It’s been almost two weeks since I last posted an update, having then only just landed in Seoul: clueless as to how busy, exciting and drunken the following eleven or so days in the capital would prove. I met so many genuinely wonderful people there, and shared so many moments with them, that I found little time to even read my book, let alone spend the time writing down these stories (our friend Mr. Experiencing v Writing Catch-22 is back again).
I did, however, eventually peel my liver-damaged skeleton off the pavements of Seoul and, with a heavy heart, trudged ever onward. This time out east, bound for the small fishing town of Sokcho, for a few days R&R in between ocean and the mountains of Seoraksan National Park. Having found myself some space to clear my head and grease my writing-knuckles, I was getting excited again to introduce all y’all to the cast of my Korean adventures (and misadventures), and update yous on all the mad shit that’s happened. But in the end I found I just couldn’t bring myself to write another chipper, gushy, everything’s so so great guys! kinda post. That’s not to say that my gushy posts in the past have been disingenuous – in a letter I sent to my best gal pal Al right before leaving, I detailed my desire to be as real and honest as possible in my writing, and I’d like to think this has largely been the case with my blog thus far. In fact it’s precisely because of my desire to be real that I won’t write another post about all the good things going on around me.
The truth of it is, as otherworldly and intensely enjoyable as travelling can be, it’s not all cherry blossom and K-Pop. Which is to say that sometimes, like these last few days, for example, travelling (perhaps especially travelling solo) can really fucking suck.
Yeah. Poor guy. Taking a year off work to travel round the world must be really difficult. I bet it’s the never-having-to-set-an-alarm that gets to him; or maybe partying whenever he wants. That one must be a real bummer.
Okay. Okay. Okay. I get your point, just, don’t change channels quite yet. Bare with me. I know that I shouldn’t complain. At the very least not to mi comrades y mi familia back home. I should save my bitchin’ and moanin’ for other travellers also living in this extra-societal bubble of ours. Buuut, then again, fuck you: it’s my blog-day and I’ll cry if I want to.
What the h –
I’m joking. I’m joking! I wanted to write about the bad side of travelling this time for a few genuine reasons: 1) I don’t want to have to force enthusiasm just to make y’all think I’m always doing great – that kind of behaviour just makes me feel worse when it comes down to it. 2) My mamma taught me not to lie (I still have the branded L (for liar) on my forehead – Viv was medieval in her parenting). 3) Maybe someone’s reading this who’s planning their own backpacking trip; and to them I want my blog posts taken collectively not to say: Oh my gawwwd it’s so fun and so easy oh my gawwwd, but rather GO! DO IT! Pack your bags and get the hell outta Dodge! You’ll have the time of your life. But (and here’s the kicker) it is not all cookies and cream, it is not all cherry blossom and K-Pop, and you shouldn’t expect it to be.
Thus, without further ado, here are my beefs with travelling; the bugbears buggering up my mojo; the clouds blocking the sun from sight on even the brightest of days.
Yo Korea, where the damn veggies at?!
I’ll start with one y’all can have a good chuckle at; (murderers). I’ve met all manner of veggie and pesky -tarians along the way, each with their own stories of countries whose diets and/or cultures just do not grasp the concept of not eating meat. More often than not the other veggies I meet wear a knowing grin and a pair of what-can-ya-do raised eyebrows, because more often than not there are ways around these barriers. In fact, more often than not there are sustainable, healthy ways around these barriers. China, for example, freakin’ loves its meat – deep fried, in stock, its juices coating everything it possibly can. But even so, with a few simple phrases (méiyǒu ròu) and perhaps a well-trained eye, you could maintain a tasty, relatively varied vegetarian diet. I was so happily veggie in China that I felt comfortable enough to try a couple local meat delicacies, like Hot Pot in Chengdu, and Peking duck in Beijing.
This is not, unfortunately, the case in Korea. As one Seoul friend pointed out when trying to scope out a restaurant for dinner: “I feel like Korea’s idea of advertising places to eat is just to stick as many posters of meat outside as possible”. Within my first… three hours? in Seoul, I was eating seafood. Granted this was in large part due to my eating dinner with a Korean colleague of my dad’s, who refused to believe I took my veggie-ism seriously. But then the next day it was beef, and within a week or so, chicken (and even one or two gross processed ham sandwich things from 7-Eleven). Admittedly, on more than one occasion it was a conscious and mostly comfortable decision of mine to break my own rules. Drunkenly I was DTF on some good auld fashioned K(orean)-BBQ – establishments of the like synonymous with Seoul and drinking with friends – and shit, it was tasty.
