This is a story about dumb luck; a story about two people who got it right but only by way of getting out of the country and letting those chips fall as they would. Some of the best and most powerful moments in our travels have come from “just being there.” Real talk. There are other elements at play, but they only were allowed into reality because we got ourselves to our point B’s and let the country and our friends do the magic.
I will start at the beginning of this 11 day escapade, with a tip learned through hindsight: if you have friends in foreign countries, who are living there and immersed in said country’s culture…go visit them. The best guides are the ones you know, with shoes on the ground!
At the time, we hadn’t been to Asia yet, and were quite curious to get over there! We really weren’t leaning one way or the other, but we’d had an amazing time visiting friends in Spain who had showed us things we could NEVER have looked up online..so we thought we’d narrow it down starting at that point. Which country(s) did we have people we knew, who would be versed enough to add that same type of value to an Asian excursion? This search filter really only left us with one option, but it was also an incredibly interesting option we were excited about: South Korea!
Our friends Cory and Michelle had set out two years prior to teach English as a foreign language. These two in particular have this vivacious approach to life, love and travel that C and I knew would fit perfectly with how we personally like to travel. So we shot them an inbox, apologized for the extreme randomness, crossed our fingers and waited.
If memory serves, Korea is 14 hours ahead of us…so to be fair, they pretty much replied as soon as humanly possible. We hadn’t fully realized the reality of the International Date Line! In any case, they were semi-homesick and ecstatic at the thought of showing friends from back home, the life they were living abroad!
They had been on assignment in Gokseong, South Korea for two years at that point. Though it is a small town, they raved about the various beauties of the southern region of South Korea…the part that people don’t think of as much…the South Korea aside from Seoul. “It doesn’t hurt either,” they said, “that Gokseong is positioned directly on the Korail, the national train line.” Being directly situated on the main train-line added a level of convenience and connect-ability to living in the rural area.
We asked if they could think of three things they could show us, that would essentially best represent their region. Three, because we planned to be there for four days. This is a benchmark we have found to ensure you don’t overextend yourself when you travel abroad. Take the number of days you’re intending to be in country, and subtract one to find the amount of attractions or areas you can fully experience to look back on your trip with loving eyes.
They were super kind and obliged. Each day we’d go somewhere via the train, and each day we would return shocked by our experiences. The excursions were full of whimsy, overflowing with Korean culture, packed with street-meat (something they incorporate into all their trips) and one event in particular stands out as something I can’t believe I did not know I wanted to do my whole life.
One day we headed to Jeonju. It is a city that somehow let’s locals be locals, while tourists fill in the cracks without disturbing the natural balance. After a few hours we found ourselves walking down a street that is primarily set up for buskers and tourists. We met a man who was ecstatic to meet the four of us, which shoot, I’m a sucker for good times. So, as the great philosopher Ray Charles eloquently said it, “let the good times roll!”
This man manufactures a Korean varietal of the timeless relic, the hacky sack. It involved a resourceful combination of a pop-bottle cap, sand, and tassels. He was hacking when we walked up, demonstrating the heartiness of his product. He sold things, but this man was vibrant; he was older, but more so he was full of life. Anyone could see it, it was obvious. He was my kind of dude!
At this point I have to backtrack to the days of my own youth (I’m 27, but sue me, I used to be younger). My town, my stomping grounds, The Smarck, was a bit of a haven. Bismarck, ND is good place to come from, I mean…besides the wind chill. It’s known for its flatness, its rolling hills, and the most beautiful stretch of the Missouri River, or any river (fact) in the world. Trust me, I’m biased, but I also happen to be right on this one. Anyways, most of my friends took full advantage of the hills, as the Smarck has a soft and gradual grade from the top to the bottom of the town, by partaking in long boarding.
I’m 6’5, and have always preferred my leisure with my feet on the ground. So. That’s out. So when I wasn’t the driver of Handsome Rob’s $1 truck that was so old I think it didn’t have a make or model…maybe it was manufactured, but I for one, think it wasn’t. When I wasn’t (think of me as the chair lift at your favorite ski lodge) picking up my friends at the bottom to transport them with kindness and care back to the top, we hacked. We also just generally hacked, nearly everywhere. It was a part of what we did. It was a part of us. I’m not trying to over-spiritualize it, but I will, there were moments where to hack, was to live. And if you combined hacking with The River, long boarding on a summer night, or the snacks at Hot Pork’s (Luke’s) house…you knew you were on the verge of flying too high.
Then life, the Air Guard, college, and paying for college happened. You forget some things you love to do simply by virtue of not being able to do them. You forget because of all the adulting, but the seeds of intrinsic fulfillment are still sown.
Back to the touristy/busky street 2 hours into our journey to Jeonju, and my initial encounter with the vibrant Korean. I forgot I was wearing my hike-pack and joined in. When I came to after a dizzyingly wonderful bout of a hack session, I looked at my wife and her jaw was gaping in the wind. We’d been married for a little over two years at that point, and been together as a couple for almost five years. I guess it never came up until that moment how much I enjoyed hacking, or that I could for that matter. Too much adulting was happening and at a certain point it was keeping me from enjoying those simplistic joys that strike a chord of a different variety, the ones nestled into the depths of your heart. To better state my point, she wasn’t keeping me from hacking or doing the things I love, I had simply forgotten how much joy I got out of something I used have a lot of fun doing in another time in my life. And I think many of us are alike in this way.
I eventually took off my pack; back fully sweated thanks to the thick humid air. My whole torso would’ve been drenched if not for High Sierra’s lovely airflow technology…it was just a hot and muggy day in the first place. The vibrant Korean had grown excited at a certain point and ran to the pack on the rear of his bike. He whipped out a hacky sack like ones I grew up playing with in America, held it up excitedly and served our friendship into round dos of The Hack. It was a little bit magical, and I’m being completely serious. This was almost two years ago, and I’m writing this from memory, the moment imprinted on my mind. Not to mention, South Koreans are the best audience you could ask for. They are attentive, verbally affirming and turn out in large numbers!
For him, I think it was simply a cool time to hack with a youngish foreigner. For me it was much more. I realized this on the train back to Gokseong later that night: just go, just get there. There are many experiences that are waiting anxiously to be added to your bucket-list, and promptly checked off. There are scores of people that will impact you deeply, but the first step is up to you. Some of these people will turn out to become life-long friends. Others remain nameless, but the 15-20 minutes you spent doing something you didn’t know you always wanted to do, etch their face into your psyche…a moment to carry with you the span of your life. Now that is truly time well spent. The hundreds of valid reasons, poor excuses, people, and fear fade into a single face and a memory of a captivating experience.
There are many things we all know. Sure, I will not discount you your experience, nor your wisdom, knowledge or world-view. But if you are anything like me, a human that breathes and needs food and water to survive…two things are true here:
- You don’t know how much you don’t know.
- You don’t know how much you do know that has been relegated to the recesses of your mind.
So with that in mind, the lesson I learned is just go, just get there! Upon arriving at a destination something will be given the opportunity to click for you, to sink in for you…to fill your soul up. This happened for me in Jeonju, South Korea and it will happen for you too, just most likely doing something more you-ish, somewhere more you-ish. It may happen time and time again, and I hope it does! This same type of thing happened to me again later the next week. But that is Puerto Rico, and another flavor of article altogether.