07 Nov Korea Trip 2: Back to Korea!
We’re jumping right back into the blog to cover our custody trip! We’ll start with our day-by-day, and then – because I probably get more questions about travel to Korea than just about anything else – I’ll share our full Korea Travel Guide!
I updated our TIMELINE POST (click to view) if you’re interested in our full timeline, but we were issued Preliminary Approval the day after our court hearing, which turned out to be Friday, March 9. SWS received notice of Preliminary Approval on Wednesday, March 14, which started the 15-day Final Approval clock. We were notified of our travel dates the very next day, on Thursday, March 15. Final Approval was assumed to be at midnight following Thursday, March 29, with custody the following Monday, April 2. Our Visa appointment was scheduled for three days after custody, on Thursday, April 5. So we were told to be in Korea no later than April 1.
We happened to take custody during the exactly-one-week-long cherry blossom season in South Korea, which meant flights and hotels were double what they were during our first court trip! We used ADOPTION AIRFARE to help us find flights this time, and they were AMAZING! Matt helped us book humanitarian fares through American Airlines, which saved us about $700 total. Plus, we contacted the Adoption Airfare office after close of business, and we had our itinerary in hand at 10 p.m. that evening! Also, did I mention they offer their services for free? Amazing.
We left our house around 4:00 a.m. Thursday morning and had a largely uneventful trip back to Korea. A few people stopped to ask us jokingly if we had forgotten our child, since we were carting around an empty umbrella stroller! We tried to soak up every second of our last few days as a family of two, which was easy, as we were much less stressed about the logistics of things, like finding a WiFi hotspot to rent and purchasing train tickets into Seoul (I mean, we had just done this a month ago). We actually started to feel a tiny bit like locals, except the whole language barrier thing, haha!
We watched our world clock app tick away the moments to Final Approval, which happened on Good Friday (Korea time). The gravity of that moment – the relief that Gideon was irreversibly ours, the weight of what that meant for his first mama, and that it all happened on Good Friday – was humbling and gave new meaning to the phrase “IT IS FINISHED.” We later took custody just hours after Easter (US time), and again, the gravity of Gideon getting a new identity as “son” and “forever loved” on the very day we all got a new identity in Christ was humbling.
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.
FRIDAY, MARCH 30
After we landed in Seoul on Friday evening, we took the speed train back into Seoul, getting off this time at Central Station. We hopped in a taxi to avoid carrying our luggage on the subway, and we made the mistake of not having the address of Somerset Palace translated for the non-English-speaking taxi driver. It took us a painfully awkward amount of time to communicate where we wanted to go, but we finally got to Somerset Palace, unloaded our stuff, and grabbed some mandu from Jongno and “Poop Pancakes” from the Poop Café in Insadong before crashing into bed.
Somerset Palace was absolutely PERFECT for custody! The hotel is about a 5-minute walk from Gyeongbokgung Palace in one direction and a 5-minute walk from Insadong in the other direction. And we ended up being so, so, SO thankful we were only about 3 blocks from the US Embassy, because Gideon did not want to go anywhere once he was in our arms. This allowed us to totally avoid the subway and all but one taxi (back to the airport) after custody.
Somerset also has a nice playroom, a rooftop deck (with a pool, but it was too cold and closed in April), and the best dang breakfast we’ve ever had! We got our use out of the playroom, particularly as Gideon struggled with leaving the hotel, and our actual room was a great size for being stuck all week. We had a kitchenette, a living room with a couch, and a dedicated sleeping area. They also provided a crib with crib bedding at no cost and accommodated our request for a bathtub. And bonus – it was about 1/3 of the cost of Orakai Suites the week we traveled! That said, you really can’t beat the location of Orakai or Somerset, as both are at the heart of the Insadong area.
SATURDAY, MARCH 31
While our first trip to Korea focused more on history and the serious side of Korean culture, we decided to spend our last two days before parenthood soaking up the quirky side of Korea’s culture! Korea has an abundance of museums, and you can find a museum for just about any subject or activity your heart desires – including toilets, garlic, textbooks, rice cakes, chicken art, annnnd some museums with subjects I can’t even type out on our blog! After a little research, we settled on the Trick Eye Museum and one of Korea’s infamous animal-themed cafes, which we decided to choose on a whim.
Thanks to jet lag, we were up by 5:30, so we took off to Hongdae district (Hongik University Station if you take the subway). Hongdae is a very young and quite quirky district of Seoul, and we spent the morning (remember, mornings are pretty quiet around Seoul) exploring the abundance of colorful side streets while we waited for the museum to open. We grabbed bubble tea at Gong Cha – strawberry, as it was clearly strawberry season trip 2! – and then walked right down the street to the Trick Eye Museum.
The Trick Eye Museum turned out to be a bit tricky to find, but once we found the entrance into the basement-level museum, we knew we were in the right place! We were immediately greeted by strange statues with which to take photos, and then were instructed to start our tour at the ice sculpture portion of the museum. We had the ice room to ourselves, and we enjoyed the ice slide and posing with the ice toilet, of course.
