Monday, August 2, 2010

Korea Day 8: [Not So] Happy Suwon

On the last day of our trip, we planned to go to Suwon, a city about an hour's bus ride outside of Seoul.  This is where Brandon actually works, although we were not allowed to visit Samsung's campus since clearly we are spies for Sony.

Brandon had to put in a 9-hour day before meeting us for dinner, so he planned to catch the bus at 8am.  We thought about taking a later bus, but my dad thought we should just all go when Brandon went so as to avoid any crazy transportation confusion.  So at 8am we were all up and headed out the door.  As we waited for the elevator to come up, I decided to run back and grab an apple.  I quickly punched in the code to Brandon's door lock and waited for it to play its cute little tune as it snaps open the lock.

No tune.

Figuring I must have entered the code incorrectly, I punched it in again.

No little song.

So Brandon tried.

Didn't work.

The thing about the lock on his door is that it is battery operated and if the batteries die and you don't have the manual key with you, you are screwed.  Or, rather, you are locked out.  After dealing with this once, you might think that Brandon would stick the manual key (of which he has two copies) in his backpack and carry it with him.  But you would be wrong (this might be why we're always saying that electric engineers are not the brightest bulbs on the tree).

So our trip to the bus was delayed while Brandon talked to a security guard in the building about the problem.  Fortunately the guard spoke enough English that Brandon was able to clearly communicate what was going on.  He'd heard a rumor that if the batteries died and you were locked out that they only way to get back in the apartment was to break down the door, but it turned out that building security had a charger they could use on the outside of the door so he was able to get back inside and change the batteries and grab the manual key just in case.  It also turned out that what appeared to be a battery pack requiring 4 AA batteries actually required 8 AA batteries, which Brandon hadn't realized because (1) instructions were written in Korean (2) he hadn't ever removed the pack from the door to see the backside of it and (3) the damn thing had worked fine for six months with only 4 batteries in it.  We chalked this up to one of the many mysteries of Korea and caught the next bus to Suwon.

Looking back, I realize now that I hadn't gotten much sleep the night before and so getting up early to head to Suwon already put me a little out of sorts.  I don't function well on less than 7-8 hours of sleep (8-9 if we're really being honest) and I had gotten somewhere between 5 and 6, despite being totally exhausted.  So my day was already off to a not-so-great start.

Also in retrospect, we didn't have a detailed plan for the day.  Instead of knowing what we wanted to do to fill the nine hours while Brandon was at work, we had a sort of vague idea that we'd go to the fortress, check out a folk center, and then meet up with Brandon and his coworkers for dinner.  But we had no concept of how big Suwon was, how far apart these things were, how long these activities would take, etc.  David and I both like to vacation with specific agendas, and we didn't do a good job of planning the Suwon day in advance.

Suwon is a big city, but it is much smaller than Seoul's 10 million, and it sees fewer tourists.  This could mean some fun adventures exploring the city, but it can also complicate things when (1) you speak zero Korean, (2) it is extremely hot outside, (3) you can't eat pork, (4) you are pregnant, and (5) you can't have a beer to help you chill out.  In fact, when all of these factors combine, you just might end up crying in a stall of a very lovely and clean public toilet.  It could did happen.

We started out at the fortress, which was quite lovely although very similar to the Gyeonghung palace we saw in Seoul. 

 We did the audio tour which was sort of hilarious because it was delivered in perfectly enunciated, American-accented English and yet used the strangest grammar and syntax that I wish I had written down because of course I can't recall it but it was funny. 

300 year old tree.  Wishes come true if you touch it while you make your wish.

Essentially, the entire palace was built to celebrate the king's mother's 60th birthday party (I am sure I will do something similar for my mom's 60th birthday).  So the audio guide kept talking about the party. 

 Doing a little meditating in one of the palace's open rooms.  BTW everyone in Korea poses with V for Victory hands.  Why?  Brandon says because it's cute.  He seriously said that.

