Chuseok 2014: In Seoul with family

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I’m back from my 3 week vacation so now it’s time to catch you up! It’s going to take several tellings, which I’ll try to spread out a bit, for myself as much as for you. Enjoy!

We begin three weeks ago on September 6th, after I’d hopped on a 4 hour bus ride to Incheon Airport to meet my parents and family friend, Dorothy.

1:30 pm.

I’m at the airport much earlier than I need to be to pick up my parents and Dorothy. They won’t get in until 4:20. With several hours to kill, I walk around the airport, explore the train station area, and buy a book to read. The hours creep by, but they do pass.

4:30 pm.

I put down my book and start craning my head to see the gate where they’ll exit despite knowing that, with luggage and paperwork, it’ll take time.

5-ish.

I’m standing now…too impatient to keep peering around the people who keep blocking my view. The moment I spot them an involuntary whoop of excitement bursts from my lips and I wave my arms wildly. I shock myself by starting to cry, as well. It’s been 8 months since I last saw them (Skype doesn’t count). More importantly, this is the first time I get to share this part of my life with people who are more familiar with its previous chapters.

The train ride to Seoul goes smoothly: quiet, save for the shutter sounds on Dad’s cellphone camera as he eagerly snaps shots of the passing landscape. Outside the train station, a taxi driver with a large car expertly maneuvers us into his ride, drives us to the hotel 5 minutes away, and skillfully gets us to pay more than twice the cost of a regular taxi ride. Of course, this is because we took a ride in his luxury car and he probably doesn’t get as many customers as the regular taxis. I feel rather dumb for letting myself fall for it when. Given his special car, it’s understandable, but had we taken a normal taxi the price would have been less than half what he charged us. Oh well.

For those looking to stay in a reasonably priced hotel in Seoul, near Seoul tower and shopping areas like Myeongdong, then I highly recommend Hill House. It’s a little walk from any subway stops but they aren’t unreasonably far. Some of the staff speak excellent English and are able to answer any questions about getting around. Boring breakfast of toast, eggs, cereal but at least it was something. If had been traveling alone, I would have stayed somewhere cheaper – like a hostel – but for the 4 of us, it worked well.

That first night, we venture to the nearby Myeongdong shopping area for dinner, before collapsing on our hard hotel beds. After a night of rest, everyone feels eager to explore so we decide to make it a palace day.

We start the day with the main palace: Gyeongbokgung Palace, where we witness the changing of the guards and wander around its expansive grounds.

Then we head over to Changgyeonggung Palace, and walk through the “secret garden” (a guided tour):

Next door is another palace: Changdeokgung Palace.

By this time, we’d walked quite a bit, from one place to another so Mom, Dad, and Dorothy give their legs a rest – sitting on a bench by the large pond – while I explore further. I find a glass greenhouse in the back as well as a few white-barked trees that contrast nicely with the surroundings.

Jongmyo Shrine is last on our list of things to see that day. By this time, I’m too tired to take pictures of buildings that, ultimately, look the same to me. Plus, Dad is better at landscape style pictures than I, who prefers focusing on the small details.

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The next day is the actual day of Chuseok, Korea’s version of Thanksgiving. Due to the holiday, we are able to enter the one palace we didn’t have time for the day before (for free). Unlike the other palaces, it shows some signs of western influence, side-by-side with the more traditional styled buildings.

Across the street, in front of city hall, rows upon rows of chairs are set up for an event later in the day: prayers for peace and the unification of the Koreas. Sharing the same space is a tribute to the Sewol ferry disaster, that is still a very fresh in the minds and hearts of many here. When I see yellow ribbons pinned to people’s shirts or tied next to others in a public place, I know them to be in memory of that tragedy.

We visit the Namdaemun gate and eat lunch at a street stall before heading to Shiloam (a jimjjilbang = public bathhouse and sauna) to wash and relax. I slept there last time I went to Seoul and though I didn’t find my sleep there very relaxing, it remains one of my favorite jimjjilbangs so far. Everyone enjoys the experience even though no one shares quite my level of enthusiasm for the various sauna rooms. My parents really like the oxygen room and Mom admits that the salt room is pretty nice. But they draw the line at anything hotter and I’m left on my own as I jump into the hottest room for a few minutes.

In the end, I think our greatest shared enjoyment comes from the massage chairs. For 1,000 won ($1.00) you can sit in one of the chairs for fifteen minutes of butt squishing, back thumping, and body jiggling. Mom and I watch as Dad and Dorothy receive this treatment, eliciting yelps of discomfort – interspersed with sighs of relief when the chair switches to something more comfortable – from them, and barely contained peals of laughter from us. Dorothy’s chair adds a level of amusement. It clearly needs some oiling or maintenance work because it buzzes quite loudly every time it hits a certain phase in the cycle.

