PWALLE’s Final Resting Place: “Long Time, No See, Korea”
[thoughtfully peaceful, told by backpacker ready to root again..for now]
A deep breathe and a quick assessment of my surroundings. I am sitting cross-legged in a bright-colored ka koi, on a low mattress futon in a comfortably spartan dorm room. I am punching short bursts of keys on a road-weary netbook while sipping Chinese pu-erh, a bitter tea that drives away the morning fogginess and sharpens the slurried marinade of thoughts and emotions upstairs. Now and then, I stop to reflect—stir up the pot—and stretch away the soreness of yesterday’s rock climbing session. When I look up from Miranda I see a squeaky black chair and a wobbly Ikea desk covered in unfinished postcards, Korean language books, Won coins of varying denominations, and a half-gutted router (one of many ongoing projects). The two small windows of my dorm are open; they let in the warming morning air and the faint hum of city traffic punctuated by the staccato notes of songbirds. Outside is a maze of green foliage stemming from gnarled pine branches, which shelters the even rivulets of traditional roof tiles (기와 – giwa) of the neighboring building and frames glimpses of the high-rise cityscape beyond. My stomach gurgles, a reminder that moments are not infinite, and brings my attention back to the blinking cursor on the screen.
I am in Seoul. More than four months have passed since the beginning of my travels. I have raced, ambled, traipsed, and stumbled my way through sixteen cities in four countries: Thailand, Malaysia, Vietnam, and China. My trip has been exciting, thought-provoking, and harrowing at times. Now it has landed me in South Korea as a worn, sleep-deprived, and somewhat bewildered backpacker, stripped of the comforts and routines of home. And I feel that such trappings are wholly fitting for my arrival here, in the country of my birth.
South Korea is jarring. Some moments I feel like a perfect tourist, wandering through the elegant courtyards of Changgyeongung or strolling atop the cobbled Seoul fortress walls, gawking and snapping pictures on my smartphone camera. But when I ride the whirring metro trains or push about the delicate cuts of meat that lie simmering on a Korean BBQ grill, surrounded by black-haired, dark-eyed—often spectacled—slight figured Koreans whose gratuitous smiles and goofy laughs and wide-eyed facial expressions….[every time I try to write this paragraph, I end at a loss for words here. Maybe that is well enough, as what is left unsaid is often more telling than what is said, I suppose.]
At any rate, this country would be jarring to any foreigner. Seoul is a force—a sprinting, caffeine-fueled, future-minded (and perhaps future-blinded) metropolis whose life blood pulses along its streets and railways, and blitzes through meals and drinks in cafes, restaurants, and hofs with eyes glued to the chrome-encased screens held in their hands—the portals of streamed media and telecommunications packets packets packets that buzz within an ever-growing cloud of connectivity. It is a bipolar mesh of the old and the new: lightning fast WiFi serving up free content beneath ancient tile roofs, and proprietary formal manners and culture attired in tomorrow’s edgy fashion and style. [Ripped from journal] Seoul life is a sleepless race amidst towering clusters of gleaming skyscrapers nestled within the historic fortress walls, nestled in turn within the ancient mountain peaks—ancient encasing old encasing bleeding-edge new. [end note]
I did not have to force a feeling of kinship to South Korea; the bonds emerged quickly and naturally. The public-facing lifestyle and mannerisms suit me, as well as the attention to detail, decor, and cleanliness—surprising, but refreshing. Even Seoul, the hectic epicenter of over 25 million people, isn’t too oppressive for this dirty son of the woodlands. Occasionally the crowded city life becomes too much for me, and I must flee to the refuge of quiet mountain paths where I can be [mostly] alone. When such an urge beckons, Seoul rewards me with a metro line that I can take practically to the first steps of trailhead—no small comfort.
I am not implying that I fit in here, or naturally belong here at all really. Far from it—at last I share the sentiments of countless 교포 (‘gyopo’ – Korean foreigner) testimonials regarding expat life in Korea. The feeling of in-betweenness…it is impossible to describe this sensitivity in any other way than an endless saga of stories that glance sideways at the truth like Zen parables. I will not engage in such fruitless laments, at least not right now. There is too much to do, and indeed much to be gained from embracing this fencepost status while it lasts—does it ever end, I wonder?