We wandered around, saw another martial arts demonstration, and decided to walk up the big hill / small mountain behind the fortress to take the trolley ride.

One of the martial arts dudes.

It was a long climb up these stairs.  And keep in mind it was a hot ass day.

Dad and David lead the way.  I'm clearly dragging in the rear.

We got to the top just in time for the trolley ride to shut down for an hour for lunch.  Because of course that would happen.

David needs to brush up on his Korean if he wants to read the signage.

So then we debated.  Do we wait around doing nothing for an hour?  Do we walk back down the mountain?  Do we forget the trolley ride and go to the folk center?  Do we get some lunch?  With no plan and no agenda, none of these questions was satisfactorily answered in a timely fashion.  Finally we headed back down to the visitor's center because my mom had seen some sign about a 3D film she thought we should watch.

It turned out the 3D film was a children's animated film.  In Korean.  And the theater wasn't exactly air conditioned.  I ended up falling asleep in a hard backed chair seated at a table in the "lounge" while my parents went to the movie for about three minutes and then walked out.

By this time, it was nearly 1:30pm and I was overheated, overtired, and nauseated.  My dad found a location on the map where the trolley did another pickup so we decided to walk there and get something to eat along the way.

Except there was nothing to eat along the way.  And I had no real sense of how far we were walking.  I finally got to a point--when we were in a section of town with no restaurants, no store front signs in English, and very few people to be seen--when I was like "This is ridiculous!"  We had no real plan, no idea where we were going, and I felt like I was going to barf.  So we hailed a cab and asked him to take us to the folk center.  Evidently it was on the other side of town because he said it would cost 20,000 won which is a lot considering the longest cab ride we'd taken in Seoul cost 7,000.  So instead we had him drop us at the trolley stop, which was like a block away, making the cab driver think we were idiotic American tourists, which, of course, we were.

The trolley stop had one Korean restaurant with a short section of the menu in English, everything else in Korean.  It was the kind of restaurant where you have to take off your shoes and sit on the floor, which normally would have seemed fun and adventurous but at that point I knew that I had to be hungry and I needed to eat, but I also felt like puking because I was so hot and tired.  I also knew that I had no way to communicate that I can't eat meat (and seriously pork is in everything).  I was frustrated that we had no better plan, frustrated that no one had a clue where we were or how to get somewhere with food I could eat, and seriously annoyed that Brandon hadn't given us any kind of orientation to figure out what part of town we were in, where we might want to eat, etc.

I wanted to punch everyone 100%.  (This is a phrase that Ju uses when she is very annoyed, like when it was hot and sunny and she wanted to "punch the sun 100%.")

Instead, I started crying and went to the bathroom and cried there for a few minutes.  At least it was air conditioned.

Sidenote:  I continued to be amazed throughout the trip at how lovely and clean all of the public restrooms were.  This was such a huge change from Paris, where the bathrooms were pretty grody and you still had to tip the bathroom attendant, and even from the U.S., where there are never enough stalls in the ladies rooms.  So I had a pity party in the clean, well-lit, well-supplied, and air conditioned restroom.

Then I went back outside where David was very sweet and sympathetic and talked to me like I was a three year old and promised me I could get a juice and some snacks at the store and he would let me pick out anything I wanted.

So I did. While I ate, David and my dad shot bows and arrows at the archery range that was set up near the trolley stop.  David was very proud of himself and hit the target with all but two of his arrows.

 Careful, kids.  You'll shoot your eye out.

Champion archer gives the V for Victory.
And then we caught the trolley.  Hindsight being what it is, I now think that chugging a bottle of orange juice on an empty stomach (I ate a nutra-grain bar and some chocolate cookies, but still) and then riding on the trolley in the very last row facing backwards was not actually the best plan.  I felt terrible the entire trolley ride and it was really not worth the walk or the wait.

Not worth the wait.  Even though it looked like a dragon.

