Sunday, August 9, 2015
Our original concept for the stopover in Seoul was simple: we were using Korean Air, whose hub is in Seoul. Why not get off the airplane, break up the return flights so that we would not be so exhausted, and spend a day and night in Seoul? We probably should have thought a little harder about that “not being exhausted” part. On the day before, we had gotten up before dawn for our aborted sunrise Angkor Wat experience, and the day was busy after that. Our intent was to sleep on the overnight flight between Siem Reap and Seoul, but we did not get in the air until 11:25 PM. The flight was less than five hours in duration, hardly time to get a good night’s sleep. Then there was a two hour time difference between Siem Reap and Seoul, so while we hit the ground at 6:35 AM, it felt like 4:35 AM to us. Not our best plan.
The Koreans let you know right off the bat how the toilets are supposed to work in their modern city.
We met our guide, a lovely lady whose “western handle” was Inis, and began our tour immediately. She told us that our hotel would not be ready until mid-afternoon so we had some time to kill. Our itinerary had listed five different activities, but we knew right off the bat that this would be too ambitious. We asked her to explain them in more detail and we picked our top three.
The drive from Incheon Airport into the heart of Seoul took about an hour. Ines could see that we were fried, so she let us ride into town in silence. Genene put her head down and caught a few zzz’s. I think Greg and I did the same. We stopped first at a Starbucks-like coffee shop in the central city and got some strong coffee and pastries. We were surprised to find that English is not as commonly spoken here as it is in Thailand and Cambodia, but there was English on the posted menus. We were able to point at what we wanted and soon the caffeine was coursing through our veins. Even Genene got a cup of java.
Our first tourist stop was Cheongye Plaza, located at the starting point of the “restored” Cheonggyecheon Stream. The public space is actually an urban renewal project. After the Korean War, this area developed so rapidly that the original stream was covered up by transportation infrastructure. The government spent over $900 million to “rebuild” the dried-up stream, pumping water from the Han River up to the new headwater. The water flows back down to the Han, the ultimate in recycling. The project was very controversial when it opened in 2005 but has become a popular meeting place and recreational area for Korean people. It’s a bit like their version of Memorial Park, a place to stroll and run, to see and be seen.
Our second stop was Gyeongbok Palace, where we were just in time to see the ceremonial changing of the guard. The palace was originally built by the first Yi Dynasty King, Taejo (circa 1395), and it served as a royal residence for nearly 200 years. Sadly, the original palace was destroyed by fire in the late 1500’s, and the area was abandoned until the 1800’s, when it was rebuilt. The Japanese came along in the early 20th century and wrecked it again, but the Koreans are gradually restoring the palace complex buildings to their original forms and locations.
There is no more monarchy, and South Korea is a constitutional republic, complete with three branches of government and a president. The guard changing ceremony is strictly ceremonial. It was colorful and beautiful on this fine morning.
Some young people had a display of “One Dream One Korea”, their dream for the reunification of the Koreas. They asked us to leave our handprints and a message. We left them our best wishes from the US. We hope they achieve their lofty goal, though it seems unlikely in this political climate.
At long last, Ines got word that our hotel room was ready. I hated that we were not doing this great modern city justice, but we were all just exhausted and wanted a nap. We were staying near the DDP at the Shilla, and it took only a few minutes to arrive. Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie stay in the Presidential Suite at the Shilla when they are in Seoul. We are not so fancy: ordinary people get an ordinary room.
The lobby area at the Shilla had at least 100 people in it, and I am not exaggerating. I felt like I had arrived late to the AWBD summer conference check-in. We noticed that there was a man stationed at each of the revolving doors with a camera pointed at everyone walking in. Turns out the cameras were infrared scanners. South Korea has had an outbreak of the viral disease Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS), and the hotel was taking no chances. If the camera picked up the fact that someone had fever, they weren’t getting into the hotel. I thought it was a sensible precaution.
Ines helped us to navigate through the checkin, and we were soon in our nicely appointed room. Ines gave us some advice on where to have dinner and told us that she would see us in the morning and take us to the airport. She took leave of her walking dead clients.
We wasted no time taking a shower and getting into our skivvies. We discovered to our delight that our room had one of those fancy Korean Smartlets, also known as the smart toilet. It had more buttons than an Amish woman’s dress.
This was the view from our room.