Still, as epitomised in my cleverly coined #StillVeggieWhenSober hashtag, it’s one thing eating meat when it’s something you want to eat, and an entirely other thing being forced to eat it because there are zero other options available. I’m sure that probably this particular grumble of mine might sound super contradictory, possibly a little pathetic. So I’ll count on the solidarity of my fellow herbivores to help translate this one. After just a couple weeks of Korea, I’ve had more than one morning spent in self-loathing for having broken the habit the night before. I’ve found myself at lunch tucking into a sandwich or bowl of noodles which looks, tastes and feels proper minging for its being meatilicious, but which I either eat or go hungry till I can maybe find somewhere selling something different. And these lunches, these meals, leave me genuinely a little less happy than I was before. If you’ve got a vegetarian to hand, grab ’em and ask ’em if it’s true you can feel so down on yourself for something as grand-schemely-inconsequential as eating a lil bit highland coo. Get ’em to cross their hearts and stick needles in their eyes and all that and I’m fairly sure they’ll tell you I’m not alone in this.
I JUST WANT SOME DAMN BROCCOLI OR SUTIN, JAH FEEL ME KOREA?
Fucking hostels and shit
That title could encapsulate a lot, to be fair. Though to be fair it sorta does. You know something I’m not gonna get for another 8 months? A bath. A freaking bath. The list goes on longer than the fingernails of the dudes in India that never cut their fingernails, but there’re a couple aspects of the #HostelLife which can leave you in a real flap. Booking and/or finding them, for starters. When you get it right, hostelling can (and for me thus far, thankfully has by and large been) a whole lot of fun. But getting it right is not easy. Often finding a hostel can be a game of Russian Roulette. Often finding a hostel can be a game of Russian Roulette played with six loaded chambers. As I delve further into the more remote and rural parts of Korea, I’m finding the latter to be an unfortunate truism. Now don’t get me wrong (I feel like I’m saying that a lot. Am I?) I’m travelling on a tight budget; I’m more than prepared to have a hostel provide only the bare necessities – a bed in a dorm (cold, hard, noisy or otherwise), showers (cold, communal, dirty or otherwise), and maybe some WiFi and a free locker if possible. The Russian Roulette I refer to is less about the quality of the hostel in these regards, and more about the availability of rooms, and the other travellers staying there.
In Sokcho, for example, there was simply only one hostel with space (in fact, in the whole town there were only two hostels to choose from, and only one within my price range). I’m writing this from the cosiness of the Sokcho hostel’s kitchen and common room: well stocked, homely decor, warm, but empty. I’ve met a few kids in the three or four nights I’ve been here, but compared with the easy-going, bustling family vibe of Seoul Base Camp, this place is pretty lonely. And as I’ve said before, travelling alone you come to depend upon the company of others. When that company is sparse, or even non-existent, the nights grow that bit longer, your days that bit less exciting.
From Sokcho I’m travelling down to an equally small place called Gyeongju: an historic city with a national park close by, which I’m looking forward to visiting. However, it’s proving even more difficult to find and/or book a hostel than it was for Sokcho. There are literally zero hostels available to book online, and no advice to be found regarding which places in the city might suit my budget or my hopes to kick it with other English-speaking travellers (a littler more on the language barrier sitch later). It would appear then, that once off the second of my busses down to Gyeongju tomorrow afternoon, I will be forced to wander about with my stupidly heavy bags until I find some room at the inn. (Just so my maw disnae worry too much – I do have a couple places I’ve found which, whilst I can’t book online, should be kushty just to turn up to). Of course it won’t come down to me failing to find a roof over my head for a few nights, even if I have to pay more than I’d hoped. But the roof over my head is not my main concern (a privilege afforded me, not afforded countless others I must always remember). What irks me is the uncertainty, the frustration surrounding where and how I’ll be spending my next few nights. Maybe I stumble upon a haven for foreign travellers. More likely, given Gyeongju’s (and Korea overall’s) lack of presence on the tried-and-tested backpacker map, I’ll find myself in a mediocre hostel, once again lacking company, once more feeling a little bit lost.
