Seoul Part IV

Sat 7/16 – Sun 7/17, days 31-32

On Saturday, Amy found a cool looking market of hand-made goods to go check out not too far from us, so we headed out in the morning, a 20 minute walk or so to the subway station then just one stop from Digital Media City to Hongik University. We got off the subway and entered a sea of people, mostly young people, in and around the subway stop. This was definitely a popular area to hang out in, especially on a Saturday. Unfortunately, it was raining off and on that morning so they had canceled the market. But there were plenty of shops to check out, and we found some good gifts and souvenirs. Off and on, Amy took out the phone and microphone, trying to psych herself up to approaching strangers for the podcast. That first successful interview is so important – if she gets that, she’s golden. But it just wasn’t happening today.

For lunch we chose an interesting looking restaurant that served “kongbul.” We walked down the stairs to see tables with burners in the middle and people eating from giant woks with lots of food in them. We tried to order one thing to split given the amount of food we were seeing, but that wasn’t allowed (we were politely told). So we ordered two servings of one of the styles of kongbul. The wok comes out with the uncooked ingredients arranged nicely, and they turn on the heat and get the process going. Someone comes by to stir it up every now and then and tell you when it’s done. It was delicious, we somehow finished it all, and we didn’t need much more to eat the rest of the day.

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Sunday, we decided to get going earlier in order to see the National Museum and War Museum before the 2pm church service that we wanted to attend at the Methodist Church whose building we were staying in. A little more familiar with the area, we took a different walking route through Digital Media City to the subway, through some large pedestrian plazas filled with really cool large public art sculptures. We also stopped for coffee from Coffee Temple, which had great ratings online and whose owner had won many prizes at national and international barista competitions. We weren’t disappointed.

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By the time we got to the National Museum, we had about 2 hours before we needed to head back for church – not a lot of time at all. We decided to spend one hour at the National Museum then head to the War Museum. So we asked for some advice on what to see, and zipped through the exhibits, slowing down for the highlights and some Chinese and Korean painted scrolls whose style Amy had been working on mimicking recently. It’s definitely worth a visit, especially because admission is free!

A little over an hour in, we had made our way through, including the requisite stop at the gift shop, and headed out to the War Museum… except it was further away than we thought it was going to be. So we abandoned that plan and Amy decided to try interviewing some of the people that were milling about the park-like space around the National Museum. She approached a small group of Koreans and asked if anyone spoke English. A woman pointed at her son and said, “He does.” He was probably about 14 years-old boy sitting. Amy asked if he would be up for answering a few questions. Uh, ok. After interviewing him, she approached a woman sitting near some kind of photo shoot. The woman didn’t speak much English but pointed to what may have been her daughter, the young woman who was posing for multiple photographers and videographers. Though a bit embarrassed and somewhat frustrated by trying to put into English words her thoughts, she happily engaged with Amy’s questions. The young guys who were doing the shoot were thrilled with the whole thing and continued shooting while Amy interviewed her.

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As that interview finished up, an older Korean man approached me and started talking about, of all people, Jeb Bush. His English was excellent, and his manner a bit odd. He explained to me that Jeb Bush was not successful in securing the nomination of the Republican party because he lacked the strength and fortitude of mind of his father and brother. Had he been able to secure the nomination and the presidency, he would have extended the reign of the Bush family to the entire world, eventually. Amy came over and started talking to him about what she was doing with the podcast. Amidst the other things he was talking about, and having learned that Amy was my wife, he slipped in this jewel out of nowhere: “It is not often that someone who is mentally retarded [referring to me] is able to secure such a beautiful bride.” Um… did I just hear that right? Well we kept on talking for awhile (mostly he kept on talking) and he actually had some insightful things to say about the way Koreans have looked at Republican presidents, historically. When Amy tried to wrap up by asking him his first name and where he was from, he said, “I must politely decline to answer your request, as it is my prerogative to not share this information, and it has zero relevance to the things we have been discussing.” No problem man, it’s been nice knowing you. He wouldn’t go away though, and tried to help walk us to the subway station he thought we needed to go to. But I wanted away from him as fast as possible, so we went down the stairs to the station the way we had come up, saying thank you, no thank you, we’ve got it, goodbye…

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We made it back just in time for the church service, which was a fun experience, though it was almost entirely in Korean. Our host had arranged for a few university students to help us navigate the service and be available for podcast interviews afterwards. During the service, our host’s father welcomed us and told the congregation a little bit about us. He even invited us to come up and say something if we wanted to, and I took him up on the offer. Here are some thoughts I wrote down during the service:

