Sunday, July 18, 2021

What 6 Months of Adjudicating Visas Taught Me

I've been at U.S. Embassy Seoul for months and have yet to blog much about my actual work here. As longtime readers may recall, my last tour was in Public Diplomacy, which happens to be my cone/track. But here in South Korea, I'm doing a completely different job: Consular (CONS) work. For the first six months of my tour, I focused on non-immigrant visa (NIV) interviews, and now I'm rotating to another unit called American Citizen Services.

What are non-immigrant visas? They're the visas you need when you travel temporarily to a foreign country. They are different from immigrant visas, which you apply for when you plan to immigrate to another country permanently. As a non-immigrant visa adjudicator, it was my job to interview dozens of applicants a day and determine whether they met the qualifications for a non-immigrant visa. These requirements are set by U.S. immigration law (as well as Presidential Proclamations, court interpretations of law, and other policies).

So in no particular order, and with the surety that I'm forgetting some key things I should add, enjoy the list of things I found interesting enough to share that I learned from six months of visa work:

  • Visa interviews are a lot of fun. I know not everyone feels this way, but I love the chance to meet so many different people from all walks of life. Everyone applying to go to the United States has their own story, and I love learning more about them.
  • Most U.S. non-immigrant visa interviews are shorter than people expect. (I can do a straightforward one in about a minute.) But each one of those interviews is an opportunity to be a Public Diplomacy representative. Regardless of the visa decision, we can give people a positive impression of our country by treating them with kindness, professionalism, and respect.
  • Visa work varies wildly from post to post. Countries with more or less fraud, lower or higher issuance rates, and other factors will have very different applicant pools and post policies. For example, South Korea is part of the visa waiver program with the United States. As a result, many tourists and business travelers can go back and forth between our countries without a visa. That is not the case for the vast majority of countries.
  • Sometimes, people will lie to your face. You can't take it personally.
  • Once you become a Consular Officer, tons of people come out of the woodwork to try and ask you for visa advice. They often don't realize they're putting you in an awkward position, because you have to avoid even the appearance of impropriety. You don't want to give people the impression that knowing a Consular official or Embassy employee will give them a leg up in the visa application process. (It doesn't. If a friend comes in for a visa appointment, someone else has to interview them.) When someone asks me for visa or immigration advice, I always suggest they ask a lawyer.
  • There is a real camaraderie that comes with serving "on the line" with other entry-level officers. This was something I missed out on in my first post, where I was the only junior officer in my section. But now, I'm glad I got to enjoy the experience of sharing window hours with my colleagues, being part of a team of peers, and laughing over so many stories where you just had to be there.
  • Language skills can really help you out in a Consular job. Almost every day, I did a few interviews in Korean. It helped me maintain some of my language skills, but it also helped me save time during interviews.
  • In the digital age, people will leave reviews about you online. My colleagues and I read a few reviews of ourselves together for fun the other day. Someone referred to me as 백인 브루넷 (white brunette) and another called me "the lady who's always smiling and laughing" or something like that... I'll take it!

I'm glad Consular work is a requirement for entry-level Foreign Service Generalists. From my time in PD, I know that visa-related sections of Embassy websites (and posts on social media) usually get by far the most engagement. And any Foreign Service member can tell you that regardless of your position a contact will eventually mention something about a visa, and it's good to have some idea what they're talking about. I also think it gives new officers a common shared experience to draw from and connect with, while providing an opportunity for us to build our networks and meet a crucial overseas service need. What's not to love? I'm thankful for my time in NIV, and it may not be my last.

Monday, July 5, 2021

Independence Weekend Getaway in Gangneung

We decided to take another road trip to the east coast of Korea for the long weekend around the Fourth of July. This time, we left right after work on Friday and that rush hour Seoul traffic is no joke! Things improved dramatically once we got out of the capital area, but it's probably best to leave earlier or later if you're traveling to the coast for the weekend. We arrived in Gangneung and checked into St. John's Hotel, an enormous place right by the beach. They have accommodations for every traveler in Gangneung, from small "pensions" to motels to campsites to resorts to Airbnbs. Places tend to book up months in advance, though, so it's best to lock in your reservations early.

