpse of the giant that is Busan, we were on another bus bound for Jangseungpo Bus Terminal in the city of Geoje. It’s rather strange, on this trip I’ve probably done more walking than on any other, but probably just as much sitting down.
The bus ride was about an hour and not only another glimpse of Korea’s remarkable beauty, but also of its slight lack of a traffic system. Bus drivers, cab drivers, they all drive at ridiculous speeds since there’s not really a speed limit, taking sharp corners and weaving in and out of lanes, sometimes narrowly dodging other cars. They really know how to use their horns but I’m not sure if they know how to use their brakes. I actually kind of love it. You get everywhere so quickly and I’ve yet to see an accident, so maybe that’s saying something.
After the bus ride and probably cheating death once more, we walked down the street and bought tickets for a ferry ride to Oedo Island. We got them in the nick of time, leaving just five minutes later.
The ferry ride doubles as what I assume is an informative guide on the history of Oedo Island and the surrounding rock formations. But I wouldn’t really know. The entire thing is in Korean. Nevertheless, it was fascinating. At one point we were even allowed to stand outside the boat as it inched down a narrow alcove formed between the rocky walls of two huge rock formations that seemed to have effortlessly pushed themselves up from the sea floor, reaching for the sky above, thick patches of moss and algae, even trees, sprouting from the deep cracks in their ancient surfaces.
The water rocked us between the two stone giants, crashing against them to reveal tiny crabs scuttling up the chaotic pathways to safer refuge. We pulled away and went back onto the ocean and were given the chance to buy dried squids which I assume were fished from the same waters we sailed. I passed, but I watched a few others take advantage of the opportunity, ripping open the package it came in, cracking the squid in half and biting into it like jerky.
At some point on the ride a man in what appeared to be his late 40s, maybe early 50s, sprang from his seat, pointed an accusing finger at the tour guide and went into a tangent in Korean. He seemed to only be arguing with the wind, however. The tour guide simply stood there, nodding at each amplified word and lightly grinning, fully aware that this guy was a complete loon.
Once we arrived at Oedo we were essentially given free reign, just a time to return at. You follow a paved path that gradually takes you to the island’s peak, all the while passing vibrant flowers. I felt like I was in a scene from Fantasy Island. The only thing missing was Tattoo.
At several points you’re able to look out on to the ocean, mountains disguised as dark blue patches laid against the sky by a thick haze of fog gradually working its way across the dark water, chasing after the tiny fishing boats tugging along, spitting out streaming bubbles of white from behind.
It’s here when it finally hit. A view all too good. Asia, I said to myself. Here I am. Here I am in Asia.
The rest of Oedo was beautiful. Large parts of it reminded me of Florida, some of the flowers even taking me back to my own backyard.
The ferry ride back was rather calm. No crazy arguments I couldn’t understand. Towards the end, though, the tour guide did jump up and quickly muttered something into his microphone. Instantly, heads snapped to the right. I followed suit and just in time. Quickly nudging a sleeping Lindsey awake, we watched together as five or six whales broke the surface of the water, blowing thin mist from their blowholes into the air and then delving back into the ocean, hidden once more from human sight.
When we got back to Geoje, Lindsey wasn’t feeling well—a little sick to her stomach, similar to what I had experienced the previous day. I figured a short break from Korean cuisine would probably do her some good—not to mention some water. So we made a trip to Paris Baguette. These things are everywhere, populated with pastries and bagels and such. Dunkin Donuts and Paris Baguette. Korea loves ‘em.
Two plain bagels and several cups of water later, we got on a bus after working through a rather difficult, albeit humorous, language barrier when asking for a bathroom.
The hour bus ride brought us to the aforementioned small town where we checked into the tiny Amiga Hotel, staffed by an elderly couple. Lindsey quickly fell asleep, Kellie left to go get her some apple juice and water in hopes of helping her stomach, and I sat down in the shower, resting my legs and mind.
I feared it wouldn’t, but sleep came rather quickly on that floor mat in the corner of the room.
I write this while I lay on a floor mat in a tiny motel room in a small town. Its name escapes me at the moment. But even if I remembered it I doubt I’d be able to pronounce it. Even the small towns here sort of feel like big cities. We’re not far from Busan, which I’ve only had a glimpse of so far, but first: Day 1 in Seoul.
The Asiana flight went without a hitch. I was actually able to sleep on this flight, waking up in the last twenty minutes to a flight attendant smiling down at me and asking if I wanted a meal or a drink. I declined and she said “okay” and continued down the aisle. She spoke English impeccably. No one should ever expect anyone to speak the same language as their own—we’re all just making funny noises we decided to give definition to—but having prepared myself to work through some language barriers, it’s been a little surprising when I encounter those I can speak to without hesitation.
When we landed we went through customs and grabbed the luggage we had said goodbye to in Orlando and made our way out of Gimpo airport where Lindsey’s sister, Kellie, was waiting for us.
