As the plane descended into Seoul, my Korean seat-mate put on a sweater and a wool hat, and assumed an expression befitting one embarking on an expedition.  The temperature outside, the captain announced, was 1 degree Celsius.  I was coming from sub-tropical Taipei, where it’s often still warm enough in December to wear shorts and a t-shirt, and was wondering what I had gotten myself into.  I was well prepared–my single messenger bag was stuff with a fleece, gore-tex jacket, gloves, scarf, and both lower and upper long underwear.  I was no longer in the land of bananas and innocent girls in short skirts; no, I was about to spend four days in a cold land of jagged mountains, kim chi, and accented-yelling.

Waiting for the shuttle between terminals, I made small-talk with some Taiwanese, who, of course, were surprised that I was speaking to them in Chinese.  They were giddy as clams, and I kept reminding one woman that we were in Korea now, it was very cold outside, and, had she brought some pants? (she was wearing a short skirt).  She giggled and assured me that she did. As we were ascending an escalator into the main area, some sort of Korean star was sighted, and a wide cacophony of camera shots and phony “anneyaseo!”s was heard from the Taiwanese contingent.  By contrast, the Koreans were dignified, and silent, and the Cantonese members of the flight crew (as it was Cathay Pacific) stood by with weary disinterest, icy, and elegant–very Hong Kongish of them.  Within this new environment–more modern, serious, professional–the Taiwanese seemed like children to me.

In the small amount of research I did leading up to this trip, one of the things I learned is that the Seoul area is the second biggest metropolitan area in the world (after Greater Tokyo), encompassing almost 24.5 million people–greater than the total population of Taiwan, half the size of California.  Therefore, it came somewhat of a surprise to me that at Incheon national airport, the bus-ticket staff barely spoke English, a recurrent theme in coming days.  Somehow, they couldn’t figure out my bad pronounciation of Taereungipgoo, until I discovered the proper way to say “Tae,” at which point I was able to buy my ticket to where I was staying for the first two nights, at the home of a Korean couch surfer.

The bus journey was long, and by the time I got off, it was 11 PM.  I had precise directions written down, but no working cell phone, so I had to make sure I got them right.  There’s moments like this you have when you travel in foreign places as a cheap/independent traveler.  That is, it was 11 PM, I was in a foreign place where I didn’t speak the language, and English didn’t seem to be widely spoken.  I was staying with a random stranger who had kindly agreed to take me in, but didn’t have a phone.  I was dropped off at a nondescript suburban looking area next to a section of the Han river, full of bridges, cars, and sky-high apartment complexes that all looked the same.  It felt definitely below freezing to me.

Somehow, I navigated successfully, and found myself walking next to giant towers whose only distinguishing features were large numbers painted on the sides:

107

111

114

Each building had several entrances, each with their own electronic security barriers.  Eventually, I finally found the right building and the right entrance, and was buzzed up by Jean, my affable host.  Immediately, I was greeted by a smile, a cozy apartment, and within minutes, a home made dinner of miso soup, veggies, and kim chi.  I settled in, and had long conversation with Jean about Korea, China, Taiwan, travel, art, tea shops, and other things I don’t remember. She asked me what I smelled when I stepped off the plane in Incheon.

“When I was in Taiwan, right away, it smelled different..it smelled like Taiwan.  What did you smell when you came out?  Kim chi?”  She laughed, a wonderfully joyous laugh.

I admitted that I hadn’t yet smelled any particular smells, but it was striking how much drier it was here, and I’m sure I would come up with something, after I had been here for more than a few hours.

When it was time to go to bed, she showed me to my room, and laid out a sort of comforter on the heated floor, the traditional way of sleeping for Koreans.  I added on several layers on top, and the interior warmth was delicious after being in the piercing cold.  I was reminded of the beginning of Moby Dick, as the protagonist finds himself in bed with a tattooed, spear-carrying Polynesian whaler, in an icy Nantucket room.  Once these “personal” details are sorted out, he takes great pleasure in the warmth and comfort of his lodgings, in light of the abominable winter outside.  Herman Melville writes,

“Truly to enjoy bodily warmth, some small part of you must be cold, for there is no quality in this world that is not what it is merely by contrast. Nothing exists in itself.”

And I slept, relaxing into the comfort that I have always felt from sleeping in a place that is not my own, but which I am welcomed into.

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