Monday, June 28, 2010

A Visit to the Holt Reception Center

Yesterday (June 27), we woke at our usual time at around 4:00am, but for a change we were able to get back to sleep and didn't wake again until 7:00am. We're slowly getting used to the time change.

We decided to explore some of the areas around the hotel earlier in the day so that we would have plenty of time to get back to our room before visiting the Holt Reception Center in the afternoon. We started our day by walking down to Namdaemun Market.

Basically, the whole neighborhood consists of shops and food vendors lined up on both sides of the street selling a variety of items.

You'll find clothing, small housewares, souveniers, and a variety of other items. The closest equivalent in the United States is a flea market, though that doesn't accurately reflect Namdaemun. The market is such a popular destination that the city estimates that close to a half million people visit this neighborhood daily. We enjoyed walking up and down the various streets, losing ourselves in the maze of vendors for a couple of hours. We weren't looking for any particular items to purchase, just doing a lot of window shopping and marveling in the experience.

As lunch time approached, we decided to leave Namdaemun and look for a good place to eat. As we left the market, we found ourselves at the base of a very unique building (some people call it the zipper building).

One of the many beauties of the city is the amazing amount of unique architecture that we've encountered. Seoul is a very modern city, much of it rebuilt since the end of the Korean War. We have thoroughly enjoyed the beauty in the old architecture as well as the new.

After a delicious lunch at a Korean burger joint (Kraze Burger), we went back to the room to cool down and relax. Feeling refreshed, we headed out to visit the Holt Reception Center. Walking up the street to the main office for Holt, we started to feel the emotions of the moments that we new would follow. We were visiting the place that has helped connect us to our son. Even though it's a non-descript building, it was a wonderful sight to us. We knew that the following day, we would be meeting Zachary in that same building.

We entered the building and asked for our social worker at Holt. A woman was walking with a little boy that looked to be about 18 months. As she directed us to the second floor, she said good-bye (in Korean) and gave us a small head bow. We returned the good-bye (also in Korean) and also bowed. Then the most adorable thing happened...the little boy also gave a small head bow. It melted our hearts. Koreans are very polite. Greetings are almost always accompanied with a bow. Even something as simple as the exchange of money is done a specific way. Money should be handed over using two hands (right hand on top), not one. It's taken a little while to get used to it, but whenever we do it, we can see that they appreciate that we are trying to follow some of their culture beliefs while visiting their country.

We found our social worker and walked with her down the street to the Holt Reception Center, located about a half mile away. When entering the Holt Reception Center, we removed our shoes and put on slippers. This is another part of the Korean culture. Shoes are traditionally removed when entering homes and many other locations. We walked into the room where Holt cares for the children. Currently there are six children (5 boys and 1 girl) that are at the reception center. Through the Internet, Laura knows two of the mothers of two of the children. We took many pictures of the children so that their parents will get a chance to see them. Pictures of the children are very precious to adoptive parents. Many adoptive parents only have a few photographs of their children (we have 5). We know that we would appreciate any additional photographs of Zachary, so we wanted to try to get as many pictures as possible to give to their parents.

When we walked into the room, the kids were eating some potatoes. We sat down on the floor with the children and started to interact with them. Some were shy and some were not. One little boy in particular was very intrigued with Laura. Over the next 10 minutes, he slowly warmed up to her, giving her some big smiles by the end of our meeting. He was an adorable little 11 month old boy that looked very similar to the son of one of the adoptive families that we know in Maryland. We found out that he currently wasn't being considered for adoption. The social worker told us that he had some medical issues when he was first born, but is very healthy now. We don't know why he isn't being considered for adoption. It broke our hearts to know that he may not find a family. If possible, we would have loved to add him to our family along with Zachary. We spent about 30 minutes with the children. It was a special time that we won't ever forget.

As we walked into the hotel after an uneventful subway ride, we happened to meet the couple from Luxembourg that was visiting to adopt their second son. They met their son that day and had them with him. It looked like he was doing great. Seeing the little boy made us think about what our next day would be like. In less than 24 hours, we would be with Zachary. It was a good feeling and a nice end to the day.

