Meanwhile, in Montana…

I promise I’ll write up the last of my exciting South Korean tour, which successfully wrapped after 6 days of riding from Busan back to Seoul with the Magnificent Seven Plus Dog, but for now, a silly something to wish everyone a happy New Year from the Last Best Place!

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All Aboard

For the harvest festival of Cheusok (September 14-16, 2016) a large part of the 10 million inhabitants of Seoul travel back to their ancestral home towns in the rural parts of the country, making public transportation a nightmare. Even trains and buses sometimes sell out in advance of the holiday. So the group decided that the best strategy to avoid mass transit during peak holiday time was to get a ride down to the beach city of Busan in the south, and ride north back to Seoul. David and Emily had arranged for a truck to pick up all seven of our bicycles to drive them across the country to Busan, and we’d head down via the speedy bullet train known as the KTX. The bikes were strapped down to a little bongo truck and we waved goodbye to them. It was really happening now! The air was festive and the weather was not unbearably hot as it had been just before I arrived. Tunes was technically supposed to be in a carrier, but I was packing light(ish), so Emily let me borrow her over-the-shoulders wool Kodi-carrier bag and a long, light purple scarf to drape covertly over my pooch. It was around a two hour ride, and we reached speeds of almost 300km/hour (186 mph) as we careened through the Korean countryside. Tunes was a perfect stowaway, just as she’d been stealthy on the plane. 
And so the Magnicicent Seven +1 began our trek. Alyssa and her husband Tyge, who both had helped me out greatly upon my arrival by settling my cab fare, had set out a day earlier for the beach. Emily, David, Mindi, Jim, Petunia, the aforementioned +1, and I were on our way to join them for our cross-Korean trip.  

This photo and the next one are courtesy of David

photo courtesy of Jim H

A sweet goodbye for now

Heading to board the train like a bunch of bosses!

Once in Busan, we found our hotel, and the bike truck showed up pretty soon after that. They were mostly in tact, although the rivets that held on one of Tunes’s sun shade poles had failed. Luckily I have an external buckling belt around it to help hold it down for now. I’d found the blue and orange belt on the side of the road attached to an abandoned life jacket during my first tour scavenger and make-doer that I am. This trip has made me realize just how much her carrier and my bike have gone through, after months of touring and thousands of miles. They’re both starting to show som serious signs of wear and an embarrassing lack of maintenance. After seeing my new bike friends so lovingly care for their rigs with such zeal and savvy, I felt a bit underwhelmed with my own skills and attention to the machine that was making this all possible.

 ​Our first group outing was nothing less than superb. We walked down to a beachside burger place for some Western fare where all of the staff spoke petty good English, which wasn’t alway the case in Seoul. Without a squid or a soju in sight, we downed some American grub and headed out for a night beach visit before retiring in advance of our big day. 

Song of the day: All Aboard by Muddy Waters

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Into the Great Wide Open

During my week of exploring Seoul, I was able to get in a nice hike with Emily, Petunia and Kodi on a moutainside not far from their apartment. We took a lot of steps and did a lot of stairs, much to Emily’s delight, as several of the teachers were involved in a fiery FitBit competition. Along the way were lots of exercise equipment station sites, one of which was the site where Petunia and Kodi, who’d been like lovebirds since Day 1, could no longer contain their amorous feelings for each other. Ohhh my. ​

The Educators Enclave

A gravesite along the hike

As we ascended the mountain climb, there were some great views of Seoul, albeit a bit obfuscated by the poor air quality and haze of the day. Despite the heat, humidity, and fact that my legs were the site of every Korean mosquito’s own personal harvest festival, it was wonderful to get to spend so much time outdoors. Emily and I had some great conversations, and she pointed out the recently-maintained South Korean bunkers that had been set up at these high, strategic vantage points. It seemed so antiquated to me that warfare would still be waged with on the ground, by-foot combat necessitated in an age where drones and nukes were prevalent. And as it happened, the day before we left on our cross-country trek, North Korea was reported to have detonated a nuclear test missile below the ground. A bit unsettling, but my mantra of “you can’t live your life in fear” seems to be status quo here. How else could you get along so near the DMZ, where frequently  reports are heard of ballistics testing and UN sanctions and the North killing staff members for minor acts of insubordinanation ?

Emily and Kodi

The mountain peak had a beautiful temple, but we were a bit too late to get to explore it, and I’d already put in a 50 mile bike day, so we were ready to eat!

