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.