Korea, Day 14

bridge at Namsan Park

Today we say goodbye to one of our group. Tim headed back home (to New Zealand) in the early afternoon so we spent the morning wandering 14 floors of the Shinsegae Department Store, including the underground shopping in the subway stations below it. One could get lost window shopping all of the different goods offered there.

The “food floor” was my favorite because of all of the different samples we got to try. If we hadn’t already eaten lunch on the 11th floor food court, we could have easily made lunch out of the food samples on this floor. I did buy some Korean varieties of tea to take home.

We spent the afternoon wandering around Namsan Park, at the foot of Namsan Mountain. It was peaceful and almost empty (most of the people left Seoul for the Seollal holiday weekend). We stopped for tea at the tea house located at the end of the park, which was quite nice.

In the tea house we met Devin, from Delaware. He had only been in Seoul for a few months, coming here to teach English. We invited him to join our table and enjoyed sharing stories and sights we’ve seen. I invited him to join us later, for dinner.

Not only did Devin join us for dinner, he brought his friend Carl (another American). An online friend of mine, Patrick B. also joined us. It was yet another good meal with lots of conversation. Definitely one to remember.

Then, the night really got started. Mike convinced a few of us (Mel, her husband Jared, Mike’s wife Marley, Marly’s friend Cindy, and I) to join him at a jjimjilbang (Korean bath house). Tim and Mike had discovered it the night before and were adamant that we needed to do this.

The bath house separated genders, one floor being for women the other for men. Once you pay the entry fee (12,000 won) you are free to enjoy,. They gave us wristbands with bar codes and a locker key (for our clothes). From there, we stripped down (completely) and enjoyed a deep cleanse shower, 6 different kinds of spa/pools, saunas, the “ice room”, and more. I indulged myself in a 60 minute massage which, turns out, was much needed.

It was 2:30 AM before we returned, via taxi, to our hotel. I cannot put into words the bliss and level of relaxation the jjimjilbang gave us.

A quick Q & A

I’m a little behind on blog posts and uploading pictures (time flies when you’re having fun). I thought that I would use this time to answer some common questions I’ve received through email.

Are you the tallest Korean?
Far from it. From what I have seen, I am definitely above average. But I have passed a few who were in the 6’5″ range.

What is the craziest thing you’ve done on this trip?
There’s nothing that I would characterize as “crazy”. It’s an overall mellow trip, spending time eating, drinking, and exploring the touristy areas of Seoul. I did venture out to a Jjimjilbang (Korean bath house) but more on that in another post.

Have you eaten anything weird?
I ordered a cup of beondegi (steamed silkworm pupae) from a street vendor, today. Honestly, they tasted pretty good. They weren’t quite as seasoned as I’d heard about, and I think would have tasted better with some sriracha. Most of my friends tried them too. Of course there will be pictures posted soon.

Does everyone assume you speak Korean?
Yes. And I never got over feeling embarrassed that I couldn’t. My one regret is not spending more time learning the language before coming.

Did you search for your birth parents?
No. I knew that I wasn’t going to use this trip to search for them. I still don’t even know if that’s even something I want to do. I would be lying if I told you that I didn’t think about it, though. And, I will tell you that I experienced emotions that most likely will not be posted on this blog. This trip opened up some things that I plan to explore more.

What do the Koreans think about adoption?
I’m not sure. I never had any conversations about adoption with anyone while here. And that was by design.

Did you like Seoul?
Absolutely. I’ve fallen in love with this city. I will never, ever turn down an opportunity to come back.

Did you go anywhere other than Seoul?
Other than the 14 days in PyeongChang (for the 2013 SO Winter World Games) and a half day trip to the DMZ, all my time was spent in Seoul. On my list is Busan, Ulsan, and Jeju Island. I would also love to see North Korea if I’m ever given that opportunity.

