Sunday, October 14, 2012

Seoul reflection

It was late afternoon when I was standing in downtown Seoul waiting for the #6002 bus to the airport. A man motioned to me that the bus was approaching, and made sure I was standing in the right place to get noticed by the driver. I wasn’t sure if he worked for the bus company, or if he was just being helpful. Whatever the case, he said goodbye and waved to me as I climbed the steps into the bus.

Most of Seoul's downtown buildings are uninspiring, with the exception of Chongno Tower

Rolling down Chongno Road on a blue sky day (a rarity at times given pollution from industry and the 20+ million people that live in the city), I couldn’t help but marvel at the resilience of the Korean people. Devastated following the Korean War, South Korea was one of the world’s poorest countries. Yet, in a handful of decades it has grown into one of the world’s leading economies. It’s likely that you, or someone you know, own something made in Korea. A Hyundai or Kia car, perhaps. Or maybe a Samsung or LG mobile phone or television, or other electronic device.

The first line in Seoul's subway system was built in 1974. Continued expansion goes on today.

I passed the Chongno Sam Ga subway station, a massive underground complex with 15 exits, and where three subway lines intersect. In fact, the Seoul subway and rail network, which carries more than two billion people each year, is one of the largest in the world. And while others that are marginally larger and more than a Century old, like the New York and London systems, Seoul’s first line opened less than 40 years ago. Looking at a map of the subway system, you’d think that it was designed by an idle three year old with a pack of crayons. But despite its size, the system is easy to navigate and the stations and impressive 11-car trains are immaculately clean. A byproduct of Confucian values that still permeates Korean society.
I thought back to when Carrie and I were living in Korea, and how the Asian economic crisis bit South Korea hard. The country was embarrassingly forced to accept financial help from the International Monetary Fund (IMF). A series of austerity measures were put in place. It was winter and I remember the heat being turned off in subway stations, along with the down escalators to save energy. The government discouraged foreign travel and encouraged people to buy local goods. People were shamed for not following these edicts.

Part of the Gyeonbok Palace. Originally constructed in 1395, it was the largest of the five grand palaces built by the Joseon Dynasty

Old and new

Carrie was teaching a class of students, who were about 10 or 11 years old, and one day a couple of the students yelled out, “Teacha, Teacha…Jason is using Japanese pen…IMF..IMF.” While the class was laughing uproariously, all eyes had turned to the offending student.” His was an honest response. “Japanese pens are better than Korean pens!”
All doors lead to new opportunities

Dongdaemun, or Great East Gate, one of eight gates of Seoul originally constructed between 1396 and 1398. Six of the eight gates still remain today
Koreans even lined up to give their gold to the government to shore up the country’s gold reserves. Imagine that. And in just a few short years Koreans were reaping the benefits of an improved economy.
A little more than hour after leaving downtown Seoul, the bus arrived at Incheon International Airport, which depending on who’s doing the surveying is ranked as the world’s best airport—a gleaming jewel of Korean innovation and determination.

The modernistic train station at Seoul's Incheon International Airport

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Seoul's renewal

In a previous post I shared a story about the renewal of life. Seoul, too, recently underwent a renewal of its own, when water again flowed along Cheonggyecheon. This six kilometre stream has played an important role in the city’s long history, but the Centuries haven’t always been kind to this waterway.

In more recent times Seoul’s rapid growth following the Korean War led to a surge of people moving to the city. Choked with garbage and sand and earth, Cheonggyecheon had become neglected. As a result, through the 1950s and ‘60s the stream was covered over with concrete to make way for roads. And in 1971 an elevated highway was constructed. This was hailed as a sign of successful industrialization and modernization  
Just a few years ago, this is what Cheonggyecheon looked like
But so-called progress comes at a price, and as you can imagine an elevated highway running through the middle of the city was an awful blight. I remember walking in this area 15 years ago, and it was noisy and desolate. 

Not without critics, the city decided upon a massive $900 million urban renewal project that would see the stream restored. In 2003, the elevated highway was removed and two years later the stream, about 15 feet wide, was flowing again. A walking path was built on both sides of the stream, and at points along the waterway, large stones have been placed, so people can cross from one side to the other. A series of bridges were also built to allow cars and pedestrians at road level to cross.


This is what courage to make things right looks like. A fantastic example of urban renewal

Not surprisingly the stream has now become a popular walking area for locals and visitors. I could see the stream from my hotel, and after a tiring day I just wanted to stay put, but I forced myself outside and was glad I did.

