I felt like the only westerner in the subway on the hour journey to Seoul because I WAS. With all my heavy bags strapped to me like cargo, the Koreans all had a good stare at me, especially the elders. They didn’t even try to be discreet, they just stared right at me. I just listened to my ipod and focused on getting to my station- Gangdong (which apparently I say like a westerner and nobody can understand me). It was my first time maneuvering in the subway on my own and I wanted to make sure I was reading the maps correctly. I had to transfer twice and each time the train would arrive minutes after I arrived. It was so seamless that it had to be a good sign. I made it to the station right on schedule to meet Zach- my couchsurfing host. I was feeling a bit better having done something on my own and regaining confidence, but I couldn’t help feeling incomplete without Jeff around to act like a goof until he made me laugh. I tried not to think about it but a couple times on the subway, I couldn’t help but reminisce and tear up a bit. I have no idea what the Koreans who were staring at me thought of that situation, but they did continue to stare.
My host met me and was just a quick walk around the corner from the subway stop and about 15 minutes from Olympic Park. We had to pick up the futon I was sleeping on from a few blocks away but I was so glad we did because it was much more comfortable than the floor would have been. Zach had an awesome roomie- Sydney the Australian Sheppard that joined us for a walk while checking out the neighborhood. Before going to sleep for the night, we shared a beer and chatted a bit. I could hardly sleep because it was so quiet without the relentless sound of Jeff snoring. All the songs on my ipod seemed to remind me of the past few weeks for some reason or another and it made me feel really lonely. I just hoped that I would be able to shake the feeling the next day by getting out and doing new things and making new memories in South Korea so they weren’t all with Jeff.
The next day, Zach left early for work and I continued to lie in bed for a few hours. I just didn’t feel motivated at all to do anything. I just wanted to be back home with familiarity and comfort. Why was I feeling so low? I expected to wake up feeling better but instead I felt like throwing myself a pity party. I finally pushed myself to get dressed and take Sydney for a walk to Olympic Park. On the walk there, I felt like every Korean BBQ and familiar signs reminded me that I missed Jeff so I wasn’t feeling better right away. After walking through the park for about 20 minutes, I was distracted and feeling much better enjoying sightseeing and taking photos. It’s a really big park and was beautiful with the snow and frozen ponds. The Korean people are so active and they have exercise machines placed all around and there were little old ladies who were hitting every one. I couldn’t believe the cold weather played no factor in their ability to get out there and burn some calories. The one thing I just couldn’t understand or get used to was the leggings or tights with short shorts or skirts. It seemed like every girl and woman wore this combination almost religiously in the winter. To be fair, I bought some tights and was surprised how thick and warm they were but I still wouldn’t be warm enough to wear with little booty shorts. That’s the winter style for girls and women in South Korea- shorts and tights. I personally think it doesn’t make much sense but I have yet to hear any guys who gives a shit if it makes sense but agree it looks hot so they’re good with it.
I had a fairly uneventful rest of my day going to the movies and eating a meal that I had no idea what any of it was. Made it back to Zach’s and watched The Big Lebowski until I fell asleep. Still had a rough night sleeping but I was looking forward to the next day because I planned to meet up with my Korean friend I met at the Bulldog Pub in Itaewan. I woke up the next day and headed out early to go to a jimjilbang or public bath. I heard from a different couchsurfer I was planning to meet that you had to experience the jimjilbang as its such a big part of the Korean culture for business meetings, friends catching up, families meeting and just daily life. I read up about it and was feeling a bit anxious about having to be completely naked and not knowing exactly what I was walking into, but I was still excited to try something new and enjoy a nice soak in a Jacuzzi mineral bath. I found a sports club online located only a few train stops away and headed there hoping they would be more familiar with foreigners and could show me around. Jimjilbangs are literally on every corner but I didn’t know the conditions of the random small ones so I just went where I knew it would be nicer and cater to a wider range of people.
The directions were fairly straight forward online but in reality, they were much more confusing than I anticipated. I got fairly close to it and eventually found the street address where it should have been. I asked about 9 different people in a 2-block radius who all pointed me to different buildings in different directions. The best/worst directions was the security guard in the booth 10 meters from the door I needed to enter telling me it’s in a building across the street. When I finally figured out where I needed to be, I just looked at him like- REALLY?!? How do you NOT know the name of the place you sit in front of every day? But I was happy I finally found it after an hour of searching. The girl at the front called someone to translate my questions over the phone and was able to ask the girl to show me around. When we got to the women’s area, I would say about 80% were totally naked and the rest were wearing the shorts or shirts given to each person to wear in the co-ed areas. I stored my clothes and stripped down to nothing. I was feeling really nervous but it would be weird for them to be awkward and shy so I put on a brave face, relaxed my shoulders back and went to the sauna area with just my hair towel in my hand.
