Well folks, it’s been a while but I promise you that I haven’t been resting on my laurels – my exercise book is slowly filling up with pages of handwritten prose awaiting electronification. So with no further adieu…
Friday 9th January, 2015
Never one to miss an opportunity, your sleep-deprived, intrepid hero rose early from his comfortable feather bed at the Hotel Ibis to seek adventure with a run through the dazzling streets of Seoul. First stop was the hotel gym, where my pre-run warmup was met with some odd glances from the local businessmen as they dutifully stepped on Steppers and orbited elliptically. Perhaps it was the fact that (unbeknownst to this inexperienced luxury hotel patron) the hotel provides workout clothes – shoes and all – so everyone else looked the part in their Hotel Ibis attire. Or perhaps it was my long pants, long sleeve top, gloves and beanie that took them by surprise. Or, dare I say it, my sculpted thighs and chiselled abs? No matter, away I went and soon I was heading down into the lobby and out into the fresh, -2C Seoul morning.
I’m happy to report that frostbite didn’t strike during the run and my nose and face were the only appendages that grew cold over the course of the run – a straight beeline down the high street of Gangnam (yes the famous Gangnam). It was a lovely course – the urban jungle of Seoul is almost always set before a backdrop of mountains, which surround the city. As I was approaching the last 10-15 minutes, the sun was stealing up over the horizon and the city began to bask in the dawn light. Delightful (pun intended).
As it was my first foray into the streets of an unknown city, I found out pretty quickly that a pedestrian crossing means nothing and that the green man at the traffic lights is not a free ticket across the road either. As Mr Ravi Kewelram of the Australian Embassy would later remind us: “Do not be the first or the last to cross the road. Stick with the herd…” Thankfully, I avoided incident and tried not to feel subconscious about the open-mouthed stares I was attracting as the locals attempted to come to terms with this fast-moving, taller than average white buffalo galloping down the path toward them. Given that I saw no sign of other exercise enthusiasts, I think it’s fair to assume they thought me obviously insane and were probably wondering how I managed to swindle my way past the immigration post at the airport.
Back at the hotel, washed, cleaned, happy and with feeling returning to my lips, it was time for Korean meal #2…. and still no Korean food! My disappointment was tempered by danishes and some of the other interns took a stroll to figure out phone credit.
We failed utterly and wound up slightly late to meet the affable Mr Bae once more and step across the road to POSCO. The incredibly impressive POSCO building is fitting for one of the world’s largest steel manufacturers. Several awe-struck hojus 호주 (Australians) were distracted by the sharktank (read enormous fishtank/aquarium) that decorates the intrance hall and fell behind, requiring a rescue by the patient Mr Bae.
A briefing followed – where we were formally welcomed by POSCO and the Australia Korea Foundation. It was fairly intimidating to be in a room with such heavy hitters on the scene, but I found them to be very genial gents. In fact, I’m going to go so far as to give them and Clinton a Gallivanting Gong – great photo with Mr Bae in the background. I’m afraid I can’t remember and can’t find the name of Mr POSCO in front.
Our next acquaintance was Mr Sergio Rubio – a Columbian native who has been living in Seoul and working at POSCO for the past 4 years or so. Old Sergio proved to be a goldmine of local knowledge and Mr Bae seemed most impressed at his intimate understanding of the Seoul subway system. Our man Sergio gets around, it seems. Our meeting with Sergio was brief and I think most of us were too overwhelmed to contribute much at question time.
So we trooped back out of POSCO, past the sharktank to brab a bite of lunch with Sergio, Mr Bae and two other POSCO big hitters. Korean meal #3…. Italian food! I was beginning to suspect that Korea’s renowned cuisine was merely a cunning ploy to attract tourists to the country…
Before long, we were being carted off again – this time to our mysterious host families (whom we had received no information on prior to the trip). The interns at Hyundai and POSCO had all been placed with employees at the company the worked for – Joanna and I had obviously frightened ours off so we had been cast aside to a homestay agency. This turned out to be a blessing in disguise – the agency provided a fancy black taxi and door to door service – we heard some amusing stories later about fresh-off-the-plane hoju interns navigating the subway with a 23kg suitcase and weren’t unhappy to have avoided that experience.
Our first stop was a rendezvous at the KORES headquarters with our supervisor (handler), the charming Rina Ryu. One couldnt hope to meet a nicer person and Rina accompanied us to our homestay accommodations.
Joanna was the first to go – to an apartment on the 13th floor of an apartment block in an apartment complex with 6 or 7 of these skyscrapers. Her host mother doesn’t speak a word of English and Jo vice-versa. Welcome to Korea! Back in the black taxi, it was approaching peak hour and it took us 45 mins to crawl across town to to Gwanak-gu, where I was greeted by my homestay family – who immediately insisted I call them 어마 (Eoma) and 아바 (Apa) – Mum and Dad. I was served a delicious drink – which I would later discover is called 유자 차 (Yuja cha). There will be a chapter on this miracle drink later in the piece…
After a reasonable chat which whistled past the ears of this illiterate Hoju, Rina and the homestay agent left and I was alone to fend for myself. Thankfully, Eoma has a pretty sound basic grip on English and I found 고맙숨니다 (gomapsumnida), 갠찬아요 (gwenchanayo) and 맛싯어요 (masshisseoyo) – thank you, OK and delicious – came in very handy. Eoma (59) and Apa (64) are both retired and are the very picture of happiness and hospitality. I was truly lucky to land with them and Eoma (who is keen to improve on her English) and I have been teaching each other our respective languages as we go along.
Dinner time followed soon after I arranged my clothes in the bedroom (complete with hot pink blankets) and again, my tastebuds were foiled in their attempts to taste the Korean delicacies as I was served spaghetti. To be honest, it was unlike any spaghetti I’ve had before – certainly the Korean influence coming through strong.
Shortly after dinner, we were graced with an appearance by my Korean older brother (형 hyeong), his wife (형수 hyeong-su), two nieces (조카딸 jokadal), aunt (이모 imo), uncle (아자씨 ajassi), older sister (누나 nuna) and nephew (조카 joka). Mayhem is one word that springs to mind and I was glad to have brought some good gifts (3 tubs of honey and some small Australian finger puppets) for the families who seemed quite happy with the offerings. I have heard it’s a gift-giving society here. So I met a chunk of family all at once and was overwhelmed by their rapid-fire Korean chatter as I tried to sift through the words for any that I understood (Hoju was about the only one). Things jumped up a notch when Apa and Ajassi cracked open a bottle of soju (korean traditional alcohol quite similar to Japanese sake) and it turned out that Ajassi (who is in the army) is a champion drinker. It all began to wind down at 9pm or so – allowing your culture-shocked hero to enjoy a moment of calm and familiarity… brushing my teeth. Funny how you clutch at the little things sometimes…