I followed the stream’s course east toward Dongdaemun, or east gate, for about two kilometres. Thick grasses and trees line the banks of the stream. Every so often I would step over the large stones and walk along the other side. I stopped and looked back as the setting sun lit up the western sky. As you would think, there is little wildlife in this city of more than 20 million, so I was surprised when I saw the stream teeming with fish. And for a city of its size, Seoul is relatively clean, and the area around the stream is no different. 

I continued on, and came to a large image on a wall. It showed what the area was like when it was a highway filled with cars. The transformation is mind boggling. It's uplifting to know that with some courage and ingenuity we can make right and restore the environment to what it once was.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

The Seoul I knew

The bus wound its way through the outskirts of Seoul. My destination was Chongno Sam Ga, an area in the city centre where we lived. It is also the site of a massive subway station, where three lines intersect. It’s so large that it has numerous exits, and you can easily find yourself disoriented if you pop out the wrong one, as happened to Carrie and me a few times.

I tried to steal glances of the familiar, but I recognized little. Maybe because it was dark, or maybe these were areas we didn’t frequent, or maybe it was because we most often travelled on the subway and so one has little reference for what’s above. Then I spotted Seoul Tower in the distance sitting atop Namsan, meaning south mountain, a 262 metre peak in the centre of the city. Minutes later, we stopped at a large intersection. I recognized it immediately. This was where Chongno St. and Sejon Boulevard meet. The latter of these two busy eight-lane streets is named after King Sejon, who reigned from 1418 to 1450. His biggest achievement was overseeing the creation of Hangul, the Korean language that consists of just 24 consonants and vowels, each with their own unique sound. Previous to the introduction of Hangul, Koreans used Chinese characters, but it was too difficult for commoners to learn, and so the King introduced a simpler language, whose characters rely primarily on the use of straight lines.
Statue of King Sejon.
Just as I remembered, Chongno was buzzing with activity. It was nine-thirty in the evening, and the shops were all still open and doing a brisk business. I got off the bus and walked a couple of blocks to my hotel to drop off my bags. I had a quick shower, and as I tasted the water on my lips it took me back instantly 15 years to when we lived here. It was such a brief, yet intense experience. More powerful than hearing a song that takes you back to a different time.
I remember how the street that led to our small hotel assaulted our senses the evening we arrived. The street was ablaze in light then, as it is now, from the little shops and restaurants that compete for space in this crowded city. The sidewalks were spilling over with people and street carts serving up unfamiliar dishes. What world had we just landed in, we wondered? But it didn’t take long for the strangeness to disappear, and it just became known as “our street”.

I walked along that street once again. And nothing had really changed. It was as we left it. The little 7-11 where I’d buy yogurt each morning was still there. And the smells were still the same—the carts serving up dried fish, woks full of food bubbling away in bright orange sauces, roasted chestnuts, and the scent of waste water underground rising from the grates in the sidewalk. The soju tents, too, were still there. Constructed of small tarps, these tents are set up in the evenings and serve food and soju, (Korean vodka). In winter, when the temperature drops below zero, the walls of the tent come down to protect patrons from the cold outside. And the drunken men, many in business suits, still stagger down the street holding each other up.

In this part of the city, streets and alleyways are filled with small restaurants and sidewalk carts, grilled and dried is everywhere

An alley leads to the narrow, pedestrian-only street where we lived. The hotel has been renovated and its name changed. And it’s now $80 per night, instead of the $18 we paid. But it still looks the same from the outside. Our room was only big enough for a double bed, a small table between two chairs, and a wardrobe where we hung our clothes. I often wonder how we managed to live in such a small space, but we made it work.

This was floor

I looked up to where our window was. Without many conveniences, we’d use the ledge outside the window as our refrigerator in the colder months. We’d keep milk, ham, cheese, and drinks on the ledge. I remember I had gotten a cake for Carrie’s birthday, and wanted to save what was left for the following day, so we put the cake on the ledge overnight. In the morning it was gone. We looked down and saw that it had fallen onto the roof of a building below. I think the cake was still on that roof months later when we left.

I wondered about the family that used to run the hotel. The adult children who handed us our key when we returned at the end of each day. And the older couple who’d clean our bathroom and bring new towels and sheets. I thought about how we bathed, cleaned our dishes, and washed our clothes in the olive green bath tub. My hands would burn after wringing out the clothes. I stood at the hotel’s entrance. A side of me wanted to go inside and ask if room 602 still existed. But what value would there be in seeing a room that looks nothing like it did when we lived there? Instead I turned away and passed the little shop where we used to buy grape juice and oranges.

