International Departures

by Eli Hodapp

Today has been an absolutely incredible trip home, even though it didn’t seem like the day had much promise when I woke up at 5:30 AM to get ready with a terrible headache. But, with some Advil, a long shower, and one radical breakfast buffet later I was right as rain.

This whole day has been entirely dedicated to travel, and the first step involved catching the 7:30 AM bus to the airport. You could argue whether it’s a good thing or a bad thing, but the hotel I was staying at is the absolute first stop on the route. I’m actually glad I clarified with the concierge what the bus route actually was, as the route is just called “InterContinental COEX to Airport” which initially lead me to believe I could take a much later bus than I did as it sounded like it just went straight from the hotel to the airport.

It turned out the bus stops at every other nearby hotel, and it took nearly an hour before we were actually leaving the immediate Gangnam area and heading towards Incheon Airport. But, whatever, I really enjoyed the opportunity of taking in the city for one last brief moment so I was totally OK with circling around and just looking out the window.

The ride to the airport was awesome. I made sure to sit on the right side of the bus for the best view on the way out, and facing the Han River I was able to see all of the northern side of Seoul and the countless bridges that span the river along the way. Two things I noticed that seemed really strange- First off, for a river as big as the Han, it has almost no boats in it. I suppose I’m most familiar with the Illinois and Chicago Rivers as well as crossing over the Mississippi River a bunch. All of those waterways are PACKED with all forms of watercraft. Barges, tugboats pulling them, sightseeing ships, recreational boats, fishing boats, you name it. The Han has none of this, and I really have no idea why.

Secondly, nearly every tall building in Seoul has a helipad on top of it. I guess that makes sense, but what doesn’t make sense is why I didn’t see a single helicopter in the sky the whole time I was there. I mean, looking at it coming in, you’d think that helicopter was the primary mode of transport in this city. It’s another mystery though. Maybe someone just decided to put a helipad in their building plans and everyone else decided that they weren’t going to be the only ones without a helipad in the event of mass-scale adoption of helicopters. Who knows.

We arrived at the airport at close to 10:00 AM, and I was able to get through ticketing and the initial security checkpoint without much issue. I’ve gotten fairly adept at speaking slowly and deliberately, which seems to be the secret when it comes to communicating with Koreans who only understand a little bit of English.

I wish I had time in my life to just take years of it off to do nothing but learn languages. I’m so spoiled as an American, as I’m able to travel nearly anywhere and have people cater to me because English is either the primary or well-known secondary language of just about everywhere I’ve been so far traveling abroad. Most of what you’d call “middle class” people in Korea speak decent English, so the language barrier for the whole trip really wasn’t an issue at all.

Still, I hate feeling like people are making concessions for me as when I travel I really don’t like being seen as an American, I much prefer just fitting in. This felt a lot more possible in France and Spain than it did in South Korea. I mean, tall and athletic built American males stick out like a sore thumb in Seoul, so I suppose even if I spoke the language it wouldn’t fix that.

Speaking of which, I had more than a few different groups of Koreans I know who really wanted to take me out clubbing as apparently having a tall, fit American with you is a sure fire way to not get turned away from clubs and (apparently) attract Korean girls who allegedly just can’t get enough of Westerners. I didn’t test this theory, as acting as a lightning rod for a bunch of Koreans in a weird Gangnam club didn’t appeal to me on any level. But, I digress.

Once through security I was met with another overly nice to the point of feeling almost intimidating foreign airport. This theme seems to persist nearly everywhere except the USA where the shops inside of airports are beyond 1%. Right next to my gate I could’ve bought a $125,000 diamond encrusted Rolex. and next to that was all manner of other diamonds, designer brand showrooms, and much more.

Speaking of Rolexes, the watches they had were actually sort of neat. Apparently there’s an entire line of Rolex watches that pander to the Asian market with all kinds of designs with stars on the watch faces, star cut gemstones, and other very Asian-looking motifs. In the USA it seems like you rarely see much more than the classic Submariners, Date Justs, and Presidentials as Rolex has positioned themselves as a very “classic” brand. I didn’t even know they made some of these crazy styles.