Monday, August 10, 2015
Our day began early. Inis and the driver met us at the hotel at 6:00 AM. We would have to get breakfast in the airport. The return trip to Incheon Airport took about an hour, and we passed over the mudflats. Ines described General Douglas MacArthur’s bold move during the Korean War to launch an amphibious attack at Incheon. Other UN generals expressed serious misgivings, because Incheon’s terrain was unforgiving. The entrances to Incheon were narrow and therefore easily mined. The water became mudflats during low tide and could easily trap a vessel. MacArthur explained that because the area was so heavily defended, the enemy would not expect an attack there. A victory in this northern strong point would cut off North Korean supply and communication lines, and a brutal winter campaign could be avoided. MacArthur got his way, and the attack was a success. Seoul was eventually recaptured by the South after a protracted land battle. Everyone knows how the story ends: with two Koreas. Those in the South are grateful to MacArthur that they have their democracy because without the battle at Incheon, the North Koreans might have won it all.
During some part of her discussion, Ines had mentioned “our brothers in the North.” Greg questioned her about this, saying: “Do you really think of them as your brothers?” Her answer was unwavering and unequivocal: “Oh yes, they are, quite literally, our brothers and sisters. Their government is stupid, and they are its victims, but they are our people.” She went on to describe, in moving detail, the issue of family separation between North and South Korea. I had never thought about this before. North and South Korea are technically not at peace; all these years later, they are at “cease fire.” When the borders closed between the two countries, entire families were cruelly separated. Husbands who had gone south for work and left their wives and children back north could not return. Siblings were separated from each other. Sons and daughters were separated from their parents. These people have not seen their families since the early 1950s! An effort was undertaken a few years ago to schedule family reunions. The government of North Korea is the sticking point. When the program began, 130,000 people applied for the chance at a family reunion. Getting the North Korean government to agree to a reunion is tricky, so they do not occur even once a year. When they do, the North Korean government grants only 100 applications. The reunion must take place in North Korea, for obvious reasons. If the good citizens of the North ever got the opportunity to go South, they might not go back. Ines explained that they know from intelligence that those families from the North who are selected are carefully “trained” in what to say and how to act. They must leave at least 1/3 of the food that is offered to them (to illustrate that they are not starving). They learn to repeat “I love it in North Korea.” They are given a new suit to wear so that they look presentable. Meetings are in large hotel banquet hall settings and are often awkward because the North Koreans know they are being watched by their government and even filmed. The people are getting very old, and their parting wish is often something along these lines: “Take care of yourself so that you can live until we can see each other again, when our country is one.” Ines showed us some youtube videos of the reunions, and they are heartbreaking to watch. The family members, now in their 80’s and 90’s, are together for a few hours before they are separated again, and they embrace and sob pitifully.
For the third time on this trip, I had tears in my eyes. I thought I wasn’t a crier! Greg cries at the Folger’s coffee Christmas commercial, so he was a complete goner. The tears were rolling down his face. As we got to the airport, Ines apologized for telling us such a sad story. We told her it was a perfect story. We come to foreign countries to learn about the people, whose lives are often so different from our own. The stories are not always happy ones, but they are real and meaningful.
The Korean Air representative in Siem Reap had given us a set of boarding passes for Seoul to Houston, and this turned out to be a huge boon. The checkin line was massive, but because we were already checked in, we got to go straight to the bag check line, which was much more manageable. Ines waited with us until we got the bags dropped. Incheon uses a slightly different procedure for checking bags. I am accustomed to simply dropping bags off and then racing toward the xray machines and gates. Incheon asks that you wait in a separate area for 5 minutes until your checked bags are inspected. In this way, if they find something they need to discuss with you in your checked bags, you are still close by. We waited the 5 minutes, and our name was not called, so Ines told us it was fine to proceed on to the gate.
While we waited, we commented to Ines on how well we had been treated by Korean Air and how beautiful their flight attendants are. She verified my suspicions: the ladies are selected based upon a beauty and style standard. They must wear their uniforms and their hair a certain way until they get inside their own home. The women are highly sought after by the men in South Korea, and it is a big brag if your girlfriend is an attendant for Korean Air. Boyfriends must take their women to and from the airport, and Ines says you can see the gaggles of men waiting outside. If the men do not treat their Korean Air women right, they can be “easily replaced.”
