First Day in South Korea

You know that feeling where you look around you and wonder how you got there? My entire summer has been that moment, crystallized and then scattered in a glittering series of new experiences. A few days ago I was inside the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, saying goodbye to amazing people I never would have thought I’d have the chance to meet.

Now I’m on a bus in South Korea headed to a conference of environmental activists from all over the world (literally—the guy to my right is Chinese, the girl in front of me Estonian and the guy behind me is Ghanaian).

I arrived in Seoul, the capital of South Korea the day after I finished my internship at the White House. I was invited to attend the United Nation Environment Programme’s (UNEP) International Youth Tunza Conference after working with UNEP this past year to help start a youth network, Kick the Carbon Habit. The youth network didn’t go quite as well as I wanted it too but UNEP offered to fly me to South Korea to try to start it up again this year.   The other youth representative from North America, Richard, and I decided to arrive a couple days early and explore. We had no idea where we were going to stay or what we were going to do. I’d bought a Lonely Planet book on South Korea earlier that summer but the 9am-9pm hours at my internship meant that I had yet to even open the cover.

Fourteen hours later I’d read that book cover to cover and had tried to sleep in possibly every uncomfortable position possible. We walked dazedly off the plane, trying to figure out what day it was as we went through customs. We had planned on taking the subway to one of the “budget” hotels that the book recommended but one look at the crisscrossing different colored lines and long Korean signs had us walking over to the taxi line.

I tried to practice my newly learned Korean on the cab driver who gave me a blank stare and then smiled forgivingly. Apparently “Ireumeul yeojjwobwado doelkkayo” is pronounced a little differently than I thought…

We arrived at our hotel around dinner time. After attempting to wash away the jet lag we walked outside of our hotel and into what can be only described as New York on crack. I’d read in the book that 10 million people live in Seoul.  I’m pretty sure that night we saw at least half of them, milling in between vendors of peanut-flavored squid and scantily clad women standing on stools with megaphones shouting at passerbys to try a FREE face mask. We’d chosen to stay in Myeongdong, an area that is one of the largest shopping districts in a city that only be described as hypercapitalist. Even after leaving Myeongdong we still found ourselves surrounded by an absurd amount of things to eat, drink or wear. As my guidebook somewhat haughtily explained  “Seoul is the world’s largest company town in the sense that it has 10 million employees dedicated to the pursuit of capital accumulation and conspicuous consumption.”

Dazed perhaps even more from glittering sea of stuff that surrounded us than we were from sleep deprivation, we headed back to the hotel.