Ever so often I stumble upon articles and videos about what is recommended for 20 something year olds to try, whether it be related to travel, health, relationship, just to name a few. I normally ignore these headlines because in my view, the subjects and I shared no relation. However, I recently celebrated my 26th birthday (and by recently I mean February 18th) and I thought to myself, this year needs to be different. I didn’t travel this past Christmas and I needed to get out of Japan for a minute. Since I was already in Asia, it made perfect sense to visit somewhere close to home. Seoul, Korea has always been a place of interest and intrigue (and the fact that I didn’t need a visa was a plus), so I did what any working 26 year old would do and booked a week in Seoul. Though this was a month after my birthday and I would be traveling alone, I had no reservations. I waited as patiently as the Sanderson sisters did in Hocus Pocus for a virgin to light the candle, for March 27th to arrive. The day came and I couldn’t be more thrilled. It was see you later (じゃね) Japan, hello (annyeong haseyo) Seoul.
I MADE IT
The flight to Incheon International Airport was very quick. It’s as short as flying from MBJ to FLL, MBJ to MIA, LAX to SFO or from…well you get the picture. I was a bit surprised by the sea of Asians in the airport (which was foolish of me because I was in Asia after all)and was beginning to think that I was the only foreigner at that time going through the gates. Then, lo and behold, an army of foreigners of all shapes and sizes came queueing up to get through immigration. Being the Hardy Boy that I am, I began to uncover the mystery behind the view that all asians look alike. I mean I had to find something to do because the line was endless and I was stuck somewhere in the middle. Anyways, I did the whole I’m looking at you but I’m not really looking at you bit and made quite a few observations; everyone seemed to be doing the same thing as I was, there were more Asian tourists than any other people, the Chinese grandmas wore very curly afro looking hairstyles and I could tell the difference between the Asian nationalities being represented. I became quite the expert in those 15 minutes.
It was now 10pm and I finally made it to the airport’s subway and to Myeongdong I went. I was very impressed with the subway at each stop the train made. It was unlike anything I’d seen in Japan. When I arrived at Seoul Station I realized I was in for quite the journey at this transfer. The stairs went on forever and each subway line was basically on Mars. Finally I was in Myeongdong and by now my smile was bigger than the cheshire cat’s from Alice in Wonderland. In Jamaican terms, mi glad bag buss. I wasn’t tired but I needed to rest and the fact that I hadn’t slept on a mattress in a very long time, I was now one with my bed.
LET THE FUN BEGIN
I woke up Monday morning feeling so rejuvenated and hurriedly went downstairs for breakfast.When planning this trip, I made sure to look for free breakfast and wifi as major selling points for booking accommodation and Guesthouse Myeongdong 2 offered such amenities. Not to mention its affordability and proximity to Namdaemun Market and Dongdaemun Market (great shopping districts). This would be the routine for the next couple of days coupled with the initial awkward good mornings/hellos to other guests until we became more comfortable with each other at breakfast.
My LG mobile wifi (rented at the airport), Google Maps and my trusty tour pamphlet became my best friends. I made a plan for each day I would be in Seoul and was sticking to it. When traveling alone, it’s better to have a proper plan for each day because the moment you have too much downtime, you’ll, for a split second, feel lonely. I went to the Trick Eye Museum in Hongdae and had a really great time there. I wanted to capture as many photos as possible but being there made me realize, I either needed to have my own photographer or a friend, if I want to get as many photos as possible. Or I could be a pest and ask other tourists to take my picture. They didn’t mind me asking because everyone needed their photo taken at some point. Interestingly enough, selfie sticks and monopods were in abundance, so if you’re obsessed with taking your own photos, it wouldn’t be odd if you whipped out your own stick or pod.
Then it hit me like a dominatrix, I was a tourist. I was doing tourist-like things. This may sound odd but being from Jamaica, I hardly ever get the chance to be a tourist (visiting family and friends in America doesn’t count). As a Montegonian (from Montego Bay, Jamaica) , I grew up around tourism and I looked nothing like most of the tourists who visited the island as they would be clad in shorts, a sun hat, sneakers, a fanny pack (sometimes), sunglasses and a t-shirt that is tourist 1-0-1. Only, this was not Jamaica and I was in Korea on a mini vacation.