Language. The Lord speaks all of them. I try and read the Hangeul as we sing, but it’s still too fast. Singing is a good way to learn language though. I think of people who don’t have scripture in their own language. I think of immigrants and visitors to the United States who don’t speak or read English. I think about Pentecost and the coming of the Holy Spirit when the people could understand all of the languages being spoken around them. As we sing hymns with an organ and folk-y songs with a guitar, I think about the influence of Western missionaries and the West in general. There’s a lot of decoration in religion. Some more explicit, some less. But love is the glue.

Food is glue too. I think about how much of our time in Korea has been dominated by trying different foods, finding them, eating them. And for much of human existence, getting, making, raising, harvesting, preparing, eating food, has dominated our lives. A meal is important, central. A shared meal even more so. I can’t speak your language but we can share food, try each others’ food. The Luke passage this morning references food. [The preacher breaks in with English… God is so good… He’s so good to me]. I think about how much hospitality we have experienced throughout this trip. People doing things for us out of the goodness of their hearts, not because they have to or are expected to. Music is another universal language. And art. And sports. To certain extents. Food feels particularly important though.

After church, we had some snacks and coffee with a small group of young Koreans (and one older couple) who were interested in being interviewed for Amy’s project. It was a good discussion, though at times it was hard to convey certain questions, though their English was a lot better (a few of them had spent time in college in the States). We sat around for an hour or so, as Amy and I tried to facilitate a wide ranging discussion about Trump and Clinton, the presence of nearly 30,000 US troops in Korea for the past 65 years, fears about North Korea, proposed reunification of Korea, typical western faux pas in Korea, life in America versus life in Korea. We did not get as far as Amy wanted, but it was a productive and interesting conversation with about 6 Koreans participating: 3-4 students, an elderly man and his wife, and a travel writer. They were good sports and generous with their time.

We took a taxi to Home Plus to stock up on a few things for our next destination. Back at the apartment, we cleaned up, went through our stuff, packed and ate dinner, and otherwise prepared for the next day’s travel to Nepal!

Seoul Part III

Fri 7/15, day 30 continued

We were feeling a weird mix of worn out and restless, and wrestling with our choice of where to stay in Seoul and the difficulty of navigating around with such a large language barrier. You know how sometimes you just feel emotionally stopped up and don’t know how to let it out? Amy sensed that and suggested that we each do a 15 minute writing blitz. This is what came out (somewhat edited).

On Ambivalence While Traveling

Amy:

The idea with our trip was to have every day default to rest day and then have a few excursion days at each location. We wanted to pace ourselves in traveling around the world. Two months is a long time. Two months is a long time. And yet here I sit and the trip is about half over. Tomorrow we will have been a month since we left Orlando. You always think a trip like this will change you. Your perspective or mentalities. But of course you never feel that until much later. Like getting older. The day after your birthday, you don’t feel older. But as time goes on, you are older and that changes and molds you.

So I sit in Seoul. A city that I’ve dreamed about for 24 years. We had three international students live with us from the Seoul area when I was 8 until 12. I learned to kick a soccer ball with the outside of my foot and give it spin. I learned to love spicy ramen and to brave kimchi, which my parents banished to the basement refrigerator. But I didn’t know anything about this city, other than I thought the South Korean flag was really cool and I loved their food. One time we went to a Korean restaurant with the exchange program group and I tried and liked squid. Bulgogi-style beef: yum. Korean BBQ Taco Box is my favorite food truck. And yet, upon entering this city, I know nothing about it. And I feel overwhelmed. I studied the Korean War. We’ve been here over two weeks. I feel like I should do some Korean stuff. See the city. But I know that we won’t be able to do it justice.

We just had an incredible visit with the Collins, but there was little rest with four kids and catching up on 3 1/2 years of life with Annie and Dan. We played cards and hung out late into nearly every night. Really good conversations, but there wasn’t breathing room. Or at least it didn’t feel like it.

I didn’t realize how isolated not knowing a language could be. An entirely different alphabet, which shouldn’t be too difficult to learn, except that it is. While I have interacted some with Koreans, I am such an outsider and the language barrier is actually crippling. Dan and the girls were our security blanket. Now we’re here in Seoul and we’re on our own. I’m torn between, “We’re in Seoul, we should do stuff.” and “Rest, rest, rest. Stick to the rest plan.

