I arrived in Seoul smack in the middle of February, an unsympathetic month following the excitement of holiday cheer in December and the promise of new beginnings in January. February rudely reminds you that winter has no plans to retire anytime soon and you better start planning a vacation if you want to remain sane. Shortly after settling into my new life of teaching and living in Korea, I met a handful of new friends and we compared teaching jobs, living arrangements and vacation dates. I was ecstatic when I realized I shared the same summer vacation with two of my new friends. Even though we had just started our lives abroad, we quickly began planning our first adventure outside of Korea. I think the planning is half the fun!
We decided to spend a week in Taiwan in late July. We booked our flights in the spring and then we all became busy teaching and living life. Time flew by, as it does in Korea, and before I knew it, it was a week before my vacation. I found myself panicking and I soon realized I was stressed about my upcoming week off from work. Is that even allowed? I was nervous about traveling for a week with new friends. I loved meeting them for coffee and laughing over teaching stories and exploring Seoul on the weekends, but would we work together as a traveling trio? Perhaps one of us might surface as an annoying diva and make us all suffer for the week? Would another throw caution to the wind and make irrational and dangerous decisions in a country we knew little about? Was it possible that one of us was secretly a vacation dictator and would order the group around with daily itineraries and little time to rest or be spontaneous? I knew these girls socially, but would we mesh in vacation world?
Sadly, for those of you hoping for an entertainingly disastrous story, we got along splendidly. With only a hostel room booked for the first two nights and a travel book in hand, we made the week a pleasant one and came back to Seoul still friends. The three of us worked well together. We each brought something to the table.
One friend shared with us her country connections. She had studied abroad in college with a girl from Taipei. On our first night in the country’s capital the friend and her sister gladly met up with us near our hostel and took us on an exclusive tour of one of the city’s famous night markets. I can say with much certainty that I would never have tried Stinky Tofu if it were not for these sisters coaxing us to hold our noses and “just try it”. They were extremely generous and proud to share a bit of their culture with us. Throughout our stay in Taiwan, even though we eventually ventured outside of Taipei, this Taiwanese friend stayed in contact with my friend and gave us travel advice and even made sure we were safe when an unexpected typhoon greeted us at the beach.
My other companion, having been in Korea for 2 years and an avid traveler, was the one who got us places. She told us early on in the trip, “I never guess, I ask for help.” When I almost wasted $15 in buying the wrong metro card, she quickly squashed my idea and marched us over to the information booth a few feet away. She showed the attendant by pointing to a map which station we needed to get to and he then sold us individual trip tickets that were less than $1. This friend was confident and direct in getting the right information. In situations where I might tend to swing and hope for the best, she made sure we made contact with the right people and got us what we needed as travelers in a foreign country.
Toward the end of our vacation as we sat enjoying drinks at a beach-side bar one night, we eyed a few foreigners lingering nearby. We assumed they were like us: teachers from Korea on vacation. With a deck of cards, full beers and little knowledge of actual card game rules, we knew we would benefit from more friends at our table. After a few awkward moments I turned around and called them over. “Could you help us…?” I offered a silly question that made them smile and move their seats, and from there we went on to have an epic night of cards, beers, beach and new friends. The next day my travel companions complemented me on my ability to socially ‘break the ice’. I have no shame in being the first one to confront strangers, just as long as I can rely on my friends to keep the conversation going once it has begun.
I hope to travel much more in the coming months. I have a few long weekends, a winter vacation and the option of travel after I leave Korea to look forward to. My first vacation taught me that as important as logistics are, it is crucial to make sure these plans involve the right people. I lucked out and packed the right companions without even realizing it. Now I just need to decide where to travel to next…