When I woke up on the morning of March 16th I had no idea where Stephanie was planning on taking me. Furthermore, I would be unable to assist her with any sort of navigation for the day’s events but she assured me that everything was planned to the smallest detail. After a few Skype chats and hearing Happy Birthday be sung a few times in varying keys, we set off for Anyang Station to attempt navigating the subway system by ourselves. After some trepidation and second-guessing, we finally boarded the right train and headed off on my Birthday extravaganza.
Being in a foreign country can be disorienting to say the least, but being led around with no idea where the path leads is bewildering. I was seriously confused and lacked any inkling of an idea where we were headed. My wife is all about smoke and mirrors when she devises a surprise. Nothing she had said helped my curiosity, but she did a terrific job. After about an hour of hearing “not this stop” she finally stood up seemingly randomly and led me off the train and back to the surface.
Immediately upon reaching the street I saw Namsan Tower (or N Seoul Tower) atop a nearby mountain. Namsan Tower is one of Korea’s most recognizable landmarks. I was immediately excited and she confirmed that we were, indeed, going to ride the cable car up to the Tower for our first stop.
When we reached the top there was a large exhibition area where a huge crowd had gathered for a martial arts and ancient weaponry display. Men in traditional garb and sandals spun about wildly with spears and swords to my and the crowd’s pleasure. It was really quite impressive and the whole thing was topped off with a sacred Princess-dance-thing where a demure woman elegantly danced with two glistening swords. Spectacular.
After that we went to the top of the tower and took in the breathtaking 360 degree views of Seoul. A tower on top of a mountain has a funny way of making a huge city look terribly small and far away. We walked around the circular observation deck half a dozen times before we were able to leave and meander off towards our next stop on our mystery trip.
Namsan Tower conquered, Stephanie led the way through random alleys and streets with an incredible confidence for having never been in the area. Smoke and mirrors. After I was completely convinced that we were lost we suddenly rounded a corner and I remarked “Look at that cool looking temple-ish place over there!” She grinned and we, sure enough, headed straight for the ancient-looking gates.
Namsangol Hanok Village is a folk-village that is comprised of five traditional houses that have been relocated to create a small glimpse of what life was like in the Joseon-era. Each house was adorned with different decorative elements and was intended to depict the lives of each social class during that period. We saw what an old carpenter’s home looked like and also saw how the royals lived. There were also traditional games set up throughout the grounds that visitors could try themselves. I attempted to throw an arrow into a small metal tube unsuccessfully. An old man with much greater determination than I have for traditional Korean games whipped a heavy stone top for the whole two hours we wandered the grounds.
The sun was fading and Stephanie informed me that we needed to be somewhere by 8pm and that we needed to hurry along. Where did our taxi take us? The Hamilton Hotel. Were we staying at the Hamilton Hotel? Nope. Smoke and mirrors.
Instead of a luxurious stay at a Hotel in Itaewon (the foreigner district of Seoul where white people dressed in green for St. Patrick’s Day made us feel like we were somehow back in the States) we went for coffee at Holly’s Coffee. Suddenly, our 8pm appointment was less pressing, so I went with it and we enjoyed a nice coffee-drink. Stephanie eventually decided that we did need to be somewhere soon so we bustled off down the street to…Kentucky Fried Chicken. But we didn’t go in. We just stood outside and finished our coffees. At KFC.
After a few minutes of restored bewilderment, Kenny (a teacher from my school) came waltzing up with a big grin on his face. Stephanie had orchestrated a meeting with Kenny and his girlfriend Soo in Itaewon for my Birthday. Not only this, but we were heading to Vatos. Vatos is a Mexican restaurant that had been selected to appease my abounding love for Mexican food. It was really good and much better than I had expected from a Korean Mexican establishment. I will be back soon, I am sure.
Dinner demolished, we headed out into the night for a few drinks at an Irish Pub named Sam Ryan’s and some other place that was also filled with white people. It cannot be understated how strange it is to be surrounded by fellow English-speaking people after being an unintelligible white spectacle for over a month. Being able to understand the conversations of strangers was mind-blowing. We wandered alleys and the main drag of Itaewon for a few hours, ducking into strange buildings and taverns periodically as the night wound down. At the end, we caught a taxi back to our humble neighborhood where my wonderful Birthday ended.
I really cannot say enough about how terrific my wife is for planning such a spectacular day in Seoul. My 26th Birthday was one that I will surely never forget and will forever be grateful for. Stephanie did an astounding job navigating, researching, and planning my day. I love her dearly and couldn’t think of a better person to celebrate each day with; special or not.