Revisiting Seoul

I’m a terrible storyteller.  Already uncomfortable with spotlights,  I find myself questioning the entertainment value of my own tales. I never dive in; instead I’m ready to trail off at a moment’s notice. Worse, I don’t have a repertoire. Ideally, I would have honed a select few go-to stories at social gatherings, each charming and witty with a dash of self-deprecation, all revealing my hidden depths. No, my stories reveal only the depths of my idiocy. They tend to be all self-deprecation, funny only in an uncomfortable way (like The Cable Guy), involving toilet paper or vomit: not for polite company.

This is one of those stories, uncensored. It is gross.

In 2011, I was fortunate enough to be invited to an academic conference in Seoul. The participants were pampered: we were taken out for fancy meals, put up in a nice hotel, even provided gifts (promptly regifted when I returned to the States: grad school!). The conference lasted for a couple of days; it’s not important. But I lingered in South Korea for four days after, never having visited the country previously. So after leaving the conference, I packed up my shit and headed over to a hostel, excited for adventure.

The first day on my own was fun. I visited the Changdeokgung Palace, then hiked up to the Seoul Tower. For lunch, I found local fare – pork bulgogi, rice, a million side dishes. The food was fine, though the restaurant wasn’t all that sanitary. It was a mom-and-pop operation; the dining room looked almost to be in their home, and the proprietors and their friends sat on an elevated area chatting, bare feet out. It was quaint and gross. I doubt the food had more than a negligible part in what was to follow. But I did take note at the time.

The real story begins my second day. I wanted to do a legitimate hike, and had decided upon Dobongsan (Dobong Mountain) at Bukhansan National Park. It fit my modest aspirations: its central peak had an elevation of just 739.5 meters, but was rocky enough to still be a challenge. The trail was straightforward, would take around four or five hours round-trip, and promised stunning views. I figured I would climb up and down, and have plenty of time to kill before an evening baseball game on the other side of town.

10:00 am. It had taken about an hour on the metro to get from my hostel to the park. The walk from the station was short, 15 minutes, passing through countless little food stands and street shops. I planned to hop into one of them for breakfast. But nothing looked appetizing, and the only other option was a Dunkin’ Donuts (they are weirdly everywhere in Seoul). I decided not to, not wanting to feed into the stereotype of the close-minded American. Instead, I was the stupid American, skipping breakfast altogether.

I did stop at a convenience mart, buying three bottles of water, a Pocari Sweat, and one bag of potato snacks. I figured that would hold me for the duration of the hike. I rarely ate breakfast back then, and still feeling jet-lagged four days into the trip, I had not been eating anything until 2 or 3 pm anyway. In retrospect of course, I wasn’t hiking mountains those other days. Regardless, I would plow through the trail and eat something substantial by 2 pm. I was chomping at the bit to start.

The hike began modestly. It was scenic, not too busy. I had my Superman t-shirt on, for maximum irony as it turned out, and set up a bunch of pictures of myself “holding up” giant boulders. I strolled my way through, taking pictures of anything and everything, and broke into the potato snacks. At some point however, I got lost. I ended up taking a rather steep trail to nowhere in particular, then having to backtrack. It was not an insignificant delay. Three hours in, I was still nowhere near the peak.

I was already a couple of water bottles down when I ran across a Buddhist temple – and attached water hose – tucked into the side of the mountain. It was a fortunate and necessary pit stop. As I pressed on, the hike had become more strenuous, far more so than I anticipated. A section of literally 400+ stairs appeared out of nowhere. A cliff where I had to shimmy through holding ropes and metal handrails. Some parts near the top were essentially rock climbing. I had not expected this.

2:30 pm. Four and a half hours into a planned four hour hike, I finally reached the top of Dobongsan. It was an incredible feeling. The view of Seoul was breathtaking; the metropolitan area immense, unimaginably so. My exhaustion and hunger and fear and anxiety were all forgotten, at least for the moment. But I was in trouble, and I knew it. My stomach was making a ton of noise in protest, especially as I walked past people setting up shop, enjoying elaborate lunches. I contemplated whether to ask a stranger for a snack. I didn’t.

After the summit, I put my camera away. I knew I had to make my way down the mountain as quickly as I could, to find food somewhere, but my body didn’t have that gear anymore. I felt terrible; my stomach jumpy with every motion. I stopped often, resting, preparing myself physically and mentally for the next small segment of the descent. I polished off the last of the potato snacks, then the water. I had nothing left. By the time I returned to the town, it was nearly 5:00 pm. The hike had taken seven hours.

As I wandered back past the street shops however, I felt weirdly okay. In fact, I wasn’t even hungry anymore. I figured I’d buy a ton of shit at the baseball game and be back to tip-top shape. But that calculus changed as soon as I saw the vending machine at the train station. My body reacted viscerally. I bought three drinks and sucked them down, one by one. They held me over momentarily. Once I boarded the metro though, I felt dizziness, tingling. I needed something solid in my system, and fast.

