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Travel Stories: South Korea

Posted by in Travel Journals


(I traveled to Seoul, South Korea in the Summer of 2012, this is what I saw.)

5:17am JAX Jun 22nd

When traveling for any extended period of time I always check my door at least ten times. I never really mean to, if I were fully in control of my obsessions the number would be more like three or four but without fail it is ten, even if that means checking it seconds after I am absolutely, unequivocally certain I’ve locked it.

You can learn everything you need to know about a person from the distance between them and the nearest outlet in an airport.

Hip marketing trends inevitably drift towards becoming hammers in desperate need of a nail.

Airports are a wonderfully rich arena to observe the casually miserable.

I never get tired of watching dogs play with their humans.

7:10am 15,000 feet Jun 22nd

In my experience, the thing people forget most about travel is temperature. The inescapable fact that no matter what temperature you think it is, or that the weather channel implies, at 30,000 feet the real forecast is 0% humidity and cold. I’m on my way to South Korea through Houston and 17 hours later Tokyo and all I can think of is that I really wish I’d decided to wear my sweater.

We should be in awe of the fact that we can wake up any day of the week and hurdle ourselves across the world in a steel cylinder.

You’re writing a chapter, the important one, the one were the hero decides finally to take up his sword and ride into battle.

9:47 (Local) Houston Jun 22nd

There is no good way to prepare for the flight from the US to Tokyo other than doing so in advance. For me, I load up on books. Dead tree books for take-off, digital books for the long haul and audio books for all the walking in between. I am sitting around thinking about books because 20 hours without sleep is making it tricky to think of anything else.

11:44am (Local) 35,000 feet Jun 22nd

3 Thoughts

You never really get over the experience of seeing clouds from above.

It’s impossible to capture an experience, so we capture moments and hope for the best.

He was strangely comfortable with the fact that the only thing standing between him and freezing decompression were 4 inches of hardened plexiglass.

4:35pm (Local) Narita Japan Jun 23rd

Gate 33

A young Korean couple veritably dripping off one another, the lime green in her dress perfectly matching the lime green in his pants, you have to wonder whether they coordinated in advance and if so, was it just for the trip to the airport?; an athletic Western woman in her early twenties, unselfconsciously going through a complete yoga routine on the floor of the gate, one of those rare humans who feels no shame in showing the world her downward facing dog; A middle aged middle management type with a defensively shaved head, staring numbly into a wall sporting a stylized samurai, hoping that by doing so he can avoid even unintentional interactions with the unwashed masses; And me, a slightly frazzled looking coma patient in a muted brown polo and a not entirely intentional 5 o’clock shadow, which I desperately hope makes me look like some subspecies of travel journalist but more likely only serves to be aggressively forgettable. Each of us trying in our own little ways to deal with the fact that we still have 3 hours left in the air and trying to decide whether it’s Friday or Saturday.

9:10 (Local) Incheon Airport Jun 23rd

Should I find it strange that South Korea greets me with a ten foot LCD of Robert De Niro trying to convince me to go to a Casino?

10:16pm (Local) In Transit Jun 23rd

Every major city looks the same from the highway, Seoul is no different but that doesn’t make it less beautiful.

My bus driver wouldn’t start driving until I put on my seatbelt. It’ll be days before I know whether he was more concerned about my safety or about avoiding the vanishingly small but salient risk of having an American tourist splattered across his immaculately clean vehicle.

1:30am Seoul streets Jun 23rd

I just saw a teenager wander out of a subway line and pull down his pants. While he didn’t appear to care about the piles of traffic, he did seem really concerned as I walked by.

It’s 3am and an older woman at a Korean BBQ just spent the last 20 minutes trying to teach me how to eat properly. Despite her best efforts she was only partially successful.

11am (Local) Plaza Hotel 23rd

Traveling over over any great period of time will teach you that the culture of really nice hotels, regardless of location, is universal.

One great measure of a hotel’s quality is the technical complexity of it’s toilets relative to your own.

