Read here about my first trip to Seoul

May 25th 2016

That moment when it’s almost 6 AM and you haven’t slept since yesterday because you came back from Miami and you talk to your mom who’s traveling to Seoul via Doha while you’re off to Jakarta, about meeting in Korea, then her continuing to Tokyo and you back to Bucharest via Doha to go to the Black Sea in order to attend a good friend’s wedding for which she needs to send you a traditional Romanian costume. Missing her since last time get-together in Rome at the beginning of May. ‪#‎neverstoptraveling ‪#‎meandmomaroundtheworld‪#‎wordmap ‪#‎QueenofContrasts ‪#‎Rotary2016

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May 29th 2016, off to South Korea to meet mother who is in Seoul for the Rotary International Convention

They said: “You became insane because of the one you love”
I said: “The savor of life is only for the insane ones”
– Yafi’i, Raud al Rayahin

 

May 30th 2016, Grand Hyatt Incheon West Tower, Seoul, South Korea

The feeling I had stepping in the hotel lobby is hard to explain. First of all I did not think I’d still be here by now, at this job that I identify myself with more and more. Then realizing all the things I’ve been through and what I learned. What I did and what I failed to do. What I could’ve done better.

I’ve been in Seoul before, it must have been a year back and I loved the city. However, instead of 2 days I was in the South Korean capital for one week, most of it isolated in quarantine, a time of reflection and questioning of many essential issues about myself and life in general.

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I remember that whole day running up and down Seoul, eating new and delicious food, seeing exciting places and a fascinating culture that was new to me, thinking how fortunate I am to see all these places. I was just at the beginning of my second month of flying and I had already seen the sunset from the tallest building in Tanzania in Dar el Salaam, hugged the lion cubs and partied hard in Johannesburg, ate authentic borscht in the Red Square in Moscow, swam in exotic Phuket, rode tuk tuks, motorbikes and trains, experienced rooftops and strip bars in Bangkok and discovered the unique charm of what became my favorite city, Beirut. And throughout that day I was thinking that I shall not leave with my colleagues that following morning. I don’t know why, but it was just haunting me.

So, at 8 PM, when I got at the hotel, it was a crazy house around there. Two letter under my door, calls from various offices in Doha and Seoul, messages on my phone. What followed was from a Hollywood movie, tens of calls to different departments and nothing certain, other that I was going somewhere. In South Korea. In all this mess I was trying to contact my mom to let her know I’m going somewhere for some time. 3 nights and 4 days it turned out to be one of the harshest, yet inspiring experiences of my life.

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I had come for experience, here it was served.

Yet, that lobby brings so many memories. Of the two men and one woman assisting me to go, my bags packed, my thoughts whether they would be thrown away, a crazy sense of adventure in the given situation.

Let’s start a month of the ghosts of the past. Same Korea, same red sun shine and same luxurious lobby…but the story is simply a life memory…to be continued. June, bring it on!

In the room. It’s dusk time and the fog of the setting sun is giving a grey shade to the thousands of cars parked in the airport’s lots. Some aircraft tails in the background. My life and spirit in a picture. I become melancholic, but I have no time for this, I have to pack my bag with all the presents I brought for my mom from around the world.

The coffee pots, the ceramic mug, the wooden box with tea and coffee, the Jeju water, “Morning Calm” magazine issued by Korean Air, the Seoul Hallyu Tourist Guide, are part of my stories and although I don’t care much about things, I kept some symbolic ones from Korea. In my work notebook, where I write my flight details, there is a post it saying Flight Crew (of my company) in Korean. It came with my daily food box in that hospital/hotel.

Soon I’m back to the airport from where, at the advice of a Korean colleague, I take the Airport Limousine, which is actually a bus, a comfortable first class bus, let’s say. It costs around 15000 won (~11 euros) and it takes you to every single hotel in Seoul. I took bus 6015 towards the Myeong-Dong Area.

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The Limousines have a sticker saying I, a big heart, Seoul. They are running every 10-20 minutes starting 4 AM to late night and there are special lines for them, making them really fast. Also, there is a number where you can call and check where each bus is at all times.