We said our goodbyes, and she taught Genene the Korean word for it. We made it to the gate in time for some pastries and hot coffee. The flight back was uneventful. We had another chance for bibimbop, which Greg took but I passed on. I had it in Seoul!
We left Seoul at 9:30 AM on Monday morning and after 13+ hours of flying, we arrived in Houston at 8:30 AM on Monday. We got back before we left! Global Entry was a breeze, although we got diverted to Agriculture because we disclosed that we had been in contact with farm animals. The Agriculture department was dead on Monday morning, and it took only a little time for them to xray our bags to make sure we weren’t bringing in a dead chicken or a pig’s foot. We stepped out into the Houston heat (which seemed like nothing) and grabbed an Uber ride from a young man who looked like he had been chugging Red Bull all night. He drove well though, and his car was clean and air conditioned. I have found Uber rides to be much superior to cab rides in Houston. I have been on many dangerous, hot, careening cab rides in our fair city, and Uber seems tame in comparison. It’s cheaper too!
We were home by midmorning, and Nala the wonderdog greeted us with squeals and whines of delight. The cats meowed incessantly and rubbed around our legs. I spent the rest of the day doing laundry, deleting or managing the 1300 work emails that came in while I was gone, and preparing for work. I will go in tomorrow morning and start “being real” again.
BACKTRACKING ON THE ELEPHANTS
I usually take my blogs in chronological order, but I have to go back to the elephant camp for a moment. Thai Elephant Camp had a photographer following us on our rides, and at the end we got a fully loaded DVD. I blog from an iPad, so I did not have access to the images until we returned stateside. Some of them are really good, so I must share. Also, because I am the photographer, I do not appear in the blog much, so these photos are a special treat for me (and my parents).
Here’s our Day 1 crew. I’ll leave you to identify the honeymooners, the French and the California boys.
What more can I say? A 16 part blog with hundreds of photos–maybe I should just shut up.
No way! It’s time for random observations.
Things that tickle: elephant kisses and fish spas.
Immigration officials can ruin your day in a heartbeat.
The man reading the paper is always the boss.
Tea that is designed to “restore balance” to your body will taste like crap.
Planting rice is backbreaking work.
Smart toilets are fun!
Thai massages hurt.
A Bangkok driver needs 10 eyes.
An elephant makes a big poop.
Men can go to war over a two-foot tall jade statue.
Red ants and beef are delicious.
Roaches crawling on your feet are not fun.
Mangosteens are the second best fruit in the world, right behind the Arkansas Elberta peach.
It’s Myanmar, not Burma!
I would be remiss if I did not mention our travel agents at Asia Transpacific Journeys. We decided to interview them after researching on the internet. We exchanged emails and had one phone conversation with their consultant, Jen Boyd. She asked us detailed questions about what kind of travelers we are and what our expectations were. After that, she produced the initial itinerary, which wowed us immediately. It was just what we wanted! We never interviewed any other companies. When someone “gets you,” you go with it! Their services were first rate in every way. We never had to wonder what was going to happen next. Every guide and driver showed up on time and in place. If you want professionals to customize a journey to Asia for you, I recommend them whole-heartedly. http://www.asiatranspacific.com/
Genene is getting ready to start middle school in two days. She is going to Awty International School, which will be a big sea-change from life at our local public elementary school where she happily spent the last six years. Awty is popular with the expat community, and people from more than 50 nations attend the school. I hope Genene’s travels will stand her in good stead at Awty. We are all very nervous and excited about the changes. Can vacation help with education? I know it certainly is a lot of fun, but maybe she is learning something too, if only how to say hello in several languages.
Back to our journey for just a moment: the people we met along the way were so friendly and warm. In particular, the Cambodians keep sticking in my mind. How can they greet everyone with such warm, friendly and open faces when the scar of genocide is still so fresh? They speak of it openly, in the hope that it can never happen again. I hope and pray they are right.
Will I buy another shirt made in Thailand? I’m sure that I will, but I will never do it again without thinking of the man who sews them day in and day out.
As for Amparo and Polo, “We’ll always have Siem Reap.” (I love Casablanca.)
I hope that someday Korea can be one so that all the torn families can be reunited.
I hope that Borin gets his house.
I hope that TJ remembers me when I come to ride her again.