Traversing the globe from one hemisphere to another is always an interesting journey. A polar switch takes us to the opposite season, reversing our sense of time and wardrobe. An affair of mine recently commented that he was always been attracted to women from locations far flung from his place of origin, New York. “Perth is the place in the world furthest from here,” he commented. “If one stuck a stake through the earth at New York it would emerge at Perth. So if I dated a woman from there that would mean I had… hang on, you were born in Perth!” I giggled as it was true, I was born in Perth, although before I was even one year old my parents had already relocated me, well, us, to the Northern hemisphere.
I’ve vacillated between hemispheres ever since. The flight from New York to my family’s current home in Brisbane takes a grueling 24 hours. And my last flight back was punctuated by 24-hour stop-over in Seoul that doubled my journey to 48 hours. While I appreciate my travel agent’s commendable rates, I realize they sometimes come with a price.
That price is often an involuntary stopover in a city I had no intention of visiting. As a travel writer and an adventurer at heart, I take the overnight layover as a blessing in disguise, and opportunity to conduct yet another adventure. I had recently succeeded in picking out a terrific hotel online for a stopover in Hong Hong. For less than $100, its pool was spectactular, its gym fantastic and it had a breaktakingly exquisite garden of gigantic palms by the reception and lounge. My room was small but pleasant and I had a great adventure indeed.
Thus, I confidently went online to pick a hotel for my night in Seoul. It seemed I could choose a hotel within a 10-minute drive from the airport, or hotels in the heart of the city, an 80 – 90 minute drive from the airport. Seoul, remember, is a city of ancient palaces, of a famous Secret Garden, grand museums and spectacular gates. Any right-minded traveler would be delighted to wander through its heart. I, however, was utterly satiated by great company and natural beauty in Australia. Considering my responsibilities and impending business back in New York, I decided that I had absorbed enough sensory stimulation, and albeit with some hesitation and embarrassment, chose to shack up in an airport hotel.
I gave myself a hard time about this, “You’re a travel writer,” one inner voice said to the other, “how could you pass up seeing this exotic Asian cultural hub just to rest and work on your computer?” They bickered back and forth but the voice of rest won in the end.
I arrived in the evening and was shuttled to my hotel in an airport satellite town called Incheon. My alarm was raised when I saw that the lobby was only a counter, that there was not even a restaurant or lounge at this hotel—never mind a garden, gym, or pool. How was I bluffed on the internet thinking I’d come to a place as lovely as the one in Hong Kong? How had I been duped? Had last minute sleep deprivation blurred my consumer astuteness, or had Hong Kong been dumb luck? The cost of these rooms was identical so I felt stumped. As I was ushered into the room I started crying. I tried to hold back the tears until the bellboy left the room, but failed. Now be clear, I am no spoiled, pampered traveler! When I know what is coming I have no qualms about on an airport floor or on a bamboo mat. However, I was caught off guard, expecting something lovely and arriving at a dump.
The room had a window facing a wall, a bed with a tasteless polyester cover, a sticky acrylic couch, vinyl floor covering and overly lighting. Demanding an upgrade from the manager got me nowhere. Finally I relaxed and appreciated that at least the Internet line worked. Thanks to the wonders of free internet telephone I soon grumbled to friends and got their sympathy. Hearing their voices in my lonely, ugly hotel room in Korea was a balm for my disillusioned soul. (OK, pun intended!)
As I’d slept well on the plane, enjoying a row of seats to myself, my body had no idea what time it was. After a decent nap I found myself up and looking for entertainment. My body, I have come to realize, is not an object that can be controlled and manipulated, but rather a being with her own personality, needs, and longings. While my mind may think one thing, my body is often chasing another.
Music will pass the time, I decided, and pulled out my trusty violin, without which I never travel. I turned on iTunes and played along with my favorite tracks. After that I turned to the hoola-hoops I also like to travel with. You should see the inquisitive looks I get at the airport with my large, adult-sized hoops! They are custom made in New York by esteemed friends who are professional hoopers. Unfortunately, the wide hoops didn’t fit in my cramped boudoir. Yearning for movement, I found a solution by standing on the corner of the, albeit, squishy bed; I could swing my hoop without colliding with wall. Anything to turn a gloomy situation into fun!
