A Kind Seoul

Well, we’re now heading into one of Wyoming’s two seasons—winter and road construction. The former is tentatively tantalizing us with thoughts of Spring, yesterday it was 55 degrees and sunny. The Chinook ( a Native American word meaning “snow eater”) wind began flexing its considerable muscles, and rapidly began digesting the foot or so of snow still remaining on the ground. If forecasts are somewhat accurate, we can look forward to more of this during the next week, before we really get into the snow season. Although we’ve had an unusual amount of the white stuff much earlier than usual, we still are much better off than all the poor souls to the east, from Chicago to the coast and the southeast. It looks as if it will be awhile before the crocuses there rear their pretty heads along the walks and byways. We don’t have that problem—no crocuses here! And if there were, the deer scavenging the neighborhoods would “nip them in the bud” as they appear.

So, we have to be resigned to know that along with the hints of spring come the eternal mud and traffic cones as road crews plunge ahead toward completion of last fall’s projects. It seems that so often, the good comes with the bad.

Another clear example occurred two weeks ago; we are very committed fans of the Denver Broncos, and you can imagine our discouragment at the complete breakdown of our team’s effectiveness during the Super Bowl. But, our depression was greatly minimized by another event on the same day, the birth of our son’s first child, a whopping, healthy 8 lbs. 15 oz. boy.  And this next week we shall make the trip to meet him in person!

SEOUL

Sometimes things are too big to really grasp, even to appreciate. Such was not the case with my visit to Seoul, South Korea last week after completing my assignment to evaluate the candidacy for accreditation of an elementary school on a U.S. military base. Yes, Seoul is big—possibly its 25 million residents make it second only to Tokyo as the biggest urban area in the world. I had only had a half day to sample its highlights on my previous visit to South Korea two years ago, barely enough to provide some hints on what I should be seeing. This time, I had scheduled an extra two days in order to see if some of my earlier impressions were accurate. They were!

If I had to pick just a few words to describe Seoul, it would be difficult as there are so many facets that attract one’s attention. “Prosperity” would be one of the first responses; nowhere did I see anything smacking of poverty throughout the two-hour bus ride throughout the city. Houses, seemingly piled atop one another, cling to all the hillsides which separate the enclaves of 20-40 storied apartment and office buildings. As one looks out over the city from the top of the Seoul Tower, you see what appear to be multiple “downtowns” miles apart from one another, each with its skyscrapers reaching toward the heavens. There are literally thousands of apartment buildings and, I suspect, hundreds of business-related tall structures many carrying well-known brand names in English, mounted near the top, like Hyundai, Samsung, and others. At the same time, we saw many more being erected, their skeletal frames mounted with huge cranes on the top to lift the construction materials and personnel to the appropriate levels.

“New” would be another impression; all those buildings are only one example of fresh, up-to-date modernity. Expressways carry the heavy load of traffic throughout the area, often marked with red and blue signs like our Interstates, and populated by in my opinion hordes of courteous drivers unlike those we see in our own urban areas. And not a pothole in sight, despite the climate offering annual snowfall and lots of rain.

We recognize South Korea as a leader in the world of Technology; perhaps the easiest example to support this is that almost everywhere you go,  you have WiFi, even on the city busses! The nation is committed to Green—busses not only have that “hotspot” capability, but many of them are totally powered by electricity and proudly announce that fact in English, in large letters on the side of the bus.

If there is even a small plot of vacant space, it is landscaped and meticulously tended; persons are even employed for the sole purpose of keeping everything clean. While walking on a pedestrian/bike path, I saw a man wearing one of those fluorescent vests and brushing a few stray leaves into a dustpan, something we would totally ignore here at home.

