The funniest part of participating in my international summer program (Korea University’s International Summer Campus) is the blatant extent to which it was a photo-op. The program offered us diverse activities but sometimes focused more on the appearance of fun rather than the reality of it, eg. when my friend signed up for basketball with the KU team and spent 80% of the time posing for cameras and 20% actually playing ball. It also, in emphasizing “campus diversity,” actively sought out foreign-looking students to feature in promotional materials, like the photo shoot most of us didn’t hear about until too late. (I maintain that they couldn’t publicize with the usual flyer on account of how Asians can read, too.)
I can also extend the photo-op impression to my overall study abroad experience. During that six-week period, I took more photos than I had throughout the whole year. (I’m still posting them, to the likely consternation of my long-suffering friends on Instagram.) It’s true that more was happening as we extensively explored Seoul, but I couldn’t escape the sense that, in the back of our minds, we were always chasing photos.
My last night in Seoul, my friends and I tried to cram a lifetime’s worth of Korean tourism into twelve hours. We rushed through a French bistro, national history museum, a poop café, and a shopping district in weather that slow-broiled our brains. Which probably explains the mentally compromised state we were in when we decided to push on to visit the Ihwa mural village after having already clocked 20,000 steps.
With most other activities, you can pretend that pictures are secondary to and complement the experience. Not in this case. The Ihwa mural village consists of streets with pretty murals painted on the sides of structures. You don’t go there if you’re not taking pictures.
We headed there on the subway around 7PM, hoping to make it to the village by sunset at 8:30, which of course didn’t happen for a litany of reasons to come, the first being this is a nicolesundays post.
For another, there was no address for the mural village to input into Naver Maps. “Mural village” wasn’t an option on the subway exits, so we Googled travel blogs spelling out directions. We chose a site that had step-by-step navigation with accompanying pictures.
Once we exited the subway, I realized my data was too slow to load said pictures, so we walked aimlessly, trying to find street signs as my friend charged her phone, to no avail. When it finally croaked to life, we scrutinized the photos. The blog used unique landmarks, like a yellow tent-shaped structure, as reference points for where to stop, turn, etc. We were to keep walking until we saw the first structure, so we kept walking. And walking.
The sky had blackened by the time we concluded the blog was dated and the structure no longer existed, and we turned back. We loaded a different blog, which gave a street name to turn on.
We found a street that was one letter off, so we kept going in case the letter made it a different word. Turns out it was just a typo.
The walk into that street and onward both was and wasn’t excruciating. We began to see street signs—the universal rule is that signs to your destination are only seen once you already know where you’re going. It’d cooled down because the sun was long gone. The walk was uphill, but I’d become numb to pain. Adrenaline and six weeks of scaling the slope to my KU dorm, CJ International, had led to this moment. I forged on.
The ground finally leveled out, and, scrambling, I found… a map.
We were exhausted, so we chose the two murals closest to the entrance. One we found without difficulty, but the visual was underwhelming. The other we must’ve unknowingly passed by, because it was a little down from the entrance and we had to backtrack.
A minute later, we realized why we’d missed the mural on our way up. There was a giant truck parked right in front of the wall, obscuring half the art.
We stared, uncomprehending. And then burst into incredulous laughter, the kind that tears your lips at the seams and splits down your sides. I might’ve teared up. It also might’ve been the sweat congealing in the corner of my eyes.
Friend: Do you want pictures?
I looked at the truck. Toward my friends. Into the night, its smoothness barely dented by dim streetlights. I could barely see anything. Did I want pictures?
You bet I did.
Because, ultimately, taking a load of photos isn’t necessarily something to demonize. (I’m clearly not the in the “technology is ruining humanity” demographic.) It can be a means of documenting little moments that’ll trigger memories in the future, so you can recall those snapshots and their in-betweens. So you can keep with you your whirlwind adventures, your stumbling exploits, as they recede into the distant past.
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