Monday, November 3, 2008

And after an Extended Delay...

I am finally blogging about my "treat weekend" in Seoul (Oct 25-26)! I am so sorry about the very long delay in writing, but as I said, I got ramrodded with migraines last week.

Basically, the idea to have my "treat weekend" occurred to me on Tuesday (Oct 21). On Wednesday of that week, I bought my ticket to Cirque du Soleil's Alegria and looked for hotels online. Because Alegria was being held near the Olympic stadium (where the 1988 Olympics were held), which is in Gangnam (a region of Seoul), I wanted to find a hotel that was also in Gangnam, and large enough that a taxi driver would be familiar with it. I had only been to Seoul once before, so I did not know my way around the city. Since I was going alone, I did not want to have to traipse across Seoul alone at night, searching for my hotel. The only problem was that Gangnam is the most expensive area in Seoul, so hotels there do not come cheap.

I found a perfect hotel within walking distance of the Olympic park, but tarried in reserving a room, thinking I might find a better deal. When I decided to go ahead and book the room (on Thursday), there were no more available at the price I had been quoted, so I could not afford to stay at that hotel (the only rooms available were more than $300 American per night). So, since I was supposed to leave in only two days, I became a bit stressed and desperate. I had decided that Novatel was out of my price range, but had to reconsider finally. In Europe that chain is only three star, but in Korea it is a four star hotel. I decided that splurging once wouldn't kill me (although I did feel some pain).

On Friday, I had to take Jasper in for his "Eunuch-ification" surgery (getting fixed). In all the stress and excitement of planning my get-a-way, I had completely forgotten about Jasper - until Friday evening. I did some frantic text-messaging to a few friends, and my dear friend Michelle happily volunteered to babysit Jasper for me. Oh, in case you're wondering, his surgery went well and cost less than half as much as it would have in the USA.

On Saturday morning, I dropped off Jasper (who was feeling great) at Michelle's apartment, showed her how to give him his medicine, which he actually loved, and then took a taxi to the bus terminal. I caught the 10:30 bus to Seoul and spent the next four hours blissfully napping while my wonderful new iPod Nano serenaded me. When I got to Seoul, my first stop was a Dunkin' Donuts, where I got a hot sandwich and a kiwi slushie. Normally I abhor Dunkin' Donuts, but I had not eaten all day and my low blood sugar chose the restaurant for me.

I was supposed to meet with my book club at 4:00, so I wandered around in the Gangnam underground shopping center for awhile looking for a new bag (with no luck) and then tried to find where I was supposed to meet people. Since I do not know Seoul well, I got lost and frustrated. Finally, my friend Beth tracked me down and the two of us went to the meeting place. After a very brief book club meeting, during which we ordered our books (we're going to be studying Augustine's City of God together), we went our separate ways. Beth and I, along with a friend of Beth's, went out for dinner at Dos Tacos, a really great "hole-in-the-wall" Mexican restaurant. Fortified with a fantastic chicken, avocado, and olive burrito, I set off in search of the Olympic Park.

The Olympic Park is actually quite easy to find, and Beth insisted on escorting me there, so I didn't even come close to getting lost. I picked up my ticket, and in eager anticipation went to my seat. I had one of the most perfect seats I have ever had - fifth row. I was less than twenty feet from the stage! Giddy with excitement, I waited for the show to start.

For the rest of my life, I shall always regard Alegria as one of my most enchanting memories. I have wanted to see the Cirque du Soleil perform since I was eleven years old, and this was one dream that actually gained grandeur in coming true. The music was so fantastic that at intermission, I purchased the Alegria CD. I cannot begin to describe the amazing things the performers did - at one point twelve acrobats were flipping at the same time in different directions, often right over-top one another - so I won't even make an attempt. The costumes, the music, the acrobats, the contortionists, the clowns, and the atmosphere all made for a live show that I wished would never end.

