Travel to Seoul

After years of waiting, praying, and preparing, the day finally arrived for us to travel to South Korea. 

I have to start this post by recognizing all of Bri’s tireless efforts throughout this very long and difficult process. While I have certainly been engaged, involved, and excited, Bri has been a woman on a mission. She deserves all the credit in the world for making sure that we have been on-task and on time in preparing to bring our son home. I struggle to recall more than a handful of days over the past two-and-a-half years where Bri wasn’t working on something adoption-related. Whether it was reading a book, blog, or article or whether it was cleaning, planning, remodeling, painting, or babyproofing areas of the house, Bri has been a force of nature. 

Immediately following the news that we had a court date in Seoul, Bri set a rather large list of goals to accomplish before leaving. It was a daunting list that included cleaning and yard work to prepare for our extended absence, organizing and cleaning our basement so that Brooks could have a larger play area downstairs during the winter months, planning our travel and quarantine meals and snacks, and packing for two (if not all three) of us. She somehow got it all done.

Our flight was scheduled to leave Milwaukee at 7:25 a.m. on Thursday, October 8. Despite all of our planning and preparation, we still needed every minute of the last few days to get ready to go. Like so many aspects of life, COVID made this process much more complicated. We knew that we would be required to quarantine in a government-run hotel or facility for 14 days upon arrival in South Korea, but we did not know exactly where that would be or whether we would be separated or allowed to stay together.  

Early on, we heard rumblings that couples were being separated during quarantine, so we always knew it was a possibility. Over the summer, we had not received many, if any, reports from families who had traveled to South Korea that they were being separated. However, days before we left, we learned that at least two quarantine locations were still separating spouses.

This was distressing news. Not only would it be challenging to be separated for two weeks, but it also significantly complicated the logistics of packing. If we were to be separated, we would need to make sure that each of us had everything we needed to make it through two weeks of quarantine. This meant essentially doubling up on necessary toiletries, snacks, meals, electronics, converters, and cords, to name just a few. 

Each of us was allowed two checked bags and two carry-ons. As we began to try to fit our organized piles of clothing, toiletries, and personal effects into our bags, we realized two things: 1) we were never going to make it all fit without paying for an additional bag and; 2) that all of our bags were still going to be pushing the 50-pound limit. 

After days of paring down the things we wanted to take with us and hours of trial-and-error by shifting clothing, supplies, and personal effects between bags and checking the weights again and again, we finally reached the point where each of us had what we needed in case we were separated and where we were *pretty close* on weight. 

The night before our flight, neither of us could sleep. A million thoughts ran through my head as I lay sleepless waiting for my alarm to go off at 3:00 a.m. They ranged from the mundane pre-travel concerns like, “did we pack everything we needed?” and, “will our bags be overweight?” and, “did I forget about anything I needed to take care of at work?” to much more profound concerns about bringing our son home. 

What will it be like when we meet him for the first time? How will the custody exchange go? How will he handle the long flight home with us? What kinds of things should we do with him first? How long will it take him to recognize us as Mom and Dad?

No sooner had I nodded off than my alarm was going off. The time had come. 

We quickly got ready and waited for my mom to pick us up around 4:15 a.m. When she arrived, we loaded her SUV to the hilt with luggage and headed off to the airport.  

We gave ourselves plenty of time just in case anything unexpected came up with our boarding passes or our luggage. Thankfully, we were among the first to arrive at the ticket counter that morning. We were able to walk right up and put our bags on the scale. We let out a huge sigh of relief and did a little fist pump when all of our bags came in at or under the 50 pound limit.

We then made our way to the terminal entrance, said “goodbye” to my mom, and headed through security. We were finally on our way.

Our connecting flight to Atlanta was on time, smooth, and uneventful. We had about a two-hour layover in Atlanta, which gave us plenty of time to get to the international flight terminal, check in, and complete some final forms given to us at the Korean Air counter.

The forms were fairly straightforward and were mostly about travel restrictions, passport information, and making sure that we understood and agreed that we would be quarantining upon arrival. Nothing unexpected or difficult.

