It’s 4am and I’m laying on a mat in a room somewhere in Seoul, South Korea. Sangbin is sleepying soundly next to me, which is no surprise. He’s been awake for almost two days straight.
Last night, I was in the back seat of a taxi holding onto the seat belt, eyes fixated on the lights illuminating a mix of the familiar Dunkin Donuts and the slightly bizarre. There’s a KFC in Korea? And they sell fried chicken pizza??
It’s a chilly night (in the mid 50s), but there’s plenty of people walking on the sidewalks. I’m curious where those who turn into dark alleys are going, but I don’t get much of a chance to look because our taxi is weaving in and out of lanes. The alleys don’t look nearly as scary as those in New York. They remind me of crowded antique stores in the Midwest.
Occasionally our taxi slams on the breaks, another car honks and Sangbin tells me why a monument out the window is significant.
Suddenly, our taxi makes a u-turn and we’re on the edge of the road. I’m worried that our driver has given up on finding our address. There was some initial confusion when we got into the car and there’s a man waiting outside our car door. Oh no. Are we we being booted for this other guy? I’ve heard stories about this happening in New York.
It turns out the man, in his mid 40s with salt and peppered hair, is there to greet us. He helps us with our luggage and leads us down one of those twisty ally ways I saw earlier. My luggage gets caught on the cobble stone road and I’m lagging behind Sangbin and our host. They’re speaking in Korean and all I can think about is how badly I hope our place has a decent shower.
It’s 4am the previous day and I’m laying on a queen sized bed surrounded by golden blankets and pillows. I can hear Sangbin zipping a suitcase and then the door opens, bringing a flood of light into the room. “It’s time to get up!”
We had gone out the night before our flight to play board games with a few friends. Sangbin said he would stay up the rest of the night and finish packing.
Our host opens a traditionally styled gate and leads us into a court yard. Sangbin tells me that we were upgraded to a larger room for the same price when our host learned we were on our honeymoon. A woman comes to greet us, a young girl yells something in Korean and slides a paper door closed.
Sangbin slides our door open. “So, the shower is actually in the bathroom,” he says. How could that be? When I opened the door, all I saw was a pink toilet and a tiny sink. We walk back to the bathroom together and sure enough in the corner between the door and the sink is a removable showerhead.
We’ll be leaving for dinner with Sangbin’s aunt in 10 minutes and there’s no way I’m greeting her without bathing first.
10 minutes pass and I’ve only managed to wash my hair. Sangbin is dressed and I’m brushing my wet hair. We’re out the door.
Sangbin and his aunt chat in Korean and remove their shoes at the entrance to our restaurant. That’s when I’m hit by a wave of realization that comes too late in situations like these. Why didn’t I put on socks??
There’s not much of a choice, so I slip off my shoes and walk tip toe across the cold floor where everyone else (except for me and Sangbin) is wearing socks.
I’m sitting at the table with my feet crossed attempting to cover my bare toes, my hair is dripping onto my jeans, and people are staring.
The food arrives, the conversation switches between Korean and English, and I’m happy. This is what travel should be. A cultural immersion where you make mistakes that remind you how much you don’t know and how much more there is to explore.