We arrived in Seoul on time and having heard that we might be able to get into the city during out 11-hour layover looked for bus transportation and answers to questions. As we were walking through the transfer area, we stumbled up on the Transit Tour Desk and a woman there told us about the whole deal. Basically, the Seoul/Incheon Tourist Board ran buses and tours for very low prices (or free) ranging from two to five hours. There was a Seoul City Tour leaving at 0800, so we hurried to through the immigration desk to the airport entrance. The cadets liked this option, too because it meant that they got a South Korean stamp on their passport and could check South Korea off as another country visited.
At the tour desk, we were told that the five-hour tour would cost $10, but included a lunch. We tried to sign up but the lady there said that the 0800 trip was full. She did put us on a waiting list, though, saying that a large group of 11 had reserved spots but that they had not yet shown up. As it turned out, they never did, so we made it onto the 0800 long trip instead of having to settle for a two-hour tour of just the Incheon area.
We joined 15 others and a very animated guide who obviously lover her job. The drive into Seoul took us an hour and we went directly to the Gyeongbukgong or Royal Palace on the northern part of Seoul. Our guide explained that only about 10% of the palace is original because “we’ve been invaded many times,” and Becky and I had visited the sites around the palace when we were here in 2010, but it was still a great walk and clear that more renovations had been accomplished since we were there before. Our guide managed to walk us through most of the palace in just over 45 minutes with some lively descriptions and quick walking. This was France-style power tourism at its best.
When we made it back to the bus there was one irate guy still on the bus with his two small children. He claimed that they were the last ones off the bus and by the time they had exited they couldn’t find the guide and didn’t know where to go so they just sat on the bus. His wife was in the bathroom in the parking lot and we had to wait for her to come back. The guide told the whole bus, though, with her microphone before we left that if you got separated you just needed to be back at the bus by 1000. Still, this guy gave her hell for leaving them behind. Ugly Americans—though they said they were in transit from their home in Hong Kong. Why someone would take two kids under six years old on a tour like this is crazy anyway. The guide handled it well, though, and apologized profusely but didn’t really give in.
Our next site was the Jogyesa Buddhist Temple more in the center of town. When we got there, our guide made it clear that we had only 15 minutes at the site and then we would be moving on. I didn’t see the family get off the bus. The temple was very impressive and there were many inside following a chant leader. The exterior was decorated with many hanging paper fish which our guide said was indicative of the season. Fifteen minutes was plenty of time to walk around and take a few photos. Luke fell asleep in the back row of the bus and missed this stop completely, much t our amusement.
We reboarded and next went to the traditional street market (Insadong) and shopping area in downtown Seoul that, I recognized, was in the same area as the hotel at which we had stayed four years earlier. Our guide described the area and then told us that we would be going to lunch first. We walked down a narrow street (inaccessible to cars) and then upstairs to what looked like a traditional Korean restaurant. The six of us sat together on rustic wooden chairs and we had a prix fixe menu that included several starters, rice, and then a choice of three main courses. The appetizers were some very good kimchi that was not too hot, some fermented eggplant, seaweed, and potatoes each in separate bowls that were repeatedly refilled by the servers. My main course (along with Dylan) was s spicy soup that had an egg plopped into it raw—it cooked quickly in the hot broth—lots of tofu, some potatoes, and plenty of spice. It was medium hot and very tasty. Our guide told us that the way to eat is was to have a spoonful of soup and the go for a bite of rice. The others had dishes that they clearly enjoyed. Dylan, Winston, and I ordered a bottle of the local beer (0.5 liter) and recognized that we were back in the developed work when the bill for each one was $5 or 5000SKW. The coupled that complained about being left behind got off the bus, saw a a fried chicken and French fry place and went there directly, skipping the Korean lunch that they’d already purchased. I liked the fact that the cadets recognized boorish behavior of Americans overseas.
