Shocking Korea: When The System Works

It's been long overdue but finally it's time to tell my impressions of the far East, of the Korean Peninsula. It started from a flight on the 27th of April from Manila to Incheon that felt more like a travel through time, from the past to the future. And I'm not talking about time zones but rather, human and social development. The cultural shock I got from Korea was as big as the one I felt when I moved to the Netherlands in 2009. Allow me to explain how the shock felt on my first time.

Riding the submarine, 40m deep, in Seogwipo, Jeju

During the first months of living in Netherlands it felt strange to have such nice public services, well educated people everywhere, almost no misery, a vast offer of well preserved historical buildings and monuments, a genuine care for the environment, a lot of cultural exhibitions but most importantly, the safety feeling. For sure there were many other different things that caused an impression on me but the ones I mentioned were the most shocking. For the first time I lived in a world that felt right, that seemed that it was somehow doing the right thing. Remember that I come from a country with millions of miserable people living without dignity. Forced to pay expensive taxes and get terrible services in return. Trapped by a badly managed System. Apparently The System, which is basically the same from Brazil, when operated by competent people that actually care can lead to great results. It gave me hope and a new questioning started brewing: what lies ahead on this road? How good The System can get and how it feels like? I guess the answers lies on some of the Eastern Countries and the experience shocked me.

First of all, I have no idea about Korea. I have zero knowledge about the history of the peninsula, what they believe in, what was their struggle and how they overcame it. No idea about their geography, climate, modernization, participation on world events nor anything. I only knew that they spoke Korean, are very good at Taekwondo, it's the home country of Samsung and Psy. Oh, and are at war with border nation North Korea. It's fair to say that my full ignorance magnified the shocking effect.

Our trip started in Seoul, the capital city. The most amazing city that I have ever been in my life. One weekday we were walking around the neighborhood's city center during lunch time, surrounded by tall modern buildings, ancient palaces, wide roads full of cars, residential condos, local markets and super markets, people going by everywhere. You know this scenario right? Pretty normal if it wasn't for some details that changed the whole experience. The streets were super clean, no trash laying around, not a single cigaret butt tossed on the floor. Most of the buildings were beautiful and designed so that people could easily walk around them and have a pleasant experience. The ancient palaces were meticulously preserved and restored. Wide modern roads full of new cars that are quiet and spill almost no smoke. Honking? None. People going by everywhere relaxed like it's Sunday, apparently calm, doing groceries, having a coffee on the sun. I had the same experience in many other parts of the city. There was even a little street in Bukchon that it was so cool, so original, it took my breath away. It was amazing!

Their technological advancement was apparently matched by their ethical and social advancements. I say this based on what I saw. The public services and cities are more than good, they are designed to prevent frustration and misuse. It also seemed that South Korea is undoing parts of environmental damage done in the past. For instance, in Seoul used to have a stream of water called Cheonggyecheon that ran all the way to the Han River. In the past it was useful for transporting goods and dumping sewage. Later it got on the way of cars and modern sewage systems so they covered it and built a “nice” highway on top. That part of the city turned into an ugly grey polluted part of town. Years later they finally understood that it was a bad decision and reverted their “progress”. So they demolished the highway, rebuilt the water stream and keep it well maintained and pleasant. Now this is one of the most valuable areas of the city, people love to walk along the stream. I noticed the same care while enjoying the natural parks, like on Jeju Island. The ultimate proof that they are doing an amazing job with it is the beautiful flush nature full of happy people that were also enjoying their surroundings.

This attitude – of genuine care and action towards improving human interactions with the environment, the cities, public services and historical heritage – is not exclusive from South Korea, I saw it in many places in Europe, specially in the Netherlands. What was so amazing about SK was its massive scale and apparent long term commitment and its effects. What I'm trying to say is that based on what I saw and experience I've never seen a country operating The System with such decency. I also saw it's effect on people and it was quite puzzling.

Walking around Seoul I noticed that many women, young and old, would carry in their hands small mirrors that they constantly check themselves and make minor adjustments to how they look. They also do it with their mobile phones and snap many many selfies. Most of them use a lot of makeup, are very well dressed, even if their taste for fashion is very weird to my tastes, the shopping malls and streets were always full of people carrying bags and boxes of new stuff. There are so many coffee shops where people just sit around apparently doing nothing besides spending their money that I wondered if they ever worked. And in many places I felt an overwhelming pressure for buying stuff, over advertisement and consumption. How come this society, apparently so advanced, was so vain? Was this the end game of The System? Masses of empty and superficial middle-class people? “Well” – I told my self – “they got their shit together: there's no poverty, no corruption, no illiterate people, no abuse of nature, no bad health care, no bad public services … they can afford to be this vain. Maybe that girl fanatic by her image is also intelligent, kind, respectful, has a decent job, loves animals and is a good citizen! She's done her part, she can do whatever she wants to her self without guilty.” That eased my mind… but just a while. Later I found two crucial missing pieces of this society that changed everything.

One of the pieces I found in one of the biggest metro stations of Seoul, The System's tool: dozens of homeless people. Begging for money, trying to sleep on the floor, drinking the lasts drops of alcohol from a bottle, eating the food remains from trash cans. It was as sad as it could be and in this moment I was back at the real world. I felt a mix of relief and revolt to be back. So South Korea is just like any other place where The System runs, and it runs on top of people. Were these homeless people a victim of their own selves or they had no chance against The System? Both probably.

The Korean Peninsula's relationship is complicated and I can't explain it but I was there, at the edge of a complicated matter called the DMZ, a border which legitimacy's neither side accepts. Both states claim to be the legitimate government of the entire peninsula. I was briefly on enemy territory and what I saw was a stuck wheel, one that is still for too long and wont move unless it breaks.

The narcissist girls could not afford all that I thought they could after all. South Korea was definitely shocking, like the Netherlands, it got me thinking real hard on society, how much Brazil has still to grow and how good it can get. We must try our best as hard as possible and aim for the starts but even the best examples are not perfect, nothing is, really. I had such great time just enjoying the country and all it has to offer that it definitely made a good impression on me. I can't recommend it enough but I hope these pictures help it.

Happy green buses in Seoul

Really close to the water and the waterfall on the background

A reconstructed creek in the middle of the city
A huge Cathedral in Gangnan, Seoul
We always make new cool friends on the road

The beautiful Secret Garden in Changdeokgung, Seoul.

A scene from the Masks Theater in Andong Hahoe Historic Village. It was so hot!

The Spirit Tree in Andong Hahoe Historic Village
A section of Busan from the top of mountain close by
Having fun in one of the old fortress gates of Geumgang, Busan
Panoramic view of some royal tombs at Gyeongju
Panoramic view of Jeongbang Waterfall into the sea, Seogwipo, Jeju.
Cheonjiyeon Waterfall by night in Seogwipo, Jeju
At the crater of Seongsan Ilchulbong, Jeju
Seongsan Ilchulbong rises from the sea, Jeju
On the way to the top of the highest mountain of SK, Hallasan, Jeju

The crater at the top of Mount Hallasan, Jeju

A Buddha statue + drawing on a rocky side of the hill

Typical South Korean lunch. Very spicy kimchi!

Having fun with 3D Wall Paintings at the Jeju Airport

Maybe one day we can go from Lisbon to Seoul by train

The heart of the DMZ with North Korea on the background
17.455,29 km from my hometown! A new record.
A pic from a pic from a typical day on the DMZ

He's risking his life to protect ours. No kidding around please.
That's it for now! I hope you enjoyed this post. Have you been to South Korea too? How did you feel? Do you disagree with parts of what I said? Please let us know on the comments bellow.