First, the inevitable question... Why South Korea? At DP, students take Korean as a foreign language and we learn a lot about Korean culture. The founder of our school taught in South Korea, the literacy rate among adults in South Korea grew significantly from the 1960s to early 2000s due to a cultural value on education, and not many of our scholars come to DPHHS with prior knowledge of Korean language so it provides an opportunity for all scholars, despite where they may be in their other academic classes, to succeed. All grades take international trips over school breaks and I was selected as a chaperone for South Korea!
Truthfully, I very did little to prepare myself for this cultural experience. I had the agenda somewhere in a sea of starred emails but only really looked it three days before the trip to begin my packing because I had to be mindful of my attire on certain days (professional, appropriate casual, DP <3s South Korea t shirt.) A full fourteen hour plane ride from the comforts of NYC, our nine days in Korea felt like nine weeks. Typically, we did wake up calls at 6:00 AM which meant that I had to be presentable to scholars (not in my jammies) by 6:00 AM to wander the halls and cheerfully knock on doors exclaiming "Wakey wakey buttercups" and having all scholars in the room tell me "Good Morning" in Korean (not that I knew what they were saying.) The days were packed from museum tours to cultural experiences to meals and we didn't arrive back to the hostel until around 10 PM which meant lights out around 10:30 (sometimes... 11:00.) If you happen to be counting, that means I was not receiving my precious and completely necessary eight hours of sleep. Once the day started, we went full throttle bouncing around on subways and buses as we ventured across Seoul. Somehow, the kiddos, never tired. Like, ever. They would reach a few moments of almost quiet and then one would make a move and they would all join in. I have no idea how they managed, but they did and it was quite exhausting. I'm sure there were countless posts to SnapChat of me saying "please walk urgently" and "lower your volume" as I obsessively did headcounts.
The food was OK. I have to remind myself that what we experienced would be like coming to America and eating at an Applebees. Something that's fine and mediocre but you don't actually crave or think anything taste over the moon reach for the stars delicious. Also, Koreans love their spice. And well, I can't eat spicy foods. Therefore, I enjoyed a lovely palate of white rice throughout the duration of my trip. There was one evening, in the shopping district, where we had about $60 to have dinner in our small groups. This was a little more than halfway through the trip and when we spotted a Krispy Kreme, I may have allowed it under the pretenses that we don't have Krispy Kreme in NYC so we weren't indulging in western food but merely being even more culturious. Once I allowed the doughnuts, they gave me the puppy eyes as they asked for pizza for dinner and well, I wanted it too. I told them we had to get something Korean but we only had enough money for cheese and none of us were too terribly upset. Also learned that Koreans don't really differentiate between breakfast, lunch, and dinner the way we do. To accomodate us, our hostel made us American breakfast each morning consisting of cheese sticks, french fries, salad, and toast.
I shared a few pictures below... enjoy!
We visited a Korean university, HUFS, where President Obama visited a few years ago and they marked the trail he walked through campus in yellow bricks. Naturally, we walked part of it and I feel this much closer to being First Lady.
My Starbucks addiction is out of control. But these sippys made my trip. I also started drinking real coffee (not just refreshers) in South Korea. It all began at a rest stop with an Angel In Us Coffee where I delightfully ordered a java chocolate chip frappuccino and savored every sip.
I spotted peonies while visiting the palace, of course. A few days later at one of the museums I read how peonies are a symbol of wealth and power and have long been adored as the king of flowers. While typically saved for palace events, they were also used to celebrate happy events for ordinary people.
We visited Gywongbokgung Palace in Seoul. I loved the contrast of royal gardens nestled within the palace walls surrounded by a major metropolitan area.
We have a sister school in Uljin (Korean countryside) that we visited. Uljin may have been my favorite part. I prefer the countryside and felt like we had more opportunities to experience authentic Korean culture. When we arrived at the school, their students and staff greeted us overly enthusiastically. If you look closely, you can see them peeping out of the windows to wave. It was incredibly welcoming and warm and I was in awe of their excitement. In full transparency, I may have told myself that this is what life would be like if I were the Duchess of Cambridge and for the brief walk from the parking lot to the gymnasium I may have lived in a little bit of a fantasy.
