For quite some time, I had been thinking of traveling alone. It was something I wanted to experience while I’m still young and able. But there were always a host of reasons why I couldn’t do it. The simplest of course was: fear, fear that something bad might happen to me, fear that I wouldn’t enjoy, fear of taking that deep plunge into the unknown. It was fear that also stopped me from traveling in my early 20s. But having had a few countries under my belt and the conference on historical reconciliation, there was really no reason for me not to go.
I had always wanted to visit South Korea, as mentioned in some of my earlier blog posts, I wanted to see the Demilitarized Zone, anything else was just an add-on to my experience. I wasn’t really interested in makeup or the whole K-Pop thing; I barely knew anything about Seoul, apart from having been there during one layover while going to the States in the 90s. All I knew was I wanted an adventure and doing this alone would help me conquer my fear. After having spent 9 days in the country, I look back at some of the cool and fun experiences I did.
The first thing I did when I found out I was going to South Korea was book my lodging, this was for the days I wouldn’t be in the conference. Usually I would rely on Airbnb to handle my lodging, but the prices were exorbitant and I had a looming visa application coming up, so it would be nice to have one on my application before I leave. Through countless blog posts, agoda and tripadvisor searches, I finally found one: Yakorea Hostel – Dongdaemun.
Yakorea Dongdaemun, located in Cheonggu station and more than an hours away from Incheon International Airport, would be my home for the 4 days in Seoul. Without having to give any credit card details, I secured a bed for myself in their 14-bed mixed dorm room. Upon arrival, I was given access to the dorm room and inside I made myself at home. Using blankets to block out the light, I would call this place home for the next couple of days. Each resident in the hostel is also given their own locker, every day I would make sure that all my valuables were secured in that locker and double-checked it just before I left.
The hostel wasn’t a bad place, the people there were from many different parts of the world. I met a fellow kababayan (countryman) while there, a few Europeans, and a whole lot of Asians. Tommy, the manager of the hostel, was kind and allowed me a few concessions: checking in 30 minutes earlier without additional charge and getting a refund for the night I wouldn’t be staying in the hostel.
At home, I never had to worry about food, there was always someone to prepare that for me. But here, it was just me and a whole lot of options to choose from. I had a lot of options to choose from: convenience stores, fast food chains, local restaurants, and street food. There were a lot of options but I had to be very careful, my stomach has a tendency to react to spicy food and I didn’t want to spend a day in a foreign public bathroom because of diarrhea.
Every morning I would pass by either the convenience store or the Cafe Paris for my morning sandwich, making sure I never spend more than KRW 5,000 (Php. 200) for breakfast. I didn’t have any problem hydrating since the hostel and the museums had water dispensers, I’d just fill up my big bottle and it would last me the whole day already. For lunch, it was usually spent in the museum’s cafe, ordering something local at least and keeping in mind my KRW 8,000 (Php. 337~) budget. Most of the food in the museums were good and quite affordable: I had kimchi fried rice with bacon and a few sides, a bibimbap made of vegetables and the chili bean paste with kimchi, a pork cutlet with miso soup. During the times I wouldn’t be inside a museum, I would just walk around to the nearest convenience store for a bite to eat, and their food was always filling.
During the conference, I would have more traditional dishes, but it would usually be some soup paired with a few processed meats. These foods were great and the taste was exquisite, but it was the kimchi that I really fell in love with. Every meal time, I would load up my plate with kimchi and enjoy its fiery kick. Apart from the kimchi, I also had the chance to try out a seafood soup, this was after our DMZ tour, and it really tasted fresh and delicious. Abalone, shrimp, clams all stewing to make an exquisite broth. It was divine!
Street food in Myeongdong
My dinners would mostly be street food I’d buy in Myeongdong, most of the time I would make an extra effort just to go there. When I do go to Myeongdong, it was always a rewarding experience, the smell of grilled, fried, steamed food would penetrate the thick summer air. My first stop would always be the famous Korean pork barbecue, in this case it was barbecue with squid shavings, and it was my absolute favorite. Going down the street, I would have even more options: like the hot and spicy chicken to kick off my dinner, then a few sticks of tteokgalbi meatballs, and to cap it all off, a refreshing watermelon shake or lemon juice. I would usually have a few apprehensions about eating street food in other countries. But just seeing the grilled skewers of meat, the glistening sauces, and the aroma coming from the food, I couldn’t pass up the chance.
After visiting the DMZ, the organizers gave us a couple of hours to rest and relax for a bit. During that time, I met some other participants in the conference and we decided to walk around Seoul.
It was fun walking in a city, where cars respect pedestrians and sidewalks are actually sidewalks and not parking lots. My feet took me to the city square where I got to see locals just hanging out, fountains gushing cool water where kids can run around and play, parents watching over their children. I enjoyed the slow sunset and the beautiful view of Gyeongbokgung’s gate and the mountains behind it.
One of the best experiences, was hanging out in the streams nearby. I had seen the streams before in a documentary by Discovery Channel and during my little side trips going home. This time, I actually sat down on the bank of the stream, removed my sandals and just dipped my feet in the cold and cooling water. It was a refreshing feeling and the music playing nearby was relaxing.
Conference and work
Even though I had gone to South Korea for some personal time, I couldn’t ignore my main purpose: to attend the 5th International Youth Forum on Historical Reconciliation. It was first time attending such a conference and I had no expectations whatsoever.
In the five days, I learned all about nationalism and the history of East Asian countries. Needless to say, the problems in my country are small compared to Japan, Korea or China’s problems. Their millenia old history made discussions very enlightening and introspective, especially when it came to our group discussions. I was grouped with 7 other people from different countries, our experiences and expertise really helped out in my understanding of the region.
On the last day of the forum, we presented our findings and an action plan that the youth can implement in the hopes of building understanding and fostering deeper cultural exchanges in East Asia. Throughout those 5 days, we gave it our all and never did it cross our mind that our presentation would be selected as one of the two best presentations. The feeling of garnering this achievement was unbelievable and even up to today, still quite surreal.
But more than just that achievement, it was the opportunity for me to meet people from other countries. In that relatively short time, I made some pretty great friends: In San, Siva, Ahran, Misong, Edison, Yes, and Hanna alongside people from other groups like: Selenge, Lynne, Elaine, and Daniel. These people made my trip to Seoul memorable, when it was time to say goodbye, it was bittersweet. We had only just begun but now we were leaving.
In the end
In the end, I am went home a little changed, a little braver, a whole trove of experiences and milestones. Even though I had suffered under the hot Korean summer sun, I was able to take a big leap into the unknown and found out that I can step out of my comfort zone and survive. My adventure might be small, but for someone who has always been sheltered, this was a big achievement for me. I hope that one day, I will have more moments like these. But I also hope that next time, someone will be with me during my trip, it is a lonely journey when no one is with you.