The sauna area was packed with naked Korean women all over the Jacuzzi pools and showers surrounding the pools. I went into one of the first pools just so I could observe and see what were appropriate customs and practices in the sauna. The place was nice and looked really big. There were at least 6 different temperature pools, some very hot and some very cold. There was a steam room, a dry sauna, heat lamps and plenty of individual bathing stalls with mirrors and seats. The women here held my interest for a while because I was amazed at how involved they were in their cleaning and scrubbing process. There is no sense of modesty as they just throw one leg up on the counter, soap up and scrub away. I’ve learned while traveling to live by the expression- just because its different doesn’t mean it’s wrong. This absence of modesty was completely different for me and I’m sure it would take me a bit longer to get used to the idea of washing my va-jay-jay with a leg up while chatting it up with my friend next to me. But I did find this whole situation extremely interesting, as it is such a common and social aspect of Korean culture. You could pay to get different scrubs or cleanses from the staff and there didn’t seem to be any areas that were off limits but it wasn’t weird or inappropriate, it was just what was expected. I don’t think I am ready for a scrub down yet. I would have to get used to this in baby steps. I watched while friends chatted for over an hour just soaking and moving to different pools. I made sure to experience everything the club had to offer and was really relaxed after only a few minutes. I did notice some women staring because I was the ONLY foreigner in the club among about 70+ Korean women of all ages, shapes and sizes and I stood out like a sore thumb. I think they must have wondered if I meant to come there or just wandered in accidentally. I was hoping my expression didn’t give away my reaction to some of the things going on and I looked like I was familiar with the experience. When it was time to go, I took a nice long shower and went to get dressed feeling soft, clean and relaxed. It was really convenient to get ready there because they had hair dryers, lotion, combs and essentially everything a woman needs to get ready. I was all set to meet my new friend, Bo Ram, that afternoon.
Bo Ram and I agreed to meet at Gangdong metro stop near where I was staying and would go from there. I was really looking forward to having a “girlfriend” to hang out with because I was feeling super lonely since Jeff left and needed some girl time. She took me to lunch to try some of her favorite Korean dishes that I hadn’t tried yet. We had a really popular dish called “be bean bop” which is basically just rice mixed up with various veggies and spices. It was pretty tasty but not nearly as good as the Korean BBQ I had grown to love so much. After lunch, we walked around a touristy part of Seoul that was known for its art. I hadn’t noticed any foreigners in the part of town I was staying but there were a lot here. One of the most interesting exhibits we saw was dedicated to information about the conditions of the prison camps in North Korea. It was informative and devastating to read about the conditions and way of life within these camps. It just broke my heart to learn that people were forced to live this way and there was nothing anyone could do about it. It’s hard to imagine the conditions in which some people are forced to live without seeing accounts of it firsthand. After such a somber experience, we grabbed some sweets and a hot chocolate to warm up before going our separate ways. It had been so nice to make a new girlfriend and see some new things that didn’t bring up memories of the past weeks with Jeff. It was much needed and welcomed and Bo Ram and I agreed to meet up again the next afternoon to check out Seoul Towers.
I had been regularly active on the Seoul couch surfing group since my host worked long hours during the week and I wanted to find other travelers or surfers to make friends with. Saw a posting for a cheap all you can eat sushi lunch and since I hadn’t had any really good sushi in a while, I decided to meet up with a local named Miya and a small group of fellow couch surfers. I was so happy I did because they were all really good people and kept me distracted from feeling homesick. The sushi was so delicious and I was making new friends. I was beginning to feel like my usual social, independent self again. By the time we finished I needed to meet Bo Ram to head to Seoul Towers. It was so cold that afternoon we decided to take the lift up instead of walking up the hill in the chilly weather. When we got to the top it felt even colder so I toasted my hands up over a huge heating unit, stepped outside and was freezing again in .02 seconds. One thing was for sure, I really wasn’t going to miss this cold weather in another couple days. Brrrrrr.
All around the bottom of the tower, there were spots to look over the massive city of Seoul. It was a stunning view and we made it just in time to watch the sunset. There was a tradition that started many years ago that is meant to express lovers symbol of everlasting love. Lovers would hang a lock together on the fence or trees at the tower to represent the bond between them. I thought it was so romantic and there were so many there was hardly a spot to spare. Most people had begun to lock their locks to the many other locks. I couldn’t help but feel a little bit sad that Jeff and I never made it there like we had planned. I hated the way I was missing him so much and certainly was happy we had spent such a great time together, but felt like I just needed to move forward and forget about it. I ended up buying a small plastic heart to add to the many other hearts with the intention of closing that chapter of my travels symbolically and leaving the heart as a symbol of the unforgettable time I spent with Jeff in Korea. I promised myself I would be happy for the memories and stop being sad that I wasn’t going to be seeing him anytime soon. Bo Ram and I went inside and had some hot chocolate to warm up and I was already feeling better, like I was looking forward instead of stuck in a moment. We went out for a few more pictures of the city at night once the sun had gone down before we had to leave.
