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My Trip to North Korea (Part 4)

December 31, 2012

In less than an hour, we landed at Incheon International Airport, back to the place where the smell of money nauseated me.

We found our luggage without much waiting and walked out, past customs to the lobby. I spotted a desk with a sign, Hotel.” I walked to it, with a plan to call Hotel Kobos, where we had reservations to stay on the way back from North Korea. Well, they told me over the phone, “You have reservations on the 13th, not on the 6th.” No vacancy in Hotel Kobos.  At my request to try other hotels, the woman at the desk called more than a dozen of them.  No vacancies anywhere, within the range I could afford to pay. “Do Koreans sleep at hotels on weekends for fun?” I inquired. Politely ignoring my sarcasm, she said, “There are so many Chinese tourists these days that it is almost a miracle to find a room, especially on weekends.”

What to do? What to do? I was desperate and exhausted, body and mind. “Wait, I found a hotel in the New City, the city built, literally for this airport. Would you like to go there?” With a huge nod, I asked her to call a taxi for us. “But the hotel will send their shuttle.” What a relief. Maybe, our luck was changing. Almost two hours after our landing, we were met by a hotel shuttle.

What a splendid feeling to enter a room. Any room would have been good, but it was a huge room—even luxurious room—with computer, television, and king-size bed. The bathroom was the size of a small hotel room, equipped with a shower, tub and Jacuzzi, all for the price of $125. I rested for a few minutes and called Willem to meet me in the lobby.

We crossed the busy street in front of our hotel and found a tofu house, a chain restaurant which actually originated in Los Angeles. A friend had taken me there when it first opened. We ordered food and a bottle of soju. We slurped food and drank soju. (In New York, at our second meeting to plan our trip to NK, I asked Willem if he would like to drink some soju, the Korean equivalent of vodka.  He almost fell off his chair. “What’s the matter?” I asked, genuinely puzzled. “You mean you drink soju?” “Oh, yes, soju goes better with Korean food than wine,” I said. He was still in a state of shock. It slowly dawned on me—he’d never met a Korean woman as old as I who drinks soju!). He had adjusted fast. He understood and was glad that I wasn’t like his mother or any other old Korean women he knew. I drank soju. No problem!

Back at the hotel, entering our rooms, which were next to each other, we bade each other good night. “Sleep well, Willem. I will figure out what the next step would be in the morning,” I assured him.

It was not what I would call a sound sleep. I was awake at 7 am. Too early to call Min Jung, a smart, capable producer who helps me when I am in Seoul. I had called her from New York and asked if she could help set up on-camera interviews on the 14th and 15th of October. “I will be arriving at Incheon from NK late on the 13th. I would love to work two days in Seoul, before I return to NY.” So she expected me on the 13th,  not on the morning of the 7th.

How could I break the news about our disaster? Around 9 am on Sunday morning, I heard her voice on her cell phone. I said, “Hello,” but got no immediate response. Clearly, she had no inkling who was calling her on Sunday morning. “It’s me, Min Jung!” “Oh, my!” I noticed that her voice rose, recognizing mine. “Are you calling me from Pyongyang? That’s where you are, right?” “Pyongyang is where I should be but I am in Seoul!’ “What’s going on? What happened?” I explained our situation in nutshell. She was quiet.”Okay, I will call Mr. Kim (the president of the company and her colleague) and we will be there in a little while!” “No, please do not come. We will take a cab and meet you at your office.”

We had to move out of our hotel and find a new one. This time, we got it for one night close to Min Jung’s office. We took a cab to our new hotel, checked in and left our luggage. Then, one more cab ride to Min Jung’s office. Both Min Jung and Mr. Kim were there. The four of us went to a restaurant across the street to have lunch. The food was good, but the company better. Min Jung and Mr. Kim asked what I wanted to do. I said, “Whenever I come to Seoul, I visit my home first.” “I thought you had no home here!’ said Min Jung. “Yes, I do. It is where my maternal grandmother rests at a Catholic cemetery at the outskirts of Seoul.” No more explanation was needed or requested. We got into Mr. Kim’s car and he drove us to the Catholic cemetery. I tried to explain where it was but he didn’t need my help.  As we drove, I recognized familiar roads and places. He was definitely heading toward the correct place. I asked to stop at a huge greenhouse. I jumped out and bought a pot of pale yellow chrysanthemums. I would have preferred white, but they did not have it.


My maternal grandmother’s grave site (2006). Seoul, South Korea.

At the cemetery, Mr. Kim found a nice spot to park. There it was–the cemetery which I have been visiting every chance I came to Seoul—my homecoming. It was a beautiful autumn day. The sky was high and everything under it was at peace. I got out of the car. I saw a small mound at the top of the hill, sheltered by the stone wall Don and I had built together in 1987. I started climbing the hill toward it. My heart deeply stirred, but I was grabbed by almost mystical calm, with a force beyond my understanding.

To be continued.


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