Once we reached our destination, we swung by an adorable little French cafe called C'est la vie and I fell in love with it. It was so small and quirky from the location to the decor, and the little chocolate terrine I had was delicious. If that wasn't enough, they had little guestbooks and stationery there for you to leave messages for other customers. It was a delightful experience, and as we were leaving the woman working there called out and ran to give us little sachets of purple flowers she bundled up for us. It was obvious we were foreigners, and she said it was a little thank-you gift for visiting. I cannot recommend this cafe highly enough! Definitely stop by if you find yourself in Gangneung.

Saturday morning, we walked along the beach and through a pine forest trail by the hotel and took photos with various art installations scattered throughout the area. One thing that's fun about traveling in Korea is the care devoted to Instagrammable setups for photos all over the place. The part of the beach we explored is one of many beaches with a beautiful backdrop and swings or photo frames or other props for visitors.

After that, we popped over to Jumunjin (주문진) to visit the famous bus stop from a BTS album cover. We took a group photo there together with the ocean waves in the background. There was even a picture of the well-known photo of BTS taped to the wall inside the bus stop itself. Do you recognize the place?

Our next stop was Ojukheon (오죽헌), which was really high on my list. For just 3,000 Korean won (less than $3) per person, we could check out the home and grounds of one of Korea's two most famous Confucian scholars: Yulgok Yi I (율곡이이). He and his mother, Shin Saimdang (신사임당), are both immortalized on the Korean 5,000 and 50,000 won banknotes respectively.

Back in those days, scholars did a bit of everything when it came to intellectual arts: painting, poetry, calligraphy, prose, and the list goes on. I had read several summaries of Ojukheon that only described Shin Saimdang as Yulgok's mother, but I learned actually visiting the site that she was an accomplished painter and artist herself. There was a museum highlighting some of the family's works, but the thing that impressed me the most were preserved sesame seeds with calligraphy on them from centuries ago! I can't even imagine the tools that were used at a time without microscopes or lasers to make such intricate art, but I was blown away by the skill and creativity. (Who would even think to do calligraphy on a sesame seed?)

There was also an original book written by Yulgok and the accompanying inkstone he used. I was shocked to see such a priceless national treasure on display without security guards or anything, but there were CCTV cameras and signs everywhere. Those cameras must work well, because everything seemed to be in great shape.

We also got to peek inside some of the rooms of the traditional hanok (한옥) house where Shin Saimdang and Yulgok grew up. The room where Shin Saimdang gave birth to Yulgok is named after a dream she had about a dragon during the birth. This was back in 1536, so I can only imagine what it was like to deliver a baby on that hard wooden floor, so delirious from the pain and the experience that you can't help but dream of dragons. Historical and cultural sites are some of the coolest places to visit!

To round off our Saturday night, we split off from the other N&M because I wanted to drag Marwan to a tofu place for dinner. A lot of the traditional Korean restaurants in the area serve tofu and seafood and not much else, so it may not be appealing to every palate. But I'd heard of how amazing the tofu is at Chodang Tofu Village (초당두부마을), a neighborhood right by the hotel, so I had to try it. M isn't the biggest tofu connoisseur himself, but thankfully we found a place where I could get a tofu stew (순두부) set and he could enjoy a massive, greasy potato pancake (감자전). It was the perfect hot comfort food for a drizzly evening.

On Sunday we slept in and then explored some restaurants and cafes in the area, including at Gangneung Coffee Street. Two restaurants we can recommend for a filling and tasty meal are Long Bread (롱브레드 강릉점) for sandwiches and Western food as well as Rui (루이식당) for Japanese food.

One of the things we love about Korea is the prevalence of dessert cafe culture. A lot of restaurants don't serve dessert, but that gives you the perfect excuse to find a place that specializes in coffee, tea, and cakes or other treats instead. And especially when you only have a few days to see a certain town, it means you can cover a lot more ground with limited meals.

