I headed to Busan, South Korea, four days after Christmas to continue the momentum of a year of traveling. With 2016 on the horizon, the past year drifted through my brain as I watched the clouds pass by out the airplane window. What a year 2015 had been, consumed with the thing I’ve wanted my whole life…to travel! Every month Basti and I managed to be in a different state, country or continent. Starting with January in the Caribbean, February in Los Angeles, March in Kauai, April at the Grand Canyon, May started our adventure in the Baltic Sea where we sailed through Scandinavia and Russia, June, July and August also brought us to the British Isles, September was spent in Italy, October in Cape Town and my solo trip Zambia, November landed Basti in Australia while I flew back home (and to Kauai…dare I say, again) so it seemed only natural we would finish off with a bang with December in Asia. Basti flew off to the Philippines to stay with his family that lives there and after Santa shimmied down the chimney, I was off to join him. One more continent to cross off the list before we rang in the new year.
As a first timer in Asia, I flew to Busan to meet my beloved best friend Becca, who has been living there for the past year with her boyfriend, teaching English to little adorable Asian babies in track suits (I just have to throw that in because it’s my favorite mental image…who needs plaid uniforms when there’s adidas KOREA style) We had no trouble finding each other at the airport, where I stuck out as the only blonde in sight and she stuck out because she was sobbing and screaming at my arrival. We hugged the entire half hour cab ride ‘til we got to her quaint apartment. Traveling inspires more traveling and the more I see the more I crave going to new places, to feel that shock factor again. Korea, as my introduction to Asia, was quite a shock. The toilets, the doors, the street signs, everything made my brain light up and take note. “OHMIGOD, IM HERE” kept ringing in my mind and out my mouth.
After a little belated Christmas morning, we wandered out to see some sights. A beautiful temple was hidden directly behind their house and my marvel continued. Peacefully and quintessentially #asian, it sunk in that I was actually there and that a lot more temples and happy buddhas were to come in the future. We adventured to Gamcheon Village, the Santorini of Korea, recognized by it’s colorful pastel houses on top of each other with funky street art lining the walls. By adventured, I MEAN adventured because even though I was there with my two best buds who had been successfully living there for 10 months, I realized getting lost is a big part of walking out their door. But hey, that’s the fun of it right? We took a train, to a bus stop and hopped on the one that they assumed was right. Stepping into a crammed pink and purple bus blasting K-POP, I was in all my glory. Some old Korean fisherman, with his catch of the day in what looked like a tiny ice cooler you would get in your hotel room, poked fun at Brendan? Us? I still don’t know but it was harmless and completely in Korean as if we understood the joke. When we got to the top and everyone exited, we took that as our cue to get off. Different culture, different languages, same gut instincts apply. We wandered this colorful cultural hub and I started to realize it wasn’t just the area they lived in or the train we were on, pretty much everyone was Korean. And the three of us pasty white kids, I loved it.
Our wandering led us to dive into my first Korean barbecue experience. While waiting for a table, some Korean college kids timidly approached and before they could speak, the Bears (how I will now refer to Becca and Brendan when referring about them together) already knew what they were about to say. “Excuse me do you have some time?”, one of them asked. Giddy, my eyes widened, local celebrities I guess! They wanted to know what we were doing in Korea, where we were from, basic questions and once they learned the Bears lived there teaching, they were even bigger fans. All the while I just freaked out inside that we were being INTERVIEWED, helllooooo. Get me outta here, I’m a celebrity! The whole thing was classic and after a lot of broken english and peace sign photos, they went there way and we went inside for a Korean feast. I learned all about the soju swirl, a drinking tradition while cooking your own meat. Lots of kimchi, sprouts and other translucent side dishes came our way while we cooked something that looked like fat bacon in a grill in front of us. I say we but WE mainly just made Brendan cook us some meat while we giggled like school girls and drank our soju.
We were off to a bang, and halfway through our meal our new Korean friends came by to ask us out to a drink after. We finished and met them at a silly international bar, where even there we were still the only caucasians. A few beers later with broken English in between, we were playing fooze ball with our homies and loving life. We parted ways only to be greeted by another group of Korean strangers asking us where we were from. I had already fallen in love with the kind culture, filled with couples who match full on head to toe outfits (outwear and shoes included), fluffy accessories that garnish bags, hats, cellphones, etc and the color teal…seriously the national color of the country, I swear. Koreans just know how to have more fun with a pop of color and a pom pom on everything!
The highlight of the next day was a Korean spa experience. If I felt like I stuck out on the train, there’s no hiding when you’re butt naked with 200 Korean women of all ages. Inside SpaLand, no joke the Disneyland of spas, we soaked, scrubbed, sauna-ed and I had an experience I will NEVER forget.
On New Years Eve, we ventured to Seoul to meet up with Becca’s sister Kirsten to join in on the fun. We danced the night away like Psy would want us to in the Gangnam neighborhood to songs ranging from top 40 hits such as Adele, Bruno Mars, & T Swift to the timeless Lollipop (yes the 50s song) and an old goodie Lady Marmalade. I laughed more than I danced with the song choices and it was the best way to ring in a new year. Seoul was much more international than Busan and I was enjoying the fact that I’d started somewhere so exclusively Korean. I get enough of a melting pot, tossed salad, whatever in LA, bring on that asian persuasion.
We roamed to Gyeongbokgung Palace on New Years Day and happened to stumble upon the changing of the guard was going on at the same time. We gathered in the center of the grounds and watched a ton of soldiers, in bright red, blue, and purple outfits carrying flags with intense mustaches and pointy black hats and slippers, march to the forceful drum. My 10-year-old heart leapt around as my brain flash-backed to the movie Mulan, when she defeats the Huns…wrong Asian culture I know, but I was stoked. Girls were dressed in Hanbok, traditional Korean formal wear, not as apart of the ceremony but just because of the holiday, and you could find locals wearing that on the subway and through the city. Next to the temple was the F-R-E-E National Folk Museum of Korea that we passed through to warm up and check out some cultural artifacts. The day ended with…you guessed it, Korean BBQ but this time in a traditional setting, sitting on our butts at a small table resting after a long day of walking.
The next day we wandered to the Hangang River, that runs through the center of the city for a long walk along the bank. Since it’s now full on winter, it was mainly a lot of grey but as a perpetual summer Cali native, I was excited for the contrasting season. We eventually made our way to Itaewon, the International District of Seoul. Very cool, buzzing with people, bursting with any cuisine you could want. After a kimchi pancake & a churro, we mosey-ed through the hip streets checking out street art and laughing at incorrect signs in English. And now the moment we’d all been waiting for…”noraebang” time to sing our hearts out to some Korean Karaoke! We saved the best for last! Huddled in a tiny, individual room with incredibly gaudy lighting, two mics and two tamborines, we gathered around singing our favorite songs and laughing the night away.
Seoul sounds like the name of our spirit for a reason. There is lots of #heart&seoul in that wonderful city and I am so grateful to have welcomed 2016 exploring it. After a week in Korea, my top three things I’ll be running back for (other than to squeeze my Bears) are Hotteok (popular Korean street food-it’s a delicious pancake!), Korean spa time, and Noraebang!
@dopestad I LOVE YOU!