After a quick scramble to convert some money and buy a metro (T-money) card, we hopped on a train headed for downtown Seoul. There was an excitement burning within me—we had finally made it—but I’m sure the overwhelming sleepiness didn’t let it show, leaving an empty shell of my actual self to make the venture to Kellie’s apartment.
Time was a little lost to me at this point, so it’s hard to know how long the ride actually took, but it felt rather fast, as did the walk to the apartment, where we were asked by a group of giggling school girls where we were from.
I wish I could have taken in more of the city on this brief walk, but my tired eyes wanted nothing more than to close themselves. But even the small glimpses I was able to digest were fascinating. When I arrived in New York and climbed to the top of those subway steps and out into the sprawling metropolis, I was impressed but it was simple to adjust to. Perhaps because New York is so often a fixture in American entertainment. Or maybe I just wasn’t as tired then. Who knows.
Standing in Seoul was an entirely different experience, one I’ll never be able to fully describe. You could rattle off countless statistics of population and square footage, but to this naked eye, New York seemed like a little brother when compared to Seoul.
When we got to Kellie’s apartment her and Lindsey talked for a bit while I stared tiredly out of the wide apartment window, looking down on the city six stories below. Here I am, I thought. South Korea.
After Kellie left for work Lindsey and I laid down for a nap. As is the curse with being overly tired, sleep did not come as easy as desired. A lot of tossing and turning and stressing and showering and cooking and eating finally brought a completely dark and heavy sleep that was broken only by a phone alarm. I could have slept for weeks. When I lifted up I wanted nothing more than to collapse and fall back into that blackened lull. But it was time to go.
After a struggle to get my clothes on without falling back asleep while standing up, we made our way out of the building and began the walk to Kellie’s work.
The walk was unsuccessful. We got lost almost instantly. But getting lost has never been all that bad to me. You get to see things you would have otherwise missed. You get to experience the city in its natural form.
However, we were running on a bit of a schedule and ended up catching a cab. Hailing a taxi in Korea is slightly different than in the U.S. You don’t need to frantically wave your arms around like you’re being attacked by invisible pigeons. You simply extend your hand and casually wiggle your fingers. A tuned-down version of jazz hands.
The cab got us there quickly and without much hassle, mostly do to the small piece of paper we had on hand that spelled out the name of Kellie’s work in Korean. We were briefly introduced to who I believe was Kellie’s boss before leaving and heading for the subway. As we rode up the escalator to get on the train, we ran into a former co-worker of Kellie’s, a Korean-American guy named Yon. The spelling of that could be incorrect. I’m simply assuming.
I enjoyed his brief company. I wish I could have interacted with him a little more, but an uncomfortable feeling deep in my stomach that had been bothering me since waking up prohibited me from doing little more than silently wishing it away and dry heaving when no one was paying attention.
It began to fade as Yon took us through his neighborhood in Hongdae. It was a cozy little area in the otherwise busy region. Flashing lights indicating restaurants and cafes intermixed with silent and calm housing areas sealed in light shadows. Part of it reminded me of a few scenes out of The Chaser.
Before heading home to get ready for a night time bike ride on the Han River, Yon directed us to the Bau House. Ah, the Bau House. One of the dumbest ideas ever conceived and I say that in the best possible way. The Bau House is a cafe with typical cafe items—tea, coffee, juice, smoothies, etc—but with a ton of dogs running around freely. Dalmatians, pugs, Pomeranians, huskies, and not to mention a golden Cocker Spaniel named Suny that reminded me of Jyngy back home.
But Suny never came to our table. Running around the Bau House are the waiters/waitresses that seem to double as dog trainers, as well as a few people on duty to clean up pee/break up any fights. It was a ridiculous experience and one I’m sure I won’t have the chance to revisit any time soon.
Time after the Bau House was spent wandering the surrounding neighborhood, admiring it all and entertaining the idea of food. I was dead set on eating Korean. I hadn’t come 7,000 miles from home to sit and eat a glazed doughnut from Dunkin Donuts.
We ended up going to a small place Yon had mentioned to us earlier while taking us on a short tour of the area. We sat down and browsed the menu and there it was. One of the dishes I had been dreaming about for months. One of the most traditional Korean dishes in existence. Bibimbap. And, oh my, was it everything I had expected and then some. I found out about bibimbap years ago on some Food Network show and had always wanted to try it. And to be able to do so in its native country was wonderful. Every spoonful was perfection. Bibimbap, I’m still dreaming of you.
The dinner (should I call it a dinner? It certainly didn’t feel like one) was spent in the company of two of Kellie’s friends: Kara, a fellow American and English teacher originally from Chicago, and Christie, a ridiculously nice and absolutely adorable Korean woman from Jeju.
I thought they were both great people, but our time with them was brief as Lindsey and I headed back to Kellie’s apartment for some more showers and sleep and the three of them left to grab a drink.
Every shower I take on this trip feels like a heavenly gift. I’ve sweated so much beneath the Korean sun that I’ve felt like a bag of swamp water at the end of each day.
It felt great to be able to lay down and close my eyes again, knowing a few more hours of rest were coming my way, however brief they would seem.