We went for a walk after dinner and stumbled across a walking path called Wolhwa Street (월화거리) that used to be the site of railroad tracks but has since been converted to a romantic pedestrian trail (pictured in the first photo of this post). It had a magical feeling that reminded us of the Studio Ghibli movie Spirited Away, as if we were crossing over to a fantasy realm. I spent some time reading online afterward what the story was behind the place, but sources kept referencing a love story I'm not familiar with from Korean lore: Hwarang Muwolrang and Yeonhwa. If you know the story, please let me know in the comments below!

Since it was the Fourth of July, we bought some small sparklers and fireworks at a local convenience store called GS25 after dinner. (Turns out, pretty much every convenience store in a beach town in Korea sells these.) We walked out to Anmok Beach (안목해변), launched our little fireworks, lit our sparklers, and paid a modest tribute to America before calling it a night.

We had to head back to Seoul on Monday, but not before we experienced St. John's infinity pool. It was a nice way to spend a morning, but I honestly don't think it was worth the extra cost. We did snap a few memorable photos, though, and the weather was gorgeous.

We went back to Long Bread for brunch since there weren't a lot of brunch options in town. I had a delicious eggs benedict, but there was a long wait and a surprisingly large number of customers. I can't say I fully understand why there were so many people out and about on Monday given that it was a U.S. holiday and not a Korean one, but my theory is that a lot of people there were students on school break of some kind.

We queued up some podcast episodes (this time our mix included Maintenance Phase, Reply All, and The Dark Side of Seoul) and made it back to Seoul in a little over three hours. That's another Korean road trip in the books! Gangneung was a great location for a peaceful, relaxing summer weekend trip. We felt like we saw everything we needed to see, rested up, and enjoyed the great food and company. We hope your Independence Day was as good as ours. Happy Fourth of July, wherever you are!

Sunday, June 27, 2021

This Is What North Korea Looks Like

I just got back from a half-day trip somewhere I never imagined I would set foot: the DMZ (demilitarized zone) between North and South Korea. As a Korean American, I definitely knew about the DMZ growing up: that's where the two sides who had an armistice but never truly ended the Korean War would meet and sometimes seem like they made progress and sometimes seem like they took a few steps back. There have also been a number of scary security incidents there, including those that resulted in lives lost on each side of the demarcation line. Thankfully, my group was in good hands visiting under the auspices of the United Nations Command Military Armistice Commission (UNCMAC).

First we stopped at a visitor center in Camp Bonifas with small, museum-style curated displays. There were a lot of details I didn't know. For example, the region around the Joint Security Area (JSA) separating North and South is called Panmunjom (판문점). The 2018 inter-Korean summit between Republic of Korea (ROK) President Moon Jae-in and Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un resulted in what is known as the Panmunjom Declaration. What I didn't know is that the name Panmunjom comes from the name of the well-known tavern in the surrounding village.

Camp Bonifas is named after one of two U.S. soldiers killed in what is known as the Axe Murder Incident of 1976. U.S. Army Captain Arthur Bonifas and First Lieutenant Mark Barrett were trimming some trees in the DMZ when a group of DPRK soldiers led by Senior Lieutenant Pak Chul came up to them, observed them for a while, demanded they stop, and then bludgeoned the victims to death with their own axes. The UN Command chose to respond with Operation Paul Bunyan, a demonstration of overwhelming military force to cut down the tree without any additional escalation or loss of life. The photo above is the site where the Axe Murder Incident and Operation Paul Bunyan took place.

Then we went up a hill to get a good vantage point to see North Korea across the border. We could see the infamous Kijong-dong (기정동) in the distance. North Koreans refer to it as Peace Village, but we call it Propaganda Village because several of the buildings are only facades and with binoculars it's obvious that even some of the windows are painted on to give the impression more people live there. Current best estimates are that several hundred people do live in Kijong-dong, but it's much fewer than the DPRK government attempts to present.

