An old nickname for Korea is “Land of Morning Calm”, a moniker hot-blooded Koreans don’t always live up to. In the four days since the mysterious sinking of the South Korean patrol ship Cheonan, however, the reaction has indeed been calm. 

Where I’m from, a navy vessel getting sunk would provoke a pretty excited response from the citizenry, so this mellowness took me by surprise. On the morning after, I thought the entire household would be abuzz with discussion about the disaster. Not so.

My father-in-law read about the incident with interest, but he didn’t say anything about it. Same thing with my brother-in-law. He read the stories carefully and then carried on with his usual morning routine.

Later that Saturday, we visited my wife’s uncle for a long lunch. Not once in the four hours we were there did the topic come up. It was like nothing out of the ordinary had happened – just another beautiful spring day in South Korea.

The story is all over the news, of course, but nobody I’ve met is getting worked up about it. The suicide on Monday of a Korean entertainer, Choi Jin-young, is a much hotter topic.

My wife tells me her family and friends are so calm because bellicose rhetoric and aggression on the part of the neighbors to the north is such a normal part of life here. People don’t pay much attention to it.

“What you have to remember is that this is a war zone,” she says. “Not an active war zone because nothing has really happened for the last fifty-something years, but people know something can happen at any time.”

Of course, the sinking of a naval vessel is much more serious than the usual sabre rattling and small naval skirmishes, but right now there is much more that is unknown than known about what caused the disaster. South Koreans are displaying admirable restraint and taking care to get all the facts before reacting.

I think they are also hoping fervently that North Korea was not behind this. When I asked what would happen if it turns out that the North did sink the Cheonan, KJ just gives a little shrug. “We’ll cross that bridge if we come to it. Hopefully we won’t.”

Before flying to Korea, my big concern was how my fourteen-month old son would tolerate such a long journey – about 24 hours from the time we left my mother’s until we arrived at my in-laws’ house. I needn’t have worried about Ian, though. He was a trooper. It’s the people who run the airports that are the problem with long-distance travel.

This is my first trip abroad in six years, but I’ve flown domestically during that time so the whole taking off the belt and shoes thing was nothing new. Except for doing it while holding a 25-pound toddler in one arm, I guess, which is a patience-draining addition to the ritual. While emptying the contents of pockets into a big plastic tub, tossing my watch in there and then the belt, I found myself thinking, Bring on the god damn body scanners already.

If political correctness precludes a reasonably targeted approach to airport security that minimizes the discomfort for folks not planning on blowing up jets or smuggling drugs, at least make the silly process we have now quick. If that means some bored security guy or gal sees my private parts, so be it.

The one mildly entertaining part of the security ritual came after all our stuff had gone through the scanner. KJ and I were keeping tabs on Ian while gathering everything together when a short, stocky security guy came over and looked inside one of the tubs. He had five o’clock shadow even though it was about eight in the morning.

Spying my red Bic lighter, he muttered with a very gravelly voice, “That’s gonna need to go in a bag.”

He quickly procured a Ziploc bag issued by the Government of Canada and CATSA (the Canadian Air Transport Security Authority), dropped my Bic in it, and sealed it shut. I thought maybe it would be kept by the flight attendants until after we landed in Vancouver, which actually seemed sensible to me. But, no, he handed it right over.

I honestly cannot figure out the point of this. I had an image of a shoe bomber sitting in a window seat, crossing his leg so his foot was against the fuselage and then reaching for his lighter – only to be crushingly disappointed to find it in a well-sealed plastic baggy. Bet they don’t teach terrorists how to get around that one!

Vancouver International Airport, meanwhile, is apparently dedicated to persecuting travellers who smoke – people (and we are people) like me.

Once we made our way from YVR’s domestic terminal to the international terminal, I set about looking for a smoking-room. They used to have one, but now they don’t.

I was told by security that the only way to have a smoke was to pass through customs, exit the airport, and then go through security to get right back to where I already was. We had a lot of time to kill before the flight to Seoul, but not so much that such an onerous exercise would be worth it.

Why an airport can’t make any sort of reasonable accommodation for smokers, who in many cases are travelling a great many hours, is beyond me. I know we smokers are outcasts, but this really does seem to take things a little too far. Add the ridiculous security procedures to the mix and all the fun has been taken out of flying.

It’s too bad. The journey itself used to be one of the best parts of travelling.

In the end, it basically came down to a choice between our son and a garden gnome.

My wife and I thought it would be great fun to continue the quirky traveller’s tradition of “liberating” a gnome to take along with us on our Asian adventure. We felt that some poor old bored gnome would profit greatly from seeing the sights in Korea and, later, Southeast Asia. 

Following protocol, we would send photos to the gnome’s owner and would one day also return the gnome to his original home – with a nice photo album and (most importantly) broadened horizons.

However, it quickly became apparent that this great notion presented two problems – space and weight. 

The key to backpacking is to pack efficiently and to travel as lightly as possible. There will be times during our journey when we have to trudge a fair distance with all our gear. It will probably be hot on these occasions, and I know from experience that every unnecessary pound will be cursed.

Given that we’re travelling with our cute little toddler, Ian, keeping everything to a manageable volume and weight is already a challenge. We’re basically Sherpas for our little boy, and the amount of diapers, clothes, creams, toys, picture books and food required to keep Ian in good repair on the road will be considerable.

Ian himself takes up an ever-increasing amount of space. At fourteen months of age, he is already 34 inches tall and weighs 25 pounds. He’s also a very hearty eater and will only get heavier. Of course, he will also need to be carried and will ride in a backpack-like contraption which I’ll wear.

I suppose if we left Ian behind, we could bring a garden gnome. Heck, we could probably bring three, but this was never an option.

Ian is far cuter than a gnome, is endlessly entertaining and gives really good hugs. He won hands down.

So there you have it. That’s why we are gnomeless.

Now we’ll see how the little guy does as we spend about a day travelling from Calgary to Busan, South Korea, on March 23rd. I’m hoping he sleeps a lot.

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