Somehow, I managed to wake up for the tour I booked of the DMZ. It feels like some sort of surreal movie set when you stroll around the sites. You walk in a crouched position through Tunnel Number 3 and the shiny granite (partially covered in coal-colored paint in a lame attempt by the North to pretend it was a mine) looks like plastic…until your helmeted head hits it. From a viewing platform you see North Korea just a few hundred meters away and hear the propaganda loud and clear. Dorasan Station, the last train station in South Korea and the product of an unmatched peace initiative, is way overbuilt for the rural surroundings and the single train that terminates there. After I ate lunch in a border complex that included, among other things, a Popeye’s Chicken and an amusement park, we took the bus to the Panmunjom and the Joint Security Area. After passing through Camp Bonifas, and over a tiny bridge designed to collapse under the weight of a tank, we arrived at those famous light blue buildings that straddle the border. We were allowed to take as many pictures as we wanted from the North Korean side, even of the stoic North Korean guards, just so long as our cameras did not face the South Korean side (no free reconnaissance for the hostile actor). People disregarded the commands to stay arm’s length away from the North Korean guards when taking pictures and to not touch anything though. Fortunately, despite the shocked collective gasp of the entire room when someone knocked over a microphone, our group did not create any international incidents.
The next day I had a flight to Indonesia to see my friend from UMBC’s swimming team, Pink. I decided to spend my last morning in South Korea as the only non-daycare worker or senior citizen at the Korail Railroad Museum (it was a weekday after all). I loved walking through the trains and I especially enjoyed how one exhibit in the museum let you operate actual railway signal hardware.
I was having such a good time that I decided to stay past the time I had decided to leave for the airport – after all, would I really need three hours to check in if I didn’t have luggage? I had the same attitude stopping for lunch and the post office to write and mail some postcards. I walked up to the the self check-in kiosks with an hour and a half until departure and felt smug as the process worked flawlessly…until I received an error message informing me that self check-in wasn’t available for me. I thought the lines for the staffed desks looked short until I rounded a corner and saw the huge line for economy class. I kept my cool but the Korean Air policy of ending check-in an hour before departure was on my mind as the minutes ticked away. Attempting to check in from my (conveniently) almost-dead phone didn’t work either. My hopes were pretty low when I reached the counter with 40 minutes until departure. ‘I’m sorry sir,’ the attendant began, ‘but the aisle seat is taken. Would a window seat be acceptable?’ ‘NAE, NAE (YES, YES)’ I stammered as I received my boarding pass. Since it was already boarding time, I satisfied every travel story cliche by sprinting, first through security, and then to my gate, while holding the perfect running form I learned from swimming practices in spite of my boat shoes and Oxford shirt. It was such a relief to see a few people still in line as I made it to the gate – everything about this flight would be easy now.
The seven hour flight to Bali wasn’t bad. The fixed price taxi to my hostel was very overpriced but I was so dead at this point (2 AM local time on May 18th) that I was just relieved to finally end my day. When it turned out I was at the wrong branch, the very friendly staff offered to give me a lift. Imagine my surprise when the employee, who was sitting in a comfortable-looking van when I arrived, threw me on the back of his scooter. I sure woke up when, seeing the gridlock on busy Legian Street, the driver merely veered, curb and all, onto the sidewalk and started weaving in and out of traffic as conditions warranted. Perhaps Bali wouldn’t be as easy a destination as I had planned.