"It's better to travel well than to arrive" - Buddha (...and when you haven't traveled well, arriving is the best feeling in the world)
To a foreigner now used to the constant bombardment of nonsensical and backward ways of daily life in China, Seoul, Korea was kindly intuitive. Aside from a minor incident at customs, my arrival into Seoul and onto Yongsan Army Base was seamless. I had a moment of fright when the woman at the customs counter began to turn through the pages of my passport and then ask where my entry visa was, to which I responded, in sheer horror while my stomach started to do violent flips of nervous angst, that "all prior research I had done for my trip has led me to the conclusion that one was not needed for US citizens." She began to shake her head in disagreement then stopped, stared at me for a moment in clear deep thought, as I fought back the pressing urge to vomit, and understanding that she had made a mistake, reconsidered her position and stamped me through with the assurance that I would be leaving Korea within 30 days. I nodded 'yes' vigorously then scooped up my passport and hurried on before she had the chance to change her mind.
I wandered on through the airport optimistically. The weather was nice, the atmosphere calm and reassuring, and so far, everyone I had encountered spoke English skillfully. I began to ask, with much hope, whether or not there was a bus that runs between the military base and the airport. I was directed to the American Armed Forces desk located a few gates over. How pleasantly convenient! I approached the desk and asked if there was a bus, whether or not it chartered civilians and what it cost. There was, it did and it was free! I followed the bus driver to a large charter bus and boarded, his solitary passenger for the hour long drive. I took a seat in the front and dove back into my book (The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt by Edmund Morris - I HIGHLY recommend it to anyone who enjoys history, politics, or just a nice read). After twenty minutes of reading I was struck with the realization that I was in a country I had never been in before and here I was reading, instead of taking in the landscape! I marked my place, put Teddy R aside and gazed out the window. What my eyes found was anticlimactic to the point of sheer disappointment. The surrounding sight was a vast, dormant wasteland awaiting industrial development. As far as I could see, a panorama of dirt mounds and hills of upturned gravel encompassed by dry, barren farmland. Not awe-inspiring in the least. I slumped back into my seat and resumed reading.
After another 20 minutes lapsed, I peered up from my book and was surprised to see that the scenery had shifted completely. We had evidently reached the city limits and brilliant skyscrapers loomed in front of us as traffic picked up and people hustling along sidewalks and in front of stores appeared. This was more like it! I wished, frustrated at myself, that I had a camera but alas I had to resort to taking the sights into my memory. Soon, the bus reached the gate and after we passed through the security checkpoint, the scenery changed once again.
Suddenly, and without any preparation or warning, I was overcome with a strange urge to cry what I was pretty sure would have been tears of joy. It was a confusing feeling. Being on base, surrounded by American families and men and women in uniform, instilled in me a sense of home unbeknownst to me in Hefei. Signs were in English, Burger King and Popeyes peered from behind military barracks, joggers ran by, kids poured out of the base school, the currency was the American dollar, and the grocery store was jam-packed with things that I had almost forgotten about in my seclusion from the West, in my little corner of the world, Hefei. I wrote about it to my grandparents, describing it as feeling so much like home that it hurts. It's a beautiful but cruel facade.
After the awe and wonder set in, I remembered that I was in a place that albeit familiar, I did not know. I was dropped off at the base lodge and approached the front desk, asking them if they had a complimentary phone that I could use to contact my friend, Alicia, who I was to be staying with. They did not, and my cell phone does not work over here nor did I have the capability to purchase a Korean sim card. I tried a number of ways to get ahold of Alicia via phone but failed miserably with each attempt. I even asked a girl if I could borrow her cell phone, to which she kindly agreed, but was unable to get through. Finally, I sat down and crossed my fingers that there was open WiFi at the hotel. Success! For a moment I was in a panic trying to figure out how I would tell Alicia that I was in Seoul since my only contact information for her was Facebook and I have never been able to establish a VPN on my iPad which is what allows me to access Facebook - in China. Suddenly it dawned on me that I was, in fact, not in China. I had flown outside the confines of the Great Firewall hours before! Back in action! Yay for Democracy and freedom. I logged onto Facebook and messages Alicia, who had also apparently been trying fruitlessly together ahold of me. I then sat and waited patiently in the hotel lobby for her response, perfectly content to read and relish in my familiar surroundings.
Though my time in Seoul has been cut short do to travel complications (see prior post) I am thoroughly looking forward to the days ahead of me. I have a packed agenda, a thirst for adventure and excitement and a growing hunger for kim bob and bulgogi!