“Don't ever live vicariously. This is your life. Live.” ~ Lavinia Spalding
Wow, I am doing a good job of catching up! I just have one month to write about and then I will finally be at the present day! April was a pretty exciting month. I had two visitors! Yay! People came to see me!! Haha, well, I have had people visit before (shout out to BM and JF) but they were just starting out their tour of southeast Asia so they only count a little bit. My cousin came only for vacation!
It was exciting to show her and her friend around Seoul and Korea. I love showing new people around because it reminds me of when I first came to Korea. Seeing everything for the first time is magical. You see how different everything is from how you are used to it and it seems so strange and exotic. After living in a different country for an extended amount of time you start seeing everything as normal and not as something different. So when people come who have not made everything a part of their daily life it reminds you just how special things are.
My cousin (RS) and her friend (TT) flew to Korea for a week long visit. It was the first time out of the country for my cousin but her friend is a well seasoned traveler (although I am pretty sure it was her first time to Korea.)
They arrived on direct flight that landed at 630pm. I met them at the airport and then we boarded a bus to get back to my apartment. Jet lag was going to be an issue so they slept most of the bus ride to my humble abode. We got to my place, dropped off their things, TT took a quick shower, and then we all went out to grab some dinner. Apparently my go to first dinner place is the Mandu place a few streets down. I took BM and JF there on their first night and then RS and TT on their first night. In my defense I had planned to take RS and TT to a bimimbab place but it was closed. We ate some yummy food and decided to call it a night so they could attempt to get some sleep before our very busy schedule started.
We woke up bright and early (well early anyways) the next morning. We had to be out of my house by 7 to catch a bus. Out first stop on a grand Korea tour? The DMZ. Of course if you come to Korea you have to go to the area that has fascinated us all for the past sixty years. We decided to go with the Koridoors tour that is coupled with the USO. I highly recommend the tour if you are in Korea and aren't sure who to go with. We saw all the major points of the DMZ for $80.
But before I talk about our tour how about a little (and I mean little) history lesson. Not many people actually realize why there are two Koreas. In 1910 the Korean peninsula was occupied and then annexed by Japan. Unfortunately the history of the Korean peninsula is riddled by various occupations and colonizations and this was the latest one. It remained under Japanese rule until the defeat of Japan in World War 2. After Japan surrendered they left the Korean Peninsula. With the Japanese presence gone American Administrators divided the country at the 38th parallel in order to distribute aid. The USA settled in the southern half and the Soviet military settled in the northern half. From an outsider perspective it seems like civil war was inevitable. No clear elections could be made because the north formed a communist government and the south formed a right-wing government. So in 1950 that is exactly what happened.
Three long years of death and destruction with the northern armies getting as far as Busan before being driven back finally stopped with an armistice agreement. There is now a country wide barrier (250 kilometers long and 4 kilometers wide) that separates the two Koreas. Everyone knows this area as the DMZ (or demilitarized zone). Most of this area has not been touched by human hands for over 60 years. There are areas littered with land mines, rock walls ready to be released if anyone should try and cross, guard stations, barbed wire fences, and more cameras and satellite coverage than probably necessary.
But now, over 60 years since the cease-fire, this highly volatile, and rickety line between the north and the south has become a materialistic tourist attraction. I won't judge, I mean, I went on the tour. It just makes you think. What has the world come to that active military zones are a hot commodity? Let's leave the social commentary to someone else, shall we? On to the tour!
We went to the infiltration tunnels (tunnels that the North Korean side dug to try and gain access to South Korea, which, btw, are very steep), The JSA (joint-security area, the famous blue houses), we stood inside North Korea (yup, I've been inside North Korea), visited various look outs to see the only civilian inhabited area of the JSA, saw the flag poles (one with the South Korean flag and one with the North Korean flag), went to the site of the Ax murder (At this point in time both Koreas roamed freely throughout the DMZ and there are guard houses all throughout the JSA and one guard house didn't have a clear view of the next guard house because of a tree. So a team went to cut the branches down, they were attacked and killed by ax wielding North Koreans, drama ensued and eventually the tree was taken out completely and a line drawn in the DMZ that could not be crossed by either party), saw the Bridge of No Return (at some point after the war this bridge was used to allow POWs to either stay in North Korea or cross over and go to the south side- never to return), and then went to Dorasan station (the subway line that would connect the two Koreas if ever the chance should arise).
It was a full day filled with a lot of interesting history. I learned a lot about Korean history and saw some things I am not sure I would want to see again. It is heartbreaking to see and hear things about the past that you can't change and then to know what is going on in the north that you can't do anything to stop.
It was strange being in some of these areas also. I mean, standing in front of the blue houses, you are literally staring into the faces of North Korean soldiers and it's a bit on the eerie side. You see this giant house with all these cameras all over it and you know that somewhere some North Korean soldier is staring at you staring at him through a camera. And the South Korean soldiers are slightly scary. I mean, they have to stand completely still in their uniform and aviator sunglasses (the sunglasses are used to make them seem more intimidating) in a modified taekwondo stance. Just like the guards at Buckingham palace, they aren't allowed to move. Intimidation? Yup, it works. But a part of me can see how the north would feel that the capitalist American people are evil. I mean, we are literally gawking at them and taking pictures like they are pieces in a museum. There for our enjoyment and to fill a page in our picture books. A short anecdote at a dinner party. A paragraph in a blog.
