Errrdsflkgj... come in?
Are you ready to go?
Wait... what? [groan] Is it time to go?
And so it begins.
This week is the start of my new life. I’ve sold pretty much everything I own and reduced my life to one carry-on sized bag. For at least the next year (but I have no defined time-period) I’ve decided to take my office on the road and travel the world whilst still continuing to work as normal. Having departed from Lincoln in the UK and saying goodbye to the amazing friends who’ve done so much for me for the year that I lived there, I spent a couple of days in Northampton with my friend (and ExplicitWeb co-host) Hannah and her husband David.
The first leg of my journey started, as most of my journeys do, with a degree of disaster. I’m not a morning person, to put it mildly. Not at all. So when Hannah found me sprawled lifeless in bed about 5 minutes after we were supposed to have left the house to catch a train to London, there was a frustration in her voice.
(Apparently “is it time to go?” when phrased as an answer to the question “are you ready to go?” isn’t deemed to be a satisfactory response.)
Avoiding near misses with toddlers en route to the station, we did just about get there on time. Hannah shakes her head at me and seems to have a degree of scepticism with regards to how I’m going to cope with travelling alone. She’s not the only one. My best friend, Rick, has a pool running in Lincoln on how many days it’ll take before he has to come and bail me out of a prison in Thailand, and my favourite so far has got to be Phil - who said “I don’t understand how the shittest person in the world at public transport wants to make a living out of using public transport.”
Ok, so I might have a bit of reputation for missing trains. Let’s not get hung up on that. It’ll be fine. Right? Right.
A few hours later I’m sitting on a KLM flight to Korea with my travel companions for the week, Chris Richardson and Paul Dow. We’re headed to Seoul on a trip co-organised by Travelllll.com (one of my own ventures) and Expedia to visit both Seoul city itself as well as the Korean Formula One Grand Prix. These guys are seasoned travellers, so, that’s probably a good thing - for my safety.
Korea is the only divided nation in the world, with 49million people in the South and about half that in the North which, of course, is famous for its communist regime, fragile relations with pretty-much-everyone, and (worryingly) a nuclear weapons program. South Korea, where we’re headed, is known more for its high-tech and rapidly growing economy. With a GDP of £1.4trillion in 2010, it’s the 13th largest economy in the world. Most of that revenue comes from brands which we all know, like Samsung, LG, and Hyundai.
South Korea is the world’s 11th largest producer and consumer of electricity, and the 5th largest importer of oil - totalling about 3million barrels of oil every single day. It is also the number 1 country in the world in terms of internet connectivity and speed. In the next six months, most South Koreans will have broadband that runs at over 1,000 megabytes per second at a cost of less than $30 per month. More on that later.
Korea is somewhere that I’ve wanted to visit for a very long time. When I was at school in The Philippines we used to compete in the Asia Pacific Athletic Conference each year. Essentially, all the international schools in South East Asia take turns to host various sporting events and compete with each other. It was always a big deal whenever we got to host APAC Varsity Volleyball or Basketball because it would pretty much take over the entire school for a couple of weeks and teachers could be bribed into scrapping their lesson plans and letting us go and watch the various matches instead. Branded as a “class trip” you understand. It was for educational purposes.
The boys from Seoul International School (SIS) were always of particular interest, because while we were restricted to a rigorously enforced uniform and general dress code which included rules about hair - these guys would rock up with various beards, goatees, mustaches, braided-warrior-hair and the occasional set of dreadlocks. You know when Bugs Bunny plays basketball with the massive-muscled-aliens in Space Jam? It was a bit like that, except they were bigger. We didn’t win much.
APAC swimming (years and years ago) took me around Singapore, Hong Kong and The Philippines - but I never had the opportunity to visit SIS for those meets. I’d hear stories from the returning basketball teams though. They’d talk about girls (good) with FaceTime on their phones in 2002 (very good), and magic heated toilet seats (!!). This seemed to me like the sort of place I might enjoy.
Some 18 hours after leaving London Heathrow, we touch down in Ilcheon Airport after a surprisingly painless flight where the flight attendant only crashed the food trolley at full-tilt into my knee once (far below average) and the couple across the isle provided mild entertainment as they, not particularly subtly, disappeared in the middle of the night to join the mile-high club for an hour or so and then returned looking very-fucking-pleased-with-themselves.
There’s something quite exciting about arriving in a place where you can’t understand a single word of the language and, as an added bonus, you can’t read or pronounce a word of it either. I was very pleased to be offered 50% off something on the metro from the airport, for example, I’m just not entirely sure what it was. Possibly a special sort of tea which you feed to your cat.
As a language, our Taxi driver later reliably informs me, Korean is very easy to learn. It is made up of just 26 characters and takes on average 2 hours to learn in its entirety. I think he may have been a little optimistic on the latter count - given that it’s taken Paul, Chris and myself 3 days to master the words for “beer” (beyh-ah) - as in “can I have a beer?” and “thank you” (kamze-nida) - as in “thank you for the beer”.
Having mastered two cash machines and a metro ticket machine (not as simple as you might think), we wander aimlessly around Bucheon for several hours. The map to our hotel says we need to be on one side of the city, little do we know, the hotel itself is on the exact other side of the city. On the plus side, after the walk we are familiarised with the apparent multitude of seedy "girl bars" everywhere. We went back to one later, for research purposes, and I can tell you that a neon pink sign saying "She Bar" with a flight of stairs inside the front door, yielded nothing more than a completely empty bar with very expensive drinks and no evidence of a "She" ever having occupied the premises. We did get a free bowl of hula hoops with our beer though, so that made up for it a bit.
We stopped for dinner at a place with appetising photos in the window. Naturally the staff didn't speak a word of English, and at this point we hadn't even learned the word for beer. What the menu lacked for in pictorial content it made up for in squiggly symbols, so our ordering process consisted of pointing at pictures of beer on the wall, and then arbitrarily selecting the first thing on the menu. Which turned out to be very tasty indeed.
One issue which did come up, though, was when our waitress presented us (unprompted) with several bowls of seaweed in water. This lead to a good 25 minute discussion about whether we should drink it or dip our hands in it. Also, what would be more embarrassing/insulting - drinking something you're supposed to dip your hands in, or dipping your hands in something you're supposed to drink? Eventually we decided that there was only one thing we were sure of, which was that you weren't supposed to eat the seaweed out of the soup with chopsticks - which we discovered by eating the seaweed out of the soup with chopsticks. Stifled giggles from other tables were the main giveaway. Our entire meal including drinks came to a grand total of £3.80 each, very pleasing!
A short walk back to the hotel and jetlag started to set in quickly. While not being able to understand a word of the language we'd successfully been helped with directions, food, accommodation and transport. Korea so far - not bad at all.
Next up: off to the most heavily guarded border in the world - the Korean Demilitarised Zone that divides the North from the South.