“Recognize your mistakes. Recognize your achievements. Details, details, details. The God is in the details.”
-A blinking light in a MoMa installation told me this.
Sooo, about climbing those rocks. IT’S COLD, OK? I’LL GET TO IT. Good news though, I have not completely squandered my job perks. I did more traveling in 2009 since Ireland, but not too much. So, more like, “sqwandered”, am I right? Am I right? No. I like my job and I love the unbelievably cheap airfare, but I very much rue the lack of free time left me in which to utilize it. Nonetheless, I was able to pool together the small amount of time off allotted me this year, in hopes of procuring something vacation-like. My sister Emily has been living and teaching english in Seoul, South Korea for almost a year now. So I basically had to go there, or risk giving her legitimate reasons to complain (for the first time. ever.) Also, I’m a really big fan of puns, and this trip promised to deliver in a big way. And thus, a Seoul-journ was born.
With me, my Seoulmate, Tom. (If you’d like to see pictures of the trip, he was the guy with the camera, and you can check out the link to those under “Tom’s Pics” in my link list.) Had I had more vacation days, we would have taken a romantic getaway elsewheres, but this time, we take our respite at chateau d’Sister…I don’t consider that very romantic-but he is a guy-so it probably meant so much more for him.
One of the anti-perks of the job perks is that all tickets are standby, so it can be a very stressful experience and emotional roller coaster just getting on the flight; something akin to…I dunno…and actual roller coaster I guess. Duh. The flight is around Christmas time, which means two thing: 1) That the dates we want to take the flights happen are kind of sensitive at the risk of missing Christmas with our respective families, and 2) That the dates are plenty sensitive for other people flying too-who paid full price for their tickets-and who will be flying more than usual because it’s a holiday. Our route is New York, Tokyo, Seoul. Going standby, wer are pretty much last priority to board. As our departure date drew closer, the NYC to Japan leg starts to look bad. Real bad. It’s overbooked by about 35, and from the looks of things, all flights from airports in the NYC area to Tokyo are about the same story. In fact, the only US airport with a flight to Tokyo that seemed to offer even a glimmer of hope was from Portland…which is of course on the other side of the, er, continent. How will we get there?? We cannot possibly bike ride that distance in 24 hrs. Let’s see, don’t have a car…train also takes too long. HOW on EA…Oh yeah.
Luckily, my awesome friend Amme (you may remember her from such entries as, ‘India’) is currently living in Portand, getting her masters. This is great not only because I haven’t gotten to see her in a while or seen Portland ever, but the flight out of Portland to Tokyo is the next day, so we’ve got the night and morning there. She comes and picks us up from the airport. We get a quick tour and enjoy an delicious evening out and sleepover, and I finally get to meet her thumbed cat, Rogan…and her three chickens, which we spend the better part of the morning chasing.
Back at the airport, we are happily informed that not only is there room for us on the flight, but there is room in business. I have been so genuinely spoiled by my job. I’m afraid there might eventually be dependency issues coupled with withdrawal (who knew that ‘withdrawal’ had 2 ‘a’s in it, am I right?). But for now, Seoul here we come…in style! Ahh, but when we reach Tokyo, the flight to Seoul is overbooked, and we can’t get on until the next day. I certainly wasn’t complaining, though. There are worse places to be “stuck”. Tom’s been to Tokyo before but I have not. One day and one night isn’t exactly time to get well acquainted with a city that massive, but we did the best we could. I found it to be clean, frenzied, and highly concentrated on all things small and adorable… like New York with OCD, caffeine jitters, and a unparalleled enthusiasm for the Youtube browsing of “sneezing kittens”.
We took in a market, an beautiful temple boasting the world’s largest paper lantern, and one very busy intersection. When we return to the airport, we are finally able to board the flight to our final destination. Tom has not met my sister, and wants to know more about our host. So he turns to me, all sincerity, and asks, “Is your sister as loose as you?”. I’m not going to waste time trying to explain that I knew what he meant to say. Those were the words he chose. This was the question formed in his mind and forged by his lips and larynx. And no, Tom. No she isn’t.
My questionably loose sister gathers us at the airport and we dive right into some serious Seoul searching. It is absolutely frigid. We’ve had nothing but the chilliest weather in New York, and I have taken my one vacation this year to visit a place somehow even colder. What can I say? I’m a Seouldier. First meal is Korean BBQ, which is quite good, and then we attempt to get a cab back to her apartment, but no one’s biting. They pass us by like we aren’t even there. My toes feel freezer burned. My thighs are numb. We walk up and down frost bitten streets until we finally find a driver who takes pity on us, albeit begrudgingly. There is a bar, Zuzu’s, down the street from her house where she is a regular and much loved as a token westerner. It’s a weeknight and no one’s really there but us, so we get a lot of attention. Included in the attention package is a fire show. I am familiar with the mesmerizing fire shows performed on the beaches of Thailand, entailing flame balls masterfully whirled around the body on the ends of special ropes or sticks, but I question how this might be accomplished in a bar. Turns out, it is different, but manages to retain some of the terrifying possibilities I had imagined. The bartender comes to our table, pours alcohol along the wooden railing in front of us and in his mouth, lights a torch, and spits. An engaging spectacle, to be sure. My favorite part was the frantic scrambling at the end to put out the fire which then spread to the beer banner attached to the railing…really the least of my original concerns in the whole wood-fire combo.
