Why Korea

Last month, I took a ten-day trip to Korea.

Seoul’s a fantastic city to visit. It’s easy to navigate, welcoming, and relatively clean and safe. It was definitely one of the most enjoyable and restful trips I’ve taken in a while.

In the run-up to the trip, however, as I announced my plans, I was faced with an almost universal question: “Why?”

Why the Why?

I’ve traveled internationally a bit. Most places I go, nobody asks why.

The last few years took me to Scotland, New Zealand, England, and France. People invariably told me to have fun seeing the castles, say hi to the Hobbits, pack an umbrella, enjoy the cheese, and take lots of pictures.

“You’re going to have so much fun,” they told me, and “That sounds amazing.”

I did, and it was.

Practically no one spoke this way about my trip to Korea. Instead, they asked why I was going.

Beneath the Question

As to what’s driving the why question, I have a theory.

As a member of Generation X, I came of age in a school system teaching a version of World History that was basically Euro-centric with a few global frills. Our curriculum did reference Asian or African countries, but only as their timelines intersected with the overarching Western narrative. Most of the mentions were war-related and negative.

Until I started traveling the world, I had no sense of the gaps in my education.

Over the past twenty years, I’ve been playing catch-up. I read where I travel and travel where I read.  Sometimes I forget how wide my gap used to be.

Until I’m asked repeatedly why I’m going to Korea.

There’s More

Someone actually articulated it to me like this, “The only thing I know about Korea is the Korean War.”

If war is all you know about a place, then sure. The why question makes sense.

But Korea’s more than a place where a war happened.

Most places are.


My next post will be a series of vignettes from the Korea trip. Things we did, what we saw, and what happened along the way. I just want to clear everything with my travel partner first. Though she’s responsible for zero of the truly embarrassing incidents, she deserves a say in what goes public.


For now, please enjoy a few snippets from my daily travelogue.

Friday, September 6, 2019

4-hour flight, then 14-hour flight, then 1-hour bus ride.

Whole day was a blur. More like a smear.

Saturday, September 7, 2019

We only got lost(ish) twice!

Sunday, September 8, 2019

We walked the route down to the main road correctly for the first time, but because we’d done it wrong so many times, we thought we were lost because nothing looked familiar.

Monday, September 9, 2019

My overconfidence got us lost.

Tuesday, September 10, 2019

There’s a Popeye’s near the DMZ! Didn’t get to check if they have the sandwich.

Wednesday, September 11, 2019

Ramyun, sweet fried chicken, dumplings, hotteok, bindaetteok, knife-cut noodles. Perfect broth, sublimely chewy! I forgot everything else about today except that I have a huge blister.

Thursday, September 12, 2019

A woman in a public restroom at the park gave us paper towels from her purse to wipe our hands with.

Friday, September 13, 2019

Wasted a bunch of time because I thought we were locked out of a building when really the door was push instead of pull. Still want to die as I think about this.

Saturday, September 14, 2019

We sucessfully hiked Bukhansan! Well, I bit it pretty early.  But I didn’t hurt myself. So that’s a success.


The whole trip was a success, really. Other than the push/pull situation. And all the times we got lost.

Plus two incidents with umbrellas.

But that’s for next time.

Seeing What’s There

Last month, two friends and I took a road trip to Montgomery, Alabama.

Our intent was not simply to eat, drink, and be merry, though we did manage to fit those things in as well. Our main purpose was to fill in some gaps in our knowledge of American history. We’d centered this particular trip around hitting some of the historical stops along the Civil Rights Trail.

I’ve always enjoyed seeing locations I’d previously only read about in books. Inevitably, I come away with lessons that only experience can bring. It’s why I so often read where I travel and travel where I’ve read. The realtime learning cycle makes eureka moments nearly inevitable.

On this trip, my keenest realization came not from anything I read in the museums or saw at the memorials. It arose from a deep sense of place.

The evening we arrived in Montgomery, we walked down to the waterfront. On our way back up Commerce Street, I had the first inkling of what was to become my major takeaway.

You don’t need a tour guide to tell you that the city of Montgomery had originally been centered around a single focal point.

Market Square.

As it appears today, the intersection presents as a wide, innocuous traffic circle with a fountain in the center. The night we first approached, it was relatively free of traffic. Quiet and peaceful.

Historically, Market Square was home to Montgomery’s thriving slave market.

This was once the nexus of the city, and when standing in its center, you’re afforded a clear line of sight down Commerce Street to the waterfront, where still rest the crumbling foundations of city’s enormous cotton slide. Pivoting only slightly grants a view up Dexter Avenue to the state Capitol Building at the top of a hill, looming over all.

Standing there in Market Square, I felt the wheel of history slowly swing around us. Laws and regulations handed down from the capitol, goods and slaves streaming up from the waterfront, cotton flowing down the slide.

Though America’s chattel slavery system has been dismantled, Montgomery’s original design still clearly reflects its legacy.

These things weren’t done in a corner, in Montgomery and beyond. The slavery system wasn’t a footnote. It was a focal point.

And it left its mark.

I know I promised you a summer blog series, and here we are at the end of August. It’s not that I forgot. It’s just that my summer took some unexpected turns and disrupted my best-laid plans.

You know how life does.

But look! We’re all still here, and I’m just as happy with the prospect of a fall series as a summer one. My current schedule is much more coherent than my summer one was, and I look forward to leveraging that cohesiveness for our mutual advantage.

Catch you on the flippity flip!