South Korea: This foreign land of beauty goddesses and metrosexual men, with culinary delights like raw prawns and live octopus, and the quirky Poop Café, would emerge as one of my most interesting travel experiences ever.
As a seasoned traveler, I’d made some amazing Korean friends and one day I happened to stumble across a recommended video about South Korea’s expansive selection of street food, technological advancements, and rich culture. I instantly found myself hooked on finding out more about the country, its people, way of life, and the food (did I mention food already?!).
Being a chef from Saint Lucia, currently residing in Australia, I am constantly seeking new culinary adventures and after reading about Korean cuisine, I decided I had to visit. Thus, I began planning by creating a travel budget, learning a bit about the Korean language and mannerisms. It took me about 6 months to be prepared and save enough. On that note, my hot tip of the day would be to get a sense of the flight price matrix before booking; I find 2-3 months before anticipated travel date is best!
The magical day finally arrived and so, with bags packed and ticket in hand, I hopped on a plane and flew to Seoul, South Korea for the first time. The flight from Australia was 10 hours with a short connection in the beautiful Philippines (another fascinating country for a different day!). I landed in South Korea at midnight and right away the airport facilities and architectural design stood out. This came as no surprise since it was amongst the top 3 best airports in the world.
I then headed to the taxi bay where I experienced my first sting of culture shock: the language barrier. English is an emerging language in South Korea, and whilst many are fluent, there are also many who aren’t. My limited Korean annunciation proved barely sufficient, and so I was left with hand gestures for communication. However, it suddenly occurred to me to try out a tool called “Conversation” in the Google Translate app. It allowed real-time automatic translation and was a lifesaver. Oh and by the way, forget about Google maps as the Korean peninsula is the only country not available on there due to troubles between North and South; you’ll need to download other specialized maps approved by Korea which do come in English.
From there onwards, the culture and cuisine really dominated my experience. I visited temples in Busan, recreational activities in Seoul, met up with Korean friends, and went stall hoping. The street food was mind-blowing just as I’d read and some of my favorites included Kimchi, Bibimbap, Dakkochi, fresh King Crab from Busan’s famous Jagalchi seafood market, and most amazing of all, the heart-warming Dak Dori Tang served at restaurant call TUDARI, found in Uijeongbu. The flavors of this chicken dish are distinct, spicy, and mellow. It just leaves you wanting more (try it out if you do visit!). “Does anyone smell that?”, I dare mention visiting the Poop Cafe? Contrary to what you may think, it’s actually cute café where everything is themed with the toilet in mind, it’s done with great finesse. Quirky people will “pooh-tentially” love it.
In hindsight, I treasured every meal eaten in Korea except one, unfortunately, and that was a certain raw prawn dish. I love sushi and sashimi but, there was just something about the flavor of raw prawns which left me feeling unsettled. I did also come across an opportunity to eat live octopus but, didn’t try it due to my episode with raw prawns! Oh and this may come as a shock but, some restaurants will turn you down if you try dining alone. Korean culture tends to reinforce the importance of eating together with family or friends.
Talk about culture, another interesting episode was my sauna experience. I’d never been to a sauna in my life but, in Korea it’s a big part of life – you need to read this before going! We went to a province called “Itaewon”; it’s a melting pot of different ethnicities. We approached a peculiar three-story building and entered. Registration is on the first floor, after which we were split up by gender before heading to the second floor to shower and change into sauna clothing. Upon arriving on the second floor, I was greeted by two fully naked men. Now, I don’t want to prolong this but, let’s just say everyone is expected to get naked and shower before moving to the third floor. Side note there are pools and steam room facilities which were very high tech but, no privacy at all, it’s all in the open. I mustered up the courage and just accepted it as part of the culture, quickly showered, and proceeded to the third level, where you must be in sauna clothing. My Korean friends had been waiting, and were laughing because they (two girls) knew I would be stunned by the nudist bay below! The remaining sauna experience turned out to be fun. It later on really reminded me of how Koreans value being together with family and friends, it reverberates through their rich history and how they’ve managed to strive for greatness.
Once considered one of the poorest countries in the world they’ve now developed into a highly capable country in just a few generations. Food, culture and landscape beauty gives Korea its uniqueness. Korean people can be very shy when confronted by foreigners but, they’re always kind and willing to extend generosity. I’d advise learning a little Korean before visiting (they will love that you tried) or use a translator like I did! Now unlike the Caribbean where tourism plays a big part in fuelling the economy, Korea does not heavily rely on such; this lack of foreign exposure may cause them to interact nervously. From my experience, Korean society is ethnically homogeneous, meaning there aren’t many foreigners mixing into the gene pool. So I found myself being an ambassador for the Caribbean, and as a person of color, it was very important that I leave a positive impact.
Korean men tend to be metrosexual as this is what’s preferred, and women love beauty products; I found beauty standards particularly for women, to be strict with very slim bodies, contoured faces and pale skin being revered. However, through conversations with Korean people, that ideal, I believe is slowly changing as the society becomes more multicultural whilst still retaining its authenticity. In the end, it’s up to the Korean people to decide on how best to maneuver this social parameter.
Parting Korea, I felt so much gratitude for the vibrant experiences and wonderful food I had tasted. It encouraged me to continue working hard at what I love just like the Korean people do, but moreover, I hope to return one day for an even longer period to fully master the language, bond on a deeper level with Korean people, see how much further they’ve developed, learn Korean cuisine and give them valuable exposure to my culture.