We are currently in Europe. But there are still tales to tell from our time in South Korea and Japan in June. The silver lining is I can reflect on some wonderful travel moments while basking in the sun in Valencia!
“As a traveler, I've often found that the more a culture differs from my own, the more I am struck by its essential humanity.” ― Rick Steves, Travel as a Political Act
Rick Steves, renowned author and travel guide is from our home town of Seattle. He is considered to be one of America's most respected travel authorities and believes in travel as a powerful way to better understand and contribute to the world in which we live. That's how Seoul, South Korea made it on our Asian Tour itinerary. That and a desire to be in places where history is being made.
We had a blank slate when it came to Seoul. We really didn’t know anything about the city itself and hadn’t had time to do much planning for our week there. We did our usual Airbnb search and found a nice place in Gangnam - home of the famous “Gangnam Style” song and popular dance moves (you know you want to watch it!) and thought that sounded like a fun part of the city to call home. It turns out the whole city is about fun. And love. And shiny stuff. And of course some fear of being blasted off the planet - but you wouldn't know it by walking the streets.
Airbnb has an office in Seoul. They were happy to have us meet the staff as we have done in other cities and, of course, help us get the most out of our visit. The first thing they did was recommend against the Airbnb we had chosen - in fact, they said they would find us a better place closer to their offices and close to the center of town. So they canceled our first listing and booked us into a home with a Superhost (a high ranking by Airbnb standards). We didn’t pay much attention to the details, we just assumed they’d find something similar to what we'd booked in Gangnam.
Our flight landed over an hour late. By the time we got out of immigration and collected our bags, it was 11 o'clock at night. Fortunately, we had booked a driver because the airport is so far from the city and we knew we were arriving late. Our drooping driver was still waiting with our names scrawled on a piece of paper. He spoke no English, but we could tell he was spent...I know we were. We climbed into his immaculate SUV and settled in for the hour-long drive to the city center.
However, it was difficult to relax because he seemed to be nodding off. Seriously, he kept slapping his cheeks and talking to himself as we were shooting down the highway at 80 mph! I couldn’t engage him in conversation, so I just kept chattering at full volume to Michael and hanging on to the armrests!
We assumed he knew where he was going because Airbnb had given him the address of the listing - but once we got to the neighborhood he was creeping along dark, narrow streets squinting at the house numbers. Michael finally handed him the address he’d written on a piece of paper "just in case" and our driver pulled over to take a look.
When he took out a magnifying glass Sherlock Holmes would have been proud of, I felt lucky we’d arrived at all - no wonder he couldn’t see the house numbers! We didn’t have SIM cards yet so we didn’t have data or phone service, so the solution was to have the driver call the host. By then it was well after midnight, but our dear host had been worried about us because we were late. so he was sitting by the phone. He answered right away and there was a lively discussion between him and the driver. Five minutes later our host flagged us down as we approached the house. Whew!
Michael and I almost always stay in an entire home with a kitchen and Wifi. We live our lives in other peoples houses, so we like to have a private setting where we can spread out and settle into a place like it was our own home. We realized the minute we followed our host inside that not only would we not have the house to ourselves, we weren't even in a private room with a bathroom. We were taken upstairs to a second floor with three guest rooms, a small common area, and one small shared bathroom! One guest room was already occupied by two young Chinese girls, and the other would have a mother and two young daughters checking in the next day. It was a lovely home and the hosts were delightful, but we knew right away this wouldn’t work for us.
Obviously, we hadn’t read the details on the listing and had just assumed Airbnb had booked us into a different apartment similar to what we’d booked in Gangnam. It may be they went by price and not house type. We said goodnight to our host and crawled in bed. We didn’t say anything about the situation. We’d have to sort it out the next morning with Airbnb when we arrived at the office!
Airbnb Seoul offices take up a floor in the WeWork building. For those that don’t know, WeWork offers a wide range of office configurations from one person cubicles to a complete floor, as well as communal space for meetings and dining (with beer on tap and excellent coffee), game rooms, and social events for those leasing space.