Koreans are impressive from many points of view. Just an example, vision glasses with different diopters are available in the airport for completing the forms.

Myeong Dong District with mother is amazing. Although we saw the world together even before my intense traveling experience, it’s still hard to believe we are together in the other side of the world, even for two days. Or especially for two days.

A few days before I was in Jakarta, writing: “Another sunrise in…Jakarta, Indonesia” and she wrote “Waiting for you in Seoul”.

I came not long ago from Miami and I’m still in the Cuban vibe. La Lupe. And the idea to go to Cuba in August.

Huge Korean drawings down on the streets, Korean BBQ, alive seafood at the entrance of the restaurants, tons of face creams and cosmetics – yes, Koreans, both women and men are obsessed with skincare, awesome street style, adorable little Korean kids, snails and tiny octopus on a stick, watermelon fresh juice – coming with a stand decorated with watermelon plush toys and lights and storekeepers dressed in…watermelons, Yaki Noodles, fashion shops with tiny sizes, thousands of luminous advertisements in Korean. In fact, Myeong Dong means the bright cave or bright tunnel. At night, it looks exactly like a bright melting pot.

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I love Korea black shirts, stands with baby colorful shoes, lots of American brands, shops for all budgets and millions of small stuff, most of them useless, cute nonetheless. I’m awake for almost 30 hours now and I’m wearing the same make up. If any Korean would hear that…

Mother is beautiful and classy as always, perfect coiffure, simple cut grey top with and she’s wearing the colorful stones bracelet and assorted necklace I brought for her.

We cannot stop talking and we stop to talk by a huge pot of food for two, with chicken and seafood, a pot that we stir every now and then and wonder about what it contains. Cass beer and scissors cut meat. A good day and a good night. In Seoul, with mother.

May 31st 2016, Rotary International Convention, Seoul, South Korea

The city is filled with the Rotary International Convention banners saying Connect with Korea, Touch the World. There are over 40000 participants this year and they are roaming all over the city. They are mainly the best of the crop from around the world. On our way to the venue, which is somewhere outside the city, we pass by the City Hall and the Deoksugung Palace. I sleep for 10 minutes when I get the chance.

“Join Leaders. Exchange Ideas. Take Action” invites a huge panel at the entrance of the Kintex Convention Center. Myself a Rotarian, I share the values of Rotary. Service above self, charity, spreading the good. Rotary Conventions are great and I love this year’s logo in the shape of a traditional palace with two pagoda style roofs, colored in red, blue, green, yellow and black.

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Weather is great and in the interior garden of the convention center they sell amazing food, beers and cold drinks and a group is dressed in traditional costumes and they perform traditional dances.

In what is called The House of Friendship I find the world under one single roof. Korean souvenirs and information, Korean costumes, Nigerian costumes, Americans speaking Spanish, Indian sweets with some silver topping, people from all over the world, mostly in traditional clothes, roaming around. I try my first Korean traditional dress and pose in front of a traditional rug. I even have traditional boots and nearby there are two Korean grannies explaining the Korean culture and how food and drinks are traditionally served. Of course, she wears traditional dress. The funniest of all is to see people of color wearing the Korean dresses.

Bulgarian roses, Rotarian Wine, Police and Law Enforcement Fellowship stand, Rotarian Hunters and Fishermen, an improvised theater, a diplomatic section, a library, restaurants and cafes, clothes-cosmetics-perfumes, volunteers volunteering to guide the Rotarians who are actually….volunteers, red and blue lampions, Welcome written in tens of languages, stickers saying Falo Portugues, Je Parle Francais, Hablo Espanol, Youth Exchange Student, New Rotarian etc.

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Face painting, food samples of all sorts, flags everywhere, spectacular traditional dresses, stand of next year’s Rotary International Convention in Atlanta. Yes, we’re going.

