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Woah Nelly! My First 72 Hours in South Korea

The words that have been running through my mind for the last three days:

Holy hell, what have I gotten myself in to?!

To say that I am overwhelmed would be an understatement.  It feels to me that I have never traveled before!  It is the language barrier that is so daunting.  Simultaneously I am enjoying the challenge and the absolute lack of any ability to control anything.  I know nothing.  I am still learning to say “hello” in Korean.  My mouth so awkwardly contorts to say “an-yaung-ah-say-o”. Everything, from opening a door to turning on a light-switch is a challenge.  Nothing works the same. 

Perplexing ATMs

Perplexing ATMs

Day 1 in Incheon, South Korea

My first night I stayed in a guesthouse in Incheon (outside of Seoul) for a layover.  A nice man picked me up at the airport and thankfully spoke a bit of English.  The freeway was super smooth.  Korean writing characters are really beautiful.  When we arrived at his house, I took my cue from him and left my shoes outside the first door, putting slippers on inside. I didn’t have much cash to pay him, due to being completely perplexed by the ATMs at the airport, so he asked if I could pay online by Paypal, which I happily could and did.  The house, located in suburb of the airport, was filled with teddy bears and cute cartoon character drawings.  The kitchen cupboards had pictures of happy cups, happy plates, and happy forks on them.  The toilet paper is brown.  The air is muggy.  It rains later in the night.

Day 2 –  Jeju City

The next morning a taxi picks me up at 5 am as scheduled so I can make it to another airport for my flight to Jeju Island.  The curly-haired driver speaks no English.  “The Way we Were” by Barbara Streisand plays on the radio

I am the only Caucasian person at the Gimpo Airport, which I found surprising.  Thankfully some signs are in English so I find security and my gate.  I am one of the first to board and can observe that I am also the only Caucasian person on the plane.  The plane taxis to the runway and returns to the gate citing mechanical issues.  Asiana seems to be somewhat gun-shy these days for good reason.  After a delay to fix the problem, we are off for the short flight to Jeju Island.

Looking down, I see so many green islands on the way and finally I see Jeju which is like a green pancake with occasional mountainous bumps.  There are huuuge wind turbines spinning on it’s surface.  It is much bigger than I imagined.

Jeju Olle Passports

Jeju Olle Passports

We land and I know that somewhere in the airport I can get my “passport” for the Jeju Olle Trail, which will be stamped along the trail.  I ask at information and am told to go to an airline ticket counter (EaStar Airlines) on the second floor.  Perplexed, I go, and there they are selling the passports with books, in Korean.  One is blue and one is orange and I have no idea which one to get or why there are two, so I get both.  After examining them, I still have no idea why there are two.  I’ll have to get back to you about that.

I happen upon a Jeju Olle desk on the first floor and while the woman speaks no English she does hand me a book (in English!) with information about the trail.  Had I not stumbled upon this desk I don’t know what I would do, but thankfully, I did.  It is clear to me that this is NOT like the Camino, in that there are NOT loads of people coming from all over the world to walk this trail.  In fact, I may be the only American (nut) to arrive in the hot monsoon season to walk a 422 kilometer trail.  Doh!

As I walk around the airport, I find my shoulders are killing from backpack. How quickly my body has gone to its default state of mush!

hmmmmm

hmmmmm…what to do.

I have instructions on how to take the bus to the hostel.  I watch bus after bus pass, trying to understand which one to take.  Finally I see the bus I want, and board to ask the driver.  He doesn’t speak English but a man approaches and asks if he can help.  He says I am on the wrong bus.  I get off and stare at the bus schedule some more.  Unlike everywhere else I have traveled (South America, Canada, Europe), there is no guessing at what a word means by the spelling.  I have no idea what anything says – a wholly unique and terrifying experience!  I ask three random people that look to be under age 25 if they speak English.  They all say “no”.  Finally, I walk to what I think is a taxi line and show the address of the hostel (written in Korean) to the driver.  He nods and I get in.  15 minutes later I arrive at my hostel, which is on the sixth floor of a building on a busy, wide street.  I ask to leave my bag and have four hours to kill before check-in time.

I walk the streets looking for a place to eat.  It is HOT.  I find a place called Bagdad Cafe and hope I can read the menu.  Fortunately, it’s in English and Korean and I order my first meal in Korea: Tikki Masala.

