Welcome to Korea, Chris.
Dear Travel Diary,
Leaving Christchurch in the morning, I departed New Zealand after eight amazing months in the country. The final leg of my road trip now complete, after happily returning to Chch via Wanaka in the end, I began to prepare myself for my next adventure:
I bid a sad farewell to New Zealand, a country that had well and truly figuratively and literally stolen my heart, and jetted off towards my first connection in Australia.
I was going to be in transit for roughly 18 hours, flying Christchurch to Sydney, Sydney to Taipei, and lastly Taipei to Seoul. In Taipei, I would have an eight hour layover for my flight to South Korea.
CHEAP FLIGHTS WOO
Gotta love those cheap flights.
In Taipei, however, disaster struck just as I was about to board the plane to Seoul. I received an email from the hostel I had booked almost seven nights with: apparently something had gone wrong with the booking, and they were full up for the weekend.
In the broadest sense of the the word, my Korean Adventure was off to disaster.
See, I was arriving into Seoul on a Saturday night; the hostels were already packed as it is, especially around the inner-city areas of Seoul (I later learned that the Korean President was under a cloud of controversy and something like a million Koreans were protesting every Saturday in the capital, with many coming from rural areas to do so, and -you guessed it- staying in guesthouses and hostels). So now I was flying into a city on the edge of revolution, on a weekend, with no accommodation booked. I was well and truly fucked.
So the earliest I could get in to a guesthouse was Sunday, which I handily booked using the airport wifi. Sadly, this meant I had to spend the better part of Saturday within the airport, as well as sleep there overnight. I resolved to survive the crisis; it wasn’t trip-ending…
Then, further disaster.
When I tried to withdraw money from the ATM, I was denied. Once, twice, three times. Sometimes I even got as far as to allowed to input my pin number, but my pin is longer than 4 numbers, and the machine cut me off as soon as I pressed the fifth. Look, I’m not gonna lie. This freaked me out. I tried EVERY ATM in the airport, at least twice, pressing different buttons looking for different results and always resulting the same (is that the definition of insanity?). It seemed that I was well and truly royally fucked. If I couldn’t withdraw money, or even use my card, I was not going to get very far in South Korea. I was on the phone with my mum back home, on the phone with the bank, texting Christine in Christchurch for moral support/ advice (thanks for that, by the way) trying to get in contact with any friend I thought might’ve had the same experience (huge shout out the Canadian legend, Erin), and basically had panic attacks left and right in the terminal. Then, I had a breakthrough – ONE ATM, one quiet, unassuming ATM let me withdraw cash, and it was on like Donkey Kong.
There was one other guy in the airport, wandering around like me, looking hopeless like me, trying to withdraw money like me. He was American; I asked him if he knew what was up with the money situation in Korea. He didn’t know either, and he was about to lose his booking (pre-paid for) at his hotel, because he couldn’t afford a cab to get there. He looked towards a girlfriend sitting by the phone chargers, looking super stressed. I told him about the one ATM I’d had luck with, but unfortunately for him, he still couldn’t get it to work.
Maybe I’m an idiot, maybe I’m just a sucker, but of the about 700,000 won I’d managed to already withdraw, I offered him 100 for a cab. He refused, naturally, because he was obviously a good guy. But I insisted on lending him at least enough for a cab, and gave him 50,000 won.
I think, in hindsight, I needed to do something good for someone else to make it feel like the whole ordeal was worth something after all.
Day 2 (or 1?)
One, hazy, crazy-dream-filled interrupted sleep on a airport bench later, I awoke at about 6 0’clock in the airport. Tired, mentally extinguished and in desperate need for a proper rest to help recover my mind and body, I wandered around the airport again, looking for coffee, but finding myself too scared to try ordering anything with the limited Korean (i.e., none) I knew.
The same goes for food.
I knew check in at my new hostel wouldn’t be until the afternoon, but as 10.30 rolled around, I knew I simply couldn’t just wait anymore. I went back to the ATM once more to get one more chunk of cash. But, despite working for me yesterday, the ATM rejected me today, sending me into a frenzy.
Again, disaster. What if this was all the money I was going to have for the whole month? Barely enough to survive, and 300,000 of it had to be paid to the guesthouse when I arrived. I started doing the math in my head…
It was my parents who offered the best solution. The embassy would be able to help. I could go the Guesthouse, surviving on the money I had, and go to the embassy tomorrow, and hopefully they could offer some advice, or at least let me call home for free, and talk to the bank back in Adelaide.
Thankfully, the subway in Seoul is exceptional, and my Lonely Planet guide came with a map of the system. I found my new Guesthouse in the same book, so I was able to pin point its location fairly easily. The trains run very smoothly, and all the announcements are in English, Korean, and Japanese, so it was easy to find my connections, and know which stop I was at.
When I finally reached Gangnam-Gu Office station, I climbed up to the real world, and got my first real breath of proper Korean air. I really nice student took pity on my lost ass, and asked if I knew where I was going, I politely thanked him for his help after he helped me get my bearings.
Walking through alleyways and past restaurants and grocers, I find my new home down an alleyway across from a garden-style Korean eatery. I checked in, left my bag in a cupboard, bought some instant noodles from the store, and made myself some food in the kitchen.
And later that night, I slept so, so very well, glad to be in a real bed, and having survived my first 36 hours in this strange, so far, curious country. It’s funny, looking back – at the time, it seemed like Korea really hated me being there in those first few hours, but with the benefit of hindsight, I realise that I wouldn’t have got far with the help of the genuinely kind Korean people. Or at least the ones that speak English 😛
Anyways, little did I know what was still to come.