By now I’m trying my second Korean dress and without knowing I try the wedding dress. Red, with impressive over sized wide sleeves, embroidered with pink roses on the white silk by the edge. The outfit is completed by a heavy head accessory, looking like a small clutch with sowed beads and three tassels of different colors hanging down my forehead.

The water machines provide small bags instead of plastic glasses.

Next on the list is some shopping in the Lotte Department Store, where, as always, the designs are unique.

Later, back in Myeong Dong we ate all the street food we could find, from seafood green pancake, fried crabs, shrimp on a stick. The area is pulsing with life and by late afternoon it gets crowded and quite crazy.

In front of the hotel, I get the Limousine and my mom prepares for the rest of the journey – Busan, Tokyo, Osaka, Kyoto, Nara etc. Life is good, it takes you places…

On the way back I meet two Romanian couples and I move them both in the same zone and change my zone to theirs. I loved this flight for some kind of reason. One of the couple lives in Korea and she is a life coach, mainly for expats’ wives and we had some very interesting talks both on the flight and thereafter. Life is good.

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My destinations: Dar el Salaam, TanzaniaJohannesburg, South Africa (Part I) and Part II–  – Moscow, RussiaPhuket, ThailandBangkok, ThailandBeirut, Lebanon – Seoul, South Korea

I’m back from Beirut where I left running right after sleeping a few hours after arriving from Bangkok. I open my Phuket suitcase and pack for Seoul, June’s first destination.

After 8 hours flight plus 5 to 6 hours in preparations and post flight formalities and total of 24 hours not sleeping, I arrived in Incheon, part of the metropolitan area of Seoul, where the international airport is located.

I am in the lobby of Grand Hyatt, scanning the map of Seoul in my hand wearing some purple outfit and my thoughts drift away. But, let’s start the journey and explore the capital of Korea.

From the hotel, there is a free shuttle to the airport every 15 minutes and the train is in the airport, take one journey ticket from the vending machine costing about 4500 won (4,5 $) including the deposit of 500 won which upon completing the journey can be refunded at a special machine in every station.

When the train approaches classical music plays.

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The ride to Seoul Station, which is actually a historical site, being opened in 1890 first, where about 90.000 people travel every day, is about 45 minutes. The view is nice – a lot of green – and the train is new and modern having a lighted indicator for the completion of the journey, permitting you to know where you are at all times and how long of the journey you still have.

Everyone is sleeping or on their gadgets. Their eyes are so small that actually you don’t know if they are reading or sleeping.

I am eating my rice triangle wrapped in sea weed and the Korean coffee – as usual, I try the local products.

It’s getting dark, so my first destination is Hongdae Street for which I get off at the Hongik University Station. Take exit #5 and walk couple of minutes or follow exit directions with the names underneath (there are about 10 exits to each station).

I asked somebody right at the exit and he told me which way to go which was right. I asked what’s in the left where I spotted some stores and he said Very similar to Hongdae but not Hongdae. Got it!

There are many youngsters. The girls wear heels and short shorts or skirts. Very short. In this area you can buy anything from dogs accessories to emerging Korean designer clothing. People drive around crazy. Chic cafes stores are everywhere. Most of the places are hairdressers or eyeglasses stores, for which the Korean have a thing. There are some very steep and narrow streets looking very posh with the bars and restaurants climbing uphill.

The people in this area, which is a youngsters’ university quarter do not seem to be disturbed by any virus, but the partying one.

The fashion School is close-by so there are many shops with beautiful clothes. The prices are high, but you can find natural fabrics, simple design, neutral, earth colors, fine cuts and lines. It is exactly the style I like with simple lines, no prints, just accentuated waist.

This is a Boho area, of designers and artisans and artists in wasting time. A sort of urban culture vibe is everywhere. Concept stores are interesting – from flower shop presenting shoes to little details in the window shop. Most of the stores sell the same products, but I spotted some nice stuff.

The restaurants have some tubes, like a smoke evacuation hose hanging on top of each table, then I see the tables have a hole for the jar and a grill. Someone is cutting the meat with the scissors. Interesting, i say to myself.

