Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Chase the Light

Chase the Light, 2/26
I clung to safety, connected through the plane seat, down through the wheels to the SFO runway.  Familiar land was fleeting as I watched us take off through a small corner of a window across the plane from my uncomfortable center seat.  It was light out, 11:30 am on Saturday, and I was sandwiched between a quiet lady, and a coughing guy.  13 hours of luckily infrequent coughing, and the worry I'd get sick with each of his spasams.  I'm bad with this stuff.  The movie selection wasn't bad, and I watched four inbetween iterations of trying to learn Korean phrases with some podcasts I downloaded as I walked onto the airplane.  It is tough to digest a new language without speaking since I refrained from screaming words out loud, as the podcasts suggested.  The windows were closed for the duration of the flight, but people peaking revealed the continuous daylight.  We were chasing the light across the globe.
First sight
The darkness won the race, and I emerged from the Chungmuro Station, weary, unsure, and confused.  I had done several laps of Seoul Station before I realized how to get to the subway, and the above ground adventure awaiting was even more daunting.  I burned through an expensive minute of cellphone time calling YoonYoon, who runs the hostel I'm staying at.  Shortly after I heard broken english, "D-evon Penn-ey?".  I responded that was me, and the two Korean women who came to pick me up started running, clearly underdressed and cold.  It was downright freezing, so I ran too.

Self Reliace, 2/27
It feels a silly to use such a trite title, but 3 days of not speaking a word of English to a native speaker has gotten me feeling contemplative through the comfortable isolation.  I was surprised that I could actually be comfortable with isolation, but Seoul makes that easy with the most accessible subway system I've ever seen.  I started out Monday fearful of leaving my room, and uncomfortable with making a concrete plan.  I crave being spontaneous, but usually want to just nail down a plan.  I couldn't since much of what I wanted to do was closed on Mondays.  Screw it...I'll actually wing it.  I must have gone up and down the stairs 3 times before getting the courage to leave.  Then, I had an additional two or three trips from the Chungmuro Station to the hostel.  I (think?) I have a bad sense of direction, so I had to burn this one into my head.   I burned it in. There was no way I could forget the three turns from the Metro station to where I am staying. I felt safe, and I took the step I needed, and just started walking.

Korea Hanuk Folk Village
The wide busy streets greeted me with large signs, foreign characters, and countless people roaming the bustlinig streets.  First thing was first, I needed some cash, and it turned out to be tough to find a cash machine that worked with a Bank of America card, and had an interface a stupid American could decipher.  Eventually I found one, ate some Dunking Donuts (wtf, we don't even have those in California...I had to try it), and felt at ease with exploring.  I saw a bunch of people and buses down a street, and followed the crowd, which lead to the Hanuk Folk Village.  I walked the grounds for a while, throughly impressed with the distinct architectural styles.
Views from Namsan
I'm a climber at heart, so I felt the need to get to the high ground, which I had noticed was hill with a big tower off in the distance.  I started walking, and eventually entered Namsam Park, which was filled with leaveless trees waiting for the Spring bloom.  It was a few kilometers and a steep short hike through paved paths and steps.  Each step higher revealed a new swath of buildings in the distance, slowly revealing the enormous city.  I paided the 10,000 WON to take the elevator to the top of the N Seoul Tower, and continued to be amazed at the scope of Seoul's urban sprawl.
More meaty than I'm used to, but tasty!
This was a lot of walking, only going on a pb&j sandwich, and two of Dunkies finest that tasted straight out of home, but not quite as good.  I knew the time would come where I would need to sample a traditional meal, fighting the language barrier and self-imposed dietary restrictions in one blow.  I checked my guidebook, and decided to head to Myeongdong, the shopping center of Seoul to get some of the best noodles in the city.  The place was hidden behind a wall of indecipherable text among throngs of shoppers, and eager shop owners trying to cojole people into their, often familiar, stores.  Quite predictably, I had trouble ordering, succumbing to the waitresses impatience, "Pay now! Pay now!".  I fumbled through my cash after pointed to what the guidebook told me to eat from the sparse menu.  The noodles were soft and tasty in the chicken-y broth that had a couple very tasty dumpling things in it.  I'm not sure what the bits of meat were, but they were good albeit unfamiliar and scary.  I couldn't finish the hearty meal, but left satisfied both at the meal and my timing since the line of people was now way out the door.
I was physically replenished and confident after my sucessful gustatory adventure.  I found my way to Gyeongbokgun Palace, catching the tail end of the changing of the guard.  I bought a ticket, and as I was walking to the entrace, an eager teenager with a young kid said hi.  It had been some time since I had human contact, so I obliged, and we toured the grounds together.  His (English) name is Tim, and he is a college student in South Korea studying biology.  Tim's english, like many Koreans, impressed me as he described what he knew about the palace with the occasional assistance from a phone translation app.  After strolling the grounds filled with elegantly curved roof buildings and intricate colorfully pained wood sides, we went to Jongmyo, a royal shine nearby, were we took a guided tour in Korean.  I had no idea what was going on, and relied on Tim's terse explainations of what he could translate.  This usually consisted of one or two words after five minutes of talking.

We parted ways, both citing exhausting after a days worth of walking.  I went back to the hostel, gettiing some fried street food goodness on the way, and crashed for a few hours.  I woke up disoriented, but headed out to the Honik University area, bleary eyed and somewhat hungry dispite a mild stomach ache.  It was a wild college area, with bar after bar with thumping tunes pouring out onto the streets.  Throngs of young and excited Korean college students lined the streets, eating food and shopping at the countless stores.  I stopped and ducked under the hood of a food cart where seval young people stood eating various identifiable fried things.  I decided to order some that looked like things I knew: potatoes and shrimp.  I fumbled my way through ordering, and tried to leave, but got a flurry of "no, no no!".  Apparently, you need to eat under the hood, but luckily it was warm and oddly inviting, after the college girl next to me put a toothpick in one of my shrimp. 

Fried shrimp washes away embarrassment
I finished my shrimp, left, and wandered around, getting lost, then re-lost in an exhausted stupor in what I had declared familiar terrain near my hostel.  Somehow I found the turnoff onto the narrow street that lead to my hostel on the opposite side of the road.  There is the familiar sense of direction!  After a day of success, I thought I was actually good at navigation.  :)

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