1:25pm (Local) Normen Park Jun 23rd

Korean Parks are spartan and tall. You climb and climb and climb in hopes that there will be something to see. The trick is that the more you’re willing to climb the more impressed you get.

1:30am (Local) Various Jun 23rd

Korea in 15 seconds.

You want to go to North Seoul Tower. Take shortcut through Namesean Market. You get hopelessly lost and end up in Namnen Park, lots of climbing. Lots of exercise equipment. It only gets more beautiful as you make your way up. What’s up, You get mire lost and discover it’s north Seoul Tower. Kung Fu, loud music, it’s far too hot outside and everyone seems to know it. Snap pictures and push through tourists, who are busy snapping pictures and pushing through you. Climb down wrong side of mountain, pass by wall. Refer to iPhone. Discover it’s history. Snap pictures. Get lost. Cartoon museum. Realize you don’t know any Korean Cartoons, and that the museum is designed for children, or office workers. You aren’t sure. Lots of locked offices, few exhibitions. At least it’s not Belgium where museums are another name for pubs. Sort of wish it were Belgium. Back to City Hall. Korean War Vetereans Rally. You guess this because there are a pile of veterans and a rally. You should learn Korean. Hotel room. Decide to climb Imageon to see a shrine. Promise yourself you’ll take a nap soon. Calfs burn. Realize that crossing the street in Korea occasionally takes you a quarter mile out of your way. Take a shortcut through apartments. Night fall. More climbing. Temple and fertility shrine. Try not to look like a tourist. You look hopelessly like a tourist. Calfs lock up. Wince. More climbing or maybe it’s falling. There was a fire here sometime, that’s what the sign would tell you if you could read Korean. Back to the hotel. Pass out.

1:03pm (Local) Subway – Anguk Line Jun 23rd

A subway is a pretty clever place for a product pitch, and in the fastidiously clean Korean subway system it even has a ring of professionalism.

The most powerful technological law ever to exist is the law of unintended consequences.

COEX mall is warm and sprawling

You’ve never been lost in a mall until you’ve been lost in COEX

Never confuse life for romance, both are necessary but they often run counter.

If you exist with limits you are bound by those limits.

The market might be one of the few universals that civilization has felt compelled to give us, and the mall is it’s finest expressions. It’s a place where above all else our desires to consume and to watch others consume are given their truest, most magnificent expression. No matter where on the planet Earth you travel it’s the same, throngs of people, pushing and shoving against each other to sniff, taste, feel and occasionally even buy objects of meaning. COEX is all of that if you turned down the air, scattered the foodcourt across the expanse and added an aquarium. COEX is all of that, and it is beautiful.

10:05 (Local) Train Station Outside DMZ Jun 26th

The only interesting way left to live is to be spectacularly and unapolgetically yuourself.

If your only goal is to be rich, don’t become an entrepreneur, it won’t happen and you’ll never understand why.

The DMZ is war as a tourist attraction, in a way much more profound than any memorial or museum I’ve ever seen. This is not necessarily a bad thing. Perhaps the only way for our society to understand war is to package and commercialize it. To popularize it and make it palatable. To allow 4 year old children to crawl through infiltration tunnels rigged to flood in case of a North Korean invasion. To have throngs of people pushing and clawing against each other to get the merest glimpse at a country responsible for untold abuses against it’s own population. Maybe tourism is the only way we are really capable of drawing a box around any this, and transforming it into something more than a sound bite on the evening news.

Museums are lonely places when they’re empty. There is something about observable artifacts that reduces them when they are not being observed.

I walked 45 minutes to buy a Korean, fast food hamburger at a place called Lotteria. It was a lot like all fast food hamburgers, the meat was a little dry, the bun was a little wet, and somehow you felt that you were managing to get plenty of carbs and fat without in a scrap of protein. I walked for 45 minutes to get to this place and in the end, it was totally worth it.

We long for a more heroic age while failing to hear the klaxons in our own backyards.

Science needs more art and art needs more science, the best of each have been both.

11:45 (Local) SFO Jun 27th

12 hours in SFO.

All airports would be made better with the introduction of a mildly inebriated mime.