The wait for Korean barbecue was over! David, Emily, and Andrea walked over to a local place where we waited on an outdoor patio until a table for 5 was free. Meanwhile, we wanted to have a beer on the patio, and after asking this of her with a mix of basic Korean and heavy gesticulating, she responded to our request with a totally bewildered look. Nonetheless, she brought us our beverages, and we were joined by Mindi, one of the now-hailed Magnificent Seven Plus Dog. 

After an exquisite dinner of generously tended lean pork (thanks, Andrea for handling the BBQ!), a delicious introduction to grapefruit soju, and some late night shenanigans, we were ready for our transcontinental journey. 

David 2 and Gray, eating fried chicken the nighet before BBQ

Kodi went for his own ride

Emily brought home some Chuseok treats for me to sample. Looked pretty, tasted bland.

Song of the day – Into the Great Wide Open by Tom Petty. 

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David and Emily both had to teach at the Seoul International School during this week until they got the following week off for the Cheusok holiday, so I was on my own to explore the neighborhood and city. Without my bike, I hit the pavement in my shoes and with Tunes keeping up beside me. We walked to the end of the neighborhood and just kept going, down a thronging main road, taking in all the different coffee shops, restaurants, storefronts, and of course, the sumptuous people watching. A few pedestrians tried to strike up a conversation with me, which was sad, because all I could do was shrug with an apologetic smile and say “Sorry, only English.” So I was over the moon when three young men with beautiful midnight skin walked past and said in a lovely African accent, “Cute dog.” 

I walked a couple of miles down to the Moran station, feeling some helplessness at being entirely illiterate here, and yet thrilled to be on my own somewhere that was entirely foreign to me, save for the bizarre appearance of a Dunkin Donuts and a Yankee Candle store. Those were pretty much the only words I could read. What a feat, I thought, for so many immigrants world wide, who drop themselves into a place where it feels this vulnerable all the time. Not only do you have no idea how to get around, what kinds of substances are in the packages on grocery shelves, or how to have a pleasant conversation with anyone local, but they also transplant themselves into an entirely foreign cultural milieu and must somehow learn subtle social customs such as turning 20 degrees away from your elders while taking a drink at a table, or removing one’s shoes upon entering a home, or accepting a gift with two hands after refusing it politely as not to seem greedy or inappropriate. Especially difficult is moving to a place where the alphabet is entirely different, where cognates are far and few between, if any, and the phonemes are so entirely different that one has nothing familiar to anchor them to in order to memorize phrases easily. My brain keeps wanting to tell Tunes “ne, ne, ne” in Hindi when she does something objectionable, but that no means yes in Korean. Or I reflexively say gracias when I’m sure that’s senseless here. When I want to spout of a first person sentence or conjugate a verb, my brain tries to code switch into French I was once fluent enough in to get around in France. But here, I’m totally and utterly useless and infantile. At least my “hello” and “thank you” has become far more proficient than my first strained YouTube parroting attempts. I’m grateful for the humbling exercise. I wonder whether members of certain political parties were immersed here on their own and without money would still be clamoring to build walls and deny equality to their fellow human citizen, if they could only see what it was like to struggle with what privilege renders invisible.  

That evening, David and Emily returned home, and while I was tempted to join in on a fitness boot camp with Emily, I join David and neighbor Kendall for a trip to get sushi in a huge mall. We take the subway, which is an exciting city experience I’ve not had since my last visit to NYC about a year ago, and it’s one of the cleanest and safest in the world. There is a glass case at every stop, about the size of a large armoire, with about 30 silver bags, an oxygen tank, and some small boxes. I ask David about these, and he explain that they are masks, first aid kits, and disaster supplies. “This is a nation at war,” he reminds me, “and in case we’re bombed, these are emergency supplies underground.” It seems such a strange token gesture, with almost 10 million people living in Seoul and thousands and thousands using the subways, to have 30 masks staged in this catastrophic-event tableau.

In the subway tunnel were various vendors hawking their wares, and we passed one that has an entire booth dedicated to selling dog clothes. I had to stop of course, and I picked out a hanbok, or transitional dress, for Tunes in time for Chuseok. We posed for a couple of photos outside of the world’s 6th tallest building, which is still under construction after nearly 30 years.

