Monday, March 17, 2008

Greetings From Seoul

It was Sunday, March 9th at 11:40 AM when our plane took off from Akron Canton Airport. After layovers in Detroit & Tokyo we touched down in Seoul, South Korea at 9:45 PM on Monday, March 10th, nearly 24 hours later.
I was exhausted but anxious to explore Korea once again. This time with Matt, who was making his first trip to Asia & first flight over eight hours. We were also joined by Michelle Messner a fellow volunteer at Friends of Adoptive Families. Together we would spend four days in Seoul before escorting two ten month olds back to the US to meet their adoptive parents for the first time.
We gathered up our luggage took a city bus to the Hamilton Hotel about an hour away in a section of town called Itaewon. So far, the trip had been uneventful, until we reached our room and discovered we had left one of our carry on bags containing our lap top & lots of paperwork on the city bus. Matt raced back downstairs cursing most of the way. The clerk at the front desk assured us not to worry, figuring the bag was gone; I started thinking how grateful I was that I purchased the travel insurance. The clerk chatted away with the bus company in Korean while we paced the lobby. He hung up and told the bus company would check on the bag and drop it off the following morning. Despite not sleeping for 24 hours the anxiety of our lost bag had us wide awake. We headed out to the Seoul Pub for a nightcap. The Korean people are very friendly, and the bar owner, Mr. Jung had us laughing in no time. I would describe him as a spitting image of a character from the movie "Good Morning Vietnam", the man in the Shiney Green Suit.

We fell asleep around midnight watching sumo wrestling on TV. But, my internal clock was so messed up I was awake by 4:30 AM. I tossed on some clothes and headed down to the lobby. To my delight there behind the desk was our lost bag. The honor of Korean people truly baffles me sometimes. If that laptop was left on a city bus here in Canton Ohio I would have never seen it again.

On Tuesday morning we headed over to Korea Social Services (KSS); this is the orphanage where Andrew once lived. There we did what are called “update reports” on five infants. These meetings are to evaluate the progress & take photos to insure the children are healthy and progressing normally. The info will also be shared with their adoptive parents back in the states.
While at KSS we also had an opportunity to meet with Ms Lee the head social worker and see Andrew’s file. She was able to fill in some of the blanks on how Andrew came to be at KSS.
Most of our free time was spent shopping. We hit all the popular markets; Itaewon, Namdaemoon and Insadong. You can find everything under the sun within a few steps; you could buy shoes & stir fried bugs at the same shop.

Yes, the food is very interesting. Matt never worked up the courage to taste the live octopus but it was offered in almost every place. I remembered the incident with the raw meat from my last trip so I studied the menu a little closer this time. I stuck with a traditional Korean dish, Bulgogi. This is a thinly sliced stir fried beef served with kimchi and a ton of other interesting side dishes. For most of you who are not familiar with Korean food. Everything you order comes with a variety of side dishes & kimchi. It is sort of like the salad & bread of American cuisine. Kimchi is cabbage leaves layered with hot pepper paste, fish sauce, and various other seasonings then fermented in a big clay pot for many months. It is a staple of the Korean diet and served at every meal.

By far, the most interesting part of the trip was our tour of the DMZ. Everyone is familiar with the Korean War but did you know technically the war never ended, in July 1953 the two sides only signed a cease fire agreement and established this DMZ. The demilitarized zone is a strip of land running the entire length of the Korean Peninsula, it serves as a buffer zone between North and South Korea. It is 155 miles long and approximately 2.5 miles wide, and is the most heavily armed border in the world. The tight security measures & over one million landmines have left the environment and wildlife largely untouched for the last 50 years.

Matt & Heather at Freedom Bridge

Matt at Dora Observatory with North Korea in the background. I was required to take this photo behind a yellow line about 10 feet back in order to prevent me from getting North Korea in the photo.

