I was never so grateful to collapse in a hotel room as I was Wednesday night. But this was not a simple hotel room; it came with bells and whistles and a manual. The toilet was a combination bidet with a control panel on the wall and extensive instructions; the lights and room temperature were controlled through another control panel in the room. I decided I would figure it all out later, took a shower, and headed to bed.
On Thursday morning I set off for a day full of meetings at our partner schools. Unlike the Chinese partner schools, the Korean schools were both private, and religiously-founded. Korea has a long history of missionaries, and many of the schools were founded by American Christians. First I visited Ewha, a women’s college. I took this photo of their student center, because the architecture was so cool. One of my former students explained to me that it is meant to look like Moses parting the sea, and it does!
I had a traditional Korean lunch, with several courses, soups, and of course kim chi. I had a pungent fermented bean curd soup, and a piece of kim chi cabbage that made my eyes water. I was introduced to a room-temperature delicious barley tea, which Koreans drink like water at meals. I ate with metal chopsticks, shorter and finer than the Chinese plastic or wooden variety.
After more afternoon meetings, I finally headed back to the hotel, retired my work clothes for good, and set out to explore a bit. Near my hotel was the street/area of Insadong, known for its shops and artist studios. I wandered around, sipping on a taro milk bubble tea and planning out my final round of shopping. That evening, I met up with a student studying abroad in Seoul, Jessica, and we went to dinner and a show. The show is one of my favorite things I did in Seoul – it was called NANTA, and is a comedic percussion show set in a kitchen, where all the percussive instruments are kitchen appliances. Audience members are warned that food will fly, and it did! Cabbage, carrots, and cucumber went flying across the stage and into the audience at various points, but I was in the cheap-o seats so I didn’t get any. The show was mostly non-verbal, so it didn’t matter that I don’t speak Korean – the performers were so expressive, words weren’t necessary. Here’s a short clip, to give you an idea. (If you don’t want to watch the whole thing, start from 8:15 to the end – it gets more intense as it goes on. So cool.)
Afterwards, Jessica and I walked around the area that the theatre was in, Myeong-Dong, whose streets were busy with vendors selling everything from phone cases to street food. I finally bought a new pair of sunglasses, a pair of “Chanel” (yeah, right) shades for $20, which is more than I’ve ever spent on sunglasses. But I’ve never bought “Chanel” anything before, so I figured why not? Jessica and I bought several sweet things to share and nibble on – fried rounds of dough with honey inside (so hot! so greasy! so good!), and a type of candy that is strings of honey with rice flour, filled with nuts, that just melts in your mouth. I was so grateful to have her there to bargain, guide, and explain. She did try to get me to buy a “more fun” phone case, but I told her I thought I was past the point in my life where it was acceptable to have sparkles or Hello Kitty on my phone. I think I lost a few cool points with her there.
On Friday I did a crazy thing – I did not set an alarm. I woke up all on my own at the glorious hour of 9am, and spent most of the morning puttering around the hotel, packing, sorting out receipts, drinking coffee. I felt a bit guilty – I only had a few days in Seoul, after all – but I just needed a break.
That afternoon, I had one of the most enjoyable experiences of my whole trip. I met up with another former student, JungHee, who graduated almost a year ago. She had traveled with me to India in 2012, so we knew each other pretty well. She lives in Seoul, and was more than happy to play host for the afternoon. We walked in the sunshine, catching up a year’s worth of news, talking about life and work and the futility of making plans, and just generally really enjoyed each other’s company. We also did a bit of sightseeing on the way – we went to Changdeokgung Palace, which was built during the Joseon dynasty in the 14th century. It’s one of several palaces in Seoul built during that time, but is considered moreauthentic because it survived the war better than the other palaces, which have since been restored. JungHee explained to me that the Chinese palaces (like in the Forbidden City) were larger and more ostentacious on a grander scale, while the Korean palaces tended to be smaller but more ornate. Tourists from each country, when viewing the other’s palaces, would each say, “This is IT?”