The instability of hostelling can be exciting at times, and has, for sure, been unexpectedly rewarding on more than one occasion during the last three months. Still, when the very basis of #HostelLife – always on the move, living out of a backpack, never fully adjusting to your surroundings – wears you down anyways, I could do without not being sure I’ll even find a place.
Lo siento, no hablo inglés
If there’s one universal truth I’ve learned whilst travelling, it’s this: We western native-English speakers are self-righteous arseholes. How many native-English speaking pals do you have who are bilingual? How many multilingual? If any, how many of those have been fluent from high school? Feck all, that’s how many – including myself. As native-English speakers we, subconsciously or not, have it in our heads that there is no real reason to be fluent in any other language. Even if we’d like to be, we feel deep down that for the most part, it’s just not necessary. And yet, if it wasn’t for the converse being true – if it wasn’t for 99.99% of Europeans, and a great percentage of locals I meet speaking decent-fluent English – then I don’t know how I’d have gotten by. Moreover, I’d have been very, very lonely. Of all the people I’ve hung with so far, probably half or more of them have spoken English as a second language. Which means if their countries were as self-centered as ours are, I’d have likely made 50% less pals. And ah like ma pals, eh.
My point being, I am fluent in no other languages. I am not even proficient in any other languages. I’ve been trying, sure, to pick up some Hindi, some Mandarin, some Korean. But only enough to get by. And I am never able to interact with Europeans or the like in their mother tongue, instead forcing them to use their second language when speaking with me. Usually I apologise profusely at some point for this fact, and always I’m told to shut up, because they’re so fluent they don’t even think of it as an inconvenience plus, like, whatever dude. There’re bigger, badder things out there to worry about. Still, I feel bad. And I feel bad for other, more selfish reasons too: i.e. the language barrier, AKA the No Man’s Land of travelling, AAKA the loneliest place in the world.
To be surrounded by people. To have the potential for company if not friendship if not lasting friendship within grasp, only to run up against a big great hulking wall (the language barrier), is arguably the most perpetually tiring and lonely part of travelling. And the only way I can fix it is to learn. On the road, this is not so possible, but trust me when I say that one of the most important things I’ll take away from travelling is my drive to learn every freakin’ language I possibly can, and go do it all again.
This is the end, beautiful friend. This is the end, my only friend, the end
Juuust to prove that I can complain about anything, I’m gonna moan about really good hostels now. You see the reason these past couple days have been a bit shitty, over and above all the other reasons listed above, is because they’ve been spent sans my Seoul Base Camp crew. Among others (many beautiful others), by the Base Camp crew I mean Jin, Matt, Marieke and Katinka.
I’ve talked before extensively about the travelling culture of meeting and parting with wonderful people time and again. Back when I wrote This is for the lions I think, if I remember correctly, that whilst I mourned passing friendships, I celebrated the joy of constantly meeting new people who, for the most part, are friendly, approachable and like-minded individuals. My celebration of this culture remains strong. I really do love it. But as is the case with anything you come to love, when you lose it, it hurts like a motherfucker. As was the case with all those I kicked it with in Seoul.
There was Claire, Chengdu/Beijing Kate’s cousin who’s teaching English in Seoul. Having met Claire over a weekend in Beijing, we hung out aplenty in Seoul. Some of my best memories from that city are with her – hiking in the sun, kitted out in jeans and t-shirts contrasting the full professional gear of the Korean locals; tteokbokki on the street like ruffians; coffee at a raccoon cafe (aye, ah ken – it was fucking magic); brunches of waffles, eggs and coffee; and of course Claire’s birthday drinks/noraebang (karaoke) which ended in me roughing it on the metro for two hours until an elderly gent woke me up to the disapproving stares of a billion Seoul commuters (that should be some indication as to how drunk I was/the places several bottles of soju can lead you).
Then Ying-yue came along, who Kat and I spent the day with on our tour to the DMZ (surreal, dude). Super cool Kiwi lass, who taught me the e > i characteristics of a Kiwi over an Aussie accent, and who I got on with very naturally. Only around in Seoul for the one day I met her, our time hanging together was brief but sweet. I hope one day to be able to say I’ve lived a life as varied and ever-changing as Ying-yue’s.