Next, we took our time meandering through the Trick Eye Museum. Turns out, the Trick Eye Museum would have been much better had we had a third person to take the photos…or at least knew enough Korean to ask another tourist to take our picture! But we still very much enjoyed our time posing with each exhibit, and I think we liked the people-watching even more. Some of our fellow museum-goers got super into their photos!
We knew our friend Beth was on a mission to experience as many animal cafés in Seoul as she possibly could, so we messaged her to ask which one she would recommend. Without hesitation she recommended the meerkat café, which, conveniently enough, was located within walking distance from the Trick Eye Museum. So we set out for “Meerkat Friends.” The “café” portion of the Meerkat Café was significantly lacking, so don’t anticipate sipping hot coffee while surrounded by meerkats. But oh my goodness, these meerkats won us over with their inquisitive and cuddly demeanors!
Brian and I felt just a tiny bit guilty, because apparently we are magnets for meerkats! The “helpers” had to keep taking meerkats from us and giving them to the other four people in the “playpen” with us, because the meerkats kept coming over and sitting on just us instead! At first, the meerkats curiously climbed up on our shoulders and looked at our glasses, and then one of them tried furiously to “dig” my phone out of my back pocket. Finally, I had three little buddies who came over, climbed up on my lap, and fell right to sleep. Their snuggles were just what my heart needed as I longed for our snuggly little boy!
Fun fact: Meerkats love their necks rubbed, and they will make purring noises like a cat when you get just the right spot. When they are really relaxed, their eyes roll back in their head, and they just kinda melt in your arms. They are by far one of my favorite animals now, and both Brian and I loved our extra-long time with the meerkats, as the café was so quiet that morning!
Also in attendance at the Meerkat Café were two wallabies (who roamed freely), a couple of cats (who also roamed freely), an arctic fox (who lived on the porch and could not be touched), a genet (who slept the whole time on a beam near the ceiling, and who we had to look up, because we had never seen such a thing!), and a raccoon (who was on “break” that day, but who seemed extremely eager for visitors). I can’t remember the exact entrance fee – I want to say $10-$12 each – but it was well worth the experience!
After the Meerkat Café, we grabbed some soup dumplings and noodles for lunch, also in Hongdae, and then headed back to Myeongdong and Namdaemun to look for a diaper bag. I had seen a gray backpack I loved – and wanted to use for diaper bag – at a street vendor in Myeongdong first trip, but I never bought it. So we spent more hours than I’d like to admit searching for that backpack all over again, but I’m happy to say we found it! I now use it as my work bag, and I get lots of compliments on my $10 bag that took way took long to find, haha! We also bought our first Korean Starbucks. It was some cherry blossom drink that didn’t taste quite as pretty as it looked (but to be fair, I’m not a fan of cherry-flavored coffee). Exhausted from walking miles around Seoul, we went back to our hotel and had a slow evening together. One more day between us and Giddy!
SUNDAY, APRIL 1
We woke up to a chilly Easter morning in Seoul! Our friend Michele had told us about an awesome church they attended while they were in Seoul, so we set out for JUBILEE CHURCH in Gangnam. For some reason, I was incredibly nervous. We knew it was an English-speaking church, but we were very used to sticking out in Seoul, and, if anyone asked why we were there, we found adoption wasn’t (and isn’t) really something Koreans are proud of. Like at all.
While we waited on a bench outside, I looked up Jubilee church online and found a blurb about their pastor. When I read where he was from, I literally laughed out loud. The pastor of this random church in Seoul was a Korean American…from Louisville, Kentucky! We knew that was our sign to face our (okay, my) fears and head into church!
We grabbed coffee from their café and then headed into service. We started talking to the (American) family in front of us, and wouldn’t you know, they were about to move back from Seoul…to Northern Kentucky! We laughed again. I mean, what are the odds?
Turns out Jubilee Church is very international and very English, so we fit right in. Because it was Easter, the kiddos in the church – who they called “Jubi-Mini’s”- led worship. We sang “Oh, Happy Day,” and we tried to soak up those words, both as we celebrated Easter and on our last day as a family of two.
After church, we headed back to Insadong and simply walked leisurely around the city. We saw a sign that intrigued us, so we stopped inside this little hole-in-the-wall for some sort of food-on-a-stick we affectionately called “Korean corn dogs.” To this day, we have no idea what these things were. But we shared four of them, and they were absolutely delicious! We also got a second diaper bag, again for $10. Bags are super cheap and super nice in Korea, and they remain one of my favorite “gifts” we bought in Seoul!
We took a super long nap before finding soup dumplings in Insadong for our very last date night before parenthood! We stopped by Paris Baguette for grapefruit tea and a late-night chat, and then found a really pretty card for Gideon’s Omma as we returned to Somerset Palace.
Back at the hotel, we prepped our final gifts for Gideon’s Omma and Appa, and I double-checked Gideon’s clothes and toys. Everything was ready to go. Just a few hours until Giddy Day!