My first trip alone: South Korea

Temple in downtown Wonju, South Korea

South Korea was the first country I visited alone. I bought the ticket four days before departure, and embarked on a short adventure that would change everything!

It all started with an 8:00 AM phone call on a hot Monday morning, the first one of July, 2009. I had had my share of travels with my family, but never been out there on my own. I thought international volunteering programs to be a great way to find an exotic destination and jump right into its culture from day one.

Unfortunately, I started making plans too late, because typical programs need up to a month to arrange everything. I aimed for programs in countries that “I had heard about” but not been to: Morocco, Tunisia, Turkey and Japan. They would not accept me in Turkey and North Africa because I was under 21, so they kind of made the choice for me.

I had to check the box of at least three programs to proceed with the application, and Japan only had two programs still “open”, so I scrolled down through the same “Asia” category and checked a program in South Korea just so that I could forward the form. That was on Saturday.

The very next Monday I received a call at 8AM from the agency’s office in Barcelona.

“Good morning. Ferran?”
“Yes.”
“I have your application here. It seems the two programs in Japan you applied for are not available anymore, but you can still join the one in Korea. Are you interested? It starts next week, would that be okay?”

Tens of thoughts crossed my mind for a couple of seconds, my brother was just sleeping in his bed, next to mine. The rest of my family was sleeping downstairs. My mind was racing in ecstasy, my chest froze, “was I really going alone to South Korea? I’ve never been to Asia!

That was about 10,000 km from home. Alone. Korean, they are not Chinese, what do they even sound like? I have never seen a Korean word. But they are Asian, right? I am really bad at trying new foods. Should I discuss this with dad and mom?!” I gulped so as not to choke, and on the third second I finally replied:

“Yes… yes, I am interested!”

She said she would start preparing everything right away, I said “OK”, she hung up. I hung up and looked at my brother, still sleeping.

Buddha in Yongin, South Korea

Then I turned on my laptop and typed “South Korea” into Google. There had been a World Cup a few years ago, there was a Demilitarized Zone between the two Koreas and Korean language looked nothing like Chinese or Japanese. No visa was required for Spanish citizens, cool! I logged into the volunteering website and searched for the name of the place: Wonju!

Then my parents woke up, and I told them I was going to South Korea and I was really excited about it and South Korea was a really awesome country and I always knew I was going to go to Korea some day anyway! They were extremely supportive of the idea and helped me with the travel insurance paperwork.

I lived that week inside my own bubble of frenzy. On Wednesday, I bought my flight ticket after receiving a confirmation e-mail from the Korean side of the volunteering organization. On Thursday I got my travel insurance. On Friday, some family members dropped by to give me some last-minute advice, and I boarded my flight to Seoul on Saturday, one week after checking that little box.

These volunteering programs cost 100 euros and covered accommodation and daily food. You have to pay for transportation to Seoul, free time activities and other food or drinks outside the house. I found my program through e-vet.org.

The first 24 hours alone out there

I was a complete newbie, unaware of all the things that my parents took care of instead of me when we traveled together. I was scared of making any faux pas that could remotely get me into trouble; so much that I checked the “Fruits” box of the customs declaration form because I had with me an apple I had saved from the breakfast meal that had been provided earlier in the flight.

Luckily, next to me was a young Korean couple, and the guy looked over my sheet and explained to me that an apple is not something I should be bothered to declare. I asked the steward for another sheet and happily left all boxes unchecked. The Korean guy also convinced me to get the “European lunch” instead of the “Asian lunch” I was planning to get.

I had booked a room at Hotel Dong Seoul, so I headed to the bus station and took the local line to the Dong Seoul district. I sat next to the driver and begged that he let me know when we get there, I didn’t want to get stranded in my very first hour in Asia. After a very long bridge that seemed to disappear into the horizon, I was in mainland South Korea.

I tried to register every building, person and park in my brain. I didn’t want to forget any of it. Now, years later, all I remember about that ride is that I was trying hard to record everything, though. I got off the bus in Dong Seoul station, and then “it” hit me, and “it” took over my body and mind.

The realization that I was walking on the streets of Seoul alone, and I was in state of ecstasy; yet life seemed normal for everyone else around.

The scene was crowded with hundreds of military men going in and out of the bus station, smoking strong tobacco on their camouflage green military suits on and giant dark green backpacks by their side. I heard a lot of noise and looked around, spotting a row of street food stands rallied on the sidewalk, and tens of voices bargaining for cheaper deals.

Purikura in Wonju, South Korea
Also, I had my first purikura experience in Wonju!

I could identify some weird-looking, baked mangoes on one stand, but the rest of the smells remained unidentified in my mind. Finally, I made it to the hotel… well, no, my hotel was nowhere to be seen. Instead, there was a massive building from another hotel chain and a bunch of shops and restaurants around, but no sign of Hotel Dong Seoul.

