City with a Seoul

My introduction to South Korea was managing to wedge myself with the 35kg remnants of my year away down the ridiculously small Korean-sized human aisle of the bus from the airport.

I was so wedged I had to back up, taking out all the ridiculously small Korean-sized travellers on the way.

In fairness to me, my brain wasn’t quite working, I’d just managed to not sleep a second on my flight from London and arrived to discover it was winter and snowing, when I genuinely thought it would be summer and sweltering.

It threw me, as did the directions to my hostel, so after losing complete feeling of my fingers I took refuge in the Korean version of Starbucks, where despite the fact I was clearly lost, the three local businessmen sitting next to me proceeded to just stare and then usefully remark upon leaving – ‘you too many bag.’

That I already knew, my rucksack was now so heavy swinging it at speed to get it onto my back came with the added sound effect of each spinal vertebrae clicking into a new place, reminiscent of what the osteopath did to me that time I somehow wound up with one leg longer than the other.

As for my hostel (when I did manage to find it), it was – what’s a euphemism for this – adequate.

Can’t really complain, it was the cheapest on the market and I could actually pronounce its name – ‘Banana Backpackers.’

It was Korean-sized though, with me hitting my head every time I sat up on my top bunk and a campervan-style bathroom where you shower over the toilet.

But despite my hostel woes and my exceptional unpreparedness for Korea, I must say I am exceptionally proud of my sightseeing efforts on day one – managing to stumble across a hit lists of the capital’s must-sees, including:

The Gyeongbokgung Palace, right in time for the midday changing of the guard.

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The largest collection of traditional Hanok-style housing.

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The incredibly modern and living City Hall.

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Seoul Tower, the city’s top tourist attraction and home to the best panoramic views of the city.

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And the US$384-million Cheong-gye-cheon – basically a 9-kilometre public stream-side walkway, running through the city out to the Han River, which was created after they ripped up an old highway.

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It was a great day, topped off by genuinely delicious Korean BBQ mystery meat for dinner.

Day two and I decided to cross the Han and visit the posh part of town – Gangnam.

Yep the place pop sensation Psy is singing about in his hit song ‘Gangnam Style,’ with brilliantly mundane lyrics once translated into English like – ‘A girl who is warm and humanly during the day.
A classy girl who knows how to enjoy the freedom of a cup of coffee.’

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I too enjoy the freedom of a cup of coffee, but the type of girl Psy is singing about is those tiny, two-dimensional girls with porcelain skin and unnaturally shiny hair.

They made me feel even more cuddly than I already am, but at least I could take comfort in the fact many of them owe their model good looks to the boutique plastic surgeries which have earned this part of town the nickname – ‘the Korean Beverly Hills.’

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Clear to say I stuck out in Seoul, with me only encountering one other blonde during my time here whilst at Asia’s largest underground mall.

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But people were genuinely friendly and even though they couldn’t speak much English still offered to help me and not in that – ‘I’m going to scam the crap out of you’ sort of way you encounter in South East Asian countries like Thailand and Vietnam.

In fact in my four days here the only place I didn’t feel welcome was the afternoon I rubbernecked the 24-hour fish market, where giant octopuses slip between buckets and large snapper sit in tanks hardly big enough for a goldfish.

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It was disturbing, but not disturbing enough to stop me from going upstairs and ordering myself a crab soup from one of the ubiquitous restaurants.

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It was delicious.

Actually all Korean food was delicious and it didn’t give me the shits once, despite the reoccurring presence of mystery meat.

There was also fantastic shopping (if I had money or room in my pack to buy anything) and the coolest Christmas trees I’ve ever seen.

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It was bloody freezing though, with it dropping to -17C at one point.

But the thought of that was quite pleasant upon arriving in Sydney to a casual 60 degree temperature change.

And while I may not know what the future holds for me back in the South Pacific I do know two things – I’m going to be a sweaty mess and I’m going to burn in the ozone layer-less sun like a Brit abroad.

