Monday, April 16, 2007

Korea, day 1

I'm in Korea, concerned about the engineering students at VA Tech, even though I'm pretty sure that I don't know anyone personally who's there right now, and mostly over jet lag though I'm still tired and still trying to get my legs under me. Hooray foreign service.

I'm still trying to organize my impressions of this place, but there are no pictures as yet because I bought a bunch of lemon batteries before I left, and they are all now dead. If you buy batteries at a going-out-of-business sale, prepare to have them die on you within minutes if they have any charge in them at all. This doubly sucks because this country is ridiculously expensive, and it's only with extreme difficulty that I'll be able to withdraw enough cash, per day, to cover taxi rides to and from work, let alone buying batteries and some eats.

Of course, Korea has turned into a cashless society, though mostly by accident and it doesn't really help people like me. To give an idea, this is a country where the basic currency unit is inflated to about 100 times the Chinese yuan, but which has a cost of living most similar to Japan. This means that you can't really get anything done for less than 1000 won, but the largest denomination commonly available is 10,000 won. This is a lot like trying to pay for your life in the US using only 10-dollar bills and leads to wallets that more closely resemble pimp rolls. In China, stuff for Westerners looks really expensive, but the yuan is about where it needs to be, given the overall economic circumstances; the won is in desperate need of a restructuring. France got out of its problems with the "new franc" in the '60s, and Italy ducked out of the lira becoming a national embarrassment by joining the euro, but the South Korean economy is good enough that the won is probably not going to be revised any time soon. Maybe after reunification, but there's probably a greater chance of Kim Jong Il giving up on his own than any unprovoked currency change. Everything here, like in a lot of modern Asia, is by card and i-banking anyway.

On the upside, I'm still alive after two trips on the roads, which is noteworthy, because as of 2003, when my current edition of Dangerous Places came out, South Korea was third behind Afghanistan (I think) and Kenya for road fatality rates, and definitely the most dangerous in the First World. The roads are a little anarchic and people drive too fast, but it's not as bad as Beijing was, and Massachusetts drivers who have their head on a swivel ought not to have too many problems. The biggest issue is that the idea of "lane" is not universally accepted here, and some drivers, including both cabbies I've ridden with so far, will put the dotted line under the center of the vehicle at times rather than leaving it to one side or the other. If everyone does this, though, you can fit two or three more vehicles abreast (depending on the size of the highway) onto the road, which given the rush-hour congestion is probably the point. Of course, to make that work, people have to drive real straight and not have stuff hanging off the sides of their vehicles, which is not always the case. On the way over to the office this morning, we passed at least three accidents and saw a wrecker in the opposite lane hauling away one more. Again, it's not Beijing, probably because the average car is better built and a lot better maintained, but it's not Peoria either.

Despite taking 27 hours, the trip in wasn't all that bad; I should have talked to the attractive dental professional who sat next to me on the flight from Boston to Chicago more about my own field service instead of just reading DP all the way over, because she was certainly interested once we actually did start talking, waiting for the rest of the plane to disembark so we could get off and continue to our next connections, but the long flight around the Pacific Rim didn't include any leg injuries or middle-schoolers falling asleep and nearly going face-first into my lap, unlike last time. Also, Japan, like Germany, is a cool place to make connections from, as Kirin is free on United and the 'snack' provided on the 2-hour flight to Seoul is not just a bag of pretzels, as it would be in the US, but also included two pieces of sushi and a carefully crust-trimmed (lol Japan) ham and egg and cheese sandwich. Maybe the sushi was 'airline sushi', but being Japanese airline sushi still puts it a cut above the 'supermarket sushi' that I eat too much of at home.

So: South Korea is dangerous to drive around in, expensive, smoggy, and located right next door to the last remaining Stalinist dictatorship in the world. Despite all these things, it's pretty decent; not quite Germany, but definitely among the better of the countries I've visited. It's a little warm here, but normal people like that instead of fleeing north, and though there's a lot of construction associated with the furious economy and there are numbered company-housing high-rises absolutely everywhere once you get out of Seoul center, there's still a lot of the natural landscape left; on one side of the freeway you have a forest of concrete projects, and on the other side you have a forest of, um, well, forest. This is a nice country, though just like the last time I went to Asia, I don't know the local language for crap, but with slightly greater English penetration this is less of an issue. I'm not going to be homesick for Seoul when I leave like I was for Dresden, and it's not as visually interesting here as Hong Kong was, but this is a nice country and I'm not going to mind overly much if I get sent back... though I'll put more time into learning Korean (somewhere in between work, sleeping, shows, and doing Chinese again) before I do.

I get out of work early today, and hopefully will get a chance to get some batteries and take some pictures -- provided, of course, that I survive the road back. The really interesting part at the customer site starts tomorrow.

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