About 2 weeks ago, I hopped a plane to Korea with my mom and brother to visit Bonnie (my sister) in Seoul Korea. We had a dizzying trip—lasting only 8 days including multiple flights.
I flew up to San Francisco to meet up with my mom and Ken. Their flight from Seattle was severely delayed and instead of having 2 hours to roam the airport, they ended up running to the gate to meet me. My mom texted me before they took off and we knew it was going to be a close call as to whether or not they would get there in time. I asked the flight attendant at the counter if they would hold the plane for any amount of time if they knew there were incoming passengers from other flights. She said no. “Really? Not even for 15 minutes?!” I asked. “No,” she said, “We leave on time.”
And she wasn’t kidding! Mom and Ken walked up to the gate and onto the plane and the door was closed behind us. Phew! That seemed to become the recurring theme of the trip, barely catching our flights (and not for lack of planning!).
On our way to Tokyo, they were overly eager to have everyone on the plane. As we comfortably sauntered to the gate (thinking we still had half an hour until the final boarding call) we were greeted by a couple of air hostesses who informed us that if we were going to Narita Airport (which we were) we needed to hurry! On the way back to Korea from Tokyo, 2 and a half days later, there was an issue with the online check in function. All of this in addition to having to wait a very long time in the immigration line.
I cannot stress how intensely thorough Japanese immigration is! They scan your fingertips and take a picture of you before they stamp your passport. The amount of time the woman at the counter took to flip through my passport made me wonder if they hadn’t been taught to stall in some way, to make those ‘guilty’ parties smuggling illegal substances or water bottles start to sweat nervously or show some other sign of tension. Watching her look through all the stamps in my passport –all those marks of treasured memories in college–suddenly made me feel suspicious. Like the fact that most of the pages were full might make it look like I’d been on the run for a while. That and the fact that my driver’s license and passport photos looked completely different from each other—and that my current short hair cut did not match the pictures on either one. Thankfully, after asking me how long I planned on staying, they stamped my passport and let me through. Phew!
Back in Korea, we toured through Seoul for a few more days with our handy-dandy tour guide, Bonnie. I was really impressed by my little sister. Not just by how she got around town–but how well she spoke Korean and how easily she communicated with the people there! No one ever even asked her “where are you from?” They just spoke to her in Korean like she belonged there. Wow. Maybe her accent is really good? And it might help that she is actually half Korean 🙂 Or maybe Korean people are less curious that way then people in Europe? Either way, it was still pretty impressive.
Other amusing tid bits and interesting things to ponder
Namdae Mun market
There are streets lined end to end with sky scrapers filled on every floor with identical shops selling the same things on every floor. And yet they all stay open. After spending several hours (like a champ) following us through the women’s clothing and accessories, we went to some of the men’s floors to look for things for Kenny. And so the most entertaining portion of the day began. The guys in Korea, or at least the ones who shop at the market, as skinny as flat chested 16 year old girls. So when we tried to find hooded sweatshirts for my brother and his 44” chest, things got interesting. It became a running gag. My sister, mom and I would walk through the stalls of enthusiastic sales men with my brother behind us. After hearing all their please for us to “Come and see what we have here!” we parted like the Red Sea and let my brother step through. Afterwards most of the sales clerks just smiled and went, “Oh.” One guy even stopped, took a moment to assess my brother’s size and then looked up and said, “Ok, bye!” while giving us a friendly wave and laughing. A pair of motherly women tried to stretch the shoulders of a sweatshirt after my brother put it on, to show him how ‘well’ it fit. Eventually they ended up just squeezing his biceps and smiling.
Always remember to ask if you’re getting on the EXPRESS bus:
We weren’t the least bit concerned about catching the bus to Incheon Airport for our flight back to the at the end of our trip. We’d already been back and forth to the airport twice that week and had no problems. But on Sunday, in fairly short order, we realized the bus we were on was not the same bus we’d been on previously. THAT bus took less than 30 minutes to get to the airport from the stop near my sister’s house. THAT bus took the freeway pretty much all the way there, over a long bridge. The Sunday bus didn’t do either of those things. It started winding down random side streets, through ‘town’ (though I’m not sure what town, or in which direction) and made frequent stops to pick up more people. After about 50 minutes I started to get a little worried. Though the words on the outside windows of the bus included the words ‘Incheon Airport’ and my mom and sister had specifically told the driver that’s where we were going, and he’d nodded both times, my brain started thinking up multiple scenarios where the bus did NOT end up at Incheon Airport. In these scenarios we ended up in some po-dunk small village part of Korea, hours away from Seoul, no longer accompanied by Bonnie our magical translator. But after stopping at Ghangnam Airport and a few more city bus stops, mom saw a sign as we got on the highway that said , ‘Incheon Airport.’ And so, an hour and a half after we’d first boarded the bus, we arrived at the airport. That day we learned that it’s important to ask the driver if he is driving the Express bus that goes non-stop (as the bus that pulled up to the airport in front of us said). Thankfully we had given ourselves plenty of time to get to the airport and still managed to check in about 50 minutes before boarding. It was tight (again) but we made it!
This is quite a lengthy post already, so I will wrap things up for now. Stay tuned for: a different “short” list of things I experienced/observed while in Korea and Japan, a new section of my blog on Travel Tips and another new section of essays I’m writing in collaboration with a few friends starting next week (an official bi-weekly Blog-off!).