Liquid Sunshine

Sunday morning (June 26th), we woke up at 4am unable to sleep. We were still battling a little jet lag. It's tough trying to adjust to a 13 hour time difference, so I've decided to use that time in the morning to update the blog and make sure I'm capturing as many of our experiences as possible. It's working well, so I'll try to keep up with the routine. I know that if I don't update the blog daily, I may never get around to writing it down.

Actually our morning started even earlier than 4am. We both fell asleep early the night before. We wanted to see the South Korea world cup match which didn't start until 11pm, but new that there was no way we would be able to stay awake. A little after midnight, we were awakened by noise as we heard people cheering on the Korean team. We turned on the television to see what was happening and ended up staying up for the next hour watching the rest of the game. Unfortunately South Korea lost in a very close match. The whole time we have been here, the South Koreans have been very excited about their soccer team. There are red shirts everywhere. They even closed off several blocks around city hall where hundreds of thousands of people watched the game on the big screens. We really would have loved to experience this, but knew there was no way we would be able to deal with that much excitement late at night.

When we awoke the second time in the morning (at 4am), we flipped on the television and watched the US world cup match too. It was another tough loss, just like South Korea. Only after watching both games did we realize that if both teams had won, they would have played each other just a few hours after we arrive back in the US with Zachary. That would have been a fun match to watch together.

The weather forecast for our day in South Korea wasn't good (rain) so we decided to go visit some indoor sites. We decided to use the subway. The subway system in Seoul is huge, clean, and very efficient system. For the most part, it's very easy to use. The system has both Korean and English throughout. You can choose to purchase a card for single use between two destinations or a charge card that you can load specific denominations of money that can be recharged as necessary. Since we were new at using the subway, we decided to start out using the single use card. They machines that dispense the cards have English instructions, so getting the cards was a simple process that we completed in about 2 minutes. We walked to the entrance where you scan your card, but couldn't figure out how to enter our card to get through the gate. After passing our card over multiple areas of the machine, Laura realized that we were supposed to place the card on top of the machine in order to pass through the gate. We walked down to the loading station and encountered our next small confusion...we had to figure out which direction we needed to travel. There are clear signs everywhere, but we knew that if we hopped on a train without ensuring we were going in the correct direction, we wouldn't end up at our final destination. We took our time, making sure that we understood the correct direction to travel in order to connect to catch the next train. We caught the next train without a problem.

At our transfer point, we got a little confused because there were two different loading areas instead of one. In order to get to our loading station ended up exiting the subway system, so we had to get another single use card. The rest of the subway ride to COEX went off without a hitch.

When we arrived at COEX, we met up with Laura's friend Barbara and her niece Hayley. They were the ones that we had met the previous day in Insadong. COEX is the largest underground mall in Asia. To say it is huge is an understatement. In addition to stores and restaurants, there is an aquarium, movie theater, and kimchi museum. We just wandered around without any real plan on what we wanted to see. We checked out a few shops to see if we could find a some small Pororo items for Zachary and found a little Pororo figure that contains a liquid for blowing bubbles. I can see us blowing bubbles in the hotel room, trying to keep him occupied.

We found the kimchi museum and decided to go inside to get a little more information about Korea's most famous food. There were some very nice displays about the history of Kimchi, how to make kimchi, and various other pickled foods that can be found around the world.

There was also an area where we could sample various varieties of Kimchi. At the end of the museum, we noticed a couple of children's books (translated in English) of Korean folk tales. The artwork was beautiful, so we decided to get them to share with Zachary as he grows.

After exiting the museum, we continued to explore the mall, making our way back towards where we started. It was around lunch time, so we decided to find a place to eat. Since Hayley wanted to have pizza, we decided to go to Pizza Hut. We heard they had some unique varieties of pizza and wanted to give it a try. We decided to try the bulgogi pizza. It had bulgogi meat (beef that has been marinated) with sweet peppers, onions, and mushrooms. It was very good.