To further the irony of my miserable experience, Suwon's city slogan is "Happy Suwon."  So everywhere you look there are buildings or signs that say "Happy Suwon!"  It was definitely not so happy as far as I was concerned and at one point I shouted dramatically, "I hate Suwon!" and my mom laughed and told me to stop it.

We finally got off the trolley and took a taxi to a nearby hotel that my mom had read catered to American tourists.  We sat in the air conditioned lobby and read newspapers.  Once I cooled off, I felt hungry for real, so we went next door to a little chain bakery called Paris Baguette where I proceeded to eat a bagel, a donut, and a nasty little bagel pizza with tomato sauce that tasted like bbq sauce and also had corn on it.  My mom looked at my tray and suggested I could save the donut for breakfast but I definitely ate every last crumb.

After loading up on carbs, we decided to take a taxi to a park that my mom had found on a map of Suwon.  Of course the map was entirely in English so when we showed the taxi driver where we wanted to go, he didn't really know and he dropped us a couple of blocks away at a different park, but whatever.  It was green and pretty and by then it had gotten overcast and breezy so walking through the park was pleasant.

 Sculpture at the park.

Another sculpture.
Brandon called while we were at the park so we hailed another cab and met him for dinner.  He had written the name of the restaurant on an index card and the cabby took the card from David and corrected Brandon's Korean to spell the restaurant properly, and then drove us there.  He was very nice.

The restaurant was lovely and two of Brandon's co-workers had dinner with us.  One of them, So-Yong, is also pregnant--12 weeks--and she gave me a gift that is supposed to help you have an easy birth.  It was a box full of dates and chestnuts and evidently eating them aids in delivery and is "good for the health."  (Koreans love things that are good for the health.)  So that was very sweet of her.  The other co-worker was a cute and kind of goofy guy who said we could call him Big J.  They both spoke excellent English, so So-Yong was able to order me a noodle dish without meat (although I saw the waitress remove the piece of meat that was sitting on top of it before she placed it in front of me).


These noodles were cold but they weren't in an ice water broth like the ones I had our very first night and I found them to be pretty tasty.  Still, I was glad that I wasn't too hungry because the main course was beef that we cooked at the table with all of the little sides to go with it and there just wasn't that much for me to eat.

I thought my brother had been exaggerating when he warned me about eating in Korea, but it is actually not easy to be vegetarian there--people find it odd (although Ju told me she thought it was becoming more common) and although much of the traditional food is vegetarian, that's because people were freaking starving so they ate rotted fermented vegetables (kimchi) and rice.  Not enough for a healthy appetite!  Of course, there are lots of other kinds of restaurants available--French bakeries, Outback Steakhouse, Italian and Mexican places, etc.  But still.  If you can't eat beef or pork, you'd better love seafood because otherwise Korean food is pretty limited.

So, a rough day in Suwon ended with a fun and pleasant dinner.  I was still glad that it was our last day instead of our first, because it would not have been a fun way to start the vacation.  We road the bus back to Seoul and met up with Ju at Brandon's apartment.  She had walked over with her adorable cocker spaniel whose name is Pony. 

 The adorable Ju and the adorable Pony.

Pony was very sweet and a little shy at first.  Brandon won him over by feeding him Cheez-its but then Ju reprimanded Brandon because Pony also only eats foods that are good for the health and evidently Cheez-its do not qualify.

Pony reminded my mom of her dog, Toby.  He made me miss my Cooper!

We hung out and chatted with Ju for a while and then my parents walked to their hotel and Brandon walked Ju down to catch a taxi and David and I crashed for the night.  It was hard to believe we were leaving the next day because the trip had gone by so fast.  I have to admit, though, I was looking forward to heading home and I know my brother was looking forward to having his tiny apartment to himself again.

1 comment:

  1. I'd just like to point out that there was an orientation to the city. It occurred the night before when I tried to show you the map and websites of the tourist spots and you told David to look b/c you didn't want to be bothered w/ it.