I left the station once I reached my transfer spot. There was a street vendor but I worried about its cleanliness, even in my state. Instead, I made my way into a barbecue place, where an Abbott and Costello routine broke out. I pointed to a picture on the menu, but the waitress refused. “These are intended for groups, not singles,” her Korean noises and hand gestures said to my illiterate ears. “It’s a lot of food.” I tried to respond in likewise fashion, noises and gestures: “I am dying. I will pay for any fucking portion of food.” She held firm. After what felt like 10 minutes – probably in reality 2 – of inane back-and-forth, I left and made a beeline for the street vendor. I bought a hot dog.

6:00 pm. Ten hours into my day, I had my first bite of real food, food not of the potato snack variety. But my body didn’t react. Confused, I took another bite. This time, my stomach shut down completely. I nibbled at the bread but to no avail. I wasn’t going to get anything down. I continued to sit next to a few smokers and a bum, hoping to muster up an appetite. Feeling terrible, I abandoned the hot dog after about 20 minutes. I dragged myself up the stairs, feeling half alive, back into the metro, and immediately went into the toilet.

As soon as I closed the door to the toilet stall, I puked. Two bites of hot dog, and what seemed like every ounce of liquid I had consumed over the course of the day (if only that was it). But I didn’t feel much better after the ordeal; if anything, I felt the same. My brain apparently fried, I marched back onto the metro, and towards the stadium, towards the baseball game I had planned to attend. I made my way out of the station there, needing to sit every so often and catch my breath. I made it to the stadium box office, bought my ticket, and stumbled up to the upper level and my seat. I had precious little left.

I kept moaning during the two innings I was in my seat for. I felt truly awful; my body was basically draped across the armrest. I figured I needed to try and put something in my system again, because I couldn’t conceive of making it back to the hostel otherwise. I made my way out into the concourse, where the only options were KFC and Burger King. I don’t know why I was so discerning given my state, but I wanted a soup or a noodle. I headed down to the first level, but had to stop after one ramp. I laid down on a bench. I wouldn’t get to the second ramp for another 20 minutes.

Of course, the options ended up being the same downstairs: KFC and Burger King. Defeated, I bought a small order of chicken nuggets from the former. Without even a bite though, my bowels suddenly screamed for attention. I hightailed my way to the bathroom – fast as I could go – and sat on the toilet for what felt like ages. More liquids out of my system. It was an ugly scene. Eventually, I left the toilet, tiptoeing my way back to the same bench, and laid down again. Flat on my side, I nibbled on a nugget every once in a while, eating two and a half in all. I couldn’t manage more. I wanted to die.

It was at that point that I finally gave up on the baseball game. I had the pressing concern that I had to beat ballpark traffic, as I couldn’t imagine physically standing on the metro for the 40 minutes it would take to get back to my hostel. I zombie walked my way down the ramp… and straight to the toilet again, though not quite in time this time. My boxers were left in the bathroom trash can. I left the park commando, sneaking a peek at the scoreboard: it was the 7th inning, a good two hours after I arrived. I remember literally nothing about the baseball aspects of that game.

The meander back towards the station was a feat, probably dwarfing the hike up Dobongsan. I couldn’t climb any stairs without draping myself over the handrail. I couldn’t drag myself a few hundred feet without sitting for five minutes. I opted to wait for a second train for the potential of empty seats – and was fortunate to have that need fulfilled. My head rested in my lap the entire ride back. I never stopped moaning. Upon arrival, I left the train and immediately went to sit down on the platform. After another five minutes, I climbed the stairs and sat again. I emptied my bowels in the toilet, then went back out and sat for ten more.

My hostel was a three minute walk from the train station, but I still had to sit outside the station to prepare myself for that walk. Once I felt ready, I started around the corner. There, on the sidewalk next to a construction site, I promptly vomited the chicken nuggets and remaining water I had in me. A young mother hurriedly, and hilariously in retrospect, yanked her child away as they walked past. On the way back to the hostel, I had the foresight to buy water and crackers. I finally made it home, and went straight to the bathroom again. And again.

I’ve never felt physically worse in my life than I did that day, and I hope I never will. I slept for ten hours, showered, sat and munched on crackers, bought a bagel at a coffee shop a half-block away, slept for three hours, laid in bed for three hours, then slept for 12 straight hours after that. On my last day in Seoul (two days after Dobongsan), I made it to the station at Hwaseong Fortress before I realized I didn’t have the strength to sightsee – not even close. I stumbled to the mall connected to the train station and watched a movie, then headed back to the hostel to sleep again. And that was my week in Seoul.

When people ask if I’ve ever been to South Korea, I say that I have. I offer some platitudes about how overwhelming and incredible a city Seoul is, and I stop there. Because some stories shouldn’t be told in polite company.

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