Nahh, it’s not what you think, you green-horned devil, you!!!☺️😏🤔
My wife and I had a quick up-close-and-personal tour of South Korea when we visited our daughter, Aly, last week. She had gotten a scholarship for a masteral course at the Yeungnam University near Daegu, and this was an opportune time to visit her and enjoy autumn’s pretty colors in Korea.
At Aly’s behest, we didn’t take the traditional tours offered. Instead, she prepared a unique low-cost tour program that would make us optimize our Korean trip. In effect, we didn’t just see Korea’s modern infrastructure, we experienced a rare overnight stay in a centuries’ old monastery, enjoyed the countryside and the farms, feasted on great Korean cuisine, and learned more about the warmth and solid fortitude of a proud, yet friendly Korean people. So here goes.
We arrived at noon of a sunny day, just hours after a storm had ravaged Busan and its surroundings. This would effectively cancel our planned half day jab at Busan and the southern part of South Korea the following day, but Aly had enough places for us to explore anyway. After a sumptuous Korean meal at the airport, we took a bus that would take us from Incheon to Gyeungsan, a small suburb of Daegu in central South Korea. Communicating with the locals was initially a challenge, but once we got the hang of it, and with a little persistence and patience, we managed to find our bus, and the trip went smooth as a lark.
Along the way, what we found most noticeable was how orderly and clean the Korean countryside looked like. The forests were lush, with no trace of the dreaded ‘Kainginero’ threatening them. And air pollution, it seems, was just an extinct, long-forgotten issue.
Aly, our daring-darling student, was there to fetch us at the bus station. It was time to head for her pad; the ‘Happy Home’, they called it. She surprised us by cooking a special kimchi stew, something she never did when she was back home. So now she’s learned to cook for herself as well! What other surprises would she pull off next?
The next few days were a whirl. Aly toured us around the Yeungnam University campus, which was just a couple of blocks from her pad. She actually uses a bike around the campus. What’s this? Aly never biked that much back home. Now, she’s taking a bike around the community? And she bikes around the countryside along with her friends during the weekends too!
We toured the campus with its vast expanse of greens and clean, pristine surroundings so conducive to learning. We visited a medieval Folk Village that was reconstructed in a forested area right at the heart of the campus. We also visited Aly’s school, the Park Chung Hee School of Policy and Saemaul (PSPS), where we were entertained by their very hospitable school staff.
The PSPS aims to share Korea’s socio-economic development experience to developing countries through its masters degree program. It is a unique Korean experience-centered program, with students coming from as many as 40 countries around the globe.
We were also honored with a special Korean dinner by Aly’s host parents, Dr Byeong Wan Lee, an economics professor at the University, and his charming wife, Ms Suzie. Dinner’s main event was the tasteful haneuldari beef; and the rest of the menu was equally mouth-watering. Aly is fortunate in that she has a doting foster mother in Ms Suzie, who looks after her like a real mother should. Dr Lee has also been a steady guiding hand, giving Aly enough space to enjoy herself while observing from a distance.
The highlight of our campus tour was Aly’s surprise 2nd place finish in the beginners category of the school’s first-ever Speech Contest for foreign students. We hadn’t really planned it, but our visit just coincided with the competition. Aly never mentioned it to us, but she managed to juggle her tour-guide duties with us while preparing for the competition. It was such a pleasant surprise for us to watch her speak almost flawless Korean with just a few months’ stay in the country.
After the competition, Aly celebrated her win with a riotous getting-to-know-you dinner for us and her classmates. They have a closely-knit group, and it was a marvel to see different nationalities just so noisy and happy together. From Africa to South and Central America to Asia, this young, dynamic group of select individuals – future leaders in their respective countries – were having the time of their lives, unmindful of the the burden of responsibility the future had in store for them. Yes, it was exhilarating just to watch the world’s youth immersing in Saemaul’s vision of a world where peace and harmony reign.
Also present during the dinner were Aly’s Ecuadorian classmate’s folks, who flew all the way from the opposite end of the world to experience Korea and East Asia. Maria, Aly’s Ecuadorian friend, has typical Latin American parents, amiable and cheerful. Indeed, it was wonderful to be able to connect with some members of the older generation from the opposite side of the world as well.