Mom goes next but picks a slightly different chair. It has arm rests instead of foot massagers. It must have been built to squish the forearms of someone with the proportions of an orangutan because when the seat leans back, the only thing that can comfortably reach to the arms squisher are her hands and wrists. Still, she clearly made the better (though less hilarious) choice as she settles into the chair comfortably for her 15 minutes.

We eat a dinner at a small restaurant near the hotel, sitting outside on plastic chairs as the owner cooks and cuts our meat all while trying to strike up a conversation with me in Korean, only half of which I understand (at best). I manage to answer enough to satisfy his curiosity. When we leave, he hands us a pack of four yogurt drinks to take with us.

We attempt to visit Seoul tower. Even though the cable car is just a short walk away, the line simply to ride to the base of the tower is ridiculously long. We decide to go back to the hotel instead of waiting the 2.5 hours to get to the front of the line.IMG_0983 (2)

The next morning we hop on a bus to Gwangju.

 

Favorite images from 09/06-09/13

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This is the week my parents came to visit. Time is short so I’ll have to fill you in more when I get back, but I have just enough time to show you some of my favorite images from this week (from among my photos). If you’ve been following my blog, you’ve likely noticed that my photography style tends to be devoid of people. I’m all about natural landscapes and macro’s (despite not having a macro lens). So….not much in the way of people this time. Things balanced out pretty well because my dad happens to be quite good at taking photos of the larger picture and our family friend, Dorothy (who came with them) really enjoys taking pictures of people. More of those later. For now, enjoy a few pictures of my style.

Music Festival and update

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There was a “World Music Festival” on Friday and Saturday. They set up a stage and equipment in parts of the Culture Complex. Even though it is still undergoing construction and won’t officially open until next year, parts of it were complete enough to use for the festival.

I’m willing to bet at least half of the people who showed up came for the chance to tramp around on the grassy hill that served perfectly as outdoor seating for the main stage. It was a major factor for my going there. I don’t think I’ve ever mentioned it before – I guess it escaped my mind – but grassy fields perfect for sitting in and having a picnic on aren’t common in Korea, or at least what I’ve seen of it so far. I suppose that’s why coffee shops are so popular.

I met up with a friend and we walked around a little. Sat on the grass: “OMG, it’s real.” And listened to a few songs that would have been much more pleasant with earplugs in. [The speakers were way too loud…even for an outdoor concert.] It was some combination of traditional singing and trumpets. “Next you know, they’ll pull out the electric guitar,” someone joked.

I cracked up when, on the next song, a guy on stage proceeded to do just that.

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Then we walked to the sub-stage around the corner and listened to a Korean band sing songs in Spanish. I even recognized one of the songs.

Flitting back to the main stage, we listened to a South African/Korean band sing and drum some impressive pieces. Though none of the songs really stuck with me, just hearing something different from K-pop or the stuff blaring in the streets….woke me to the realization of how little musical diversity I’ve had lately.IMG_0499

Despite music being a large part of my identity as a child, there’s a surprising lack of it in my daily life. It’s moments like that one where I remember how much I actually love it. It fills a hole that I so often overlook and forget I have. While I listen, I wonder how I manage to survive with so little music. Then it ends and I slip back into my unaware state as if nothing had happened.

I snapped a few pictures and went home soon afterward. On my way home, I could hear strains of the next band, a group of heavily bearded white men rocking out on their guitars and yelling, their lyrics in English. I was too tired to listen.

As for updates:

I have a vacation coming up soon. Chuseok (Korean Thanksgiving) is next week and I’m compounding that vacation with personal time off.  Starting this Saturday, I begin 3 weeks of insanity….I mean, fun. My parents and a family friend fly out to visit for 9 days. On Saturday I will take the bus to the airport to meet them.

Chuseok officially starts September 7 (Sunday)-9 (Tuesday), with Wednesday tacked on this year to give everyone a proper 3 days off (weekend not included). Because Chuseok is one of the worst times of the year to travel, getting back to Gwangju will be almost impossible. We’ll stay in Seoul for a few days, then go to Gwangju, where I will share the sights and tastes of the past year with them. Their only agenda is to see me, which pretty much means I get to lead this adventure. I think this is the first time I will have both my parents to myself without my siblings around. I feel pretty darn lucky.

After they leave, I’ll spend the last 10 days of my vacation in Japan and on Jeju Island. I have no illusions that this’ll be a relaxing vacation (though if I plan things right, I’m sure I can manage some of that) but it will be exciting and interesting.

I have no idea how much blogging I’ll be able to fit in during these next few weeks so if you hear nothing from me, you’ll know why. At the very least, I’ll have a lot to tell when it’s all over. And plenty of pictures. Pictures are nice.