Our scholars + Korean scholars following a day of cultural presentations.
We had some down time in this park and I discovered this dog. Given how much I was already missing Henry, this was one of the highlights for me. I spent probably an hour laying on the ground smothering this dog in affection. He didn't understand one lick of English and all I could muster was pretty (I think it sounds like pollo in Spanish) in Korean. His owner appreciated my fondness and while we weren't able to communicate outside of small bows, we eagerly shared pictures of our pups on our cell phones with each others.
We learned a lot about the Korean Civil War which is still going on (ignorantly, I had no idea.) We were able to travel to North Korea (see below) but South Koreans are not and this city is the farthest north they are allowed to travel. Many of them have family members that were separated from them in North Korea and they have no way of knowing what happened to them. Many South Koreans come to this spot to celebrate their loved ones and honor them. This display of ribbons with handwritten notes was beautiful but also incredibly heartbreaking.
That my friends, is North Korea. When they said we were traveling to the DMZ (Demilitarized Zone) I thought it was a tourist attraction. I expected heightened security but thought more along the lines of Ground Zero. As we approached, I quickly learned otherwise. First, South Koreans are not permitted to travel to the DMZ so we traveled on a bus with all foreigners. We arrived by bus where we were greeted by armed soldiers who entered our bus and checked our passports. Then we went to another checkpoint only to do the same thing and eventually all loaded onto military bus. Once there, we had to be completely silent as we walked in two straight lines to the edge of South Korea to see the building beyond the blue UN building that is North Korea. There were soldiers standing outside and I was definitely uneasy with the experience. If you look at the picture, to the sides of the blue UN building, you'll notice a point where the gravel changes. This marks the line between North and South Korea territories. We were escorted into the UN building where we were able to technically walk in North Korea territory. I was certainly nervous not only for myself but also for the twenty teenagers I was traveling with who constantly needed redirections. I was so nervous of something finding its way to SnapChat and landing us all in North Korea but the kids were equally as uncomfortable and followed every direction carefully.
To unwind, we went to one of the shopping districts in Seoul which can best be compared to Times Square. After purchasing a plethora of funky socks and face masks, this is where I permitted the scholars to indulge in doughnuts and pizza.
We spent one night at a Temple and while beautiful, not my favorite part. We had hiked to this smaller temple when we were in Uljin and it was beautiful. I enjoyed the peace and the surroundings, but I didn't have much desire to stay in a temple. When back in Seoul, we traveled to a nearby temple and stayed the night. This included buddhist practice, meditation, silence, and bowing. We woke up at 3:30 in the morning. It was a neat experience but I'm quite certain my back was in pain for days from sleeping on the ground and I'm not too sure silence suits me.
On our very last day, we went to the amusement park, Lotte World. This might have been my favorite part for many reasons; it resembled Disney World and I was instantly happy, it was majority inside and spanned multiple floors which as a former Rollercoaster Tycoon aficionado, I thought was the coolest thing ever, and aside from a quick check in around noon for lunch money the kids were on their own for six hours. The rides all had long lines and well, I was enjoying my time at Angel In Us Coffee. I true grandma status, I did ride the monorail.
And because well, we all have favorites.
And a little throwback because when I was seventeen, I took my first international trip to Europe with my friends. And while I don't remember my chaperone's name, I do remember complaining about the two bags of luggage I found absolutely necessary to bring, napping in the Louvre, actually using a map to find the Louis Vuitton store in every major city because our hot pink razors didn't exactly have GPS capabilities, and sneaking off in Italy for vino. Maybe all of the pains of my trip were payback for being the absolute peach I'm sure I was while traveling around with BK's European Travelers in Summer 2006!
This ended up being much longer than I anticipated and I'm too lazy to proofread so I apologize for any typos. :)