So they say, home is where the heart is…
Well, if only I have more than one heart to give. Three months in Seoul and I have already left a piece of my heart to the city. I might not be living there now, but it’s a place that I would go back to someday.
Initially I had wanted to do Couchsurfing all the way (which I will cover it in another post) but I ended up doing it only in April and staying at a hostel in Hongdae for the rest of my trip. My best times came from both experiences because I got a taste of being a nomad again, as well as being a temporary Seoul resident.
Having accepted a freelance design job prompted me to move to a guesthouse/hostel, so I can concentrate on the job and not worry about WiFi and the whole writing-a-Couch-request-and-waiting-for-reply process. I would have gone back to BLU Guesthouse (Hongdae) or Bangrang Hostel (Chungjeongno), but a quick Google search led me to Birdsnest Hostel, which was conveniently 15 mins walk away from my friend’s apartment where I was previously staying.
I still remember making the phone call to Birdsnest. I struggled in speaking Korean for a good half of the conversation but in the end, I did manage to book a bed for more than a week and inform that I was arriving the following Monday. Phew! (And later on, the owner Mr. Lee, told me that he assumed I was a 교포 kyo-po —people of Korean descent who live abroad— during our phone conversation.)
My requirements for lodging are rather simple: cheap, comfortable and clean (latter both are subjective matters). I found Birdsnest all of the above mentioned and more.
Birdsnest is located about 10 mins away from the exits 2, 4 and 5 of Hongdae University subway station 홍대입구역 hong-dae-ip-gu-yeok. Being in a neighbourhood that is not too far from the hotspots in Hongdae, yet still a distance away from the crazy night life, I found solace in the quaint, over 60-years-old residential house-turned-hostel.
What was initially a week’s stay became an impromptu two-month’s part-time job in Seoul, as I stayed at Birdsnest to help Mr. Lee in cleaning, setting up breakfast, welcoming guests and watching the hostel while he was out. This was possibly just a thought in my mind when I tried to figure out accommodation for the rest of my trip, but the golden chance to live out the will-work-for-lodging-and-maybe-food stories told by travellers came the next day. I told Mr. Lee (in broken Korean with spatters of English and some hand gestures) that I would gladly help him with daily chores in the hostel, having seen that he does everything single-handedly. And so, my accommodation and food for the remaining days were covered.
I’m sure many of us out there already know about this: One of the best things (which could also be the flipside) about staying in shared spaces like hostels/guesthouses, apart from price, is the opportunity to meet new friends and exchange stories. Most of the times, I look forward to make the first ‘Hello!’ with a new person at wherever I’m staying during my travels. Although some of those conversations only lasted a few minutes and always seem repetitive (Where are you from? Where have you travelled so far? What are you doing today? How was your day? Any plans for tomorrow? What’s your next destination?) and eventually we never got in contact with each other, there are still a handful of friendships that last beyond our hostel/guesthouse encounter.
This time, I’m glad to have brought back so many memorable encounters with guests staying at Birdsnest. Many of my newfound friends came from around the same region (I’ve met fellow Malaysians too!): Singapore, Thailand, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Japan, China, etc. and there were also plenty of friends who travelled from the U.S. and European countries. I’ve also met a few Koreans from other parts of South Korea who stayed at Birdsnest for a night or two.
Although working in a hostel doesn’t require one to attend to every single need of each guest (it’s not a hotel), I feel the enthusiasm to approach and get along with them so that they feel welcomed in this tiny part of Seoul. And often, after my work is done, I would join some of the guests for meals or short visits to other parts of Seoul (which also includes an unforgettable, spontaneous trip to catch the sunrise at Jeongdongjin 정동진, east coast of South Korea) and participate in local events like school festival, indie music show, baseball game and so on.
All of my experiences in Birdsnest are made possible by Mr. Lee, who kindly accepted me as a helper at the hostel, even though I struggled to explain my purpose of temporarily staying in Seoul during our first conversation. Those few weeks of my ‘working holiday’ had taught me a lot about running a hostel (Mr. Lee insisted it as a ‘hostel’, as according to his experiences travelling abroad for a period of time) and also granting me experiences of a somewhat Korean life: ordering food delivery in Korean over the phone (they do come in steel boxes and the delivery guy collecting the utensils back, just like in the dramas!), accepting parcels from postman even though I don’t have a 주민번호 ju-min-bon-ho (Korean ID Number), answering phone calls in Korean… oh, the mundane tasks that seem so exciting then.
Mr. Lee himself is such a warm, humble and friendly guy who tries his best to make his guests feel comfortable at home, despite his basic conversational English. At times when he had difficulty with guests who speak very little English and doesn’t understand much Korean, I would do my best to help out. (Being born in a multi-cultural country has its perks.) Like a lot of travel accommodation owners, Birdsnest is his major source of income and he lives there in his own manager room. During my stay, Mr. Lee still does a lot of the chores by himself, e.g. I never have to clean the toilet and showers. We shared plenty of conversations about Korean life, travelling, his experiences as a commercial photographer, guest gossips and like an older brother figure, he gave advices on following my dreams.
(Part of the reasons for my hesitation now to travel back to South Korea again was because I’m encouraged to explore other places first, because I know that the next time I step foot in Seoul again, I might never want to leave. Haha.)
All and all, being a big believer of ‘things happen for a reason’, I’m glad that things went the way it was supposed to be and even though I returned poorer in the pockets, I was richer in experiences, thoughts and friendships. Until next time, Birdsnest!