DeSeoulation, Korea

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Can we all take a moment to appreciate the title pun? That was about as close to a Eureka! moment that I’ll ever have. Though, it only makes sense if you read on.

In early June after the summer program in India ended (exactly 7 weeks ago… WHERE IS THE TIME GOING?!), I took a week-long trip to Korea since my dad works in Seoul. My connecting flight from Delhi to Seoul was in Beijing, and the flight from Delhi to Beijing was at capacity, which is no surprise since India and China dominate our world population. However, something in Korea was obviously a brewin’.

Clue 1: The flight from Beijing to Seoul was nearly empty. I would’ve taken a picture… but I didn’t.

Clue 2: Everyone was wearing a surgical face-mask. Even the folks behind the desks at customs.

Now, Clue 2 didn’t surprise me all that much because it’s common enough to see Koreans walking around with masks because of pollution. But looking around, I felt so out-of-place. I felt like Cady from Mean Girls at the Halloween Party. I felt like a white sheep in a herd of black sheep. Like, why are all of the sheep black? Am I the weird one?

I didn’t think much of it, mostly because I was exhausted from the drive back from Agra to Delhi to the airport to fly to Korea all in the same night, but also because I was so happy to see my dad. He, along with his best friend, had come to greet me at the airport. As we walked toward the parking garage, my dad’s friend asked me a standard question that is usually just a formality.

“How was your flight?”

I said I was confused and surprised. I said it was nearly empty.

Then he said matter-of-factly, “Ah, because of MERS.”

I stopped in my tracks. “What’s MERS?”

My dad and his friend laughed at my lack of knowledge in the matter. Apparently I was expected to keep up with international news while I was in the foothills of the Himalayas taking a summer writing course in India, but whatever.

MERS, if you plebeians haven’t heard, stands for Middle Eastern Respiratory Syndrome. It comes from camels. Question for customs: Have I had contact with camels recently?

A proud camel outside the Taj. Notice the man on the right… adjusting his… shirt?

Hey, uh, no. Please let me in the country. Please don’t burn my bags.

No, but it’s true. I didn’t have any contact with the camel. We were too busy (and possibly too cheap? I don’t know how much the ride would’ve cost) to stop for a camel ride.

The impact of MERS in South Korea has been huge. “South Korea’s MERS outbreak was the largest outside Saudi Arabia, with 186 infections and 36 deaths, prompting thousands of tourists to cancel visits to the country.”  It is estimated that the drop in tourism could lead to an economic loss of 108 billion KRW ($93 million USD).

And so obviously, my dad said there was nothing to worry about. He laughed when I asked if I, too, should get a mask.

The parking lot was pretty much vacant, as were the roads, restaurants, stores, museums, and subways. Some of the most popular spots, where people would normally wait hours for entrance, were empty.

Lee Young Hak’s work on display.

The national paranoia ended up working in my favor since my dad and I spent little time in traffic and plenty of time at national sites, which we had all to ourselves. The stark contrast of the modern, high-tech cityscape with the general emptiness left me feeling like I was in a post-apocalyptic world. I felt like the lone survivor. Or a VIP. All that unrestricted access made me feel like a rockstar.

Napping? Or taking in all the splendor? National Palace Museum of Korea, all to ourselves.

We leisurely roamed markets that used to be filled with people shuffling along shoulder-to-shoulder. The only downside was that I felt heightened pressure to buy stuff in every place I went because the stores were suffering with such slow business. That week was the most time I’ve ever spent alone with my dad. It was a really good trip.

A nearly empty Changdeokgoong, originally built 600+ years ago, restored in 1611 after the Japanese invasion.

If you love me, stop reading here.

If you hate me, then keep reading because some sh!t hit the fan.

It’s mind-boggling how bad I am with my passport. My mom used to say, “When traveling, you only need two things and you’ll be fine. Money and your passport.” Mother is always right.

Anyway, I had insisted on taking the bus to the airport for my departure. As we waited for the bus to arrive, I looked in my bag to confirm that I had my passport. Yep, it was there. Sitting on the bus, recovering from an emotional goodbye, I reached into my bag to get my passport within easy access.

I pulled out a passport. It was mine, but it was useless. There, in my lap, on the way to an international flight at an airport 75 minutes away from the city, sat an expired, temporary, hole-punched, invalid passport. This was the emergency passport the U.S. Embassy in Madrid issued to me in July 2013. This was the emergency passport issued to me because I lost my real passport on the taxi from the hostel to the airport after a three-and-a-half week backpacking trip through Europe. This passport expired in October 2013.

The bane of my existence. My challenger, my nemesis, my ticket to freedom.
The bane of my existence. My challenger, my nemesis, my ticket to freedom.

Frozen, I was unable to do anything about it. I didn’t have a phone (it had been stolen in India), didn’t have wifi, and didn’t have a number to call. The rest of the ride to the airport was spent wiping the remnants of salty tears and softly whispering the spectrum of obscenities to myself about myself.

Upon arrival to the airport, I turned my bag inside-out like a lunatic thief. Flashback to when I was the crazy lady guarding my bags in the Madrid airport trying to call United to reschedule my missed flight on a public payphone too close to the door. (At that time, I only had a dead flip-phone) and in the midst of this chaos, a business card slipped out. My dad’s friend had given me his business card early on in my trip so I could contact him if I happened to get hungry or perhaps lose my passport on the way to the airport.

After frantically explaining my situation to the kind young woman at the information desk, she let me use her personal phone to call my dad’s friend, who then gave me my dad’s number. My access to the land of dreams and opportunity was sitting on the table in his apartment. It was around 5:00 PM, and the check-in counter would close at 5:40 PM for the flight departing at 6:40 PM. Thankfully, I got a 15-minute extension before they would close check-in.

At 5:55 PM on the minute, my dad raced into the departures drop-off, dangling my passport out the window as he yelled, “Did you miss me already?”

With literally no minute to spare, I ran to the counter, sandwiched by a 40-pound bag filled with marble coasters and stone elephants on my back, a school backpack on my front, and my DSLR sashed across me.

That backpack in the background. 75L capacity.
That backpack in the background. 75L capacity.

I was Houdini for getting out of that tangled mess. (The trick is to shake and flail as if there is a swarm of flies attacking you from all fronts. Do this, and you will emerge the victor.)

I’m going to order a neon yellow passport case and hang it on a lanyard. Will this help? Who knows. Maybe I’m more like David Copperfield.

Contact me if you or someone you know is looking to make something or someone disappear. Rates are flexible.

3 things I’m thankful for:

1. The grace of God

2. An American passport

3. The generosity of strangers

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