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 décor 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.

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