Monday, May 30, 2011

Korea Memories - Thursday, May 19

“Despite our differences we’re all actually very similar.” Or is it “Despite our similarities we’re all actually very different?” I don’t know if my mind is more simple than I like to think it is, but this is the debate that’s been bouncing around in my head since I took 2 weeks off and traveled halfway around the world to Korea with Susie. Now we’re sitting on our double-digit hour easterly flight across the Pacific Ocean, and I’m not quite sure about it yet. I think I have an inkling, but I’d like to explore it together over the next few days/weeks/however long it takes to walk through our trip here. I know this blog is normally devoted to Cade and our family, but it was set up to help keep our family and friends up to date on our lives, so I’m pretty sure this fits the bill. So Cade, I hope you don’t mind the blog getting hijacked (maybe not the best word to be using on a plane?) for a bit so we can record a number of the thoughts and stories we experienced on the other side of the world. And hopefully in working through the memories of our trip I can solidify my position on the question I lead off with.

I plan on writing about this trip in “chapters,” with each installment describing one or two days. We took over 550 pictures and videos over the course of our trip, and I think most fall into one of three categories: breathtaking beauty or craftsmanship, information about something, or they have a funny or interesting story behind them. I don’t think I’ll have the space or time to post them all, but I’ll do the best I can. I'll probably post a higher volume of pictures on my Facebook page for all of my Facebook friends reading this. Korea is a remarkable country with a long, fascinating history and is filled with beautiful, generous, and kind people. Susie and I would highly recommend Korea for anyone looking to expand their horizon (in food, in pace of life, of history, and much more). We were fortunate to have one of Susie’s classmates, Sungwon, a Seoul native, to help us communicate and show us around.

So this post serves as the introduction to this series of posts, as well as the description of our outbound trip. I hope you appreciate the stories and pictures and don’t mind a small break from Cade-centered posts.

In exchange for not spending a relative fortune on our plane tickets, we took sort of a roundabout route to Seoul, having layovers in Toronto and Hong Kong. Both were quick transfers, so of all the things I was a little concerned about, the transfer in Hong Kong was what I was thinking about the most. Our flights were fine, but we got into Hong Kong too late for us to make our transfer to our flight to Seoul. What made this transfer a little more interesting is that we flew Air Canada to Hong Kong and then were supposed to switch to Korean Air for the final leg. Well, the service and detail in Hong Kong blew us away. I was prepared for a steep learning curve in order to try and figure out where our bag would go, where we should go, etc. But as we walked down the jet way we saw a woman holding a sign with our names on it. She worked for Air Canada and escorted us to the ticket transfer counter. Air Canada had already transferred our ticket to a Cathay Pacific flight that got us into Seoul only an hour or two later than anticipated, and was in the process of confirming that our bag had also made the transfer between the airlines. After the tickets and bags were processed and everyone had a warm fuzzy feeling our escort pointed us in the right direction of the gate and everything was great. Unbelievable. And I was glad, because one of the first signs I encountered with flight information looked like this:

Of course, it also cycled to English, but it just reinforced the fact that we weren’t in Kansas any more. The assistance was much appreciated. Thanks Air Canada! And that’s something we noticed Korea (and, apparently, Hong Kong): service companies don’t seem to every skimp on service personnel. At each hotel, airport, store, heck, even in the subway, there were always multiple people directing people, assisting people, helping people enjoy their time. It was a very pleasant surprise, especially compared to the belt tightening in America that has seemed to squeeze the customer service right out of existence.

With tickets in hand, we were able to relax in front of a beautiful view of the mountains of Hong Kong. Just that glimpse made Susie and I want to come back and visit HK.

Seoul is a city of over 10 million people. That’s just within the city proper. If you include the entire metro area, you’re looking at nearly 21 million people, the second largest metro area in the world. Susie and I have spent our fair share of time living in and traveling to large cities, but neither of us had experienced a city quite as expansive and massive as Seoul. During our nights in Seoul, we stayed in the HoAm faculty house at Seoul National University. Despite being in such a large city, we were treated to this view out of our balcony.