Tuesday came and so did my bike, finally! It turns out it’d missed one of my connecting flights and was waylaid. I spent a good amount of time reassembling it myself, and received some additional kindnesses: one was from Muffin, the housekeeper and dog walker, who propped open the downstairs door for me so that I could catch a breeze while working on my bike in the foyer, as it was a sweltering 85 degrees Farenheit here. 

Another kindness was that a friend of David and Emily’s, Peter, came by to take me to lunch at the Seoul International School. Peter was just about to hop on a plane that afternoon to fly to his new job in Vietnam, but made time to give me a tour of the school and take me to the cafeteria, where I joined David during his lunch wave, and Emily for hers later. What a beautiful facility! It was cool to see where they get to work and teach, and I got to learn a lot in a short time about the social climate of a Korean education (more on that later).
An additional kindness came from the neighbor and one of the Magnificent Seven bike touring team, Jim, who helped me reinstall my derailleur, which was a bit tricky for me. Jim is an uber bike nerd, and we spent an hour or two together as he worked on his own bike and I helped it (read: I held the fork for a minute and pointed a flashlight for him). I learned so much about bikes from Jim; I only wish I could remember half of what we discussed. His awesome wife and badass volleyball coach Mindi joined us after her team’s big win, and that evening, David and Emily cooked up the yummiest chicken and Brussels sprouts! MMmmmm.

Happy Jim!

Korean beer and Goldfish knock offs…. Mmmm. 

By Wednesday, with my bike all assembled and David rigged me up a sweet map that directed me to an incredible bicycle path. It was a humid, hot day, and rain was forecasted, but I came here to ride and explore, so I tightened all the bolts one more time, stuffed my raincoat in my pannier, and Honey Badgered it. Finally! I was on my own, riding my bike around Korea We followed a beautiful designated bike path that was mostly flat and followed the Han River. I was so excited to get out and go, and we cruised about 50 miles, feeling totally blissed out. Touring Tunes was back on the road, back in business. 

I treated myself to lunch out, and received the kindness of a waitress who helped me navigate my food options with a visual menu, so I pointed at what I wanted, sheepish that I could not be more polite, and she kindly showed me where the metal chopsticks and spoons were (in a freer in the table) and ultimately helped me get my bill. I was so grateful for her assistance– even though I felt like an ugly American, she was patient and gracious. And I got an amazingly spicy meal for only 6,500 Won (about 6 bucks), including soup, sides, kimchi, rice, and some delicious pickled radishes! And supposedly, this is the fast food place in town. I’d take this over the Golden Arches any day.

Song of the day: Going Mobile by The Who

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You Are Here

As relieved as I was to be out of the plane already, Petunia was more than ready to relieve herself outdoors. Even so, she patiently waited in her carrier with her head sticking out of the top opening and posed for photos snapped by amused strangers. Then, the first of many travel kindnesses: a woman in line handed me a water bottle and pointed to Petunia, saying something softly in another language. I thanked her as best as I could with a big smile and an appreciative, humbled little bow, and gave Tunes a much needed gulp of water.

After stamping my passport with an official Republic of Korea seal of approval, an immigration agent warmly corrected my belabored and awkward thank you (“…kaaam…..saaaa, uh,…haaameee…da?”), and we proceeded through to the baggage claim area. The realization that I’d surrendered my linguistic privileges came swiftly– the young Canadian woman who’d been my row mate on the plane gawked at the primarily-Hangeul luggage carousel directory and asked me where to go, as if I knew how to decipher “Vancouver” from the tessellations of unfamiliar circles and lines.  

After hovering around conveyor belt 10 for a while, I noticed her red plaid shirt in the exit line, along with her bags, and all of the other passengers from my plane, and understood that there weren’t any more bags or boxes left to pick off the belt. Uh oh. I found the Air Canada help desk and tried to start with a pleasant, albeit painfully pronounced, hello: “onnnnyong ha say yo!” After a bit of pantomime, redirecting, and a few more laps around the baggage department, I realized my bike was indeed MIA. No problem– it had probably just been held up one one of my several transfers. The claim attendant was patient as I tried to fill out the necessary forms, providing the world’s longest address in Seoul where I was staying, and rapidly messaging the Magnificent Seven crew of riders who would be going on the bike trip together to get help in providing the necessary contact information. Finally, I was able to provide a phone number where one of us could be reached, and then I headed to customs to declare the party animal I’d brought along. The agents spoke a few words of English, but I got nervous when they took the originals of the very important dog import paperwork that I brought with me, and I couldn’t explain my uncertainty about the process. Sleep-deprived, bikeless, certainly late for the taxi that David and Emily had kindly prearranged for me, and desperately unable to make myself understood or understand, now I worried that I was handing over paperwork I’d need to eventually exit the country. I felt my face flushing hot and probably looked like I was going to cry, which was terribly embarrassing. One of the customs agents brought me a tissue and made a photocopy of the forms for me, and I thanked her over and over as best as I could, and held it together. Dog had to go out and there was no need for any other waterworks. 

