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.