Some random thoughts on Seoul

  • Tipping is not the standard but the food servers here are extremely attentive, hospitable, friendly, etc. They’re so good that it irritates me that US servers are so bad and expect tips for doing the bare minimum. An added bonus is that most restaurants have call buttons at each table so you can “summon” a server anytime you need to. 
  • Everyone is connected here! Even the older generations seem to be walking around with smartphones.  The devices range in size from small to obscene, and no one displays any hesitation of using their electronics in public. From the parts of the city I have seen, these people are quite tech savvy. 
  • There are simply too many coffee shops in Gangnam (and most of Seoul, actually). The coffee craze here is a little absurd. Now, I love my coffee but I don’t need anywhere from 3-5 shops on the same block (sometimes right next door to each other). 
  • Small talk isn’t really a thing here yet, if you ask someone for anything they will display friendliness and help you out. 
  • Seoul drivers be crazy. Not as crazy as some other places I’ve heard about but, yeah. Seoul’s drivers be crazy. 
  • I think that, for an American, Seoul is actually quite easy to be a tourist in. If you are new to international travel, move Seoul towards the top of your list. 
  • Korean TV commercials are just as annoying as American TV commercials. 

Korea, Day 13

Lookout tower at DMZ

Many (locals and colleagues) wondered why we wanted to take a DMZ tour. I understand their various reasons but, I am very happy that we did take the time to see it. It’s humbling. It’s a stark reminder that this country is still at war. It’s a reminder of how much this country has been through, and it puts into perspective how resilient the Koreans are in building the economy to what it is today.

For all that the DMZ is, it’s actually quite impressive that it has become a nature preserve. It’s also interesting to look out at the border and see where the treeline ends, being that the North Koreans have cut all of their trees in order to better see potential defectors. Their mountains are also void of trees as they use the wood for fuel (heat) because they cannot afford to import other fuels.

I hate that so many locations, along the DMZ, banned photography as there was so much that I wanted to photograph. 

Also interesting were the attempted tunnels dug by North Korea (four tunnels found, 25 suspected) with the intention of attacking Seoul. We walked 350m down to the third tunnel, then walked to the first barricade within the tunnel) which brought us as close to the border as possible. Again, humbling. 
The bus tour took us to a few different locations along the DMZ, including Freedom Bridge, the third tunnel,  observation area, the northernmost train station in South Korea, and then back to Insadong, Seoul for lunch and shopping. 
We then parted ways with Reuben, our fearless leader, who travels back to Washington DC tomorrow. He is the one who invited us all to Korea as part of his GMS Committee, and every single one of us is extremely grateful for these opportunities. 
I called it an early evening once we returned to the hotel. I’m not only very tired but I had a lot of work to catch up on. It doesn’t feel like I’ve been gone a long time until someone from home (work, friends, family, etc) emails me for something. 
I am in love with this city. While it doesn’t feel like home, I can see myself living here and being happy. There is so much more to do and explore; this is a city that I want to come back to as much as I can. 

Korea, Day 12

Injeongjeon Area of Changdeokgung Palace

Seoul is awesome. It reminds me a lot like Los Angeles, only better (mind you, I’m still only seeing it from a tourist’s perspective). I have not had a bad meal since we got to Seoul. In fact, we’ve taken to walking into random restaurants and have yet to be let down. Even the street food is amazing. 

One of my favorite parts of London is The Underground. Athens had a decent subway. Seoul’s subway is fantastic. It’s clean, quiet, and goes everywhere. We purchased T-Cards, which allow us to load the card to use as transportation passes on subways, buses, and some taxis. We can also reload the cards and use them in some stores (like a credit card). Very convenient. 

The morning began with an incredible breakfast: hae jang guk (picture here). It was the perfect combination of hot (temp), savory, and spicy. So good on cold mornings like today. We then ventured off to Changdeokgung Palace, which was one of the most beautiful things that I have ever seen. 

From the palace we headed towards Reuben’s hotel to meet him, stopping for lunch along the way. I love walking through cities and have no idea why I don’t do it more while home. It’s something I have to change. According to my fitbit, the whole day totaled over 20,000 steps. 

We met Reuben, Johnny (one of our translators from the Games), and Johnny’s friend Julie at the Hilton. We then made our way to the top of Namsan Mountain, to Seoul Tower (Namsan Tower). If you ever want to get a bird’s eye view of Seoul, and see how expansive the city really is, this is the place to go. 