Having seen enough of the mall, we decided to walk around outside a little. It was still cloudy and humid, but the rain had stopped. We visited a Hyundai Department Store, thinking it would be a good place to find inexpensive items. Instead, we found that department stores in Korea tend to contain more high end items. We browsed a couple of floors then decided to leave.

We walked to the subway, trying to decide what to see next. As we stood near the subway ticket machines, a very nice Korean gentleman came up to us and asked us if we needed any help. In many of the subway stations, there are people there to help people find their destinations on the enormous subway system. We decided that our next destination would be Lotte World. The gentleman helped us by letting us know which stop we should use. While assisting us, he asked us where we were from and why we were visiting. I told him that we were adopting a little boy. I wasn't sure what his reaction would be. I know that adoption can be a sensitive subject to some Koreans. When I told him about our adoption, his face instantly changed and you could see the gratitude in his eyes. He reached out his hand to me, shook my hand, and giving me a very heartfelt "thank-you". This wasn't the first time that we had been thanked by a Korean for adopting Zachary. It was a very touching moment in a very public place. It meant much to both of us.

We thanked the gentleman for helping us, then caught the next train to Lotte World. Lotte World is also an indoor mall that also has a hotel, ice rink, Kidzmania, and an amusement park (both indoors and outdoors). We explored the mall area which ended up being very similar to COEX. As we walked into the food court area, we noticed an open area in the distance. Thinking that it was the ice rink, we dedided to go take a look. What we found had all of us staring in awe. Below us was a huge ice rink, but above us was the large indoor amusement park covered with a glass ceiling. It was similar to a small park at Disney World, complete with rides, a stage, and a large parade. It was absolutely amazing and totally unexpected. We just stood there, trying to absorb the experience. It was very surreal for all of us.

Now that we had seen the indoor amusement park, we wanted to take a look at the outdoor one. After a few wrong turns, we finally made our way outside and found it. It looks like a small version of the Magic Kingdom at Disney World, complete with a castle.

If we hadn't been so tired from all the walking, we probably would have gone inside. Knowing our limits, we decided to head back to our hotels and call it a day. We grabbed a bite to eat at Seoul Station, bought a few items of food at the Lotte Mart, and went back to the room.

It was a very nice second day in Seoul. After seeing some historical sites the previous day, we were able to enjoy some more modern experiences. We've enjoyed both. The last two days have been filled with excitement and amazing experiences in Seoul. Who knows what the next few days hold for us.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Seoul City Tour

Yesterday (June 26th) we spent our first full day in Seoul. Other than our city tour, we didn't have anything else planned for the day. Always trying to be as prepared as possible, I plugged in our camera battery into the outlet to make sure we had a full charge for day and went through the camera bag to make sure we had everything we needed. I didn't want to miss capturing any of the day's moments.

After having breakfast and finishing our preparations, we went down to the lobby of the hotel to meet our tour guide. As we stood there waiting, we noticed a family and their child waiting in the same area. They kept glancing at us, then came over to talk. They asked us if we were from Norway. We said "no", and they walked away. After a few more minutes, we decided to go talk to them to find out why they asked us if we were from Norway. It turns out that they were also doing the city tour and for some reason thought that the other couple doing the tour (that's us) were from Norway. The couple was from Luxembourg. They adopted their 1st son from Korea when he was 4 months old (he is now 5) and were adopting their 2nd son on Monday. Because there were two families, we had two tour guides.

Instead of taking the subway to our first destination, we decided to take a taxi to make it easier. We originally planned to take two taxis, but were fortunate when we found a taxi van that was just big enough for all eight of us. As we drove through the city, we saw two statues with a beautiful backdrop of the mountains in the distance. I pulled out my camera to take a few pictures. I turned on the camera, but nothing happened. As I flipped the on/off switch trying to figure out what was wrong, it dawned on me that I left the camera battery back at the hotel room. I had a sinking feeling that I wasn't going to be able to capture any photos of our tour. Lesson number 1...always double check that you have everything you need before leaving the hotel. Then I remembered that our video camera can also take snapshots just like a digital camera. I pulled out the video camera and started playing around with it trying to figure out how to take pictures with it. Lesson number 2...understand your equipment before going on vacation. Thankfully the video camera is very easy to use, so I was able to capture a couple of pictures very quickly.