We met our contacts and had a quick tour of the Airbnb space before back-to-back meetings with the PR team. A great lunch spread including various Kimchi, rice, soup, salad and dessert - including a cake and homemade ice-cream celebrating our 5th Anniversary as Senior Nomads was the perfect welcome. Then it was time for us to share our story and take questions from the staff. I know I’ve mentioned this before, but this is a very rewarding part of our travels. Airbnb does not compensate us, and while they pay for our travel and accommodations when we speak at large events, and sponsored our internship at headquarters last fall, we gladly stop by to share our experiences with the people that make it possible.
Now it was time for me to bring up the awkward situation about our Airbnb. Even though the home was really nice, and the hosts were very kind, we just couldn’t fathom living in close proximity with four women (including myself) and two little girls with just one bathroom - and no privacy outside of our small bedroom. To make a long story short - we were able to move into a different listing that happened to be owned by a staff member. The second awkward moment was having to tell our current host we’d be leaving, but Airbnb took care of that, and they understood.
Steven, our new host, and savior got us to his listing in the super-cool Hongdae neighborhood. There was no elevator so he hauled our bags up five flights of stairs. He is young and buff - so we let him! The apartment was perfect. It was large and quiet and full of thoughtful touches. We had room to spread out and we each had our own bathrooms. We’d gone from one extreme to the other!
Just outside our door was there were restaurants and food stalls, shops full of trendy clothes, shoes, souvenirs and even a 24-hour hair salon! The bars were packed at night with students from the nearby university and karaoke was just what you did. Although we didn't.
On our last afternoon, we had an interview with a reporter from JoongAng Ilbo, Korea's largest newspaper. We walked the neighborhood together, and the reporter, Young Sun did a great job. Her article ran on page 1 of the Sunday edition and seemed to resonate with her readers. The online version received thousands of comments. Here's the link - you can enjoy the pictures - because unless you speak Korean the words were as useless to us as a Karaoke screen.
For the last few months, we have been taking more and more Airbnb Experiences. Those are unique opportunities offered worldwide where you can get down to the local level and enjoy a city with people who live there. Many times they are Airbnb hosts, but you do not need to be staying in an Airbnb to take advantage of them. Our first outing was in Cape Town, South Africa where we spent a day with Nelson Mandela’s former warden. He took us on a private tour of the Robbin Island prison and we spent time in the house where he was Mandela’s cook and minder for the year before his release. Obviously, he had some very interesting and personal stories to share! Our two experiences here in Seoul were also unique.
During “Hidden Seoul with an Artist” we spent a morning with our host “Q” touring parts of the city that were rebuilt after the war in including shopping mall in the Mapo-gu niehgborhood that was innovative for its time. It is now a haven for small electronics merchants selling Hi-Fi sets and other "antiquated" parts and equipment. You’d have to see it to really appreciate the stacks of consoles and speakers alongside state-of-the art offerings, and the hidden repair shops where just about anything thing with a plug can be rebuilt. The markets and surrounding area are filled with indie music stores, fashion start-ups and coffee shops.
From there we toured a building jammed with merchants selling fabrics for Hanbok - Korea’s traditional dress worn at weddings and special occasions. This is where every South Korean ends up at least once in their lives to buy christening clothes, graduation gowns, holiday finery wedding attire, appropriate mourning garb, and so on. There is a movement among young fashion designers here to create updated versions, and from what we saw they are creating some striking designs. We’ll see what the Grandmothers have to say about that!
From there we toured “paper street” - obviously, you need invitations to all those special occasions, along with printers to create them. And of course decorations and party favors and wrapping paper, etc. We ended the morning with coffee in a converted print shop called 4F. As a woman who spent many hours at press checks during her career, it made me nostalgic for the hum of the presses and the smell of ink. Fragrant coffee would have to do.
Our second experience in Seoul turned out to be a perfect foil to our first. During Feel the Old School Vibes with a Local we would actually wear traditional Hanbok clothing dating back 400 years and be photographed strolling the grounds of the Royal Palace. Renting elaborate outfits to tourists has become a thriving business (similar to Kimono rentals in Japan). You can spend a little or a lot depending on the quality of the fabrics and how much fussing you’d like with your hair and make-up. Once you are all trussed up you can wander the palace grounds like royalty or stroll the side streets of the Bukchon Hanok village where half the population was dressed like courtiers - except for sneakers, sunglasses and selfie-sticks. And, if you are willing to wearing Hanbok, your admission to most tourist attractions is free.
