I got my passport created in 2016 at my dad and brother’s insistence. Even after I finally got hold of it after numerous formalities, I was never desperate to go abroad. It’s not that I wasn’t interested. I was just patient and felt that if it has to happen, it will. It finally happened six years later in this month when I got a chance to visit South Korea.
Since last year, I had formed an association with the people running the Bucheon International Fantastic Film Festival (aka BIFAN) over there after they approached me to be a guest contributor for their festival magazine named Made in Asia. Last year, the festival was held online because of the deadly second COVID-19 wave. But this year, they held it in a hybrid mode and invited me to visit Bucheon and subsequently the festival.
The road to my first visit abroad wasn’t an easy one. Apart from lots of preparations, the most challenging aspect was the visa process which required plenty of documents. Plus, there were a few complications in my submission. I started visualizing the trip only after my visa got approved.
The route of the Air India flight was from Mumbai to Delhi to Incheon (South Korea). I am not a very flight-friendly traveller, so traveling for about nine hours from Mumbai to Incheon looked like a challenge. It didn’t turn out to be though because of the in-flight entertainment option where I saw Sarkar (2005) and Nightcrawler (2014), along with reading an e-book.
When the plane finally landed at the Incheon Airport, it took me some time to believe that I would be actually setting foot outside India for the first time. The first thing I noticed after coming out of the airport, after quite a few formalities, was the traffic sense of the people, but I didn’t think much about it.
The route from the airport to Hotel Floce in Bucheon was a long one and it gave me a good opportunity to keenly observe the surroundings. When we reached the hotel, I was surprised to know that the manager didn’t understand English but, again, I didn’t think much about it. After taking a long rest as I was awake almost the whole night in the flight, I went out to take a stroll and to know places where I can eat some delicious food.
I soon realized that the people over there take traffic signals very seriously. They would cross the road only when the pedestrian signal turns green, even if the road is empty from both the sides.
When I started looking out for good food joints, I was made aware of two rude surprises. I initially felt that the hotel manager not understanding English would be a one-off instance. But after enquiring at the various food joints I realized that almost everyone over there couldn’t understand English.
But the second surprise was even deadlier when it slowly dawned upon me that none of the joints served vegetarian food! I am someone who doesn’t even eat eggs, so I felt worried. On the first day of my first trip outside India, I really felt lost!
I was then reminded of the store 7 Eleven suggested by my brother. Fortunately, there was one right opposite the hotel. I realized that they too have no options in vegetarian food. I heaved a sigh of relief when I found different types of sweet breads (some with cream and jam). They had eggs in it but I didn’t care. Thankfully, I had carried a lot of dry food from home prepared by my mom.
It was then time to head out for the opening ceremony of the Bucheon International Fantastic Film Festival (BIFAN). I was highly impressed with their punctuality. The event started dot on time and it was to-the-point. Very unlike the filmi events in Mumbai which start even a couple of hours (sometimes even more) after the scheduled time. The same punctuality was seen in the rest of the events and screenings too.
The dinner at the event had no veg options, except salads, fruits and desserts, which didn’t surprise me now. Although I was happy to be here, I was also worried about how I would spend the next few days.
Next morning, I was expecting the hotel to have some vegetarian items. They had but, again, it was just bread. The only option to go with it was an egg omelette. I had had eggs when I was too small. Our doctor had urged my family to feed me few regularly as I was weak. I felt now is the time to go back to my childhood as there was no other option left.
The lady preparing and serving breakfast at the hotel was too kind and caring but she also didn’t understand English. So I translated the words ‘bread’ and ‘eggs’ via Google for her. She nicely served toasts, omelette, salad and coffee. The menu for my breakfast was the same every morning. This country made a vegetarian into a temporary eggitarian.
It was a very important day as I had to speak representing India at a panel discussion at the festival. Just before the event, I attended a luncheon by the Film Development Council of the Philippines where I got some cosy vibes. And just before my panel talk, I had a preparation session with the moderator and fellow panelists from other countries (South Korea, Philippines and Thailand).
The panel discussion at the festival
I had never participated in a panel talk before even in India. But whatever butterflies I had in my stomach vanished after the preparation session. The main event went off well and much to my pleasant surprise, I was able to speak without being nervous. There was a scary moment though when a lady from India disagreed me and it looked as if she would rip apart my views but she just handed over the microphone back after a long speech. Phew!
I later realized that my state of mind completely changed after this event and, especially, after interacting with others. I finally started feeling at home in South Korea!
Things became better the next day when my brother came to know that there is an Indian restaurant named Machha Puchhre not far from the hotel and it has vegetarian options. Surprisingly, when I had asked a lot of locals about any veg food joint in the locality, nobody told me about this one.
Machha Puchhre is run by a lady and the place also served veg Indian dishes like Samosas, Paneer curries, Dal and Naan. I was impressed with the quality of food and it was a relief to get to eat Indian food over there. It wasn’t possible to eat here daily twice because of the prices. But I was happy to know that I have this option.
I could only get US dollars at a currency exchange centre in Mumbai because they didn’t keep Korean won as not many Indians travel there. So I had to hunt for a place to exchange dollars into won the next day. Finding such a place was a major challenge, especially due to the language barrier. I had by then become used to translating words from English to Korean on Google to get directions from the local people.
I couldn’t find taxis and I wasn’t keen to go through the subway as I felt I might get confused. But deciding to walk to the destination offered me a chance to explore Bucheon and I was mighty impressed with how the city is maintained. The habit of walking in this city was kept alive throughout the trip. In fact, the distance I walked in these 5-6 days might be almost the same that I generally do in about a few months in Mumbai.
I became fond of the area near Hotel Koryo at Gyeonggi-do (the name of the road) where all the events and interactions of BIFAN took place. The foot-over bridge over there (with slopes instead of steps) that connected one end of the road to the other became my favourite place.
As I had travelled all the way to South Korea, it made sense that I should visit Seoul. I had a long subway ride where I struggled to get tickets from automatic ticket machines and in getting into the right train. The language barrier added to the challenge. Finally, I reached the destination. But it was raining cats and dogs and what not. I got almost fully drenched but managed to visit the famous palace and explore the city somehow.
But it was a long journey back and I had to desperately wait to reach Bucheon. When I finally got down at a station in Bucheon, I felt as if I was back home. From being lost to feeling at home, it all happened in a span of just five days!
Apart from the impressive city of Bucheon, it was all possible because of the kind-hearted and super-helpful citizens of South Korea. They couldn’t understand my language and I couldn’t understand theirs. But they would go out of their way to help me find an address or a location. I guess kindness is understood in all languages.
I have heard quite a few times that great trips are the ones that change you in some way. On a lighter note, when I returned home after a long flight, my mother instantly noticed that my tummy had gone a bit inside. Now that was a welcome change!