But I am happy here. Every minute I spend here strengthens a part of me that has been lying dormant, quietly sleeping, for 25 years. I can feel myself growing immensely [toss out for my fellow nerds: like a Level 25 Cyber Mech Swashbuckler who decides to dual class Zen Ninja Mage]. And with this new parallel growth, I am further grateful that my past has my back: my American upbringing and education, my outdoor-minded and travel-eager adventures, my host of rockstar friends and contacts back home, and most of all, my loving family. 살것갈다 indeed: it is damn good to be alive!
PWALLE’s Last Rambles: A Blitzed Account of My Korea Travels
[caffeinated recollection, told by the last breaths of a settled backpacker]
I hit the ground running in Seoul: romped around Jongno-Gu and Mapo-Gu, gorged on BBQ and Soju, sang myself hoarse in a 노래방 (‘noraebang’ – private karaoke room or literally, singing room), and sweated away a hangover in a 찜질방 (‘jjimjilbang’ – public sauna/spa or literally, heated bath room)—just like a good tourist ought. All the while I fired question after question at local contacts and watched the crowds ebb, flow, and conduct their daily lives with vigor, and smartphones in hand of course. It was during this first landing in Seoul that I discovered the mountain trails: scores of steep wooded walking trails in Bukhansan National Park and elsewhere that lead the bar-worn Seoulite straight from the streets up to scenic lookouts that would take your breathe away, if you had any left. Plunge back down the mountain, blast the dirt off your precious shoes at the complementary pressured air tanks, and head right back to the madness. Like Bangkok before, the city threatened to consume me so I fled south to the ‘quiet’ seaside city of Busan. As a couchsurfing guest, I further explored the lives and habits of young adult Koreans, all the while casually observing as, how to say, little pieces of myself emerged.
As expected, I continued to travel impulsively. A chance couchsurfing invite brought me to Busan and there, random conversation led me onwards to Gyeongju. I was sitting outside at a beachside cafe, chasing away the AM fog with espresso, morning sunshine, and the crashing surf. A trio of Koreans came over and sat at a nearby table, and conversation sprung up. I was shocked and amused to hear that they had wandered over from the beach on the impression that I was a Korean movie star—apparently such sightings are not unheard of in Busan and truthfully their first impression was made from quite a distance, but I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t flattered. [Side note] I’m really growing fond of that burnt red smoking jacket. [end note] After a brief conversation I learned that their hometown, Gyeongju, was a historical must-see for any tourist, so I resolved to make it my next stop. On such whims I arrived in Gyeongju by bus a few days later.
The chance encounter and recommendation did not disappoint. Gyeongju is a municipal museum, much like Ayutthaya in Thailand before. Once the capital of the Silla Dynasty, the city and surrounding area are spotted with tombs and shrines, and its rivers and mountains adorned with historic pagodas and temples. On Day One I made my way to the Namsan area, a vast system of mountain trails that take one back in time. Atop the first peak, which I headily sprinted up in jeans and a tshirt past bewildered Korean hikers sporting fashionable trekking packs and apparel, I perched atop a rocky outcropping and gazed over the rugged profiles of the surrounding landscape. [Heady scribble ripped from journal] I feel home. [end..I’ll spare you the accompanying drawing—nothing more than a crude sketch done by a novice artist who’s clearly high on endorphins and caffeine]
Eventually tearing my eyes from the view, I turned around and beheld..a young Korean woman, resting alone and reading a book. My my my, think I, have I just found a pretty girl who climbs mountains to read a book? What luck! I should say hi. But of course, I didn’t, for at that moment a gust of wind scattered all the loose pages of my journal across the mountaintop. After frantically gathering each page, I was dismayed to find that the attractive trekker had gone! I shrugged away the loss, and hustled down the mountain. But at the trailhead I received a second chance, catching sight of her heading to the bus stop. I played the tourist card and asked for directions, chatted a bit, and happily accepted her invitation to dinner back in Gyeongju. She and I explored a series of attractions—the tomb of General 김유신 (Kim Yushin), Yangdong traditional village, and the nearby coast—for the next couple days. We shared stories and laughs in halting English (often accompanied by illustrations), and I traded my backpacker’s sense of direction for her language proficiency in finding places and ordering meals—I’m truly grateful for the latter, since they [the meals] were delicious, novel, and entirely beyond my ability to order by myself. After three days we caught a bus back to Seoul, and I returned to the capital in high spirits.