After lunch we broke into two groups—Dylan and I were more into the back alley walking while the other four were window shopping. The sites and people were fun to see and we covered a lot of ground quickly. We went to one park that seemed to be populated almost entirely by old men. The inner walls of the park contained large bronze high relief murals showing key historical events in Korean history, specifically the Japanese occupation period, and there were statues and monuments to key resistance leaders. It was small and peaceful with some beautiful flowers, too.
We continued our walk around, passing down narrow alleys to see various pork parts cooking in small kitchens, one restaurant clearly dedicated to octopus since they had an aquarium filled with small ones front and center at the entrance and an caricature octopus in their logo. There was a small children’s science museum with funny statues that showed a large elephant being sucked into a black hole (not clear where the front part of the elephant was located, but I’ll presume that it was another painted black hole somewhere else in the city). One gentlemen seemed to have stepped out onto the sidewalk midway through a barbershop shave visit.
Seeing downtown Seoul was a revelation to the cadets. They were amazed at how clean the streets were, that people in cars and on motorbikes actually followed traffic signals and laws, and there were no stray pets roaming the streets. Dylan and I wondered at what point in the development of a modern society citizens start being conscientious about trash and follow traffic rules. I didn’t realize at first how amazing the Seoul scenes must’ve been to them since their only Asian experience had been Cambodia, and told them that Singapore made Seoul look dirty by comparison.
The time passed quickly a before we knew it, we were back on the bus and headed through town back to the airport. The cadets got to see the Seoul tour through the fog, but not much else since the air was thick, but relatively cool. We were happy to not be sweating much more after all of our travels and glad that the temperature in Seoul was much lower than the 94F (35C) it was the day before. Here's the slide show of our morning in Seoul:
Back at the airport, we passed through passport and security check quickly despite some lines and took the train to the international terminal. We were at out gate by 1330 for the 1730 departure so everyone had time to catch another nap, walk around, or work on blogs and photographs. The airport was annoyingly warm (probably upper 70s despite air conditioning. I cleaned up as best I could in the bathroom, changed shirts right before we got ready to board, and brushed my teeth. Some of the cadets got some food before boarding as they planned to just skip dinner and go to sleep once we were on board. I ate my last Clif Bar as my dinner and had my Ambien in my pocket for easy access as part of my plan.
We when went forward to board the Delta 767, they told us that our boarding passes issued in Phnom Penh were no goo and that they needed to reissue new ones to us. We stepped aside and went to the customer service agent at the gate and handed over our passports. Then, things went downhill again—much like they had at Phnom Penh. I asked why we weren’t either alerted to do this in the four hours prior to boarding or why the boarding passes were not sufficient but didn’t get any solid answer other than “Delta is not Korean Air.” True, but both flights were Delta/Korean code shares, so that didn’t make much sense. We really began to worry when the whole plane was boarded and they now were asking for our baggage claim tickets. Suddenly the thought that our bags may not have made the transfer (in 11 hours!) dawned on us. They entered the numbers and we asked if our bags would be on the flight, but again the explanation in their best English left significant room for doubt. Luke had to explain his name again, but this passed quickly. Luke, Hansena, and Annie boarded when they got their passes as they were all on the same reservation with me, but Dylan and Winston were on a different confirmation code that required even more work and research. I waited outside for them and we were the final three people to board the plane by about ten minutes.
Finally, though, we were on board. I popped my Ambien, set the music on my tablet on shuffle, put on my facemask and can’t say I remember much from takeoff until almost five hours into the flight. Hansena was seated next to me at the window and she slept most of the flight. I managed to finish my second book of the trip (Willa Cather’s 1923 Pulitzer Prize-Winning “One of Our Own,” about rural Nebraska and World War I) and also got more work done processing and cataloguing photos. We landed on time at a sunny SeaTac and made our way to customs and immigration.
The lines were long at the passport checks, but they had new kiosks that allowed US citizens to just scan their passports, answer a couple of quick questions on a touch screen, and then have a photo taken with an integrated camera. The kiosk then printed a receipt that we handed to the agents with our passports. I was impressed with the entire system. Annie was less pleased, though, as for some reason not clear to any of us here receipt printed with a big red “X” in the middle and she had to go back through the system. We’re not sure if it was a random check or some malfunction. Still, she met us down in baggage claim about ten minutes later. Dylan, Hansena, Luke and I were already waiting for our bags and we had one of our bigger reliefs of the trip when we saw them on the carousel.
