Tag Archives: south_korea

South Korea: Fueled by Coffee and Friendship Part IV

Update: The winner of the giveaway is Courtney Barriga!!

My trip to South Korea had been one of the most impulsive, fun, and exhausting few days of my life. The only appropriate way to end it? More of the same.

Coffee #13: In case you’re still keeping track, coffee thirteen was early Monday morning. It was another morning of waking up extra early because I couldn’t sleep, so I did my usual – drank coffee and FaceTimed the boyfriend.

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I again managed to navigate Seoul independently, finding my way to another palace, Gyeongbokgung, the primary palace in Seoul. Originally built in 1395, it has been systematically reconstructed after it was most recently destroyed by the Japanese in the early 1900’s. It was incredible. One of the things I love about traveling alone is getting to wander at my own pace. So that’s exactly what I did as I savored my final morning in Seoul.

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I arrived at 9 am, just as the gates opened. For a while, I had the entire place practically to myself, although the crowds quickly grew.
I arrived at 9 am, just as the gates opened. For a while, I had the entire place practically to myself, although the crowd quickly grew.

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The only interruption to my morning was being approached by multiple groups of adolescent boys who asked me to take a picture with them. It was either some type of school project or some type of teenage boy field trip dare. I’m not sure which explanation I prefer…

Coffee #14: I was not ready to leave Korea. Absolutely 100% not ready to leave. I consoled myself with yet another cup of coffee.

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After one last stop to say a quick goodbye to Shannon (who was, you know, my entire reason for being in South Korea), I headed to the airport.

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I left Korea unwillingly, completely exhausted, feeling strung out on excessive caffeine and inadequate sleep. I left Korea on the first day that I did not feel like I was going to die, just as I began to recover from jet lag. I left to go home and back to work the day after getting back. And yet, it was perfect.

Coffee #15: After a 10.5 hour flight, during which I was thankfully able to sleep, I drank my last cup of coffee of the trip.

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I arrived back in San Francisco intact, but rather disheveled. And notice that I’m still wearing the exact same thing I was at the beginning of the post. Which was well over 24 hours before. Just keeping the reality of long distance travel alive. #itsnotglamorous

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The things I do for friends.

To wrap things up, I am hosting a small giveaway from my trip. Small to reflect the short time I spent in such an incredible place.

To enter to win this hand painted mirror, comment on this post, perhaps sharing the most fun or impulsive or ridiculous thing you have done in the name of friendship. The giveaway ends at 11 pm PST on Saturday January 23. A randomly selected winner will be announced on this post Sunday January 24.

South Korea: Fueled by Coffee and Friendship Part III

Unsurprisingly, I slept well Saturday evening. Really well. Apparently, not stopping between 6 am and midnight means not having any trouble sleeping despite the time difference. That did not mean forgoing coffee, however.

Coffee #9: We stopped in the subway station for a quick coffee before heading to our first spot of the morning. FYI, this would have been coffee #10, but we couldn’t get the coffee machine to work where we were staying. I also feel that this post needs some real-life, genuine, travel-is-not-all-fun-and-games context. Sure, the pictures make it look like I’m having the best.time.ever. And I sort of was. But I was also rocking the worst.headache.ever. The kind that comes about from fatigue and jet lag and using coffee as a means of staying upright. As you read through this post, know that I felt terrible for the entire day. Behind every smile is an unremitting headache. Behind every exciting picture is a healthy dose of exhaustion. Behind every amazing place I went were two aching and blistered feet. And yet, I would do it all over again.

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I look tired
I look tired
Congratulating ourselves on our perfect timing and flawless negotiation of the Seoul subway system. I think stopping for coffee made the difference.
Congratulating ourselves on our perfect timing and flawless negotiation of the Seoul subway system. I think stopping for coffee made the difference.

Our first stop of the day was Bukchon Hanok Village. This is a traditional Korean village comprised of shops, restaurants, and cultural displays, but is also a place where people still live. Casually walking around the village was a low-key way to start the day. Although it did mean, you know, more walking.

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On the way to our next stop, Changdeokgung Palace, we did some shopping and found a spot for lunch. Our strategy? Keep walking until something smelled really good. It worked!

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We could easily walk from the Hanok village to the palace, but apparently Koreans thought it was too far for Americans to walk. Because each time we asked for directions, we were either directed to the closest subway station or told it was far. Spoiler, it was not. We easily walked it.

Changdeokgung is one of the major palaces in Seoul. I would recommend purchasing the combination ticket, which gets you into four palaces and one shrine. DSC02186Shannon and I walked around the palace grounds, but were especially excited for the Secret Garden tour.