We didn’t know what to expect when we arrived at the rental shop. It was one of a dozen we’d passed on the street but our host Geo felt you got the most for your money (rental was included in the experience) at this one. Michael had to choose whether to go warrior or monarch. Meanwhile, I was overwhelmed by choice. First I'd decide whether I wanted a hooped skirt (yes), then I'd choose an elaborate cropped jacket and skirt from over a hundred color and fabric combinations. After some trial and error, it came down to what fit! After I was helped into (and later out of) my choices, I was taken to the counter where I chose a purse, a brooch and hair accessories. Then a no-nonsense woman started fluffing my curls to determine how she could possibly tame them with clips and flowers picks. Finally, I was dusted with powder, my lips were rouged, my eyebrows shaped and, after one more twirl in front of the shop owner, I was out the door with King Michael. It was so much fun. But so, so hot! After two hours of posing at the Gyeongbok Palace, we gladly returned our royal rags and headed for lunch in the Tongin Market.
We entered a long gallery of food vendors whipping up pancakes, soups, curries, fried everything, raw sea creatures, rice sticks, salads, smoothies, and even spaghetti and meatballs! But here’s the best part - at the entrance you bought tokens to use as currency with the vendors. For $8 USD you got 20 tokens and that was more than enough to put anything your heart desired into your Bento Box along with a few things you might not try otherwise. Most portions were 2 or 3 tokens. Once you’d loaded your tray, you headed upstairs to a sort of cafeteria where there was unlimited steamed rice and ice cold water. And if need be, you just popped back down for more.
Our last stop was a walk through the Bukchon Hanock neighborhood. Once the haunt of wealthy merchants and courtiers. The homes are mostly built in the Hanock tradition, and are as functional as they are beautiful with sliding panel doors and a courtyard open to the sky. Now the lanes are full of boutiques and coffee shops, but you can still wander down side streets and get a feel for what it must have been like 150 years ago - but the people that live there would rather you didn’t, and post signs pleading for peace and quiet.
Whenever we can we try and attend a sports event in a city. It’s a great insight to local culture and keeps my sports fan/husband motivated. Most often it has been football matches, but during our Asian tour we hit a badminton tournament in Malaysia and here in Seoul we caught a Major League baseball game. Baseball is taken very seriously here, along with fashion and music. All three were on full display at the Seoul Twins vs Nexen Heroes game.
We took the metro and followed the crowd to the stadium where Michael joined a long line to by tickets. We'd be happy to sit anywhere, but he scored two excellent seats behind home plate. The atmosphere was absolutely electric. Each team had a dozen cheerleaders who were, of course adorable, and the music was K-pop to the wall. Each player had his own song and it wasn’t just a little snip of music as he approached the plate - it played the entire time he was at bat. The crowd seemed to know them all, and the cheerleaders jumped for joy - the entire time.
On our last full day we took a tour to the DMZ (demilitarized zone) where South and North Korea meet at the border and the armed guards glare at their counterparts on each side. There is a 2+ mile wide swath between the two countries where you could be shot for trying to make a break from the North to the South. Because of the upcoming summit between President Trump and Kim Jong Un we couldn’t get close to the actual Joint Security Area (JSA). Michael was a little disappointed but we learned a lot from our guides, including a woman who left her family in North Korea 12 years ago to escape to the South. She told harrowing tales of her defection that brought sobering reality to the current headlines.
We left Seoul with an appreciation for a clean, modern city where the population is optimistic about the future in spite of living under the shadow of doom and destruction. The kids were hip - and oh, so cute! I really mean that, they were perky and pretty and cuddly in a way that just warmed our hearts. And everyone was so kind.
The current buzz is “Seoul is the new Toyko” and we could see how that could be - even though we hadn't been to Tokyo at this point. We suggest you visit this haven of happiness, good food, affordable fun, and easy travel, and of course, fascinating history, both past and present.
I’ll end this with another quote from our home-town travel advocate:
“I believe if you’re going to bomb someone you should know them first. It should hurt when you kill someone.” ― Rick Steves, Travel as a Political Act
We’ll see you in Japan, where things become very, very small. Thanks for following along.
Debbie and Michael Campbell
The Senior Nomads