The three and a half hours before my flight back from studying abroad in Korea found me scrambling around my emptied dorm with the aplomb of a newly headless chicken. Mom’s incredulous voice, on speaker, ascended from waves of blankets.
Mom: You’re still packing?
Me: No, I already have all the stuff in the big suitcase and just need to transfer some of it to the smaller one.
So, sans editorialization, I was still packing. I’d bought a small suitcase for my second carry-on the night before, having realized there is, in fact, a limit to how many snacks you can fit in your luggage—for some reason I was under the impression that gifts for other people don’t count toward your packing total on a sort of karmic basis—and justified spending $80 on extra space for honey butter almonds I could probably just Amazon to the States.
In my defense, I’d bought the suitcase spur-of-the-moment around 11PM while in Dongdaemun Plaza (that’s what happens in Seoul—you just find yourself in malls sometimes.) And I’d been running on less than five hours of sleep, my norm for the past month as I would explore the city until practically midnight every day and then wake up 5-6 AM for no apparent reason. I needed a vacation from the vacation.
Anyway, I’d been told by locals not to arrive at the busy Incheon Airport later than 2:30 for my 5PM flight, which explained why at 1:30 I hadn’t even stepped foot out the door. As Mom kindly explained to my increasingly stressed self, I should’ve already left the building.
Through affirmations and other positive reinforcement techniques, I eventually yanked both my bursting suitcases closed and stumbled down the halls, about four arms short of what I needed to also return the dorm blankets and sheets. I made down the elevator and spilled into the lobby, chucking what I could into the donation box and dashing toward the lobby front desk.
Me: Could you please call me a taxi? To Sungrye.
Sungrye Elementary School is the station for the “airport limo,” the bus that takes you to Incheon Airport. However, Korea University only provided a shuttle to the Sungrye stop during regular check-out, Saturday and Sunday, and I was leaving early so I’d need to make it there myself. Naver Maps estimated a 15-minute walk from my dorm to Sungrye, but I wasn’t about to walk with two suitcases under the unforgiving Korean sun.
Front desk lady: I think the distance might be too short for taxis to take you. But I could try.
We proceeded to stare at each other for a minute while she made no move to look anything up.
Me: Um. So… I’ll walk?
FDL: You probably can’t. I walked that route last night and it was too much sweat. You could taxi to a farther bus stop and walk to Sungrye from there. Easier.
I’m particularly attuned to recipes for disaster because my entire life is The America’s Test Kitchen’s Do-it-yourself Cookbook. I don’t speak Korean, so straying from directions sounded like a terrible idea. I mean, so did walking from campus to Sungrye, of course, but there wasn’t a better option and the passage of time remained a concept, so I left with suitcases in tow.
What ensued was one of the worst character-building experiences of my life. It was over 100 degrees. The first stretch, and for all I knew, the whole stretch, was at an incline of at least 30 degrees. One suitcase was 22.5 kg, which is heavy if you’re weak.
I realized my mistake within the first minute, but at that point I couldn’t turn back. Or, I guess I could’ve just walked back inside since I’d only made it out the lobby, but I already felt committed to my idiocy. So I carried on huffing miserably up the hill. I passed numerous concerned passersby, whom I assumed were staring at me drowning in my own sweat. Later I realized they might’ve been staring because my suitcase wheels had jammed and were accumulating all the fallen leaves on the ground like a boxy rake.
Fielding Mom’s text blasts with words of assurance, I attempted to find the actual stop around the map destination. The collective advice of wise strangers down my aimless path eventually guided me to the stop, where I underwent the scare of my bus zooming past my stop (it ended up looping back around.) And another scare when Mom texted that, according to Korea University’s website, the shuttle might take 25 minutes longer than budgeted. (She tends to inform me of bad news exclusively when there’s nothing I can do about it.)
The bus made it to Terminal 1 in exactly 80 minutes. I walked in at 3:30 to find the terminal not nearly as busy as I’d expected. My suitcase weighed in right under the 23 kg limit—fortunate because I hadn’t had time to check in the morning. Things were going, unexpectedly, smoothly.
I took my sweet time checking in. Exchanged Korean won to US dollars. Aired out the back of my shirt, still sweaty from my trek. Walked toward Gate 31 at 4:15 for my flight at 5:25.
On my way, I passed what looked like a small Korean culture exhibit. I’d planned to just walk through, and then I saw the words “Free cultural experience: Najeon soban making,” specifically the “free” part.
So I sat down like I had all the time in the world and dimly imagined Mom’s long-distance conniption at me picking at the mother-of-pearl flakes and arranging them with artful care.
I packed up 4:55. Went to the bathroom. Filled up my water bottle. Ambled into the gate, where a lady appeared. I smiled politely. She opened her mouth, probably for a pleasantry.
Lady: YOUR BOARDING CLOSES AT 5PM.
As though jolted awake, I realized I could’ve bought an unnecessary suitcase, braved a soul-crushing trek, and sat on a tense shuttle ride coaching Mom through an impending nervous breakdown only for me to actually miss my flight because of spontaneous arts and crafts.
So I booked it. Korea had been fun and all, but buckling myself into the return flight, I couldn’t wait to go home so I could never leave the house again.
Did I really post only three times about my six-week trip abroad, one being before I left and one after I returned? Yes.
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