It took Lauren and me 27 hours to reach South Korea from San Francisco as the clock turns -- although the actual flight was only twelve hours in duration. We departed early Saturday and arrived at Incheon International Airport late Sunday. We met Lauren's friend Jessica, who has been teaching English in South Korea for nearly a year. We crashed at her place before setting out early in the morning for some world exploration.
Incheon is a port city with a population of 2.6 million. Skyscrapers of 30+ stories line the twelve-lane roads as far as the eye can see -- which isn't a very great distance. The South Korean subway system is heavily used. It descends deep into stone vaults two to three stories below ground, only occassionally bursting through the earth's crust to crawl along the looming glass and concrete towers. I was most reassured by the easily accessible gas masks, stored behind 'break in case of emergency!' glass at each sub station. It was charming to think that of the hundreds of passangers who stream out of the subway cars every 15 minutes, at least 24 would survive a Communist gas strike!
South Korean culture is heavily westernized, commercialized, and mechanized, and while English abounded, it didn't always make much sense.
Cultural differences aside, by the end of the week I found I could actually understand how the whole sub system works!
On our first day, we traveled to the city of Suwon, which lies north of Incheon and south of Seoul. Just over a million human beings call it home. All throughout South Korea, it was like the Saturday morning farmer's market 24/7. Except they had squid. Lots and lots of squid. But there was produce too! And giant turtles. And fortresses. And...gold buddhas. Curious land!
We spent several hours hiking around the Hwaseong fortress. It was around 100 degrees Fahrenheit, and 90-95% humidity. All week. No joke. It gets to 40-45% humidity in Chico. I now grok the saying "but it's a dry heat!" in all it's persuasive import.
After Suwon, we traveled to the "Traditional Korean Village." Sometimes it seemed as if the South Koreans were a mite obsessed with "tradition" and the reverence of ancestral doings. I find visiting historical recreations of peasant villages valuable as well, but I think for a different reason than most.
When I see examples of humanity barefoot and sun burned, backs twisted by a life of hard labor in a stony field eking out sustenance level nutrients, it is a solemn sight. When I view the crude temple and the worship stone ringed about with desperate prayers written on scraps of paper, it leaves an impression.
Not with reverence do I view these examples of the traditional form of human life, but rather more as one would view the site of a mass grave. "Never again," is the feeling I experience. Not like this was humanity meant to live: one part slave to the struggle to grasp enough to eat, and the other part bowed at the foot of the priesthood, desperately wishing for a 'why' to make sense of the struggle, and feeling a guilty need to explain the beauty which transcends the struggle. Never again.
That first day lasted 14 hours from when we woke up to when we hit the sack. A killer schedule for jet lagged Americans!