There is this pressure that I feel that I should do all of the stuff. I didn’t fly halfway around the world to just sit. Did I? But the funny thing is, we haven’t just sat at all. Even today. We chilled out, but then we went out and walked all over. But now thinking about tomorrow and the next few days, there is so much that we could do. I feel obligated. It would be silly to be here and not see stuff. But resting is good. Very good.

Nate has work to do and I can always find something to do myself. Video editing. Planning for Searching for We the People. Journaling. Dreaming. It is okay. We are okay.

We need to plan for Nepal. So many unknowns and that is intimidating. Norway less so, not just because of many English speakers, but we’ve been to Europe so many times and know what to sort of expect culturally.

So we can give ourselves a break and know that we’re not doing it wrong. We are okay.

It’s tough to remember the entire reason we stayed in the section of Seoul that we did, was to have some downtime before Nepal. We could have stayed in a touristy section and done touristy things, but we didn’t think we’d want to do that. Then when we got to Seoul it was like, “Wait, what are we here for?” You read all of the touristy things that you can do: palaces, temples, memorials, museums, markets, and on and on. Part of me was panicky. “We have to do stuff, we have to do stuff, as much as possible.” But if I sit back and reflect on the entire reason why we chose where to stay, it was because we wanted to be near nature and we didn’t want to feel the pressure of all of the touristy stuff.

In the end, we put some of that pressure on ourselves. If we had another week in Seoul, I would choose to stay in a more touristy section of this megalopolis. Very few people spoke English where we ended up. We just assumed that once we got to Seoul many people would speak English. People were very nice, but it was way harder to communicate that I thought it would be.

Nathan:

I’m feeling unsettled, anxious, nervous, worried. Part of it is being on our own in a part of Seoul where most people don’t speak English, without any tour guides anymore (namely, Annie, Dan and the kids). Walking around unfamiliar streets with unfamiliar languages and scripts and everyone looking at you is nerve wracking. Over the past two weeks I have had a chance to learn how to read Korean, but that doesn’t help so much without any vocabulary. Down in Busan we always had someone with us who had at least a working knowledge of Korean. I don’t know how they did it with 4 kids at the beginning. It must have been really hard.

Another part of my anxiety is linked to our next destination, Nepal. It’s a big unknown to me, and unknowns are hard, can be hard (can be exciting too; sometimes I want them to be more exciting than scary but the opposite is usually true for me). We’re staying with a family we’ve never met before, friends of friends. They come highly recommended, and I am sure they will be great. But after two weeks with a family with 4 kids and seeing how chaotic can be, I’m feeling nervous about being with another family. At the same time, sometimes I prefer staying with someone else not just winging it with Amy, though I think we’re good at that, a local guide just makes everything so much easier. Less decisions to make, less obstacles and hurdles to overcome. Ambivalence again. Nepal also intimidates me because I’ve never been anywhere that I had to get special shots for or really think about what I ate and drank to avoid getting seriously sick. Or even had to apply for or pay for a visa for. We have to get additional passport photos.

Norway… I’m really looking forward to Norway, to the cooler temperatures and amazing natural vistas. But the travel planning is stressing me out a bit, it’s really tight with our schedule, and I’m hoping it’s not too much. Will it be too much to pack in? London, Oslo, Balestrand, Bergen all in 5 nights. What’s it going to be like coming off our two weeks in Nepal, going into a super expensive and “western” country? Our full day in Balestrand, are we going to be so exhausted that we just sit on the porch and look out at the Sognefjord, versus doing any kind of excursion? If so, that will be ok. But the tension is there, between doing too much and not doing enough. After all we might not be back to Country X ever in our lives. Don’t we need to max it out??? No. But the drive to “take advantage of this opportunity” is definitely there, in all of these places. We said we were going to have rest days as our default days, and activity days as our exceptions. It’s so easy to fall back into “every day is an activity day until we’re so exhausted we get sick or are otherwise forced to rest.”

Work… I’ve got some incoming requests for two of my freelance projects, and I really need to work on them in the next few days, because once we go to Nepal, I have no idea how much time I’ll have, let alone consistently working electrical power or wifi. The work is helpful to have because it means we’re not entirely dry over the summer, spending money without making any. But it’s also hard to schedule in with everything else, and hard to flip flop back and forth between feeling like I’m on vacation and feeling like I’m just in normal live/work mode but in a different physical context. My work is not very tied to a place, which can be freeing but also enslaving. If you are always connected to email and social media, you are always “on” and there will be people who expect that you will be available to them.