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The Secret Garden is a part of the grounds that was developed for the king and royal family to relax in. It is not open to the public except on a tour.

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Perhaps it was that we were tired, or maybe because it was winter and not the best time of year to see a garden, or maybe the tour was actually not all that great. In fact, it was rather a letdown. After getting a few pictures and hanging in there as long as we could, we snuck away. Like walking quickly and hiding behind buildings snuck away.

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Coffee #10: And what does one do after illegally breaking away from a tour? Buy a coffee, of course.

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Shannon and I shared a coffee and possibly said our goodbyes. She was heading to the airport to pick up her husband. They would be getting custody of their son the following day. Amid all of that, I wasn’t sure if I would get a chance to see her again. There are some moments that, as you’re living them, you can’t quite believe are actually happening. Sitting in a park in South Korea sharing a canned coffee with my best friend talking about how she was going to be a mother the next day is one of them. I am so thankful that I get to live moments like that one.

After Shannon left, I explored more of Changdeokgung on my own.

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I then walked to the nearby Channggyeonggung Palace. It is a smaller palace that was built by the young king Seongjong for the dowager queens.

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And then a practical miracle happened. After all of this, I had to find my own way back to where I was staying. Alone. I can’t even do that when I do speak the language. And sometimes not even when I am traveling between places to which I have actually been before. And yet, I was successful.

To celebrate my accomplishment, I bought myself…

Coffee #11: Bought in a subway station, coffees like this are readily available.

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Coffee #12: This was soon followed by another cup of coffee. Because why not. And because Shannon and her husband Daniel came back to where we had been staying!

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We ended the day with a delicious dinner of Korean BBQ (also called galbi gui. I think…). Served with the traditional Korean sides, this was non-stop deliciousness. The small bites of perfectly cooked beef could be eaten alone, dipped in the accompanying sauce (a type of bean paste I think), or wrapped in a lettuce leaf with onion. All were good options. So, unexpectedly, was the grilled garlic. I ate so much food and regretted nothing.

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Happy to be reunited after weeks apart!

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Yes, I was eating meat. And yes, I was enjoying it. The sweet, soy sauce marinated meat was yummy.
Yes, I was eating meat. And yes, I was enjoying it. What can I say? The sweet, soy sauce marinated meat was yummy.

It was another packed day as I worked on seeing and eating all the things in Seoul in a mere 72 hours.

 

South Korea: Fueled by Coffee and Friendship Part II

This series of posts is pretty much all about what not to do while traveling. It’s generally not a great idea to plan a 72-hour trip to Asia from the US, especially when considering the 30+ hours of travel time. It’s probably not the smartest approach to drink large amounts of coffee just to stay upright and functional. And, although staying active in a new time zone is an important part of counteracting jet lag, going non-stop from 6 am until after midnight the day after you arrive in a new country, definitely not recommended. And yet, that’s exactly what I did.

Coffee #5: My day started earlier than desired. I woke up around 1:30 am, again around 3:45 am, and couldn’t stay in bed a minute longer at 5 am.

What do you do when you wake up at 5 am and can't go back to sleep? Drink a cup of coffee and FaceTime your boyfriend, for whom is it is 11 am of the previous day.
What do you do when you wake up at 5 am and can’t go back to sleep? Drink a cup of coffee and FaceTime your boyfriend, for whom is it is 11 am of the previous day.

Shannon and I got an extra early start toward the Lotte Hotel where we were meeting for our all day DMZ tour. We had booked a tour through VIP travel. Tuesday through Friday, the tour offers hotel pickup, but on Saturdays the tour meets at a major Seoul hotel. Knowing we did not want to miss our 8 am tour time, we left extra early to allow ourselves plenty of time to navigate the subway system. Although what I discuss below will suggest otherwise, it is actually quite simple to get around Seoul. You can buy a reloadable T-card at a 7-11 or CU store and then add money to it at the readily available kiosks inside the stations. The card can be used in the subway, for taxis, buses, and other forms of transportation. Transportation is also affordable. The entire time I was there, I put 10,000 won (less than $10) on my T-card and spent another 5,000 won for the bus ride to the airport. Loading my T-card was one of the few times I needed cash, which I had withdrawn from the ATM at the airport the night before.

