It is 4 a.m. Car engines can be heard from a distance. Light shines from the street light outside the small guesthouse room window making the kitchenette and small bathroom visible. As I lay flat in a bed, which became mine for two weeks, I grab my iPod and scroll through my Facebook page. I couldn’t sleep. I was too excited. All I could think about was “Is this real? Am I really in Seoul, South Korea?”
For 27 years, all I knew was Mexico. My parents are Mexican; I grew up in Mexico. After we moved to the United States and I became an adult, we always vacationed there.
Visiting another country was only a dream, a faraway dream. But in March 2015, I decided to make that dream a reality. My older sister, Veronica, and I decided to go on our very first vacation by ourselves. We decided to travel to South Korea, a country I fell in love with in 2011.
It took four years to save enough to travel to South Korea. I clearly remember the day when the country captured my imagination. After Thanksgiving dinner in 2011, my cousin, Myrna Chavez, and her daughters, Mariana and Mireya Guardado, started to talk about Korean shows, mainly, about Korean pop music, also known as K-pop. They insisted my older sister and I start watching Korean shows to listen to K-pop.
I was stunned. I didn’t understand why they were so fascinated with Korean shows and music. It was in a different language, which they clearly did not understand.
By the last week of December 2011 I was addicted.
I watched K-pop videos first thing in the morning, in the afternoon, and before I went to sleep. I couldn’t help myself. I didn’t know what it was.
I still don’t know what it is about K-pop videos that have me glued to my computer screen. Is it the beat? The eye-catching outfits? The cute Korean men? I was determined to visit the country that created the music sensation.
Landing in Seoul, South Korea
On Oct.6 of this year, Veronica and I departed from San Francisco International Airport. We could not have been more excited. We arrived the next day in Seoul, South Korea.
Honking cars and motorcycles, the chattering of South Koreans could be heard everywhere. Buildings that could almost touch the sky rose from the ground and could be seen from far. Everywhere I looked all I could see were Korean signs that were advertising restaurants, cafes, book-stores, cosmetic and clothing stores. I knew I was not in Sacramento anymore.
My sister and I shopped until we dropped in Myeondong and Hondgae during our two-week stay in Seoul. T- shirts, purses, backpacks, hats, sunglasses and cosmetics stores filled the streets. Young people flocked the streets, shopping the latest “Korean trends,” a store clerk told me.
We visited some of Seoul’s most famous landmarks and tourist spots. We stopped by Namsan Tower, also known as N Seoul Tower, where may Koreans and tourists gather to mingle and enjoy the Seoul panoramic view. We visited the famous Han River, which stretches throughout the city. We took the metro to Chuncheon, which is about two hours outside Seoul by metro, to the Gangchon Rail Park. The rail-park is a place where you can pedal through train tracks while admiring the beauty of the Korean countryside.
But our own self-guided tour in search of South Korean culture did not stop there. We filled our K-pop, fangirl hearts by visiting the Grevin wax museum, which features wax figures from various Korean celebrities. Not only that, but my sister and I travelled to the different Korean record labels and took many photos outside the buildings. Korean artists are not only known for their music, but they are also known for their record labels. We ended our days by eating at restaurants visited by Korean celebrities.
Food, food and more food. We ate all kinds of food in Seoul. From warm meat stews to fried chicken, we tasted it all.
One of the most interesting dishes we tried was cold noodles. When I first heard the name of the dish, I could not help but laugh, thinking to myself if the noodles were cold. After 10 minutes, the cold noodles arrived and yes, they were cold. In fact, every time I tried to grab the noodles with my chopsticks, the chopsticks would hit blocks of ice floating around the spicy noodle soup.
One of the landmarks I was most excited to visit was the Demilitarized Zone or DMZ, which is the borderline between North Korea and South Korea.
Life changing tour of the DMZ
The DMZ tour bus arrived at the Hongik University metro stop station at 8:45 a.m. Then the bus drove for about one hour and 30 minutes outside Seoul. Just before entering the DMZ, we passed by a town where several former North Koreans live so they can feel closer their homeland. The tour bus drove for 15 minutes more before reaching the check point. The bus stopped and a South Korean soldier wearing a military green suit, military boots and dark black sunglasses entered the bus ready to check our passports. We held our passport next to our face without saying a word. After the soldier checked every passport, we were granted entry.
The tour made three stops. The first one was at the third tunnel, a tunnel North Korea dug to spy on the South according to the South Korean government. Light bulbs led the way through the cold and misty tunnel. All you could see was a long, dark tunnel with uneven rock edges forming the walls and ceiling; and at the end of the tunnel was a sign indicating the number of meters to reach North Korea.
The second stop was the Dora Observatory. Here you were able to see a North Korean town and high mountain peaks in the distance. North Korea had a black flag pole while South Korea’s was sky blue.
The third and final stop was Dorasan train station. According to our tour guide, it is the last train stop before entering North Korea. The station looked clean and modern, as if it had just opened for business. Tourists took photos at the platform entrance as if they were at a birthday party. Smiles were seen around the station. As I saw this, I became uncomfortable. I did not want to take any photos or smile. If I did, I felt like I was disrespecting both North and South Korean people. I wanted to show respect to a place where many families have been separated, so when I saw tourists smiling and taking photos I felt uneasy. I thought to myself, “How can they be so happy at a place that separates families?”
My view of both North and South Korea changed after visiting the DMZ. I became more aware of the Korean history and culture more than reading a history book at home.
After nearly two weeks in Seoul, we took South Korea’s fast train, KTX, to our second destination in South Korea, Busan. There, we would finally hear some of our favorite K-pop music artists we had come so far to see.
We spent four days and three nights in Busan admiring its beautiful beach sceneries, eating more Korean food and shopping at the BIFF square and Nampo district.
But the highlight of our stay in Busan was the firework festival, held Oct. 23 at the Gwangalli beach. It was a two- night festival. The first night featured a free concert with some of South Korean’s most famous singers, like Kim Bum Soo and Kim Tae Woo. After the 2 ½- hour concert, the fireworks show began. For 30 minutes, multiple color fireworks filled the sky, creating a wave of ooh-’s and aah-’s from the spectators.
For my sister and me, the festival was a bittersweet moment. We were happy we had experienced a night of fireworks as a good send off from South Korea. On the other hand, we were sad that the event marked our last night in a country we would dearly miss. We had had the time our lives and we did not want to let go of that moment.
The next morning, we woke up at 8 a.m., ready to leave South Korea. We took a 40-minute taxi ride to the Busan train station to catch the 10 a.m. KTX train back to Seoul. Once in Seoul, we took yet another 45 minute subway ride to the Incheon International Airport. Our flight departed to the San Francisco International Airport at 5:30 p.m.
As the Korean Air flight attendant welcomed us to San Francisco, my sister and I looked at each other and said, “Next stop, Europe.”