24 April 2004

Farewell Kwangju, Hello Seoul

Tomorrow early I say farewell to Kwangju, then its off to Seoul. In Seoul I will say farewell to my family (again) and send them back to the states, leaving me here to face Korea and Beijing alone. Today after church while my son was in art school I sat in Sajick Park with my wife and relaxed -- a last moment of calm before the rush of packing and organizing and reorganizing and repacking and trying to get to the bus station on time to get to the airport in Seoul... It was relaxing and peaceful, if only for 30 or 40 minutes. The breeze was cool, most of the yellow haze cleared off, the kids were chasing the pigeons and everything was peaceful and right.

Traffic in Kwangju hasn't been quite as bad as I expected, despite the massive increase in the number of cars on the roads. What is lacking, however, is a common sense of road etiquette and a belief in or understanding of the rules of the road. It does make for some interesting times. Red lights, turn only lanes, speed limit signs -- all of these seem more like guidelines than rules, like optional items the government left lying around rather than requirements for sane and safe driving. Yet not one (knock on wood) were we in an accident.

The Kwangju subway (finally) opens in a few days. That should make things much easier on a person like me who mixes up the dozens of buses and cant keep track of all the bus routes. I am considering coming back down to Kwangju at the end of my stay in Korea for the May 18 memorial. In the past few years, I have heard that it has become more of a street fair than a serious memorial or symbol of the opposition forces that once ran strong in Kwangju -- I guess having Kim Dae Jung as president really took a lot of the win out of the sails of the opposition forces, once they were in charge. But with Roh's impeachment still pending and the Uri Party victory in the parliament, it may turn out to be interesting. I mean, I have been here a week -- in the spring no less -- and not once smelled a whiff of teargas. What has happened to the Kwangju of my memories, the Kwangju of nearly a decade ago?

For those who care, I will be doing a homestay in Seoul. I chose this option because it is both cheaper than a hotel (around $30 a night, breakfast included) and because it is an opportunity to meet more people and get a better understanding of a broader cross section of the country's citizens. I will be doing a homestay in Beijing as well, which will also give me some guidance and direction in a city that is even more foreign to me than Seoul, where at least I can read the signs and get by with the barest smattering of Korean. In Seoul, I will be staying near the Songjeong station (purple number 5 line), which is one stop away from Kimpo (or is it now Gimpo) airport. On the Seoul Subway map, it is on the left side, just below the airport symbol. You can right-click your mouse on the map to zoom in to see the station location better. Also, if you are interested, the Seoul Times offers some of what's happening in Seoul for foreigners, you can see all the things I would have been going to see and enjoy if I wasn't working and if I actually had money...

A final note. I broke my self-imposed moratorium on drinking coffee tonight (it had lasted two years). I had a cappuccino with my father-in-law. They made it quite well, extra frothy (though for some reason they put sugar in it) -- all for 2000 won, which is like $1.80. Anyway, such things -- cappuccino machines -- are a bit of a novelty here still, at least down here in Kwangju, so not all the customers were exactly satisfied when they ordered espresso and got, well, espresso rather than some drink with milk and sugar. It will take some time for a country (or at least a city) whose coffee shops charge two to five dollars for a single cup of instant coffee with powdered creamer to switch to appreciating espresso and cappuccino and the like, but really, with such wonderful teas and other assorted domestic drinks, why they need espresso is a bit beyond me.

And with coffee-induced dreams already beginning to spin in my head, I bid you all good night, farewell fair Kwangju, tomorrow will find me heading north toward Seoul -- the big city.

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