Life is a highway / I want to ride it all night long / If you’re going my way / I want to drive it all night long
If you’ve ever been afraid of driving in a foreign country, let me tell you, I’m not here to reassure you. It is terrifying. Not in a good way. But I’ve gotten a little bit ahead of myself. Where did we leave off? Oh, yes, the rental car.
So, we finally made it out of baggage claim, and we were instructed to find the car rental agency between areas 13 and 14 in the Seoul airport. The airport has several sections labeled with numbers, and the only two car rental agencies in this particular area were Avis and Hertz. The email that J had with our reservation information didn’t state which agency had the reservation, so he just gave it a shot in the dark. Both Hertz and Avis checked for his name, but neither had any Marasiaks in the system.
After about 15 minutes of phone calls to our Korean company contacts, and urgently trying to find a place to let the dogs out, we were informed that we needed to go to the Avis desk between areas 3 and 4. Well, here goes another mile-long hike, but at least this time I was able to capture the ridiculousness of wheeling two dogs through the airport in a country relatively unfamiliar with large animals.
J was a sight to see hauling the dogs in their crates through the Seoul airport, and my delicious smoothie.
Clarification: I was pushing the two carts with all our luggage, so J wasn’t alone in his effort!
Once we arrived at the other Avis desk with our four wheelie carts, a nice agent was waiting for us and was already on the phone with our company contact to sort out the situation. At this point, I knew we would be hungry before our multiple hour journey, so I ran back to a fresh smoothie place I saw along our grueling path between rental desks. Forget Jamba Juice, people, this place is where its at! Needless to say, I was already impressed with Korean nutrition options. That changed a little bit after my first trip to the grocery store, but that’s another story for another time.
In any case, smoothie in tow, I headed back to the rental desk (another long hike) and J had sorted everything out. The rental was waiting for us on the other side of the passenger pick-up lane, and we had some kind Avis staff guys setting up our GPS in English while we broke down the dog crates and loaded up our junk. Again. The only disappointment here was realizing that the GPS estimated a 6.5 hour drive! Oh, and it was raining. Hard. It was already 7:30pm, and we were a little bit nervous but our bodies were so out of whack that a coffee or two would probably do the trick to keep us alert.
All loaded up, there was one obstacle left to getting on our way: the rental car was low on fuel. So, we got to enjoy our first gas station experience! The GPS navigated us to a nearby station, where the attendants didn’t speak English but made lots of faces at the dogs through the back car windows, which was amusing. J managed to communicate that we needed a full tank of gas (using the attendants’ smartphones to translate! …more on technology later), and after receiving some lovely complimentary tissues in a cartoon package, we were finally on the road.
Koreans drive on the right side of the road and left side of the car, so mastering that was easy. Reading the road signs wasn’t awfully difficult given most of them had English road, city and highway names under the Korean words. Plus, the GPS did a fair job of telling us which ramps to take. It did, however, take some getting used to reading speed in kilometers per hour and anticipating the Korean speed cameras. What is a speed camera, you ask? Well, it’s the device that Koreans use to police traffic. There were virtually no police cars monitoring drivers on the highway, as this is all done through speed cameras that take pictures of your license plate and measure your speed. If you’re going too fast, you’ll get a ticket. The brilliance in all of this is that the GPS tells you when you are approaching a speed camera and reminds you of the speed limit.
“In 1 kilometer, the speed limit is 100 kilometers per hour.”
“In 500 meters, the speed limit is 100 kilometers per hour.”
Click! And “gotcha!” says the speed camera. The GPS makes a noise to let you know when you have passed the camera.
As you may have guessed, everyone slows down for the speed camera and then speeds right back up! The speed camera was our first glimpse of the technologically fascinating country that is Korea, but again, more on that later.
An awe-inspiring bridge near Seoul, our first complimentary Korean item: tissues from the petrol station, my joy at finding double shot espresso in a can at the rest stop.
As with any American road trip, we eventually needed a potty break and some munchies. Luckily, Korean rest stops are very common and would put any American rest stop to shame. There was a food court, non-foul-scented restrooms, a gift shop and a convenience store! I was overjoyed to see some bottled Starbucks frappucinos in the convenience store, but I knew that might not be enough to keep me awake as I drove the second half of our journey. They also had some double-shot espresso drinks in a can (mocha flavored, mmmm!) so I took advantage of that while J picked up the equivalent of Ritz crackers for a snack.
We were back on the road in no time, and made it to Ulsan within 5.5 hours. No speeding, I promise. The GPS was just… misguided? Not sure. Anyway, my first view of Ulsan was downtown at night. What a beautiful sight, especially the waterfront; Houston’s downtown is depressing, dilapidated and water-free, so I was excited for the change.
All in all, my first driving experience was rough, being thrown right in – driving an SUV (you saw my previous car, right?), driving in some heavy rain, and trying to navigate a foreign road system all at once. There really isn’t a better way to learn! I promise by the time you come to visit, you’ll be the only one gripping the door handle, fearing for your life.