Goodbye London

Can’t say I enjoyed my final hours in London.

There was so much to do and so little time, primarily working out how to cash my arcane cheque from Winter Wonderland.

I swear I told them in November I didn’t have a UK bank account (given it’s near impossible to set one up as a nomad without looking like a money launderer) and was told cashing it wouldn’t be a problem.

Well it was.

Not that they recalled that conversation and not that they were willing to put aside this infuriating ‘can’t do’ English attitude to ensure I could access the money I was relying on to see me through until I get a real job back home.

In hindsight, me losing the plot at one of their HR ladies on the phone, after she, without knowing any of the facts was quick to blame me and began patronisingly calling me ‘Rachael’ at the beginning of each of her sentences as if I didn’t know my own name, clearly didn’t help my cause.

But seriously, it was insult to injury after enduring 75 hours of being locked in a token booth and forced to listen to Christmas music on repeat, while desperately needing to pee.

All I can say is thank goodness for the parentals, who saw right through my too proud to ask for help ‘I’ll be fine’ facade and immediately topped up my bank account with an emergency loan.

Without them I would have been royally screwed right now, because despite working full time for the past two months and not paying rent thanks to the perks of purebred cat-sitting, money goes nowhere in London.

It’s a city you need money to have fun in.
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And as much as I loved my time here, it’s not the type of place I can see myself getting a flat and a career job in.

Everyone is in a rush, everyone is stressed, you queue for everything, it takes a good hour to get anywhere, thousands of people resort to internet dating because it’s a tough city to crack and most disturbingly – people outwardly ‘how dare you’ tisk when the Tube conductor comes over the loud speaker to announce in a monotone voice that there’s a delay on the line after some poor soul saw no way to improve their life but to jump in front of a train – at rush hour.

The English also have this habit of making things exceptionally difficult when they don’t need to be – the payment from Winter Wonderland is case and point, as is needing to see a doctor when you don’t have a fixed abode, or going to the optometrist for contact lenses.

Above all, I’m positive London’s no place I want to raise my kids.

Clearly I’m talking in the future (the only baby I have at the moment is a food baby) but watching mums (and the elderly) struggling up Tube stairs (because a lot of stations lack step-free access) while intolerant commuters shunt past them is something I never want to experience first-hand.

But perhaps the tipping point for me is there’s no seaside in London.

Sounds silly, but being from New Zealand not being able to see the ocean makes me feel just a little bit claustrophobic.

So on pretty much my only day off in December I managed one last day-trip to Brighton to see the beachside town – taking my sister’s best friend’s mum along for the journey.
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In hindsight we probably shouldn’t be allowed to travel together – managing to get on the wrong train and only clicking a good half hour later when we both thought it was funny the train conductor didn’t mention anything about going to Brighton.

Credit to us we were at the right platform at the right time – we just got on the wrong train.

As for Brighton (when we finally got there), it’s not really a beach, it’s pebbles and one hell of a rolling current.
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And as for the pier with its dated arcade games and crusty carnival rides deep in winter hibernation, despite being so incredibly different to home (where the ocean is left to revel in its natural beauty) I actually found Brighton Pier tackily brilliant and strangely charming.

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So all in all what I’m trying to say is that I’m confident I’ve made the right decision to go home.

But surprisingly I’ve accumulated a lot of clothes from my year away, which I blame mostly on my recent discovery of Primark.

I kinda wish Ear Candle Wax Girl never introduced us though, as packing my rucksack took numerous attempts and I’m actually scared to open it now for fear of being buried under an avalanche of mainly blouses.

Sadly I didn’t have room for bus face, though it would have been mighty easy to steal her given she packed herself.

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But I don’t think she would have survived my extended stopover in South Korea – apparently they eat cat here, and dog, and according to the pub’s Mexican chef – ‘they eat baby.’

I thought he was pulling my leg until he pulled up articles like this on my iPad.

Surely that’s cannibalism?

Maybe eating cats and dogs isn’t so bad after all…