Where to begin?
I remember stepping foot outside of Incheon International Airport last November, attempting to take in a deep breath in sub-zero conditions, and thinking 'holy s***, it's freezing here!' How I survived through that winter is beyond me. Yet here I am, once again, facing these howling Siberian winds that are ready to tear me apart.
'Come and get some,' I say.
I'm ready this time around.
Going back to my year here. When I first arrived, I was immediately taken in by my Mother's brother and his family. It was one big welcome party. Yet, it felt a bit surreal. I had not seen my Uncle for many years, and had never seen his children before. It seemed like eons since I had last seen my Aunts, and my Grandmother. 13, or 14 years, perhaps. Since then Korea has emerged through the IMF crisis, has hosted the World Cup, has developed into the 15th (perhaps higher now) highest GDP in the world, has flirted with North Korea on numerous occasions, and is currently hosting the G20 Summit. In other words, South Korea's is a classic example of the rags to riches fairy tale. I certainly didn't see this coming.
Amidst the growth, Seoul is constantly propping up new buildings, and digging underground for new subway lines. The never-ending task of modernization. It's definitely not the Seoul I had remembered from the late 90's. I knew that somehow, somewhere there was a hidden side of Seoul that I had to find. I had to find my Grandfather's house again.
So after thawing out of last year's frosty winter, I left my Uncle's place mid-April-ish, and moved into my current villa. Decent in size, and comfortable for one person, I finally felt the true meaning of independence, and dually, solitude. My friends were there of course, as were my relatives, but being further away forced me to occupy my time differently. If anything, I probably spent more time throwing back cheap beers, and whiskey by Hongik University during the weekends. A hot-spot for foreigners, and college students alike, a huge social gathering. Commuting approximately an hour west via the subway, disregarding any notion for time, and breaking dawn with an equidistant ride back. As all post-grads would say, 'I'm getting too old for this s***.' Yet, some how I'd get coaxed back the following weekend.
One day, I decided I had had enough. I needed to detox. That's when I discovered my first road bike here. Korean-made, white framed, with yellow bar tape, that Samchuly NEXT road bike had been through a triathlon, and one other English teacher, before it found me through Craigslist. That's when I discovered the real Seoul - hidden among the labyrinth of apartments, coffee shops, and karaoke rooms. Traffic free of cars, the Han River became my Seoul mate. Dragonflies accompanying me as I seared through the smooth pavement, leaving the older matching couple in their mountain bikes stuck on their 2nd gear. I was on a different high, and I kept pedaling. I'd end work around 10 pm, and then ride under the crescent moonlight until I had gotten my fix. It was ritualistic. Even the humid summer nights didn't deter me whatsoever. I couldn't stop.
Then, I found her. Well, perhaps she found me. I had visited four camera shops before entering this one. After inquiring, the owner informed me that he did not carry the particular model I was looking for, as it was not a popular model in Korea. A bit dejected, I was on my way out when he told me he would check his buddy's store next door. Nervously waiting, he returned holding a chrome and black Nikon FE2 that I was desperately seeking. Since then, her loyalty has been exceptional. Fourteen rolls in, I still can't get enough. Digital lies, Film does not.
I was lucky enough to meet some cool people who share the same love for cycling and photography during this past summer, and we have gone on numerous adventures. One's from Florida, and the other from England (Nottingham was it? I swear it sounds similar to that). Then I befriended a local bike shop owner who had eagerly helped me fix my flat on my previous bike. After a few nights of eating and drinking the Korean way, I bought an American made Trek Alpha 1.1 road bike from him. Suffice it to say, she's light (aluminum), sexy (glazed blue) and rides a million times better with the Bontrager wheel set, and Shimano components.
They have both resuscitated me. Providing endless hours of joy and direction, I was able to explore and see an unfamiliar side of Seoul. Weaving in and out of the narrow backstreets, bustling markets, secluded underpasses, vacant lots, crowded campgrounds, graded hills, and sprawling parks have made my experience here worthwhile. Though maneuvering dangerously close between inconsiderate taxi drivers can be aggravating, it is easily remedied by riding next to the Han's mellow currents on a perfect autumn day. Gravel, dirt, or paved, it doesn't matter, as long as it soothes the soul. How easy it is to fall in love with a place.
So where ever you may be on this planet,
here is my advice:
Get a bike and a camera, and just go.
Well... I suppose the weather's pretty important too.