Our first destination was Gyeongbokgong Palace and the National Folk Museum of Korea, located in the same area. As we walked onto the palace grounds, we were in awe at the beauty of the setting. The buildings and grounds were framed with a backdrop of rocky mountains covered in lush vegetation. It was everything we had hoped it would be and more. First we toured a couple of the exhibits at the National Folk Museum. We split apart from the other family and went inside with Miae, our personal tour guide for the day. We walked through the "Korean Way of Life" and "Life Cycle of Koreans". Both exhibits had excellent information and displays. We were able to gain a small piece of understanding of the Korean history and way of life. Miae did a great job adding additional information while we also began to get to know each other.

After visiting the museum, we exited onto the palace grounds. We spent the next hour walking through the grounds, enjoying the beautiful surroundings. We learned that the palace buildings are not the originals. After the reign of the last Queen, many of the buildings were destroyed or moved during the Japanese occupation. The location of the palace, it's buildings, and gates all have a significance to the Koreans. The original layout was aligned in a north/south orientation and built in it's location based on the convergence of air and water. There is a Korean word for this convergence, but I can't remember the term. When the Japanese occupation ended, Korea moved or rebuilt the palace buildings in their original (current) location.

After the tour of the palace grounds, we walked to Insadong. This neighborhood is known for it's shops and restaurants. It is what many consider a traditional Korean market.

As we slowly walked along the main street, we tried to soak in all the sights, smells, and sounds of our surroundings. It was wonderful and like nothing we had ever experienced. The crowds were small as we walked through shops and viewed the items sold by the street vendors. Miae took us down a side street with several restaurants so that we could figure out a good place to have lunch. Since we had already had Korean food many times in the United States, we wanted to get the full experience in Korea to see how it compares. She took us to a restaurant that is enjoyed by the locals. The inside was decorated almost exclusively in wood. It seemed very old and rustic...the perfect place to have lunch. Miae recommended a specific meal that consisted of at least 2 dozen different small dishes that are brought to the table and shared by everybody. I can't accurately describe everything we had, so here are a few pictures that show what we had.

The food was delicious. Miae seemed amazed that we tried everything and enjoyed it so much. Having a basic familiarity with Korean food made the meal very special. I know we'll always compare all Korean food to this one experience.

After lunch, we headed back to the main street in Insadong to do a little shopping. We had found a small shop that made name chops. A name chop is basically a rectangular block of material that is decorated and has a stamp on one end with somebody's name etched in it. We found one that had a basic scene of Korean hills on the side and had them etch Zachary's Korean name as the stamp. While walking around the shopping area, Laura noticed a woman that she thought looked familiar to her. We have a running joke that whenever we travel, Laura always sees somebody she knows. From a small town on the coast of Maine to a large city, it seems like once a trip she will see somebody she recognizes. Sure enough, it happened again. The woman she saw was an adoptive mother that she met online who was travelling to Korea to adopt her second child. In a city of millions, Laura happened to see somebody she knew. It was a little bizarre, but not totally unexpected.

We continued to walk through Insadong, picking up a few small souveniers including a silk painting of a Korean countryside and a Pororo DVD for Zachary. Pororo is a very popular cartoon in Korea. Pororo is a penguin and lives in a village with his animal friends including a polar bear, beaver, and dinosaur. We found an English version that he'll be able to enjoy as he grows.

We left Insadong and made our way to Cheonggyecheon Stream. It's a man made stream in the heart of the city that gives you the feeling that your not in the city even though you're surrounding by large buildings. It's a wonderful mix of rural and urban in a small area. It's a very popular destinations for Koreans to relax and enjoy the peaceful sounds of the water.

