The Long Slog to Seoul
On board a Seoul subway train at half-past midnight, an elderly man who appeared drunk or lonely (or both) was accosting a young Western couple sitting just across from us. Bama averted his gaze and I bowed my head, closing my eyes to feign sleep while clutching the handle of my suitcase. Neither of us had the patience or energy to deal with his babbling. Not at this time, not after an exhausting journey that had been turned into a 20-hour ordeal by the whims of nature. You see, our Korean drama had begun the previous night, long before we had even landed at Incheon International Airport.
The weather in Indonesia can be especially fickle at rainy season, and just when we were waiting for our Asiana Airlines plane to arrive from Seoul, nature unleashed a storm of almost Biblical proportions. For several hours the torrential rain fell in sheets, blotting out all but the nearest planes as frequent bolts of lightning lit up the skies and seemingly gale-force winds bent the stocky palm trees outside and blew their fronds sideways.
I worried about the ground handling staff; whether they had enough protection and could take shelter until the storm had passed. Eventually word crackled over the sound system that our flight had been delayed due to bad weather. From then on, information came unofficially and in small trickles. Perhaps, one staff member told us, the incoming flight would arrive at 2 a.m., implying that we could board an hour after that. And then we found out from fellow passengers that the plane had circled above Jakarta a number of times before diverting to Singapore, almost 900 kilometers (or 550 miles) away. Bama listened intently as the ground crew explained to a nearby group that they were going to put us up in an airport hotel. I relayed what we’d heard to a retired Canadian diplomat sitting directly opposite who had just awakened from a nap. Then, barely a minute later, a collective groan spread through the waiting lounge with the announcement that our flight had been postponed (by more than 12 hours) to 11:30 the following day. The Indonesian passengers took the news in their stride; the Koreans, too, responded with an acceptance that this situation was firmly out of their control. The sole person who visibly lost her cool was holding a Chinese passport, and as she screamed in English at the beleaguered airport staff, Bama and I exchanged disapproving glances. “What could they have done?” I said to him quietly. “It’s not like anybody wanted this to happen!”
“Being angry isn’t going to make the plane arrive sooner,” Bama quipped.
It was an odd feeling to go back through immigration in reverse, to see the words “CANCELLED” plastered over an exit stamp in blue. It was equally surreal to pick up my suitcase at the check-in counters before being ushered onto a waiting bus to a nearby budget hotel, where we took a much-needed shower before flopping into bed around three in the morning.
The next day, when I caught up with the retired Canadian diplomat, he recalled how he had placated another angry passenger at the waiting lounge. “I had to tell someone that the alternative was unthinkable – we might have lost our lives. Hearing that finally calmed him down.” I was floored that the airline’s botched attempts at communication the night before couldn’t shake his optimism, even though the ex-diplomat was clearly going to miss his connecting flight from Incheon to Toronto. “But maybe it’s a good thing they didn’t know how to handle the situation – that means it doesn’t happen all the time.”
I remember Lex’s post on her recent Ecuador trip that began with the words “weather can be a cruel travel companion”. In our case, it had nearly broken the trip before we’d literally gotten off the ground: because of that powerful storm over the airport in Jakarta, we ended up losing a precious day’s exploration from an already short break. Bama and I finally made it to our Seoul hotel around 1 a.m. that night, utterly spent but relieved that they’d kept our room free (we had sent them an email before boarding the plane).
But the unfavorable conditions nature dealt us at the outset did not end in Korea. It rained constantly during the first of our two full days in Seoul, and through it all the warmth of spring had momentarily given way to winter with freezing gusts and astonishing cold. Without scarves, hats, gloves, or parkas, we were woefully underdressed for daytime temperatures that plummeted to 2°C (35F), not including wind chill. Bama and I could barely feel our fingers after a few minutes spent taking photos outdoors. Still, there were brief spells of sunshine just when we needed it most – first while admiring the cherry blossoms in full bloom at Yeouido Island, and then at the UNESCO-inscribed Changdeokgung Palace. It is a testament to Seoul’s boundless energy, charm, and underlying beauty that we still loved the place in spite of the cruel weather. ◊