Sunday, July 28, 2013

My Trip to South Korea

I am by no means a world traveler. I have only been out of the country once, to Rocky Point, Mexico when I was about five years old. The only thing I remember from that trip is one of the little girls we went with got bit on the toe by a crab while playing on the beach and howled and cried for an incredible amount of time. So when I heard my sister was going to be stationed in South Korea for a year with the military, it didn't really cross my mind that I'd be going. About six months into her stay, my little wheels started turning and I realized I'd never have another actual REASON to go there - it felt like now or never. I talked to her about the plan I was hatching in my head and she was incredibly excited about it, and she's one of those people whose excitement is infectious, so my mind started working double time. Before I knew it, at the age of 28, I finally had a reason to apply for my passport. How I've longed to get that little baby stamped with evidence of my world travels! I always figured, since I live in a border state, my first trip as an adult would be to Mexico; instead I made my plans to travel half way around the world, literally night and day. Passport was received, tickets were bought, plans were hatched. Before I knew it, I was on a plane headed towards the unknown.

When my plane touched down at the airport in Incheon, it was 4:00AM local time - 16 hours ahead of Phoenix. My sister greeted me at the airport, and we took a return bus to the base, where I was able to stay in her room for the sweet price of FREE for the week. Our next stop was the train station, then from there we took a cab to the Toilet Museum. The main building is shaped like a toilet, and right outside is a giant poo statue.
Many photos were taken, many pooping poses were struck. When we reached the end of the tiny park, we headed back toward base, tuckered out from a long, sweaty Korean summer day.

Day two we just lazed around and went to some shops, soaking up the scenes, comparing and contrasting American life to Korean and getting a few things to prepare for our outing the next day.

Day three was by far my favorite, because it provided some much needed relief from the heat, AND I got to meet a ton of my sister's squadron, which was REALLY cool! I never thought I'd get to know any of the people she works with, and it was awesome to get to put faces to the names of people I've heard about, and see how she interacted with everybody. Keep in mind she has not been stationed in Arizona since she joined the military, so I have never had the chance to meet any of her friends or people she spends time with. I was so happy to have gotten the opportunity. (Sorry, tangent!) ANYWAY, day three we took a bus to Inje where we went zip lining and river rafting. Zip lining was AWESOME! It's something I've always wanted to do, and to do it in South Korea was icing on the cake. So cool! There were a bunch of different lines, and we zipped around from tree house to tree house (or whatever they're supposed to be called!).
Not all tree houses were connected via zip line, a couple were connected with little log platforms, seen here:
When river rafting, we were able to cool down in the water when the river wasn't too rough - a much needed reprieve from the pounding sun.
We also met a cool Korean river raft guide, who didn't speak much English, but was totally awesome nonetheless. We promised to find and friend him on Facebook so we could share group pictures, but were unable to locate him. :( No group pictures for us. [His name was Kisun, or something of the sort - pronounced key-soon. If anyone reading is able to locate him so we can share photos and not disappoint our cool friend, they will automatically be granted 50 cool points!]

The next day we journeyed to Seoul via bus and visited a monk temple (Bongeunsa Temple).
At the temple we saw the back of one single monk as he was walking away! Boo! Despite the elusive monk population, the buildings were beautiful and it was very cool to get to observe some of the worshipers practicing their faith.

Toward evening, we journeyed to Seoul Tower, a pretty cool place that boasts a view of the whole city. It was extra special because we went up to the tower while it was still light, but the sun went down while we were up there and we got to see Seoul at night in their big glass panoramic room. Very cool indeed.
We stayed the night in Seoul and the following day went to the Trick Eye Museum, where optical illusions made for some awesome and hilarious pictures!
We headed back to our little room on base for my last night in Korea.

Some noteworthy observations:

As far as infrastructure, Korea wasn't wildly different than America - there were lots of skyscrapers, huge cities, and well integrated public transportation. The biggest thing that struck me as different was the mannerisms of the people there. For the most part, people kept to themselves and were very somber. When getting on a train, they would find a spot to sit and look down at their laps or get on their phones and completely tune everyone out. I didn't see much social interaction among people. This was especially true for older people. We went to a couple of malls, and in this environment the younger people were a bit different - more chatty toward each other, smiling, and engaged. Also, young couples were much more affectionate publicly than Americans, lots of touching, feeding one another, brushing hair from their partner's face, holding hands, etc. I thought that a strange juxtaposition from the way people acted on the trains. I think that social media may be playing a role because on the trains young people were kind of withdrawn as well as they looked at their phones. Maybe technology is so integrated that people don't have to interact with those around them. Just a thought.

Despite my initial intentions, I ate NO authentic Korean food. First of all, it didn't smell even slightly appetizing. Weird spices that I'm not used to, I suppose. Secondly, the couple of times we tried to go to a restaurant, the people acted cold and withdrawn, and I didn't feel very comfortable. Not sure if it was because we weren't natives, or they were just assholes to everyone in general, but I try to make it a practice to only give my money to people who aren't assholes, so we decided not to dine at those places. Also a strange food oddity of note, every SINGLE DAY, where ever we went, there was a Dunkin' Donuts. I saw more of the chain there than I do here, by far. Every, every shopping center, EVERYWHERE! Weird. Despite my disinterest in Korean food, on the plane ride back I rode with Japan Airlines (who are awesome, by the way), and ate some very strange Japanese food. The thing that stands out most was this salad type cold dish that was all held together by a clear snot-like substance. When I picked up the little beans with my chop sticks, a string of the clear gooey substance trailed from the chopsticks to the plate. I have no idea what it was, and I can't seem to find any answers anywhere! I figure that's enough overseas food culture for one trip anyway.

Luckily for me, many of the signs at the airports I visited were both in the native language AND English, which was the thing I was most worried about (specifically getting lost), so it was easier than I'd expected to find my way around.

After being in Korea for a week, with its somber population, my layover in Japan was a surprise. I found that in the short time I spent in Korea, I was influenced so quickly by their culture. In Japan, airport staff smiled and laughed and acted very friendly, and I found myself avoiding eye contact just so I wouldn't have to engage in their kindness. Korea made me cagey! I guess that's a testament to the human condition - we adapt without even realizing that it's happening.

Overall, it was a rich experience and I got a lot out of it. I definitely feel less apprehensive about international travel because of what I learned on my journey. Soon my sister will be stationed here in Arizona, something we've all been hoping for since she joined the military so many years ago. I can't wait for us to plan a trip together and try a new country on for size, and experience everything for the first time together!