After that, we got to check out the site of a famous 2017 defection from the North of a DPRK soldier. The New York Times has a great video explaining the footage from that incident, but it was amazing to stand exactly where the chase happened and see the bullet holes from the incident up close. What the video doesn't say but we learned from our guide is that the defector survived being shot five times and is still living in South Korea today. In the same area, we walked past a building called Freedom House that was designed to host reunification meetings of families separated by the division of North and South. Unfortunately, it has never realized its original purpose due to the DPRK's fear that North Korean families will defect if they are allowed so close to the demarcation line.

One of the coolest stops of the trip was the actual room where negotiations between the two sides happen. We were even allowed to cross the halfway mark and technically set foot in North Korean territory! In normal times, there would have been DPRK soldiers there, but due to the COVID-19 pandemic they have not been as visible. I heard that on the rare occasions they do come out for meetings these days they are wearing head-to-toe orange hazmat suits. It will likely be a while before things are back to normal - at least, as normal as they ever get on the DMZ.

We also got to see the famous view of the large building on the DPRK side that always shows up in news stories about inter-Korean conflict or negotiations. I had the first photo of this post taken where President Trump crossed over to North Korean territory during his official visit in 2019. A short walk away, we saw the blue bridge, also known as the Bridge of No Return. They built an extra section of the bridge in 2018 so that the ROK and DPRK leaders would have somewhere to share tea and cigarettes, but since then that portion of the bridge has begun sinking into the swampy terrain below.

I learned so much on this tour and I would consider a visit to the DMZ a must for anyone visiting South Korea who is able to arrange it in their schedule. This is such an important part of not only world history but world politics and military relationships today, and I'm grateful I had the opportunity to see it up close for the first time. And of course I hope that someday the hopes and goals of so many generations of Koreans and allies and friends can be realized and the peninsula can experience peace and reconciliation once again.

Friday, June 18, 2021

Happy Juneteenth!

Juneteenth is a federal holiday! It's so exciting for me and so many to learn more about this crucial part of American history. For many people from many parts of the United States, we are learning about this for the first time. For those readers who may not know: Juneteenth celebrates the day when a Union military officer arrived in Galveston, Texas and told enslaved African Americans they were free. That day was June 19, 1865, more than two years after the Emancipation Proclamation making them legally free was issued. Many slaveholders withheld that information from enslaved people and continued to persecute and abuse them before and after their freedom became law.

There were so many details I learned recently while hearing and reviewing the stories that shaped our country. Did you know that President Abraham Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation did not free all the slaves, only those in areas that were rebelling against the Union? Did you know that the other party in the infamous Dred Scott Supreme Court case was a slaveholding white woman? Did you know enslaved Black women were forced to wean their children early so white children could have wet nurses longer? Did you know people have been celebrating Juneteenth in the United States since 1866? Did you know red food and strawberry soda are part of Juneteenth because red food symbolizes blood and strawberry drinks were previously reserved for slave owners?

Like many Americans, I've been doing a lot of watching and reading and listening over the past year, and I'm shocked how much I learned about U.S. history that was never taught in my schools. Here are a few resources I can personally recommend if you'd like somewhere to start for celebrating Juneteenth:

Juneteenth is a holiday for all Americans, not just Black Americans or descendants of slaves. This is a fantastic opportunity to learn about our history and reaffirm our commitment to do better by actively seeking out justice where we can. If you're learning about Juneteenth for the first time, let's go on this journey together. How are you celebrating Juneteenth?

Saturday, June 12, 2021

Trying to Be a Better Ally at Work

Something that I really appreciate about the latest push for diversity and inclusion at my workplace (and at workplaces around the United States) is the greater emphasis on what allies (i.e., people who are not systemically excluded or marginalized) can do to support those who are being held back by an unjust system. I've been on both ends of this in just my first few years in the Foreign Service: being in a position where I could advocate for someone else and where I needed someone else to advocate for me. Things like privilege, allyship, and marginalization are not simple and nobody is fully privileged or fully marginalized; people are complex beings. But it's important for those of us who have access to resources and power in some ways to make sure we're using that access to lift others up, too.