Violence and death and brokenness in the world… we just learned about the attack in Nice, France today. That on top of recent Baghdad, Istanbul, Orlando. Then there’s the recent shootings of Philando Castille and Alton Sterling and the Dallas police officers. And the recent deaths of some close friends.

Blogging, podcast, audiograph prep… things that I would like to and need to spend time on, but the time just disappears… just disappears…

Seoul Part II

Fri 7/15, day 30

Having looked at the map of the area we were staying in (Sangam) a bit more, we decided it would be reasonable to walk to the Han river. By this time I had gotten a little bit more familiar with the Korean maps/navigation app. When we got down near the river, there was a lot of public park type infrastructure built up, but not a whole lot of people using it. (It is during the work week and school is still in session). We did see a lot of people on bikes down along the river though, and Amy suggested we look for bikes to rent. That turned out to be very easy and a great suggestion – as soon as we rented bikes and started moving down along the river, we felt a lot more comfortable and free. We wore big smiles on our faces.

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We had the bikes for 2 hours, so we went quite a ways along the river, just observing the people and bridges and parts of the city that we could see, stopping for snack and water and ukulele jam breaks. Eventually we got back near the place we had started, and stopped for lunch at a little cafe that had chicken and beer – though not quite so fancy as what we had in Busan – they just threw some frozen chicken in the deep fryer and put it in a box with some packet sauces. There was a ton of it and we only ate half, saving the other half to bring back for dinner. Among the other folks enjoying the riverside and some snacks and soju were a few older men decked out in biking gear, with little dogs riding in the baskets of their bikes. It was weird and cute.

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After returning the bikes, we walked back a slightly different way, and found ourselves in some of the parks that were constructed for the 2002 World Cup in Seoul. We had to walk up over 400 stairs, that we numbered every 5. Each balcony had an incredible view.

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Finally we reached the top and were at the Sky Park. There was a little welcome station with some cool postcards, and it seemed like you could write them there and send them via “slow mail” anywhere in the world. So we tried to buy them from the two older women working there, which turned out to be comically difficult. They eventually got a lock box open only to discover that they didn’t have the one we were looking for, but they gave us two others, and didn’t charge us for them. Or we might have stolen them. Regardless we left smiling and confused.

We wandered through more of the park, with some interesting and random things (like the upside down bird houses) and some great views of the Sangam area. The whole park area and neighboring golf course were actually built on top of a garbage dump, in such a way that they are able to use some of the geothermal energy of the decomposing waste to generate electricity. Pretty cool.

We made it back to the apartment and picked up a few extra things for making dinner, including soy sauce. Annie had warned me that there were lots of different kinds of soy sauce in Korea, and I didn’t know anything about the one that I picked up except it was organic. I used it like I would normally with what we’ve got in the States, and almost ruined dinner! It was the saltiest, most fermented tasting soy sauce I had ever tasted. It wasn’t quite ruined though, and we made the best of it.

To be continued…

Seoul Part I

Thu 7/14, day 29

We said our goodbyes after breakfast and left the Collins’ around 9:30am. Dan was kind enough to drive us to the same Busan train station that they had picked us up at, though this time when we got there, the parking lot was completely full (cars were backing up the wrong way, very entertaining), so our plan for going in and having a donut and coffee together didn’t pan out. We headed in, grabbed some snacks for the nearly 3 hour train ride to Seoul Central Station, swapped our reservation for actual tickets, made sure we were in the right spot, and soon got on the train.

It was a beautiful and smooth ride, much less hazy outside than when we first got to Korea. As we rode through the countryside, we tried to catch up on blogging and communicated with our Seoul Airbnb host about the best way to get to his apartment. I downloaded a bunch of apps to help with the subway and navigation, but it was quite confusing and I definitely needed help. I’ve gotten very used to using Google Maps for transit and walking directions, but it’s much less useful in South Korea. Eventually I got on the same page as our host and understood what we had to do, including the last bit of walking, but then he texted and said his father would just come and pick us up at the closest subway stop in a blue van, we just had to make sure to go out exit 9. Nine exits?? Yes – the public transportation system in Seoul is very extensive, and the stations are quite large. Luckily the exits are clearly marked so it was easy to find him. We really appreciated the pickup.

