Almost everyone that stood in the long lines at the Immigration Check-in counter at the Incheon International Airport this morning donned a mask, driven by fears of the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS). The virus, first discovered in Saudi Arabia in 2012, had disrupted the nation’s economy and claimed 27 lives and infected 172 at last count. The sudden outbreak of MERS in one of the most sophisticated countries in Asia has caught the nation, and the world, by surprise.
On the streets, though, the situation is quite different from the pictures in the media. Life goes on as per normal, and many people do not walk around armed with a mask. Tourist arrivals have plunged due to a spate of cancellations from China, Hong Kong and Taiwan. However, in an ironic way, this has made for less crowded shops, restaurants and cafes. It’s possible to grab a seat even at the most popular joints, and appreciate Seoul sans the tourists.
On the streets of Hongdae (홍대 / 弘大), a popular shopping and dining district in the vicinity of Hongik University (홍익대학교), youths thronged the streets and ‘live’ bands played away to huge but sporadic crowds. You would never have guessed that MERS had hit Korea in any way, if you have been here. Hongdae is the playground of the young (and the young-at-heart) in Korea. There is so much to see, shop and eat here. That’s why I always base myself in Hongdae or its vicinity every time I visit Korea. Everywhere you turn, there is so much energy and buzz about this place. Hongdae is still alive, MERS or no MERS!
If you’re there, be sure to check out Sobok (昭福), Seoul’s latest dessert craze. Made from brown rice grains, soy bean powder, with toppings of pumpkin, dried persimmon fruit, rice cakes at the side, Sobok ice cream is Seoulites’ latest indulgence. Its use of all-natural ingredients (which also happen to possess health benefits) makes the perfect excuse to treat yourself to as many as you want, without having to worry about your waistline.
맛있게 드세요! (Bon appétit!) LS