Nathalie gets a shout out too, for her emphatically excitable energy (does that sentence work? who cares, I failed English Lit), and her extensive Japanese knowledge.
‘Course y’all gotta hear about Matt, Marieke, Jin and Katinka – not one of them similar to each other nor I (bar perhaps Kat & Jin, who’s music tastes (Foo Fighters 4 lyf) stood them out as a cool kids from the get go), yet the five of us were well suited to chilling and partying together like old friends. I’ve treasured memories from my ten or so days with those lads. More drunken noraebang, more soju, K-BBQ, plenty Chairman Mao (till I die), impromptu nose-piercings, ridiculously fun and stupid hungover days, including one at Yongma Land – an old abandoned amusement park out in the suburbs where Kat and I pushed each other around on carousels, and dressed up in stinky, wet dinosaur costumes.
Lastly I wanna mention Patrick and Emily, a Wisconsinite couple who Kat and I met on my last night at Base Camp. Sods fucking law of course dictates that these guys are the coolest mufuckas out there. I could begin to go into the similarities (weirdly weirdly symmetrical similarities) between Patrick and I, but seemingly the list could end up being as long as those aforementioned fingernails. For now all I’ll say is we’re both bearded, Studio Ghibli/animist/fantasy loving writers, whose favourite Tolkien character is both Tom frickin’ Bombadil. Our sisters are also both 2 and one half years younger than us. Weird shit like that. But aye, he and Emily are really lovely. Conversation with them feels very natural and is hugely enjoyable. They both enjoy debating and conversing on any number of subjects, whilst can still have a laugh too.
But I had to fricking leave them. Again, again I find people I can really feel comfortable and truly happy with, and again, I have to leave them.
And trust me, I asked myself over the last couple days why I couldn’t have just stayed in Seoul. But the truth of it is, whether I stayed or not, at some point we’re all gonna have to part ways. Plus the itch to move on is ever-present. As Patrick said, you feel the wind has changed, and you can no longer stay in the one place any longer, you’ve got to get moving. It can be tough. It can be really tough. But you’ve got to do it. In this case, for example, I know for sure that had I made it to the end of Korea and found I’d only seen the same couple square miles of Seoul, rather than the diversity this country has to offer, I’d have regretted not having kept moving.
But yeah, it fucking sucks. It fucking sucks even though I’m used to this now. It’s just part of how my life is and has been and will continue to be for the rest of the year. Sometimes its easier, of course, but sometimes – as with Seoul – parting with people you’ve shared such special moments with can get you really down.
It’s not all Cherry Blossom and K-Pop
Okay, Cal. Breathe.
If you’ve made it this far: kudos. I can only offer my apologies for dragging you through the shit with me, though I’ll offer thanks too, because I honestly feel a great deal better having gotten all that off my hairy chest.
In conclusion – you’re not in university anymore Cal, plus shite way to start off a conclusion – every single other one of my posts on this blog are testament to the fact that on the whole, travelling is something of a secular blessing; it’s a wonderful, unique experience for which I’m thankful (almost) every day. However, it really is not all cherry blossom and K-Pop, and as much as I wish I didn’t – and know I shouldn’t – have to complain, there are downsides to everything.
To my folks and my pals, let me tell ya that yeah, though the bad days suck ass and do come every now and then, they do pass. They always pass. Something always comes along to cheer you up or take your mind off the little things (like the email I just just received from Marieke talking about the possibility of meeting up with everyone in Jeju), and the shitty things like booking hostels and struggling to stick to your veggie principles will all work out in the end. Either that, or in the grand scheme of things, they’re not the end of the world.
And to anyone who is perchance reading this with their own plans for travel in mind: don’t let me put you off. In fact, if in any way I have, let me know, and I’ll personally fly home just to pack your bags and get you on that plane. To reiterate for the millionth time, it’s fucking fantastic, but it’s not perfect. What I’d like most is for this post to be an anchor in a storm. If you’re hoping to travel, or already on the road, think of this when the bad days come – know that you’re not alone, that it’s perfectly natural and okay to feel shit even when everything around you is incredible and you think you should feel guilty for not enjoying where you are or what you’re doing. And know that it will pass, it will get better, it will get back to being wonderful.
With all my love, as always, and with special dedication to my gorgeous dog Abbie who we lost just a few days go,