There are so many ways to be a better ally at work I couldn't possibly list them all. One thing I do recommend to everyone who wants to do better supporting diversity and inclusion in the workplace is to sign up for the free 5 Ally Actions weekly newsletter. It's a quick read that gives you five things to know or do to help boost others around you. And unlike other resources out there, it's accessible to laypeople (e.g., it doesn't require academic or other expertise on issues) and it's focused on the realities of modern work.

It was actually in one of these newsletters that I learned this blog isn't as inclusive as I want it to be. I often write posts where the word "here" links to the outside resource, but those can make websites more difficult to navigate for people who are blind or use screen readers for other reasons. UC Berkeley has a quick explainer on this subject, but in summary screen readers may catch the link without the necessary context when the link text says something like "Click Here". This is a longstanding habit of mine, but I'm going to make a concerted effort to try and change it so that my blog is more accessible to visually impaired readers.

There are countless small actions we can take to reduce barriers to information and opportunity that we might never know about if we don't experience it ourselves and don't seek out the experiences and expertise of others. So in addition to reading about these issues, I want to recommend all readers to volunteer their time or money to advance inclusivity where they work or study or live, too. In the Department of State, Secretary Blinken has made this issue a priority and most posts and bureaus now have Diversity & Inclusion Councils. These initiatives would benefit from broader participation, especially from allies.

Regardless of where you work, there is certainly something you can do to give back to your colleagues and build up better institutions. There are infinite ways to measure success, but I think one of them should be that you left projects, offices, programs, people, language, and everything else you had influence over a little more diverse, inclusive, and equitable than you found it.

Sunday, June 6, 2021

A Day at the Bee--I Mean, Honey Farm

When the Embassy Community Liaison Office (CLO) announced they were arranging a trip to a local honey farm, I immediately signed up! I love honey, but I'd never been to a honey farm before. When I tried convincing my friend N to join me though, she replied that "honey farm" was just a euphemism for "bee farm" and that she would not be attending. She was right, because this trip is not for anyone who is scared of bees or insects!

The honey farm we went to is called 최은명 자연꿀 치유체험농장 (translation: "Choi Eun-myeong Natural Honey Healing Experience Farm") and is considered a "city" honey farm because the bees are kept on the roof of the building instead of out in a field. It's a family farm that is in the process of being passed down to the third generation - how cool is that? As Seoul expands and Korea becomes more urban, these types of agribusinesses are increasing. It seems to work well, and it gives city dwellers more opportunities to experience nature and agriculture. We got a quick briefing on how the farm works and learned about the importance of bees to the environment. The owners also talked about the natural health benefits of honey and we all tested our stress levels using a finger pulse device. I was shocked to see my stress levels were so low and healthy, but maybe that's because I just had so much fun at the farm.

We had to suit up to go to the beekeeping area, and although the outfits weren't particularly stylish or flattering they did the job and protected us. Once appropriately attired, we followed the owners upstairs to the roof. They waved around mugwort smoke to calm the bees down and then opened up one of the boxes so we could see the bee colony inside. They had 100 boxes of 10,000-50,000 bees each, and it was amazing to see! I learned all sorts of new things about bees and saw a real queen bee for the first time.

The worker bees live about 45 days, but the queen can live for 4-5 years. They're all born from the same type of egg, but there is only one queen per colony. She lays 2,000-3,000 eggs per day, so I guess that's what keeps the numbers up given the low lifespans of her workers. I also learned that male honey bees don't have stingers, so I even got to hold one in my hand. It wasn't scary at all since I knew he couldn't sting me.