Mr. Shin held a sign with my name and called to me, as he must have recognized me as the passenger with the pup. He cooed to her sweetly and unburdened me of my large hiking backpack so I could let her out for a walk. Even though he’d waited well over an hour for me, he was very kind and welcoming, helping me into the taxi and deftly navigating us away from the airport towards Seoul in what seemed like rush hour traffic. Wide and bleary eyed in the back seat, I was struck by the towering urbanity surrounding the highway, which seemed much larger on the ground than in the pictures. “It’s huge! Like a forest of skyscrapers!” I said, trying not to squeal. “Too many people love here,” Mr. Shin said with an accidental vowel, his many dashboard devices beeping and chattering away as we sped down the highway, “and it’s a small land, so they build up, up up! That’s just one neighborhood,” he said, gesticulating to an area that looked several times the size of Manhattan.

We arrived in the apartment complex which housed my hosts and many of their International School teacher colleagues, and friends and fellow cyclists Jim and Mindy came to the rescue to pay my fare, as I hadn’t yet converted my USDs into Won. And then I was escorted up to meet David, Emily, and Kodi in their awesome home! What a happy welcoming party it was! Kodi and Tunes hit it off immediately, being of similar size, disposition, and bike touring abilities. I set my bags down and we all decided to go for a much-needed walk around the dong (yes, giggle giggle), or the neighborhood. 

As I took in this new place on foot for the first time, David set out his points of information for the hood:
1) There are coffee shops next to their coffee shops next to the coffee shops. Seriously. There must be 50 in the 15-20 blocks we walked. One of them just said “Coffee & Spaghetti,” a gastronomical pairing rivaled only by David’s comment that pizza here is sometimes topped with corn and mayonnaise. 

2) There aren’t trash cans anywhere. So when Tunes did her business on the street, I bagged it, and was instructed to toss it on a street corner where there was other trash. I recoiled in horror– isn’t that straight up littering? Can I just wait until we get to a real trash bin? But no– they insisted that that’s just the way it is, and overnight, the trash magically disappears. He explained the phenomenon as such: married, older and rather unfashionable women, often dressed in crazy mismatched colorful prints and wide visors, resembling chain-smoking Los Vegas slot squatters, go around every night like garbage gnomes and sweep up the litter from the streets. It was unclear whether these called aujimma were paid to do this street cleaning or whether it was some sort of social/civic duty. Still, it felt really weird to contribute to that by tossing dog waste on the ground.

3) The order of pedestrian operations is the opposite of the US– smaller things yield the right of way to bigger things that can kill them. So as the aggressive drivers barreled down the narrow streets packed full of monochromatic vehicles (only black, white, and gray Hyundai’s and Kia’s seem to exist here), we hopped of of the way. Bicycles, he said, follow suit– cars will get extremely close to you, and if a cyclist is hit, it’s usually seen as their fault for getting in the way of a car. I gulped hard and shortened Tunes’s leash.

They explained more about this place they’d called home for three years, and I was dazzled taking in all the new sights and information. Tunes was merrily bouncing along until we returned to the apartment, where she made herself right at home on our cute guest bedroom. For my first meal in Korea, we dined at an exquisite local restaurant… Serving only Italian fare. Daddy’s Kitchen is this awesome, tiny place with about 4 tables inside, and the titular Daddy is sole proprietor, chef, host, waiter, and busboy. A Korean citizen who trained in Italy, he pronounced “risotto and mozzarella” with a finesse that belied the modest set up, and I had one of the most beautifully presented and delicious Italian meals ever. In Seoul. Very unexpected. 
A glass of wine and a hearty meal and a long and sleepless two days put me over the edge of fatigue, and it was all I could do to bathe myself and myself to my cozy guest chimsil to curl up with Tunes and dream of kimchi, sandy Korean beaches, and being reunited with my touring machine. We had arrived.

Song of the Day: You are Here, by John Lennon.

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