Notes from Seoul

I find this a perfect moment to be completely inappropriate. In a story.

On the way back from Nepal last year, our layover in Seoul was 18 hours. Once you’ve been trekking, living with the locals in the back country and without watches (or regular access to electricity) for a month, you have no idea how long 18 hours is, but my last 18 hour layover in Seoul (precisely two years prior) allowed me time to sleep eight hours, eat at two buffets, and pen one journal entry. In that order.

This stop over was more interesting for a couple of reasons. Not the least of which was the fact that our pals in Pyonyang had decided to point their, uh, testosterone-soaked pride at South Korea while we were there. It’s refreshing to know that while I was in Nepal I stood next to AK-47s, and in Korea I had warheads pointed at me. Life is all about experiences, right? So, on this day we arrived in Seoul, airport security was noticably tight with extra screenings and deliberate movements in every direction.

And what were two fancy-free ladies to do with 18 hours in that situation? We could have stayed in the hotel room, which was, in fact what I think they wanted us to do. Kick back and order room service? Take another Swiss shower? Figure out how the heated toilet with too many buttons and lights worked? (Quite possibly the source of the term “The Throne” right there in Incheon’s 19th floor hotel bathroom.) We could have stared out the floor-to-ceiling windows edged in double-pleated curtains with a fresh cuppa from the schmancy-maker-thingy in the room. But nah, not quite our style. (And quite uncomfortable, I have to admit, after unheated lodging, squat toilets and the organic, rolling dirt footpaths in Nepal.) Instead we were raring to go into Seoul’s old city and see the king’s palace. Something a little less nerve-racking than clean edges and fancy technology – go see pretty things of days gone by.

So on a couple hours of sleep we binged at the morning buffet then attempted to navigate public transit from Incheon to downtown Seoul. Incheon, by the way, is a fantasy city. Originally a sleepy port town about an hour drive from Seoul, it has recently been methodically flattened, paved and fabricated into a spotless city of the future. One look out the hotel room window (nineteenth floor) showed eight lane roads with perfectly synchronized stoplights, and nary a car on them, nor a person walking the flawless, white sidewalks. No trash blowing in the wind, no trash cans to prohibit such. And across the street, the almost completed “tallest building in the…” something or other. Not quite opened yet. But spotless and shiny.

So in our slap-happy sleepless fog, we ventured toward the bus. It was then that we were acosted by friendly people. A guy at the bus stop noted our non-Korean demeanor and approached, so we asked him the best way to purchase tickets, and where the nearest ticket booth was. He grabbed $20 from my hand and waved it at the bus driver who appeared and smiled from behind the freshly opened bus door, right on schedule. Slightly weird, thoroughly confusing, expecially coming from the barter and shift markets in Kathmandu. Somehow we ended up with two tickets to downtown and a receipt with change. The bus stop guy who had facilitated the transaction couldn’t make exact change for us in American money (who would expect that?) but rather than give us too little, he emptied his wallet of American cash, saying “I feel more comfortable to give you the money.” Something about a girl and a receipt. We attempted to argue and hand it back, but we didn’t win. He was gone in a flash, smiling as he walked through a revolving door. So we boarded the bus and sat in the back, passing a Samsung flat screen at the front, playing Gangnam Style across yogurt commmercials. Of course.

Walking the streets was just as confusing. There were people in downtown Seoul, though. All on their way to somewhere, very methodically, with purposeful steps and straight direction. Every time we wandered a touch sidways, another person stopped to ask us where we were going and could they help us get there. It was is if everyone was trying to politely convince us that we were drunk. By the time we were wandering back, it was time for coffee. More wandering In Search Of…. One of us said to the other, “There’s a cute coffee shop!” to which the reply was, “It doesn’t  matter, we have no dong between us.”  (Sidebar, the Korean currency is wan, which we read as ‘dong’ at the airport for some unknown reason, and, of course, the term stuck from that moment onward. But it didn’t allow us to order coffee.) On the way back we pondered deep philosophy regarding currency, wondering what the largest dong note was… is there a megadong? and the like. But the perfect white sidewalks continued to confound, until one of us said, “what they lack in dirt and rough edges, they make up for in really kind, helpful, caring people.” And then we found ourselves on the train at the airport which said that is takes “approximately three minutes” to get from this stop to that one. So exactly three minutes and ten seconds later we were standing on the far platform asking ourselves about watches and clocks for the first time in a month.

Somewhere in there we toured the king’s palace. And enjoyed it.