Our honey farm tour also included a few DIY projects. We worked together in groups to make all-natural shampoo, which involved a surprising number of interesting ingredients (like silkworm dust!) and some arm strength given an extended period of time stirring the mixture as it thickened. Next, I and a few others made beeswax candles. I fell in love with these adorable candles especially because they were made to look like three different versions of kimbap (김밥, the Korean version of sushi): regular kimbap, "nude" kimbap (with the rice on the outside), and egg kimbap (with a layer of egg on the outside).

We couldn't leave the honey farm without tasting some honey, so we got to try rice cakes with two types of honey. I've never combined rice cakes with honey before, but what a delicious combo! Interestingly, the two honey samples came from the same bees, but they tasted totally different. The lighter one was produced during acacia season when those flowers dominated the bees' diet, while the darker one was from a different season when the bees fed on a mix of wildflowers instead. My favorite was the acacia honey, but both were amazing and packed full of unique flavor that set them apart from the honey sitting in my pantry at home.

Bees are such an important part of our ecosystem, but I (like most consumers) rarely think about them. A honey farm trip is a great way to learn more about these amazing creatures and to enjoy the wonderful products they make possible. (The whole experience also reminded me of a novel I read years ago and loved dearly called The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd. I cannot recommend that book highly enough.) If you're interested in learning more about beekeeping, check out the Barnyard Bees Youtube channel or visit your local honey farm. Hopefully your experience is as sweet as mine was!

Monday, May 31, 2021

Welcoming Summer with a Long Weekend on Korea's East Coast

We made it out to Sokcho, Seoraksan, and Yangyang this weekend! And I don't think I've been more sore coming back from a trip in a long time. It really feels like summer is coming, and we were lucky enough that the forecasted rain didn't come and ruin any of our outdoorsy plans. Our friends (who are also N&M), the same ones who joined us in Busan, came along for this trip, too.

First, we rented a car and drove from Seoul to Sokcho. I read reviews online that traffic can be terrible, so we waited until late (departing around 8:30pm on a Friday) and it was fine. I had my podcasts all queued up and the time flew. The next day, we went exploring in Sokcho. We tried chunbbang (춘빵), apparently a signature treat of the region, at a cute chain called 함's Bakery. It was delicious, with a crusty, sugary topping and a soft glutinous rice filling.

Then, we went up the Sokcho Expo Tower. I thought this one was way better than your average skydeck because it was positioned perfectly between majestic Seoraksan towering over the city and the glimmering sea with Sokcho's signature red bridge below. I paid 500 won (about 50 cents) to use one of the viewfinders in the tower, but I'm glad I picked the once facing the mountain because when we descended and continued our walk we found multiple free ones alongside the bay.

The weather was wonderful and we walked along the water for hours until we got hungry and grabbed lunch at a place called Getbae (갯배), which included a food court, shops, a cafe, and a vibrant terrace (the first photo of this post). It wasn't crowded at all, so we took our pick of foods and places to lounge. The whole vibe of the place was very industrial and hipster, and best of all for exhausted foreigners: you could order on screen kiosks in English and pay with credit card. We spent a good amount of time there enjoying the breeze and lack of other people. We even found a motion sensing video game that M seemed to have a knack for outside of the cafe.

We passed Sokcho market along the way, and I highly recommend swinging by if you want to try traditional food or buy snacks to share with others. There were a lot of people and more unique foods than we could possibly try on our short visit. There was everything from alcohol cakes to sweet and sour fried chicken to dried herbs and seafood. The four of us tried a local delicacy, squid blood sausage (오징어 순대). Apparently I was the only person who knew that it was blood sausage cooked inside of squid rings instead of intestine lining, since everyone else thought it was sausage made of squid meat. I made the horrible mistake of informing everyone what it was as we were eating, which did not go over well. Regardless, we made a good effort and almost cleared the entire plate. (The only thing I couldn't stomach was the intact squid head, which dripped a mucus-like white gooey substance when I pulled it off the blood sausage stuffed inside. Even I have my limits.)