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DSC01779But back to the story. Good thing we left early, because we apparently lost all ability to successfully function. We could not figure out how to buy a reloadable T-card, so purchased a single ride card. Which then stopped working, leaving me unable to exit the subway station. Shannon stood on the other side of the barrier as I, only mildly panicked, figured out how to buy another card. Which also did not work (which I later realized was probably because I had not used that card to enter the subway system). Through some combination of desperation and magical thinking, I managed to get my single ride card functioning again, just in time for us to walk very quickly to our next subway…as it pulled away. Despite the series of debacles, we managed to make it to the hotel (and then, of course, take the incorrect elevator) before finally making it to the check-in desk for the tour. It really shouldn’t have been that difficult.

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The hotel was gorgeous!
The hotel was gorgeous!

The trouble we had navigating what is actually a rather straightforward subway system could only mean one thing, time for

Coffee #6: After checking in for the tour and being directed to the bus, we had 30 minutes to find the nearby Starbucks.

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This picture truly captures our feelings about the iconic and beautiful green sign.
This picture truly captures our feelings about the iconic and beautiful green sign. We both ordered venti toffee nut lattes.

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 Now we are prepared to tour the DMZ.

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The Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) is a line running 155 miles east to west across Korea, dividing the peninsula in two. After a cease fire was signed in 1953 a line, referred to as the Military Demarcation Line (MDL), was literally drawn across the country in the form of regularly placed markers. The DMZ is the area on either side of the MDL – 2 kilometers to the north and 2 kilometers to the south. With a few exceptions, this area is primarily uninhabited and makes for one heck of an interesting day tour, even if one has to submit one’s passport in advance of the tour and undergo multiple security screenings. On the South Korean side, there is a highly militarized area just south of the DMZ, called the Civilian Control Area, that is also generally inaccessible to the public.

Our first stop was Dora Observatory. Located on a mountain, the observatory offers a great viewpoint of areas within the DMZ, as well as the southern part of North Korea. For about 500 won (less than 50 cents), you can use binoculars to get an even better view.

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After getting an overview of the area above ground, we headed underground at the 3rd Tunnel. Opportunities to take pictures were limited to prior to entering the tunnel. It is one of the four discovered tunnels that were reportedly built by North Korea in order to infiltrate South Korea.

The hard hats were not superfluous. While in the tunnel, the primary sounds were shoes squeaking on the wet, rubbery, floor of the tunnel and hardhats hitting the very low ceilings. Even I had a couple close calls.
The hard hats were not superfluous. While in the tunnel, the primary sounds were shoes squeaking on the wet, rubbery floor of the tunnel and hardhats hitting the very low ceilings. Even I had a couple close calls.
We took a very steep monorail down to where the tunnel began and could walk right to the edge of where it crossed into North Korea. It was hard not to imagine soldiers quietly marching through the tunnels.
We took a very steep monorail down to where the tunnel began and could walk right to the edge of where it crossed into North Korea. It was hard not to imagine soldiers quietly marching through the tunnel.

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The next stop was Dorasan Station, the northernmost train stop in South Korea. For a brief period of time trains carried freight between the two sides of the peninsula. However, there have been no trains between the two countries since 2008. The station is eerily quiet and now serves almost exclusively as a tourist destination. To me, it also seemed to represent the conflicting and mutually held beliefs expressed throughout the tour: that North Korea is the enemy and yet that reunification is desired. It is certainly a complicated part of the world with no easy solutions.

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Despite the smile on my face, by this point, I was dragging. I felt terrible. I was getting a headache and all I wanted was to take a nap. Thankfully, it was time for lunch. My vegetarian bibimbap was delicious, although rather hard to capture in a photo.

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Shan's dish was some type of beef stew of sorts with all kinds of veggies.
Shan’s dish was a beef stew of sorts with all kinds of veggies.

Despite the venti coffee earlier, not even lunch was sufficient to perk me up. So…

Coffee #7: My post-lunch coffee is a type of coffee that is popular in Korea. It was powdered coffee, sugar, and creamer all in one. Not my favorite, but it got the job done. As in, I no longer felt like I was going to die within the hour. Maybe by the end of the day, but at least not within the hour.

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After lunch, our first stop was Imjingak Park and the Freedom Bridge, a spot where prisoners were exchanged after the cease fire. It now serves as a place to commemorate, and mourn, the lifelong separation that has occurred between family and friends since the peninsula was divided.

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And then we got to the highlight of the day, entry into the Joint Security Area. This was the most intense and controlled aspect of the tour. With multiple passport checks and detailed instructions about what to do and not do, the tension at this point was palpable. The dress code was regulated, pictures could only be taken in certain spots and for a limited amount of time, there was no bending over or using hand gestures (I’ve never felt so worried about unconsciously fixing my hair in my entire life). All of that was worth it for the opportunity to actually put a foot into North Korea. The JSA includes a series of conference rooms literally divided down the middle across the MDL where delegates from the North and South occasionally meet.