Two weeks had passed, and a desire to stay awhile in Korea had grown into a conviction (yeah yeah, there’s a pretty girl involved but let’s not forget the more personal reasons). With such enthusiasm, I lugged my backpack to Ilsan, a small ‘hamlet’ of about 1 million people just outside of Seoul (a metro line takes you right to Ilsan, and continues much farther beyond). Here I have spent the last two weeks as a volunteer guest of Holt Children’s Services, serving as an activity leader for the residents living onsite. My weekday 9-to-5: I push wheelchairs, organize sports activities, distribute coloring books and crayons, play comical guitar concerts, supervise snack time, and give tours for the frequent English-speaking visitors. It’s not as glamorous as jumping off seaside cliffs, maybe, but it’s meaningful to me. Holt’s residents are all disabled—some mentally, some physically, some both, and more than a few severe cases. It is both humbling and jolting; the work makes me aware and grateful of the joy of merely breathing, moving, talking, and thinking without encumbrance. More than that, the work connects me to my past. Holt is the same foundation that accepted me from my poor birth mother and adopted me away to my new life and family 25 years ago. It is part of the origin narrative that I am now building.
I pour this appreciation into spending my free time wisely: studying 한글 (the Korean language), learning Korean culture, hunting for a job, and hedging my bets by tutoring English—the gateway to TESL. I am back on a normal sleep schedule, and am booking my calendar weeks in advance—mostly with Skype calls with friends and relatives back home, but I welcome the signs of productivity at least. On the weekends I explore a new area of Seoul, go rock climbing, and spend time with the friends I’ve made thus far. Yes, I am pleased to find that this new beginning of sorts also functions as an excellent happy ending for my travel narrative—one book ends, another begins. If only my college essays had been this easy to write.
Traveling around Asia has been a unique and exhilerating adventure, full of excitement, challenge, and growth. But it is now time for me to enter a new phase of life: reconnect with my heritage. Much of my trip has been guided by chance and whim, but I feel that it has led me to Korea, inexorably and beautifully. PWALLE’s travels began as a freewriting exercise containing more raw energy than cogent direction, and through various twists and turns it has sketched itself into a work of art, full of human imperfections that I wouldn’t dare dispense. I am grateful to begin exploring Korea with the headiness of a four month adventure at my back. Here am I: poor and alone in a foreign country, with too few possessions to fill a dorm room, facing a host of new challenges and uncertainty..yet I am happy and confident. It is not unlike the exhilarating dream of being reborn, yet retaining all the wisdom and experience of one’s previous life; in fact, I contend that it may be the nearest neighbor to such a privilege, if we ignore the possibilities of devout spirituality.
Or drugs. Let’s not go there.
PWALLE’s Ending Thoughts: “Next Time, Bring The Damn Travel Guitar”
[humble reflection, told by green backpacker who brought too many meds]
It is difficult to properly explain what indeed I’ve learned on this five month journey. For one it’s hard to imagine my state of knowledge prior to the bumps, bruises, surprises, and discoveries that brought me to what I know today. But indeed, I’ve learned a great deal so I will try to enumerate.
- I’ve learned and spoken tidbits in six new foreign languages and tightened up my chopstick game. Further, I’ve learned that not all Asians even use chopsticks. Thais use a fork and spoon, for example, though they typically use the fork to prod food onto the spoon for consumption. I did not learn to stop stabbing food with my fork.
- Further still, I’ve learned that language is a practical ability. Like playing a sport or performing an instrument, the ability to speak a foreign language ebbs and flows with practice and application. I was astounded to find that my Thai was quite foggy after only two weeks in Malaysia, yet it surfaced briefly again when I met some Thai backpackers in China. More interestingly, I’ve learned the concept of ‘international English,’ an omni-language that chucks the frilly words and adapts its form and grammar to the listener. I’m relieved to see my fluent American English revive itself when I meet Americans or work on my blog.
- I’ve learned to ride a motorbike and I’ve learned that I thoroughly enjoy riding one. Further, I’ve learned that travel can quickly fill your motorbike resume; I’ve now ridden one everywhere from highways to rutted mountain trails to crowded city alleys.
- Further still, I’ve learned that the motorbike (or the scooter) is the gateway to expat living and extended travel in developing countries, or at least here in SE and E Asia. The motorbike forces you into close proximity with local culture, and necessarily sharpens your sense of orientation. And, nothing beats the thrill of arriving at your destination on your own accord, without the hassle of overcharging taxis, hectic and confusing local buses, or the like. As an aside, though, this country boy has learned that metro trains are awesome.