Next day is the fish market-a veritable shopping mall of dead and soon to be dead sea creatures and their accompanying olfactory consequences. We pick out a crab, a small octopus, and a flounder for sashimi. Along with the octopus (more on that in a moment), the flounder is alive when we pick it. When we point out the one we want, the man who owns the stand takes aim and swoops in with two well placed blows of a hook near it’s eye, and then skins it in front of us. I have a very emotional moment. After choosing your food at the market, you take it upstairs to a number of restaurants willing to prepare it. Here’s the thing: the octopus is a specialty-when they serve it, it’s still alive, depending on your definition. It is certainly still moving. For a better idea, see this video.
Fillet of Seoul.
Throughout our stay, we half-heartedly stopped in and out of shoe stores, trying to replace Tom’s boots which had a hole in them and were thus quite unconducive to the cold. But Koreans, apparently, have comparatively small feet. Nowhere had his size. We stopped by a shoe-hawking street vendor one day to check out his selection, aggressively miming the ‘feet too big’ problem. He understands. He wants to see his feet. Tom takes off one shoe, and the man recoils in fear, simply saying “Oooh” and shaking his head, joined in laughter by another passerby.
Seouls of your feet.
It is possible my favorite part of Korea are the tea houses, and specifically, the 5 Taste Tea within. 5 Taste Tea is magically all it is purported to be, hitting the tongue as salty, sweet, peppery, bitter, and tart simultaneously. Normally, complexity overwhelms me, but I am a big fan of this tea. And the teahouses themselves, numerous and of thematically varied, are a serene and relaxing place to spend a few hours. My favorite teahouse had 7 free flying birds bold enough to fly over and try to eat table scraps once you’d finished, but they could not be persuaded to land on my finger or do my sewing, or even harmonize with me in song. So that was a little disappointing I guess.
Chicken soup for the teenage Seoul.
We took one afternoon to go visit a couple of Emily’s classes, and allowed ourselves to be interviewed. Having little context for surmising the age of caucasian faces, this is the first line of questioning. For the record, they were surprised I was 27, and also thought I was the younger sister (zing, Emily!). We also related to them the harrows of our failed shoe mission. Tom takes off his shoe to show them his foot, and they too become frightened and tell him he has a big nose. Children can be so cruel.
Next day, we went to North Korea. Oh yes. There’s a USO tour that goes every day, taking a busload of people to the Demilitarized Zone. It is a stark, heavily regulated and suffocatingly supervised experience, but completely worth the better part of a day getting there and back. Before entering the zone, you pass through the US military base, where no pictures may be taken. There, after you are transfered to a different bus, leaving all your things on the old one, you are driven to a UN operated, neutral ground sort of building where once again, the rules are reiterated (no pointing, no gestures, etc). There, upon exiting the other side of the building in all her glory, is North Korea. The immediate spectacle is a line of about 6 barracks, built to host negotiations between North and South, and beyond those, a large Stalinesque building with one guard pacing and monitoring, (and as he was armed) intimidating. He would walk a few steps, stop, survey our side, bust out the binoculars, stare dead at us a while, walk to a window and appear to speak to someone inside a moment, repeat. We are later told that we are being watched, photographed, and being taken note of from all around. There are cameras and curtained windows everywhere, apparently full of North Koreans diligently and obsessively logging our visit. There are guards on our side too, maintaining very specific boundaries we are are not allowed to cross, at risk of initiating World War III. Tom’s brought his camera, and I see a shot I think would be really great, I just need a different angle. I cross over towards the area I want to be standing for the shot, momentarily forgetting the boundaries, and a guard, quiet and statuesque till now, WHAM slams his foot down, marches out two paces and violently, definitively, raises his arm to block my path. Of course I am completely shaken, and of course everyone in our group turns to stare, and of course we are shortly thereafter led back to the bus.
Just wanted to make sure they were paying attention.
Next up, we take a crisp, refreshing stroll through one of the many dark, dank tunnels dug by the N. Koreans leading directly to Seoul in case the need of a surprise attack arises. They’ve discovered several like it, and assume several more exist. So that’s comforting. We’re also shown a very one-sided video about the history of the war and the touting the famous biodiversity Korea is so famous for. And that was the DMZ.
Tom went back to the US for Christmas proper, but I stayed on with Emily, because wouldn’t that have been so mean not to? We didn’t have big plans originally; Xmas is more of a couples holiday in Korea, and Emily had enough trouble just procuring a small tree. We did do stockings and gifts though, and we made plans to go out to lunch with her boss and her boss’s daughter. They took us to an amazing eel restaurant on the water, but the high (and low) point for me was what followed. We were ushered next door, to a banquet hall of sorts. We’re pretty much the only people in there besides a man with a keyboard on stage doing Karaoke, another man running around dressed as a very thin Korean Santa with beard askew, and another person dressed as a giant squirrel (maybe?) who kept offering us funny hats and making us pose for pictures with him giving a ‘thumbs up’. As more people began to arrive, we were pressured by Emily’s boss to get on stage and sing a karaoke song we’d never even heard (although the lyrics were in English, and it was apparently immensely popular in Korea)…the lyrics on the screen were helpfully in Korean. Merry Christmas, everyone.
Hope yours was as Seoulful as mine.