I just let the place surprise me. I didn’t know squat about Chuncheon. I only knew of the city when I googled the jump-off point for both Nami Island and Seorak Mountain, and that was as far as my research took me. I was traveling with friends, one of whom knew a local who graciously offered her flat. We hoped she would make touristy recommendations; otherwise, it would be no biggie to spend a couple of days in the city without any agenda.
Autumn is a second spring when every leaf is a flower.
– Albert Camus
I fell for my first fall. Nature had made a canvas out of the countryside and masterfully painted it with vivid reds and yellows, a dramatic departure from my country where forests were all of 50 shades of green all year. As the bus pulled into Chuncheon in the northernmost province of South Korea, a ginkgo tree came into view, its crown of golden leaves glistening in the sun. I squinted at the glorious scene. Fall had me at first sight.
Murphy’s Law had caught up with us even before we left Manila. Anything that could go wrong DID go wrong. Cindy, in charge of online airline booking, inexplicably unticked baggage options for Melds and me. With our suitcases (“fridge” to Cindy) in tow, we had to queue anew at the cashier and cough up twice the fee. At Busan, our port of entry, an airport bus conductor who had just carried my girlfriends’ luggage stopped short at mine and blurted out condescendingly that men should carry their own. Melds knew enough Korean to translate for me. Not that I was expecting a hand from an adjussi like him, but he did push a button.
Two billion hits on YouTube sealed the deal. Of course, I had never heard of Gangnam before the video shot off the charts worldwide, but Gangnam Style brainwashed me into putting the trendy district into my itinerary in Korea. When my friend said our hotel was located right at Gangnam, I did the dance of joy with an imaginary horse and lasso. Images of Psy’s viral video played on repeat in my mind. My sole/Seoul agendum was to see the place that inspired a pop culture phenomenon.
In my travels, seeing the beauty of the world was a given. The beauty of humanity? That was the cherry on top. In my first trip to Korea, I experienced no lack in genuine hospitality. Kindness was most disarming when least expected, and it was my most precious take-away. At the departure lounge for my return flight, I posted my gratitude on Facebook:
A friend said I conquered Korea, but it was Korea that conquered me. Coming from a K-hood, I thought the country was just a bigger version. Indeed, my Korean experience was bigger – in memorable firsts (1st fall colors, 1st summit climb, 1st studio recording, haha) & in K-style hospitality & kindness from friends & strangers alike. Language barrier be damned, we connected in more profound ways than words. That’s what travel is: both visitor & visited connecting in this shared space. To realize that the world is for sharing.
Gamsa hamnida to Winter Sonata. If not for this Korean soap, Nami Island would have slipped under my radar. The show was wildly popular in the early noughties that even its dreamy island setting shot to fame. Although I never caught an episode, the island would become a non-negotiable item in the itinerary of my first SoKor trip more than a decade later.
Atop a tower of boulders, I staked my lofty spot with outstretched arms and a euphoric holler like a rock star, shades and chutzpah in place. But who was I fooling? There was only one rock star in the house, and that was Seoraksan, its rocky apex piercing the infinite blue of the sky. I didn’t have the cheek to believe I had conquered a mountain. Mountaineering never figured in the agenda for this day trip, or my life. I climbed Seoraksan, not because it was there, but because I was there.