We're in Korea!

So here I am in Korea.

Ahem. Let's say that again, shall we? With feeling? Here I am! In Korea!

Yes, it's just a little bit exciting. And that for any number of reasons, one of which is that my friend Saeyun and I have been planning this trip for about three and a half years now. Last time I planned a trip that far in advance, I ended up unable to go (um, sorry again, Ken...), so I was more than half expecting that to be the case again here. Also, anytime you plan for something that long, it gains an aura of unreality - its existence in your own imagination exceeds its presence in reality, and so it seems to be primarily an imaginative vision, some kind of fanciful daydream. When that daydream actually becomes reality, well, it feels a bit strange - as if you'd walked into the setting of a favorite novel.

So - I'm in Korea! Saeyun and I had no trouble finding each other. Our planes got in within 40 minutes of each other, and what with lines and all, we met at passport control, waiting in line. It was very exciting - last time I saw her was about three and a half years ago, and she's one of my dearest friends. We jumped up and down, hugged, jumped up and down and hugged again, and created our own little ruckus.

Outside, her cousin was waiting, and in the first of what is already a long line of generosities from Sae's relatives, he was ready to drive us the 45 minutes from the airport to his family's house in central Seoul, where we were staying.

Their home is beautiful, and the family is sweet, nice, and, as I said, generous. They speak English, which is good because my Korean is limited to "Kamsa hamnida," which means "Thank you." Not that it hasn't been an extremely useful phrase, but it's not really going to hold up a conversation.

Seoul by night, as seen from the Namsan Tower

We've been on several excursions already - to a couple of the big malls, a temple, a big ol' palace, and several restaurants. The temple, Pongunsa, was incredible - it's right in the middle of the city, near major hotels and, in fact, a convention center. There are cars everywhere, incessant traffic noise. Nevertheless, once you pass through the temple's second gate, you're in an island of peace and quiet. Worshipers go about their observations, there is a meditative chant in one of the temple buildings, women go to pray before the large stone buddha, and you can forget that you're in the middle of a 12-million-strong city. That is, until you look over the top of the temple buildings and see the skyscrapers. But still - you can't really hear any of the traffic noise, and that's quite a feat.
Pongunsa temple, with the highrises of Seoul in the background. Photo courtesy of my father.

The temple looks lovely, too. It was strung with colored lanterns that had been left up from the celebration of Buddha's birthday, about a month ago, for the benefit of World Cup tourists. The lanterns were yellow, green, blue, red, and all different shapes - some round, some shaped like lotos flowers, and then my favorites, the ones that were shaped like soccer balls.
Soccer ball lanterns! Photo courtesy of my dad.

The city is busy, people everywhere, shops of all descriptions, from the Chanel boutique to the mall shoe store, to the bustling grocery store with individually saran-wrapped fruit, to the small stores that line the side of the eight-lane roads that cut through the city, to the traditional streets of Insa-dong, where we walked last night, where traditional (and tourist) wares are sold out of small, old-fashioned buildings. It's vibrant, and it reminds me that I do miss being in a big city. Austin doesn't always seem that small, but it does when you're standing on the observation deck of Namsan Tower looking out at the impressive panorama of Seoul.

Kyongbok palace

I spent much of the day yesterday at Kyongbok palace, a palace from the 13th century that seems to have been built, destroyed and rebuilt several times - most recently at the hands of the Japanese early in the 1900s; in their colonial domination of Korea, which lasted until 1945, the Japanese were intent on destroying what they saw as a symbols of Korean nationalism and power. The Korean government has been engaged in the long, slow process of rebuilding these Korean national symbols, and this palace has been extensively reconstructed. It's a bit odd, because the buildings have been rebuilt, but most of them seem to have nothing inside. Final restoration, according to a sign at the site, is slated for 2010. Even so, what's there is impressive. It's a vast complex; I got lost several times and I'm still not sure I saw all there was to see - in fact, I'm sure I must've missed something. It was a great place to spend an afternoon, in spite of the occasionally obnoxious groups of Korean schoolboys trying their hands at a game of "taunt the foreigner." (Of course, the game only happens if the foreigner is a woman walking alone - we're not talking great audacity here.) There were also quite a few schoolkids who weren't trying to taunt; they were just interested in the fact that I was clearly not from here, and so they'd ask in what English they knew where I was from - or just say "Hello, hello, hello!"

Another part of the vast complex that is Kyongbok palace

And the food. Just a few words about the food. In a word, FABULOUS. I love, repeat, LOVE kimchi, the spicy Korean dish of fermented, marinated vegetables - which is good, because it's the national dish. Saeyun's uncles and aunt have taken us out to eat several times at wonderful restaurants or cooked food here at home, and they seem to get a kick out of my enjoyment of kimchi, probably because it isn't to everyone's taste and it is THE traditional food here. They've been incredibly generous with everything, and in particular with food; I've been here three days and feel like I've already eaten my way through Korea!

Well, that's all for now; the day's about to start, and we have to go pick up our tickets!! (see sidebar...)

I'll post more soon - probably after the opening ceremonies!!!

 

May 30, 2002

 

 

Holy Shit, We're Going!

One of the driving forces behind this trip was the soccer World Cup, held every four years and incredibly exciting to those of us who are soccer fans.

Of course, our final decision to go to Korea happened after most of the tickets were already sold out. Someone told me that tickets to the opening ceremony, which takes place here in Seoul tomorrow, were going for $5000-$8000, and that was if you were lucky enough to find one.

We hadn't given up on tickets exactly - and it's not like we were being picky. Any game, any teams, any location that wasn't too difficult to get to. Sure, we'd love to see South Korea play, but if it's tickets to Jamaica vs. the Faroe Islands (that is, if they were ever to make it to the Cup), we'd be thrilled too.

We'd also decided that while tickets to a Cup match would be great, we were really here to see Korea. There are all kinds of places Saeyun wanted to show me, and I wanted to see what else Seoul had to offer anyway, because just doing soccer tourism would get real old real quick anyway.

So things were fine.

This morning, I woke up to my friend asking for my passport. "Sure, whatever," I figured and handed her my passport. I was ready to roll over and go back to sleep.

"We might be able to get tickets for the opening ceremonies," she explained.

No more sleep for me. Opening ceremonies? THE opening ceremonies? Of the World Cup? The single biggest sporting event in the world? Oh. My. God.

Half an hour later, word was that there was a possibility, but we shouldn't get too excited yet. Right. I wasn't getting excited. Not at all. Right.

Another half hour, and - holy shit - the tickets were ours. I jumped up and did a little dance. Tickets to the opening ceremonies! Tickets to the first game!! That's AMAZING!

And who do we have to thank for this? The US-ers and their utter lack of enthusiasm for that fabulous sport of soccer. Because FIFA had just opened up a block of unpurchased tickets - the ones that had been designated for US fans. No need to pay $5000 for them, either. They were there for the taking, and we got lucky. SOOO lucky!!

I mean, yeah, being in Korea would have been fabulous whether or not there was a soccer game involved. Nevertheless, this makes it that much more exciting to be here.

So three cheers for the US's lack of soccer interest!!

Hip hip HOORAY! Hip hip HOORAY! Hip hip HOORAY!!

 

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