I started looking around, my hotel was supposed to have its name in big, red letters above the windows of the 12th floor, so it should be easy to spot. Only it wasn’t! The place was full of brightly lit businesses, arcade centers, fashion shops, a Dunkin’ Donuts (“I am saved!”) and other restaurants, but no hotel.

I asked around, but noone spoke any English. They would understand the word “dongseoul”, but that was also the name of the district, so they may have thought I was a bit dumb. Of course, I showed them the piece of paper that had the name of the hotel, but they would just nod sideways and go away.

Then it crossed my mind that I had been scammed, that the hotel didn’t really exist and someone was enjoying my 40 bucks and laughing at the whole thing. And then, my mom called! Talk about good timing…She asked me how I was, how was the city, how was the hotel, how was my first day… I said that everything was amazing, I was having a great time already and the hotel was really nice.

There was no point in telling her about my little problem. She hung up. At this point, I almost shed a tear. I was eighteen years old and I couldn’t even find my first hotel, lost in a remote suburb of Seoul, without internet connection and unable to communicate with anyone!

I knew I wasn’t going to die, of course, I would sleep in the bus station and eat dinner the Dunkin’ Donuts, but still, I felt extremely stupid.

Hongdae in Seoul, South Korea
Hongdae, Seoul

First “night out” in Seoul

There were only two options: (a) I had been scammed, or (b) the coordinates were wrong. I placed my hope in option (b) and started roaming around again. Finally, as I passed by a private parking service again, the manager approached and asked me “are you lost?”. I told him about the hotel, and he started laughing and pointed his finger towards the building behind him.

It was completely covered in scaffolding, but the red letters could still be glimpsed through several layers of fabric. I hugged the parking manager and passed through the sliding doors triumphantly, only to be told that my reservation was not in the database and I had to pay 80€ for a single room.

At this point I wasn’t having any of that, so when she refused to call the manager I moved near the office and started shouting. I got my room, 403, and jumped into my bed, infinitely happy. I was safe. Even if the world ended, I was finally safe, for all I cared. Ever since that day, whenever I get a room at a midrange, fancy hotel, the memories from that first trip come back to me.

After having my undeclared apple and some French cookies for dinner, I decided to finally go explore the world!! …sort of. Not that there was much to explore in that suburb at midnight, but just observing humans around was interesting enough.

I went out and roamed the streets for a bit till 1AM, came back to base, could not sleep due to jet lag, went out again until 3AM in another direction, came back to base, couldn’t sleep, went out again until 5AM in another direction, came back to base, and called the exploration over for the day. I turned on the TV and found a handful of channels dedicated to online MMORPG gaming and another handful of channels covering baseball, so I chose baseball and tried to understand the rules as I fell asleep.

Mt. Baekwoon near Wonju, South Korea
Bushy forests around Mt. Baekwoon

A house in the mountains

I woke up after a few hours of sleep and finished my French cookies for breakfast. I got my backpack, left the hotel and headed for the station, where I met the Korean organizer of the volunteering program.

There were another five Koreans, a woman from Taiwan, a woman from Czech Republic and two guys from Barcelona (whaaat?). I was the youngest, and that was cool, I guess. After a long bus that got me through a bunch of cities, countryside, farms and fields, we reached Wonju.

There, we hopped on a pick-up truck and were taken to the mountains. Our temporary home was a wood house in the very heart of Mt. Baekwoon. A typhoon rocked the whole Gangwon province where Wonju is overnight, and many roads were blocked by trees.

Workcamp volunteers, South Korea
Workcamp volunteers, going home after work.

I am not entirely sure about what the original plan was, but it changed completely after the storm. We spent many days helping the keepers of the park remove the trees, rocks and rubble. We took turns for cooking, and I shared mine with Yichi, the Taiwanese woman.

I wish I could say I learnt something, but truth is I was really grossed out by the combination of dark sauces and vegetables and other ingredients she was mixing in the saucepan, and told myself I was never going to eat that again. I wasn’t born brave when it comes to food! Thanks to Marie, though, I had the chance to fall in love with an absolutely delicious beef goulash.

Our mountain house was really nice, with a few rooms, proper bathrooms and showers, a laundry room downstairs, a barbeque area outside and a river flowing right next to it. The perfect place to get away from the city life and chill!

The forest was equipped with many wood bridges, recreational and picnic areas at different points of the river, so the whole park was a really fun place to stay. A typical evening included tons of drinking games and inebriated cultural exchanges.

Food market in Wonju, South Korea
Food market in Wonju

South Korean culture

When I compare this with latter trips, it seems like I missed on a lot of fun and I should have gone travelling non-stop instead of joining such volunteering program.

The good thing about it, though, is that I got into contact with Korean culture in a deeper and more meaningful way than I would have if I traveled on my own. I had the chance to live together with a bunch of Korean friends from whom I learnt a lot, both by interaction and by observation.

I experienced first-hand how Koreans treat each other, what Korean humor is like, what they like to do in their free time (we had a lot of that), their daily routines, their approach to grocery shopping, the food, the music… and of course a broader understanding of the core values that the society is ruled by.