After relaxing beside the stream, we walked back towards the two statues on the main street at the beginning of the tour. The area is called Gwanghwamun Square. The statues are of Admiral Yi Sun Shin and King Sejong the Great (King of the Choseon dynasty). We said our good-byes to Miae, exchanged information so that we can keep in contact with her, and grabbed a taxi back to the hotel. When we arrived back in the room, we realized that we forgot to give her the gift that we brought from Maryland. Laura contacted her through facebook and we're planning on seeing her again so that we can give her the gift. Maybe we'll even be able to introduce her and Zachary.

It has only been one day, but I can say that we both love Seoul. It's an amazing city with a juxtoposition of the old and the new. We feel at home here. We can't wait to see what the next day will bring.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Seoul Bound

At 4:30am we woke up in our hotel room with our minds racing. We're still a little tired, but the jet lag and time difference won't let us get back to sleep, so I'll step back 24 hours (or was it 36 hours with the time change???) and recount our trip to Seoul.

Wednesday night we were up well past midnight getting everything ready for the trip. As we lay down for sleep, we talked about how things would be changing for us very soon. Our anticipation was high and we were surprisingly calm. Normally Laura gets a little antsy before a flight, but not this time. She said she that it was surprising her that she wasn't "freaking out" (which in turn freaks her out a little). I told her it's because things are right in the world with us and Zachary. We're on the path that we're supposed to be travelling.

We left the house on time Thursday morning and headed to the airport. The drive was uneventful. Thankfully traffic wasn't a problem. As we got near the airport, what started out as a wrong turn ended up working perfectly as we found ourselves at the daily parking garage closest to the airport. We were able to park in a covered area (great for keeping the car temperature lower when we're coming out of the airport with Zachary) plus we didn't have to wait for a shuttle because we had access to the underground walkway that kept us out of the heat. So far, everything was going as planned.

Check-in at the Korean Air terminal took about 15 minutes. Because we got our tickets at the last minute, it looked like we may have to sit apart for the flight. We asked the man assisting us if he could give us seats together. He was able to come up with excellent bulkhead seating (which is what we hope to have for the return flight). After a smooth check-in and quick trip through airport security, we were at the terminal and ready to go with plenty of time to spare.

We boarded the plane and left the terminal on time. As we approached the runway, the plane stopped on the taxiway. An announcement came over the system...we were in a temporary delay due to weather conditions along our initial flight path. We didn't have storms near us, but I was worried that they might roll in before we got off the ground. After a delay of approximately 30 minutes, we received another announcement...the flight would depart in 5 minutes (we breathed a huge sigh of relief).

Other than the flight delay, the weather had secondary impact on our flight. We had to divert our flight path to bypass the storm. Originally we were supposed to fly towards the northwest. Instead we had to fly towards New Jersey before flying north then working our way towards the northwest. Our new flight path brought us over Canada, Russia, and China.

The services on the flight were excellent. We had a very nice video on demand system at each seat. There was a great choice of movies, music, games, and audiobooks. This really helped make the long flight pass quickly. Also, the food was very good. For our first meal, Laura enjoyed a meal of bi bim bap (it was excellent) while I had the beef dish. Later in the flight Laura had a dish similar to chicken parmesan and I had a pasta dish. The flight attendants also did a great job of coming around with water, juice, and soda throughout the flight to help us stay hydrated during the long, dry flight.

During the flight, we had Zachary's little photo album opened to his most recent pictures. Several of the flight attendants commented on his photos, giving us a chance to share our story. The flight attendants were great with all the kids on the flight. I'm sure he's going to get a lot of attention when we return home.

After 14 hours in the air, we landed at Incheon airport. The airport is about 20 miles west of Seoul. It was built 10 years ago, so it's very modern and efficient. Signs were in Hangeul and English, making it very easy to get through immigrations, get our bags, and walk through customs. As we left the customs area, our van driver was waiting for us with a "Townsend" sign. He had parked very close to the terminal, so we didn't have to wait long to get on the road.

Most of the drive into Seoul was on a highway. We sat back and tried to take in all the new sights along the way. We passed a mix of urban areas interspersed with lush green rolling hills and rivers. As we approached Seoul, our driver exited the highway and drove us by the Holt International offices. Holt is the Korean adoption agency that we're working through. In just a few days we'll be back at the office to meet Zachary for the first time.