Bo Ram had to work at the Bulldog Pub that night and I planned to meet up with another couch surfer, Isaiah, who was also from the central valley in California. We decided to meet back at her work because I was familiar with the location and it was a fun and chillaxed spot. I invited my CS host and he planned to meet us when he got off work. When Isaiah showed up, he had spoken to Miya and the others I had lunch with earlier in the day and discovered they were across the street from us having dinner. We invited them over and pretty soon we had a little group of about 5 couch surfers. Maya had invited some other surfers who were passing through and eventually we had a nice sized little impromptu group of about 8 people. It was really nice to meet all the extra faces and have some fun while still hanging out with my new friend Bo Ram while she worked. When it came time for the last train to leave, I wasn’t ready to leave with my host and a few of the remaining people were going to head out to some clubs, so Isaiah offered me to surf his couch for the night. About 4 of us went out and were dancing till the late hours of the night having a great time and I even found someone to teach me how to dougie. Isaiah and I got some delicious street food and caught a cab back to his place and stayed up drinking soju and rice wine until we passed out. We argued over who would sleep in the bed and who would take the spare floor mattress. Isaiah insisted that I take the bed and went off to sleep in the spare room.
Imagine the look on his face when he woke up in the morning to find me in the same spot on the couch as when he left for sleep hours earlier. I was so exhausted I couldn’t move and nobody ended up sleeping in the big comfy bed. We were both feeling really rough and hung over but had talked about cooking a delicious brunch so it was a team effort and we eventually had pancakes, potatoes and eggs and tried to nourish our bodies out of the hung-over state we were in. We lay around for hours until I was finally able to get the energy to stumble my way back to the buses and subway to Gangdong station. My host was busy taking care of errands and was out most of the day so I took advantage of the quiet and napped for the rest of the day and grabbed a dinner near the house before calling it an early night.
I posted an event request on couchsurfing to see if anyone wanted to go to Lotte World and received responses from a local Korean girl named Dayeon and an expat named Alejandro who agreed to join my couchsurfing host and me on my last full day in Seoul. We all met at the entrance and spent the day exploring the theme park. It was just like a Korean style Disneyland with tons of attractions varying from exhilarating roller coasters to interactive experiences, a colorful and musical parade filled with the theme characters of the park and of course no amusement park experience would be complete without the endless supply of junk food. Something that was different than the Disneyland I grew up knowing so well was an enormous indoor section, which included an ice skating rink and shopping center. The indoor section was much needed because of the cold weather in South Korea that us Southern California folks would never be able to handle. I was especially grateful that the parade portion was held indoors and out of the freezing temperature.
There was a couchsurfing event happening that evening and Dayeon and I decided to go together and make some new friends. On the train ride over, we met another CSer named Candace who was heading to the same place. She was from Georgia and had just arrived for her 1-year teaching contract a few weeks before and was looking to make some new friends. There was about 10 or so people there and the host Amy was going to be moving apartments so she wanted to try to get rid of some things by hosting an item exchange at her place. I brought some of the cold weather things I wouldn’t need back in SE Asia in hopes that someone else might put them to use. It was a great last night enjoying some Cass beer, making new friends and having a few laughs. Plus I was able to get rid of my jacket and fake Uggs to new happy and warmer owners.
The next morning, I packed my bags and headed out to meet Dayeon and Amy for my last Korean BBQ. It was a sad thing for me indeed as I had grown quite fond of the grilled delicious meat, but wonderful to share the meal with my new found friends. I hadn’t even thought about being sad the last couple of days while kept myself busy meeting new people and seeing new things. After lunch, I still had loads of time to kill before my flight so I decided to give the jimjilbang one last go! I really enjoyed soaking in the hot waters and coming out feeling so warm and refreshed. Dayeon knew where there was one close and it even had a rooftop hot tub. I didn’t like it nearly as much as the first one, but it was still wonderful and I did enjoy soaking in the hot waters naked on a rooftop overlooking Seoul. I definitely did not imagine this would be how I would spend my last few hours enjoying South Korea. I relaxed until it was time to head off. I went back to Zach’s to pick up my bag and was able to meet Bo Ram for a quick coffee and dessert before heading to the airport. As I jumped on the train to leave Seoul, I felt like I had turned my week around and really enjoyed seeing Seoul and meeting new people to create an experience that wasn’t “Seoul-y” related to visiting Jeff.