After the show, I went straight to my hotel to check in (it was about 11:00 pm). I enjoyed my first bath in over eight months (I only have a shower at my apartment), rented a very unique Korean film, and then a great night's sleep. I heartily recommend the Gangnam Novatel to any other travelers. My room was gorgeous, the employees were friendly, and I have never before seen so many freebies in a hotel (at the price I was paying, there was no way I was going to leave any of them behind).

The next morning (Sunday), I decided that I wanted to go to the COEX Aquarium, having heard that it was superb. I had no idea how to get there, but I did know which direction it was in from my hotel. Feeling very ambitious, and perhaps even reckless, I decided to walk there, figuring that there would be a sign to guide me sooner or later. I know what my readers are thinking right now - you think I got lost, don't you?! Shame on you for your lack of faith in me! Believe it or not, this time I got lucky. COEX was about a half hour walk from my hotel, and was right off the same road.

I found a Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf (a terrific coffee shop) right across the street from COEX, so I decided to stop there for breakfast. I had a heavenly Camembert and chocolate tart with a simmering white chocolate mocha to drink. After breakfast, I walked across the street (no easy feat in Korea, especially Seoul), and climbed the stairs down to COEX.

COEX is a HUGE underground mall. By huge, I mean absolutely mind-bogglingly ginormous. The thing must stretch on for miles! The aquarium is underground as well, and was well worth the price of admission. I saw tons of interesting fish, as well as adorable seals and penguins. Best of all, there were actually signs in English so that I could read about the sea creatures I was viewing. The aquarium also has lockers, so I didn't have to lug my heavy backpack and shoulder bag through the exhibits.

Although I normally despise malls with a deep passion, I actually enjoyed shopping at COEX. It's such a unique mall that even though it was crowded beyond what an American fire marshal would allow, and even though it was overwhelming and I was lugging heavy bags, I still had a good time. I managed to find a beautiful gift for my grandmother and a little something for my niece, so I was quite pleased with the whole experience. For lunch/dinner, I ate at a delicious Italian restaurant with lousy service. Since I had a Bill Bryson book as my dining companion, the poor service didn't bother me in the least.

After lunch/dinner, I went to the lowest level of the COEX Mall to visit the Kimchi Museum. When I first heard about this particular museum, I thought it was just a joke, but having visited it, I can now say that there definitely is a kimchi museum in Korea. It's small, but informative, and the lady at the desk was very sweet. I learned all about the history of kimchi, how it is made, and it's many health benefits. I have to say, I'm really impressed that something so fundamentally disgusting (but strangely addicting) can be so important to an entire country.

Around 5:30, I made my way over to the express bus terminal, which is just a few metro stops away from COEX. I caught a 6:30 bus back to Gyeongju, and napped and listened to Victor Borge on my iPod for the four hour journey. I was seated next to a very sweet elderly Korean woman, who alternated between smiling at me and sleeping. At one point, she offered to share her fish cakes with me, but I politely declined (I hate those things - they take fish, which is disgusting, and make it even more repulsive by pounding it into sickeningly yellow flat "cakes").

I was back at Michelle's flat by 11:00 to pick up Jasper, although I wound up visiting for an hour. To my relief, he and Michelle had a great time together, and she was sorry to see him go. Jasper held no grudge about being left behind immediately after a surgery, so he was thrilled to see me. After calling home to chat with my parents, I went to bed dreaming of Alegria. What a marvelous weekend!

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"Passage—immediate passage! the blood burns in my veins! Away, O soul! hoist instantly the anchor!
Cut the hawsers—haul out—shake out every sail!
Have we not stood here like trees in the ground long enough?
Have we not grovell’d here long enough, eating and drinking like mere brutes?
Have we not darken’d and dazed ourselves with books long enough?

Sail forth! steer for the deep waters only!
Reckless, O soul, exploring, I with thee, and thou with me;
For we are bound where mariner has not yet dared to go, And we will risk the ship, ourselves and all.

O my brave soul!
O farther, farther sail!
O daring joy, but safe! Are they not all the seas of God?
O farther, farther, farther sail!"

~Walt Whitman, "Passage to India"