The remainder of the drive to our hotel gave us a glimpse of the city. It's an amazing mix of old and new...often side by side. Small markets stand beside modern buildings with bright signs. It was a little overwhelming to our exhausted minds, but we're excited to get out and explore it.

Our van driver dropped us off at our hotel (Hilton Millennium) at the base of Mount Namsan. At the top of the mountain is the Seoul Tower which we plan on visiting to get a good view of the city. Our good fortune continued at check-in as we got a free upgrade to the executive floor. We're still not sure why, but it was a very welcome surprise. Included with our room are complimentary breakfasts every morning. This will be very convenient when Zachary's with us so that we have one less thing to worry about.

We closed out our evening by taking a short walk near the hotel then grabbing a bite to eat. As we stood looking out our hotel window at the beautiful city lights with the Seoul Tower in the background, we were thankful that the first leg of our trip had gone so well. We were exhausted but content. We knew that many adventures awaited us over the coming week.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Travel Call

Yesterday (June 21st) we received the call that we've been awaiting since we first received Zachary's referral...we have been approved to travel to South Korea to adopt our son. It took a little longer than we originally expected (5 1/2 months), but we're grateful that we're very close to seeing Zachary for the first time.

On Thursday (June 24th), we depart for Seoul, South Korea. We'll spend a couple of days sightseeing in Seoul, then on Tuesday at 10:00am we will meet Zachary for the first time.

Even though our son is half a world away, he has been in our hearts from the first day we saw his photograph. We love him dearly even though we haven't met him. In less than a week we will finally bridge the divide that has separated us and welcome him into our arms.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

The Incomplete Nursery

This will be a post heavy on photos and light on words.

The most important news is that we are very, very close to our travel call. Last Friday, Laura received a call from our social worker. When families are this close to traveling, they are always expecting that a call from a social worker may be "the call" saying that they can travel. The social workers at our agency are sensitive to this, so they let us know right away whether it's "the call" or not. When Laura picked up the phone our social worker started by saying, "This isn't the call". This wasn't the news that she wanted to hear. Our social worker had called to let us know that we needed to complete an additional piece of paperwork (Class B Waiver). Basically, the waiver is to acknowledge that Zachary had a medical condition at birth. This was something we already new about and had been corrected surgically, but we had to sign a form stating that we were already aware of the medical condition. Unfortunately, the form had to be signed in person and notarized at our adoption agency in Baltimore. We were told that if the form was completed before 2:00pm, it would go out with their normal courier delivery. Otherwise it would have to wait until next week. Not wanting any additional delays, Laura called me at work to let me know. I rushed home from work and we drove up to Baltimore, arriving with 1 hour to spare before the courier arrived.

When signing our paperwork, the associate administrator gave us some good news...she handed us a copy of his medical examination for immigration. Up until that point, we didn't know that Zachary had completed his physical. The physical is normally the final step before a child is allowed to travel. It sounds like the physical is what generated the need for the Class B Waiver. When the Class B Waiver arrives in Korea and is added to his paperwork, that should complete everything. We estimate that we'll receive the travel call this coming week or early the following week. We'll be cutting it close, but we should be home with Zachary just in time for his first birthday.

Now for the photos...

We've been getting many questions about Zachary's nursery. Everybody was interested in seeing how we decided to decorate. Over the past several months, we slowly worked together to get it just right, pouring all our love into his room. From top to bottom, we did a total makeover. Here are the results...

Jungle Theme with Yellow and Green Walls

East meets West: Korean Lantern and Quote from Winnie the Pooh

Quilt Won at 2009 Adoption Picnic

We Can't Wait to Read Him Stories

Artwork from Laura's Childhood

America and Korea (flip it over to see the difference)

The nursery turned out even better than we had hoped, but the room is still's missing our son Zachary. We're hopeful that in a couple of weeks he'll be home with us and the nursery will be complete.