I wanted to take a moment to reflect on the whole experience of Seoul. I have written plenty here about the libraries we visited and the INELI experience in general, but I feel the need to sum up the total experience of being in Seoul and how I found it. When you visit a place it leaves you changed, for better or for worse. You see the world differently and it raises your awareness of the truly amazing variety of the planet we live on. Our time in Korea was short and very full of activities relating to INELI. This meant that if you wanted to see a good deal of the city of Seoul, you needed to either spend some time before or after the Convening, or make the most of every opportunity you got. I was unable to stay longer, so I set myself the goal of getting up early every morning and going out at night as much as I could. This was my effort to stave off what I call travellers remorse. The feeling that one had been somewhere and not really seen it or made the most of it.
So, a typical day for me started with breakfast around 6am. It was still dark outside at this time and it was a good way to charge the batteries before heading out. Sandra and June were invariably down for breakfast at the same time, and I cherished the ability to sit, chat with them and generally talk. The breakfast buffet was brilliant. If you wanted it, they had it. Coffee came as soon as you sat down, and a chef waiting to make you eggs any way you wanted, or waffles, pancakes etc, certainly made for a nice start. Pastries were in abundance, as was bacon, mushrooms, hash browns etc. Cereals, juice, toast.........There was NO excuse not to get a good hearty breakfast.
By 7am I would head out into the world and walk for at least an hour. As we were just above Itaewon, I took the opportunity to wander along there twice. I found it amazing the first time I wandered down this street, watching the street cleaners clean up all the detritus from the night of drinking before. Watching people ending or starting their days along this street. Businessmen heading for the subway, groups of beautiful young Korean women walking arm in arm along the street. Usually their legs were on full display in short skirts or shorts. In Auckland, this would turn heads, in Seoul, apparently it was nothing unusual.
If I didn't go to Itaewon I wandered the back streets. Finding the alleys behind the houses was brilliant. To wander completely lost in the maze of small lanes and emerge somewhere to find your bearings was a treat. The interesting design of houses so foreign from home, the crazy spaghetti of power and phone lines that left me wondering how anyone ever found and fixed a fault. Above Itaewon, a muslim area with a huge mosque and shops selling Eastern products.
The smells of course were so foreign too. Cooking smells, fish smells and that rather unpleasant smell that wafted from drains around the place. That last one really was unpleasant and no matter where you went, it would appear from someone. A tip for travellers, if you don't want to smell, take deodorant with you to Korea. Either Koreans don't sweat or they sweat a smell that is nice, because I could not find deodorant anywhere. Shops do not sell it! In fact when you ask, only confusion abounds.
The evenings were amazing. Seoul is freakn' busy. It is large and there are a lot of people. It was quite nervy going out the first time in a taxi with a man who only understood the writing on your card and not you. The fear you might loose the card and never make it back. Taxis are cheap and when you arrive, wherever you go, there are people EVERYWHERE. The night market was crazy. It was our first outing and really we made a pigs ear of it. None of us knew really what we wanted to do, so we did little but wander. It was at once stimulating, overwhelming and fun. Every moment like that was a bonding moment. I made a good friend that night I think, just from a chat about comics. Getting to know people is always lovely. Gangham Station is crazy, shopping in Insadong is lovely. Everywhere is busy! You just gotta get used to it, allow yourself to wander and let it all soak in.
Korean food is very different to traditional New Zealand fare. Indeed, I think it is fair to say that Korean food is different to most of the traditional food of the people I was with. It was confronting at times, interesting always and sometimes, just sometimes it was too much. A burger and chips one night went a long way to making me feel more centred. We also ate an interesting array of food from other cultures too. Twice we had the most high end Chinese food I have ever eaten. It was quite special, I could tell that. Some of it took me way past my limits, but I appreciated every moment of what was happening. The Italian meal we had in Insadong was very lovely and if you every want to go to the strangest Indian place in Seoul, just give me a yell!
Wine is expensive in Seoul, it does not matter where you go, it is not a cheap drink. Also, it is bloody hard to get the bottle to arrive at your table and then stay there. Three times it proved very difficult to order the wine and get it in your glass. I don't know what was going on, but no matter how many requests, polite nods and hurrying away that went on, the bottle just did not come. When it did arrive, it disappeared as soon as it arrived. Apparently leaving it on the table is not the done thing.
I loved the people in the street just doing their thing. Crazy scooters everywhere, flying past you, nearly knocking you over. Screeching to a halt in front of you. One did just this to reveal the biggest bag of chicken bits I have ever seen. Smoking I think is a national activity and the act of just being and talking seemed to be very much what being Korean was about.
So all in all I enjoyed the rich tapestry that was life in Seoul. My first visit to Asia was eye opening and has left me with a taste for more. I would love to spend some time in China, I am intrigued by this part of the world. Of course there is a whole world of Asia South of Korea too. I have no doubt that tropical Asia will be something different again. I guess I will just have to travel more to find out.....