Did I mention it had been raining here?


Flooding at Gangnam subway station, about 20 minutes away from us.

When I last posted, I was once again whining about commenting on the fact that the next few days were predicted to be very rainy in Seoul, and I shared my plans for spending the time indoors creating some order and organization at chez Asia Vu.  Four days later, I'm pleased to say that our boxes of extraneous household goods have been bundled off to the charity shop, and I've managed to create a certain amount of order.  However, while we were comfortably holed up in our safe and cozy apartment, the city of Seoul was experiencing record amounts of torrential rainfall (15.5 inches/39.4 cm in 24 hours.)  Rivers and streams overflowed, streets and subway stations were submerged, cars were floating away, and traffic in many parts of the city came to a standstill.  Mudslides in Seoul and in outlying provinces resulted in loss of life, and there are still people unaccounted for.

River overflowing onto the highway.

 If you are interested, more photos and links can be found here at the Seoul Searching blog, which - for those of you who are interested more in reading hard facts about Seoul and less in navel-gazing from me - also provides some nice links, reviews, and general information about Seoul.

According to those in the know, this is the heaviest rain and the worst flooding Seoul has seen in the last 100 years, which (I like to think) justifies at least some of my whining. Since the boys and I sensibly stayed inside and therefore out of the maelstrom, our participation was limited to looking at the traffic nightmare from the windows of our apartment and a canceled subway expedition to Sadang (which turned out to be underwater and therefore a poor choice for shopping.)  Mr. Logical, however, was not quite as lucky, and had the alarming experience of having to rescue his car from the parking lot at work as it was overtaken by flood waters.   He was able to reach the car just before the water started seeping into the interior.  At least, at the time he thought that he had reached the car just before the water seeped in, but - as has been made patently obvious in the past few days - he was not quite in time to prevent at least a portion of the Han River from entering the vehicle and soaking into the carpet.  Needless to say, we've been riding about mostly with the windows down lately, trying to dissipate the 'Asian River Funk' that assaults one's nose immediately upon opening the door.

However, we are all so delighted to have a car again, that no one is really complaining about the smell.  After weeks of trudging through the city in every imaginable weather condition, wrestling with umbrellas in high winds, sloshing through puddles, or arriving at restaurants drenched in perspiration, even an odiferous vehicle seems like a godsend, and no one's complaining.

In fact, I am so grateful to have a car right now, I am almost able to relax and chat quite naturally even as Mr. Logical takes (what to me seem like) enormous risks to life and limb navigating through the city. Because - as anyone who has ever driven in Asia knows - driving here is not like driving anywhere else in the world.  And the sooner that you accept this and dispense with all of your preconcieved notions about safety and conventionally accepted driving etiquette, the more quickly you will adjust to the reality that is driving in Seoul

Since most of my readers are sophisticated and well-traveled, I know you will all be sagely nodding your heads and murmuring, "Of course, of course.  Driving in Seoul....madness."  And of course, we were warned well in advance.  In fact, one of the most frequent comments I got when mentioning that we were moving to Seoul was, "I hear the driving's crazy over there."  Now, having grown up in Asia, Mr. Logical and I were not unaware of the differences between Western and Eastern driving habits.  However, being aware of and actually participating in, are two very different things, as we have been learning in the past month or two.  Keep in mind that - as yet - I have still not taken the plunge of actually driving myself.  No, sitting in the passenger seat frozen in terror has been more than enough for me, but - as you have all figured out by now - Mr. Logical is far more intrepid than most of us, and has taken to driving here like a duck to water.  However, during this time, we have both learned a few facts about driving in Seoul that were not mentioned in any of the official information that was provided to us by the local driving authority, and it is these useful tidbits that I now pass along to you:

  • Forget what you have previously learned about where cars (and trucks and motorcycles and scooters) can go.  In  urban and suburban America, we tend to be very old-fashioned and somewhat unimaginative about where we drive our vehicles.  For the most part, we drive them on prepared surfaces, such as streets, driveways, and parking lots.  In suburbia, you will, of course, find people parked in dirt lots or grassy fields, especially when softball and/or carnivals are involved.  However, Seoul drivers are not such slaves to convention, which calls for somewhat more caution on the part of the average pedestrian.  As a rule, you should not be surprised if you are walking along, minding your own business and find that you need to move out of the way for a car that has just driven up onto the sidewalk next to you, whether it is planning to park there or simply passing through.  The same goes for having a motorcycle nudge past you as you are  window-shopping.  Furthermore, you should in no way indicate that you find this behavior unusual by yelling, gesticulating, or jumping out of the way, which would simply alert everyone to the fact that you are new in town.  
  • Understand that lane markings (those painted lines, dashes, and other meaningless symbols) on the streets are more of a general guideline than an actual hard-and-fast rule.  Seoul drivers have an almost uncanny sense of the exact size of their vehicles, and can accurately judge - within millimeters - precisely where their cars will fit.  Whether or not there is a lane indicated in that space is not important.  If you are in one lane and the car next to you is in another lane, and there is space in between two of you that another car can fit in, it will.  This allows, for example, four lanes of cars to fit in the space designated for only two lanes.  Continuing with this space-saving theme, you will find motorcycles, bicycles, and scooters darting in and out of all these de facto lanes of traffic using any available space, including the sidewalk, as mentioned in my first point.
  • Given that the lanes themselves are subject to change at any time, moving between these lanes is not accomplished in the same straightforward way as it is in other countries.  Instead, moving from place to place in heavy traffic is accomplished by pointing your car in the direction you would like to proceed, and slowly - but resolutely - 'oozing' into your intended location. It is best that you do not make eye contact with other drivers while performing this maneuver.  This is also useful for right turns on red.
  • The bus will always win.  If you are in the way of a bus, move.  If a bus wants to be where you are, it will be there, whether or not this is accomplished with your cooperation. 
  • Like the lane markings, most traffic rules should not be taken too seriously.  If, for example, you expect all cars to stop at a red light and wait until the light turns green to proceed, you will be sorely disappointed.  However, if you have no expectations whatsoever that this will happen, you may find yourself pleasantly surprised.  