What’s amazing about Hongdoe Street, which is actually a neighborhood is that it is melting pot and if this si in Korea, believe me a melting pot is for real – burger shops, kids playing, vegetables and lettuce grown in the street, food in the street in restaurants with the most unique design, name and presentation, then a shop, the some flowers abandoned on a chair in the streets, big lighted ads hanging from everywhere, inspirational inscriptions, clubs, dressed mannequins in the street, balloons, huge Korean signs, people walking with bags, street food made from eggs and different sausages (a sort of omelette cakes), youngsters giving street dancing or rapping representations – Korean style.

DSCN6494 DSCN6500This is probably why the University Quarter is called the Streets that never sleep.

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I continue on the up and down streets  of the university area. I see the University area is opened, so I go to see how it is. Some modern art inside, the rest looks like an old university. I go up to 16th floor where there’s a restaurant. The entrance has a wine wall. In the University? Yes. The view is not amazing, neither is the place, so I leave. On the way out the lights and energy if the area strikes me and I wished I saw this when I got off my university law seminars.

On the streets there are signs I have no clue what they are saying. Gangnam style boys are trying to play some songs every here and there. Apparently Gangnam is a neighborhood in Seoul now worldwide famous with the first clip that ran over youtube having exceeded 1bn views.

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I decide to try the restaurant I saw. Nobody speaks English, but I speak signs language. I order a soup that comes in a huge bowl with ice and two huge slices of meat for the grill.

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I see raw salad leaves on the other tables so I show him the salad bar – let’s call it like that.  There is no cutlery so I pretend to eat with my hands to the waiter. He shows me the metal sticks under the table. I eat the half egg on top of the soup and some green inside and some noodles.

I don’t understand why there is ice in the soup (then I found out it is not a soup, but cold noodles). Then the waiter comes with a metal thick stick takes the grill from my table and puts the jar pot inside. Then he brings my meat for the grill and about 10 small bowls – lettuce leaves, quarter big onion, a slice of cabbage, some spicy thick vegetable sauce, a green and carrot mixed salad, whole garlic.

I have no clue what I have to do. I see they put the meat on the lettuce and then the rest of the stuff they wrap it and then they stuff it in their mouths together with their fingers.

A girl in school uniform with a big Panda hanging from her throat enters and to me she looks like the symbol of Korea.

I see some green bottles on the other tables and I think it’s beer. I order on for the first time in my life and I get a different bottle – Cass beer. I come to realize the green bottle is sake which they drink together with the beer in one shot.  It is Friday night, after all.

Two tables away from me a couple drama is consuming. He sits next to her, but she pushes him back. With crying, napkins, eating noodles with tears and everything.

I buy two sets of magnets – boy and girl in traditional Korean uniform that were going to keep me happy in the loneliness quarantine days ahead (of which, of course, I had no clue).

I walk for 20 more minutes, enter some shops and then take the train back. Now I understand why they are all so skinny since only to get to the train you have to walk a couple of km, up and down walk again. On the train I fall asleep, there should be around 30 hours since I slept. The airport is empty and the light is very dimmed. I take a cab to the hotel on the other street I look for some wine in my bar, there’s even full whisky and gin bottles, but no wine, so I fall asleep.

At 8 I’m supposed to meet a colleague, but she does not show up. I am in the lobby again and I see this exotic leaf in a glass bowl with the flower outside the bowl.

As I have the gift of remembering only the beautiful moments spent with someone because this flower reminds me of a beautiful friendship ended ugly, managed diplomatically by myself. In the bus two 50 year olds speak about due diligence, opening a plant and the law. Something in the back of my head ticks, but I ignore it.

That was before, now I travel the world and gather life experience. And what an experience was going to come.

On the train I look at the people. They are very different from the European and they have their flaws, but we have many things to learn from their culture – the mutual respect, the patience, the way they do things right.

On the Incheon – Seoul way there are rice cultures and many greenhouses.

Again, everybody either sleeps or is on their gadgets – huge tablets, weird phones. A 5 year old girl has two tails and a mask on her face. Today I am trying eggs sandwiches and Korean soy milk – something I would never try as it reunited two things I don’t like, soy and milk – and it actually tastes good.