First stop was the third invasion tunnel discovered in October 1978 with the help of a North Korean defector. It was built by the North after the signing of the cease fire agreement. At 95 meters high and 2.1 meters wide. It penetrates 435 meters south of the border, running through bedrock at a depth of about 230 feet below ground. Capable of moving a full division plus their weapons per hour, it was evidently designed for a surprise attack on Seoul. At only about 1 mile outside Seoul, they were really close! In their defense they claimed that the tunnel was a coal mine. They even hastily painted it black and scrubbed on some coal during their retreat back North. Unfortunatly, no photography is allowed in the tunnel or most other areas of the DMZ. Boy, I would have loved to seen what I looked after immerging from this bottomless pit. Trust me this was a work out. It’s a about quarter mile straight down; killer on the back & calves. Then flattens out into the tunnel, I have no doubt it was built by malnourished North Koreans. Because if you stand any taller than five feet, you will be crouching and crawling your way through the blasted tunnel. Thank goodness they provide hard hats. When I was first handed one it figured it was like any other US construction site, where insurance reasons require you to wear one to prevent lawsuits. But this was no joke! The repetitive clunk of hardhats on the tunnel ceiling drove home the point. The tunnel itself is fascinating; at the end you are greeted by an iron door preventing you from going further into enemy territory. Definitely could have used a concession stand though! Because the quarter mile walk down now meant a quarter mile walk straight up. Ugggh!

Although grueling the tour was very educational and eye opening. These elaborate measures keep what is now one of the world's most modern nations from one of its most backward. In my mind any country whose military still goose-steps is something to be feared. But, despite being lead by a communist dictator and having nuclear capabilities many South Koreans wish for reunification. For Koreans, the DMZ is also an emotional and psychological wall. Many families were torn apart as a result of the war and the creation of the DMZ. Therefore, many are preparing for day when the barbwire comes down. One of these preparations is Dorasan Station and by far the most disconcerting portion of our trip. This train station is the northernmost stop on the South Korean railway. The reason it is so bazaar is the fact that this pristine modern station is completely empty of passengers. That’s right; it is a fully functioning, staffed station with zero arriving and departing passengers. Creepy! Like something out of the twilight zone. Again and again our tour guide proudly showed off the station and all its capabilities just waiting for the day passengers can travel to & from North Korea. I’m guessing showing off this station to tourists is another propaganda tactic in hopes North Korea will hear about. ??? Who knows? The technology is likely to be out of date by the time the station becomes active.

Dorasan Station
Inside Dorasan Station

Although, our trip was coming to an end, the real reason we were here was just beginning. Escorting two children back to Detroit to meet their adoptive parents for the very first time. Ms. Lee introduced us to Mi Ae & Hee Mang at the Seoul Airport. They were both about 10 months old and were very cautious of the light haired strangers. We gently introduced ourselves and snapped a few pictures for posterity before making our way through security. From this point forward they would known by their American names, Leah & Jonah. First step was changing them out of the many layers of clothing. We pack those away for later. Leah warmed up quickly and was soon clapping and showing off her raspberry talents. Jonah was much more aggressive, and had this sweet way of drawing you in then biting your face. I was suckered in every time. What a charmer. Over the next 20 hours we playing peek a boo through the seats, paced up and down the aisles and spilled a lot of cheerios. Both kids were a delight and made our job relatively easy.

Finally, we touched down in Detroit and headed straight for the restroom. I’m sure we looked terrible but the important part was making sure the kiddos looking their best. We freshen them up redressed them in the outfit provided by their foster mom before heading through US Immigration. Always a source of stress. After about an hour of that, it was time for the big moment. We staged ourselves in front of the big frosted door; on the opposite side was the parents & family. One last hug & kiss and the door slid open. Flash bulbs started popping and you quickly start panning the crowd for someone claiming your child. I was carrying little Leah and within seconds an open armed mom appeared. It brought chills down my spine just as it did before. It is a rush of adrenaline not easily forgotten and what drives escorts to make the long journey time and time again.

1 comment:

Mills Family said...

While I was happy to see your kiddos photo this morning (Happy St. Patty's Day), I've been looking forward to your post about your trip! So glad it went well, and I love the stories you've told!