We topped that hearty meal with a bingsoo, which is halo-halo korean style, in a nearby Korean dessert cafe. Wish there was some of that here in the Philippines.
My wife, Wit, has always been fascinated with markets, and Daegu’s was not one she would pass up on. She marveled at all the authentic Korean buys; from the food to the clothes to the fancy home stuffs, etc. Whew! It was really a struggle for me not to go bankrupt in such a short time. But luckily, God provides.
One of the unique finds of our tour was a rare overnight temple-stay at the Haeinsa, a world-renowned Unesco World Heritage site. We took a bus ride that brought us once again across grandiose farmlands, and clean and fresh countryside, through picturesque creeks and majestic mountains and valleys. With the red, yellow and golden leaves playing with the soft, rustling wind, the view of early autumn in Korea was simply breathtaking.
To reach the Haeinsa, we had to take a 30-minute uphill trek through an overused jogging trail. But the cool wind made the climb really quite comfortable. And once we got to the Temple, we knew that the climb and all the sacrifices would be all worth it.
After changing to monastery clothes and a short orientation from the monks, we were treated to a unique drum performance, followed by a spartan monks’ vegan dinner. After dinner, there were more ceremonies and talks on meditation, the body posture, full prostation and other practices. We were also taught how to string rosary beads while asking the most profound questions!?!!
Lights out was at 9pm, as we were expected to rise at 3am for more dawn prayers and ceremonies. We slept on a thin mat on the floor. Surprisingly, it felt comfortable as the floor was heated. Hence, I slept as soundly as a baby.
We woke up early the next day to a cold dawn drum and prayer ceremony. After that, we had a vegan breakfast and a tour of the compound. We saw the world-renowned Janggyeung Panjeon Depositories, a centuries-old storage facility that housed 80,000 medieval printing woodblocks of the Tripitaka Koreana. The Tripitaka is a priceless national treasure that has been proclaimed as a UNESCO World Heritage.
Finally, to Seoul. And what would a trip to Seoul be without exploring Gyeongbokgung Castle? Gyeongbokgung was built in the 1300s for the royalty of the newly-founded Joseon Dynasty. With the Bugaksan mountain as a backdrop, the picturesque Palace retains an auspicious place at the heart of the city.
We tried more Korean cuisine at the Insadong, took a quick look-see of the Seoul Flea Market where Wit got some chimes, brass Buddhas, gardening stuff and farmer’s tools.
We had quite a scare when Aly left her wallet at the Hana Bank after more currency exchange, but found out there was no cause to worry. The friendly teller had the wallet for safe-keeping, and after a brief security check, we were back on track. Big thanks to Korean honesty and efficiency.
We had a walking tour of Bukchon Village, where privately-owned hanok – which are traditional Korean houses – have been well preserved. It is a charming community, with its narrow alleys that makes one seem like traveling through olden times.
It amazed me to see that even in the urban jungles of Seoul, there would be scores of Koreans wearing their colorful native costumes. I found this demonstration of nationalism quite refreshing and commendable. The preservation of the Bukchon Village, and the conscious efforts to retain a clear national identity through the propagation of their unique culture and traditions manifests a sense of pride in their people. It is one of the fundamentals that have certainly propelled the nation to its respected position in the international community.
The Namsan tower, or better known as the Seoul tower, is the highest point in the city. Knowing my health condition, Aly had us take the cable car on the way up. At the top, we were treated to a beautiful view of the sunset and the lovely lights of the city. We also took time to explore the Great Wall built centuries ago to guard against marauders and warn the city of any impending danger. We also saw the Roof Terrace, with its thousands of love-locks.
Finally, we gave in to our craving for street food. At Myeongdong, Wit went crazy shopping and eating. We had grilled lobster and shrimps, cabbage pancake burger, ossigi chicken and so on. Wit and Aly also helped themselves on a basket-full of make-up and what-else-was-there, while I fidgeted and prayed for economic deliverance.
The next day, it was time to say our goodbyes and head off for Inchun Airport. It was a miracle how my wife was able to pack all her booty into 2 suitcases! Of course, we also had backpacks and 2 more bags disguised as hand-luggage. With all the souvenirs, the great memories, and a better appreciation and understanding of a warm Korean people, it was time to go home.