- I’ve learned that culture shock can be alleviated by just plain talking to people. The repeated episode that I starred in countless times went something like: (Me) “In America we do [x] because we believe in [z].” (Local) “In [foreign country] we do [y] because we believe in [z].” In other words, the values of those I encountered really weren’t terribly different, though their resultant behaviors and policies might be totally foreign. The differences come from a myriad of things—geography and climate, political development, rice in place of corn, etc. Are you keen on checking out Shanghai, but terrified of Chinese—how do y’all say it?—‘hive mind’ culture? Perhaps you could try to imagine your value systems shaping themselves amidst 1.3 billion citizens. It doesn’t make other cultures any less different, but it can smooth the edge of culture shock.
- Further, I’ve learned that humor is your greatest weapon and balm during travel. Trains sometimes ‘not come’—there’s probably a great explanation, but the ticket teller’s English ability can only afford those two curt words. Or perhaps an elderly waitress may shunt your vegetarian order and give you pork spare ribs because “you look skinny.” Above all, cultures are different, and politeness rituals are part of culture! Just saying hi to a girl in a club who smiles at you could get you punched in the face by a meaty biker thug (especially if he mistakes you for a local). Just laugh it off. No amount of fuming and arguing is likely to resolve the situation favorably, and it definitely won’t make you any friends. I’m aware that there are dire exceptions to this rule, but for the majority of cases, humor reigns.
- I’ve learned [the hard way] that losing your passport sucks..especially when coupled with losing your wallet. As a result, I’ve learned the heady experience of being a broke and unidentifiable alien in a foreign country. I do not wish to repeat the experience. Ever.
- Lastly, I’ve learned that the travel bug is addicting and can strike you at any point in life. I’ve met countless backpackers who hammer out vacation sprees for one or two months or more, then huck it home (or Australia) to the grind so they can feverishly save money for the next trip. I’ve met seniors with walking canes sporting backpacks no smaller than mine and staying in no better quarters. But, all these people were incredibly happy, and so I’ve learned that life-long travel addiction can be very rewarding.
It would be grossly unrepresentative to call the above a complete list, but there’s too much to cover. Some last coverall statements: I’ve learned that every culture I encountered is lovely and intriguing, I’ve learned that there are beautiful places everywhere I’ve been, and I’ve learned that there is way more to see here (in SE and E Asia, and in the world at large really) than I can fit in my lifetime.
What will I do differently next time? Well, I normally don’t get much gratification out of hindsighted litanies but here’s some important points:
- I will buy and bring my own camera. Using your smartphone camera—despite its 20 megapixel hella-zoom Photoshop trick features—becomes irritating. For one, if you’re using your phone for directions, music, and communication (whodathunk?), the battery will die quickly. Sure, buy an extra battery..then forget it at the guesthouse when you go on that epic trip with the sunset mountain view when, all of a sudden, an explosion of tropical birds emerges from the trees. Yeah. My strategy involved seeking travel companions who brought their own camera and enjoy taking pictures, which was ok, but sometimes said travelers are few and far between..or sometimes they don’t enjoy sharing pictures..or sometimes, their pictures just plain suck. Anyway, I’d buy and bring my own camera.
- I will force myself to blog every day. In all, I’d say I gave this blog about 67% effort. As my first major solo backpacking trip, there were too many distractions and adventures for me to devote as much time as I’d have liked to writing. I wish I’d written more—the events that I actually blogged about sit much more clearly in my memory than those I didn’t. But, I kept a shorthand private journal besides so maybe those other events will make their way into stories someday.
- I will never, Never, NEVER again leave my credit cards in my passport wallet. Losing one is bad. Losing both is utter chaos. Never again.
- I will travel with close friend[s]. Traveling alone was wonderful. I made some incredible friends and met some bizarre people. I could plan my travel easily and whimsically. I could go where I wanted and do what I wanted, always. But, at least once, I will travel again with a close friend or friends. I met many pairs and groups on my travels, and while the tradeoffs are many, I saw enough positives in their journeys to justify giving it a try. Further, I discovered that you can always leave your friends, as many of my travel companions did.
Well..that about does it. PWALLE’s travels have officially ended..or have been put on temporary hiatus. I may post some thoughts and scribbles from time to time, but in large part I’m calling this a finished project. It’s been very fun, very rewarding, and very real, so thanks for following along. Until you hear from me again, keep smiling and dreaming.
I don’t write about
everything I do-
everything I write about