Later the owner arrives and being that I am the only customer, he introduces himself.  His name is “Sobo” and he is from Nepal.  He married a Korean woman he met in India and they have lived in Jeju for ten years.  After much talking about Nepal and Jeju, he offered for me to visit him and his wife and child for tea sometime.  Very nice.  We talked about the Jeju Olle trail and he said that in ten years, he had never met anyone who was going to walk the whole thing.  Uh oh.  Given that its only been open since 2007, that isn’t as bad as it sounds. But all signs are suggesting that maybe this is not a normal thing to do and maybe the infrastructure is not there.  I still don’t know.  I don’t care. I’ll figure out a way but I think this is going to be more of a challenge than I realized.  However, I’m not going to kill myself over it – just do what I can.  When and if it stops being fun, I will change course.

Back to the hostel I find myself in a lower bunk in a room with six beds.  Thankfully, the room has air conditioning.  I met my Korean roommates.  One spoke pretty good English and the others spoke just a tiny bit.  One young woman offered me her food in very limited English and in between adorable mouth-covered giggles.  One woman asked me how long I was staying and I talked to her about the hike. She found out I needed a tent and spent considerable time calling friends searching for one.  Her friend offered his own tent to loan which I appreciated but declined because I would likely ruin it. I’m not known to be tidy or gentle. Super nice though.

Day 2 – Jeju City

New friends

New friends

The next morning two young women sit and talk with me.  One asks me if my hair color is natural.  “No” I say and explain that while my hair is blonde, it is not this blonde.  Then she asks if we can be friends on Facebook.  They are highly giggly and it seems that I am the best comedian ever.  They giggle wildly, with mouths covered, at everything I say!  They are in university and are envious of what I am doing.  I tell them that I am old and saved my money for a long time and no have no babies, no husband, etc.  They seem awe-stuck.  When they realize they must go to catch their plane they make pouty faces and it is a drawn-out oddly (to me) child-like goodbye.  It must be a cultural thing.  It’s all a cultural thing I suppose because people are people.  Anyway,  I asked for their picture for the blog and they posed in what they tell me is a Korean way. I wished them a safe journey and off they went.

I went to the grocery store hoping to save some money and ended up paying $11 US for a box of cereal, a quart of milk and a small bag of almonds.  Will have to rethink my strategy.

Spent considerable time sleeping.

Day 3 – Jeju City

I ventured out to get a tent today.  Quite impressed with myself that I actually got one.  I am told that there are campsites along the Jeju Olle Trail and on the beach so that may be in the cards.

I figured out the ATMs.

With the help of the hostel staff, I made a reservation for a room in a private home at the start of the first trail of the Jeju Olle Circuit (there are 21 “tracks” which should take a day each).  There is an information center nearby.  If all goes well, I will start the trail on Sunday.  I bought cookies and nuts as provisions in case of camping.  However,  I just ate all the cookies while writing this post. 🙁

My guess is that there is nothing about this experience that will resemble the Camino, but having faith in where my heart has taken me, I trust that this experience will provide me with exactly what I need.  I am going to go with the flow.  Trust.  Be open.  And walk.

That is, if I can get on the right bus to get to the trailhead…

Pictures:

6 Comments

  1. I did two weeks of Camino last October from SJPdP to Burgos and plan to return this year, but I am rethinking to Olle since my wife is open to joining this venture – we are both Korean-Americans. I have been to Jeju-do before but this trail sounds much more of what I would want to experience of Jeju rather then the typical tourist fare.

    Cheers, Good luck on your travels. John from San Francisco.

  2. Good luck! I know zero Korean, but I’ve always heard “an-ye-ah-say-o” spoken seemingly as quickly as possible. I see now, with the pics, what you were experiencing. Fun! lol

    I like the story of the Nepalese dude and the Korean lady meeting in India and opening a shop called the Bagdad…the Indian food looked delish.

    Anyway, have fun!

  3. OK…if during your time there you can learn why people do the peace sign thing when taking photos I will be in your debt…my daughters Korean friends here do the same. Hang in there…I am sure your brain will be spongeing up information and details in overdrive in the first week or so as you acclimate to being there.

    • I will do my best! I have asked two people and they both said “That’s just what we do.” I’ll keep working on the case.

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