I attended the Cookin’ NANTA show in Myeongdong which is a comical live performance with no words where actors tell a story that involves making a full course meal. Unfortunately, taking photos or recording videos weren’t allowed but trust me when I say, I had a bellyful of laughs, a show worth seeing.
My nights saw me either going to a club in Hongdae, watching street performers in both Dongdaemun and Hongdae or to a favorite restaurant/bar of mine, TAPAS in Itaewon.
I got lost in the deliciousness of the Korean cuisine. Everything I ate was filled with such spice and flavor, my heart cried tears of joy as my mouth was being rewarded with some the best food Korea had to offer. Some my favs were bulgogi and tteokbokk. I liked the bibimbap but I didn’t know how to eat it and it reminded me of mochi with how long it took for me to swallow.
I thoroughly enjoyed the street/night life in Seoul as the people were so free and fun to be around. This is where not being accustomed to being a tourist reared its ugly head. If you’re normally going on vacation, you’ll know that you’re almost always called out of the crowd to participate in some random performance and you wind up embarrassing yourself. You get a few laughs as the observer at the expense of the participant. So there I was, enjoying the street show like everyone else and I was called out of the crowd and put in the middle of the performance. If I was much lighter you’d see my whole face turning red. I felt awkward and wanted to bolt out of there but I played along and wound up embarrassing myself. The thing was, I didn’t care. It felt good to not have to worry about how I would be perceived and to actually have meaningless fun. I tip my hat off to tourists, as they’re much braver than me in this regard. I think this was one of the best parts of traveling alone. I could make a complete buffoon of myself and it wouldn’t matter.
THE DEMILITARIZED ZONE (DMZ) – KOREA
A friend from Sweden recommended this place as a must see. After doing my own research, there was no way I’d pass up the opportunity to visit. After making my reservation through my guesthouse, my trip was planned for March 31st. I was instructed I needed my passport at all times and I’d be picked up at 7:45am for the morning tour. Again, I felt all touristy because I was wearing a denim jacket, I had a backpack, sunglasses and to top it all off, I was part of a tour group with a real tour guide, badge and everything. Hearing the phrase, listen for Jay’s Group to know where your group is, was funny as if we were kids at a carnival. The bus arrived at a bridge and South Korean soldiers came onboard to check our passports and to get a count of passengers. It was a bit intense because I was just moments away from entering the 3rd tunnel that the South Korean Government found coming from North Korea. The further down the tunnel I went, the colder it became and then I came upon a section where I had to bend my back to walk to the end of. This was very low wet a water dripped from the roof. At the end of the tunnel a sign read “beyond this wall, about 1.7km is North Korea). My heart began racing as what if scenarios flashed through my mind. What if Kim Jong Un decides today is the day he’ll wage war against South Korea? What if the tunnel collapses? What is we get stuck in the DMZ and can’t leave? What if…? I may have been a little dramatic but that was how I felt. The experience was amazing and using the binoculars to look into North Korea was saddening. Here we had a nation divided, a nation that once was one, a nation with the same people and language, completely separated from one another. The crazy thing about it was seeing the railway that connects both north and south and how uncivilized the area was. Dry, brown, uninhabitable. Simple dead. To make up for that melancholy feeling, I bought souvenirs as nothing says I’m a tourist than souvenirs of the places you visited.
[Images above are from the DMZ and uninhabitable section of North and South Korea]
HAN RIVER – ANNYEONG SEOUL
My last day in Seoul, I went on the Han River Cruise. This is the same river meets a river coming from North Korea then head into the sea. However, I was nowhere close to this part. I took the evening cruise because I didn’t want to be out late and not have enough rest to get up for my early flight back to Japan. I boarded at Yeouido Park and at this time, I was in full on tourist mode because I now had my selfie stick. The cruise was wonderful and I got the chance to hang with seagulls the whole time. I did wish that I’d have done the night cruise but there’s alway next time. The park was huge and filled with so many people having picnics and just having a laugh. I sat and whispered a thank you to God for allowing me to experience this amazing place, how I wanted to do it.
Till next time.