Cultural epiphany denied

Friday 30th December, 2022

I have been to a lot of places around the world. I try really hard not to be a travel bore, because travel stories can often come across as outright bragging.

So, let me tell you about a travel story I have!

In another lifetime before children, I used to travel a lot for work for weeks at a time to do system training and implementation. I worked hard long hours, but no one believed me because my Facebook feed was filled with elephants, beaches, mountains, vineyards, theme parks and cocktails. Of course, I didn't post photos of me working at 4am because…who cares?

One such trip took me to Singapore. It was long (6 weeks) and sudden ("can you go this weekend?"), but I was freshly divorced and this was just the kind of spontaneous adventures that I needed.

I do have many boring bragging stories from those 6 weeks in Singapore, but this is not one of them.

As part of the assignment, my colleague and I had to go on a trip to Korea for a few days. I was more than halfway into my Singapore trip, so this sounded like an exciting sub-plot to my adventure.

My colleague and I left Singapore around lunchtime for the 6ish hour flight to Korea. It was dark when we got to Seoul and as we flew in I was mesmerised. Usually when you fly over a city there are a million white and amber lights. In Seoul, the lights are all of the colours of the rainbow. I could practically see Pororo the Penguin shuffling through those spectral streets.

We got to our hotel and I tried so very hard to convince my colleague that we should go out and explore. But it was late, we had another flight early in the morning and he was far more sensible than me. So we had some hotel food and called it a night.

This is where I had the highlight of my journey…my introduction to Korean toilets! From that moment on, my dream has been to have one installed in my house one day. Warm air, heated seat and even gentle music, if you have never used one you won't understand but words cannot describe how amazing they are.

In the morning we flew south to a small airport in a small town with no coloured lights. This was followed by a car journey for what seemed like hours through empty countryside until we reached our destination, a small island with a massive harbour. The hotel was nice, and more importantly my room had a Korean toilet seat installed so despite being travel-weary I was optimistic.

We decided then to go out and explore. To soak up the atmosphere of this place, which I knew would be culturally unlike anywhere else that I had ever been. We walked out of the hotel…and straight into a burger bar. We were too tired to argue with fate, so we had burgers. American burgers. With American fries.

The next day was a long day at work. We were taken on a field trip to the biggest harbour I have ever seen - the massive ships on the other side looked like ants, or at least like boats for ants. It was one of the most impressive sights I have ever seen, but it wasn't very…Korean.

On one of the evenings there we were taken out to a Korean barbeque restaurant where you selected raw meat from a counter and then cook it yourself in a barbeque in the middle of your "table". It was awesome, but, like the harbour, it could have been anywhere. It was becoming more and more apparent that the whole island existed to service a predominantly western male workforce, who existed to service the harbour.

The pinnacle of this realisation was on a night that happened to be my colleague's birthday. We went out to a few bars, and ordered an array of cocktails and shots with the kind of schoolboy humour names that are hilarious to anyone who has had more than 3 of them. We had a lot more than 3 of them, but it was pretty much like any other work night in Aberdeen. Well, apart from the fact that there were a lot of very friendly ladies everywhere we went.

Apparently at the last of the bars I walked out while my colleague was in the toilet, leaving him to pay while I wandered back to the hotel (I have a homing instinct when I have had too much to drink). He claims that he was momentarily worried, but realised I had made it back safely when he could hear me from his room. I was loudly facetiming another colleague showing him the toilet between fits of hysterics.

Now, that was a really fun night and we still speak of it now, years later. But it was not the enlightening experience that I was hoping for.

When it was time to go, we headed back through the countryside, back through the tiny airport, back over the twinkly pastel rainbow of Seoul. This time we didn't even leave the airport. As we flew away from what will possibly have been my last time in Korea, I felt a sad weight of missed opportunity. Of course, the fact that I had a couple of weeks left in Singapore eased the pain.

I do have many amazing travel stories…about driving the Great Ocean Road in Australia, playing the slots in Vegas, shopping the gold souks of Dubai, throwing Chinese fortune sticks in a temple in Singapore and swimming with tropical fish off the coral coast of Egypt. The thing with amazing travel stories is that a lot of them are only amazing if you were there. For every one of my bragging stories, I have 100 stories where the highlight is a toilet. I bet that the same is true for all of your travel bore friends.

Maybe one day I will go back to Korea and I will have my cultural epiphany. If I do, I will be sure to tell you all about it.

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