Monday, October 17, 2011

Welcome to Seoul, Korea

Written by Karen
Hongik University Area
We had planned to go to Bangkok, Thailand to “make-up” for the trip we had to cancel earlier this year in April. But with all of the flooding that was going on in Thailand - the worst in 50 years - it wasn’t the right time to insert ourselves into a country to vacation while so many people were struggling.    
So, the day before our flight departed from SFO, we cancelled our trip (again!) to Bangkok and made arrangements to visit Seoul.  Why Seoul?  Our tickets had us passing through Seoul on our way to Bangkok; we had never been to Korea before and didn’t know of too many people who had visited Korea; the weather forecast was indicating perfect autumn temperatures; Adam’s dad had been assigned to Korea with the US Air Force in the 1950’s; and, we knew we didn’t need a visa to visit. So we decided, let’s go! We’ll explore South Korea.

I located a studio apartment in an area near the Hongik University, and we decided that we would just figure out the rest of our journey as it presented itself to us.

That was really the extent of our planning to visit Korea for 11 days.
We landed at Incheon International Airport after twelve long hours on an Asiana flight, where we were first introduced to Korean hospitality. The food, service and extra legroom space was greatly appreciated. The airport is HUGE, clean, easy to navigate, and despite our fatigue, we began to get our second wind as we headed on the metro towards Hongik University Station to meet up with our host of the studio apartment.
And, here is when I begin to fall in love with Seoul. It is now approaching 7:30 pm, local time; we are on the the equivalent time clock of 2:30 am from the night before. The deep fatigue that inevitably comes after a long international flight is starting to settle in like a blanket over us.  The second wind that we both felt is beginning to dissipate.  All I can think about is a hot shower and a comfortable bed.  And something to eat.  Eat, shower and sleep.  In that order.  
We arrive at Hongik University Station and make our way up to one of the exits, and as pre-arranged, call our host to come and pick us up.  The call fails.  What?  I immediately blame this lack of connectivity on AT&T and try texting.  Nope.  Adam tries calling on his phone and nothing.  Uh oh.  We make our way to the street - a rather large and bustling boulevard - and look up and down and begin to assess our options.  Any bookstores or cafes that might have wi-fi?  Doesn’t look like it.  How about pay phones?  We start to walk up the boulevard when a man in a business suit approaches us and asks us if we need some help? We explain how our phones aren’t working and would he mind calling our host’s number with his phone and let her know that we have arrived?  He obliges and calls the number.  He frowns and says it isn’t a good number.  This information processes slowly, and Adam and I look at each other.  Were we scammed?  We had already paid for three nights.  
And then this gentleman bursts into action.  Let’s go, he says, and flags down a taxi.  We get in the back seat with our packs still on our backs and the gentleman shows the taxi driver the address of where our studio apartment is located.  Off we go.  It is a busy Sunday night in Seoul: people are out enjoying the cool evening; cars are weaving their way in and out of the lanes; and, scooter bikes are putting around making deliveries everywhere.  But there is a feeling of calm and quiet over what could be chaos.  Horns rarely honk despite the frenetic driving and constant near human misses.  
Adam and I look at each other and grin.  How cool is this?!  What a show of kindness for this gentleman to help us get to our destination.  We pull out some money to pay the driver and begin to thank the gentleman that we now know is Simon for his kindness in helping us out.  To actually stop doing what he was doing to help two travelers get to their destination - who does that anymore?
Simon declines our money and says, so sorry, but this taxi driver can’t find the location and we’re getting out.  Oh. So, we get out in the middle of a very busy neighborhood and stand on the corner and look around.  We have to be close because students are everywhere.  Small - tiny - bars, restaurants, shops, and music clubs all compete for attention; what an incredible feeling of energy; what a delightful montage of sights, sounds and smells.  
Simon has gone into one of the small shops and has found someone there  who is willing to help him locate this address.  He comes out and says, ok, we’re in the wrong place.  Let’s go.  
He steps off the curb and hails yet another taxi.  We get in and hang on.  The roads are quite narrow.  A better description would be narrowing alleys with frequent obstacles.  Koreans don’t seem to drive many smaller, Smart-sized cars.  They have the regular full-sized sedans, so when you have two cars coming down the same narrow alley from opposite directions or you are trying to pass a parked car, it can be quite challenging. 