The Seoul I knew hadn’t really changed. I was glad for that, I thought, as I headed back to my hotel.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Seeking closure in Seoul

It’s been nearly 15 years since I was last in Seoul, South Korea’s vibrant capital. That last day was a blur, yet I remember it like it just happened. My wife and I were leaving a city that had become home for a short time. We didn’t know it then, but a serious medical condition was stealing her life away. She had lost much of her sight. And so racing to the airport in a taxi, she had to ask me how fast we were going. I looked at the speedometer needle and said that maybe it was a good thing she couldn’t see.

Early morning in Seoul
In many respects fast is an appropriate metaphor for Seoul—a city that has grown up in just a handful of decades. It is a place constantly on the move, where buildings and office towers seemingly go up overnight. And it was a place where Carrie’s health failed fast. The sense of wanderlust that had marked the first few months of our stay—when we explored the city’s parks, historical sights and sprawling markets, and adjusted to a new culture—soon changed. 

Looking westward over one part of the city's downtown
It began innocently, when she began losing her sight—ever so slight at first that she simply thought she needed glasses. But it got so bad that one day she didn’t make it to work. Deciding to get off the subway part way, and unable to see well, Carrie struggled to find a telephone to call the school where she worked. When she did locate one, she fumbled around trying to find a coin to put in it. Unable to make the call, she returned to the small room in which we lived in the city’s downtown. 

Numerous trips to the hospital detected swelling on her optic discs. Doctors prescribed high doses of a steroid medication, and said it should clear up in a few months. We had no idea how grave her situation really was. Unable to work, and with the Asian economic crisis hitting the Korean economy hard—making it difficult to recruit English teachers—the school asked if I would teach Carrie’s classes, as well as mine. We agreed to stay another two weeks until month end.

Shockingly, Carrie could no longer see detail in things—only the outline, or shape of something. I’d go to work early each morning, and before I left I would put her medication and some food on a small table, so she would know where to find them. She was holed up in our room for most of the day. She turned on the television, and while she couldn’t see much, the sound offered comfort.

Many an afternoon she would gather her courage and boldly venture outside. She’d go down the street, grab a meal at MacDonald’s and return home with it. She dodged the blurry figures that walked toward her. We lived on the sixth floor of a building with no elevator, and on most days she made it home okay. But on one occasion, with her energy fading, she collapsed in front of our door. A single bulb struggled to light the dim hallway, and in the darkness that had befallen her, Carrie groped about to find the key to the room and her lunch.

She had become a prisoner—not only had the world around her grown dark, but she was trapped inside our small room for the last few weeks we were in Seoul. All the while my punishing teaching schedule kept me away for more than 14 hours each day—knowing that Carrie was alone and unwell made it even more of a struggle. 

Those last few days in Seoul were especially difficult. Carrie had trouble sleeping—though if she propped herself up she could get some sleep sitting upright. And each time she took a breath a rattling sound could be heard. We learned later it was caused from fluid building up in her lungs.

Still unaware how critical her health was, Carrie just wanted to sleep when we arrived home from Korea. The following day, with her heart racing and arms twitching, she went to the hospital. Her heart rate and blood pressure were alarmingly high, so much so that doctors were surprised she hadn’t had a heart attack or stroke. An hour after arriving at the hospital, we were told her kidneys weren’t working. How could this be? She was just 26 years old. And didn’t the doctors in Korea just say she had a condition with her eyes.

None of that mattered now. She was transferred to another hospital, and underwent emergency dialysis in the intensive care unit. I remember walking into her room and seeing her hooked up to a number of machines— the sounds of which broke the silence in the room. She had no energy to say anything, and so we just looked at each other. And hoped for the best.

To be sure, much has changed in our lives since those uncertain days. Carrie regained her sight, and after 14 months on dialysis she received a kidney transplant, when I was able to give her one of mine. Now with her health restored she is a mother to our two sons.

Despite the time that has passed I have had a nagging desire to return to Seoul. To linger one more time along the streets that became our home, and leave the city on a more positive note. It’s as if something was left unfinished.


