Monday, October 25, 2010

Seoul, South Korea

I arrived in South Korea feeling more jaded than ever. I succinctly remember passing through Immigration and Customs in an insouciant manner, simply feeling indifferent that I had arrived in a new country. You know you got it bad when there's an utter lack of excitement upon arriving in a new destination. There was no way around it: I was indeed jaded.

However, it was great to see my cousin, Jessica, once again. I couldn't believe that it had been 3 weeks since I'd last seen her. Where does the time go? Jessica, who teaches English here, lives in Byeongjeom, about a 45 minute transit ride south of Seoul on the Seoul Metropolitan Subway. And conveniently, Jessica lives in an apartment that's only a 10-15 minute walk away from the subway. I used this subway many times throughout my stay here.

First impressions of South Korea: Developed, many neon lit signs and lights, and expensive - very, very expensive. Well, at least in comparison to Southeast Asia.

To be honest, the first week of my travels in Korea I did very little. And as a matter of fact, besides a few evenings out with Jessica, I didn't do much the second week either. It was as if I was simply waiting for the time to pass before I returned to the Philippines, where I would be returning in 3 weeks. I had turned into a lame duck backpacker. I had little motivation to even stray far from the apartment.

I also refrained from taking notes in my notebook. Usually I write a daily outline pertaining to things that I did, places I saw, or interesting things that had happened. The 3 weeks I spent in Korea I wrote nothing in my notebook. Which is a shame, really, because I would've been able to write more. When I don't jot down notes, my memory of my travels becomes a bit fuzzy. It's amazing, I can remember days from when I began my travels crystal clear, in full detail, but I have trouble remembering details of my recent travels to South Korea.

However, here are a few things I remember off the top of my head:
  • I was surprised with the lack of English spoken. For a country that is so developed, has such close relations with the U.S., and employs so many English teachers, I assumed that English would be spoken or at least understood.
  • I was surprised to discover how xenophobic the country is. South Korea is extremely homogeneous and deep rooted in Confucianism which values its culture and customs, to the point of discriminating against or being fearful of people who are different than them. I heard a lot of interesting stories from Jessica's friends who have been living here as English teachers. But I think things may change with the new generation - maybe.
  • It's a fairly clean country compared to the rest of places I have traveled to in this region of the world.
  • The women wear extremely short skirts, but it is taboo to reveal skin anywhere near the vicinity of their chests.
  • I love how people eat and drink inexpensively by going to the local convenience stores. It is by far the cheapest place to drink with your friends. Plus, the convenience stores have tables and chairs set up outside, and occasionally they'll even offer free snacks! So cool.
  • They have the most peculiar way of advertising in Seoul. For instance, the guy advertising the local Pizza Hut restaurant will walk down the street with a million pamphlets and toss 'em all over the ground. However, later that night they will return and retrieve all the pamphlets. So when you walk outside the following morning, the sidewalks are clean again.
  • There's an increasingly disturbing trend of plastic surgery taking place here. To the point where children are having nose jobs and their eyelids done. Whatever will set them apart from the rest to get ahead, to be successful.
  • I gotta say, the street food here is kind of lame.
  • There are a plethora of restaurants to choose from in Seoul. Seriously, South Korea has to have the highest restaurant-to-person ratio in all of Asia. There are so many, that there may be 1 restaurant for every person in South Korea. Okay, I may be slightly exaggerating here - but not really.
  • The country has the best customer service. Period.

I did eventually manage to leave the apartment and do some things. In no particular order, here are some of the highlights:

1.) Climbing Inwangsan mountain. This may have been the coolest place I visited in Seoul. It's a 338 meter mountain with an amazing view overlooking the city. During the hike, I saw many Buddhists and Shamanists practicing some of their religious rituals.

2.) Korean War Memorial & Museum. I spent hours in this museum. If you are a history buff, this is the museum for you.

3.) Gyeongbokgung Palace aka "Palace of Shining Happiness." I may have enjoyed this palace more so than the Forbidden City in Beijing. It was built in the 1300s by the Joseon Dynasty. Inside the palace there is also a museum that's worth viewing.

4.) Seeing Jessica perform in a play. Despite that I didn't know what the hell was going on (I dislike Shakespeare plays), I enjoyed myself thoroughly. I attended the play with a group of Jessica's friends. However, I didn't sit with her friends due to the lack of leg room. Luckily, I managed to find a seat located on the top row of the stadium seating where I was able to stretch my legs directly in front of me and into the aisle.

5.) The Demilitarized Zone (DMZ). This was the number one thing I wanted to see in South Korea. The DMZ is an area of land that separates the Korean Peninsula in half, at the 38th parallel, and where you can get a glimpse into North Korea.

6.) Hanging out with Leona. I had a great few days hanging out with my friend, Leona. I met her while I was in Pai, Thailand, at Sandy and Otto's "Pai Art Design Way and Chai Tea Shop." And if you remember, I even wrote about Leona in my second Pai blog, entitled "Pai: I'm back, baby!" Leona managed to return to South Korea a few days before I left, as she had been traveling. After nearly 10 years working in the television business where Leona created, wrote and produced television shows, she quit to travel. Leona also wrote a popular blog in Korea, which led to the signing of her first book deal with a publishing company that was impressed with her writing. There's nothing quite like seeing a country with a local as your tour guide, and especially with someone who I had met in Pai - good 'ol Pai. For the next few days we traveled around Seoul doing nothing but eating, sightseeing and conversating. Great times.

It was too bad that Leona arrived in South Korea just as I was about to leave. I would have loved to have been able to hang out with her more. I'll just have to take a rein check on that road trip we were suppose to take, Leona! Because the time had finally arrived: "Tonight, Tonight" I was finally returning to the Philippines! And for the first time in weeks, I was extremely excited. Farewell, my jadedness. Oh, how I loathed you. . .

Thank you, Jessica, for putting up with me for 3 weeks.


Next Stop: The Philippines.

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