There was a lot to learn and I had a memorable time doing so. Everything was so new to me, that I needed a couple of seconds every morning to rewind and realize this was happening. We visited a few places as well, and I “had” my first Buddhist temple.

Around the most traditional parts of the city of Wonju and the village of Yongin in its neighbouring province, I came across the whole exotic Asian architecture that you see on so many covers of travel magazines: temples, bridges, palaces and big red doors protected by the gods.

Even though you would easily find a Nike Store a couple streets away, the occasional hidden temple teleported me back in time every time, and I would just stop and indulge in such thoughts.

We had the chance to visit a nearby farm once, and spent the afternoon digging out potatoes under the beating Sun, but the farm owners prepared a full-course Korean meal with countless dishes and side-dishes, all of them alien to me. That was my first contact with the infamous kimchi.

The spicy dish was more than a meter away, but my noise was itching already because of the smell! I was just getting started with this whole “traveling the world trying new foods” business, and I ultimately failed to try that dish. Guess I’ll have to go back some day and finally try the real kimchi!

But inexperienced traveler as I was, I limited my trip to not much more than two weeks, and it was time to go back to Seoul for one last high before flying back home.

Temple in Yongin, South Korea
Temple in Yongin

“S.E.O.U.L. Call it with me, the beautiful world that makes my dreams come true.”

Fastforward two (amazing!) weeks, I returned to Seoul.

My new Korean friends showed me around the city, which was good because it saved me the trouble of figuring out the whole transportation system of Seoul myself; and it was very bad because I missed the chance to figure out the whole transportation system of Seoul myself.

I only allowed myself a couple of days to see the whole of it, and that was a very big mistake. I wished to stay for another week, even another month, but the flight was expensive and there was no refund.

Seoul was the most populated city I had visited to date. On my last evening, Kwang Youl, Mina and I visited what were probably the top 5 landmarks of the city, and then decided to slow down. We walked down a frantic and cozy street food and stopped to do some practice in a “batting center” (I found myself kicking some ass! I have used every chance to do some batting ever since).

We were later approached by an old man who took us through a tiny street into a clearing where two teams were about to start a Taekkyeon tournament, 5 vs 5. It started very interesting, 1-0, then 1-1, then 1-2, but then this second guy took out the whole rival team, so the final “score” was 5 to 1.

We then moved on to some of the brightly lit districts, which I had but dreamed of ever since I watched Lost in Translation and Blade Runner. The streets lead us to the Konkuk University, which is a huge campus with a lake inside.

Some policeman came to gently kick us out of the place because lovers were not allowed there at night, and apparently we had no proof that we weren’t lovers.

We went back to the busy streets, and my friend Mina then took me inside a booth where a Tarot card reader predicted my future. Obviously, the first card I drew was THE DEATH! She told me that Death, combined with the rest of the cards facing up on the round table, meant that my encounter with the love of my life would be delayed until April; but I knew she was trying to fix the situation!

I did not find my love by the time spring came around, but I did not die either, so it was okay. Meh.

Taekkyeon in Seoul, South Korea
Taekkyeon tournament near Insa-dong street

Back home: poker games

The final part of this humble story of how I met and fell in love with the world takes place back home.

As soon as I stepped out of the “Arrivals” door in El Prat Airport of Barcelona, I knew I was hooked for life. The whole experience had been an amazing ride, the very fact of “existing” through an entire new culture, country, a new world.

It was very different from traveling with my parents, and I knew there was no turning back. I foresaw a future myself always saving money for travels. I would have to sacrifice a lot of things that didn’t matter anymore anyway, for I would be spending a significant part of my resources in the art of exploring this planet full of possibilities.

That same day I met with some friends at night. I gave away a couple of 1,000 won notes. It was poker night, we were going to play poker like we had been doing for the past years, betting 5 bucks and having a lot of fun for hours, sometimes until the Sun came up again.

Of course, I was asked about my trip, but I didn’t know what to answer. They expected a one-line answer, two at most!!

I probably said something like “it was spectacular!” while trying to come up with something better to say next: I was a completely different person, I had been exposed to a lifestyle of continuous joy and endless adventure, a game of constant change and adapting to it, I had fallen in love with the world. I had been handed an unimaginably precious gift. But they had lost interest in me and my story already.

In fact, most of them couldn’t care less, they could not relate at all and they had a poker game to win.

That was the last time I played poker with them. I lost five bucks and went home around 4AM. My brother was already sleeping, so I climbed onto my bed and turned off the lights.

I peacefully closed my eyes, smiled, and started remembering every second of my time away, scared I would ever forget what this roller-coaster of emotions felt like.

Yongin, Korea
I was passionately excited about every piece of eastern Asian architecture.

Many years later, I am still in touch with two wonderful friends I made in that trip. Though I have since lost touch with the rest, their adventures and other bits of their current lives still show up on my Facebook feed now and then, and every time take me back to that great adventure, to that first night in Dongseoul that changed everything.

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