Eventually I grew hungry. It was time to check out and look for lunch. It was freezing outside. I’d gone from 29° (85°F) in Australia to 29°F in Korea. Wandering through Incheon, I saw a women’s bathhouse and an atmospheric restaurant beside it and decided to patronize both. Interesting murals depicting Korean village life decorated the walls of the clean, fresh restaurant whose tables and stools were made of heavy, unpainted wood. I was ushered to a round table with a barbecue in the middle and handed a menu entirely in Korean.
Not knowing what to choose, I went over to a table where a couple sat with a vast array of dishes before them. I tried not to be rude spied at their choices, but they promptly invited me to join them. What a relief! Things got much easier with this husband and wife in their early 50s, though he spoke no English and she spoke only a few words and phrases.
Their Monday lunch was comprised of 16 different dishes. As the center of the meal, slices of beef that were delivered to the table raw and were barbecued under a tubular, metallic heating contraption that hung down from the ceiling. The sci-fi look of this grill as a hilarious contradiction to the otherwise wooden dŽcor. Although I am predominantly vegetarian, I will eat anything when welcomed in such a generous manner. Barbecuing on our own table seemed fun and smelled delicious.
The meat was served with lettuce, rice and side dishes that included a Korean style coleslaw, a dish of onion, green onion, and a sweet sesame sauce, a sweet broth with thin soba noodles served chilled with ice cubes in the bowl, a delicate leafy green with tiny leaves in a chili sauce, some surprising invention mixing potato and fruit, and tenjan, a thick miso soup with cucumber, onions and tofu. There was also spicy crab from which I was instructed to suck out the meat with rice in my mouth! Kimchee, the ubiquitous national Korean dish consisting of a base of fermented Chinese cabbage and ground red chili was, of course, abundant.
It was a true banquet but I noticed that my companions ate slowly, a little of this and that. They did not overeat despite their many choices. The couple was great company. We smiled a lot and communicated as we could. When I mentioned that I was going to the sauna the woman told me she goes daily.
Soon at the bathhouse I was handed a towel so small it would not even go around my slender waist. I had to giggle. Once inside I saw that everyone was walking around stark naked, as is common practice in most segregated baths in the worldwide. Obviously the towel fitting my waist was irrelevant.
There were several baths, two hot, one cool, and one chilled but so extremely salty that I wondered if it was seawater. There were also three dry saunas of varying temperatures. I made several rounds between the saunas and baths, back and forth from hot to cold. It was calming to move around without talking, just observing the scene and taking in the delicious heat and refreshing cold.
Korean baths traditionally have individual grooming stations adjacent to the bathing area. Women bring their soap, exfoliating gloves, and lather for a vigorous scrub. I couldn’t resist getting a massage and consequently underwent a combination of being kneaded, doused with buckets of warm water, walked on, oiled, soaped and scrubbed. The women who were giving the massages wore practical underwear and bras—no glamour, no shame.
All of these women seemed so comfortable with their bodies. Voluptuous or petite, they were at total ease in their skin, a state I strive to always inhibit. Relaxed and exhilarated after my treatment, I wished for another few hours to loll around.
At this point I had begun to watch the clock and was weighed relaxing more against the stress of possibly missing my flight. And I compromised.After a final round in the sauna and pool, I dressed in hastily and scuttled off to the hotel to grab my bags from the lobby and catch the shuttle bus to the airport.
In no time, my hoolahoops were once again secured in oversize luggage and my violin tucked away in the overhead compartment. On a plane again, I felt struck by the relentless spirit of adventure: It is not isolated to metropolitan cities, to wild nature or even quaint villages; it will rear its head anywhere. The glint of escapade and discovery is ever-present. How else could my determination to not bother with an adventure in Seoul yield one so memorable?