Normally, I don’t pay much attention to architecture, usually only one or two buildings in a city attract my eye. Such is not the case in Seoul, from the moment we entered the International Terminal upon landing, with its sweeping curves of passageways swooping through vast open areas, to the National Museum, the Korean War Museum, the convention and community centers on floating islands in the Han River, and the impressive variety of design and structure seen in the hundreds of tall buildings, I was dazzled. It appears that creativity is fostered and encouraged, and I wondered how budgetary restraints are considered in generating support for the many worthy projects throughout the city.

I was also curious about how people live with the constant threat from their neighbors to the North. As I met with American teachers at the various military installations, I explored that question and generally received some version of the same answer “Generally we ignore the threats, treating them as only bluster”. I couldn’t help thinking of “The Boy Who Cried Wolf”, and hope that it remains only bluster. This was especially of interest at my assigned school; it is on a base only eleven miles from the DMZ and would be in the forefront of combat activity. Where we have elaborate plans for fire and tornado drills, each military base school has an emergency evacuation plan in addition.

After completing my assignment at Camp Casey, I returned to Seoul and stayed at a hotel near the Army base where my wife was working as the lead evaluator for a middle school. I couldn’t stay there, as my base pass had expired with the end of my assignment. My room measured about 8’ x 12’ plus a bathroom, for only $102/night. My friends will understand why I broke out into a rash, at that price. But the hotel was convenient to lots of things including about 100 restaurants of every variety, on a lane just outside the back door of the hotel. Each evening, my wife and her co-leader would come to the hotel and we would decide which one to sample. On my first day of “vacation”, the three of us took a bus tour of Seoul, followed by walking along with thousands of other folks among the hundreds of stalls in the market place. We even satisfied the inner soul by buying some kind of deep-fried bread stuffed with vegetables, offered by a street vendor. Delicious! That was followed in the evening by our choice of a Bulgarian restaurant.

The second day, I walked about 6 miles through light snow (the temperature throughout my visit hovered around 40) to visit the Korean War Museum, and the Korean National Museum. As mentioned before, both buildings are outstanding examples of striking design combining creativity with functionality; and again, as my friends would testify, I like the “FREE ADMISSION” policy. On our first full day in South Korea, we had visited the National Museum and spent several hours strolling from one gallery to another beginning with Korea’s Paleolithic roots and ending with a variety of cultural and artistic exhibits. I decided to once again visit its gift shop with the intent of picking up a trinket or two for the folks at home.

The Korean War Museum visit began in the vast plaza in front of the building. The city had hosted a Snow Festival for kids, and hauled in snow sufficient to create a small sledding hill, icy sliding area, and places of throw snowballs or build snowmen. Hundreds of small kids swarmed throughout the area, supervised by brave mothers and museum personnel.

The first area inside the building takes one through the whole history of the Korean War,  beginning with preliminary activities on the part of the North Korean President in the late 40’s. The balance of the galleries provided examples of weaponry and equipment from both sides of combatants. For a military historian, the display outside the building would be a treasure!. Every kind of plane, from small reconnaissance crafts to a B-52 bomber, are on display, including Russian MIG and YAK, U.S. Sabre’s, Scorpions, and others. A variety of motorized howitzers, tanks of all kinds from both sides, and even a naval vessel add to the scene, with the Russian T-34 tank of special interest given its use elsewhere in the world. Some of the components are from later eras such as the Viet Nam period.

If I get a chance to return to South Korea, I would plan to spend several weeks exploring the rest of the country including a visit to some of the disputed islands off the coast which are said to be beautiful gems in the China Sea. Most of Korea is mountainous, so there are many valleys and forests to tempt one’s interest. It’s not true that I shall be contacting Dennis Rodman for a place on his next basketball venture to the North. I don’t qualify anyway; although I have a decent jump shot, I don’t have any tattoos.

Well, it’s almost time to complete my readjustment to a normal sleep schedule. I’ve had a week to recover from jet lag. My wife only returned from Korea on Friday, so she’s waking up at 2:30 a.m. and can’t sleep.

Always Be Happy    To Our Youth

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