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Wednesday, February 28, 2007
(10:27 AM) | Stephen:
Public Transportation Means Freedom

Virgin Vacations has ranked the Seoul subway system as the 6th best in the world. Not having been on any of the others on the list, I'm not really able to agree or disagree.

For me, though, the Seoul subway system was emancipation and self-sufficiency in a foreign land. We didn't live in Seoul, but since that's my wife's hometown we spent as much time there as possible, seeing old friends, visiting museums, landmarks, historic buildings, even going to Seoul for the movies because there was a movie theater there that served nachos.

I was able to get an English map for the subway, but real freedom came when I learned to read Korean and started to carry the same map as everyone else. I also learned enough Korean words to understand not only which station was coming next - handy if you're with people and talking so much you lose track of stops - but also which side of the train we needed to use for the exit. That last is quite important when on the subway during rush hour so that you can start making your way to the door well before the train stops.

Rush hour on the subway was also the time I was most grateful for my height. When stuffed into the subway car so tightly that you literally cannot move, it's nice to have your head above everyone else. The air is so much fresher up there.

I needed a crown put on one of my teeth while in Korea, and decided to go to a hospital in the northeast part of Seoul to get the work done. I chose this place on the advice of other foreigners who said that every dentist there could speak English. The day of the procedure, I allowed quite a bit of time for it, too much really, and found myself with time to explore. There was one subway stop that had intrigued me, because it was simply so big - subway stops in Seoul often have underground shopping malls and tunnels that run along the block, but this was huge. I made my way to that stop and started walking down one of the tunnels. Every few minutes there was another small collection of shops and stairs that led to the surface streets. As I kept walking, I passed one subway stop, and then another. At times I was the only person I could see, which is very unusual in Seoul, to say the least. To be honest, after an hour I was tired and feeling a little spooked at being underground for so long and seeing so few people. There was no indication that the tunnel was close to the end, so I hopped on the subway to go to other, more crowded locales in the city.

It was learning the subway and actually being able to direct my wife through it (when she didn't just remember it from her childhood) that led to an ability to get my own train tickets and bus tickets. I learned when and where it was best to take a cab; once we even had to give the cabdriver directions and another time once we found out the cabbie was hopelessly lost we got out and hailed another.

Even in Chonan, the city where we lived, there was an extensive bus system and taxicabs whenever they were needed. We did have a minivan that we could use, but driving was usually so much of a pain that we took public transportation whenever we could.

Now we live in Kansas City. We have two cars, both of which are used every day. The closest grocery store is too far to walk. There is a rudimentary bus system, but I haven't got the slightest idea where the closest stop is. I never see taxis, and though the citizens of Kansas City itself just approved a light-rail ballot measure, it will take years for the extremely reluctant City Council to even address it seriously, let alone start it.

Even as an adult who has a car just for him, there is less freedom here. Paying for parking and/or worrying about having a place to park at all can put a damper on our enthusiasm for heading downtown. The teenagers here have no idea how much more freedom to travel they would have if there was a good public transportation system. I knew kids in Korea that were taking trips down the length of the country when they were eleven years old.

It's odd, really, that seeing something like "The 11 Top Underground Transit Systems" can cause such strong feelings of homesickness. Odder still that these feelings are for a place I called home for 18 months, that these feelings are stronger than those for my hometown in New Mexico where I spent 19 years.

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