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The small concrete line in the ground between the two buildings is the line between the North and the South.

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A North Korean soldier
A North Korean soldier

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Our feet are in North Korea!!!
On the way out of the JSA, we stopped at the Bridge of No Return. We couldn't get out of the bus because THERE COULD BE NORTH KOREAN SOLDIERS HIDING RIGHT THERE AND THEY COULD SHOOT AT US. At least we were allowed to take a quick picture from the bus.
On the way out of the JSA, we stopped at the Bridge of No Return. We couldn’t get out of the bus because (according to our tour guide) THERE COULD BE NORTH KOREAN SOLDIERS HIDING RIGHT THERE AND THEY COULD SHOOT AT US. At least we were allowed to take a quick picture from the bus.

After a very full day, we arrived back in Seoul just as the Christmas lights were coming on in the city.

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Normal people would, at this point, perhaps grab a quick bite to eat and then get some rest. But us? That would just be too predictable, too boring. What do we do? We drink

Coffee #8: We regroup at a coffee shop in the nearby Lotte Department Store and plan how we are going to spend the rest of the evening, although perhaps getting back to a place where we can sleep after midnight was not exactly what we intended.

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The plan was walk along Cheonggyeceon, a scenic stream running through the city, until we got to the Insa-dong area for dinner and perhaps some shopping. We would end the night by taking the cable car to Seoul Tower for an overview of the city at night. Because we had not done enough for one day.

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We found the stream without incident, but ended up wandering a bit trying to get to Insa-dong.
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We eventually found the right area of town and walked around until we found the perfect spot for an extra hearty Korean dinner.

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Enjoying the warm barley tea that was available at the table
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Galbijjim – short ribs, rice cakes, quail eggs, and all kinds of veggies. There are no words to describe how good this was.
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Haemul pajeon – a seafood pancake with large chunks of shrimp, crab, and octopus with strips of onion. This is what food should taste like.
We did some damage
We managed to do some damage to this food
More subway riding to get where we're going
More subway riding to get where we’re going
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Seoul lit up at night was magical

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After dinner, a subway ride, a taxi ride, and waiting in a looooong line for the cable car to the Seoul Tower, it would be tempting to think that we were too tired to enjoy it. But that would be incorrect. The view from the top was breathtaking!

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It was also rather romantic, which made me really miss the boyfriend.

By this point, it was about 10:30. We still had to again wait in line for the return cable car, take the cable car to the bottom, take a taxi to the closest subway station, take a series of subways back to our part of town, and then either walk back to where we were staying or wait for the bus. Incidentally, this seems like a good time to mention the Korea Subway app. It’s easy to use, especially if, like Shannon, you have a wifi egg to access the internet wherever you go. I can highly recommend both the app and the egg. When the Subway app was used in conjunction with the Visit Korea app, it was simple to figure out where I wanted to go and exactly how to get there.

We were tired.
We were tired.
One. More. Subway.
One. More. Subway.

When we got off at our station, we had a difficult decision to make. Take the 10 minute walk back on oh-so-tired feet that had already walked 8 plus miles that day or wait a few minutes in the cold for the bus. Fatigue won out and we decided to wait for the bus. And then we waited and waited and waited. We waited as multiple buses passed, none of them ours. It became a sick game where we would see a bus on the horizon, momentarily allowing our hopes to rise, only to have them dashed moments later when we discovered that it was not, in fact, our bus. After every other bus that stopped at that stop passed by, twice, and thirty minutes had passed, we decided our only option was to walk back. At this point it was midnight. We had been going since 6 am. I had arrived in the country after a 12.5 hour flight only a day before. To say I was tired was an understatement. Somehow, we managed to put one foot in front of the other to make it back. We may have taken turns groaning out loud (I can’t help but think that this would have been easier to handle 10 years ago…), spurring one another on with promises of beds and hot chocolate. In case you’re wondering, this is what I felt like at the end of the day:

Hot chocolate, not coffee!
Hot chocolate, not coffee!

It was a day I will never forget. Despite the fatigue and the sore and blistered feet, I would not change a bit of it. If I was only going to be in South Korea for 72 hours, I might as well make the most of it!

 

South Korea: Fueled by Coffee and Friendship Part I

Some things I have realized about myself in the past couple of years: when I have the opportunity to travel with a friend, my answer is almost always going to be yes (as evidenced here, here, and here). And apparently I am willing to go halfway across the world to do so.