As we boarded the Korean Air 787, we were immediately struck by how huge and clean it was. Our seats were in the “economy” section, which was still nicer and roomier than most domestic airlines I’ve flown in recent years. Thankfully, the flight was nowhere close to full, and we had a row to ourselves with plenty of room to stretch out.

The flight was nearly 15 hours from Atlanta to Incheon. We went up over Canada, across the Arctic Circle, and down through Russia and China. We each had plenty of reading material and music to listen to, and each seat had its own touch screen pre-loaded with movies, music, TV shows, and games to play.

The plane windows were equipped with controllable tinting that ranged from slight covering to blackout tints. Through much of the flight, the entire cabin was blacked out so that anybody who wanted to could sleep. Most people took advantage of this, some even stretching out across an entire bank of seats to sleep. I could only manage to doze off for ten minutes at a time here and there.

The flight attendants were very friendly and operated as a well-oiled machine. In terms of food, we were given a meal of Korean bibimbap shortly after take-off. About halfway through the flight, we were given our choice of snacks, including what the flight attendant called a “beef bun” that was really good. Finally, about 5 hours before landing, we were given another meal consisting mainly of a dish of chicken and rice.  

The last few hours seemed to drag and required a little more standing and stretching than the first eleven or twelve. I watched our in-flight tracker closely (perhaps too closely) as if doing so could get us over the remaining distance any faster.  

When we arrived at Incheon Airport, we immediately had to go through several stages of COVID screening. We had to have our temperatures, paperwork, and passports checked. Then we then had to download an app from the health ministry to log our daily symptoms (or lack thereof). There was still another line just for double-checking the previous paperwork and making sure we downloaded the app. We had to explain a few times why we were there and how long we’d be staying. Most of the workers we interacted with were very pleasant and spoke enough English to get us through the conversation. Thankfully, Holt International provided us with an explanatory note translated into Korean that seemed to make things go much more smoothly.

After making it through the COVID screening lines, we had to wait a little over an hour to make it through the normal customs checkpoint. We then headed to the cavernous baggage claims area. We were struck by how humongous, clean, and beautiful Incheon Airport was even though we only saw a small part of it. We hope to be able to return in the future when we can move about the airport more freely and when it is not so overrun with temporary signage, barriers, and workers in masks and gowns checking people for COVID symptoms.

Thankfully, all of our bags arrived (some in better condition than others). Also very thankfully, the baggage claim area had free hand carts for us to use. Otherwise, we’d probably still be fumbling with all of our luggage (read “tackling sleds”).

We went through another short COVID checkpoint where we were ushered into a holding area to wait for a shuttle to take us to our quarantine hotel. There seemed to be some confusion at this stage, as travelers were broken up into random groups and then swapped around seemingly arbitrarily. 

Nevertheless, we were finally herded into the shuttle bus loading area where a nice looking coach bus was waiting for us. Although the passengers were less than 50% of the bus capacity, everybody had so much luggage that there was no room in the storage area by the time Bri and I were ready to board. I had to carry each of our 50-pound bags into the cabin of the bus, much to the annoyance of the driver.

Thankfully, we were on the bus with another couple from the United States completing their own adoption. Bri was able to exchange some messages with them via social media while we waited to depart for the hotel. We immediately heard rumblings that our quarantine hotel was going to be the Marinabay Hotel in Gimpo-si, about halfway between Incheon Airport and downtown Seoul. The passengers in the know were downright giddy at these rumors. Of all the quarantine hotels, we had heard that Marinabay was by far and away one of the nicest.

After about a 20-minute bus ride, we arrived in front of the Marinabay Hotel and breathed a huge sigh of relief. This not only meant that we would have a very nice room to stay in for 14 days but also that we were not going to be separated.

Workers in hazmat suits (yes, seriously) had us quickly unload our luggage and escorted us into a ballroom that had been converted into a COVID screening and check-in area. We were made to sit at small folding tables and given more paperwork to fill out. When I walked in, it looked as if we had stumbled onto some kind of dystopian ACT prep center.

We filled out more paperwork confirming our identities and passport numbers and also agreeing to abide by quarantine rules, among other things. We were then told to delete the app we had just downloaded at the airport and replace it with another from the health ministry. We were informed that we had to check in with the app twice a day during quarantine – once in the morning and once in the afternoon – to confirm that we were not exhibiting any symptoms of COVID-19. We were also informed about the COVID testing we would undergo at the start and end of our stay, about the daily temperature checks, and meal delivery, among other things.