Korea is a very beautiful mountainous country, and Seoul is no exception. It is a very hilly city, and there are pockets of green in various sections of town. Seoul National University is in a newer area of town, so we had nice clean mountain breezes coming down on us and loved the chance to sleep with the windows open every night. Speaking of sleeping, this is what a typical traditional hotel room looks like in Korea:

Beds are typically a thin mattress on the floor with one blanket and a pillow. This allows you to fold your bed up and use the space more efficiently. In traditional houses it also maximizes the effect of their traditional heating and cooling systems (more on that in a later post). I’ll be honest. I didn’t sleep great every single night, and I’m looking forward to my own bed at home, but I definitely appreciated the spartan d├ęcor typically employed in Korea.

You’ll hear me reference the little differences a lot, but there are so many. This picture shows the Korean outlet next to the American-style outlet. Fortunately, this hotel had some that our plugs worked with. That was rare, but many places had adapters available.

Here’s another thing: pushing this button guarantees a call to your room within 1.8 seconds.

And it’s just inside the bathroom door, where you would expect a light switch to be. Which brings me to another little difference. Korean structure normally puts the light switch on the outside of a room, so you can turn on the light before you enter it. So shortly after arriving, Susie walked past the bathroom light switch on the outside of the bathroom, reached into the dark bathroom, felt around the wall for the switch, and pushed the button. No light, but the phone immediately rang. In her defense, there were light switches all over that half of the room, so I would probably have done the same thing. I apologized to the man on the phone who spoke broken English, and we wondered if the desk employees had some sort of over/under on how long it would take the white couple to hit that button on accident. We both nearly hit it a few other times during our stay, but we managed to catch ourselves.

Even though we were sleeping on the floor, we were both so zonked from our travel that we had no problems falling asleep, thus ending day 1.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Thoughts on Seoul, Day 1

I'm terrible at sleeping on an airplane. I'm not sure if that's fortunate or not, but by the time we got to Seoul a couple nights ago, it was 11 pm and I was ready to sleep. I think the fact that I was ready to sleep at nighttime has helped keep the jetlag somewhat at bay, but I'm still waking up before 6. Since we have a while before we have to be anywhere today, here's a sort of mind dump from our first full day yesterday.

Seoul is an amazing city. Sorry America, we think we're big, but we don't have a city in the top ten. Seoul puts even New York to shame. It's huge and it just keeps on going. But what's astounding is how clean it feels. I saw a number of what must have been city workers going around a sweeping up what little trash there was on the ground. Also, the people are very friendly and walking around feels very safe.

I'm still not used to the fact that we are in a definite minority. Not only that, but Susie and I stick out incredibly. I've yet to notice someone as tall as me, and you don't see much blond hair, so I feel like we're a little bit of a curiosity here. I've noticed some people blatantly staring at me in the subway. We went to the National Museum yesterday and there were a number of school groups there. Twice we had middle schoolers come up and ask us where we were from. One girl wanted her picture taken with us.

Being a big city, the traffic can be a little crazy, and I'm not merely referring tot he roads. One thing I find interesting is that motorcycles and scooters drive on the sidewalks here. So you have to kind of keep your head on a swivel even when you're walking around.

The public transportation system here is incredible. It's huge and ongoing, yet it's very easy to use. Even though we don't know much Korean, the signs are easy to follow and there's enough English to make transfers uneventful. I made quite a few transfers on my own yesterday and didn't get on any wrong trains, so that's doing ok, right? The buses are a little trickier since there's a lot less English on the bus signs and there are multiple types of buses, but we did alright there too. Another thing is that it's very cheap to use the public transportation. You could easily live here and not need a car.

I'm convinced that one would have to make an effort to be overweight in Seoul. Heavy people are just not the norm here. In America, you have to make the effort to find healthy foods that are fresh and not prepackaged with tons of preservatives. It's kind of the opposite in Seoul. Korean food is quite healthy for you, and very delicious as well, but since it's not loaded with starches and white flour and sugar, you don't feel bloated, even after a big meal. Now, after saying all that, not all of the food is what we'd eat in the US. Last night we had something that is pronounced dae chang (or tae chang, I'm not sure). It's either the stomach or intestine of a cow, and it's marinated in a lot of spices, then grilled at your table. Very interesting flavor, but kind of rubbery. But we didn't come to Korea to eat burgers and fries, so we're enjoying trying new things.

These are just a few of the many interesting cultural differences we've already noticed. I could go on about how interesting the National Museum was and how cool it was to see artifacts that were so OLD. But it's time to get ready for day 2! I don't have time to post pictures right now, but hopefully I can get some up in the next few days. Annyeong!