Then, because I had been dying to see one, she took me to a nearby cat café. It is exactly what it sounds like – a café with cats in residence. They are all over Seoul, and are quite popular. The cats are treated really well, and there are rules to keep them happy and comfortable – you can’t wake them up or pick them up, only let them come to you if they want (as if you could ever make a cat do anything it doesn’t want to). After 2 weeks sans my kitties, I was beside myself. Most of the cats were sleeping, and it was sort of like Where’s Waldo, trying to find them. It was a cat’s dream – so many bookshelves to climb up on, a raised track near the ceiling for them to run around on, so many pillows and chairs and people’s legs, and no one telling them to get off! I was pretty tickled. We settled down next to a snoozing tabby, and continued to catch up. I learned that in Korea, age is calculated differently. They start counting when a child is in the womb, and have a special celebration 100 days after birth (so one full year of life). Then, on January 1st of every year, if you eat a special soup (and everyone does) you are assumed to be one additional year older. So Korean age is actually 2 years older than regular age, meaning I would actually turn 30 in a few days (gasp!) Except I didn’t eat the special soup, so maybe I would still be 29. 😉
Then it was off to the Dongdaedum area, where we strolled through a bustling food market. Even though we were only a few hours away from dinner, we tried a few things – this fried cake (everything is fried… I’m going to stop saying fried, just assume it’s fried unless I say otherwise) of some sort of bean, bean sprouts, and scallions – phenomenal. We also had some bean soup and pumpkin soup, both made with a bit of rice flour and gelatinous rice balls. I have to say, I love the Koreans, if only for their propensity towards soups and squashes. We also saw some whole roasted pig heads, and countless pig’s feet. JungHee said the feet are actually pretty good, but I’ll have to take her word for it.
We then took the subway – my first time on the Seoul subway – to the Gangnam area, made famous of course by the song by Psy. Public transportation in Seoul is its own culture, and Koreans LOVE it. Subway stations are like mini underground shopping malls, sort of like Grand Central but at most stations. You can buy clothes, shoes, beauty products, books – you name it. AND there is wifi and cell reception, meaning that everyone – literally everyone – is on their phone at all times. I took this photo demonstrating the point.
In Gangnam, we had dinner with a newly admitted student, at a Western restaurant. I waxed poetic over the fries – they truly were amazing – and I realized how much I had missed having Western food. Ahh pasta, ahh pizza! It felt like a real treat, and the new student was a sweetie. We all parted ways, and I headed back to my hotel on my own, subway map in hand.
On my final morning in Seoul, I debated what to do. Another palace? A traditional village? More shopping? Or a spa? The spa had been on my list from the very beginning, but the more I heard about it the more apprehensive I became. I am not a naked-in-the-locker-room sort of gal, and I knew that at the spa, you dropped your drawers the moment you walked in and didn’t put them on again until you walked out. So I waffled. Should I go? Should I be a wuss and not go? Would the whole thing just stress me out, so better not to? But then I remembered my original goals for my trip, one of which was to have an experience that most tourists wouldn’t have. So I gathered my courage and my subway map, and headed to the spa.
I am SO GLAD I went! Yes it was strange at first, but everybody’s naked, so there’s no sense in feeling awkward. I soaked in 3 pools filled with different herbs and medicines, at different temperatures, and then I went for the must-do Korean full-body scrub. There’s a great description in this NYT article; I’ll spare you the details of mine, but suffice it to say it was exactly like the writer describes, and I left a disgusting amount of dead gray skin clumps behind me on the table when I left. I only spent a little over an hour in the spa, but I easily could have spent the whole day, and am really glad (and proud of myself) that I went.
Then I treated myself to another meal of Korean street food and a final taro milk tea, before hopping back in the cab with Driver Lee and heading to the airport, where I am writing this post.
That’s all for now; will check back in once I am back on the other side of the world with a recap, review, and reflections on the past couple of weeks!