South Korea - in reflection
Updated: Dec 13, 2022
It's been almost two months since my trip to Korea began.
The bags have long since been unpacked; the photos have been shared; the memories now firmly in the past.
"Did it really happen?" S texted me a couple of weeks after our return. I assured her it did, but I understood how unbelievable the trip was as we seamlessly return to a rhythm and lifestyle that continued in our absence.
Travel should change us but the extend it does so differs per person and per experience. I had planned to blog as I went, fantasizing that I would find an Instagram-worthy cafe to park myself to do so. Instead, I was caught up in the energy of a young country that is still discovering its place in the global community.
As a tourist, I was prepared to be a temporary part of the country I was visiting. I was eager to learn, and I was fortunate that my hosts were warm in their welcome. There was the amazing Junghi, the owner-operator of K-Hello cooking; Mo VIP Travel, who expertly shepherded her guests from site to site; the children from Middle School who wanted a picture with "the foreigners;" the hospitality staff at the hotels, kind and patient to us who knew little of their language,age
A tribute to the past is surrounded by modern architecture and the newest technology. The fusion of past and present is heady and vibrant. Exciting.
As a tourist, I was prepared to be a temporary part of the country I was visiting. I was eager to learn, and I was fortunate that my hosts were warm in their welcome. There was the amazing Junghi, the owner-operator of K-Hello cooking; Moon, of VIP Travel, who expertly shepherded her guests from site to site; the children from Middle School who wanted a picture with "the foreigners;" the hospitality staff at the hotels, kind and patient to us who knew little of their language.
Being a tourist was a comfortable role. I could observe from a distance. I was largely invisible: tolerated but inconsequential, especially in the hustle and bustle of Seoul. I weaved my way in and out of the crowds knowing whatever social decorum I broke would generally be excused. Slightly different, however, was when I transitioned from anonymous visitor into the role of friend.
During the pandemic, I made two friends who lived in Seoul. Meeting them online was intentional; the relationships grew organically. One is a peer, close to my age; the other, an accomplished university student who is young enough to be my daughter.
With them, I was allowed to peel back a layer of Korea that the average tourist may not always be able to do. With them, I had Friday night drinks on a rooftop bar frequented by university students, walked in a beautiful neighborhood forest not recommended by social influencers, and ate at a buffet frequented by locals. They took me away from the publicized and into the personal.
In many ways, my first visit to Korea was not extraordinary. I did what many have done before. We ate. A lot. We marveled at the cafes, walked through narrow alleys, and climbed steep stairs to get to restaurants located on the second / third floors. The Korean fried chicken was to die for, as was the bungeo-ppang and hotteok. My friend was a little dissappointed that the weather was so good that there was no opportunity for a handsome Oppa to share an umbrella with her. Nor did we see a single zombie on our train to / from Busan. Instead, I watched my friend watch the passing scenery, and I found myself feeling extremely humbled that I'd witnessed a dream being fulfilled.
I'm grateful she had reached out, to share her ambitions for Korea, to accept my offer to do something with her.
We both had to plan for this; it didn't happen accidentally. And for that, I think, the realization of the trip was especially satisfying.