Hermés had some ultra-cool looking watches too, including one I really liked with a skeleton face so you could see all the mechanical internals. It was super tasteful, surprisingly so. Maybe some day. I killed an hour having a great time looking at all the other high-end watches which you basically couldn’t walk without tripping over, and then headed to my gate for boarding.

Turning the corner I spotted… Americans. It’s strange how when you’re abroad people from our country stick out so much. I mean here you have an airport that I feel woefully underdressed wearing sneakers in compared to everyone else, and here you’ve got someone wearing a old Garfield T-shirt that it giving its all in order to cover their whole gut.

I always get a sense of proxy-embarassment when I see things like this, and for good reason. I vividly remember the first field trips I took at school, and how my teacher explained how to behave. She said something very close to how when we travel together as a class, each of us are representing both our individual class and our school. We needed to be on our best behavior because we didn’t want to give anyone the idea that East View was home to a bunch of snots. This has an immeasurable impression on me that has persisted through my whole life.

Similarly, when I travel, especially on business, I always take extra care to put my best foot forward. Really, I’m a guest in these other countries and whether I like it or not everything I’m doing is not only representing myself, but also on some level representing both TouchArcade and the United States.

It’s just like how when I was a kid, and raised in a fantastic family that wasn’t particularly well off compared to others in my school district, my mother always made sure I wore clean clothes, was presentable, and never wore sweatpants or other trashy clothes to school. The reason being, just like representing Mrs. Fraley’s first grade class, TouchArcade, and the United States, like it or not the things I did and my appearance represented my family as well.

I can’t really decide if it’s depressing, embarrassing, or just unfortunate that so few people seem to share similar values. I mean, I truly believe its these little things like this that all pile up to have made me the successful person I am today even though I’ve skipped or otherwise disregarded nearly all traditional educational and career paths. Who knew this simple level of awareness would make such a big difference?

I think a lot of people get the wrong idea when I put down Americans. It’s really not a “Rawr! I hate my country!” sort of thing. It really just comes down to me feeling like for better or for worse the USA is my home and we’re all on the same team. I really don’t know when it became so completely acceptable to not care about representing your team the best you can when you’re essentially at away games.

Really, I think that’s the cause of all these weird problems you run into in Europe where you’re automatically treated like a douche bag because you’re American. We deserve it. Thankfully, Koreans are captivated enough by Western culture that we’re treated super nice in Seoul, and the rest of South Korea I’ve been told.

Anyway, I don’t want to get in to much more of an anti-American rant, as at the end of the day I’m truly grateful that I’ve had the opportunity in my life to gain this level of global perspective that I even can have this anti-American slant. It makes me wish our educational system included some sort of compulsory travel, as spending time abroad has enriched my life in ways I never knew were possible.

I remember before I left the country for the first time how hard I was sold on the “American way of life,” or whatever you want to call it. You’re spoon fed that from such a young age it’s hard not to buy into. Once you see how things are outside of that safety blanket of “We’re #1!!!” it’s almost shocking when you realize how much we’re… not. Again, I’m not sure if that realization is sad, or if it’s just an awakening that makes you strive to be better.

For me, it’s definitely the latter.

Boarding the plane was infinitely annoying as we were all squeezed by the greasy tendrils of the Department of Homeland Security. According to the people at the airport, there’s some crazy policy that we have that prevents anyone from bringing bottled water back into the country. It sounds crazy because it is crazy, they were serious about it too, literally searching every single bag as people went by to get on the plane. This worked out fantastic for me because I had just bought three bottles of water from the nearby Caribou Coffee.

I seriously just hate that we’ve been reduced to this. Are we really so scared of these nefarious nebulous “terrorists” that we’re confiscating bottles of water? There was a point of ridiculousness that we reached at some point in the last ten years that has been so far exceeded that I don’t even know how to describe it anymore. I mean, even if we’re “fighting” an abstract war on the ideals of “terror,” I’d argue we’ve lost if we’re at the point where we’re scared of water.

So, while I was totally excited to be sitting on the Han side of the bus and was happy the bus driver spent most of the time in the right lane for the best view, I had no idea what was in store for me on the flight home. I requested a seat change to have a north-facing window seat in hopes that I might get a glimpse of the aurora borealis. What I got instead was something completely unexpected.