Recheck-in went smoothly and we passed security eventually—I was reminded that we were back in the States because my TSA agent that patted me down after I set off the metal detector with my metal hip offered the kind of stateside attention that I’d missed in Korea and Cambodia.
We made it to the gate area about four hours before boarding and used the time to set up our typical camp near a bunch of recharger plugs. Dylan promptly went to sleep sprawled out on a back of nearby seats and he was joined by Winston a little while later who found a parallel set. The others were watching the Netherlands-Brazil soccer match and they returned later. Luke went to sleep. Hansena woke Winston three or four times because he was laying on his back and his snoring was audible throughout that SeaTac C Terminal. Dylan hardly budged for four hours.
SeaTac’s free wifi was blazingly fast and I managed to get all of my remaining photos processed and uploaded to my Zenfolio account, my Microsoft OneDrive cloud backup, and to several smaller Facebook albums. I also added a few items to our Googledocs spreadsheet documenting some expenditures during the trip, called our shuttle company in Colorado Springs to reconfirm our pickup, and get some pages into “The Book Thief.”
By 1730 we were all cleaned up, awake, and ready to board the final flight leg of our trip. A call came out for a volunteer to take a middle seat in the exit row (non-reclining seat) so that a family could sit together in this oversold flight and I took it, reasoning that the cadets were tired of me sitting around them, I’d get more leg room, and I didn’t plan to recline anyway since I would be typing this blog. The family was thankful and it worked out well.
Nothing to report on the return flight and our bags and driver were on time worked out well. On the final van ride back to the Academy, our driver (a Marine Corps Vietnam vet) had lots of questions about the trip because he was also the driver that took us to the airport three weeks earlier. (Let me note that it was a 30 minutes longer trip than it had to be because USAFA has decided to close the North Gate after 2200 so our driver had to go all of the way to the South Gate and then back north to the Cadet Area to drop off the cadets) With all of his questions, and my answers, he was happy that we’d had a good trip and surprised by how upbeat we were about Cambodia and its future. I realized the same thing, while trying to balance my comments with all of the challenges that we saw. The conversation really helped all of us focus on what we saw and learned on the trip and was a great way to finish.
Becky picked me up at the South Gate as did Winston’s sponsors. We all had a few shorts words of mutual thanks and congratulations on a trip very well executed. This is my fourth official cadet immersion trip and it was the smoothest—even though it was the most physically and culturally challenging and immersive.
Thanks to all who followed us on this trip, checked the blog, and wrote encouragement. Special thanks goes to the USAFA Class of 1981 for supporting this trip through their generous donations to the USAFA Endowment as part of our class gift (If you’re ‘Second to None,’ reading this,and haven’t yet contributed to the Class Gift, I hope this blog and the success of our trip will encourage you to do so). Cadet final reports will be submitted and publically available via the USAFA Endowment's website sometime in early August. I'd also like to thank Developing World Connections (especially Ashley Ekelund), Equitable Cambodia, Intrepid Travel, Mango Tours Cambodia, and our great guides and leaders: Dan Tc, Sotheavy Sov,Sokkheang Ly, Kheng Senh, and Savorn Toem for helping make this such an amazing, memorable, and important experience for our cadets (and me). All 5000 of my photos are now up at martyfrance.zenfolio.com.
And that’s it folks. More adventures start soon when I depart for a semester abroad at Nanyang Technical University in Singapore as a Fulbright Fellow. The Cambodia trip and strengthened my resolve to travel as much as practical throughout Southeast Asia and Indonesia while I’m there as well as making plans to meet Becky in Hong Kong during our Fall Break to see that great city and let Dan serve as tour guide again--for beer and photo discussions. I’ll run a blog for that trip, too.
All the Best,