We navigated through the alleyways, backing up when necessary, making impossible u-turns when necessary, but no luck.  This taxi driver couldn’t locate the address either.  
Simon gives the driver some more Won and we get out.  I thank Simon  once again and ask if we can re-pay him, and he just says no.  He is determined to help us find this location.  I am blown away by not only his kindness, but his determination to help a pair of strangers.  
We are now in the middle of the University district - the walking district, although cars and scooters honk their way through the pedestrian-clogged streets - where although it is approaching 9:00 on a Sunday night, is in full throttle.  I wonder quite seriously if we have been scammed and ask Simon to try and dial the phone number again.  If we have been scammed, then we don’t want to be on a wild-goose chase.  We’ll just get another hotel for tonight and try this again in the morning.  Simon obliges, and suddenly gets someone on the other end of the line.  But, it is a wrong number.  Our hope fades. 
So close, yet so far...
Simon walks into a frozen yogurt place on the corner and starts talking with one of the workers about where this address might be.  Adam and I stay outside and contemplate our options. We decide to find another hotel for the night.  Simon has been helping us for over an hour and we can’t keep him from his plans much longer.
We go in and I head over to where Simon is.  Adam is watching our packs near the door.  Simon somehow has convinced the worker to get onto the internet and is working on locating the address.  There’s a sudden buzz of activity and excited voices in the shop.  I look up to see Adam as the center of interest posing for pictures.  Big smiles all around.  He later says that two Korean students were on a treasure hunt and needed to take a picture of a foreigner.  And Adam fits the description!  What a place this is.  Despite the late hour, the growing desperation for food, shower and sleep, I am loving it.  
Simon has a new lead on where the address is, so off we go yet again in our search to find a bed and a shower.  He fearlessly steps off the curb and into the fray to hail yet another taxi.  We jump in and Simon gives the taxi driver the address to put into the on-dash GPS.  Can you believe it?  The GPS doesn’t work!  Blank screen.  So, we bail out of that cab, and Simon flags down yet another taxi.  And we try again.
At long last!  Shower and Sleep!
This last taxi driver finds the apartment - at last!  We recognize the apartment from the picture provided on the internet site.  We get out and walk around the building.  The studio apartment is on the fourth floor and there are some lights burning on the fourth floor.  What are we going to find?  The building is dark and old.  There are discarded cigarette butts on the marble steps.  I don’t know about this.  It’s quiet as we make our way up to the fourth floor landing.  There are four doors.  I knock on each one and we wait.  Number 402 responds in Korean and Simon answers back.  The door opens and Hailey, our host, peers out from behind the door looking a little sleepy and equally sheepish.
I can’t believe it.  Hailey has fallen asleep while waiting for our phone call.  After talking for a few minutes, she also realizes that her listed phone number is wrong.  The last digit, a six, has been left off of her contact information.  Sheeesh!  
We thank Simon profusely and exchange cards.  We tell Simon that his kindness and attention to our plight has ensured that our first experiences in Seoul, Korea are positive and impressive.  He smiles and says that he is glad. 
We never would have found this address down the maze of narrow alleys. It turns out the little studio was within a stone's throw of the frozen yogurt place we visited. Without having an accurate phone number to contact Hailey, we would have been left holding the bag.  I am humbled by his kindness and willingness to get involved with two strangers and truly make a difference.  
Simon walks down the stairs, still refusing any reimbursement money, and then we turn to listen to Hailey describe the features of our little hard-to-find studio.  
Eras jumbled and juxtaposed
 Welcome to Seoul, Korea...a very cool place.  
And to Simon, we say (phonetically) Kam-sa-ham-ni-da !  


moneyIQGuy said...

This is one of the stories where I can feel myself feeling that cold-hard-stone feeling in the pit of one's stomach of things not turning out the way that had been anticipated.
What is astonishing is how Simon reacted and went out of his way to help! Yet, I can remember that that sort of thing seems to happen quite often when travelling- it is a good feeling, isn't it? I'm glad that you were able to find the studio after all, and it sounds like it was located in really a great area

Observers of Life said...

Hey IQ -

That was a pretty crazy way to get introduced to Seoul, Korea! But, I have to agree that the kindness and generosity of strangers really does seem to be that much more apparent when we are traveling. These types of experiences certainly retains my faith in the basic goodness of humanity. It's also a good reminder to be that much more aware of others who may need a helping hand.