Apparently, when flights take off from Incheon, the runways all send them off to the west. We needed to go east. Typically this would just result in a slow banking curve as you climb, especially when you’re over water like we were. Instead, the flight path the pilot took involved this crazy counter-clockwise corkscrew to ascend. We hit around 7,500 feet per the measurement on the seatback map screen and maintained that altitude for a complete flyby of Seoul. Better yet, the path we were on was south of the city, so I got to see the exact same path the bus took in reverse from the air.

Getting this sort of view from an airplane is the stuff you dream of when you plop down on a window seat, and I really couldn’t believe how well it worked out. There wasn’t even a cloud in the sky until we passed Seoul, and as soon as it felt like there wasn’t anything else to look at we resumed climbing to our final cruising altitude.

To make things better, once again I lucked out with an empty middle seat, and sitting on the aisle was a super nice woman who was on this flight as a leg of her return trip from Thailand to Dallas. Also, for whatever reason this particular Korean Air flight originated from Japan, so all the food choices were incredible.

I wasn’t at all excited for my horrid diabetic meal as that whole plan to cheat the airline food system in attempt to get something that’s a little more low-carb blew up in my face on the way here as I was basically fed the plainest of the plain entirely uninteresting chicken breast pathetically laying on top of a massive bed of white rice.

On the flight home, I got a seaweed salad and a thing of entirely low-carb friendly grilled vegetables and a large (Well, by airline standards) chunk of white fish. As far as plane food is concerned, this was primo by every stretch of the imagination.

Speaking of food, I slipped out of ketosis twice while I was here by accidentally eating something that must have had some kind of latent sugar in it. The first instance was pretty bad, as I hadn’t had any excess of carbohydrates in so long that I had this super intense sugar rush and felt like complete garbage moments later as I slowly came down from it. I noticed it coming on really early the second time, so I stopped eating anything questionable and it subsided much quicker.

I impressed everyone with my dedication to eating crazy, and especially not drinking which is a major faux-pas in Korea as they have a fairly strong drinking culture especially when out at a Korean BBQ where you basically pound beer, soju, and even beer mixed with soju all night long. But, whatever, I’m so close to where I want to be and have been progressing so well that I don’t mind sticking to my guns.

Just after the dinner service on the flight, the warning the captain gave at the start of the flight started to make sense. I don’t remember exactly how it was phrased, but he mentioned that we’re getting from Seoul to Chicago in a little over 10 hours (Compared to the 14 hours coming!) because we’re going to have such a strong tail wind which could also result in “a bit” of turbulence.

“A bit” couldn’t be a bigger understatement. I thought it was exciting, but people on the plane were downright freaking out. To be fair, it was really bad and easily the worst I’ve experienced flying. Stomach-turning drops, weird sudden banks, fast shaking, slow shaking, I’m pretty sure I experienced every type of turbulence there is to experience. I’ll admit, it was slightly unsettling that at the absolute worst of it the map displayed on the seat in front of me rotating in between the various zoom levels zoomed in right on the “JAPAN TRENCH” in huge capital letters.

It all made me laugh though, as I was just imagining the plane just being thrown forward towards Chicago by these massive winds. If it gets me home sooner, I’ll put up with a roller coaster ride the whole way. That’s A-OK with me. I have such a weird outlook on these sorts of things, I mean, really, the chances of me dying in turbulence over the Pacific seems pretty slim. And if that is how I die, well, it’s been a good run. Either way, it’s not worth getting as upset as some of the people on the plane were getting.

The rest of the flight was fairly uneventful, and I alternated between playing video games, watching stuff, and attempting to sleep. We arrived nice and quickly with our tail wind, and before I knew it I was welcomed back to the United States via the third world police state that is O’Hare’s terminal five.

Oh, and so I got in line for customs, waited forever, and just as I’m next in line some old man just walks up and cuts in front of me without saying anything. The Homeland Security agent waves him forward, he looks back at me and nods, and it’s Richard Daley. I got cut by an ex-Chicago mayor. That’s pretty cool, I guess. I’ll allow it.

I got my bag from the baggage claim and was back home before I knew it. I still haven’t properly slept yet, and I think I’m going to try to stay up to sleep at a “proper” American time. Even though I’m totally jet lagged, I had an amazing time in South Korea and I’m unbelievably glad I had the opportunity to go.

…Oh, and here’s all the photos I took while I was there.