After that, we had to book it back to the Airbnb. Our friends N&M needed a nap and we needed to head to Surfyy Beach for a surfing lesson I'd booked. We were running late and there was some traffic, so it was pretty stressful until we got there. Once we finally connected with our English-speaking surfing instructor and learned we had a private lesson instead of a larger group class, we were so relieved. We rented extra thick (5mm) wetsuits, boards, and boots, got changed, and spent the next three hours practicing our surfing technique. We've tried surfing once before in Hawaii, and somehow I felt like it was much easier there. I was happy that in the three-hour lesson I was able to stand a few times. It was a killer workout, though, and I was already tired just 30 minutes into the lesson.

After we finished surfing, we sat at Surfyy's sunset bar and met up with our friends for dinner. We enjoyed eating and chatting while enjoying the ocean views and relaxing after a long, intense day. Especially because we followed that up immediately with another long, intense day...

The next morning, we grabbed early breakfast at McDonald's (yes, I do love a good sausage egg McMuffin from time to time) and went to Seoraksan, South Korea's most famous mountain. We wanted to get there as early as possible to beat the crowds and make sure we could reserve cable car tickets. It turned out the cable car was a little crowded for my taste, but at least it earned us some spectacular views at the top.

After we came back down, we started on a pair of back-to-back hikes I had planned based on blog reviews I'd read of hikes that could be done in less than a day. First, we hiked up to Biseondae (비선대) Rocks, which was a moderate path and pretty pleasant: it was mostly shaded woods and there were multiple spots to stop by the river, splash our faces, and refill our bottles with fresh mountain water.

The second hike was where everyone else's positive feelings for me as a person really got tested. The distance wasn't too far, but the trail was considered one of the most difficult on the mountain due to the seemingly never-ending steep rock steps. I'd read online that there was a small cave called Geumganggul (금강굴) at the end with a woman who may give you a piece of fruit to congratulate you on completing the hike. That really struck me (and reminded all of us of a videogame), so I was determined to make it there.

At various points, I think everyone else questioned whether joining me was the right call, but we eventually did make it to the top! And in the cave there was a beautiful Buddhist Temple-like space and a Buddhist monk waiting with a treat for us! (He was a man, not a woman, and he gave us wrapped candies, not fruit, but it was close enough.) He was so nice and encouraged me to take a bunch of photos. He even shared some of the photos he'd taken from his cave of the mountain outside.

It was one of the most intense hikes I've ever done, and the feeling of accomplishment and the endorphin rush was divine. It took us way less time to get back down the mountain than it did to climb it, and soon we were back on our way. We grabbed a Korean barbecue lunch and dessert at a cafe, and then we made our way to our final destination: glamping.

I'll admit my expectations were different from reality on the glampsite. The pictures online made it look like it was in a forest, when actually it was right by the beach. Plus, for the price we paid I actually expected the facilities to be a little nicer. At the end of the day, the site did its job and we enjoyed a relaxing evening grilling (there's something I just love about grilled onions in particular), chatting, and resting our exhausted selves. That night, M and I went for a romantic stroll on the beach, people-watched beach campers, and enjoyed the view of small fireworks some launched over the crashing waves. Next time, though, we'll probably just camp on the beach for free or stay somewhere else for much less.

Before we knew it, it was time to head back to Seoul. We came back home, dropped our friends off, and decided since we still had the car for a few hours that we would try to go to a restaurant we've had our eye on for a while that was just a little too far to take public transportation. Let's just say that excursion was an absolute disaster, the restaurant appears to exist no longer, there were many language barrier miscommunications with strangers along the way, and we ended up ordering takeout the last night of our long weekend. I add that detail to say not everything goes perfectly when you decide to venture outside of your comfort zone, and that's okay! Even those horrible, stressful experiences are worth it because they pale in comparison to the wonderful adventures we have when we go out, explore, and try new things.

I'm sure it won't be our last time on Korea's east coast. (I'm already planning our next surfing vacation!) We're so thankful for good company, great friends like N&M (we're like N&M^2!), and such a beautiful country to experience. What other joys will our first summer in South Korea bring? I look forward to finding out.