After paying up front for our two-week stay (about $2,800 USD), we were escorted to our room by a very nice worker (still in a full hazmat suit). He gave us a bag of supplies like cups, coffee, tea, garbage bags, and hand sanitizer. When he opened the door to our room, we were both overcome with gratitude as we saw where we would be spending quarantine.

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We unpacked a little, removed the cloth masks that we had been wearing for almost 24 consecutive hours, and collapsed.

At 12:40 a.m., our phone started ringing. A man on the other end of the phone told me that there was “something extra” for us outside and that I should go get it. I made him repeat himself several times as I was still half-asleep and very confused. As I made my way to the door, I thought there was a 50/50 shot that I was being hauled off to Pyongyang in some sort of prisoner exchange for something I had done at the airport. When I opened the door, there was an extra bag of linens and supplies waiting for me in the hallway – likely because two people would be quarantining instead of one.

Since then, we have been in our beautiful room together adjusting to the time difference, fighting jet lag, and waiting out the quarantine period.

The rooms have been retrofitted with sturdy metal doors that we cannot latch from the inside. Our door is rigged with some kind of alarm that goes off whenever we open the door. There is also a small speaker in the ceiling that is used to announce breakfast, lunch, dinner, and the daily temperature scans that we must have. Very Orwellian.

On our second day in quarantine, a worker came to administer an oral and nasal COVID test. We were not informed of the results, but we assume that they were negative or else we would have gotten another visit.

Meals are left right outside our door three times a day. Most of the meals have included at least one kind of meat, rice, kimchi, salad, soup, juice or water, and an assortment of other items. Most of the food has been better than expected under the circumstances, but we are not always sure what we are eating and whether it’s something that is normally consumed in South Korea or something that they threw together for travelers in quarantine. Oddly, nearly every meal so far has included cocktail weenies in some form.  

We’ve likened these meals to hospital food in the US in terms of quality. It’s not bad in a pinch, but you would not choose it if given other options. I’ve tried just about everything they’ve given us and found it to be fine, for whatever that’s worth.

Every night, we leave our food garbage outside our room in a conspicuous orange biohazard bag for collection.

I still have yet to completely figure out the toilet/bidet. There are many buttons and none of the descriptions translate well to English. I’ve seen enough sitcoms to know to stand far away from the toilet when pressing buttons. If there’s a South Korean “Candid Camera”, you may very well see a clip of me and this toilet at some point.

We’ve spent our first four days in quarantine watching Korean television (especially baseball), binging shows on Netflix (when we can get the WiFi to cooperate), and sitting on our balcony overlooking the marina. We brought along a router/WiFi signal repeater, but it does not seem to have helped too much as the signal is very weak and cuts in-and-out. If that’s the worst thing that happens to us in quarantine, I’ll consider it a blessing. 

For the next week or so, we expect that it will be more of the same. By our count, we should be allowed to leave quarantine by October 23. As we get closer to the end of quarantine, we will be given more information on the exit procedures, which we will share with you.

Until then, we remain so immensely grateful for all of the love and support that we have received over the past couple of years and especially down the home stretch. We will never be able to adequately thank or repay any of you. Know that we thank God for each and every person who has written, called, texted, e-mailed, posted, shared, “liked”, donated, and prayed for us. God has blessed us with an incredible support system, and we cannot wait to tell our son about all of the people who have helped us bring him home.

Pro Gloria Dei.


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    • Maria Starck
    • October 13, 2020

    Bri and Chris, Thanks so much for taking us all on your adventure to receive your gift from God. We are so thankful all is going well. In my eyes, your life is about to change in the best way possible! Brooks is going to have some adjustments to make, but the love you two are exuding for him will help him immensely and before you know it these days you are about to embark on will just be memories. You two are going to be terrific parents and Brooks is so very lucky that God matched you with him. Hang in there. We are so very proud of you both. Again, we can’t wait to meet your son. Stay safe and healthy. Hugs to all of you.
    Love ya lotsa, Aunt Ria

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