The scenery is beautiful, green everywhere and a part of the way has swamps which melt in the mountains and then in the blue sky. We pass through a train bridge under the highway and in the water there are small islands covered completely with trees.

I am thinking about where I am and what I do. And all odds were against.  Big background behind big career above and she quits. Well, I took a break, but whatever. So, right there I had a revelation. How blinded we are. Ooh, how can I become a stewardess when I am a lawyer. How can I become a designer when I studied medicine. The thing is that this is nothing new, but this time I felt like it’s real, because I was experiencing. I was in Seoul because I dared to follow what I want not what other expect and be wherever I want to be. Someone said our biggest enemies are the loved ones. Why? Well people like their comfort zones. So for the loved ones you are comfort zones. That’s why the first who will encourage you NOT to go out of your comfort zone would be your loved ones because that would take them out of their comfort zone. Easy, no? Look at me, I travel the world and expose myself to many dangers from plane crash to diseases to robbery. Even as I write I am in quarantine in Korea in a government building from where I cannot contact anyone nor be contacted. You think that is my mother’s comfort zone?

But I do it without fear. A few days ago I came from Lebanon where I traveled alone, I lived one year at 15 in the States, I jumped from third floor of a yacht in Egypt, I traveled to Africa without vaccinations, I went alone to New York and walked day and night.

My first stop for today is Deoksugung Palace in Seoul Plaza for which I get off at City Hall Station (from Seoul Station change to the dark blue line 1 and follow the signs Soyosan/City Hall, go one station, take exit #2 which is right in front of the Palace door).

The palace is not big, but it has a peaceful garden, a green patio and two in-the-nature cafes, one by a pond with lilies. Everyday at 11, 14 and 15:30, in front of the gate, the Changing Ceremony of the Royal Guards takes place. Really, you shouldn’t miss it if in Seoul any other day but Monday.

The ceremony is interesting and it includes a martial arts representation which I found inspiring.

DSCN6563 Then the guards start a walk to the other side of the street, on the round shaped green zone in front of the City Hall. The new building is the actual city hall and hosts the biggest indoor wall in the world. The old building is the former city hall and is now Seoul Metropolitan Library.

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This place is called Seoul Plaza and when I was there was an international flower exhibition. The guards offer a second representation in front of the City Hall and then head back.

DSCN6581 It’s a great view and feeling to be in the middle of a 10 lanes road in Seoul Plaza, seeing the modern city hall and the other buildings at your back, the old pagoda type gate of the palace, the modern card at the city light stop and the guards walking on the crossing, the mountains between the buildings far, where the lines of the street meet. Such a blend of old and new, something that I love and admire everywhere I go. IMG_5959 IMG_5962

I walk in the quiet yard. It is about noon and there are few people. The contrast between old and new follows. Also, there are two buildings with columns, namely the National Museum of Contemporary Art and Daehan Empire Historical Museum.

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A old tree with cut branches reminds me of rebirth. Getting up no matter what. Growing a new leaf where a branch was cut off.

Gates and details fascinate me.

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Peaches in the Royal Gardens.

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From Seoul I speak with another girl I was at the interview with. She is coming to Doha this week. Life is made that way that each has to be at a certain time in a certain place, not earlier and not later. So that the things that we deserve and must happen to happen. That’s why I don’t believe in “if”s because everything happens the way it has to and the controls are not in our human hands. The worse is regret because whatever happened cannot be undone. We have only ahead and the future and we have the duty to make the best out of it.

I ended my visit buying some paper organizer with dragons and oriental motifs and serving a red beans sherbet with plum iced tea on the terrace facing the pond.

DSCN6591 Again, the sherbet came on a bed of ice, which had some powder, then a sort of jam and a sticky cake like the daifuku I had in Bangkok. It tasted fine, but not my favorite desert. However, I tried it and that’s what matters and the tea was great. The signs on the streets look like a nice design to me, like a perpendicular carpet.