When I landed in Seoul yesterday evening it was much like it was 15 years ago. The hazy sky made the burning orange sun larger than life, before melting away into the horizon. But as the bus left the airport (which hadn’t been built when I was last here), an empty feeling in my stomach led me to question why I had come. What was I hoping to find? Maybe I wouldn’t recognize the city. That instead of a homecoming of sorts it would feel strange and foreign like it did when Carrie and I first arrived. If much has changed in my life, then surely Seoul had changed too. Was I foolish to think that I could come here after all these years and find some closure? I hoped not.

Monday, October 8, 2012

To Seoul with Hello Kitty

You can be forgiven if you’ve never heard of Hello Kitty, the Japanese cartoon character. But you may be surprised to hear that what began as an image on a coin purse in 1974 has grown into a $5 billion global business. Kitty White is a Japanese bobtail cat with a red bow in her hair, and was born in London, so says the character profile. Hello Kitty and her family of characters appear on everything from clothing, accessories, dolls, stationary, fine jewelry, and airplanes. Yes, EVA Airways (of Taiwan) has five aircraft adorned with different Hello Kitty images. But while many airlines have special liveries (that’s a fancy name for the paint scheme), EVA has integrated the Hello Kitty theme into the entire passenger experience.

Surely the most photographed airline check-in kiosks in the world
I checked in for my flight from Taipei to Seoul yesterday afternoon at the Hello Kitty check-in counters and received my Hello Kitty boarding pass. Even the invitation card for the VIP lounge had the character’s image on it. Once on board the Airbus A-330 aircraft, passengers were serenaded by the Hello Kitty theme song, coming from the overhead speakers. Unfamiliar with this cheery music, it did remind me of Disney’s, It’s a Small World playing over and over and over. And on the personal video monitors, a looping Hello Kitty animated cartoon welcomed everyone aboard and wished us a pleasant flight.
This is EVA's Global Hello Kitty jet featuring popular destinations around the world. EVA has five Hello Kitty jets, which serve three cities in Japan, Seoul, Korea, Hong Kong, and Guam
Large, colourful themed pillows were on each seat. Even the safety card had the Kitty on it. I thought perhaps Hello Kitty might even have been up front flying the plane, but I later met the captain and first officer, and they looked human-like. They even have Hello Kitty toilet paper and soap in the toilets. 

Soon after takeoff the cabin attendants, wearing pink Hello Kitty aprons, delivered a well presented appetizer consisting of smoked salmon parcel with cheese filling, smoked halibut rolled with apricot chutney. And on the plate was a small piece of zucchini in the shape of Hello Kitty. This was followed by steam fried shrimp dumplings, coated with shredded compoy in an egg white sauce (I have no idea what compoy is, but it all tasted delicious). The garlic bread that came with the meal was probably the best I’ve ever had. It may seem like a small thing, but bread is a difficult thing to deliver well on an airplane. It can often be dry, but EVA earned top marks for this one. The pumpkin cheesecake that followed was overflowing with flavour, and the pink Hello Kitty chocolate was a nice touch to the presentation.

Business class starter

Notice the Hello Kitty shaped zucchini. When the main meal came it was like a game as I tried to find where catering had creatively placed Hello Kitty.

Delicious pumpkin cheesecake

With my stomach content, I settled back in my seat and let the music from the in-flight entertainment system fill my ears. On the opposite side of the aircraft I could see the sun setting, as we passed over the East China Sea. There are moments that you wish could go on forever—this was one of them. But two hours after leaving Taipei, Captain Nico Lin and First Officer, Carlos Moreno put the aircraft down on runway 16 at Seoul’s Incheon International Airport, which by many accounts is the world’s best airport.
As I was waiting in the immigration queue, I looked up at a large video monitor, Incheon Airport...loved by people worldwide, it read. And no doubt people worldwide love Hello Kitty, too.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Bald guys and swimming caps

Why is it that the Novotel hotel at Taipei International Airport insists on bald guys wearing a swimming cap? It's keeping me up at night. Actually, it’s probably the jet lag doing that. Ask my two kids. They’ll tell you that Daddy has no hair.

I was at this same hotel six months ago, and the indoor pool area is quite nice. Then, I just walked into the pool and started swimming. Above the din of my arms thrashing in the water, I could hear...”Mister. Mister. Excuse me mister.” I noticed someone in charge of the gym and pool holding a bathing cap and telling me I needed to wear one. Fortunately, he told me where it should go because on another trip to China I ended up putting disposable underwear on my head at the Sanya Marriott Spa, because I had no idea what it was for (you can read that story if you like laughing at someone's expense).
This time, knowing that I probably needed to wear a cap, I walked along the pool deck like a lost puppy unable to find where they were. Finally, I spotted a worker through the glass in the gym and patted my head. He walked briskly to the pool and showed me a table where they had about six caps to choose from. Most were coloured in a way that would make me look even more ridiculous than I was already about to, so I chose the black one.

