Adjusting to South Korea

Two days after landing, I’m still adjusting to South Korea.  My internal clock stutters when telling the local time.  Aside from the jetlag, I am sore from all the standing and walking I’ve done.  The public transportation here is great, but it will only take you so far.  It will usually get you within a 20 minute walk of your target, but the rest is up to you.  It’d be difficult to have a sedentary life here.  People frantically run everywhere, even in high heels.  And the streets are forever bustling with swarms of passersby.  

It seems one can never establish a decent walking pace; an interruption is soon to come from someone jumping in front of you, stopping in front of you, or breaking a heel in front of you.  Here, traveling on foot is akin to agility drills in sports—jukes, double jukes, cuts left, hard cuts right.  I think this frequent interruption of pace, more than anything, is what has strained my body.  It doesn’t help that, without need, I’ve been toting around a heavy bag, which I’ve since lightened by unloading unnecessary junk.  Lessons learned.

The humidity here is brutal. I sweat a lot; all westerners here sweat a lot. My genes are of no use in this environment, and neither is my handkerchief (which is usually soaked after 30 minutes).  The exhaustion and heat prompt what’s quickly becoming a new pastime: long, cold showers.  And if it wasn’t for the fan in my room, I’d probably have more to say about the temperature.  I doubt this is something one adjusts to, but with more time and water it should become less of an obstacle.

Yesterday was an especially busy day for South Korea.  Pope Francis visited Kwanghwamoon Square (광화문광장) and led a ceremony to beatify Korean martyrs of the 18th and 19th century.  The beatification was for 124 Koreans who were tortured and killed at height of the country’s religious persecution.  Hundreds of thousands of people attended the event, which packed the square and its surroundings.  I would have attended but the odds of getting a good view were slim.

The Pope’s white car arrives for the mass. Photo: AP

I was, however, at Kwanghwamoon Square the previous day when protesters of the Sewol Ferry Disaster set camp and gave a daylong demonstration.  The families of the Sewol victims were among those protesting.  Hundreds of South Korean police surrounded the area to monitor the event and maintain peace. Along with other demands, protesters called for an independent and transparent criminal investigation into the ferry disaster.  It was an emotional event, and hundreds of people joined the demonstration in solidarity.

Police onlooking the protests. Photo: Britt Cagnina

One of the tents set up during the demonstration. Photo: Britt Cagnina

Kids playing in the square’s fountain during the protest. Photo: Britt Cagnina

Pope Francis acknowledged the protests during his ceremony.  He wore on his cassock a yellow ribbon symbolizing solidarity with the families of the Sewol ferry victims, and he even stopped to accept a petition from one of the protesters.  Upon his acceptance, the nearby protesters applauded.  Today, the Pope again made a gesture in baptizing the father of a Sewok ferry victim.  Pope Francis has made clear his sympathies with the mourning families, who continue to push for independent probing into the ferry tragedy.

The past two days have been eventful.  And at the end of each day, when my adventure is done and the humidity drops, I return home through the cool air and stroll down the beautiful, winding sidewalks.  Though my body aches and moans, I go to sleep looking forward to another day, here in South Korea.

Winding sidewalk.  By: Britt Cagnina