Pandemic not keeping airman from making most of Korea assignment

Photos by Kyle Haney
Photos by Kyle Haney

Pandemic not keeping airman from making most of Korea assignment

by Kyle Haney

Fifty-two weeks—fifty-two weeks is what I have left in Korea before I’m off to somewhere else. And if you’re anything like me, you’ve probably chanted some version of this phrase yourself in a mantra-like fashion at least once in your career; “only ‘x-number’ of days left until I’m…” fill in the blank.

I used to believe that focusing on the future was just what people did to make their current situations more bearable so, naturally, I followed suit. I thought this line of thinking was normal and I embodied that mindset for most of my adult life when unfavorable situations arose. However, as I began traveling, I realized that the ‘X-number’ of days we have left in our assignments, or situations in general, is actually the end of what could be an amazing opportunity that life has given to us. Funny how something like travelling can be a catalyst to a change of mind, isn’t’ it?

Let me clarify, when I tell myself I only have ‘X-number’ of weeks left in Korea/this assignment/fill in the blank, I say it with a sense of urgency, not despair. The more travelling I do, and the more life throws at me, the more I realize how much of it I’m not going to experience with my short amount of time I have here—in Korea and on planet earth. My perspective of learning, growing, or simply cherishing a moment gets stronger with each situation I find myself in and it’s up to me if I’m willing to act accordingly. I have to strive to remain in the moment because before I know it, my moments will be a thing of the past.

When I first took my assignment for a 365 in Korea, I dreamed of riding an elephant in Thailand and snorkeling alongside Green Sea Turtles near the Great Barrier Reef in Australia but, COVID really ruined those plans. So, I had a choice: remain bummed at the loss of an opportunity or change my mind.

South Korea, at least the South Korea I’ve experienced in my short two months since being stationed here, is absolutely gorgeous. It offers incredible cityscape views, delicious food combinations, and 22 National Parks that personify magnificence. Not only that, but South Korea also has beaches for lounging on with the family, springs for soaking in after a rough week at work, and hundreds of cultural actives offered year-round. With this plethora of things to do, the sense of urgency to see it all becomes very, very real, and I have to constantly remind myself to stay in the moment or I might miss what’s in front of me.

But we’re all in some version of a lockdown, right? How are you supposed to see anything with the threat of COVID and its entourage of lockdown and quarantine still looming around every weekend? Well, that depends on how you approach you lockdown situation. You can approach it with a sense of doom and gloom, or you can be like water and move towards the path of least resistance.

For example, if areas I and II are off-limits, then you can choose to see that as being a part of Korea that you won’t get to see, or as a universal aid to helping you eliminate choices on what you’re going to see/do this weekend. That’s how you travel during a pandemic; it’s that easy. Read my blog how I explored the US during 2020 at here.

Just a few weeks ago I made plans to visit Seoul but, like everything in life, plans changed and areas I and II (Seoul included) were declared off-limits a few days before the weekend. So, I pulled out my map app (Kakao Maps) and scrolled south, not knowing what I was looking for. I noticed a pin dropped in a remote area and all it said was “waterfall”, and just like that I had new plans. “How often do you get to visit waterfalls in South Korea?” I asked myself. Saturday morning came and I wandered down south to Gyeryongsan National Park.

As I neared the entrance to the park, I decided to stop and grab a bite to eat at a spot that simply read “Brunch”. Brunch in this case was a quaint little café set in the valleys of the Gyeryongsan mountains with an incredible pastry spread. I sat smiling as I ate Korean pastries in a Korean café set just a few hundred feet from South Korea’s 2nd oldest National Park. I was experiencing something few Americans will ever get to claim they’ve also done.  

I finished my pastries, walked up to the gate to buy my entrance ticket, and before I knew it, I was surrounded by lush tree coverage and my kind of people: explorers. I pressed deep into the National Park and soon discovered a temple that was built by a Buddhist monk in 713 AD called the Donghaksa Temple. After I finished admiring the iconic temple architecture, I pressed deeper into the park deciding to summit a nearby mountain rather than viewing a waterfall.

I stuck to a trail that took me 766m into the air with 360-degree views of the picturesque Korean mountains that took my breath away (figuratively and literally, thanks to the incline). In one heading, the skies were cloudless and deep blue while in another direction, a massive thunderhead was building in anticipation of unleashing hundreds of gallons of water some nine or ten kilometers away. The air was crisp, and the sound of silence was all around me. I paused and soaked the moment in before my weary legs begged me to return to the car.

The trail continued in a loop fashion, back towards where I had begun, so I continued down. Towards the end of the hike, as if I had planned it, I came across a waterfall on the trail I had taken by complete chance. With no one around, I removed my shirt and took a deep soak in the cold waters, cooling my body off. My legs were tired, my body was sore, but I was at peace.

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