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I am walking towards the Sungnyemun Gate heading to the N Seoul Tower. The Gate was the main Southern entrance of the Seoul City Wall.

As you come from Seoul Plaza leave this gate in the right and enter Namdaemun Market, the largest market in Korea. In fact it is a neighborhood of stands selling everything from objectives for the camera so big looking like shotguns, bling bling stuff, glasses, plant roots, vegetable cutters, everything. Besides all you see on the ground, there is also an underground shopping center.

Most of them are cheap stuff, if you’re looking for high end luxury stores you can find it at Shinsegae.

IMG_6030From the 6 seats of what I think is a modern art exhibition you can see the Tower in Namsan Park and the cable car. I didn’t know there was one and I was excited.

There are few garbage bins in Seoul, but I haven’t seen one piece of garbage on the floor. I don’t know what they do with it. For me it is natural to carry loads of garbage in my bag and throw it at night.

The distance to it uphill is quite something, especially when you walk the wrong side of the hill and realize there is no crossing. The park, the area, the tower, the view are worth the walk.

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DSCN6635 IMG_6036There are steps to an elevator (called Namsan Oreumi) which takes you to other steps to the cable car (funicular) from where you have to climb some more steps to the platform in front of the tower.

IMG_6038If you want to go up there is an elevator taking 25 seconds with an entertaining video on the ceiling of the elevator. I still remember this tiny Korean almost breaking his neck to follow the planets explode – that’s what the movie is, an universe trip.

The observation deck is spectacular, the view is amazing from all angles and the glass has inscriptions indicating major world cities and distances. Others have inscriptions about the main attractions of Seoul.

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Going back on our route, as you exit the cable car there is a cafe with a view and a deck with lots of locks representing someone’s love. It is a place for lovers here and you can get a special stamp at the office in the tower that you have been there.

DSCN6601 DSCN6627  Some women are selling heart shaped pink red green locks and there is a container, like the donation ones for the keys. So that nobody can ever open the lock of love. My selfie stick broke at this place where the view was amazing, but I started laughing when a kid touched a lock and it broke and fell down.

After climbing the steps to the opened square at the basis of the tower you can see a pagoda an people resting on its steps to watch all kinds of representations. When I was there a flag maneuvering demonstration was running.

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The tower has many cafes and restaurants and a lounge with a view that can be used for free.

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The stores sell traveling small goods like suitcase tags and you can send a postcard from the top of the tower. Also, a revolving restaurant is available.

I had the Tower Burger which is triple than Big Mac and went on the terrace to enjoy the view.

Here, there are more locks and lovers bench which is in a V shape so that the fall easier to each other. I loved the mascot of the tower helping the rules get easier to tourists.

By this time, I was tired so I decided to go back.

It is incredible how organized these people are. At the metro they make two lines for each door and the people get out through the place between the rows as they get in. Unbelievable for someone in Eastern Europe.

I walked 30 minutes to Seoul Station to take the train directly and arrived at the hotel in time to have 3 hours’ sleep before leaving back to Doha.

But life had other plans for me…

The round sun was stepping down slowly between the glass towers of the hotel as I am packing. It seems that I cannot leave the country and that I will be here for a while alone, so I am setting my time to Korea time, UTC +9. My bags are ready…

…to move to quarantine. Before, let’s have a rush strong coffee…

After three days in quarantine…what would a prudent person do? Certainly not go out, but this is what I did.

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Back to the city (Seoul) after unwillingly extending my stay and being isolated in quarantine for 4 days in “The Korea” due to MERS virus outbreak. Life is full if surprises and that’s the salt and pepper and the beauty if it. During these days I had time to pause my super fast lifestyle, reorganize my thoughts, be thankful about how lucky I am to see all these places, read quite a lot and write for the blog about the places I visited in Seoul, a city full of life and culture. Now I’m enjoying the sun in a posh concept store in Hongik University, the most vivid neighborhood in Seoul (exactly the place where I want to be after seeing only 4 walls) before getting ready to go back home to Doha.

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