Clearly I am not judging, that would be hypocritical. I am merely commenting. The world, in all its forward thinking and possibility for good, still has a very long way to go in the humane aspect of things.
Despite my misgiving about the whole situation I did think seeing all those things was important and I am glad I went. I believe RS and TT had a good time as well. It was a long day and maybe not wise to have them do right away but unfortunately with my schedule it was the only day we could go. We got back to Seoul around 530 and decided to have dinner before going back to my place.
TT is a vegan and finding vegan food in Korea is next to impossible. Most of their recipes call for shrimp or oyster sauce or contain some sort of beef or pork stock. But thanks to the internet and forward thinking there were some vegan restaurants TT was able to find. We headed to one place in Insa-dong and enjoyed a delicious meal. I am not a vegan but I can definitely see myself going to this place again in the future.
The next day I headed to church while RS and TT slept in and took their time getting up and getting ready. After our very long day previously I did not begrudge them that! We met up in the afternoon at the bank where they changed USD to Korean Won. Then we went into Seoul.
My favorite part of Seoul is the 광화문 (Gwangwhamun) area. It is downtown kind of right in the middle. It has an amazing palace (경복궁 Gyeongbokgung Palace, the Blue House (like the White House), Insa-dong (a very traditional street for shopping and eating), Cheonghyechun stream, and various other things. You can also visit King Sejong's museum or catch a show at a very nice theatre. Or if the need arises the American Embassy is on the same road. There is a lot to do.
We ended up eating dinner, then going to this really small palace that was used to feasts and parties, yes they had a palace specifically for dinner parties, called the Unhyeongung (운형궁) Palace. Have I ever mentioned how I don't like romanizing Hangul. It's weird. Anyways, we also went to the Bukchon Hanok Village (북촌한옥마을) (beautiful 600 year old houses), Insa-dong (인사동, again), and the Cheonggyecheon stream (청계천) and walked down that a bit. Then we headed back to my place. For two days we had covered a lot.
The next day I had to go to work ㅠㅠ sad. And RS and TT hopped on a plane and flew to 제주도 (Jeju, which is basically Korea's Hawaii). Jealous. I am not even going to attempt to know what all they did. I know they rented a car and saw the sites, they brought back some yummy fruit and chocolate, and lots of pictures. They spent the week there so it worked out nicely because I had to work.
My week was pretty standard until Thursday. Thursday was the day the Sewol Ferry capsized. That whole event and the aftermath the whole of Korea is still facing is unbearably sad. I won't say much except that I hope the friends and family of the hundreds that perished find peace soon, and that all those responsible are dealt with swiftly and severely. I still cannot imagine what it must be like in Ansan where the 300 students were from.
On Friday RS and TT flew back from Jeju. We met at my apartment after work and then headed back into Seoul. There is a vegan friendly bed and breakfast type place that TT wanted to stay at so we made reservations and went. A friend of mine, an avid thespian, was part of a small production honoring Shakespeare and his 450th birthday. So we all went to see the show down in Itaweon. It was fantastic and made me really miss my Norton anthology. I want to read some Shakespeare now!
The next morning we went to eat in Sinchon at another Vegan place and then went to Gyeonbokgung Palace and explored and took a million pictures. After dinner we did more souvenir shopping and RS had her final taste of egg bread. She fell in love with it on first taste and now is trying to find recipes to make it at home. Then we headed back to my place. I couldn't let RS leave without having Korean BBQ. So we went to my favorite chain BBQ place called 마포길메기 (Mapo Galmegi). The meat is delicious and they have their signature egg dish that cooks around the BBQ while you are cooking. It is so good! And cheap. It's an appropriate last dinner in Korea.
The next day I went for a run in Lake park and TT came with me and took in the sites, Unfortunately RS didn't get a chance to see Lake Park but next time, haha. Then we went for brunch at my standard brunch place (we are VIPs haha) and off they went to the airport.
It was a whirlwind trip and I am so glad I could show them around. It was fantastic to see Korea in a new light again. I always love the reminder that the things around me are amazing and worthy of staring at.
The last few weeks of April were spent much like normal except for the ever present sadness and tension over the Ferry tragedy. The stories that were popping up and the reactions of all involved make my heart hurt. Field trips, concerts, festivals... they were all being canceled. I went to the lantern festival for Buddha's birthday and it was subdued and there wasn't music playing like last year in respect for the lives lost. All the people participating in the parade donned yellow ribbons and some even pushed lanterns that held messages for the lives lost.
After the festival I went back to the Cheonggyecheon stream and wrote a message on a yellow ribbon and tied it to the side of the rail over looking the lanterns. Thousands of ribbons had already been left. It is a sad thing to see.
But.. there isn't anything to do but take a deep breath and keep moving forward.
It is now May and I am about to have a five day vacation (yay Children's Day and Buddha's Birthday meaning I don't have to work). I am going with my Korean friend and her two kids to Gyeongju (경주) which was the capital during the Silla Dynasty. It is full of history and should be a good trip.
Until the next time!