These are the moments that I live for when traveling.
As the cab driver stops the car, he gestures towards us signaling that we have arrived. Staying in the cab, I survey the surroundings. It is fall in South Korea, and we have taken an hour long taxi ride up into the mountains outside of Jeonju. Why? Because an ancient, 1,400 year old, Buddhist temple exists here nestled in this stunning landscape. I am still in the taxi looking out over the endless fall trees and sweeping views when the driver's voice quickly shifts me out of my trance. He is speaking Korean, and I can only assume he is saying something along the lines of: "Lady, get out of the cab already."
I follow his orders and unload my luggage before making my way to the ancient structures. We are staying on these temple grounds for the night in a small cabin room. As I enter our traditional Korean room, I notice that there is not a bed in sight. I turn to Nick and before I can even ask my question, he smiles at me and says: "Oh, did I forget to mention that we would be sleeping on the floor tonight?" Awesome. He knew I would not be thrilled about this concept, but nonetheless, in true Korean style, we arrange our room and spend the night laying on mats on the floor.
As I wake up the next morning, it takes me a moment to acclimate to where I am. I lay there thinking of how crazy life is that I am starting my morning on the floor of an ancient buddhist temple in South Korea, a country I have come to love in the short few weeks we have been here. Despite my underlying sense of gratitude for this experience, as I start to move around, I quickly realize that I am in desperate, desperate need for coffee. We travel with everything we need to make coffee including a travel grinder. All we need is hot water. So, I throw on my coat and without even so much as brushing my hair, I am out the door. I have a mission. Find someone who speaks enough english to understand “hot water.”
By the time I found someone, Nick has joined me, and we are being sent to a room on the property. We enter to find two Koreans, a man and a women, who are also guests of the temple. They are sitting on the floor over a low table making coffee for themselves. We gesture to ask if we could borrow their electric water kettle to which they quickly reply “no, no, no.” Huh. I mean I know I haven’t had my cup of personality yet, but it seems that neither have these two. The woman ignores our shocked faces and goes about adjusting mats on the ground. Nick and I both look at each other like “well, what do we do now that they said ‘no'?”
It is in that moment, that the woman grabs my hand and pulls me to the ground. This is when I realize that they weren’t saying “no” to the kettle. They were saying “no” to us, guests of their country, making our own coffee. They wanted to serve us so they start unwrapping what had been left of their breakfast pastries and offer us everything they have to eat. And, then, they start grinding their coffee beans and making fresh pour-over for us. Nick and I both are left a bit speechless. What unbelievable gestures of kindness and hospitality. We are a bit taken aback by their welcoming hospitality to complete strangers, foreigners even.
As it turns out, the Korean man is a Buddhist monk as well as a bit of a coffee angel sent straight from heaven. He made us a delicious cup of coffee. Nick and I speak zero Korean. I have been trying to learn, but it is a solid no-go situation for me. But, "coffee" is a universal language. We had nothing to offer them other than some smooshed Target breakfast bars. So, when the monk later asks if we would like another cup of coffee, Nick offers up the coffee we had just purchased in Seoul for the next round of drinks. It is a cultural exchange of sorts, sharing coffee.
Fortunately for us, the couple speaks enough English to carry on a conversation and several cups of coffee later, we have been chatting for over an hour, laughing, and learning about each other and our countries. They wanted to see pictures of Los Angeles to which we happily obliged. They showed us photos of their country as well. We all laughed at my attempts to speak Korean, and when I am asked to guess the monks age, I purposely way under guess to get on his good side. After all, he is the man with the coffee. I know my real master.
Wrapping up our double date, they ask us where we were heading next in South Korea. We replied: “well, there isn’t any wifi here, and we don’t have cell service so we are waiting to get back into town to make travel plans.” Immediately, without hesitation, they all (the worker had now joined us after hearing our laughter down the halls of the campus) take out their phones and use their cell service to map out bus and train routes and cab rides for us. As if sharing their breakfast and coffee wasn't enough, they are going the extra mile and helping us plan out the rest of our trip. They went on to give us suggestions by sharing their favorite vacation memories and showing us pictures of various places to go.
Somewhere, half way through them personally planning out our next travel moves, I look over at Nick and we both give each other a knowing look. We knew right then in that moment that the entire experience would be one that we would never forget. As I write this article, I am sitting in the airport on my way to our next destination. We did choose to take their advice and visit their recommended next stop. I was so inspired by their kindness that the second I made it through security, I took out my laptop and started to write this story; because this moment, right here, this is why I travel. My passion for travel comes from a deep love of other cultures, but mostly it is the kindness of people all over the world that continues to keep my safari tab open to google flights.
Great photos are just that, great photos. There is, of course, a place for them. Don’t get me wrong. But, it is the moments of cultural exchange and human kindness that have truly changed my life. It is one thing to be friendly to someone in your grocery store, but trust me, it is a whole other level to go completely out of your way to show foreigners, with whom you share nothing in common culturally, kindness and friendship over a few cups of coffee.
Often, online, it can appear that we live in a sometimes divisive and even unkind world, but in my experience, the real world out there couldn’t be more kind. It is the real, great beauty of our world… human kindness and connection to others. Thank you to the Korean people we met here for reminding us of this proven fact: no matter our race, background, religion, lifestyle, culture, or language, we are all designed to connect with others. And, wherever there is a human, there is an opportunity for kindness.