A quick ride and we were at the Airbnb, which turned out to be the 6th floor (top) apartment of a building that housed a Methodist church. We knew from the description that it was run by Christians, but didn’t realize it was right above the church. Our host’s father showed us around with his limited English, and we settled in. It was tight quarters for me – track lights that were at the level of my forehead, and the bed was in a loft that I had to crawl into, but it was a really nice place. The best part was the organic garden out on the roof just outside the sliding door of the apartment, which we were invited to eat from as much as we wanted to. Eggplant, skinny green peppers (not spicy), a giant yellow cucumber, a few kinds of lettuce, kkaennip (kind of like sesame leaf), leeks, and green onions. Plenty for salads and sauteed vegetables to go with rice, which we had for a few of our meals.

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We explored a bit in the near vicinity of the apartment, locating a bakery and a few small grocery and convenience stores. Just past the stores was an open area running up against what looked like some hiking trails up onto a hill – Sangam Neighborhood Park. We walked up some stairs and within a few minutes were into the forest, up above the apartment buildings and noises of the city. A very beautiful park to have so close by. We were rewarded with some nice views as the sun set, then headed down to pick up groceries and back to the apartment to put together a meal with the produce from the garden. A nice peaceful end to a travel day.

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Korean Food

Oh Korean Food we love you! So many different flavors. Lots of fried goodness. Everything with intentionality. Beautiful presentation. Meticulous dicing and matchstick-ing of vegetables. We will definitely be hunting down Korean restaurants, ingredients and recipes once we get back to Orlando (beyond our favorite Korean BBQ Taco Box food truck).

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L to R: kimbap, sushi buffet, patbingsu, korean bbq, fancy traditional Korean restaurant, fresh fish at Jigalchi, fresh fish broth at Jigalchi, hotteok

Here’s some of the food we tried in Korea:

  • Gimbap / kimbap: sea weed wrap with rice, veggies, and meat. Kinda like meat sushi wrap in aluminum foil. Snack food or picnic food.
  • Chicken and Beer / Chimek: it’s a thing here, you’ll see tons of signs in English advertising Chicken and Beer. Syndrome was the name of one place, and after a few rounds of Chicken and Beer, you sort of feel like you do have a syndrome.
  • Dak galbi: chicken, veg and tteok in a spicy red sauce
  • Korean BBQ: frying pan and exhaust fan and all of the amazing Korean side dishes (banchan), wrapped in kkaennip (perilla, a big green leaf from the mint family) and served with lots of raw garlic cloves and delicious sauces
  • Patbingsu: really fine shaved ice, sweetened condensed milk, and traditionally red beans (sweet), ours was covered with peanut dust and had bits of tteok/dak (chewy rice cake)
  • Shabu shabu: rice paper wraps and various thin slices of meat and a variety of finely chopped vegetables; little hot pots next to you with your own broth and you cook ingredients at your own pace and make wraps, though it is a bit tricky to soak only one of your rice papers and not stick them all into one
  • Traditional Korean: all kinds of fish and kimchi and other side dishes, multiple courses, stunning presentation, but the hongeohoe was awful, see video below
  • Mandu: fried or steamed dumplings filled with deliciousness
  • Dwaeji gukbap: fatty pork soup served with rice and side dishes, Nate liked, Amy not so much
  • Kimchi jjigae: soup with kimchi, pork and tofu, brought out in a boiling pot – you get a spoonful of rice and dip it in – we had a few varieties of this with various meals.
  • Kimchi itself: always showing up in meals with different variations, vegetables, level of spiciness and stinkiness… almost always delicious
  • Fish at the fish market: some raw, some grilled, some as the freshest and most delicious fish broth we had ever tasted
  • Udon (thick noodle soup) at the 50 year old place that Samjang showed is near Jigalchi
  • Hotteok: Nate’s favorite sweet treat in the market, fried dough stuffed with seeds and nuts and butter and brown sugar
  • (name?): a restaurant we ate at after visiting the temple; we sat on floor, ate meat and kimchi and stuff
  • Korean buffet: a fancy place to go, not a bottom of the barrel place to go in this country (no offense to people who like buffets in America). Some of them have really fresh sushi, Korean-style Chinese food, create your own Bi-Bim-Bap and Patbingsu, and lots more.
  • Cooking at home: as much as we ate out, we did cook and eat at home as well. Spaghetti, eggs in a nest, lentil and potato dahl, fajitas, and more.