Wilma said…
Too funny that we were both writing about crazy driving. Of course, where you are it is much crazier than where we were. Incidentally, have you ever been to Rome? Driving there is exactly as you describe it in Seoul. In Seoul if you can't get through and there are cars parked on the street do they pick the cars up and put them on the sidewalk like they do in Europe. I remember when we were there and the bus couldn't get through the driver would simply stop and point at some of the men and they would all climb out and move cars. Too funny.
MsCaroline said…
Wilma, I haven't been to Rome, and I haven't seen that particular maneuver in Seoul yet, but I would not for a minute put it past anyone. Actually, when cars are in the way here, the traffic just backs up and everyone just goes around it, even if that involves getting into the oncoming lane of traffic or (as I mentioned) the sidewalk. The beautiful thing is that there really is no road rage or aggression at all. People all just take any possible behavior in stride and no one ever seems to get angry. I guess it's because there's no expectation that anyone would actually follow any of the rules, so there's no point in getting upset when people don't follow them.
Karen said…
I'm LMAO as usual, especially in regards to buses that WILL be there, ready or not! Too funny!
Your talk of the 100 year flood reminds me of when we had floods here in the spring of 2010, they called that a 100 year flood, too. Must be a buzz word based on the fact that these enormous floods happen only about every 100 years in flood plains. Let's hope so, I don't think you need that much water over there for some time! Has the water receded yet? Your flood makes our flood look like a bathtub overflow. Of course, we were not one of the many flooded out of seriously damaged homes. Sunny here...back in RI, morning migraine over and on my way grocery shopping after the trip. Nothing to eat in the house except last night's Chinese takeout. Not a bad thing, actually!
Reminds me of after the hurricanes in Florida in 2005. If you expected people to stop at lights you were probably going to get flattened.
broken biro said…
I can't believe that pic of the rain going over the highway and all the cars still there!
Of course, we've heard nothing of your floods here... although if I ever opened a newspaper...
Don't know you enough to know if you're on high ground, but hope you stay safe... from the other traffic too (eek!)
MsCaroline said…
@Karen: frighteningly, the bus thing is not an exaggeration. It's practically the first thing they tell you about driving here, and we have had several (what I believe were) near-death experiences with them while riding in cabs. I'd forgotten about that flooding until you mentioned it, but -duh - of course. I still remember watching that video you'd posted. We were well out of danger, but parts of the city were definitely hit very hard. Watch that Chinese takeout - I have friends who get migraines from msg!!!!
MsCaroline said…
@Elliot: Thanks for stopping by. Here, they just beep at you until you go, red light or no red light - at least, the cars do. I have no doubt a bus would, indeed, crush you with impunity.
MsCaroline said…
@BB: Yes, indeed, we are perfectly fine (well, except for the driving, which I suspect will haunt me for the duration.) We're well up in one of the numerous anonymous high-rises that dot the landscape here, and this part of town escaped any significant flooding. I'm not surprised that you didn't hear about it - I had to dig forever to find a couple brief mentions tucked in the back of beyond on the 'Southeast Asia' sections of one or two international online papers. It's amazing to me that this event has remained mostly under everyone else's national radar when it's been so huge here - dozens killed in mudslides, millions of Won in damages, and finger-pointing from all the officials.
Jan said…
I saw a small article about the flooding and the landslides in my local paper (The Oregonian, in Portland) - I might not have noticed it if I hadn't recently found your blog. Glad that you are safe!
MsCaroline said…
Jan, thanks for stopping by, and yes, we are safe, thanks for the kind thoughts! Sounds like the Oregonian is a bit more on top of things internationally than quite a few others!
Karen said…
Thanks, Carolyne, I'm very careful about the Chinese food. Always double check on the msg issue. For years I did not eat Chinese, convinced that I was crazy to think it gave me a headache. Then I found out about msg and felt very vindicated! No more Chinese for a while for me anyway, back on the diet after a week off for vacation!
I saw about the floods on the news and immediately wondered about you (knowing no-one else in Korea, you see). Glad you are all OK and the car not damaged too badly.

My friend in Dubai wrote an eerily similar blogpost about driving recently (see link below). I think there are actually very few countries where driving is safe - the UK and US being some of them, luckily (although not necessarily in New York, where anything goes).

MsCaroline said…
@Karen: I don't get migraines, and msg gives me headaches (in addition to making my fingers puff up) so I'm very paranoid about the stuff - but not everyone is sensitive to it, you never know! Enjoy the last bits of your vacation...when do you and the kids head back?
MsCaroline said…
NVG: I think I need to have my friends and family change their news sources. Most of them seemed quite surprised to hear that things had gotten so nasty over here until I started posting photos and links. The car....well, it's running just fine, but that smell....I am seriously considering calling the Car Talk guys for advice.
Very much enjoyed the Dubai post - I laughed all the way through, because you're right - it's very much the same here - the law's the law unless it's inconvenient for you. Thanks for posting the link!

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