From Namsan Mountain, we made our way to Insadong for tea while we waited to meet up with Chris and Mountain (another one of our translators, and yes, that’s his name). Once the group was together, the details get a little “blurry”. We feasted on Korean BBQ, consuming more pork belly, soju, and beer than we care to admit/remember. It was an extremely fun evening, and a great way to say thank you, and goodbye, to our three Korean friends. Chris, Johnny and Mountain really helped get us through the Games. It’s hard to describe all that they did for us but, we truly appreciate them as friends. 

So, here’s the “deep thought” of the day: It hit me while in the observatory deck of Seoul Tower. And it caught me off guard. While staring out at the 360 view of Seoul, I realized that my birth parents are potentially somewhere in this city. My mind wandered in a hundred different directions from there. I began looking at the different neighborhoods, wondering which one I would have grown up in. I wondered which neighborhood the police station, where I was found, was in. 

I even began wondering if I had unknowingly passed my birth parents, or any relatives, on the street during all of our wandering around. It’s a very strange thing to look at every ajumma and wonder, “could that be my mother?”

And since then, though not always at the forefront of my mind, I am imagining what my life here in Korea would have been if I had never been adopted and brought to California. This is the rabbit hole that I did not want to go down. At least, not during this trip. 

This just tells me that I do have to come back to Korea; I need to explore more on my own time. 

Korea, Day 11 – Seoul

espresso in Gangnam, Seoul

And now the real fun begins!

Not saying that the 2013 SO World Winter Games weren’t fun. It was just a different kind of fun.

Our day started with one last shuttle ride to YongPyong Resort, so that we could catch a bus back to Incheon (about 3 hrs). We couldn’t arrange a ride straight into Seoul, since others outnumbered our group and had to get right to the airport. Once at Incheon Airport, we stopped for a quick bite at McDonald’s (some of us were craving a “taste of home”) before heading out.

We then hired a taxi to take us to our hotel, Provista Hotel in the Gangnam neighborhood of Seoul. The driver was very friendly, making sure to point out some landmarks on the way. He also was sure to help us make arrangements for him to pick us up, on Monday, to take us back to the airport.

Our hotel is awesome! We stayed with the hotel we originally booked (before coming to Korea) and we couldn’t be happier. Here’s why: 1) we have our own rooms, 2) the beds are comfortable and bigger than twin size, 3) the rooms are large, mine includes a loft, 3) there are washer/dryers in each room, 4) western-style bathrooms, complete with automated toilet seats and bidet, 5) room service, 6) coffee/tea cafe in the lobby, and 7) 3 minute walk to the subway. All for just about $100 a night.

And all of those amenities are much needed. After the two weeks we had, we all just need comfort. I’m so very happy with our hotel right now.

We spent the afternoon wandering the neighborhood around the hotel, getting our bearings. Later this evening we’ll indulge in a large Korean meal. Tomorrow, the real exploring begins.

Korea, Day 10 (last day of competition)

me with a Korean drum

We made it!

We finished the last day of competition as strong as we could (being geeks stuck in rooms at computers). Actually, by today many of the venues had finished so some were able to float around to watch some competition. I spent the first half of the day in the IT Center, with Reuben, as we worked to finish things on our end.

By the afternoon, all of us had finished. We took the time to tour the observation deck and cafe at the top of the ski jump tower, at Alpensia Stadium. There’s also a ski museum on the second floor (where the above photo was taken).

That evening, we dragged our exhausted selves back to our hotel to pack. Reuben treated us all to dinner by ordering pizza. This was much needed as we were all looking for something hot and that was similar to back home.

I had a chance to spend some time at the cross country venue to watch athletes receive awards. It was heartwarming to see athletes from all different countries cheer for each other as they all stand on the awards podiums. Definitely serves as a reminder to why I love what I do.

Sharon and I parted ways at the end of the day. She said that she really enjoyed being my translator, and that she will look to volunteer at another Special Olympics event (in Korea) soon. I’m happy to hear that. She handed me a couple gifts and a thank you letter as I left. She is a sweet girl, and will do well when she graduates school.

Michelle and I only had chances to talk by phone during these past couple of weeks. Unfortunately, I never had a chance to get over to her venue (about 30 minutes away from where I was stationed). There’s a slight chance we can meet up in Seoul, so I’m hoping for that.