If it’s about keeping hair out of the pool, the last thing I need is a cap on my probably would have been better for them to have told me to wear a full body suit.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Night flight

It's two o'clock in the morning and I'm waiting for my flight to Taipei. It’s been 19 hours now since my head touched a pillow, and the prospect of sleep ahead on the 12 hour flight is slim. I wanted to go to bed hours ago, and now I feel like curling up in a corner. Sure there are some people spilling out of bars and nightclubs somewhere in Vancouver, but at this time of day most in Vancouver (the smart ones anyway) are tucked cozily into bed.
Those who know me well know that I'm not much of a night owl. Eleven o'clock is a bit of stretch most nights. I have a good friend who once took great pride in "teaching" me how to stay up late. That was twenty years ago. And I’ve long forgotten his lessons.  
Someone remarked to me the other day that they didn't know flights left Vancouver at this time of day. Indeed they do. But there should be a law against it. And not because of the noise that such flights create for those living near the airport (No, for the sound of a jet forcing itself into the sky is a beautiful one), but rather because it’s a form of torture.
I’m not alone here. With two flights to Taipei, and others to Hong Kong, Manila, New York, and Sydney all leaving between midnight and 3:00 am, there are hundreds of other bleary eyed travellers in various states of comatose.
Given my fondness for a good night's sleep I've never warmed to overnight flights. It’s not as if I haven’t done this before. This is my ninth trip to east Asia, and all but two of those flights have left at ridiculously similar times. I get it from an airline planner’s mind, but if I were the master of the sky I would decree that all flights leave between 10:00 am and noon, and arrive at their destination before dinner time. Sounds reasonable to me.  
I remember once my wife and I were flying home from Honolulu on an overnight flight. The minute the plane took off everyone was asleep, except me and the poor guy sitting across the aisle. We both looked at each other. Partners in misery we were. I swear the flight attendants were asleep, and the pilots probably were too. Why do you think they have autopilot? And to make matters worse the inflight entertainment system—however crappy it was back then— wasn’t working. 
About three hours into the flight the plane shuddered violently. The turbulence shook the aircraft so much that it wasn’t long before everyone was awake. I bet even the pilots woke up. In a perverse way, I took some delight in watching those who had fallen asleep so easily now holding their arm rests a little tighter, eyes wide open, as the aircraft rolled from side to side.
And a couple of years ago I was flying from Miami to Bolivia on an overnight flight. The flying time was about six hours, and we departed around midnight. The cabin lights were dimmed during takeoff, and when we reached our cruising altitude I stretched out in my business class seat (I know the horror of it) and closed my eyes. I could hear the symphonic sounds from those snoring near me, but at least it was dark.
Then shockingly a flight attendant, who I imagined once worked in a prison, turned on the cabin lights. It was so startling that it took me back to when I was a kid in Sea Cadets and in the name of discipline, or some such thing, the officers would turn the lights on at two in the morning and we’d be out of our beds and standing outside in our shorts and little else.  
Was there some sort of emergency, I wondered? We’re the pilots ditching the aircraft in the Amazon? Because really, what other reason could there be for such action, which surely should be investigated by the International Criminal Court.
I soon realized there was no emergency when the warden who was responsible for the light switches pushed out a trolley loaded with trays of food. I looked around and crazily the same people who were snoring a minute ago were all perky and wide awake, excitedly anticipating whatever meal the airline was about to foist upon us in the middle of the night. It was as if that darkened moment of bliss a few moments ago never happened. Okay, I get that Latin Americans like their evening meal later than most, but this just seemed too much.
I gave in. No sense fighting the absurdity. When flying over South America, do as the South Americans do, I told myself. So I ordered a glass of Chilean red and took pleasure in the conversation of my 80-year old seat mate from Paraguay.

The flight to Taipei is now boarding, so I drag myself to the gate. Three smiling flight attendants welcome me aboard. I smile back, find my seat and fall into it. The captain then announces that our flight will be delayed 10 minutes. Turned out to be 30 minutes. But what does it really matter at this time of morning. I close my eyes.    

Are we there yet?

My Saturday was too short to see any sun, but this sunrise on
Sunday morning, an hour from Taipei looks splendid