Monday, October 09, 2006

Notes from Korea – Postscript

Well, we’ve been back from Korea for almost a couple of weeks now (finally over the jet lag, more or less – the kids are still sleeping somewhat late in the morning, but I’m not complaining about that), so I wanted to wrap this up with a few final comments and observations.

I would have loved to get a picture of the traffic, but without a video camera it is impossible to grasp the craziness of the drivers there. Driving in Seoul is not something that can be experienced vicariously; you must see it firsthand to believe it. The cardinal rule seems to be that traffic rules are suggestions at best. I saw motorcycles driving between lanes and on shoulders; I saw cars driving on shoulders; I saw right turns being made from left-hand lanes and left turns being made from right-hand lanes; I saw drivers slipping their cars into a lane where there was scarcely enough room for them to fit; I saw drivers jump the gun at stoplights – get the idea? I know I wouldn’t last fifteen seconds driving in that environment; it’s definitely not for the faint of heart. The best thing to do is to take the subway.

I used the subway extensively to get around for sightseeing, and for the most part, the system is fairly straightforward and easy to navigate. The majority of the signs are transcribed into the Western alphabet (as are the direction signs on the roads), so knowledge of the Korean alphabet is not necessary. The subways are convenient, and if you avoid obvious peak times like morning or afternoon rush, they aren’t terribly crowded. Carrying a child is often good for getting a seat, though, and if you do find yourself having to stand while bearing packages, it is likely that someone sitting will take your packages and hold them on their lap for you.

One thing that you do see in the subway stations, and even on the trains themselves, is peddlers and beggars. More than once I saw someone blind or crippled hobbling up and down the trains offering gum and the like for sale, or even just carrying a music box, hat in hand. I also saw an apparently able-bodied man hawking lower back supports (“As seen on TV!”), giving his spiel for a good ten minutes before he got off at the same station I did. Most of the time I did my sightseeing solo, but on a couple of occasions my daughter did witness the beggars, and asked about them. I admit that I don’t have any brilliant ideas on how to explain that type of thing to a four-year-old.

(Side note regarding subway stations (or other public facilities): If you see a vending machine located just outside the restrooms, and toiletries are in the vending machines, take that as a positive sign that the stalls lack toilet paper, and be prepared.)

There are other advantages to traveling with children, however. Children are a great icebreaker, and the Koreans all seemed to like children, especially babies. I lost track of how many people would kitchy-koo the baby and take pictures, commenting on how cute he was. Not only women would do this – I don’t find that too surprising, at any rate – but the young men would act that way too. Total strangers would offer to hold the baby at a restaurant, giving me the opportunity to eat in peace. Hannah also made an impression on those whom she met – she’d use whatever Korean she knew and just be her amiable self, winning hearts wherever we went. She also asked, “Why do people think I’m cute?” several times; I responded that I didn’t know, but I suspect that perhaps people are enamored of “mixed” children. I did meet one Korean woman (whose husband is American) on the subway; she was visiting her family and friends, and she said that she got similar reactions when she went out with her young child.

I wish that I could have spent more time in Korea. There’s a lot to do and see that I just didn’t get to do this time; there’s only so much that can be done in three weeks, especially when traveling alone with young children. But looking on the bright side: this gives me an opportunity to go back someday and see the things I missed – not to mention some of the things that I did see this time, but couldn’t look at in detail because certain munchkins got easily bored and were anxious to move on.

Here is a picture from our trip (I've been trying to upload more, but Blogger is being cantankerous, so I'll save them for another day):

Hotel room. Notice the absence of what we in the West would call a "bed." Instead, there are blankets and pads (thick blankets, in other words) to sleep on. Not all that bad, but it's not the most comfortable thing for someone with a backache, I think.

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