All that to say, I should have known better.

When my friend Shannon was doing her best to cover up her disappointment about being in South Korea alone longer than expected to finalize the adoption of her son, I should have known better than to make a joke about coming to see her. Within a matter of minutes, that “joke” turned into searching for plane tickets, which quickly escalated into purchasing said plane tickets and planning my trip to South Korea. A trip that would occur less than a month later. For a long weekend. You read that correctly. I went to South Korea for a grand total of 72 hours.

The only way to survive the madness? Drink lots of coffee and enjoy the amazingness that is longtime friendship.

Coffee #1: I began my journey early on a Thursday morning with the short flight from Medford to San Francisco.

I drank my first cup of coffee on the quick jaunt from OR to CA. That's the only reason I'm smiling at 5-something in the morning. Oh, and maybe because I am on my way to SOUTH KOREA to see one of my favorite people in the whole world!
I drank my first cup of coffee on the quick jaunt from OR to CA. Coffee is the reason I’m smiling at 5-something in the morning. Oh, and maybe because I am on my way to SOUTH KOREA to see one of my favorite people in the whole world!

Coffee #2: While in San Francisco, I had enough time to eat breakfast, drink more coffee, and walk around the sunny terminal.

Getting to go to the International Terminal? That always makes me happy!
Getting to go to the International Terminal? That always makes me happy!

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After a not-too-long layover, I settled into what would be my very tiny home for the next 12.5 hours.

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The flight was probably the least comfortable international flight I’ve experienced, but the time passed, as it always does.

Leaving the US!
Leaving the US!
As the beverage service began, I was mindful of my goal to actually sleep on the flight. Thus, the vodka instead of another coffee.
As the beverage service began, I was mindful of my goal to actually sleep on the flight. Thus, the vodka instead of another coffee.
A 12 plus hour flight is the perfect time for a Harry Potter marathon.
A 12 plus hour flight is the perfect time for a Harry Potter marathon.
The vegetarian option for lunch was surprisingly delicious Indian cuisine.
The vegetarian option for lunch was surprisingly delicious Indian cuisine.

After a few hours of fitful sleep, it was time to try to wake up again. I wanted to be able to sleep once I got to South Korea, after all. What’s the best way to wake up? Coffee and sunshine.

Coffee #3: I was looking a bit frazzled at this point.

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A peek out the window revealed this snowy view. No idea where this is - Russia, maybe?
A peek out the window revealed this snowy view. No idea where this is – Russia, maybe?
This was breakfast, I think. Unlike lunch, it was not very palatable. I could recognize this food neither by appearance nor taste.
This was breakfast, I think. Unlike lunch, it was not very palatable. I could recognize this food neither by appearance nor taste.

Coffee #4: So I drank another cup of coffee and continued to enjoy the scenery and Harry Potter movies.

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As the flight came to an end, I marveled at the almost magical experience of flying. Despite its drawbacks, which are many, airplanes allow me to leave the US on a cloudy Thursday morning and arrive 17 hours into the future on another continent and to another country around sunset on a Friday evening.

I think this is South Korea!!
I think this is South Korea!!

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And best of all, the magic of flying gives me the opportunity to do this – eat dinner with Shannon on the other side of the world. Because why fly to Tennessee when I can fly to South Korea? Every single uncomfortable hour of restless sleep, the sometimes mediocre food, the vomiting child in the seat next to me, the compression socks I wear on international flights to prevent my feet from swelling. All of it, every bit of it, was worth it for that.

Shannon and her friend, Mr. Song, picked me up from the airport (which has free wifi, allowing you the opportunity to easily communicate with the person picking you up - take note, China) drove me into Seoul.
Shannon and her friend, Mr. Song, picked me up from the airport (which has free wifi, allowing you the opportunity to easily communicate with the person picking you up – take note, China) and drove me into Seoul.
The random restaurant Mr. Song took us to near where we were staying. He ordered for us, in Korean, so I don't actually know what we ate, but it was good!!
Mr. Song brought us to a restaurant near where I was staying with Shannon. He ordered for us, in Korean, so I don’t actually know what we ate, but it was good!!

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In Korea, each meal is accompanied by a number of sides. I think these were some type of kimchi greens, fish cakes, soybean curd, and sprouts. Not knowing exactly what I was eating didn’t stop me from enjoying it!

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Things I know about this – it was wonderfully spicy and had vegetables, tofu, and beef.

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Some experiences can’t quite be put into words. Sometimes impulsive decisions are the best ones to make. And some friends are worth meeting for dinner on the other side of the world.

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